Busy week? We’ll help you catch up on the basics of this week's cover story, "Rio Dell's Hash Lab Murder Case," which takes a deep dive into hash lab explosion that rocked Rio Dell in November and spawned murder charges against all involved. You should really read the whole story here, but this will give you a quick primer on why butane hash oil extraction is inherently dangerous and how California's felony murder rule fits the alleged facts of this case.
1) It’s really dangerous: Butane hash oil extraction is an inherently volatile process. Used to make an ever expanding array of popular products — like oil, shatter, wax and honeycomb — the process uses butane gas to concentrate marijuana’s psychoactive properties to increase potency. It works like this: You take a long tube (usually plastic, metal or glass) filled with marijuana and push butane through it. The butane strips the THC from the plant matter, leaving behind a golden liquid. That liquid still contains butane, however, which must be evaporated off, usually in a two-step process involving hot water and a heating pad. But butane, once purged from its container, becomes a fugitive gas that’s heavier than air. In poorly ventilated spaces, the combustible gas will pool at the floor and build up until it escapes or hits an ignition source — anything from a pilot light to a spark of static electricity.
2) These labs don’t just burn, they explode: When the pooled gas hits the ignition source, there’s usually enough of it that an explosion results. In one such fire outside of Eureka last year, the blast was so strong that it lifted the roof off the walls and moved the structure off its foundation. In the case of the Rio Dell fire at the heart of this story, the blast was so strong it shook neighbors’ homes, rattling windows. And, if that weren’t bad enough, there’s also usually the hazard of stored butane in the lab, which, still in containers, explodes when burned in the ensuing fire, causing subsequent blasts. This risk of subsequent blasts is so great that Humboldt Bay Fire has changed policy to prevent its firefighters from entering a burning lab unless they know someone is trapped inside.
3) You could be seriously hurt: This can’t be underscored enough. When these things blow up, they do damage and that includes to people. Initial reports from the scene in Rio Dell were that the three young men in the lab at the time of the explosion had burns covering 60 to 90 percent of their bodies. Neighbor Cindy Dobereiner said her husband and daughter ran over to help, finding one man whose “hair was burnt down into his head, his beard melted to his face.” They brought pitchers of water and a hose, and Dobereiner said her daughter tried douse one of the men to stop the burning. “She said, ‘Mom, I thought he had gloves on because when I poured water on him, the gloves just fell right off. But they weren’t gloves.’” In the Rio Dell case, Xavier Renner, a 21-year-old from San Diego, died due to secondary infections from the burns five weeks later in a U.C. Davis Medical Center burn unit.
4) You could destroy a neighborhood: Neighbors of the Rio Dell explosion say it turned the city into a war zone. A U.S. Army veteran who lives about a block away said the concussion from the initial blast was so strong it felt and sounded like someone had taken a battering ram to his door. Then, hundreds of subsequent pops and booms as butane cans blew in the fire sounded like gunfire. As they exploded, cans whizzed through the neighborhood or shot into the air, falling smoldering into neighbors’ yards and onto their roofs. Flames from the detached garage reached high into the air and neighbors say it was only a strong response from the Rio Dell Volunteer Fire Department that kept the fire from spreading to engulf neighboring structures and, possibly, the entire block. (Check out the video below.)
5) If someone dies, you can be charged with murder: Even after the explosion, the fire and the news weeks later that Renner had died, no one in Rio Dell seemed to expect the police to come knocking with murder warrants. But they did. All four people associated with the Rio Dell lab — Renner’s friends, Arron Mohr and Aaron Schisler, and the couple who rented them the garage, David and Tamara Paul — have been charged with Renner’s murder. While that may seem extreme to some, California law fits with the alleged facts under what’s called the felony murder rule. A legal doctrine, the felony murder rule holds that if Person A is knowingly committing a dangerous felony and Person B dies during the crime, Person A can be charged with Person B’s murder. In this case, prosecutors allege that Mohr and Schisler were engaged in manufacturing concentrated cannabis using a volatile solvent, a dangerous felony that caused Renner’s death. The Pauls, prosecutors allege, knew of the butane hash operation and thus were illegally allowing a place for the manufacturing of a controlled substance, causing Renner’s death. Some hope the prosecutions — which may be the first of their kind in California, as the Journal was unable to find any other reports of murder prosecutions stemming from hash lab explosions — will have a chilling effect in the industry, underscoring the high stakes of an inherently dangerous activity.