The arrest of a 21-year-old Augusta man in the fatal shooting of a pawnshop owner led authorities to one of the largest methamphetamine labs ever discovered in Augusta.
"In 10 years in the narcotics division, I've never seen a residence that had been completely turned into a meth lab," Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Jason Vinson said of the house at 2501 Coleman Ave. in south Augusta. "The kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the kitchen stove -- the entire house was a lab."
After the slaying of James "Benny" Tidwell at his store, Mo Money Jewelry & Pawn, investigators arrested Clinton Alexander Shelton on Monday night in Hephzibah and charged him with murder.
Investigators would not say Tuesday how they identified Shelton as a suspect. But through interviews with him and others connected to him, they arrested seven people on meth-related charges.
At the Coleman Avenue house, investigators seized about $1,000 in meth, along with ingredients and equipment to make the drug, Vinson said. Shelton spent part of Monday hiding at the home.
Deputies said they were struck by the scale of the operation. The harsh fumes produced by the drug-making process made their eyes and throats burn, Vinson said.
The Drug Enforcement Agency was called in Monday night, and it took hours to remove the highly explosive materials from the house.
Investigators arrested three people after they were seen driving a pickup that had been turned into a mobile meth lab near the home, police said. The three knew Shelton, investigators said.
Tidwell was shot at close range Monday by a robber armed with a handgun, sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said. He said police don't know the extent of the relationship between Tidwell and Shelton but suspect they were acquaintances.
"At the very least he (Shelton) knew of him (Tidwell)," Peebles said.
Tidwell was known to carry a gun but had left it in his truck Monday morning, he said.
The robber fled the pawn shop with several handguns and cash, Peebles said.
Deputies tracked Shelton to a neighborhood off Peach Orchard Road, where he hid at the homes of several drug users, they said.
He first went to the Coleman Avenue home and to a home on nearby Jordan Circle, authorities say. About 6:45 p.m. Monday, deputies followed him to a trailer park in the 2000 block of Hephzibah McBean Road. Shelton was getting into a car to flee when deputies pulled up to the trailer, Peebles said.
Investigators continue to work the case and couldn't rule out the possibility of more arrests, including more murder charges.
They have turned the Coleman Avenue home over to the landlord.
On Tuesday afternoon, several residents of the neighborhood said they were not too shocked by the arrests because of the crime they regularly see near their homes.
Sara Jenkins said she has lived near the meth-lab house since 1993. She said she has been burglarized in the past and could recall drug users living at 2501 Coleman Ave. before.
"That house must be known for drugs," Jenkins said.
Matt O'Bryan said he moved into the neighborhood about three years ago after a stint in the military. After learning of the meth lab, O'Bryan said he contacted a Realtor and is looking to move.
"I've got a 13-year-old daughter and a wife that's pregnant," he said. "I can't raise another child here."