One customer's repeated visit to Wal-Mart Sunday led officers to the site of what they say was a methamphetamine laboratory in south Payson.
Andrew John France, 35, of Payson, was arrested Monday afternoon and charged with possession of the chemicals and equipment used to cook meth, trespassing, use of dangerous drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Police were alerted to the situation when store employees notified management of the customer's repeated purchase of ephedrine --an over-the-counter medication that's one of the key ingredients needed to make meth.
Payson officers conducted the initial investigation, then called in the Gila County Drug, Gangs and Violent Crimes task force.
After interviewing witnesses, undercover officers followed the suspect's trail to a house on South Cedarcrest Circle, south of Payson Regional Medical Center. Officers obtained consent to search the home, and inside discovered what appeared to be a working meth lab. France, however, was not in the house.
"It was obvious that he had already done the cook," an undercover officer said. "All of the equipment was there to do another cook, but we didn't find any product. He had either gotten rid of it, or used it himself."
Enviro-Care of Phoenix was called in to clean up the potentially explosive materials.
"They had to take a lot of stuff out of the house that had to be disposed of," the task force officer said. Those items, he said, were covered with red phosphorus -- another ingredient used to make the illegal substance.
"It took about six hours to finally clear the house out," Payson Police Officer Matt Van Camp said. "But there was still no sign of the suspect."
With reports of sightings of the suspect around town, officers continued their search Monday. The search ended when Lt. Don Engler and Sgt. Tom Tieman stumbled onto the suspect.
"We had been searching, and were going down this alley over by Frontier," Tieman said. "I looked over at this one building and saw someone peeking out a window at me. He seemed to fit the description, but (he) ducked out of sight."
Tieman and Engler approached the building -- a small cottage behind a residence --opened the door and found France lying on the floor. France was arrested and booked into Gila County jail.
Officers credit the eagle-eyed employees of Wal-Mart for alerting them to the suspicious activity.
Becky Martinez, manager of Wal-Mart, said her employees are trained to watch for suspicious behavior, and the store's computers are designed to prevent unusual purchases.
"Our computers are programmed to prompt the cashier if someone tries to purchase more than three boxes of a certain item," Martinez said. While France didn't exceed the number of boxes purchased, it was the frequent trips he made for the ephedrine that alerted employees.
France remained in custody Thursday afternoon in lieu of $25,000 bond.
The investigation remains open, the task force agent said, and may net as many as three more suspects.