Meth bottles

These bottles are two of over 50 similar ones found either by authorities or the public that have been pulled from the Roaring Fork River in recent weeks. Residents are cautioned to not open the containers and to alert police to their whereabouts.

Federal authorities are now part of the investigation into mysterious bottles found in the Roaring Fork River and on its banks between Basalt and Carbondale, containers a Basalt police officer said are likely the result of the production of methamphetamine.

Since Jan. 24, Basalt police have confiscated or been alerted to the discovery of over 50 bottles, 35 of which were turned over to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency disposal team, said Basalt Sgt. Joe Gasper. The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office sent out a press release Tuesday warning the public to not open the containers, as the contents “are hazardous to human health.”

But what those contents are remained unclear Tuesday, and Gasper said the DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Colorado Bureau of Investigations are trying to solve that issue through testing.

The bottles are heavily duct-taped, though there is, on most of the vessels, an open space through which the contents can be viewed, he said.

If the bottles are the result of meth production, it’s unclear why the culprits would go through the trouble of storing and wrapping the byproducts in such a way, and then placing them into the river. It would be much easier for meth producers to simply scatter the byproducts into a remote corner of a forest, Gasper said.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

That is apparently what got the attention of multiple federal agencies.

“We’re obviously highly concerned,” he said. “This is a major investigation, and there are no clear-cut answers.”

Authorities first became aware of the bottles before Thanksgiving, when a science teacher handed one to a Basalt school-resource officer. Other containers were opened by citizens believing they may be “messages in a bottle,” Gasper said.

No others were reported until Jan. 24, when police and firefighters recovered 14 bottles from the Roaring Fork. On Feb. 8, two students reported to police more containers near the 7-Eleven bridge, and authorities confiscated nine bottles at that site. In the roughly 100 yards between that bridge and the Midland Avenue bridge, a total of 19 were found — including one bottle that is inaccessible after it apparently became wedged underneath a boulder in the river. Added to the total were an estimated 12 containers found, and possibly opened, by residents.

A preliminary test by a hazmat team on one bottle showed the material to be “very flammable and highly corrosive,” with a type of salt-crystal residue on the bottom, Gasper said.

“From what we’re told, we’re leaning toward it being the result of drug making, most likely crystal meth,” he said, noting that production of other drugs, such as crack cocaine and PCP, doesn’t typically use such material or result in such residue.

Meth makers sometimes use what is called a “shake-and-bake” method involving an exothermic reaction that lets off gas. But the containers would need to be opened to release that gas, heightening the mystery of why they are so tightly sealed.

Placed in sunlight, the contents of the bottles started to turn colors, Gasper said.

“We know there’s a reaction going on inside the bottle and that something’s cooking off,” he said. “Why not just dump it in the forest? We don’t know.”

The contents could be the result of methamphetamine being “rinsed” after the drug was imported inside windshield-wiper reservoirs and gas tanks, Gasper said.

“A lot of federal agencies are really interested in this,” he said.

The bottle that triggered the Garfield County sheriff’s press release was found near Catherine Store Road.

Garfield County Sheriff’s Deputy Walt Stowe said the DEA is analyzing the bottle’s contents.

“It would be speculation to say that it was part of a meth-production process,” he said in an email. “Our goal is to warn the general population of the potential danger in handling these items, and if found, they should notify authorities immediately. It is basically a matter of public safety at this juncture from the standpoint of the sheriff’s office.”

The bottles have been found in the Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield County sections of the Roaring Fork Valley. The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is offering its assistance, said Alex Burchetta, director of operations.