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‘This stuff takes your soul': Meth's grip squeezes the life from families

What does the local methamphetamine problem look like through the eyes of those experiencing it most?

Posted on March 18, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

To read more about the meth problem in the words of the addicts, click here.

GOSHEN — Elkhart County has a methamphetamine problem, and nobody knows how to solve it. At least not completely.

“It takes your soul. This stuff takes your soul,” said Cliff Williams.

Williams,the county's chief public defender, deals with hundreds of people whose lives have been consumed by the drug. The Vietnam veteran said of the drug's impact, “It's horrible. It's the worst thing I've seen in my life, the self destruction.”

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Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker, who handles many of the county's meth cases, recently began asking those most into the drug what can be done about it.

Shewmaker posed the question to Jessica Foster last month at her sentencing for meth manufacturing.

Foster thought about it and replied, “I'm not sure. I think it's different from person to person.”

The judge asked, “What makes a person who's been relatively successful up through high school start using drugs in high school?” He noted that Foster started meth a dozen years ago, when she was 18.

Foster said she got into it because of “social influence. I was mostly scared of being alone. It draws people to you. Not necessarily friends, but people. Probably, obviously, not the right kind of people.”

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Williams said women are sometimes the hardest hit by the drug. “It is a very intoxicating aphrodisiac and it's a seduction tool. Once you get a woman into that, you basically own her … the women who get hooked into it by these predators, they forget about their kids. That's horrible, horrible.”

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Matthew LeCount's story is a common one in Elkhart County.

“I have no idea how you stop someone from doing drugs,” he said. ”I personally wish I'd never done it. But even when I did try it I did like it, because it was something I used as a crutch to do more work or get some things done without being tired. I used it as a crutch and I wish I never had.”

At his sentencing for making the drug, the 31-year-old man said last month, “I worked in a trailer factory, working long hours. Someone was like, ‘Hey, try this.' I tried it and I liked it and that was a bad choice on my part.”

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Williams said many people get hooked on the drug at work. “You've got the workplace where productivity is required, and according to some of my clients, the people running the workplace look the other way.”

Jeff Majerek, another public defender, said, “It seems to make you productive, perhaps recklessly productive … what starts as something to help them work more hours or work two jobs, all of a sudden their life goes out of control and they're not making any money.”

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Gary Martin II knows the iron grip of methamphetamine. He served time for a 2002 charge and went back to prison for violating probation. He also served time for a 2004 charge of meth possession.

“I wish there was some way for me to explain my addiction to that drug. I know it's mangled and tore apart my entire life,” he told Shewmaker at his sentencing last month.

“I've spent a good portion of my life in prison over this drug. It's the third time I've been convicted of charges dealing with meth.

“I've got kids, a family. I really wasn't a bad person until I started getting addicted to this drug. I don't know what to do. I thought the last time I got out of prison that I had some kind of hold on this, and I did good for a year. Somehow I ended up slipping again, you know?”

Later in his conversation with the judge, Martin, 28, said, “I'm devastated. My family, my girlfriend, my kids, they're all devastated over this. She never touched a drug in her life and yet she watched me ruin mine, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.”

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Majerek said Martin's case isn't unusual. “They're losing their lives, their wives, their kids. I'm seeing more and more broken families.”

When they get caught – often because of the smell of the manufacturing process, Majerek said — meth addicts are shocked to learn that legally, they're treated the same as dealers, even if they're just making it for themselves.

“If they've got a 5-year-old, they're not going to see him until he's 9 or 10, and that's the lowest level manufacturing cases,” he said.

Majerek and Williams have each represented hundreds of people in meth cases in Elkhart County, just like other local public defenders.

According to Indiana University's Indiana Prevention Resource Center, more Indiana 10th-graders have used meth than the national average. In 2011, 2.8 percent of Indiana high school seniors reported having used the drug, well above the national average of 2.3 percent, according to a statewide study.

Since 2007, even sixth-graders have reported meth use on statewide surveys.

Meth is highly addictive, according to the IPRC. It affects the central nervous system, increases appetite, wakefulness, blood pressure and heart rate and ultimately leads to insomnia, anxiety, confusion, mood disturbances, delusions and hallucinations, according to the center.

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While the Indiana Department of Correction has intensive programs to deal with drug addictions and specifically meth, treatment isn't sure-fire.

Mark Hilton started using the drug casually. That casual use turned into a full-blown addiction, one that will interrupt the next several years of the 46-year-old Middlebury man's life.

Hilton said the best way to deal with meth is “stay away from it.”

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The first time Williams went to see April Trosper in jail, she basically told him, “Don't let me out or I'll use today,” Williams told Shewmaker at Trosper's sentencing March 8.

Williams hopes that the 40-year-old can beat her addiction, in part due to her support system.

Her long-time friend William Knight is part of that system. “Miss Trosper and I, unfortunately, have a criminal history together as well as a long-going friendship. I'd say through most of the 2000s that we were both involved with crime and drugs and it was a pretty dark time for both of us,” Knight said.

“I personally went through treatment — I went through treatment at the Salvation Army in Fort Wayne — and since then I've surrounded myself with other recovering addicts. It's been a great thing. It's been very uplifting, very positive and very strong to not only maintain my sobriety but also their sobriety. We work and feed off each other,” he said.

Trosper said beating the addiction won't be easy. “I know I've been chasing my addiction around in circles for years. I know if I don't get help I will come back. I don't want to come back to jail,” she told a pre-sentence investigator.

Shewmaker told Trosper that after she gets out of prison he hopes Knight and his support group “are there for you, but I hope neither you nor they lead the other one down the wrong path when you get out. Methamphetamine's a tough one to give up.”

Trosper agreed. “Yeah, and I feel I have to be there for me before I can let them be there for me.”

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The drug isn't the only thing addicting, Majerek said. Some people who like to drink find extra satisfaction by drinking beer they brewed themselves or wine they made. Some people get extra enjoyment out of marijuana they've grown, he said.

“What's sometimes more addictive than doing methamphetamine is the power that comes from making it,” Majerek said.

“Think of any other intoxicating material out there that anybody on the street could make within an hour and be doing it,” he said.

It's so easy to make the stuff that “the big dealer's kind of being washed out in this area. You don't need the big Mexican cartel dealer when you can make it yourself and hope you're not poisoning your kids and trashing your house.”

In talking with the hundreds of meth-addicted clients he's served, “when they get started they never think they're going to be one of those people who are going to lose their teeth, have heart problems, have scabs all over their bodies,” Majerek said.

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The problem is one that's exploded in the last 15 years. Elkhart County saw its first meth lab in 1999; in 2009, there were 109 labs, according to Indiana State Police. There were 71 meth labs in the county in 2010 and another 71 in 2011, according to state police numbers.

There are only so many resources the state can use to try to address the problem. The prison meth-treatment program is the CLIFF program, “Clean Lifestyle is Freedom Forever.” It has a good reputation behind bars, with some Elkhart County meth inmates asking for it by name at sentencing.

It's a comprehensive treatment program to help inmates restructure their thinking and behavior and develop a comprehensive plan to avoid relapses when they get out.

Space in the program is limited, though. In 2009, the latest numbers available, only 371 inmates successfully completed the program.

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Getting private treatment is an option, too, but it's one out of reach for most meth users.

Foster, the woman sentenced last month, said before she ever came to court that she and her family looked at treatment options. “We looked into rehab together, but the cheapest one that my mom had found was $8,000,” she said at her sentencing hearing.

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The addictive nature of the drug and the sheer ease of making it may not bode well for the future.

The two issues play off each other. “When they're manufacturing it locally they're making the purest form and the strongest form they can make,” Sgt. Niki Crawford of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Team told the Associated Press last month.

Nationally, meth lab busts were up again last year, with Indiana in third place, according to an Associate Press survey released a few weeks ago. Michigan also placed in the top 10.

According to the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment by the U.S. Justice Department, “methamphetamine prices have declined steadily since peaking in 2007, purity levels have increased concurrently.” Lab seizures in the great lakes region have grown every year since 2007, according to the NDTA, an effort of the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.

The number of people 12 and older starting meth use has been growing, according to the NDTA.

Surveying the local landscape, Majerek said, “I think we're just seeing the beginning of it. I don't see it going away because it's so easy to make.”

Details from the sentencings for Foster, LeCount, Martin, Hilton, Trosper and two others are available here at eTruth.com.


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