Truck fire leads to meth charges

Published 10:13 am Thursday, July 17, 2008

Investigations into truck fire outside at the Holiday Inn parking lot led to methamphetamine charges against the vehicle’s owner, who was found hiding in a hotel room bathroom by police, according to Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp.

John Herbert Merten, 31, of Stewartville has been charged with a single felony count of third-degree controlled substance crime after police allegedly found several grams of meth, a pipe and $214 in cash on him during the early morning hours of Wednesday.

The chief said police initially observed white smoke coming from the Holiday Inn lot while on routine patrol around 3:40 a.m. The officer reported that the front end of a 2003 Chevy pickup was ablaze; the fire led to the evacuation of several hotel guests rooming in nearby units.

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The Austin Fire Department gained control and extinguished the fire while officers attempted to locate the owner of the pickup. While interviewing witnesses, police were approached by two women, who asked why the fire had started, Philipp stated.

They said they’d been driving the vehicle earlier and had noticed problems in the pickup’s operation and front rim, which they said was glowing orange. Philipp said they told police that the Chevy’s owner, Merten, was at his Stewartville home, and attempted to call him.

Police would later trace the two women to a Holiday Inn hotel room, where they allegedly found Merten hiding in the bathroom. Philipp said Merten told officers that he’d gone in there after hearing a long bang outside, which he thought was a shotgun.

Police allegedly found a meth pipe in Merten’s shorts initially; after asking whether the three had drugs in the room, authorities requested a K-9 search, which yielded nothing, the chief said.

Police eventually recovered 3.2 grams of meth in a cigarette box in Merten’s other pocket, according to Philipp.

His first court date is scheduled for July 31. The maximum penalty for his crime is 25 years in prison and/or $250,000 in fines. He has no criminal drug history in Minnesota, according to court records.