By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun
Inside a three-story Victorian home in Towson, police said they found Baltimore County's first functional MDMA lab, producing a drug more commonly known as the trendy club drug "Molly."
Neighbors said they were surprised when county police officers and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents rolled up to the house Wednesday morning and donned white hazmat suits before searching the home, just off York Road near the city line.
Investigators found chemicals and glassware used to manufacture and sell MDMA, according to charging documents filed in District Court. The documents detail the beginnings of the Walker Avenue lab recently built in the home of Priscilla Sheldon-Cost, a former psychiatrist whose license was suspended in 2012 and who has a long history of addiction, records show.
She lived there with her boyfriend, Thomas Ronald Joyave, and her longtime friend Vincent Mark Ricker, who also face drug-related charges.
County police said MDMA, the pure form of Ecstasy, is commonly called "Molly," and that its use is increasing in the area, though officers had not found other functioning labs.
"In the past we have located sites that contained the equipment necessary to start a lab, but they weren't to the point where the equipment was even set up," Capt. Gordon Skinner, the narcotics commander for Baltimore County police, said Friday in an email.
Ecstasy first made its appearance here around 2000, and there was a spike in seizures, Skinner said. "It is manufactured primarily overseas, and authorities clamped down on it there. As such, we [had] seen a decline here."
Ecstasy was popular at rave parties about a decade ago until the drug went out of favor for several years, said Mike Gimbel, Baltimore County's former drug czar.
"Then we started hearing the nickname 'Molly'" after several musicians, including Miley Cyrus, referred to it in songs, he said. Some dealers were putting ads on the online marketplace Craigslist. Users would write, "I'm looking for Molly" and sellers would respond with an address.
"It's a bit of a combination between a hallucinative and an amphetamine," Gimbel said. "It makes [users] feel very warm, touchy-feely. They feel very loving."
But it can also cause body temperature to rise, leading to dehydration. More worrisome, he said, is that manufacturers sometimes add other, potentially deadly, ingredients.
Although users perceive it to be safe, the drug has been blamed for deaths across the country, including two in New York and one each in Massachusetts and Washington state. It was also cited in the death of a woman in a District of Columbia nightclub last summer, according to news reports.
Special Agent Edward Marcinko, spokesman for the DEA's Baltimore office, said his agency has not seen much local manufacturing of MDMA. "We haven't seen a lab like this in a while," he said.
From time to time, he said, the agency will see pop-up meth labs in hotel rooms and trailers, though they are more common in other parts of the country.
Police said in charging documents that Sheldon-Cost and Joyave "have been targets of an ongoing investigation," after detectives learned that the couple had constructed a lab at the house.
In the raid, police seized large amounts of MDMA, which they believe was intended to be sold, along with other drugs and drug paraphernalia, including marijuana and mushrooms with the naturally occurring psychedelic chemical psilocybin, the charging documents said. They also seized chemicals and glassware, including a beaker containing an unknown substance but with a handwritten "MDMA" label, according to the documents.
Sheldon-Cost, who could be sentenced to 33 years in prison if convicted, told investigators that Ricker constructed the lab to manufacture MDMA, which had chloroform and "acid base extraction," the document said. She said "nothing was ever sold" and that she was interested in "psychedelics," the documents said.
Joyave said he was unaware of the lab, police said.
Sheldon-Cost, a longtime psychiatrist, had worked at Baltimore Behavioral Health, a rehabilitation center for addicts, while undergoing addiction treatment herself, under board supervision, according to Maryland Board of Physicians documents. The clinic later reopened under new management after a Baltimore Sun investigation found problems, including drug use, among patients staying in unregulated rental homes that the center operated.
Board officials said Friday that, as of April 2013, Sheldon-Cost was no longer participating in a board-supervised addiction treatment and monitoring program. She had been participating in the program since 2004, but was disenrolled, according to the board.
In 2010 she was placed on probation after a positive test for alcohol, and in 2012, her medical license was suspended when she violated terms of her probation, including submitting three drug samples late and failing to check in for random drug tests, according to board documents. Her license expired in September 2013, and she remains "indefinitely suspended from the practice of medicine," Christine Farrelly, the board's acting executive director, said in an email.
The board voted in June 2013 to keep her license suspended indefinitely, according to a letter the board sent Sheldon-Cost and provided to The Sun. Under the terms of her suspension, she was required to continue receiving treatment, comply with the program's requirements, undergo neuropsychiatric evaluation, and provide details on the environment of any proposed future work setting before the board would reinstate her license. But those terms were not met.
"The board is aware that there is no benefit to your continuing" in the addiction treatment program, the letter said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.