Meth lab murder case is state’s first

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 28, 2001

A case that has come to the Mower County Courthouse represents a first in Minnesota’s criminal justice system.

Saturday, April 28, 2001

A case that has come to the Mower County Courthouse represents a first in Minnesota’s criminal justice system.

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Troy Alan Meyer, 34, has been charged with murder in connection with a methamphetamine flash fire explosion.

No other such case has come before the courts in Minnesota and the last one in memory occurred four years ago in Missouri.

If the facts support the charge – and County Attorney Patrick A. Oman believes they do – the case will be so charged.

Oman’s plate is full – under the best of circumstances with criminal case prosecutions. This spring, it is full to overflowing.

Three suspects go on trial May 14 on a change of venue to Hastings in Dakota County for the June 2000 Downtown Motel robbery-killings of two St. Paul men.

The three suspects also face charges for a March 25 escape from the Mower County Jail. They were recaptured after only 54 hours of freedom and are now being held in the maximum-security prison at OakPark Heights near St. Paul.

Another female suspect in the case will be tried separately in connection with the same first-degree premeditated killings. She remains in the Mower County Jail.

Also in the local jail is Stacey Benjamin Cotter, who observed his 24th birthday a week ago while incarcerated. He has been charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his adoptive father, prominent Austin attorney Richard A. Cotter, in February and the death of his father’s female companion, Mary McIntrye.

Now, Meyer adds to the total of suspects accused of murder, facing trial in the Mower County Third Judicial District Court.

One other suspect remains at large, but Austin Police Chief Paul M. Philipp said, "I expect that suspect to also be charged in connection with this case."

Oman concurred.

"All the people involved in this case will be charged as the facts warrant it," he said.

Meth use

Law enforcement authorities believe methamphetamine is becoming a scourge.

Both trafficking and use of the drug have spiraled. It is most popular with young white adults from lower-middle class families.

Use begins with "snorting" but progresses quickly to injection.

These same law enforcement authorities believe most of the methamphetamine available in the Upper Midwest was trafficked by Mexican-controlled gangs.

However, in Austin it is being cooked in basements by the neighbors next door.

One lab, one death, many charges

According to the criminal complaint, Meyer faces charges of felony murder in the second degree (unintentional) and one count of murder in the third degree through the commission of an imminently dangerous act and one count of murder in the third degree, during commission of a controlled substance offense.

He also faces one count of manslaughter in the second degree for having culpable negligence in the death caused, plus one count of felony negligent fire and three counts of felony first-degree controlled substance crimes.

The discovery of methamphetamine labs in Mower County are increasing. In Austin, there have been four separate incidents where the manufacture of the drug was discovered at a residence.

Austin Police Detective Thomas A. Stiehm detailed the latest lab discovery in his criminal complaint against Meyer.

Austin Police Officer Ryan Leif was in his squad car in an alley behind 1007 11th Ave. SW at 2:02 a.m. Jan. 12, speaking with friends. The individuals heard a window break at the 1009 11th Ave. SW and later voices yelling while smoke poured from the window.

Leif’s friends said they had previously noticed suspicious activities at the residence and suspected there was a methamphetamine laboratory in the home.

The police officer noticed an unusual chemical smell coming from the smoke still pouring from the house.

When he drove around to the front of the house, the police officer observed a woman identified as Sandra Jean Johnson and her son, J.J., 4, were coming from the house and going to a car parked along 11th Avenue SW.

Then, a man, identified as James Erick Chilson, left the house not wearing any clothes. Chilson got into Johnson’s car.

When the officer questioned the adults, Chilson, who was severely burned over his body, asked for an ambulance.

Meanwhile, the officer’s friends had remained in the alley behind the house, where they saw two men leave the house and run away. The eyewitnesses identified one of the men as Meyer. They also gave the officer a detailed description of the other individual.

Meyer drove off in a pickup truck and the other suspect drove away in a late-model Dodge Intrepid.

Tangled tales of involvement

More Austin police officers arrived at the scene in response to Leif’s call for assistance and soon the Austin Fire Department also was on the scene.

A Gold Cross Ambulance Service crew rushed Chilson to Austin Medical Center. He was later transferred to the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul because of the severity of his burn wounds.

The first indication that the individuals were operating a meth lab in the house came when Fire Commander Don Lenz spotted four cans of Coleman fuel in the basement where the fire apparently had originated.

Then, other common ingredients in the making of the drug were observed in the basement.

At this point, Police Lt. Matt Holten took charge of the scene. Johnson and her 4-year-old son were transported by Leif to the Austin-Mower County Law Enforcement Center for questioning. During the trip, Johnson’s son, J.J., told the police officer "Meyer" was at the house when the fire started.

Before he was transported by the ambulance, Chilson told Police Sgt. Mark Haider that he lived in the house with Johnson and her child.

Chilson said he was asleep in bed, when the flash fire explosion woke him. He said he went to the basement and saw fire. He also told the police sergeant Meyer had been living in the house or staying in a van parked in back.

There was no mention of manufacturing drugs in the basement.

At AMC’s emergency room, doctors confirmed Chilson’s injuries were consistent with those suffered in a "flash fire."

Later Jan. 13, Sgt. Haider and Officer Patrick Retterath received information that another suspect, identified as Jamie Lee Chris Schammel and who lived at 600 11th Ave. SW, could be one of the individuals who ran from the scene of the flash fire explosion earlier that day.

Police push for answers

Haider and Retterath went to Schammel’s house to question him. Their arrival caused suspicious activities by Amy Lemoine, who answered the door reluctantly and denied Schammel was in the house.

A search of the residence revealed Schammel hiding in a bathroom closet. Severe burns were visible on his body, but all he told officers was that he was injured when a Nipco heater blew up.

While waiting for a Gold Cross Ambulance Service crew to arrive to transport Schammel to the hospital, Lemoine told officers Meyer and Schammel had left the residence together earlier Jan. 13. When Schammel returned alone, he was burned.

At the hospital, Schammel maintained he was ice fishing at Cannon Lake, when a Nipco heater exploded in his presence and he was burned. Then, he asked for an attorney.

When police questioned Schammel’s father, James Lee Chris Walker, the man denied knowledge of his son’s presence in Lemoine’s house nor his burn injuries.

At about the same time, Schammel was transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul for treatment of the burn injuries.

Police get a break

Jan. 13 was a busy day for Austin police officers, who also found the Dodge Intrepid seen leaving the scene of the flash fire explosion. It was at the residence of Chad Seys, 1606 Fourth Ave. NW.

Seys and a nephew, Dustin Leidal, were questioned. Seys admitted he went to Chilson’s residence at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 13 and that when he was leaving, he heard an explosion and felt a large blast of air behind him when he got to the top of the basement stairs.

He told officers methamphetamines were being manufactured in the basement of the Chilson-Johnson home. Seys said he had nothing to do with the laboratory.

In a second interview, Seys’ nephew, Leidal, told police his uncle returned home after visiting the Chilson-Johnson residence looking "pale and shaken" after a methamphetamine laboratory had exploded.

In a subsequent interview, Seys told police he knew Chilson and Meyer were in the basement making methamphetamines when he visited the house.

When he arrived, Seyes told police, Chilson, Meyer and another man he knew only as "James" were "smoking out" the final solution of methamphetamines or in the final stage of the process.


Seys saw Chilson go up and down the basement stairs frequently until he returned to the basement to tell the others there was a police car in the alley behind the house and all three panicked.

Chilson started to pour gallons of Coleman fluid down the drain in the basement with Meyer’s help, while Seys ran up the stairs. When Seys reached the back door of the residence, he felt a huge blast of air and heard an explosion.

In a moment, Meyer came up from the basement and Seys left the house by the front door, walked to his car in the back yard of the residence and drove away.

Seys concluded "Meyer was in charge of the production and was explaining each step of the process."

He also told police Meyer salvaged some of the final methamphetamine product that Chilson and Schammel were making the morning of the explosion.

The next development came when Detective Brian Krueger talked to Seys’ nephew Leidal and he told the detective the remaining suspect was "Jamie Schammel."

The young mother, living with Chilson, continued to deny any knowledge of the manufacture of methamphetamine drugs in the house she occupied with her son and Chilson.

Facing arrest and having her child taken from her, Johnson told officers she heard Chilson and Meyer discuss obtaining the pills used in the manufacturing process of the drug.

During the interview, Johnson’s child – despite his mother’s warnings to "shut up" – repeated what he told officers after the explosion that Chilson and Meyer were in the house when it occurred.

Still that same day, a photo of Schammel was shown to Seyes, who positively identified him as the other individual in the basement when the explosion occurred.

He told officers he had observed Chilson and Meyer making methamphetamine at the house on one other occasion and that Chilson and Johnson smoked the drug in his presence when he visited their house.

Ashtray part of felony negligence

Chilson died at Regions Hospital on Feb. 20, or nearly a month after he suffered severe burns in the explosion. Dr. Susan Roe determined Chilson died of complications of thermal injuries sustained in the Jan. 13 flash fire explosion. He had burns over 90 percent of his body, according to the medical examiner.

On April 3, Deputy State Fire Marshal Investigator Steve Wolf issued his report of the Jan. 13 fire-explosion.

Wolf determined the fire was caused by vapors from the Coleman fuel igniting as the fuel was being dumped down the drain.

A flash fire occurred, which burned and extinguished quickly.

According to the investigator, "In such a fire, only items that are in the immediate vicinity and those with a low ignition point would be burned."

Wolf’s findings were consistent with damages found in the basement and the injuries suffered by Chilson and Schammel.

The probable source of ignition was determined to be a cigarette; however, the flame on the gas water heater in the basement or the pilot light burning in a furnace were also not ruled out as possible causes.

An ashtray with a number of cigarette butts was found near the area of the basement floor drain where the Coleman fluid was poured.

The investigator also reported finding materials used in the process of manufacturing or using methamphetamines in the basement.

He ruled the fire as "felony negligence."

Weeks passed before Meyer voluntarily walked into the Law Enforcement Center and gave himself up.

He appeared in court a week ago and his public defender requested a probable cause omnibus hearing on the charges.

Seyes and Johnson were not charged, but are considered material witnesses in the case and could testify at Meyer’s trial.

Charges also are expected to be filed against Schammel, who recently returned to Austin after being released from the Regions Hospital burn unit.

Call Lee Bonorden at 434-2232 or e-mail him at