IM Crime Files: The Scourge

Life. Death. Meth. What it’s like to love the drug that’s killing small-town Indiana.

Editor’s Note, October 8, 2014: The following originally appeared in

IM‘s October 2005 “Small Towns” issue and is included among our Best-Ever Crime Stories. It was announced today that the Indiana State Police force will receive a $567,000 federal grant to fight methamphetamine, with the money coming from the U.S. Justice Department, per U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. That department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services gives funds to law enforcement agencies as they seek to destroy the troubling meth trends in certain states.

To outsiders, Petersburg, Indiana is little more than a straight three-mile stretch of State Highway 57, dubbed, simply, Main Street. Three of the town’s four traffic lights—four of five, if you count the blinking yellow at the intersection of 12th Street—are spaced along this artery to regulate traffic to and from the library, the courthouse, City Hall and the Sheriff’s Department, both of the town’s bars, its McDonald’s and Dairy Queen, both of its pharmacies, its liquor store, the largest of its three grocery stores, and its Dollar General. But one adventuresome turn from Main Street and its facadeswill lead you to a different Petersburg: a town of modest two-stories, ranches whose paint is chipped and fading, farmhouses and outlying trailer parks where its 2,570 people live; of suffocating out-county coal mines, thick corn and soybean fields, and a shroud of gray-and-purple smoke that spews from the towering stacks of the power plant where most of the residents work. Most of them are poor; about 10 percent live in poverty. Ninety-two percent don’t have a college degree, and a third didn’t graduate from high school. Their children keep Pike County at or near the top of the state’s annual list of dropout rates.
At night, the teens and twentysomethings of Petersburg spill forth onto Main Street from the back blocks and gravel roads. They gather in cliques on the street corners and in front of the bars and convenience stores, smoking cigarettes and looking to get laid. The minors wait for a passing adult to buy them booze or perhaps hook them up with something stronger. Those with cars and trucks pick up their friends and roll the streets in search of a fix, an escape, something to do. “Ain’t shit to do in this town besides drink, fight, smoke pot, or shoot dope,” says Mike Woodland, a devout student of all four schools of passing time, and at 30, an almost lifelong citizen of Petersburg and this scene. He knows the dope, the meth, is especially popular here, and not just among the youth on these small-town streets.
Methamphetamine came to town 20 years ago, when locals first learned that they could take a pitcher of anhydrous ammonia—liquefied nitrogen fertilizer—from a nearby farm, some lithium batteries, ether, and a couple boxes of sinus pills and make electric, chemical bliss. The drug accelerates the addiction process, taking hold of its users and leaving them exhausted, empty, and emaciated, desperate for another fix. Today this once-fringe drug has the entire county in a lockjaw grip. Since 1999, officials in Pike County—Indiana’s 85th most populous—have seized 95 meth iambs, 13th most in a state that is second in the nation. And Sheriff Todd Meadors says those are only the labs his department has stumbled upon. The county can’t afford the training or equipment for a meth-specific task force. Even so, nine of 10 Pike County arrests are meth-related.
The police reports posted in Petersburg’s weekly paper, the Press-Dispatch, are bulging with meth busts. The houses of 60-year-old men are being raided as meth labs. Third- and fourth-generation babies are born every day with the dope in their bodies, in their blood. Meth affects everyone, knows no boundary of class or gender. It’s now so prevalent that it’s impinging upon even those who’ve never used it: the elderly woman who goes to CVS to fill a prescription and has to wait in line behind people who must show ID to buy Sudafed; the mother who calls 911 because her toddler stepped on a discarded syringe in the park; the mushroom-hunters who fear that they’ll stumble across a meth lab and its tweaked, paranoid, gun-toting owner; the children left fatherless while Daddy goes to prison for methamphetamine. Daily, social workers remove children from clandestine labs—pulling them starving from where they sit on scorched carpet beside burnt spoons and needles, immune to the noxious stench of anhydrous that causes visitors to retch upon first contact, their parents either too spaced out or too focused on chasing the high to care. In this town, there’s no escape.
July 12. Woodland is a prisoner: Indiana Department of Correction number 156277, doing three years for conspiracy to manufacture and deal methamphetamine, a class B felony. He’s been in and out of this jail eight times in the last 10 years, doing weeks and months at a time for random drug charges. This is his third felony. A fourth will categorize him as a habitual offender, a tag that carries a mandatory sentence of at least 20 years.
Less than two weeks into his latest sentence, he sits in the Pike County Jail on Main Street in Petersburg, enjoying the air-conditioning he didn’t have in his mother’s trailer less than a mile down the road, reading paperback Westerns to fill the empty hours. A lean, muscular man, he does push-ups and sit-ups to stay in shape and burn his pent-up energy and frustration. He’s jittery, sometimes breaking into small bursts of nervous laughter when he talks. He constantly crosses and uncrosses his arms. He can’t seem to sit still. His sharp brown eyes are always wide and frantic, darting this way and that, as if he’s constantly surveying his surroundings. When he gets worked up, his unpredictability unnerves even his family.
Woodland is waiting to be sent up to a state penitentiary, which may not happen for some time. The DOC is currently housing almost 2,000 inmates in Indiana county jails due to overcrowding, which in turn is due largely to the increase in meth arrests. Indiana taxpayers spend an extra $35 per day per DOC inmate bloused in county jails. Pike County Jail pulls in between $300,000 and $400,000 a year housing DOC inmates. A facility that usually bolds about 60 now keeps 83 behind its bars. Inmates sleep on the floor.
Woodland says he won’t mind being sent to the pen, where at least he’ll have contact visits with his family. He could kiss his wife. He could hold his daughters—18-month-old Kaitlyn and 20-month-old Madison—instead of watching them cry and press kisses against the glass of the jail’s visitation room. He misses them, longs to bold them.
Kaitlyn and Madison are the reasons he’s in here. If not for them, he would have fled, lived as a fugitive in the woods or in some rural county in Illinois. He wants to get this over with. “I got to get out and get clean so I can be a father to my girls,” he says. “The longer I drag it out, the older they’re going to be when I get out.” But as much as he loves his daughters, he also loves the drug. In jail, just as outside, he thinks about it every day: the prick of the needle in his muscular arm, the slow drive of the fluid into his throbbing vein as he presses the plunger. The rush as it courses to his heart. Eyes wide, pulse racing as his beard pumps the bliss through him, biting every inch of his body, each extremity tingling beneath a tin glaze of sweat, a thousand simultaneous bursts of adrenaline, euphoria, as if his very soul were about to tear free. It’s like walking barefoot on a bed of cotton. Some women experience immediate orgasm with a single hit. “It makes me a wild, slobbering animal,” Woodland says. “It makes me feel fucking invincible.”
Sitting in jail, Woodland feels anything but invincible. He feels weak, despicable. He curses himself for giving in to his vices, for letting his family, his daughters, down. He is wracked by constant headaches that jail-issued Tylenol can’t kick. Still, he’s safer in here than he is outside. In here, he’s safe from himself. He’s free from the temptation, the knowledge that he could make one or two phone calls, catch a ride into the woods, and in 4 or 5 hours be chasing that high again.
The inmates around Woodland talk constantly about dope. They swap recipes, talk about bow they’ll shoot up or smoke out the minute they get out. It’s all they can think of, despite the drug’s ruinous effect on their bodies. Their teeth are rotting and decayed from meth’s lithium and sulfuric acid. They suffer burns, chest pains, nausea, and shortness of breath from smoking and snorting it. They’re malnourished; meth-heads, or geekers, don’t eat. This year, Meadors has had to turn to the county for more tax money—$40,000—to pay for his inmates’ extensive medical care. Meth has taken these inmates’ children, their jobs, their health, and their freedom. Yet all they care about is the fix. As Woodland says, “When you do dope, you forget about the things you really love.”
June 1. The hollow, unstained wooden door to Woodland’s mother’s trailer will barely close. Light creeps into the small home through the gaps between bent door and straight frame, through cracks in the thin wood itself, and is filtered trough the strips of freezer tape patched over the fist-shaped holes and boot-sized dents. No one broke in. The door is hardly ever locked. The damage was done from inside. These quarters are cramped and stuffy, choked with enough furniture and cluttered belongings to fill an apartment twice the size. Though a bit claustrophobic, the front room and adjoining kitchen feel homey, as well-kept as one could expect from a single mother who works full-time. The warm smell of roast beef is thick in the air.
Woodland sits at the kitchen table shirtless, sun from the bay window illuminating dozens of ornate tattoos—skulls, bikes, and tribal markings all connecting to form a continuous work assembled on his arms, shoulders, back and best. A sprawling pictorial journal built symbol by symbol over the course of a couple of years: a Harley on his right forearm; an hourglass on his left bicep, symbolizing the jail time he’s already done; 1935-2004—the dates of his grandma’s life—in black on the back of his neck. He leans anxiously over a plate of beef, out-of-the-box mac and cheese, and canned baked beans, right leg shaking incessantly beneath the table. His mother, Shirley, gaunt and frail, stands at a distance against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, quietly watching her son shovel food into his mouth. Her tan skin is wrapped tight on her bony frame, the lines on her face revealing an aging far beyond her years. She’s glad to see her Mikey eat.
Shirley and Mike are close. For years, they watched each other suffer the abusive mouth and hand of Mike’s father, a man who they allege grew pot and drank too much. Shirley finally left him six years ago, in time to save her youngest son, Cody, but too late for herself and Mikey. Trading on his father’s name, Mikey started smoking weed at age 13, a habit that led to pill-popping, cocaine, and alcohol abuse. He was open with his mother about his addictions, and she did what she could to help him cope. She supported him, and he never raised a hand to her. But when Mike’s habit evolved into shooting and eventually cooking meth a few years ago, things changed. Mikey changed, or rather, the dope changed him. “He’d go through violent mood swings,” Shirley says. “He was hateful to me. It was like he was a completely different person.”
After the initial surge of the drug settles in, Mikey crawls inside his own mind, obsessing, analyzing and re-analyzing every glance he catches from those around him; every laugh, it seems, may be directed at him. His paranoia makes him angry. Awake for days, he has nothing but time to think and rethink everything. He sees things that aren’t there. Or are they? He sees “shadow people” lurking in the comers, watching him. Any little sound, the snap of a twig, clearing of a throat, can set him off. Then he’s on you, in your face, gun to your bead. “Are you a rat!? Are you a cop!?” He trusts no one, not even his own family. It’s this paranoid effect of meth that makes addicts so dangerous. Meadors says 90 percent of them carry guns. Three years ago, a Pike County geeker shot and killed an Oakland City police officer who had pulled him over.
They set up cameras and elaborate surveillance systems on their houses. Some have set up booby traps and trap doors, even triggered explosives to take care of the cops they’re sure are lurking outside. They’re strung out, the speed keeping them up around the clock. When they’re on the road and suspect they’re being followed, they drive like maniacs to evade phantom authorities.
Making matters worse is that there is no honor among addicts. Busted teachers will sell out their own blood, ratting out cookers and dealers to the cops in order to lessen their own charges. The result is a kind of Wild West atmosphere that puts the already mistrustful dopers further on edge.
When tweaked, Mikey has held his family hostage for fear that they’d run to the cops. He’s held a gun to his mother’s head in her black Ford Contour, forcing her to drive him and his equipment to the woods so he could cook up a batch, threatening to shoot them both if a cop pulled her over. As it turns out, it was his mother’s boyfriend, a customer of Mikey’s, who ratted him out when he got arrested in October 2004. That’s how Mikey got slapped with his third felony and the $3,000 bond that his wife, Melissa, posted so he could sit in his mother’s kitchen, eat dinner, and await his sentencing in late June.
Meth made Shirley scared of her own son. What terrified her most was the drug’s fallout—when, after days or weeks, the drug’s speed wore off, leaving Mikey weak, strung-out, and desperate. She’s still reeling from the latest crash. All she has to do is look at her beat-in front door.
May 24. He wants to die. He has the shotgun in his mouth and is ready to pull the trigger. The destructive rage that began at his mother’s house has turned inward. At the tail end of a week-long meth rush, Mikey is utterly alone, unraveled, at his mind’s end. He’s also drunk His brain is numb, consumed by the prospect of prison, the thought of abandoning his baby girls. Frayed, scalding, he’s sure his mother’s neighbors on Sixth Street have called the cops. They always do. They had to have heard him cursing and screaming, slamming his fists and feet into the door. He’s out on bond. That’s why he fled, here, to his friend’s house more than a mile away, where he found this shotgun; he just can’t find a shell. Not one single fucking shell! He’s beyond reason. Rifling through the drawers, he finds the pills. Four bottles: Xanax, Klonopin, Amitriptyline, Darvocet. He shoves handfuls in his mouth, chews them up, swallows. Leaves. Finds his way to the house of a cousin, who calls Shirley at work at the nursing home and then drops Mikey off there. In the passenger seat of the Contour on the way to the hospital, he passes out on his mother’s lap. No response. Ambulance. Hospital. Pupils fixed. No response. Shirley says goodbye.
Two days later, Mikey opens his eyes. He recognizes his grandpa standing over him. Doctors unhook his IV, and he is released. But something inside him has changed. For the first time, Mikey finds within himself a sincere desire to get off the dope. He sees the frightened faces of his family, the tear-drenched face of his mother; he envisions his girls growing up without him. He knows he has to get clean. He knows he needs help.
June 1. Meth labs bespeak a poor man’s chemistry. There are no beakers, Bunsen burners or test tubes, no men in white coats. Coffee filters, hot plates, aluminum foil, batteries, cold pills. Mason jars, buckets, rubber hoses, coolers, pitcher, and fertilizer are the tools of the trade. All are legal to buy and possess. All can be found at the local Walmart—except the anhydrous, which cookers can readily get from local farms. Some may find a farmer willing to trade it for dope, but most take to the farm and co-op tanks at night, draining the gas into a 20-pound propane tank or siphoning it in liquid form, stealing a pitcher-full here and a cooler-full there. Some cookers refer to the heist from these long white farm tanks as “riding the white buffalo.”
Mikey loves that ride, the exhilaration of the job, sneaking up on the beast and squeezing out a few gallons, and running off into the night to cook. Today, catching a ride to Vincennes—a 20-minute trip through the winding rural hills of Pike and neighboring Knox County—he presses his face against the glass with every farm he passes, eagerly scanning the barns and fields for the white tanks with the signature green stickers. Only nine clean days since his attempted suicide, seeing those tanks and reliving the excitement in his mind still makes his heart race, his eyes widen. “Back in the day, I’d be up on those tanks and out in a flash, man,” he says. “Goddamn! It gives me a cold chill.”
Farmers around here aren’t worried about the loss of anhydrous. Losing five gallons from an 850-gallon tank costs them about $4.60, hardly worth the risk of trying to catch the culprits in the act, possibly getting shot or having the anhydrous thrown on them, burning them, instantly sapping moisture from their skin and choking them. They’re more concerned about the thieves breaking their equipment or not shutting off the gas. If they put a lock on the tank, the geekers would just break the lock and valve or drill holes into the tank itself, ruining it and spilling a flood of the noxious chemical out onto their fields, wasting $500 worth of fertilizer and creating a public health hazard for which they’d be liable. Some suppliers have embraced GloTell, a fluorescent dye added to the fertilizer to stain the drug and the thief’s hands pink. Of course, as with any additional means of securing the tanks and their contents, it’s an added cost that eventually makes its way back down to the farmers.
But by far the greatest meth-related concern among Pike County farmers is the danger and liability of having makers cooking on their land, in their cornfields. After all, these labs aren’t just found in basements, sheds, living rooms, and motel rooms. They can be packed into a car or duffel bag and taken wherever. The fast-spreading and telltale toxic smell of cooking dope drives the geekers into the fields and forests of the countryside. Meth’s corrosive ingredients can damage crops, and the hazard of mixing the volatile chemicals can cause explosions and fires. The Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department now includes tactics for handling meth-related blazes in its training, and although no one is keeping statistics that would prove an increase in chemical fires, town mayor and firefighter Jon Craig says firemen have strong suspicions. Unfortunately, due to the longer response time of a volunteer department, Craig says that by the time they get to the scene, evidence of meth’s presence is gone, burned up or carried off. Meadors remembers responding to a house fire and finding no sign of the owner except blood on the ground and on the brush in the nearby woods. They later found the bloodied man, cut up from jumping in and out of a broken window with armfuls of meth equipment he ferried to safety in the woods while his house was reduced to rubble and ash.
Mikey liked to cook in the woods, where he wouldn’t be bothered, where the smell wouldn’t give him away, where there was ample room to run if he was spotted. He loved the burst that crank gave him. But like most cookers, he found making it even more addictive. He loves the process itself. Grinding the pills—hundreds, maybe a thousand—to a fine powder, mixing them in a jar with the devil ether, then the cooling anhydrous. Dropping the lithium strips pulled from batteries into the concoction and watching it bubble with heat. The Christmas-morning anticipation as the jar sits and cooks for a couple hours while he readies his smoke bottle—a bottle containing salt and drain cleaner and capped with a hose running from its top. After removing the hazardous sediment by straining the cooked liquid through a coffee filter, Mikey licks his lips as he drops the smoke bottle hose into the jar, the steady stream of smoke kissing the pool’s surface, and conjuring the small white particles that form at the top of the clear liquid. He can hardly contain himself as he watches these tiny flakes, pure methamphetamine, plummet slowly through the clear liquid and nestle at the bottom of the jar. “I fucking love to make it snow!” Then the liquid is poured into yet another jar, strained through another filter, which is left holding a soft white sludge. When dried, the goop hardens into a rock of dope that can be broken off into ice or broken down into powder.
Mikey took great pride in the quality of the high that his customers got from his home-cooked meth. And he was addicted to the lifestyle. In a few hours the man who had been poor all his life could turn $50 bucks of ingredients into $5,000 worth of crank. Mikey will tell you that cookers often use too much of their own product to get rich, but the money is still better than the minimum-wage jobs that await a high school dropout. And better than the money is the power. Grown men would trade their cars, motorcycles, TVs, and stereos for a couple ounces. Women would perform any sexual act he could imagine. “It made you the man!” he says. “When you have some dope, everybody’s your friend.”
June 1. Now Mikey has to abandon his friends. After more than a decade of addiction, he knows that if he’s going to stay clean, he’s got to keep himself from temptation. That means staying away from the drug, from his customers, his dealer and maker buddies. Essentially everyone he’s hung out with his whole life. His friend, Tony DeJarnett, helped him realize that. Today Mikey has left Pike County and headed to Vincennes to see DeJarnett and seek more of his aid and wisdom.
Like Mikey, DeJarnett grew up in Pike County. He lives with Mikey’s cousin Crystal, and is close to Mikey’s mom. He’s known Mikey for 25 years, and the two ran together for more than 15, cooking dope and shooting up together. Eight years his senior, DeJarnett has been where Mikey is. Now he’s where Mikey wants to be.
DeJarnett is sitting on the front porch of his Vincennes house, shirtless, in blue jeans and tattered black biker boots, drinking a cup of coffee and watching his 10-year-old son, Kevin, and Crystal’s kids Carter, 7, and Charity, 6, ride bikes and eat Popsicles in the yard. He’s been completely off dope for 2-and-a-half years. “Was a time not too long ago back at the trailer in Pike County when we’d make them play outside so they wouldn’t be inside while we were cooking and doing dope,” he says in a worn, raspy voice. He talks a lot. If he likes you, he’ll go on and on about the addiction, the constant battle of getting clean and the horrible things he did when he was on the drug. The talk is part of his recovery.
DeJarnett was one of the area’s meth pioneers. He can remember a time about 15 years ago when a state police officer pulled him over, searched his car, and dumped out
a jar of meth because he didn’t know what it was. “The cop just said, ‘Boy, your jar stinks. I think you might want to throw it away.’” The story makes DeJarnett laugh. Less funny are the memories of going to prison, where he got his nickname, “T-bone,” for bending a metal cafeteria tray across a fellow inmate’s face; the badass mentality came from the paranoia and violent effects of the drug and the gangster lifestyle that surrounds producing and selling it. “You get caught up in that attitude,” DeJarnett says. “You tote guns, thinking, ‘I’m hardcore! I’m bad!’ And you’ve got to stay bad.” He remembers walking into a room where children were watching cartoons, unplugging and taking the TV in lieu of the payment their desperate parents owed him for dope. “You think they respect you, but you only get people scared of you.” It was a persona he had to strip away to get clean, a frame of mind he knows Mikey’s going to have to kick as well.
“You’re a good guy when you’re not on that shit,” DeJarnett tells him now. Mikey looks down and shakes his head.
“I know. I know.”
“You can’t keep being the tough guy. All the tough guys are dead.”
DeJarnett had his own flirtations with death, as the stab and gunshot scars on his stomach attest. “When the drug has hold of you, there’s only two ways out: death or getting busted,” he says. “And I wasn’t going to get busted again.” He says he wanted to die but didn’t have the guts to do it himself. “It was going to be suicide-by-cop.”
Instead, DeJarnett got busted again and lost custody of his children to the state. Sitting in the Pike County Jail, he was facing prison when a social worker convinced the judge to let him go to rehab at Narconon Arrowhead in Richmond. There, for the first time, he opened up about his problem, his utter dependency on the drug. Talking helped. It gave him an honest look at himself, made him take the blame for his actions and the responsibility for his recovery. After three months he was released, and he took back his kids, his life. It hasn’t been easy. He relapsed several times at the outset. Fought to support his kids on disability payments he draws from a car accident that has made him prone to violent epileptic seizures. He thinks about the drug every day, and all around him are old doping buddies and cops who remember T-bone and are just waiting for him to slip up and take the inevitable fall back to meth.
Despite all this, today DeJarnett is one of the community’s most outspoken proponents of getting help for addicts in a part of the country rife with addiction. At least twice a week he speaks at an addiction therapy group at the local Samaritan Center. Almost everyone in the group is there because of meth. “Most of these people aren’t going to get clean,” he says. “Most of them don’t want to. But if we can help a couple of them who do get clean, keep them out of jail where they just trade recipes and become harder criminals, we can actually do some good. I mean, you can lock them all up for 10, 20 years, but when they get out, what do you think they’re going to do: Ignore all their buddies and hump a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, or go back to what they know? They’ve got to want to change, and you’ve got to give them a reason to want to and the guidance to do it.” DeJarnett can see that Mikey’s reason has got to he his family, his two baby girls. That’s why he’s trying to use his connections to get Mikey into the highest level of local treatment, an Individual Outpatient Program—meeting three nights a week for eight weeks—at the Samaritan Center in Vincennes. If he gets in, it may postpone his sentencing.
“If you do this, you can get clean,” DeJarnett says to Mikey, who’s leaning on the porch rail. “You can get some time shaved off your sentence, maybe even work release. You can be out sooner. Be with your girls. Make this right. Be a dad.”
Mikey again looks down, quietly nods.
“Mikey’s going to make it. He loves his daughters,” say DeJarnett, as much to convince himself as to reassure his friend. Deep down, DeJarnett has his doubts about whether Mikey can shed his tough-guy armor and accept the things the clinicians and therapists and other recovering users are going to tell him. “You can’t bring that badass attitude,” DeJarnett continues. “People see me doing what I’m doing now, say I’m soft or I’ve sold out. I’m not 5-0, not a snitch, not a pussy. I just don’t want to see my son end up like I did. I don’t want to see my daughter going out with a dope dealer who’s going to sell her out on the street.”
DeJarnett goes to everyone of Kevin’s baseball games. He took his 16-year-old daughter, Tricia, to help her pick out a dress for prom. Both kids say he’s now a father. But he’s had to work hard in the past two years to earn their trust. They’re both old enough to remember their dad the way he used to be. DeJarnett prays Mikey’s daughters won’t have to carry such memories.
Tricia’s earliest vision of her parents is the view from the backseat of a car as she watched them curse and scream about who stole the dope. She grew up thinking spoons were supposed to be bent, in a house where guns were stashed under every seat, needles lay around on tables, and all the mirrors were coated with powder. At school, other kids would ask why her father had hen at their house at 3 a.m. They’d ask if she thought her dad had any dope for their parents. She hated him. The first time she was taken from her parents to live with her aunt, she remembers the sleepless nights, just waiting for the phone to ring, the police calling to tell her that her father was dead, OD’d or shot. Part of her hoped the call would come. At least then the drama would end.
Kevin remembers living in a house always filled with strange people who kept their backs to him. He remembers his dad feeding him 7-Up, making him pee in cups so customers could sneak his clean urine into drug screenings. He remembers waking up at 4 a.m. to find the lights on and the microwave still running with nobody home. Kevin remembers begging his way along on deals, waiting in the car while his dad stuffed a pistol down his pants and ran inside. “I just wanted to make sure he was okay,” he says.
DeJarnett alleges that the kids’ mother, now his ex-wife, is still on dope. She drives by their house from time to time; DeJarnett won’t let her see them. He describes her, bitterly, as “toothless and 10 pounds,” yet he pities her. “She’s told me that all she has to offer them are drugs and alcohol.”
In Petersburg, this slow, often quiet abuse is common. Family-service workers say that many kids feel responsible and grow up feeling guilty. Many have to raise themselves and younger siblings while their parents are tweaked or spaced out. Workers with the Pike County Department of Child Services say they’ve responded to calls where the parents are strung out and don’t even know where their 2- or 3-year-old is. They find children living in squalor, scarred and burned, lying next to needles on singed carpet, unbathed and unfed. They find infants screaming, unattended, strapped in car seats. They walk into homes that reek of urine; cat, dog, and human feces; or worse, the overpowering smell of anhydrous. “We find kids sitting in these labs and ask them, ‘How can you stand that smell?’” says social worker Julie Weeks. “They just look at us, puzzled, and say, ‘What smell?’” In Indiana in 2004, 1,833 children were removed from their homes and their parents because of drugs. And those numbers are growing: During the first seven months of 2005, there were already 1,085 drug-related removals.
Meth is at the center of this increase. Family-service agents who are supposed to be handling a maximum of 29 new and ongoing cases are crushed beneath as many as 60. These workers have spent extra hours in specialty training for dealing with meth-related problems; all now carry cell phones to call authorities when they fear for their safety. In addition, many are now in charge of drug-screening parents who want to visit with the children who’ve been removed from their care. To assure there’s no cheating, by bringing in urine, agents are forced to watch parents urinate in cups. “I never thought I’d be spending so much time watching people pee,” says Sharon Grayson, DCS supervisor for Pike and Knox counties. Only around a fourth of those screened test clean.
In Southwest Indiana, social workers found a girl whose job was to wash the glasses that had contained meth. They found a 13-year-old boy whose duty it was to steal the anhydrous and bring it back to his mom, who would then cook and shoot both of them up. They found a toddler stacking play money into his wagon, right beside stacks of real cash his parents made dealing meth. “This is modeling behavior,” says Grayson. “How do you undo that?”
But the effects are not only behavioral. Pregnant addicts pass meth to their unborn children. One member of DeJarnett’s support group, a nurse, confessed to smoking meth while pregnant. At age 22, she’d had a nursing degree, a house, a new car, a job in Vincennes, and a healthy baby girl. She first took the drug so she’d have enough energy to stay up and clean her house after long shifts at the hospital. She got hooked and moved herself and her daughter in with a cooker. A former prom queen, she dropped 40 pounds and quit her job. She says she became a live-in slave, cleaning and smoking out all day, even sometimes picking through the carpet and smoking pieces of deodorant that resembled meth. Her boyfriend would coerce her into having sex in exchange for a fix. She got pregnant. Kept smoking.
Her baby was born at five months, 11.5 inches, half a pound. His foot was the size of a pen cap. Eyes still not open, he gasped his first and last breaths in her hands. When hospital staff accused her of being a crack-whore or doper, she fled and immediately went back to the pipe. Today, with the support group’s help, she’s clean, going back to school to get her degree, and living with her parents so she can be a mother to her healthy 7-year-old daughter.
Some meth babies who survive are growing up with learning disorders, severe ADD, and other medical issues that schools and doctors are only now starting to observe and attribute to the drug. When Madison was born to a woman who had smoked meth, Mikey nervously counted fingers and toes. She appears fine, but even Mikey thinks she’s hyperactive for a child her age. He says his other daughter, Kaitlyn, was born to a different woman who smoked only weed prior to giving birth, and she’s much calmer. Kaitlyn and her mother live in an apartment in Vincennes. Because he has neither car nor driver’s license, and because DeJarnett’s is a packed house, Mikey will stay with them while he tries to get into treatment at the Samaritan Center. But it’s a dangerous arrangement: he alleges that Kaitlyn’s mother is now a doper. He’s begged her not to do the drug or have her drug buddies over around his daughter and him. The temptation to jump back on the needle, he fears, may be too great.
June 7. The apartment is in a bad part of town. Chances are, at least a couple of geekers and/or cookers are lurking behind any number of doors in the building. But the couch on which Mikey sits is plush, comfortable, nice. He smiles, watching little Madison play on the soft, clean carpet. The air is cool, tinged with the smell of cigarette smoke. No dope here. Madison, plump and pleasant, is waddling around in her dad’s oversized sandals, sucking on a bottle of iced tea and fidgeting with the sleeve of her T-shirt.
“Look, she’s trying to roll her sleeves up like Daddy,” Mikey says. He’s in good humor, relatively calm and, most importantly, clean. Things appear to be going well. The only problem: The apartment is not Kaitlyn’s mom’s, not in Vincennes, and not close enough to the Samaritan Center for Mikey to get treatment.
Temptation was too much. The Friday night after his first group meeting, his second night in Kaitlyn’s mom’s apartment, he alleges she had people over who started doing dope. At first, Mikey resisted. But it was useless. “I just watched them geeking and I wanted to feel what they were feeling,” he says. So he did what he always does. “I said ‘Fuck it!’” Prick, plunge, sweat, euphoria.
The reasons people use crank are as varied as the users themselves. It is a virtual wonder drug. Truckers and night-shift workers use it to stay awake. Women use it to lose weight. It heightens sexual drive and pleasure. It provides temporary escape. It gives you more energy. Makes you feel invincible. In Mikey’s case, the combination of boredom, a simple love of the high, and the peer pressure to be “Mikey the Badass” was all the reason he needed. The next day, he called his mom to come get him, bring him home. Ashamed but still determined to get clean, now he’s holed up in this Petersburg apartment waiting for his new plan to kick in. He’s going to Stepping Stone, a short-term—usually 30 days or less—residential treatment facility in nearby Evansville, where his wife, Melissa, is now trying to kick her addiction. Melissa used to be a runner for Mikey—the person who brought him pills and batteries in exchange for dope when he was too paranoid to go out himself. When she wraps up her treatment in a couple of weeks, Mikey says, Melissa is going to try to get him into Stepping Stone, even if she has to pay for it out of her modest savings.
The jangle of keys in Madison’s hand interrupts Mikey’s fragile focus. As she puts the keys in her mouth, Mikey says, “You can’t eat those, dork.
A chuckle comes from Mechel, renter of the apartment and owner of the keys. A middle-aged woman, she sits, legs folded beneath her on the loveseat adjacent to the couch, tugging on a Marlboro Light, enjoying the little girl’s bid for Mikey’s attention. Mechel is letting Mikey and Madison spend their days here because it’s cooler here than at his mom’s trailer, but also because she wants to help him. A paralegal studying criminology at Vincennes University, she knows meth. She wrote a paper about it for school. Her conclusion: “It is undescribable, the terrible effects this drug does to the user emotionally and physically, not to mention the effects it has on the loved ones standing on the outside watching this addiction without being able to do anything about it except put it in God’s hands and ask for their safety.” The impetus for Mechel’s paper is in the photographs on the wall behind her, black-and-white glamour shots of a healthy, bright-eyed young blond girl gazing happily into the lens. Her daughter, Ashli. “She was a model in high school,” Mechel explains. “She was so beautiful.”
As if on cue, a door opens and in steps the girl, groggy, just out of bed. Although only a handful of years removed from the photos, she appears to have aged dramatically, with lines around her eyes, scars on her stomach from when she would pick at it with a pair of tweezers, faded knife marks cut across her wrists. Walking into the living room, she runs her thumbs inside the folded-down waistband of her denim shorts, pulling the band as far from her thin stomach as she can. “They’re starting to fit again.”
Ashli graduated high school in 2001, fifth in a class of 89. She had experience modeling sportswear, and the University of Western Kentucky had offered her a cheerleading scholarship. She turned it down in favor of going to school closer to her friends at Vincennes University. She wanted to be a broadcast journalist. But in her second semester, she started getting into dope. “It feels like having 10 orgasms at once,” she says. Eventually she dropped out and moved in with a cooker boyfriend whose parents were also heavy into meth. Over the next few years, she battled the addiction, going on and off and back on meth and doing a bit of jail time along the way.
Then, around Thanksgiving 2003, she found out she was pregnant. She and her boyfriend vowed to quit together for the baby. They got jobs and found a house near Mikey’s mom’s on Sixth Street. Ashli says she stayed clean the entire time, but started finding burnt foils and other paraphernalia around the house. Her child was born on July 14, 2004. Six weeks later, on the night before Ashli was to go back to work, her boyfriend, who she says had already, suspiciously, been up for days, volunteered to stay up with the baby while she got a good night’s sleep. The next morning, she awoke to find her son on the couch, dead in his father’s arms. She alleges her boyfriend crashed, then passed out on the baby. But there was no proof. No charges of wrongful death were ever filed.
Ashli went into a wild, meth-crazed frenzy. She destroyed her car, beating in the hood, breaking out the windows. Slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. When things calmed down, two months ago, she came home to her mom, desperate for help. For days she lay in bed, her mom bringing her half-and-half milkshakes and stroking her head. She’s been clean for 60 days, save one relapse. But she stays here, away from her old friends, away from her ex-boyfriend who she claims still cooks and deals. Back up over 100 pounds from her anemic 93, she fires up a cigarette and looks at the pictures of herself on the wall. “I look like an alien when I’m on it, like I’m not real,” she says. “When I don’t do it, I’m real, I’m beautiful.”
Madison decides it’s time to reclaim the spotlight. She holds out the bottle to her dad. “Wa-wa?”
“You want water?”
Mikey jumps up, heads to the sink, dumps the tea, fills the bottle with water, and screws the top back on. “Here you go.”
She starts to drink, then looks at the bottle, confused. “Tea?”
“You little shit,” he says, laughing. “You could kick my ass with one little look, couldn’t you?” He jumps up again, remakes the tea bottle, then lies down beside her. She nestles her head on his tattooed bicep and starts to doze off.
“Look at that,” says Mechel. “Who wouldn’t want to get clean for that?”
June 12. The Silver Dollar Saloon is the hotspot of Petersburg. Set up on the first floor of an old brick Main Street building, it is essentially a wide hallway with an ancient tile floor and a few scattered tables and chairs. The centerpiece, a huge wooden bar, runs almost the entire length of the place. At night, the neon lights in the bar’s front windows join the interior incandescents to light up a usually hopping scene. But by day the room is dank, the few patrons at the bar reduced to shadows.
Today, two of those shadows are Mikey and his younger half-brother. The latter, clothes and scruffy face coated in dirt and black dust, is just off work at the nearby coal mines; he’s drowning the sorrow of an impending divorce with bottles of Budweiser and shots of tequila before heading home. Mikey is drinking the same. He’s sent Madison swimming with his sister and her kids and is washing down a couple Valiums he took this morning. He silences temptation with pills and booze, killing time and trying to keep his mind off the drug until he can get to Evansville next week. Even with the double dose of depressants, he’s hyped up, playfully exchanging body shots with his little brother.
“I said goodbye to this motherfucker at the hospital a couple weeks ago,” Mikey’s half-brother tells the bartender. “But he keeps coming back.”
“Fuck yeah,’” booms Mikey.
“He’s the best guy I know,” the younger man continues. “But he just fucks up. He needs help.” Then to Mikey, “That shit makes people stupid.”
Mikey’s half-brother has had his own experiences with dope. But as Mikey says, “He’s got willpower I ain’t got.” The two were born of the same father, but when the younger boy was in high school, he was caught with weed and expelled. His mother moved him down to Florida, where he lived with her and his stepfather, a working man who made him hold a job mowing lawns every day while he got his high-school diploma. Then he came back to Indiana, got a degree in heating and air-conditioning, found work at the mines, got married, and had two kids. “You gotta leave all your old buddies behind, concentrate on your family,” he says to Mikey, who’s had jobs roofing and working at McDonald’s. “You need to get a good job, be around people who want to be clean, who want to get up and go to work every morning. Otherwise you’re going to end up killing yourself.”
“It ain’t that I don’t want to,” Mikey says. “It ain’t that easy.”
June 12. Mikey’s young nephews are still leery of their uncle. “I’ve got Maddie with me today,” he says, crouching, holding out his hand to the befuddled little boy in the doorway of the house. “I’ve got my baby girl, so you know I’m okay.”
Before Mikey’s older half-sister Brandy moved her three kids to this Main Street home in Petersburg three years ago, they lived in a trailer no more than 75 yards from Mikey’s in rural Pike County. That was back in the height of his cooking and geeking days. Like the rest of his family. Brandy knew what her brother was up to, but she loved him, never judged him. When his power was turned off, she even let him run electricity from her house to his.
Still, there were moments that concerned her as a parent. Once, her son came home with a green Army duffel filled with jars, salt, an entire lab. Brandy called the cops but never thought of implicating her brother. “Most of these addicts and cookers aren’t bad people,” she says, taking a pull from a pint of Hot Damn 100-proof schnapps that Mikey brought her. “Everyone around here does it—former cops, courthouse clerks, teachers. But you’re not yourself when you’re on this shit. It makes you crazy.”
“It makes you violent,” Mikey shouts, literally jumping into the conversation. His eyes go wild, he clenches his fists. “It eats at you, makes you full of anger!” For punctuation, he rips the T-shirt off his chest, throws it to the floor and knocks over a glass of water. “Fuck,” he exclaims, “I lose so many shirts that way.”
Brandy laughs and uses the tattered shirt to soak the water from the carpet. Madison rushes in, crying because she fell while playing. In a flurry of movement, Mikey scoops her up, runs to the small pool on the deck, and, with her in his arms, sits down in the cool water. “See, you’re swimming now.” When the two come back inside, the child rests her head on her dad’s strong chest. His camouflage cut-off shorts soaked, he sits on the carpet and rocks, softly patting his daughter’s back. In a deep country dip, he starts to sing: “Holding you, I feel more love than I’ve known / Holding you is what I’ve wished for, for so long / You know you fill me with a deeply burning fire / Madison, you, you are my heart’s desire / When you are with me, babe, you make me feel so free / You make me happy, you’re everything I need / When I’m away, girl, your thoughts will never leave my mind …”
He whispers, “I’ll write the rest when I go up.”
June 29. He’s drunk again, sitting on the concrete steps leading up to his mom’s busted door. The shade of the tin carport does little to relieve the intense heat and humidity of a midsummer day. Already he’s downed four Keystone Ice tallboys, still as warm as when he bought them. It’s 10:30 in the morning. He started drinking at 9. The rest of the beers are in the freezer.
Shirley’s place is bustling today, the sweltering air thick with the sound of kids laughing and the smell of burgers and hot dogs grilling. Mikey, Shirley, Melissa, and her son, Cody, Madison, Mikey’s sister, and her five kids are all roaming about, seeking respite in the shadows. It’s Mikey’s farewell barbecue. Tomorrow, he stands before the judge, where he’ll be sentenced and taken into custody. “I can’t believe I’m leaving my kid tomorrow,” he says, watching his daughter playing in a plastic pedal car. He shakes his head and sips his beer.
“Weed!” cries Madison, pointing as Cody passes a pouch of tobacco to Mikey.
“Everything you can roll is weed ’cause she’s seen daddy rolling so much,” he confesses. “I taught her how to say ‘Fuck the police’ when she was 1. One year old! I thought it was pretty cool at first. Now I realize I was teaching her disrespect for the law.” He shakes his head. “You gonna miss Daddy?” Madison looks back, confused, as if to say, “Where is Daddy going?”
Stepping Stone didn’t work. They kicked him out after three days, telling his lawyer he was using illegal drugs. “A crock of bullshit,” Mikey says. After that, Melissa took him to a facility in Illinois; they didn’t have an open bed. He tried detox at the hospital, but they released him after just five days.
“I’ve tried and tried,” he says, exasperated. “I’m a fucking idiot. That’s two weeks I could’ve spent with my kids.” He’ll be away from them for at least two years. They could be in kindergarten by the time he gets out.
“I want to see you go in,” says his sister. “Not because I don’t love you. But that’s the
only way you’re going to actually grow up.”
Mikey disagrees. “Prison ain’t gonna help. I’ll be a killer when I come out.”
Mikey turned his sister onto dope a couple years ago. He would bring the stuff over to her Petersburg trailer, and he and her boyfriend would geek. One night she got curious, dabbed a little in her drink. “I felt like I was having a heart attack,” she says. But after it settled and she was tweaked, she was hooked. Already a wiry 85 pounds, she dropped to 70. She grew paranoid, thinking cops were under the trailer and in the fields out back. She kept her kids home from school. “I just felt like I needed them here,” she says, but she was also afraid of what they might unwittingly tell teachers and other kids about what Mommy and Daddy were doing at home. (For school officials, the biggest indicator of parental meth use is decreased student attendance.)
Before long, Mikey’s sister’s boyfriend turned mean and abusive. Living in fear and a haze of addiction, he found it hard to hold a job. But after five years, the two decided it was time to quit. They started going to church and kicked the dope.
“Mikey still kept coming by, trying to sell us an eight-ball every now and again,” she says, looking at her brother.
“I felt bad,” says Mikey with a nervous burst of laughter. “But I needed their money so I could buy the shit to make more dope.” He notices his wife sitting on the swing, attending to her son. Quickly, he motions to his sister, who reluctantly sneaks him a Darvocet from her purse. Gesturing toward Melissa, he says, “She don’t want me taking pills.” Unlike Mikey’s, Melissa’s time at Stepping Stone seems to have been successful. Following 45 days in treatment, she’s trying to keep her family clean.
After lunch, Mikey’s sister and the kids leave. He bugs each one at least five times. Sorrow creeps over his face, but he doesn’t cry. “Don’t do no good to shed no tears,” he says. “Don’t change a thing.”
He decides to go for a drive, to blow off some of his frustration. He passes the jail, where he’ll most likely spend tomorrow night. Stopped at one of the Main Street lights, he breaks his uncharacteristic silence. “Other people brought it to me, but when it comes down to it, I brought it on myself.” Then a long pause. “When I get out, I can’t stay here. I’ve got to get out of this fucking town.”
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the October 2005 issue.