Meth lab in motel nets man nine years in prison

Clifford E. Chew said in court Monday he will appeal.

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WALLA WALLA -- A career criminal who police say set up a large methamphetamine lab at the Walla Walla Vineyard Inn last spring was handed a nine-year prison term at his sentencing hearing Monday afternoon.

Clifford E. Chew, 57, also must serve a year on community custody, a form of probation, after his release.

The decade-long total was the longest sentence Superior Court Judge John Lohrmann could have imposed on Chew under state law. As required, Lohrmann gave him credit for the 292 days he's already spent in the County Jail.

Chew faced a standard range of seven to 10 years, with the defense and prosecution in a plea agreement both recommending a low-end sentence.

Chew told Lohrmann that since he's been incarcerated, his mother developed cancer.

"It's opened my eyes to what life's about," he said.

His attorney, Gail Siemers, added that "(Chew) has a horrible methamphetamine habit.

"Because of that, he's led a life that's not at all unblemished."

Siemers acknowledged that Chew has spent most of his life in prison, in jail or running from authorities. But because of his dependency on drugs, she asked for Lohrmann's forgiveness and mercy.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Gabriel Acosta told the judge that a seven-year prison term was reasonable although Chew's criminal history is "probably as long as I've ever seen."

Chew's criminal past dates back to the 1970s and includes convictions for crimes such as attempted murder, first-degree assault, robbery and numerous drug violations.

Lohrmann responded that he usually places a great deal of credibility and weight to sentencing recommendations. But he declined to go along in this case, saying, "Here, there are some things that tip the scales."

In addition to Chew's lengthy criminal history, Lohrmann cited the nature of the controlled substance involved.

"(Methamphetamine) is a horrendous drug and one that's having a tremendous impact on our community right now," Lohrmann said.

Also, he pointed out that the lab was in a motel room and if undetected could have exposed many innocent people to hazardous chemicals.

Cutting short a trial that had just begun, Chew pleaded guilty Feb. 27 to possessing methamphetamine with intent to manufacture the substance within 1,000 feet of a school bus route stop. He didn't admit guilt, but acknowledged the prosecution has evidence that could convict him.

He said in court Monday he will appeal.

He was arrested May 18 in a SWAT-team raid at the Vineyard Inn, 325 E. Main St. Police said they recovered many items used to manufacture meth -- in addition to the finished product -- when they served a search warrant in room 106 of the motel, occupied by Chew.

The lab reportedly was one of the largest ever discovered in Walla Walla County.

The defense maintained in pretrial proceedings that no meth was being manufactured at the location before the raid.

But law enforcement officials say -- although Chew had not had an opportunity to begin "cooking" -- the lab was assembled, part of the processes had been started or completed, and varying levels of manufacturing already had taken place.

Chew will have to pay an as-yet-undetermined amount of restitution for the cost of cleaning the room.

Chew, who lived in Pendleton before his arrest, also had been charged with manufacturing meth and possessing pseudoephedrine with intent to manufacture the substance, but those charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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