Meth Torn Town | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Meth Torn Town 

Methamphetamine, money and mercy in Utah’s second city.

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Ogden makes me want to smoke. It’s a kind of slow-motion suicide, an escape from my parents’ fundamentalist, Mormon life in suburban Shadow Valley: youthful rebellion rolled into slim cigarettes. Growing up there, with my black hair dye, Converse All-Star hightops and immersion in theater—that black art—I often wondered if everyone in Ogden wasn’t on something besides sugar. If all the town’s crack, crank and Prozac could speak … the lies it would tell.

Twice I’ve stared up the horse’s ass of addiction. As an insecure adolescent in ballet school, I popped my brother’s Ritalin, sneaking the rain-drop-sized pills from our yellow kitchen until my mom caught on. Then, in college, a shrink gave me Dexedrine, an amphetamine relative normally prescribed for narcolepsy and ADD, to quell my anxiety, disassociation and an inability to concentrate. It worked wonders, until it didn’t. I have never smoked methamphetamine, but having kissed amphetamine on the mouth, I relate.

Downtown Ogden is a vision of economic deprivation. A decrepit, half-torn-down mall, built in 1980, awaits its destiny as a “mixed-use facility.” On trendy 25th Street, boutiques, hip bars and ancient pawn shops compete with downtown’s forlorn streets, empty storefronts and strip-mall architecture. Left-over shadiness from Ogden’s scandalous days asserts itself, conjuring an image of the grimy railroad town evoked in On the Road. Jack Kerouac would still feel at home here.

The growing methamphetamine problem seems almost like an afterthought.

According to my neighbor’s homemade drug manual—which she hid inside a copy of the Utah Weddings Guide—lately meth has been making a comeback as drug taken in combination with Ecstacy. Some say part of that comeback is taking place in Ogden. Meth can also be smoked, injected, brewed to drink and ingested. It’s cheap to buy and highly addictive. Meth is most commonly packaged in baggies and goes by the street name of “crystal.”

In some respects, the meth problem in Odgen and surrounding Weber County does not differ substantially from its larger neighbor to the south, Salt Lake City. According to a soon-to-be-issued annual report from the Utah Division of Substance Abuse, Weber County treated about as many people per capita for meth addiction in the 12 months prior to June, 2002 as did Salt Lake County. The 2001 study said that about 17 percent of recovering addicts in both Salt Lake City and Ogden reported meth as their drug of choice (as opposed to four percent nationwide).

According to UDSA figures, treatment for meth addiction in Weber County doubled in the past two years, while the number of cases in Salt Lake County increased by only seven percent during the same period. Salt Lake County’s largest one-year increase occurred in 1995 (five times the previous year), then leveled off, while Ogden’s rate continues to climb.

Still, not everyone agrees that the meth problem is real, and some funny numbers have been thrown around. Weber Human Services treatment facility initially reported that for the 12 months up to June, 2002, 779 people went through treatment for meth addiction in the county. That number meant that, on a per capita basis, Weber would have treated twice as many people as Salt Lake County. But the UDSA reported in the same period that only 500 people in Weber County sought treatment for meth addiction. Presented with the discrepency, Stacie Boydston, Weber Human Services management information specialist, only added to the confusion by then claiming that 338 people had been treated. The UDSA then changed its number to 361.

So were the numbers used by WHS three years ago to get a $500,000 federal meth hot-spot grant legit? Kevin Koopmens, Weber Human Services associate director, declined to furnish a copy of the grant application.

The Weber Morgan Narcotics Task Force (Morgan is the county next door) also received half a million dollars in 2000 from the same program. Its grant application states that “methamphetamine, without question, has become the drug of choice in our area.” The application relies on the amount of methamphetamine seized (four pounds in 1995 versus 16 pounds in 1999) to claim a meth problem in Ogden. What about labs? The application says that, “While it remains true that most of our illegal narcotics are imported into our area from Mexico … methamphetamine labs are a growing concern.” No numbers back up this statement.

Ogden’s mayor, perhaps predictably, discounts the claims. “Ogden is not the poster child for methamphetamine,” says Mayor Matthew Godfrey. “Ogden has the same problem as any other city our size, at the same level. There is no spike.” Ogden residents care more about economic downfall, reduction of crime and lowering property taxes, Godfrey believes. Most residents are not turning to meth to solve their problems.

Maybe so, maybe not, but it can be scary when they do.

On Dec. 2, Ogden police found three guns, knives, marijuana, methamphetamine and a machete in a house behind Dee Elementary School. They also found dynamite, infrared cameras and a sound-monitoring device, surveillance equipment that has been linked to meth-manufacturing.

The 12-member Weber Morgan Narcotics Task Force works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they’re not in the office following up on citizen calls, they are in court or on the street. Even when agents get time off, they are on call. A high turnover rate contributes to a lack of training, which affects the other agents. On average, officers on the Task Force last about a year.

It takes three weeks, but finally Sgt. Mark Acker of the Task Force consents to an interview. We meet at the Ogden Police Department building, which also houses the Fire Department. Sgt. Blaine Holmes and Agent Troy Burnett show up first. Holmes looks like a Western sheriff, large with a handlebar mustache and donut belly. Burnett looks like the kid who was beaten up more than once in high school. Acker arrives late, appearing harried and overworked.

At first our conversation reads like a press release. When Acker, Burnett and Holmes aren’t sure about an answer they look at each other as if to ask, “What should I say?”

I plead my case as an Ogden girl, and they begin to open up. Acker says he’s not conflicted by the confusing statistics—he knows there’s a problem. “When you talk about the problem that it causes the community,” he says, “I would stand on my career and say that meth far outpaces everything else.”

Why Ogden? According to Agent Burnett, northern Utah is a transfer point for drug trafficking, and the availability brings the cost down. It’s cheaper to buy meth in Ogden than in Rock Springs, Wyo.

According to the Task Force’s grant application, traffickers like to take advantage of small-town airports, like Ogden-Hinkley, which isn’t staffed at night: “A case which resulted in the seizure of 750 pounds of marijuana, which had been flown into the Ogden airport, had direct ties to suspects in Mexico who are known narcotics violators.”

Although trafficking outpaces cooking (lab manufacture of meth) in Ogden, agents found 12 labs this year. Two months ago, they found a lab stash hidden in grouped trees northeast of Weber State University’s football field. They also found a lab dumped near Snowbasin—a watershed for Weber County. Labs take time and money to clean up; the smallest lab might take five or six agents all night.

Task Force life is sometimes difficult, especially for undercover agents, like Burnett. “It causes a lot of problems … changes in personality and it’s real hard on marriages,” Acker says. And the work is dangerous because meth users are the most unpredictable addicts he’s dealt with: “The proliferation of guns in the homes of meth-users has gone up staggeringly. … It’s almost the norm anymore.”

Once, Burnett says, he and two other agents were following up on a routine investigation. While speaking on the back porch of an Ogden condo, a fugitive high on meth rushed an agent and took his gun. Children played 20 feet away as a three-gun standoff ensued. As the agents and the addict struggled, the latter shot himself in the hand. “It just goes to show you how quick it can go to shit,” Burnett says.

Bill Price smokes, too. I wonder if it helps him escape something. His pack of Marlboro Lights has carved a niche in his front-shirt pocket. Price is the director of Ogden’s Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Program. “Give me enough money,” he says, “and I can cure anyone.” He promised to introduce me to addicts, but for now he props his cowboy boots on his desk as he expounds on hard times ahead for the Salvation Army, as evidenced by the recent closure, due to lack of funds, of Salt Lake City’s Salvation Army treatment program.

Private donations fund the Salvation Army’s male-only, in-patient, residential treatment program, which used to be free. But with rising costs and declining donations, the 180-day program now costs $2,150. Price wants to have a fund-raiser and pit the credit unions against the banks in order to see who’ll raise the most money. He asks about media coverage for such an event.

We walk down the hall and into a boardroom. “Do you want to speak to them alone?” he asks. I am afraid, like most middle-class people are afraid, to stare meth in the face.

Tim is 48. He started using meth when his wife brought it home from her job. “They don’t drug test out there. The [place] is just about run off meth,” he claims. Tim was married, a father of two and a homeowner until he lost everything, including his job as a welder. After a bout with homelessness, he came to the Salvation Army with nothing.

Kelly Walling is 36, and by most women’s standards, hot. He looks like he could have been a football player, yet spent his college years so drug-addled that most of his family had restraining orders brought against him. He says he’s been clean for five years and is pursuing his degree in social work at Weber State University while fighting a self-described battle of “good over evil.” He works as a drug counselor at the Salvation Army.

Why meth and why Ogden? In Kelly’s apocalyptic world view, there needs be opposition in all things. Because the presence of the Mormon Church is so strong, the presence of evil must be likewise, he says. Kelly knows what he saw on meth. He hesitates to admit, “because it sounds crazy,” that he has seen evil spirits.

David scared the shit out of me. Just out of jail a few days, he defined paranoia. He had been to jail six times before. David is 38 years old—tattooed and pierced to the max—and he looks crazy. His answers to most questions: “I don’t know.” He won’t last a week, I think.

There are no accurate records of meth arrests in Utah, because the records don’t differentiate between pot, cocaine, heroin or meth. But they do differentiate between men and women. According to the the 2001 UDSA report, meth was the No. 1 illicit drug for women. Most of Utah’s women on meth are of child-bearing age and/or have children.

Lisa (not her real name) traded sex for meth. All the time. She lived in an Ogden house where Miguel and Marcos (now in prison) sold methamphetamine and traded women.

“At first they take good care of you, give you money and drugs,” she says, “Later they trade you around with their friends and eventually they sell you or put you out.” Once Migel fought with a friend over a woman and Migel opened fire. The friend was wounded but survived, and Lisa saw it all. Lisa has also been shot at, when a supplier pulled out a .357 Magnum. The bullet whizzed through her hair. She hit the ground in shock, sure that she’d been shot. But her close call didn’t dissuade her from staying on meth. Eventually cops apprehended her at a 7-Eleven, after she’d shot up her boyfriend’s house with his .22 and then aimed it at his crotch.

“Luckily, I’m a bad shot,” she says.

Lisa’s tried almost every drug around. Why? She grew up with a mother on drugs, who sold 13-year-old Lisa’s body for drug money. Lisa knows abuse, sexual and otherwise.

But Lisa has some hope of turning her life around. She’s a graduate of Drug Court, which aims to decriminalize drug-users and rehabilitate addicts. To qualify for Drug Court, one must have a prior conviction, be a U.S. citizen and be addicted to hard drugs. Drug Court won’t take violent offenders, dealers who aren’t addicts and people without the mental capacity to handle the structure. If offered Drug Court by a judge, the accused must plead guilty. If he completes the program, the charges are dropped. If he fails, the guilty plea is entered and sentence imposed.

Amy’s been clean for over a year. She’s the president of Drug Court’s graduate program, the Alumni Association. She first tried meth 10 years ago with her boyfriend’s stepmother. She also used acid, pot and cocaine. Eventually she cleaned up, married and had a child. Three years later, marital problems and motherhood stress turned her back to smoking meth. At first it turned her into Supermom. She was always on the go, with energy to spare. But like many women who turn to meth for energy, weight loss and an emotional pickup, meth turned out to be a devil’s bargain. Her marriage fell apart, she lost her apartment, job and child. After a missed court date and subsequent warrant, Amy ran and kept running for 14 months. “I found myself in sexual relationships with men who supplied my habit,” she says, men that she wouldn’t let into her home today.

On Valentine’s Day of 2000, Amy turned herself in. Weber County Jail wouldn’t take her because they didn’t have an officer present to file the report, she says. Amy ran for six more months, until she contacted a lawyer who got her into Drug Court.

District Court Judge Roger Dutson sheds his judicial robe, which he calls his “dress,” and sips a Diet Pepsi. He looks fatigued. Ogden is a small town, so I’m only somewhat surprised to learn that Dutson knew my grandmother. “I’ll never forget, when she was 90 years old she wrecked her Buick down on Wall, and she got a ticket,” he relates. “She called me up and she was so mad. And I said, ‘Delecta, it sounds to me like you probably didn’t follow the rules.’ But she would have none of it, and went to court to fight the ticket. She was like that.”

Today is Tuesday, Drug Court day. Dutson will spend half the day in court, where he will respond to 60 cases, and the rest of the day in a board meeting, held to determine action for problem cases. Most Drug Court decisions are made by a board comprised of the prosecutor, public defender, treatment coordinators, probation officer and the judge. “In Drug Court, traditional roles change and sometimes reverse,” says Prosecutor Gary Heward, “The board decides most of what happens and usually the vote is unanimous.”

How Dutson came to Drug Court is a story of fate, perseverance and compassion. Ogden’s Drug Court was Dutson’s dream. As an attorney and later as a judge, Dutson simply found that the system for prosecuting and punishing drug users wasn’t working. He studied his own cases and clients’ rates of recidivism. On his own time, he studied drug courts elsewhere, then wrote the original grant to get funding for Ogden. But the city never processed Dutson’s grant.

More than five years later, Kevin Koopmens (who is also the Drug Court coordinator ) re-wrote the grant and mobilized Ogden’s treatment and judiciary professionals. Ogden got the money and, three years ago this March, started Drug Court.

Dutson’s full case load includes everything from “death penalty to divorce,” he says. But he volunteers his time to hear Drug Court cases. Dutson is an old man. He looks like he should have retired by now, should be traveling, reading, golfing, enjoying every moment. But Dutson believes in Drug Court. He knows that almost any judge can do the job, but for some reason, he’s still behind the mule.

“Ogden has a serious problem, as does the entire Western United States,” he says.

Dutson calls Drug Court to order by asking directions to the Alumni campout this weekend. As a recovering addict tells him about her week’s progress in treatment, Dutson throws out one of his occasional one-liners: “You sound busier than a one-armed paper-hanger.” He speaks one-on-one with each participant. “You’re acting a little sad today, are you doing all right?” he asks a silent woman.

Prisoners in green garb and handcuffs watch the proceedings. Some are recurrent “clients” and some are waiting for a hearing. Three will be kicked out in no time flat. One woman, charged with prescription fraud, will beg to be let in.

For someone facing a felony drug-crime conviction, Drug Court is an enticing option. Dutson knows his critics well, including some of those on the Task Force. “We’re accused of molly-coddling criminals,” he says, “but it’s harder to do what we do, than to put someone in jail.”

With charges suspended, a participant in Drug Court continues to live out in the real world. Clients pay part of the cost of treatment, which takes a year to complete and incorporates four phases: induction into the program, stabilization, transition and aftercare. An inductee moves through the phases according to his natural progression and hard work. He’ll attend rehabilitation classes, 12-step meetings and cognitive coping classes. He appears regularly in Dutson’s court, is drug-tested frequently and completes community service hours. The final phase incorporates relapse prevention, reading assignments and public speaking.

If a Drug Court participant slips and shows a dirty urinalysis, he is at the mercy of Dutson and the board. Sanctions include jail time, fines, increased requirements to 12-step groups and delayed progression to advanced phases. Dutson and the board can also terminate a participant from Drug Court and treatment.

According to Judge Dutson, approximately 70 percent of those eligible for Drug Court sign up. Of those, 90 percent are actually admitted, and of those, approximately 15 percent drop out in the first six months and return to the criminal justice system. Dutson says that 50 people have gone on to graduate from the program, and of those only one has been re-arrested on drug-related charges.

According to Dutson, Salt Lake County’s Drug Court has a 14 to 18 percent recidivism rate (defined as recommiting a crime after graduation from Drug Court). Dutson believes this is about normal. Ogden’s Drug Court is only three years old, and accurate rates of recidivism will take more time to determine.

Mark, a Drug Court alum, has cooked and used meth for 30 years, starting in the military. He looks the part. In the 1970s he found meth everywhere. Sooner or later, he says, “I would have ended up dead or in jail.” OPD busted Mark for cooking and Judge Dutson put him in Drug Court. Mark admits that at first, Drug Court seemed like bullshit. “In three months, I’ll be back on the street,” he remembers thinking.

Mark’s been clean for more than a year. He admits sometimes he really wants to use, especially when something “triggers” his meth-cooking experience. He recalls how he started to shake one day when his daughter brought home a chemistry book. “Yeah baby, that’s great,” he said to her, “now get that book away from me.” Imagine showing your chemistry book to your dad, and seeing the look of Satan in his eye.

As he steps down from the bench to shake their hands, the addicts in Dutson’s courtroom seem to respect him. Dutson admits that he has an emotional investment in every person in Drug Court. He feels sick when someone relapses. He feels angry when children are involved. But the annual Drug Court graduation makes it worth his time and emotional investment. “There was not a dry eye in the room,” he says. “Now that’s something.”

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Kristy Davis

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