he men in canary yellow suits haul everything the meth users left behind out of the contaminated house. A purple camo chair, children’s toys, dirty blankets — all of it polluted with meth — are dragged through a screen door, down the patio stairs and into a dumpster’s maw. A pair of photo albums is all the men leave untouched. The team of meth cleaners try never to throw away what can't be replaced.
A ginger-haired boy, maybe 12, grins up from the albums’ pages. There are pictures of a happy couple with full smiles, family obituaries clipped from newspapers and pages ripped out of a book, with love notes written in the margins.
When the couple in the photographs darted, they left not only a specter of ruined family, but a house in a state of ruin. To be habitable again, the house needs a state-approved cleaner such as Ryan Weaver.
In rural Indiana, meth is a constant scourge. Regular users don’t destroy only their bodies, but their homes with the drug.
Indiana’s 1,471 meth labs seized in 2014 were the most of any state, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. For at least the past decade, which is as long as the DEA has made such data public, Indiana has been among the top four states in lab seizures.
In Indiana, many of those properties lie dormant for years. Weaver and his team bring some of those places back from the abyss. The job pays well, but for Weaver, 39, the work is a public service.
“Most people I deal with are victims,” he said. “I’m offering a service that’s giving them their place back.”
In spite of the destruction meth users leave in their wake, he offers something invaluable: a clean slate.
Weaver’s pickup truck and a white van are parked in the little green house’s gravel drive in Idaville, Indiana, an unincorporated town with a population of 461, 90 miles northwest of Indianapolis.
The team cleans mostly in small towns, where meth is most prevalent. Weaver has only ever had two cleanup jobs in Indianapolis, despite Frankfort being less than an hour away.
The team has joked about putting a “Methbusters” sticker on the van, but Weaver doesn’t want to attract too much unwelcome attention.
Though the house has damages that require thousands of dollars to repair, nothing seems out of place, aside from a neon orange notice plastered on the door. The police officers put up the warning sign when they found a meth lab inside.
“A clandestine laboratory for the manufacture of illegal drugs and/or hazardous chemicals was seized at this location on 9/14/15,” the sign reads. “There may still be hazardous substances, contamination or waste products on this property.”
Weaver and his team are careful, otherwise they could begin to feel the lingering effects of meth lying invisible on the walls, in the floorboards, in the air conditioning unit.
Each of Weaver’s three jobs puts him in a certain amount of danger. He spends 10 days of his month as a firefighter, extinguishing fires and rushing overdose cases to the hospital. Two more days per month, he trains with the local SWAT team as the medic. His remaining time is spent running Bio Recovery Specialists, his meth cleanup company.
For the house in Idaville, the bulk of the work is in clearing out the contaminated insulation coating in the attic that, judging by the high levels when Weaver tested, was the former tenants’ prime spot for meth cooking.
Adam Hoke, one of Weaver’s employees, scrapes loose pieces of insulation in the crevices of the attic into his hands and tosses them into a garbage bag. He struggles to breathe through his clogged respirator.
A loose nail hidden in the insulation breaks through the plastic hazmat suit and scrapes his knee. He'll have to change into a new suit.
“Damn meth heads,” he says.
The team fills garbage bag after thick, industrial-sized garbage bag until most of the insulation is gone. They still need to vacuum every dust particle they can reach, spray chemicals, scrub the walls, ceiling and floor and add a layer of paint. Every room that tested hot, or with high levels of meth, will need the same treatment.
For the moment, Hoke needs a break.
On the patio, he unzips to the waist and pulls off a top layer of gloves. Everyone is drenched in sweat — unluckily for them, the airtight plastic suit holds in moisture. Each of the men, except Weaver, who doesn’t smoke, pull cigarettes out of their pockets and pass around a lighter.
Trucks driving by kick up clouds of dust that settle over the porch. Every once in a while, the drivers slow down to peer at the team of men.
“I bet you 20 bucks they wave,” Hoke said, and they do. This is the part of Indiana where it’s unthinkable not to be friendly, even to strangers in yellow suits.
Growing up in Frankfort, Indiana, Weaver never noticed meth in his community. He was voted “Most Naive” by his class in high school. After graduating from college, meth became more a part of his life.
His sister’s boyfriend was arrested on meth charges after police found the drug inside their house. Weaver’s sister was giving birth to her second daughter at the hospital.
Though Weaver said his sister was unaware meth was being used in her house, the police transferred custody of her two daughters to Weaver’s parents, where the children stayed for about six months during the police investigation.
Her boyfriend had been cooking near the furnace in the garage. Noxious meth residue spread to the rest of the house through the vents. Every room had to be stripped to its bones.
“She lost almost everything,” Weaver said.
It was about a year later that Weaver began cleaning meth houses as a side job.
In the first house he ever cleaned, the kid’s room had the highest levels of meth. He was told the room belonged to a 6 or 7-year-old boy. He thought about his own son, who was about the same age at the time, as he threw away children’s blankets and toys.
“I pictured having to throw away everything my son has ever owned and ever loved,” he said.
The houses with kids are always the hardest for him to clean. Weaver’s first daughter was born when he was 20. He later married a different woman and had two daughters and a son.
The two divorced in May of last year and left Weaver with partial custody of his three youngest kids.
He prays with them every night. If they’re staying with their mother, they say prayers over the phone. On the nights they’re not at home, he closes their bedroom doors.
“I don’t like walking past that empty room,” he said. “I come home to a dog. She’s great to come home to, but it’s not what I wanted for my life.”
Driving down Route 24 in northern Indiana, it’s possible to leave Idaville before realizing you’ve arrived.
The town is nestled in between cornfields. There’s no gas station, no stoplight, only a grain elevator and a sleepy restaurant, called the Idaville Diner. Weaver describes it as “podunk, never-heard-of-it ‘ville.”
Tom Geisler, who has lived in Idaville for 67 years, said he prefers to remember the town as it was in 1960, at its centennial. He recalled bowler hats and gowns, beards and grown-out whiskers.
“You knew everybody and you knew their dog,” Geisler said.
Now, he said he probably knows only about a third of Idaville’s residents. The rest are unfamiliar faces. After the ‘70s passed, it seemed to him people were coming to Idaville for the low property costs, and when they came, they brought meth with them.
“We’ve got more druggies than we’ve got decent people, seems like,” Geisler said. “There’s an overabundance of them anymore.”
The Indiana State Police keeps a website tracking the location of uncleaned meth labs. There are 3,427 buildings recorded since January 2007.
“I don’t think it’s going away,” Weaver said with a shrug. “At least my business is paid for.”
Property owners are responsible for choosing one of 33 private companies on a list provided by the state to deal with the lingering residue after the police leave.
Insurance will cover cleanings for landlords and homeowners who have no connection to the people who cooked the meth. Those cases represent the majority, Weeaver said. But without insurance, a cleanup can cost the owner thousands.
Weaver is careful not to jack up his prices, a practice he says is common in the business. Some cleaners might tell unwitting homeowners they need more work done house than is required by the state.
“I try to treat my clients well,” Weaver said. “I want to be viewed as somebody that cares and wants to help.”
Ninety-three percent of the meth captured by the ISP in 2015 was made with a method insiders call the “Shake and Bake,” according to a report from the ISP.
Also known as “one pot” cooks, the technique takes about 40 minutes to complete, according to Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The result is a pound of toxic sludge and 6 ounces of meth.
Most in law enforcement would identify heroin, not meth, as Indiana’s most problematic narcotic. Chad Walker, an undercover detective working in narcotics for the Frankfort Police Department, said it can be bought for about $20 per hit.
Yet cracking down on meth use and production in rural areas poses challenges. There is a revolving door for meth users, Walker said.
For many of those arrested, a short jail stint doesn’t fix addiction.
“They’re like weeds,” Walker said. “Pull one, two more show up.”
Midday on one of their first days of cleaning in Idaville, a Jeep pulls over during a team smoke break. Rebel Middleton, the owner of the two-story green house on Idaville’s Main Street, gets out and approaches the patio.
“Can I see it?”
Weaver steps aside and opens the screen door for her. There’s still a decal on the beam above their heads as they walk inside. It reads “Family, where life begins and love never ends.”
The pair stands in each room for a few moments, not saying much. The rooms are empty, save for loose pieces of trash and a refrigerator full of rotting food.
The upstairs is worse. Middleton’s tenants punched a hole through the wall of a bedroom she had hoped to renovate soon. Her eyes fill up with tears.
“I’m about ready to cry,” she says. “It was a beautiful house.”
The police found a meth lab in Middleton’s house after her tenants refused to leave on their eviction date. Middleton said her tenants were Shane Whiteman and his girlfriend April. Middleton sued Whiteman soon after the eviction in small claims court.
He appeared in court Oct. 2, 2015, and paid $2,850 in fines, according to information from the White County clerk.
The tenants were evicted after almost a year of renting Middleton’s house. Around May, Middleton started noticing problems with her tenants.
Whiteman seemed to understand the notice to evict, Middleton said. But she said when she showed up on the court-ordered date and asked them to clear out, he busted out a window and chased her down the street before April stopped him. Middleton called the police. The couple threw what they could fit into their truck and darted.
It wasn’t long after the police showed up that officers realized there was meth in the house. Without catching them in the act, though, Whiteman and April couldn’t be charged with meth manufacture or possession.
The little green house was the first Middleton bought with her own money. She started renting it out when she moved in with her husband. Now, it’s going to cost more than $30,000 to restore — $12,000 for Weaver and his team, paid through insurance, and about $23,000 for a contractor.
“It’s my first big achievement after raising my children that I’ve done on my own,” Middleton said. “To see somebody come in and destroy it ... it’s upsetting.”
Among the junk Whiteman and April left behind were a couple of photo albums.
The early photos of the couple are almost unrecognizable now, Middleton said. Their faces are sunken, and April, who Middleton remembers as being on the heavier side when they moved in, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds the last time she saw her.
One day during the cleaning, Hoke was smoking on the porch when someone slowed in their car to glare at him from their window. Hoke said he thought it was April — he could recognize her from the photos.
She didn’t wave.
Middleton isn’t sure what she should do with the albums. They aren’t the sort of thing you throw away.
She said she figures maybe one day, she’ll mail them to April.
By the time Weaver is doing the final testing on Middleton’s house, every room has been cleared, sprayed with chemicals three times and scrubbed.
Weaver’s boots squelch on the hardwood floors as he paces around the house, swabs the walls and puts cotton balls in test tubes. He’ll mail those to a testing company in Tukwila, Washington.
The final results will show the house can be lived in again soon. Middleton plans to lease it again.
For Weaver, the job doesn’t end when he takes off the hazmat suit. He recently cleaned a neighbor’s house in Frankfort, too close to the home he fought to keep during his divorce, the place where his kids buried two dogs they still love in the backyard.
Weaver never released his neighbor’s house — the owner wouldn’t replace the HVAC unit. But the drug still came back.
One morning after a shift at the fire department, Weaver came home to find footprints leading from the neighbor’s house to his. It could have been nothing. Since he started in the meth cleanup business, he’s become more skeptical of everyone.
“My trust in people has changed a lot,” he said. “Now I’m more apprehensive.”
It’s muscle memory now to look for the signs of meth. Luckily for Weaver’s business, he’ll keep finding it. He just wishes it wasn’t next door.