A Cohasset couple say poison came from a meth-lab fire
Ruth Rydberg was bundled up in her Cohasset home, sick with the flu, when she smelled smoke coming from her neighbor’s yard. He had kept her and her husband, Scott, up the previous few nights with a bulldozer. Now it appeared the building he’d demolished had caught on fire.
“There were 12-foot flames,” Scott recalled. “By the time the Fire Department got there half an hour later, it had died down.”
That was Feb. 15. The smoke lingered for a good 10 days, because the fire hadn’t been put out entirely. And by the 27th, Ruth was having a hard time sleeping. By March 9, after not having slept in 11 days and feeling extremely out of sorts, she started seeing doctors.
“They were acting like she was a speedster,” Scott said.
Turns out they might not have been far off, though Ruth, who is allergic to most medications and used to work in the juvenile hall ministry, is far from the speedster type.
The neighbors, however, are a different story.
Just downhill from the Rydbergs lives Guy Schwellenbach, who bought 20 acres a year or so ago. Red Bank Road lies entirely on his property.
Last May, a raid by the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force ended in four arrests on Red Bank Road—none of them of Schwellenbach—and the seizure of 100 marijuana plants. BINTF also found a methamphetamine lab.
“We call it a suitcase lab. It was shut down, closed up,” said Doug Patterson, a Butte County sheriff’s deputy who participated in the raid.
Schwellenbach’s prints weren’t present, and he denied knowing about the lab, so he was never arrested. According to court documents, however, he does face charges for possession of a controlled substance and possession of a hypodermic needle/syringe from October 2007. He appeared in court Tuesday (April 8) for a ruling to suppress evidence, but the motion was continued to May 1.
"[The lab] was in a trailer,” Patterson said. “That trailer never should have been demolished.”
But that’s exactly what happened. And then it was burned.
Throughout the month of March, Ruth, who didn’t sleep for 21 days straight, bounced around from doctor to doctor and city to city, staying the longest with family in Santa Rosa. Because she felt ill and wasn’t able to sleep at home, she hoped a change of environment would help.
“I’m very allergic,” Ruth said. “Maybe everyone wouldn’t have reacted so strongly.”
Her allergies led her to a holistic doctor in Sebastopol. The doctors she’d seen at immediate care in Chico had tried to put her on sleeping pills, which she is allergic to.
“They kept trying to give her drugs to help her sleep, but she’s allergic to everything,” Scott said.
Norman Zucker was different. He took one look at Ruth and saw something the other doctors had missed. He gave her a full physical, then said he wanted to take a piece of her hair to test for toxins.
“He looked in my eyes and said, ‘I know this test is going to come back dirty,’ “ Ruth said from the back porch of a friend’s house in Cohasset last Thursday (April 3). Just two days after she felt safe enough to come home, her son, Erik Rydberg, noticed another fire on Schwellenbach’s property while his mother was at a doctor’s appointment in Chico. He called 9-1-1.
“It was April Fool’s Day, and I think at first they thought it was a joke,” Erik said. But it was no joke. County agencies were on the scene to see the last building on the property burn. And because there was more smoke, Ruth left her home once more, this time just heading up the hill.
“Now I can sleep,” Ruth said. “I don’t even want to take the chance of going there when that pile is still smoking.”
April 1 turned out to also be the day Ruth’s hair test results came in. Dr. Zucker had been right. The results show a substantial presence of toxins, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, uranium and titanium, as well as calcium, manganese, chromium and selenium.
“My wife’s been poisoned,” Scott Ryberg said. “She needs to go through a heavy-metal detox, which costs a thousand bucks.”
Ruth isn’t the only one who has to worry, either. One neighbor who didn’t want to use her name because she feared retribution from Schwellenbach also got sick following the February fire.
“I got sick the day he burned the meth lab,” she said.
Cohasset is a quiet mountain community north of Chico, with just one road in and out. Not far from the welcome sign and “the store” live the Rydbergs and Schwellenbach. Behind them runs Maple Creek, which trickles south into Chico. Or at least it’s supposed to.
Schwellenbach’s property is large. There’s a pond that can be seen from the road. According to Patterson, the pond formed because the creek was dammed.
“If we had good water flow, it’d go up and over that dam,” he said. But the pond isn’t what you’d expect from Northern California creek water. “I’ve never seen a pond look a coppery-green color in my life. I’m interested in finding out exactly what the heck is in that water.”
So is Butte County’s Environmental Health Department, which is leading the investigation on Schwellenbach’s property. The Air Quality Management District is also in on the action, because of the burning.
Schwellenbach had applied for, and was issued, demolition permits for three buildings.
“If your house is red tagged, you can either bring it up to code or demolish it,” Patterson said. Code enforcement had red tagged Schwellenbach’s residence after the drug bust, for things like broken sewer lines and other structural issues, he added.
Meth lab sites must be inspected by a hazmat crew before being demolished. District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he believes the trailer on Schwellenbach’s property that had contained a lab was burned before a hazmat crew saw it.
“Since then he’s been demolishing trailers, mobile homes, and his residence using heavy equipment,” Patterson said. “The neighbors are stating that at night he’s been digging big old holes and burying a lot of these items—hazardous-waste-type items, building stuff. Also he’s been burning it, literally demolishing a mobile home and then setting it on fire for God only knows what reason.”
“Our rules are specific to burning on permissive burn days,” explained Jim Wagoner, air pollution control officer for AQMD. “You can burn vegetative waste—but you can’t burn construction debris. You certanly can’t burn mobile homes.”
If Schwellenbach has buried cars and other debris on the property, that could cause an even bigger mess when it comes to water. Many of Schwellenbach’s downhill neighbors rely on surface wells for their drinking water.
“It’s an environmental nightmare,” Patterson said. “Everybody up there is on well water.”
Patterson said Schwellenbach has denied knowledge of the source of the fires as well as any burying his neighbors have alleged. Schwellenbach’s phone number is not listed, and a call to the business in his name, Lv Plumbing, was not returned.
AQMD as well as Environmental Health are conducting tests on soil, water and the piles of burned debris to determine what, if any, contamination has occurred on Schwellenbach’s property.
“Our concern is that he has contaminated it to the point that it would go offsite,” said Mike Huerta, hazmat program manager at Environmental Health. “And he has done burning up there, burned waste, and we need to determine if some of that was hazardous waste.
“Typical of these places, it’ll take a while. The more you investigate the more it leads you to other things.”