Ex-Ph.D student makes a deal in meth, theft case

MERCED -- A University of California at Merced graduate student accused of stealing school equipment to make methamphetamine pleaded no contest to charges of felony conspiracy to make meth and embezzlement.

Jason West, a 36-year-old former UC Merced doctoral student, reached the agreement with prosecutors Thursday. He was arrested Aug. 7 on suspicion of stealing thousands of dollars in chemicals and equipment from a university lab over three years to make meth.

The plea agreement means West will be sentenced to five years eight months in state prison or a state rehabilitation facility for substance abusers. West is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 7.

West appeared downcast in Merced County Superior Court as Commissioner Ralph J. Cook read the details of the plea agreement. William Davis, West's attorney, said his client is "extremely remorseful."

"This is a real tragedy," Davis said. "This is someone that had problems in the past, that had managed to work himself up to a place where he was going to a university. His problems with drugs got a hold of him."

Prosecutor Steven Slocum said West violated the public's trust. Slocum will argue to have West sent to prison rather than a state treatment facility. He said West has previous drug convictions.

"He was given an opportunity to attend a university in this state. He abused the power and opportunity that he was given," Slocum said.

Agents with the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, the sheriff's Narcotics Enforcement Team and the Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force arrested West at his home in the 100 block of Castle Drive in Atwater in August. They served a search warrant on the house, where they reported finding tools and chemicals used to make meth.

Investigators reported that West stole about $10,000 in chemicals and equipment from the school.

Additional evidence found at West's house led agents to a home in rural Turlock where another man was arrested.

The investigation also took agents to a residence at Elliott Avenue and Gurr Road in Merced, where they reported finding several thousand dollars worth of glass flasks, vessels, pumps and other equipment, as well as chemicals used in the production of meth.

Investigators reported that West was trying to produce a variety of meth that didn't require ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, two of the chemicals typically used. They can be hard for meth producers to get in large amounts because of federal controls.

It's a technique meth producers used during the 1970s to create the drug. Investigators believe West was trying to produce a more powerful drug with his knowledge of chemistry.

Davis said his client didn't manufacture meth. He also downplayed reports West was trying to make "supermeth," even if his client told that to investigators.

"I think that was more in his own mind," Davis said, saying West may have suffered from "delusions of grandeur."

Slocum agreed that the reports that West had been working to create supermeth may have been blown out of proportion.

UC Merced officials said West conducted most of his research at the university's off-campus labs at Castle Commerce Center in Atwater, though he spent time on campus as recently as May working as a teaching assistant in undergraduate chemistry courses.

A nonuniversity Web site had listed West as the contact for UC Merced's chemistry club.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, conspiracy to distribute meth and grand theft charges were dropped.