Frank Festag, Drug House Stripper – September 12, 2011
Previously, Frank Festag of CSI Decon revealed the more macabre aspects of crime scene cleanup. This week he discusses the aftermath of drug manufacture. Photos used with this story are from a 2003 Arcata Eye story about a ruined grow house on Terrace Avenue. Second of two parts. – Ed.
Kevin L. Hoover
HUMBOLDT – After the police have swarmed a grow house or meth lab, arrested the occupants and hauled away the contraband and associated equipment, the domicile is often structurally altered, electrically sparky, soaked through with mold and/or toxins and unfit for habitation.
Sooner or later, the owner surveys the wreckage and musters the will to fix the place up. Depending on the level of devastation and the owner’s skill set, he or she may just decide to throw money at the problem by hiring people to restore the place to something people who aren’t in the trade would want to live in.
While any number of carpenters, painters and carpet layers are available, who is there to remove the reek and purge the noxious chemical residue from a drug house?
Enter Frank Festag.
“It’s like, who’s gonna clean this up?” he observes. “That’s pretty much the discussion.”
He’s been brought in on all manner of squalid, noxious situations, and well knows the breed. “There’s never a ‘typical’ – never a place that’s the same as any other,” he says. “Every place has its idiosyncrasies. The only thing constant is the trash.”
Drug houses are usually operated by someone other than the owner, and treated with corresponding disrespect.
“The meth labs are usually a gut job,” he says. “They have to be taken down to the bare bones of the house because drywall absorbs the chemicals. The insulation acts like a giant sponge.”
Not that tweakers would care much, but the stuff they snort is usually laden with toxic material. “They use cadmium from batteries, even gasoline,” Festag notes.
The methmakers themselves are a pathetic lot, he says, having fallen down a slippery slope of bad decisionmaking. He can tell by the residue of their speed-engulfed lives.
“You can see and absorb all of who they are from all the stuff left behind,” Festag said. “They’re nasty, they’re deplorable and there’s no regard whatsoever for where they are – near schoolchildren, no regard whatsoever.”
The tweakers fall prey to compulsive behavior. “I’ve never seen one that hasn’t been a hoarding situation,” Festag says. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a clean meth lab on the planet.”
And – surprise, surprise – it’s not at all like Hollywood depictions of drug manufacture. “In the movies they’re walking around in lab coats with masks; tables of people working and the girls are topless,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Where is this happening?’”
Continued Festag, “We don’t have that out here. They do it in trailers, little porta-sheds, mainly kitchens. You go in and see where all the stuff has been cooked on the stove next to the box of Trix and half-eaten cereal. You go, ‘Geez, breakfast of champions.’”
Even the cannabis grow houses are often ravaged to a similar degree through a combination of neglect and clumsy modifications. “The grow rooms are fun,” says the chipper Festag. “PGE comes in and goes, ‘pull the meter.’ You can’t blame ’em when you come into a place where the wires are melted and the outlets are cooked.”
Some of the cannabis patients’ health-giving “medicine” is created in wholly insalubrious conditions.
“The biggest health risk they pose is the different types of molds and the chemicals,” Festag says. “The bloom formulas, the grow formulas, the in-between formulas. Some of this stuff, when you mix it, it’s extremely dangerous. You have a severe health hazard.”
The house gets treated like the factory it really is. “The floors are usually ruined,” Festag says. “Some have plastic, but the plastic gets cut and the carpet starts to mold out. Others have no carpet –five gallon buckets on the floor with chemicals leaching out, ruining the floors and the carpets.”
Festag may be amused by the property destruction – after all, it fattens his paycheck. But as a grandpa, he gets upset at the human toll, especially on children.
“They have kids and dogs running around in this,” he laments. “You can mess up your own life if you want to be a grower, but don’t involve the kids and dogs and make them ingest all the chemicals. It’s just not right.”
The reclusive growers, busy with their crops, often don’t treat themselves very well, either.
“You see that they have had a hard life,” Festag said. “They like not doing the normal things like making meals. The places are always littered with fast food bags. You see babies’ bedrooms full of hooks where they were drying the pot.”
Festag’s descriptions replicate exactly the images of grow house interiors submitted to the newspaper by outraged landlords – homes strewn with garbage and cannabis debris, cigarette butts ground into the carpet, pizza boxes and beer 12-packs stacked up on kitchen counters.
“Nobody’s life in those places in anything like what I’d call good,” Festag observes. “They have dressers with stains from all the chemicals they put on them. They leave giant holes in the walls. The wiring is always on the verge of catching fire any second.”
Having to stay in to tend and guard their valuable “girls,” the growers often turn to electronic amusements. A flatscreen surrounded by piles of action-adventure DVDs is typical.
“They like toys – big RC cars, big screen TVs, boxes of DVDs of action movies and Ninja stuff and every kind of Xbox and Sony thing,” Festag said.
He remembers a house in Valley West where the landlord discovered a grow and gave the five college students an eviction notice. “You’d be surprised at how the illegal 215ers react when they know the cops are gonna be there the next day,” he says. “The stuff they leave behind is phenomenal.”
“In the backyard, there were maybe a hundred black trash bags. They had never taken out their trash. And all the trash bags were moving – they were full of rats. I was blown away.”
There was mold on all the carpets,” he recalls. “It was horrendous. And they all got away,. They all went back to their little places in Santa Barbara or L.A. It’s like, ‘Sue me, I’m gone.”
Between the reek and the mold, Festag often has to rip out all the drywall to prepare the home for reconstruction. “You tear it down to the bare frame,” he says. “It pays well.”
And that’s the freaky niche that provides Frank Festag a living in Humboldt County.
I live a very humble, meager life,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of fancy this and that. I haven’t left the county in years.”
“Everybody’s pretty much in awe when you tell them what you do,,” he says. Every person that meets me and finds out what I do, they go, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d meet someone who does something like this.”