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UC Merced chemistry student arrested on meth charges

Call it a lesson in applied science. A UC Merced graduate student close to earning a PhD in chemistry was arrested Thursday afternoon on suspicion of manufacturing methamphetamine.

Jason West, 36, was arrested at his home on the 100-block of Castle Drive in Atwater, Merced County sheriff’s officials said. Authorities believe West stole more than $10,000 worth of chemicals and equipment from a UC Merced lab, which he used to cook methamphetamine, said deputy Ed Katen.

West, who was among the first four UC Merced students to qualify for a PhD at the young campus, hadn’t yet been granted the degree.

His arrest this week by the sheriff’s narcotics enforcement team follows a month-long investigation that started when UC Merced’s police department began looking into the thefts, Katen said.

Agents served a search warrant at West’s house, where they found tools and chemicals used to manufacture meth, Katen said.

He said additional evidence found at West’s house led agents to a second home in rural Turlock where another man, 49-year-old Joseph Souza, was also arrested.

“We believe Mr. West stole the items and did some of the pre-mixing and pre-work at his home, then transferred that to Mr. Souza, who actually cooked the meth,” Katen said. The pair had enough chemicals and supplies to make several pounds of the drug, he added.

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

A non-university Web site also lists West as the contact for UC Merced’s chemistry club.

West has been suspended in light of his arrest, Istas said. She added that the campus’ police department will continue to investigate the matter as it pertains to UC Merced.

Katen said the sheriff’s department is also continuing to investigate and that more people could be arrested.

West faces charges of manufacturing meth and grand theft. He remains in Merced County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail. Souza was booked into Stanislaus County Jail on charges of manufacturing meth and possession of stolen property. His bail is set at $250,000.