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Fortney: Drug lab in quiet neighbourhood not an unusual find

Hiding in plain sight.

It’s a well-worn phrase used frequently in everyday conversation. Most languages have their own version of the counterintuitive phenomenon, which means being unnoticeable by the very seemingly opposite act of staying visible — to be so obvious that others around you simply don’t register your presence.

On Thursday afternoon, Insp. Patty McCallum of the Calgary Police Service employs the phrase to explain why Benham Fayaz allegedly set up a cocaine drug lab in the quiet southwest neighbourhood of Somerset, in a two-storey home a stone’s throw from a large playground and mere blocks away from an elementary school.

“We have been in every single neighbourhood,” says the veteran police officer who oversees the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team in Calgary. McCallum stands behind a table filled with items seized from the home on May 17, the displayed paraphernalia adding up to a half-million dollars.

“Calgary is a very lucrative city, despite our recession,” she says.

On a tree-lined street where homes sit close together and the tidy yards are now filled with the typical May assortment of flower pots and lawn ornaments, police say Fayaz ran a business devoted to the production and distribution of crack cocaine.

The drug was diluted with a nasty assortment of chemicals and unsafe additives for maximum profit and deadliness. Fayaz faces 26 charges related to drugs and firearms.

The items on the table speak for themselves: body armour, an assortment of guns — including a Glock — and bags of money mingle with a giant block of cocaine, clear bags of crystal meth rocks and bag upon bag of phenacetin.

Phenacetin is a painkiller that was taken off the market in the early 1970s for human use because it was deemed a carcinogen. Now used as a pig de-wormer, many drug dealers mix the cheaper, dangerous white substance into the cocaine as a way to maximize profit.

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McCallum dons blue latex gloves to handle the various items, which include a cattle prod, stun guns and a rusted-out steel colander. “There are no safety standards here, no safe storage,” she says of the lab churning out the highly addictive illicit street drug.

In addition to the drug lab, the first officer on the scene entered a house that was so “filthy,” says McCallum, it was unfit for human inhabitation. “There is no respect for the premises,” she says, adding that in this case, and so many others, the residential address is about the only thing residential about these houses. “It was in such deplorable condition that Alberta health inspectors were contacted.”

While hiding in plain sight may have worked for a time, the local ALERT team was, pardon the pun, alerted by concerned neighbours. Their calls to the police, says McCallum, kickstarted a surveillance operation that resulted in the charges.

An hour after the news conference, one neighbour of Fayaz expresses a mix of relief and shock to hear just what police found inside the house with the yard filled with empty cigarette packages, plastic cups, garbage bags and a BEWARE of DOG sign on the mailbox.

“We saw the SWAT team come in with their night vision, it was pretty frightening,” says Robert, a stay-at-home dad with two toddlers. He asked that his last name not be printed, for understandable reasons.

Robert says he has lived in the city’s southwest for more than 20 years and has never seen anything like this. “It’s kind of the last place you’d expect to find a drug lab,” he says. 

So, does he have advice for other Calgarians who suspect one of their neighbours might be running a crime operation next door? “Not a thing,” he says with a slight chuckle. “My wife and I go for walks every evening and didn’t notice anything other than the crummy yard.

“I guess this can happen anywhere.”

vfortney@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/valfortney

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