Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Two suspects pleaded guilty in federal court Monday on charges connecting them to a deadly apartment fire that started after a meth lab exploded in Goose Creek.
Defendants Shonni Abernathy, 40, and Gerald McCabe, 35, both of Berkeley County, told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel they wish to plead guilty to the charges presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter T. Phillips, the prosecutor.
Abernathy and McCabe each pled guilty to charges of and conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and manufacturing methamphetamine where children reside, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Phillips read a summary of the events leading up to the fire and its investigation. McCabe did not contest Phillips’ summary.
“The defendant is now judged guilty,” Gergel said Monday in Courtroom 3 of the Hollings Judicial Center in Charleston.
The May 31 fire resulted in three deaths and left more than 40 people without a home in the Pine Harbour Apartments.
The victims of the fire were 69-year-old Joseph Raeth, four-year-old Samuel Garbe, and 19-year-old Morgan Abernathy, daughter of the defendant.
Phillips said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was called out to the scene due to concerns raised about possible production of methamphetamine being the cause of the fire.
The search led investigators to find evidence of a meth lab in an apartment on the rear of the second floor, according to Phillips. One-pot bottles were found, which are consistent with the “one-pot bottle” method of manufacturing methamphetamine, Phillips said.
He added that witnesses would have testified that co-defendant Abernathy shook one of the bottles. Syringes and methamphetamine residue were found during the investigation, he added.
Many individuals made or attempted to make purchases of pseudoephedrine in the days prior to the fire, Phillips said. McCabe helped procure pseudoephedrine and witnesses would testify they saw McCabe crush pseudoephedrine, according to Phillips.
Abernathy faces a potential mandatory minimum of life imprisonment and McCabe faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. The origin and cause of the fire, while not the focus of Monday’s hearing, will likely be an important factor at sentencing. The defendants will be sentenced at a later time.
The two other defendants in the case, Alberta Pierson (Abernathy’s common law wife) and Michael Still, who were arrested and indicted soon after McCabe and Abernathy, were originally set to appear in court Monday but their hearing was postponed.
Family members of the defendants declined to give comments to local news media after exiting the building following the guilty pleas.
The primary agencies participating in the investigation are the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).