Local police, with assistance from multiple outside agencies, are still trying to ascertain why more than 70 plastic bottles, covered in duct tape and containing household chemicals, a crystalline substance and thick pieces of paper, have been dumped in the Roaring Fork River since late last year.
A suspect arrested Friday in the mysterious case posted a $15,000 bond and was released from Pitkin County Jail on Saturday. Ricardo Maestrino Parras Membreno, 43, who was carrying an El Salvador-issued ID listing a Basalt address, is now due for his initial court appearance on three felony-level hazardous-waste-violation counts on April 2.
Officers initially suspected the bottles were related to a “cold cook” methamphetamine-production method, but as of Monday, “We don’t have any information at this time to support the production of drugs, though we are still looking into that,” Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott said.
“We are still trying to piece together everything we have found and figure out what those bottles were being used for,” Knott said.
Knott added that investigators believe Membreno was disposing of the bottles in the river and did not attempt to retrieve any of them.
“We think he was trying to get rid of the contents,” Knott said.
The case remains under investigation, after a search of Membreno’s residence Friday evening failed to turn up any controlled substances.
Police have been investigating the bottles since Basalt High School students and staff participating in a river cleanup in November found the first of them. Since then, 71 of the bottles, described as a “Sobe plastic water bottle covered with small strips of duct tape,” have turned up, according to an arrest affidavit filed on Friday in Membreno’s case. Most of the bottles have been found by the 7 Eleven bridge in Basalt, though roughly a quarter of them floated downstream from there.
The four-page arrest affidavit offers the most detail released to date of the bottles’ contents, which have been subject to varying levels of testing by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a hazardous-waste-disposal firm.
“Internally, the bottles contain a cloudy liquid, with a clear white crystalline substance settling to the bottom. The liquid can also be clear, reddish, blueish, or purplish color. Each bottle also contains what appears to be thick paper. The paper measures approximately 4-by-6 inches and each bottle holds anywhere from three to seven pieces of paper,” says the affidavit from Basalt police Sgt. Joseph Gasper.
Tests have found the liquid to be corrosive, and in some cases, flammable. Identified chemicals include potassium oleate and hydrogen peroxide, the affidavit says. The substance at the bottom of the bottles contains sodium chloride. While “explosive precursors” have turned up in the mixture, a test by AET Environmental, a Denver-based hazardous-waste-disposal company that is working with Basalt police, has identified no explosives.
Basalt police trained multiple motion-activated cameras on the bridge, beginning a few weeks ago. On March 9, when three bottles were recovered, the cameras captured a man approaching at 6:17 a.m. with a plastic grocery bag containing what appeared to be the bottles. After looking around, the video shows “four quick flashes of a light color. … The quick flashes appear to possibly be the male throwing the bottles into the river” from a footpath. Four more bottles were found on March 12. On March 16, four Basalt officers, including Knott, and a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy staked out the bridge beginning at 5:15 a.m.
“We then set up out of sight but could still see people walking at the [7 Eleven] bridge,” the affidavit says.
At 6:20 a.m., they watched the same man approach from the adjacent Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park.
“He was carrying a plastic bag and it appeared to be heavy and full,” the affidavit says. “The male then walked to the left side of the bridge and began to look around multiple times to see if anyone was around. The male then crouched down behind a bush. I could then hear the splash of water as though something had been thrown into the river.”
Membreno then walked back toward Highway 82 and was taken into custody.
The affidavit says he waived his Miranda rights and was interviewed. “[Membreno] would only state there was water in the bottles, nothing else. He eventually acknowledged they contained chemicals, but would not explain the reasoning for his actions. He stated he wanted to clean the inside of the bottles and the duct tape was to protect the outside,” the affidavit says.
Membreno also told police that “the duct tape he uses is in his bedroom and the ‘alcohol’ is in the living room.”
“It appears [Membreno] is avoiding telling us what the bottles are for,” the affidavit says.
Knott said the presence of the paper in the bottles remains a mystery. Basalt police are reaching out to anyone with an expertise in drug-production methods who could help explain what is going on with the bottles.
So far, contacts in the case have supplied a lot of “theories and hypotheses” but so far, “nothing we can prove,” Knott said.