East Texas in the grip of meth
Henderson County has trained its sights on drug plague, but there's been no end to the devastation
09:41 PM CST on Saturday, March 26, 2005
By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
ATHENS, Texas – Meth horror stories are all too easy to find in Henderson County.
At the hospital, emergency room doctor Dan Bywaters is haunted by the abandoned toddler who vomited uncontrollably after eating methamphetamine.
At the jail, Sheriff J.R. "Ronny" Brownlow has scabby prisoners tell him to his face that they'll go back on meth the day they go free.
At the court building, state district Judge Carter Tarrance jokes about running a full-time meth court.
At Cedar Creek Lake, army retiree Al Gusner tells war stories about twitchy neighbors who rammed his car and held a knife to his throat for trying to chase meth users and labs from his neighborhood.
The drug known as "white-trash crack" has stalked the back roads of Henderson County, fueling child abuse, violence and misery for the last four years.
"Epidemic is almost not strong enough a word, because it doesn't go away," said Dr. Bywaters, the ER medical director at East Texas Medical Center-Athens, the county's only hospital. "It's hard to believe the scope of the problem, to be honest."
The problem is hardly isolated to Henderson County.
The drug is so easy to make, and so many labs have been discovered across the northern half of Texas since 2000, that the area stretching from the Panhandle, through Dallas, to the Louisiana-Arkansas line has become the state's meth belt.
Meth made up 54 percent of all confiscated items sent to the Department of Public Safety regional crime lab in Abilene last year. At Amarillo's regional DPS lab, it was 41 percent. At the Dallas and Tyler labs, meth accounted for about a third last year.
Among those nabbed across the region for using, making or selling the drug: schoolteachers, more than one state prosecutor, small-town police officers, a University of North Texas professor and a retired homicide cop in Houston.
Jane Marshall, a University of Texas professor who studies drug-abuse trends, said the problem has hit rural areas the hardest, "and it is exacting a huge price on local communities."
This is the story of a rural Texas county drowning in meth. Authorities have been on the offensive for two years; drug arrests have doubled, and crime has dropped. Still, the sheriff and others are pessimistic about ever getting the upper hand.
Said Judge Tarrance: "I feel like I'm bailing the ocean."
Consumed in a hurry
Meth has afflicted rural Texas for the same reason it has ravaged much of the nation's heartland: Anyone with inclination, a few hours and an Internet recipe can turn a vile brew of over-the-counter cold medicines, hardware-store solvents and farm chemicals into methamphetamine.
Experts say that the drug's psychological hook is more powerful than crack cocaine. One "bump" smoked, swallowed or injected induces a long, manic high that ends with an equally intense crash and craving for more. Paranoia is common, and regular users can suffer temporary psychosis and permanent brain damage.
And it has infested Henderson County with particular intensity.
Child-welfare workers, judges, doctors and cops talk about meth's impact with the weariness of combat veterans: babies born weekly with meth in their bloodstreams; 10- and 12-year-olds using meth; girls barely in their teens prostituted to support parents' habits; a cheerleader and homecoming princess coping with a mother on meth.
Arrests for drugs and violent crime in Henderson County have nearly doubled in the last seven years, even as statistics indicate such arrests have dropped in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. For the last two years, property thefts reported to the Sheriff's Department have averaged $250,000 a month.
"It's behind the assaults, the child abuse," said Judge Tarrance, adding that the drug has fueled an outlaw economy reminiscent of the moonshine era. He said meth and its users are behind "90 percent" of all felony cases that come before him.
"They're burglarizing. They're writing hot checks. You see women with multiple cases of forgery, and it's a meth problem."
Though many users are blue-collar, meth has claimed businesswomen, an $80,000-a-year construction manager, little league moms and entrepreneurs. The biggest lab busted in the county was in a quarter-million-dollar lake house.
Probation officers say they find used needles every time they check the county court parking lot, and addicts regularly show up high for court even though their freedom and even keeping their kids hinges on staying clean.
State-funded treatment of the county's meth users has jumped sevenfold since 1999, outstripping rehab admissions for alcoholism for the last several years.
Dr. Bywaters said he was stunned when he came to the Athens hospital from a Denver suburb in 2001 and saw that at least half a dozen emergency-room patients a day tested positive for meth or showed clear signs of meth abuse. That has gone up, he said, and meth users now account for about 10 percent of the hospital's 80 to 90 emergency patients each day.
"It permeates every facet of the community," he said.
Just before Dr. Bywaters moved to town, he said, the county had a rash of poisonings and at least one death related to the drug. A meth cook had cut a batch with fire ant bait.
A paradise lost
Sheriff Brownlow said the drug hit hard in 2001, as he became a second-generation member of his family to serve as Henderson County's top lawman.
The county had a handful of old-time meth cooks who knew the black art of making meth in "P2P" labs, a complex, lengthy and dangerous process that waned in the 1990s after federal laws restricted sales of necessary chemicals and equipment.
But "almost overnight," a new kind of speed seemed to be everywhere, the sheriff said. Almost anyone could make it, with Sudafed or other cold remedies based on pseudoephedrine.
"I'd get seven, eight calls a day, people frustrated with their drug-dealing, drug-manufacturing neighbors," said the sheriff, a retired Texas Ranger. "We were just overrun."
Drug blight and crime began appearing in remotest corners of the county.
One hot spot was Cedar Creek Lake, on the county's west side. There, isolated subdivisions became havens for meth users and labs. Lake Palestine, on the county's eastern border, was another magnet, drawing cooks and users from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and locals who learned to brew the drug.
"These crooks know that we're very limited in manpower," the sheriff said. "They don't have to spend much time around here, in those subdivisions and lake areas, to realize that they don't see us very often."
Retired urbanites who'd been drawn to the county's sleepy lakefronts said they felt under siege. Along the quietest back roads, weird nocturnal gatherings and strange smells prompted a run on concealed-gun licenses and burglar alarms.
Mr. Gusner, 69, had come to Cedar Creek Lake to fish, putter and work on his ambition of being a boot-and-bolo-wearing Texan after a career in the Army National Guard.
The native Nebraskan said his plans evaporated as soon as he became president of his subdivision's garden club.
He learned how to spot meth-addled areas while trying to organize an attack on illegal dumping and blight in the aging, unincorporated clusters of weekend getaways and retirement homes that encircle the lake. "Wherever there's trash, there's meth," he said.
Meth cooks burned heaps of garbage to conceal the odor of their labs. Often, users were too strung out to keep up the rundown property they rented or squatted on.
In one of the worst-infested areas, a fetid backwater known as "the cut," meth heads squatted in some trailers and carted off all the metal they could pry from others to sell for scrap. Druggies cooked meth on boats and party barges in the middle of the lake, tipping the toxic chemicals into the water if strangers got too close.
Mr. Gusner and other lakefront retirees banded together with longtime residents and parents desperate to rescue their children from the drug. He got certified as a state environmental investigator, and Sandra Mallie, a school janitor, went to a state training program to learn how to deal with the toxic mess created by labs.
"It became an obsession," Mr. Gusner said.
The sheriff went to Austin and pleaded for grant money to beef up his one-and-a-half narcotics force. When that initially got nowhere, he and chiefs of the county's 14 small-town police departments formed a task force of five investigators in the spring of 2003.
The new group took down labs in homes, in moving vehicles and even a backyard tent. They busted a group gathered in a trailer for paid drug-cooking lessons. They caught one user peddling suitcases filled with cold medications and everything else needed for a lab. One lab burned part of a Lake Palestine motel; another nearly blew up several officers after a cook set fire to it during a bust.
The investigators also repeatedly found children in squalid drug houses, exposed to toxic fumes from their parents' meth labs. Kids were using the drug. Some were being traded for meth to boyfriends or even strangers.
Child Protective Services workers in Athens say almost all of the county's abused and neglected kids have been touched by meth.
"It's all-consuming," said LeeAnn Millender, director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Trinity Valley, a group that assists children brought in the courts. "There's more sexual abuse, more neglect, more extremes of neglect."
According to Child Protective Services data, the number of confirmed child-abuse victims in the county more than tripled from fiscal 1997 to fiscal 2004 – far outstripping the state increase.
CPS Supervisor Shelly Allen said the children coming into the system are more disturbed – and more expensive to care for – because of meth. CPS records indicate agency foster care expenditures in the county jumped from $548,000 in fiscal 1997 to $1.56 million last year.
Vickie Sussen, a CASA of Trinity Valley supervisor, said she has repeatedly seen babies exposed to methamphetamine in the womb develop such behavioral problems by the time they're toddlers that "foster parents say they can't handle this kid."
"I have one little girl, she's been in five foster homes already. And she's 4," Ms. Sussen said.
Ms. Allen said the agency is also getting children whose parents and grandparents are using the drug; that leaves nowhere for the kids to go but state foster care.
The agency is so swamped that many children aren't referred for help, such as family counseling, until abuse or neglect is too severe to avoid removing the child, CPS supervisor Ann Perry said.
Ultimately, officials say, virtually all the meth users who fall into the system end up losing their kids.
"We have lots of cases that we need to open for services," Ms. Perry said, "but we can't."
Progress, but little hope
Even so, Ms. Perry and other local social services workers say the countywide offensive has kept the area's meth crisis from getting worse.
The number of labs seized last year was half that of 2003, even as the number of drug arrests – mostly for meth – doubled to 338. Athens police say they saw assaults and other violent crime drop by more than half.
"They've kicked butt," Sheriff Brownlow said.
He and other law enforcement officials say they have high hopes for pending federal and state legislation that would regulate sales of cold products with pseudoephedrine, much like a law passed in Oklahoma last year. The law is credited with reducing lab seizures by 80 percent.
Another bill would expand a program, MethWatch, that members of Mr. Gusner's citizens group recently brought to East Texas. The program encourages retailers to post signs warning that they monitor and report suspicious purchases of products that can be used in meth labs.
Gov. Rick Perry launched MethWatch in 23 East Texas counties after Ms. Mallie, whose oldest son spent several years taking and making meth, did her own research and persuaded the governor to set it up.
But the sheriff and his task force remain pessimistic.
Meth is the cockroach of illicit drugs. Authorities say pressure in Henderson County has sent cooks scurrying to neighboring counties. Purchase limits imposed on cold medications at chain stores like Wal-Mart have sent meth heads piling into beater cars for buying runs in Dallas and Houston.
Even users who want help face big hurdles. Henderson County has no publicly funded treatment programs, and those available in neighboring counties have waiting lists.
Treatment programs statewide have become progressively shorter in recent years despite expert consensus that meth users need more intensive, longer-term help than other substance abusers. County officials say that increases the odds of failure for users who want to get clean.
"I don't think we're ever gonna put it down," said the sheriff, who laughs at his own mention of the anti-drug slogan "just say no."
The sheriff says he'll talk to any inmate who wants to kick the drug, and he urges all who will listen to turn to Jesus. Among those he has counseled is the daughter of a man at his church. He didn't make the connection until the father stood in tears one morning before their Baptist Sunday school class and asked those gathered to pray for his jailed, drug-addicted child.
"The approach that we're taking is not gonna work," the sheriff said.
Both the sheriff and the judge said they need more drug courts and treatment options, as well as more mental assistance for chronic users who cycle repeatedly through the legal system.
"They're talking about building a new jail," Judge Tarrance said. "I don't think the citizens understand. You'll fill that jail up."
Several bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature to crack down on methamphetamine. They include:
A bill by Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, would stiffen penalties for possessing, delivering or manufacturing the drug. Meth crimes would be punished more harshly than those involving other drugs, and possessing a large amount could result in life imprisonment. Pseudoephedrine sales would be restricted to licensed pharmacies, and the product would have to be out of customers' reach. The bill is awaiting a hearing in a House committee. A Senate version, filed by Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, is awaiting a committee hearing.
A bill by Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, would increase penalties if meth is made in the presence of a child. The measure is scheduled for a House subcommittee hearing Thursday. Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has filed a version in the Senate.
Measures by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, would create meth awareness programs for retailers and for schools. Both bills await a committee hearing; one is scheduled for Tuesday.
The Texas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children will hold a statewide conference April 19-20 on communitywide responses to meth and other drugs. The conference will bring together legal experts, police, educators, child advocates and protective services workers, and medical and mental health professionals at the Hilton DFW Lakes Hotel in Grapevine. Visit www.dec.org .