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November 15-21, 2006

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Courtesy Charlotte, Mich., Police Dept.
Meth map: Made from the crudest of components, meth makes its devotees canny, particularly at identity theft.

The High Price of Low-Cost Meth

Junkies aren't the only ones who pay for meth. Its hidden costs are woven into the fabric of every North Bay community

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Editor's note: This is the fifth in our yearlong feature series on the impacts of methamphetamine on the North Bay. Though a matter of public record, the names of the two women in this story have been changed as a courtesy.

Methamphetamine steals lives. It also steals cars, credit cards, children's hopes, parents' dreams, taxpayers' dollars and much more. On an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in February, this dangerous drug's widespread influence throughout the North Bay became a hard-fisted reality for a 25-year-old woman who wasn't willing to let herself become just another victim.

On that particular day, Catherine took a late lunch from her downtown Santa Rosa job so she could exercise. Catherine changed clothes at her gym, went jogging and returned to the locker room where she encountered a younger woman wearing street clothes--jeans and a long-sleeved sweater.

"She seemed really quirky in her mannerisms," Catherine recalls. "From the second I saw her, I thought something was off."

Feeling uneasy, Catherine headed to the exercise room. Still, she couldn't get the girl out of her thoughts. After only 20 minutes, she cut her workout short and returned to the locker room.

The young woman was gone. So was Catherine's gym bag, and with it her house and car keys.

Catherine dashed to the shopping center parking lot where she'd left her vehicle before going to the gym. She checked her car; everything seemed fine. She made a quick tour of the shopping center, searching for a security guard, then doubled back to the car.

This time, the young woman from the locker room was sitting inside the vehicle, rifling through Catherine's things. "The second I saw her, my adrenaline started rushing," Catherine recalls.

Panicked, the girl tried to start the car but the key broke off in the lock. She jumped out frantically and ran. Catherine followed in hot pursuit.

"I don't think I thought or felt anything," Catherine explains. "It was all action."

Catherine tripped the girl and they struggled for a few minutes. The two are about the same build, although Catherine is five inches taller. Fighting furiously, the young woman managed to break away. Grabbing her a second time, Catherine pulled the girl's arms behind her back and pinned her up against a parked car--just the way she'd seen it done countless times on TV shows.

A man stopped to help. Neither he nor Catherine had a cell phone. Just then, the young woman's backpack started ringing. Catherine pulled out the phone, disconnected the incoming call and dialed 911.

When the police arrived, they identified the girl as Brandy Jones, then 19 years old. They found a gum wrapper filled with methamphetamine powder in Brandy's pocket, and needle tracks on her arms.

Later, through court documents, Catherine learned this was one of a series of thefts Brandy pulled by filching bags, keys and other items from local gym locker rooms. The records reveal that Brandy also forged checks and ran up bills on stolen credit cards. Officials' interview notes indicate that Brandy did it all to look cool, to impress her boyfriend--and to support her meth addiction.

In grappling with Brandy on that winter afternoon, Catherine got her hands on at least one of the many ways that this ubiquitous drug affects all North Bay residents, whether they know it or not.

"I was aware of meth and I knew that people make bad decisions to get their next drug fix, but this incident definitely made me understand that this is going on right here, right now, in our own community," Catherine says. "I think it's easy for us to get caught up in our petty little lives and not see what's going on right here."

Your Problem, Too

Local law enforcement officials say that meth is everywhere in the North Bay. This easily available and highly addictive drug affects average, non-drug-using citizens through car break-ins and thefts, burglaries, shoplifting, identity theft, check fraud, child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and more. There's a potential for the public's unwitting exposure to the chemicals used to manufacture it. There are also medical expenses (most addicts don't have health insurance) and the exhaustive use of child-protective services for their kids, as well as mental health programs and treatment centers for the junkies themselves. Officers report increased law enforcement workloads and crowded jails and prisons. All of this is eventually paid for by the public.

"It's a major problem in any county in California, probably in any county in the United States. And if not, it soon will be," says Cmdr. Gary Pitkin of the Napa Special Investigations Bureau. "Methamphetamine is used and abused by people of all different classes, all different races. It doesn't matter whether they're unemployed, a janitor, a lawyer or a doctor. Methamphetamine is abused across the spectrum."

Heroin is a depressant; junkies tend to be passive. Like meth, cocaine is a stimulant, but a cocaine rush lasts a matter of minutes. A meth high can last eight to 12 hours or more, and many users report staying awake and wired on the drug for days at a time. Heroin addiction leads to crime, Pitkin says. Cocaine abuse leads to crime. But there's so much meth out there and its effects are so much more treacherous and long-lasting, it's inextricably linked to an incredible array of criminal activities.

"We've noticed a lot of pornography and child porn associated with methamphetamine use and abuse. Sexual promiscuity. Violence. Paranoia. Just a sense of distorted reality, of what's real and what's not," Pitkin says. "It's a heinous drug, and it gets a hold of you."

Some people try meth because it's an appetite suppressant; it's so effective that it can lead to malnutrition and anorexia. Others want the extra energy meth seems to supply, despite the fact that this drug eventually exhausts their bodies. Many users love the invincible feeling they get from meth that they can do or be anything. This false reality only lasts as long as the drug is in their system.

"People get addicted to meth and they walk away from everything," Pitkin explains. "From children. From 15-year marriages. From 25-year careers. We investigated a case literally involving a rocket scientist who walked away from his career because he found meth. It's just amazing what it will do to you."

And meth leads to crime, because addicts do things they wouldn't have even considered if they weren't using the drug.

"This is not a problem where members of the community can sit back and say, 'Yeah, that person has a problem,' and there's absolutely no impact on them," Pitkin notes. "The meth epidemic really does influence the community at large in several ways, from victimization to increased healthcare costs because of emergency-room admissions for people stroking out and having heart attacks, to the increase in incarceration rates which taxes our system. They push the limits of what we can legally and safely house as inmates."

Two Bad Months

According to court records, the February incident with Catherine wasn't Brandy's first brush with law enforcement.

On Jan. 9, 2006, Brandy stole a Volvo from a Forestville market because, she told police, she felt the store employee who owned the car had been rude to her. There were credit cards in the trunk, which Brandy used to charge various items. The vehicle was found abandoned on Jan. 25.

On Jan. 26, Brandy and a boyfriend drove to an auto-supply store on Gravenstein Highway. Spotting a truck with its keys in the ignition, the boyfriend hopped in and drove away, telling Brandy to follow him in the other vehicle. He pulled over briefly so he could transfer tools from the pickup into Brandy's car, then the two kept going.

Within miles, the truck owner's wife spotted her husband's pickup being driven by a stranger and followed it through Guerneville. She pulled up beside the pickup and yelled at the boyfriend to pull over. He finally did so in Forestville, leaping into the car driven by Brandy and roaring away.

On Feb. 13, police responded to a report of a "suspicious vehicle" parked in front of the boyfriend's home. He was arrested and booked into the Sonoma County Jail. Brandy wasn't charged in this case, even though items taken from the stolen pickup were found in her Concord home. Court documents indicate that Brandy's boyfriend told officers he normally wouldn't steal a car, but he was high on crystal meth at the time.

On Feb. 20, Brandy scooped up a set of car keys from a gym on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa. She made off with the car, which contained the owner's purse and credit cards. Brandy charged $30 at a Circle K and $270 at Food Maxx, among other items. She also bought a set of tires for a friend.

And on Feb. 21, she tried to steal yet another car, only to encounter Catherine's determined defense of her own property.

That Sucked-Up Look

Marin County narcotics detective Scott Harrington remembers working undercover, buying meth from a known dealer. The man asked Harrington if he wanted some stereo equipment as well. When the dealer was arrested, officers found a stash of stolen stereo gear in his car. He had gotten it from addicts who committed an ongoing series of car break-ins and traded the hot goods for their favorite drug.

In another instance, Harrington says that officers searching a dealer's home found enough stolen property to close about six burglary cases under investigation by the Novato Police Department. "The guy said the stuff was given to him by one of his users. The same guy was also in the process of making counterfeit money. He was spun-out and he was trying to make U.S. currency."

The phony bills weren't any good, Harrington adds, but the guy was definitely doing his best to create another source of income.

Harrington has worked for the Marin County Sheriff's Department for four years, starting as a patrol officer and moving into narcotics. He looks like one of the guys. He dresses casually, and it's hard to tell how old he is; he could be anywhere from late teens to early 30s. That's good in his line of work--it lets him blend in. And it takes him to some interesting places.

"I've been in houses where you see someone you know has been tweaking on meth for a while," he says, using the slang that refers to the anxious, compulsive behavior of the addict. "There's electronic equipment all over the place, and I'd say not even a tenth of it is working. The backs are out, the wires are exposed. They're supposedly in the process of fixing it."

The compulsive nature of tweaking on meth leads to repetitive behavior. Meth addicts will go from object to object, their brains racing, convinced that they're working seamlessly but rarely finishing a project.

Harrington sees the signs of meth all around him, both on duty and off. Recently, he took his girlfriend and her nephews to an amusement park. At one point, a man standing behind them in line had what Harrington calls the "sucked-up look."

"His cheeks were sunken in. His eyes were kind of bulging. He had scabs on his face, which looked red and irritated, a raspberry color. His hands were dirty. He was a tall guy, almost too slender for his size. I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'User.' She looked closer and said, 'Yeah, I guess I can see that.' He was there with his family--a pregnant woman and another child. Methamphetamine's all around us."

Almost everyone knows how a drunk looks and acts, but few people recognize the signs of someone who's soaring on meth.

"Sometimes it's the way they talk," Harrington explains. "Their speech will be rapid, very animated. Certain things they're very loud and vocal about that ordinarily they wouldn't be, that somebody else wouldn't be. And it's the movement, a hustling movement. You can see it in their eyes."

Meth users may start out as fully functional adults with a good job, a home, a family. Gradually the drug takes over lives. He loses his job. She lies to her spouse. He neglects his kids. She alienates her friends.

"There have been times where I've been shaking my head," Harrington recalls. "We had a guy, we did a probation search on his house, and he was stashing his crystal meth in his toddler's nightstand. He didn't think we were going to search there. Well, we found it. His toddler was able to reach the drawer from the crib, it was that close in proximity."

Brandy's Brick Wall

According to court records, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, Brandy was cruising downtown Santa Rosa with a new boyfriend and another man. Brandy decided to check out a nearby health club, to see if she could steal some easy money so they could get high.

After she grabbed Catherine's gym bag and extracted the keys, Brandy met her boyfriend out front. Together they searched for the vehicle that matched the stolen keys. When they located it, the boyfriend told Brandy to get in and drive away, following him out of the parking lot.

But Catherine's sudden appearance interrupted that plan. The ringing cell phone in Brandy's backpack was undoubtedly her boyfriend, checking to see what was happening.

For her attempt to steal Catherine's car, Brandy was booked into the Sonoma County jail and charged with three felony counts--entering a business with intent to steal; breaking into a car; and trying to drive off in the car--as well as charges stemming from the other incidents. On March 9, she was released on her own recognizance. She didn't have to post bail but was required to report to court hearings and submit to drug testing.

At a sign-up interview on March 14, Brandy tested positive for methamphetamine. Later that same day, she failed to appear at a court hearing. An arrest warrant was issued. On March 20, an officer spotted Brandy as she attempted to leave an apartment complex while driving a Honda CRV. The car had been stolen a few days earlier. Brandy and a friend took credit cards, ID cards and personal checks from the vehicle, and forged about $2,000 worth of checks.

Once again, Brandy landed in jail. This time, she wasn't let out.

On March 27, Brandy turned 20 years old.

All the World's a Lab

Santa Rosa is a North Bay distribution "hub" for methamphetamine produced by Mexican "super labs," according to the "Sonoma County Methamphetamine Profile Report," released to the county board of supervisors this July. Federal and state officials have imposed harsher restrictions on the raw chemicals needed to make meth, such as ephedrine in cold medication, iodine and red phosphorus. But that doesn't mean the labs have gone away. As Marin's Det. Harrington explains, "If they can find a location, they'll make a lab. The money's just too lucrative to pass up."

Some people use what are known as "suitcase" labs, because everything they need fits into a large suitcase or even an ice chest. They'll set up in a rural garage or a vacant industrial area, make meth for a day, then move on. Renting a motel room to use as an anonymous meth lab is common. Inevitably, the next night someone will check into that same room and find a burn mark on the floor that isn't from a cigarette but from acid, and a stain in the bathroom that's from iodine, dropped while the "cooks" were flushing away their toxic waste.

The sheetrocked walls will be saturated with red phosphorus and hydrochloric acid. The smoke detector may still be covered with a plastic bag, placed there so the device won't react to the waves of hydrogen chloride gas filling the air as part of the meth manufacturing process. People renting a room after meth has been cooked there are unknowingly exposed to these foul chemicals.

"The [meth cooks] are not chemists, and they're using deadly chemicals and toxins. They're not disposing of them properly and they're mixing them, trying to make meth," Harrington adds.

Meth's manufacturing process is simple but volatile. Cooking up a pound of meth results in six to eight pounds of toxic waste, which has to be dumped somewhere. Small-time manufacturers just pile it up or add it to the trash, says Jackie Long, special agent supervisor for the clandestine laboratory program for the California Department of Justice.

"In some states, trash trucks are catching on fire," Long says. "The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lost seven trucks to fires from meth waste a couple years ago."

In California, the number of labs busted has dropped from about a thousand five years ago to only 143 January through October of this year. Of course, the odds have also changed. After the 9-11 attacks, 30 officers from California's clandestine lab program were transferred to homeland security tasks. Another 30 positions were cut during the 2002-'03 state budget crunch. The newest state budget adds 30 clandestine lab positions back into enforcement, each hire taking at least six slow months to enact.

There could be a lot fewer meth labs out there, or there could just be a lot fewer agents looking for them. One clue, Long says, is that narcotics officers continue to find piles of meth-produced toxic waste.

"Although our lab busts are down, the dumps of these chemicals are still present," Long explains. "If our dumps were down, I'd say absolutely the labs are gone. They may not be here as frequently, but they haven't gone away."

Each year, the California Narcotics Officers' Association (CNOA) holds a statewide workshop on how to make meth. It's held in a crime lab, the students are all narcotics officers and the meth is disposed of when the class is over. The goal is to let officers see the synthetic drug's production first-hand, so they can recognize the sights and smells of the process.

"There are several stages during the manufacturing of methamphetamine that are extremely dangerous," says CNOA executive director Bob Hussey. "When you bust a lab, you seize product in different stages. It's important to know what part of the process things are in and if it's dangerous for both the public and the officer."

There's an incredible number of ways to make meth, most of which are listed on the Internet. The resulting smell depends on the cooking method used. Often a meth lab gives off a sharp chemical odor; one process in particular produces a smell that has been likened to year-old cat urine. More recently, cookers have been creating ice cocaine by cutting meth with the compound MSN, which turns smaller crystals into larger ones using such solvents as acetone, more commonly found in nail polish remover. The tell-tale aroma for this process is the pungent acetone solvent.

Meth is everywhere, Hussey says, but not everyone recognizes the signs.

"The sad part about it is, I really don't think the general population believes it's as big an epidemic as it is. I know the Legislature and Congress have recognized it, but the average person who gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home--they may not have the full impact of methamphetamine."

Portrait of an Addict

Catherine took time off work to attend Brandy' court dates, but they kept getting rescheduled and shuffled around. Eventually, Catherine gave up. Instead, she learned about her would-be car thief through court documents.

Brandy started smoking marijuana when she was in the fifth grade; her uncle grew it, and she would go to his house and pick what she wanted. By seventh grade, she was smoking pot on a daily basis.

The first time she tried meth, Brandy was 13. She smoked it approximately five times a week for about a year. But she stopped using any drugs in 10th grade, after she discovered she was pregnant.

Brandy managed to stay off meth until her first daughter was three months old, then returned to smoking it regularly. She tried marijuana again, but had an allergic reaction. She doesn't particularly like alcohol, and rarely drinks. At age 16 she was diagnosed with depression and put on medication, which she took for about six months.

Court records note that Brandy dropped out of high school in her sophomore year, never graduated and never earned her GED. Elsewhere, it indicates that in October 2005 she did manage to graduate in a different way: from simply smoking meth to shooting it into her veins with a needle.

Also in October 2005, Brandy was put on three years probation in Shasta County for the misdemeanor offense of driving without a license. An official document dryly notes that she "performed poorly" on probation, committing new crimes just months after starting the stint. The records also indicate that Brandy has admitted to stealing as many as 15 cars in Sonoma County alone, justifying her actions by telling herself she was "borrowing" them. She is also quoted as calling herself the "mastermind" behind the crimes she committed with her friends.

Brandy has been in and out of treatment programs since she was 16. Her only job experience is working at her father's business as an administrative assistant from February 2005 to January 2006, when her escalating drug use made it impossible for her to keep working.

The official documents list her as divorced with three daughters who are two, four and five years old. Apparently, her girls were placed in foster care in Shasta County and have since been adopted.

Even knowing all of this about Brandy, Catherine says she would still react the way she did that February afternoon in the parking lot. "I'm glad her car-stealing spree was put to an end. She was hurting multiple people. I got to know one of the other women whose car was stolen, and it was a traumatic experience for her."

Who Are YOU?

In Marin County, between 70 percent and 80 percent of identity crimes are methamphetamine-related, says Sgt. Mike Crain. "Once they start using and become addicted to it, the need to use it more often is there, so they start thinking of ways they can obtain the drugs."

Lt. Jean Donaldson also sees a definite correlation in Napa County. "The majority of the time when we arrest people who are involved in identity theft, they're also methamphetamine users."

It's true in Sonoma County as well, says Det. Sgt. Glenn Lawrence. "Unfortunately, it's such an easy crime and a quick way to get cash. People on methamphetamine are up all night and have the time to do this stuff. They'll tape together little pieces of paper."

He adds, "If you're searching for identity theft, you'll find meth or some kind of paraphernalia indicating that meth use is occurring. Or if you're doing narcotics, you'll find evidence of identity theft. They're so hand-in-hand, it doesn't seem to matter which one you're targeting."

Sgt. Anthony Muñoz of the Alameda Police Department is an instructor for a statewide class on methamphetamines and identity theft. One of the problems, Muñoz says, is that Americans like things to be convenient. They want to swipe a debit card at the gas pump instead of walking into the office to pay. They want to go online to order a TV.

"We could have protections [from identity theft], but it would inconvenience us," MuŅoz explains. "People want it to be easy to use their cards, and that makes it easy for the thieves."

A new scam is tied to the fact that many municipalities are cracking down on people who don't show up for jury duty. A tweaker, Muñoz says, will pick up the phone book and start dialing. Upon making a connection, he says, "We sent you a summons and you didn't show up for jury duty." That person may simply hang up.

The addict will just dial again, and say the same thing. This time he quickly adds, "But we can take care of it over the phone, right now." He asks for the person's name, address, date of birth and social security number as "verification," then he tells them, "OK, I'll go ahead and get you out of jury duty." And the tweaker then has everything he needs to commit identity theft, Muñoz says.

"Because methamphetamine is a central-nervous-system stimulant and [users] stay up so many hours, they have the time to think of these things and to try them. If it doesn't work ninety-eight out of a hundred times, that's fine with them; they have the time."

People need to be on guard against identity theft and be aware that meth addicts can be extremely clever in devising ways to get the information they need.

"If these people would put their talents to use, we'd have a cure for cancer, we'd solve world hunger," Muñoz asserts. "These are not stupid people."

Caught 'n' Clean

Brandy committed several criminal acts in a few months--from January to March--but that's not unusual, says Sonoma County assistant district attorney Larry Scoufus.

"Many times, we see defendants who are on methamphetamine runs doing many crimes in a short period of time. Getting arrested, either making bail or being released by the courts, and then committing other offenses. It's primarily to support their habit. Often it leads to very violent acts on their part, just because of the nature of the substance that they're ingesting."

On April 20, Brandy pleaded guilty to five separate felony charges, among them, grand theft auto, being an accessory to a felony and attempted grand theft auto. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but allowed to go to the 4,700-bed California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) instead. She was officially categorized as a "civil addict" instead of an inmate.

"If the court finds that the defendant is addicted or in imminent danger of being addicted to a narcotic, they can be sentenced to the California Rehabilitation Center rather than prison," Scoufus explains. "It's a custodial setting, but the primary focus is on addiction and rehabilitation."

At first, Catherine wasn't sure how she felt about Brandy not having to do time in prison, but eventually she decided the CRC was the best option.

"My hope for her in going to the rehab center is that not only can she get clean but also she can get the skills, so that when she gets out she can create a life for herself that's a good life, that's clean of drugs," Catherine says. "I feel that, for her, this is really her last hope."

But after her first-hand experience of how meth can affect local community members, Catherine thinks rehab is not the only answer.

"We need to do something more than provide treatment centers. I think we need to look at what it is that causes people to turn to this drug. Why are people choosing this drug? Why are people choosing this lifestyle? I think we need to figure out why this is, and attack the problem from the root."

Our series concludes next month with a look at the art that can ensue from addiction, as well as a personal reflection on the series.

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