UNICOI — A Unicoi man was charged with two dozen counts of manufacturing methamphetamine after officials discovered multiple meth labs at a pair of Unicoi residences, according to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley.
Hensley said the investigation that led to the arrests of Richie Barnett, 46, his wife, Nioka Barnett, 43, and relative, Kourtney Barnett, 18, all of 911 Massachusetts Ave., Lot 20, had been ongoing for several months and involved his department in conjunction with the Erwin Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Authorities were able to secure a search warrant for the residence Tuesday evening. Authorities arrived at the residence around 11 p.m. Tuesday, Hensley said. The sheriff said authorities found an active shake and bake-type meth lab in a bedroom closet. He also said a small child slept only a few feet from where the lab was found.
At that point, Richie Barnett was charged with one count of manufacture of methamphetamine and aggravated child endangerment. Both Nioka Barnett and Kourtney Barnett were charged with one count of promotion of the manufacture of methamphetamine and aggravated child endangerment.
Hensley said the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force was called to dispose of the lab. While authorities were on the scene and cleanup was under way, Hensley said he received a call from someone advising that Richie Barnett had also been using an vacant trailer adjacent to his residence to manufacture meth.
After receiving permission from the vacant home’s owner, officials searched it and found several meth labs inside, with the labs hidden in the duct work of the home’s heating unit, in the walls, in closets and cabinets, Hensley said. Hensley also said authorities found several 30-gallon trash can liners containing precursors used to manufacture meth. Hensley said the duct work was corroded, a sign that meth was being made there and that those arrested were in the process of “cooking” meth when officials arrived.
Following the search of the vacant home, which Hensley described as a “firebox” due to the volatility of the chemicals found, officials charged Richie Barnett with an additional 23 counts of manufacture of methamphetamine, Hensley said.
“This is the second-largest methamphetamine site where meth was made that I’ve ever saw in what time I’ve been here,” Hensley said. “It has put a huge dent in the manufacturing of meth in Unicoi County. This is one of the most dangerous drugs on the street today, and one of the most addictive drugs, too.”
Hensley said the labs were located about one-fourth mile from Unicoi Elementary School and neighbors had seen traffic around Barnett’s residence for several months. Both residences have been quarantined. He said the child found in the home was taken to Unicoi County Memorial Hospital and later turned over to the care of a relative not involved in the case.
Hensley said the investigation is ongoing and other charges and arrests are possible. The three arrested are set to be arraigned in Sessions Court this morning. While Richie Barnett is facing state charges at this point, Hensley, who praised the work of his officers and other officials involved, said he anticipates the federal system picking up the charges.
“We are taking methamphetamine manufacturing in Unicoi County very seriously,” he said. “We have had an intense investigation going on since I became sheriff, and we’ll continue to rid Unicoi County of meth cooks and promoters.”
While working to secure the search warrant in the Unicoi case, Hensley said he received a call regarding a marijuana-growing operation in the Canah Chapel area. He said this information led to the Tuesday evening arrests of two Erwin residents in the unrelated drug case.
Arrested were Robert Michael Patton, 20, 1280 N. Walnut Drive, and Archie Raymond Fowler, 19, 1236 N. Walnut Drive. Patton was charged with manufacture of schedule VI drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia, child endangerment, contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and violation of a court order. Fowler was charged with manufacture of schedule VI drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia, child endangerment and maintaining a dwelling were drugs are used or sold.
Hensley said he, Sgt. Greg Kopp and Officer Matt McNally eradicated around 20 plants at the Walnut Drive home and found a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia inside. A juvenile and two babies at the residence were placed with the Department of Children’s Services.
Hensley urged those with any information on ongoing drug activity to report it to the sheriff’s department’s TIPS line at 743-1855.