SLED: Pine Harbour incident shows 'reality' of meth in SC

The photo above shows SLED investigators working the scene of the Pine Harbour fire on the day after the deadly blaze. (WCIV)

By Natalie

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Meth production is rampant in our state, according to a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agent who testified before Congress Tuesday.

During his testimony, Lt. Max Dorsey brought up statistics related to meth use in South Carolina. He also mentioned the fire that killed three people and destroyed 16 Pine Harbour apartments in Goose Creek on May 31. Samuel Garbe, 4, Morgan Abernathy, 19, and Joseph Raeth, 69, died in the blaze.

"These people did nothing wrong. They were victims of circumstance. Their circumstance was they were in their apartment in close proximity to a meth lab," Dorsey testified. "Although the manufacturing of meth cannot be exclusively proven to be the cause of the fire, it appears based upon information present at the scene that it most certainly may have contributed to the spread of the fire."

Earlier in the day in downtown Charleston, two men, Shonni Abernathy and Jerald McCabe, went before a federal court judge for indictments accusing them of manufacturing meth at the Pine Harbour apartments.

"Today marks the beginning, certainly not the end of the process in federal court," Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said during a press conference.

The federal indictments come a month after state charges were filed against the men.

"In working with law enforcement and in consultation with the U.S. Attorney and Assistant U.S. Attorney, what we realized is that the best opportunity for the best sentences would be prosecution in federal court," Wilson said.

Wilson says much of the evidence was destroyed in the fire, limiting what state prosecutors can do.

"At federal court, their limitations and the way people can be held accountable is much more expansive than what we have in state court," she said.

Wilson says in federal court the judge can consider "relevant conduct" and could take the deaths that occurred due to the fire into consideration during sentencing, despite any convictions for charges pertaining to the deaths.

"It can still be considered, in federal court. That's not true in state court, so that again is a great benefit we had in choosing the form," she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips says, if convicted, both men face a possibility of life sentences. He says the case could go to trial in the next year.

Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWiit called the fire one of the most tragic events to occur in the Goose Creek community and said the scene was "chaos" for a few days.

"Anytime you have an event where innocent victims lose their lives and I think about a four-year-old child, a 19-year-old and then a man who served his country honorably in the military, just senseless losses. So, I hope we can go forward from this point," Sheriff DeWitt said.

While the prosecution of the two defendants continues in federal court, legislators are attempting to fight meth production on a larger scale. In 2005 federal legislation was passed to limit a person's ability to buy more than 3.6 grams of ephedrine (EPH) and pseudoephedrine (PSE), the main ingredients in cold medicine, per day and nine grams per month. The legislation also required retailers to keep records of the sales.

Dorsey told Congress Tuesday despite the "good intentions," it has not been effective. Instead, Dorsey detailed efforts by Oregon and Mississippi legislators. Dorsey says those states passed laws that require a prescription to purchase cold medicine containing EPH and PSE.

"It essentially returns these products to their proper role in the marketplace as excellent cold medicines, rather than the key ingredients for a dangerous, toxic, and highly-addictive narcotic," he said. "The results of Oregon's and Mississippi's targeted legislation have proven to be the most effective approach to combating domestic meth production within those states."

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