CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia pastor is losing his job in the pulpit after lending his church's bus to law enforcement officers for a meth lab bust.
The bust last week netted three arrests in rural Lincoln County, but it cost Chris Wilkinson his $150-per-month job as pastor at Morning Star Community Church near Hamlin, a small town in southwestern West Virginia. Police said the bus allowed them to approach the methamphetamine lab without arousing suspicion.
Wilkinson said Wednesday that some church members were unhappy with his decision to let law officers use the bus and asked him to step down a few days after the drug bust.
He said he planned to resign after nearly 10 years as pastor of the nondenominational church.
"It's kind of a shocker," said Wilkinson, who also serves as Hamlin's mayor and police chief.
It wasn't the first time he had lent the church bus to aid in combating the area's drug trade. He said he allowed state police to borrow the bus a few months ago for a drug roundup in the area.
"Nothing was really said about it," Wilkinson said in a phone interview. "So when the sheriff's department asked to use it, I just said, 'sure, go with it.'"
Lincoln County Chief Sheriff's Deputy J.J. Napier said that Wilkinson's cooperation in offering up the bus played a key role in enabling officers to take the drug suspects by surprise.
Meth lab operators typically post lookouts to alert them if police cruisers are headed their way, Napier said. The church bus was able to get past the lookouts without drawing any warning signals, he said.
Soon, nine law officers were piling out of the bus to make the arrests and shut down the meth operation in the community of Harts, about 15 miles south of Hamlin.
"Our plan was to surprise them and it worked," said Napier, who was on the bus. "They didn't have time to run, they didn't have time to start destroying evidence. The look on their faces when those officers rolled off the church bus and started taking control of the scene was priceless. It's like, 'Oh God, they've got me.'"
A second wave of law officers soon arrived in police cruisers in the multi-agency bust.
If police had arrived in cruisers only, the suspects "would have hit the hills," Napier said.
"The church bus was an essential part of this arrest, period," he said.
Meth production has been a big problem in West Virginia. Statewide, authorities seized more than 300 meth labs since January.
Wilkinson said he had no regrets and would offer up the bus again to help fight the area's drug problems.
"We've all been working hard trying to get the drugs cleaned up around this area," he said. "I just thought it was a positive thing to do."
The bus was used for Christmas caroling by church members but had been parked for months without being used, he said.
Attendance has been down at the church, and Wilkinson said he had been thinking about stepping down as pastor even before the controversy surfaced.
"I'm a firm believer that if God closes one door He'll open another one," he said. "So I'm sure He's got something else for me to do."