LONGMONT — A three-car crash involving a rolling methamphetamine lab forced police to shut down both southbound lanes of traffic on the 100 block of Main Street on Monday morning.
Witnesses told police that a white Plymouth Venture van traveling north on Main Street veered into oncoming traffic and struck two cars around 7 a.m. Two men in the van jumped out and ran from the scene of the accident, the witnesses said.
“Both of the suspects jumped out of the van, carrying backpacks. and fled,” Longmont Police Cmdr. Craig Earhart said.
No one was hurt in the accident.
According to police, people who saw the accident struggled with one of the men to keep him from leaving the scene but could not restrain him.
When officers arrived, they noticed a strong smell of ether coming from the van.
Ether is a chemical commonly used in methamphetamine labs.
Inside the van, which sustained front-end damage, police found several materials used in making meth, including a modified air tank full of highly toxic anhydrous ammonia.
Due to the volatile nature of the chemical, investigators shut down traffic in the southbound lanes.
“It eats your lungs,” said Longmont Police Sgt. Tim Lewis, head of the department’s Special Enforcement Unit.
To ensure that none of the ammonia was spilled while the scene was cleaned up, the fire department’s hazardous materials team and the bomb squad were called in.
The tank was taken to an undisclosed location and destroyed, according to Lewis.
Police found one backpack that one of the men left at the scene and another that they believe the other suspect threw into the St. Vrain River, Earhart said.
“With the backpacks and what we found in the van, they had all of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine,” he said.
According to Lewis, investigators found one handgun in the van and recovered another from one of the backpacks.
After the suspects fled, police brought in dogs to track them.
The dogs followed a scent to near Ken Pratt Boulevard and Bowen Street, where police found Michael Boehner, 27, who police believe to be the passenger in the van.
Boehner, who was taken back to the crash scene and decontaminated, was arrested on suspicion of manufacturing illegal drugs and possessing methamphetamine precursors.
Police dogs tracked the other suspect’s scent south to an apartment complex on South Main Street.
A resident there told police he’d just driven a man to the Days Inn motel on Colo. Highway 119 in Del Camino, Lewis said Monday night.
Investigators are still looking for Austin Welsch, 27.
“(The driver) just thought the guy needed a ride,” Earhart explained, noting that the man allowed police to search for fingerprints on and in his car.
Later Monday, detectives searched a room at the Del Camino motel, where they believe Welsch was dropped off and again fled.
In the room, they found ammunition for a 9-mm handgun and prescription drugs, Earhart said.
Police believe Boehner and Welsch, both from Missouri, had been staying at the motel along with two other people after arriving in Longmont about four days ago.
Police also believe that while in Longmont, the four had been accompanied by Taryn Griffin of Longmont.
One of her sisters had traveled with the group from Missouri in the van that was crashed on Monday, Earhart said.
“Right now, (Taryn Griffin’s sister) is cooperating as a witness,” he said.
The wrecked van has a pink sticker on a window reading “In memory of Katelyn Rose Griffin,” a 12-year-old Longmont girl who was found dead in November at Taryn Griffin’s east Longmont home after inhaling vapors from aerosol paint cans, investigators said.
Katelyn Griffin had moved to the house at 635 Buchanan Lane from Missouri only a month earlier to live with her sister.
Investigators believe Welsch left the motel with Taryn Griffin and possibly a third person in a blue Chevrolet Beretta with Missouri license plates.
Police also believe the case may be tied to an incident on Friday in which a 14-year-old girl was asked by an acquaintance to dispose of a backpack containing meth lab components. The teen told police she got the backpack from a woman at Griffin’s home, at 635 Buchanan Lane.
Police have identified the adult who gave the girl the backpack, but Lewis said Saturday that the woman fled to Missouri.
“It’s all connected,” Earhart said.
Both southbound lanes of the 100 block of Main Street remained blocked off until 3 p.m. Monday, with traffic narrowed to one lane in each direction around the scene.
During that time, access to Big Jon’s and The Auto Connection car dealerships was limited by police and fire vehicles and police tape that cordoned off the area around the van.
“It’s not going to help bring anybody in who wants to look at cars,” Big Jon’s owner Jon Kroneberger said.
Employees at The Auto Connection moved cars away from the front of their lot so police could set up an evidence-processing station.
Amanda Arthur can be reached at 303-684-5215, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Anyone who has information about the case or who sees Taryn Griffin or Austin Welsch should call police.
Griffin is described as 5 feet, 6 inches tall with brown, curly hair. She weighs 115 pounds.
A description of Welsch was not available.