Life and Meth

Since the arrival of cheap, homemade speed in East Texas five years ago, the drug has torn apart countless families and turned kids into addicts—and there’s no end in sight.

June 2004By Comments

Until five or six years ago, Kent Graham, a narcotics investigator from Nacogdoches County, could count on finding one or two methamphetamine labs a year. Now, strangers stop Graham at the grocery store or take him aside at Wal-Mart—one man even approached him when he was hunting ducks—to tell him about the neighbors who are making homemade speed or the house down the street where it is being sold. Since 1999, while assigned to the Deep East Texas Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, Graham has tracked down more than 350 meth labs in the Piney Woods. He has found meth ingredients in motel rooms, car trunks, mobile homes, suitcases, sheds, toolboxes, and clearings in the woods. Some labs have been sophisticated operations equipped with professional-grade glassware and surveillance systems; others have had just a hot plate, a couple of Pyrex bowls, and ingredients bought at the hardware store. “Pretty much any place you can think of, someone has cooked dope there,” he said. “It gets so bad that I’ll tell my partner, ‘Well, I’m not on meth, and you’re not on meth. So that’s two of us.’”

One afternoon in March, Graham and I climbed into his pickup and drove to an unincorporated community on the banks of the Angelina River, the first of many places he would show me where meth has taken root. It was one of the early days of spring, and the red-clay soil and blue sky spread out before us. Graham turned off of U.S. 59 and steered toward the river, down county roads where the pines grew so densely that the afternoon looked as if it had turned to dusk. Graham, who is 38, works in plainclothes; that day, he was wearing his usual faded blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a beat-up ball cap pulled down over his longish, sandy hair. His stories usually involve a hunting feat—shooting a ten-point buck that he came upon unexpectedly or stopping a wild boar in its tracks—but as he drove, he talked about meth. “All along this river, you have the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of bootleggers and moonshiners,” he said. “In the old days, they made their own whiskey. Now it’s meth. Sometimes the whole family is cooking dope.”

Graham drove farther into the woods, until the roads began to dead-end. “Meth is the most destructive thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. Part of its allure in a region hit hard by unemployment is that its high comes cheap: Twenty-five dollars buys a dose, or about a quarter of a gram, that lasts for a full twelve hours. The initial euphoria gives way to an exhilarating surge of energy, making people feel powerful, self-assured, and capable of doing anything—“like Superman,” said one former user. That has a deep pull in a place where logging jobs have become scarce and paper mills have shut their doors. Its wreckage was all around us as Graham drove toward the river; we were less than two hours north of Houston, but the ruined landscape seemed to have no point of reference. We passed burned-out trailers and “No Trespassing” signs and clotheslines that sagged with laundry. Yards were strewn with trash; the hulls of junked cars sat rusting in the weeds. Every so often, Graham would point out his window. “There was a meth lab here . . . and in that trailer . . . and in that house over there,” he would say, gesturing toward an abandoned building or a double-wide whose windows were covered with blankets.

When he could go no farther, Graham turned around, and we headed back to Nacogdoches, where an investigation waited for him. Jessie Wolf, Tyler County’s newly elected sheriff, had recently called Graham about a suspected meth lab, and Graham needed to pay him a visit. Wolf was in a bind; he had only two deputies patrolling the entire county at any given time, and no one on his payroll knew much about investigating meth labs. Graham and his partner, Kim Courtney, went to see Wolf in his office in Woodville, about seventy miles south of Nacogdoches. “We’ve got some folks down in Spurger who are selling meth out of a house right in the middle of town,” Wolf told them. “It’s an old farmhouse, around the corner from the Baptist church.” He added that an infant had died in its sleep there a few months earlier, of natural causes. He had no other information except the name of the man in Spurger who had first called the sheriff’s department to report suspicious behavior around the house. “See what you can do,” Wolf said.

METHAMPHETAMINE IS EASY ENOUGH TO MAKE that a fifteen-year-old boy from the East Texas town of Center, who had never taken a day of high school chemistry, told me in less than five minutes exactly how to cook it. The ingredients run about $100, and most of them can be found at Wal-Mart. Cooking “old dope,” or the speed that was used a generation ago, took skill; it required a basic understanding of chemistry, professional-grade lab equipment, and some land out in the country where the strong cooking odor it produced would not attract attention. When its key ingredient, phenyl-2-propanone, became harder to buy after a federal law was passed in the late eighties, speed cooks invented an easier process that relied instead on ephedrine, the active ingredient in non-drowsy cold medicine. Rather than needing days, the new method took three hours and gave off a less acrid smell; the only complication was that the process used highly flammable ingredients and often sparked fires. It first became popular in the Midwest, then migrated down to North Texas and the Panhandle before making inroads in East Texas in the late nineties. Techniques vary from region to region, but most meth cooks in the Piney Woods use what is called the “red phosphorus method.” All it requires are some pH strips, Pyrex bowls, coffee filters, a hot plate, matchbooks, and six main ingredients: Sudafed, Drano, paint thinner, acetone, muriatic acid, and iodine crystals.

Because meth is made with corrosive chemicals—some cooks also use lye or battery acid—the drug wreaks havoc on addicts’ bodies. Teeth loosen, hair thins, skin breaks out in sores. Chronic users look drawn and withered. “If we go into their old photos of them when they looked normal,” said Cheri Quick, the supervisor of Child Protective Services (CPS) for Angelina County, which borders Nacogdoches County to the south. “Now they’re losing their hair, their teeth. They look twenty or thirty years older than they are. You can see how the deterioration happened in such a short time.” Addicts are usually too wired to sleep and will stay up for days, or even a week or longer. During these stretches, they have little interest in food or water. Paranoia and delusions often set in. “I used to sit on my couch with the curtains drawn, listening to every sound,” said one former addict, Michelle, a mother in her forties. “I knew there were people out there in the trees watching me. I’d sit there all night and watch the shadows come alive.” She hadn’t used meth in two weeks, she said, and she was trying to quit for good. “I’ve done speed forever, and this dope is different. You didn’t see or hear things on old dope. This kind makes you real paranoid, and it’s a hallucinogenic. You’re schizzing all the time.”

One dose of meth triggers the brain to release a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which quickens the heart, speeds up metabolism, and creates a sense of euphoria. Recreational use of the drug—which can be smoked, snorted, or injected—often turns into full-blown physical dependency. After continual use, the body stops releasing dopamine on its own; withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, depression, and anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure. Because the chemistry of meth is similar to Ritalin, people who are using the drug often turn their attention to one thing and tackle it with fanatical concentration. “Whatever you’re normally into becomes an obsession: sex, fixing your car, cleaning your house,” Michelle said. Addicts will take apart old TVs or pick at scabs or have sex for hours on end. A 48-year-old mother of two whom I met in a rehab center in Lufkin told me that she became fixated with keeping house when she was addicted to meth. She alphabetized the cans in her kitchen and shampooed her carpet every single day, scrubbing away imagined dirt until she wore holes down to the floorboards. Consumed by housework, she was unable to do even basic parenting. “I looked up one day and my house was spotless, but my kids weren’t fed,” she said.

Studies on rural meth use in Texas are scarce, but around the Piney Woods, most people will tell you that they know someone—a friend, a co-worker, a relative—who is addicted. Drug recovery centers are overwhelmed; court dockets are backed up with meth manufacturing cases; jails are filled with people booked on charges of possession. “The first question we ask now when we get a call about an abusive parent is ‘Are they on meth?’” said Quick. “Meth wasn’t on our radar screen seven or eight years ago. Now it’s responsible for a third of our caseload.” Family court is no different. “Most of the divorce cases I see now involve meth,” said Angelina County court-at-law judge Lisa Burkhalter, who rarely heard about the drug when she worked as a local prosecutor in the nineties. “I had one child-custody case in which both of the parents—and three out of the four grandparents—tested positive for meth. The only person in the whole family who was clean was one of the grandmothers, and she was on probation for cooking it.”

Because meth is made in the home, the addiction sometimes takes hold of entire families. The three teenage addicts I met were introduced to speed not by friends but by a parent, an aunt, or an uncle. One of them was a sixteen-year-old, Christina (her name has been changed), who was under house arrest for meth possession. She had recently failed both of her mandated drug tests. She was a pale, moody girl with a blue tattoo on her arm. Her family—and she, by extension—had a long history of substance abuse. “I’ve never been a straight-up, happy person,” she said by way of explanation. “Meth helped me feel more normal.” She had first tried it when she was twelve years old. “A bunch of us were smoking weed and playing cards at my aunt’s house. That was the hangout place. My aunt wanted me to try it, but my stepdad’s sister was the one who gave it to me. I snorted a line, and I thought I was going to pass out. My heart was racing so fast I thought it was going to pop out of my chest. My ears were buzzing and my vision was blacking out. I had to wrap my legs around my chair to keep myself from falling down. I got sick, and then I had this huge wave of energy. I felt like I could do anything, like I was totally invincible.” At first, she used meth on the weekends, at her aunt’s house. “When I was fourteen, I started using it almost every day with my friends.”

Christina lived with her grandmother, but her immediate family was never far away. “My mom and dad both used,” she said. “I’d stop by to see one of them, and we’d do it together. That was our way of connecting.” She remembered one night she spent with her father when he became so paranoid that he ordered her to patrol the land behind his house. “My dad gave me a pellet gun and a flashlight,” Christina said. “He had me crawl around in this field, Army-style, in the dark. He was yelling, ‘Shoot those MFers in the trees!’ And I was right there with him, crawling on the ground, seeing people in the trees, scared out of my mind.” One of Christina’s uncles cooked meth, and sometimes he asked her to run to the store to buy something he needed for it, like boxes of cold medicine. Her boyfriend dealt it before he went to jail last year. “I started hating the taste, the smell of it, but I still did it,” Christina said. “It was just something to do. My boyfriend and I couldn’t even stay awake on it after a while. I guess that’s pretty amazing, you know, two fifteen-year-olds with such a high tolerance that we’d fall asleep after doing a line.”

Christina was pessimistic about her ability to shake the addiction. Her best friend, who was pregnant, was still using meth, and she felt guilty for having introduced her to it. “There’s no future for me,” she said. “I’m tangled up in it. My family’s tangled up in it.” When I asked her how many people she was close to who were addicted to meth, she thought for a second, then reeled off a list, counting on her fingers until she had used both hands. “My mom, my dad, my stepdad, my best friend, my boyfriend, my aunt, and four or five uncles,” she said. She smiled, as if marveling at her own bad luck. “Misery loves company.”

KENT GRAHAM AND HIS PARTNER left the Tyler County sheriff’s department and drove to Spurger. Graham knew the town—he had hunted deer in the surrounding woods as a boy—but he had no local informants; Tyler County had recently signed on with the task force, and he had not had time yet to make contacts. Spurger is a town of 472 people, a wide place in the road with one blinking yellow light. The community was small enough that any investigation of the local meth operation would be hard to keep secret for long.

Graham turned down its quiet, tree-lined streets until he arrived at the address of the man who had first contacted the sheriff’s department about the old farmhouse. A woman answered the door. Her husband was not home, she said, but she could tell them what she had seen and heard around town. She, like many others, had taken note of the house that lay just off the main drag. On beautiful days, she said, the blinds remained closed. Even when it was hot outside, smoke came out of the vents, as if its residents were cooking something. The lights were often on all night. Nobody who lived there seemed to have a job, she said. There were always lots of cars parked there for short amounts of time and then gone. She had even heard talk at the beauty parlor that there was a strange odor in the house that smelled like meth was being cooked. Before Graham left, the woman handed him a list of license plate numbers that she had stopped to jot down whenever she drove by the house.

Graham needed to find a local resident who would agree to wear a wire into the house; if the informant could make a buy, Graham would have probable cause for a search warrant. He contacted the Tyler County district attorney’s office, and in a few days, he had located a man who was awaiting sentencing in a meth possession case who would work undercover in hopes of getting a shorter prison term. (Some details have been changed to protect his identity.) For his trouble, he would be paid $100. “If you could get Ward Cleaver to buy dope, that would be great,” Graham explained. “Unfortunately, you have to use a crook to catch a crook.” The risk to the informant was high; word travels fast in a small town. He and Graham met in the parking lot of the Woodville Wal-Mart, a half hour’s drive away, and talked over the ground rules inside Graham’s truck: He was not allowed to do any meth during the buy and was to make up a plausible excuse if he was offered any. The informant was a pale, rangy speed addict in his early twenties, and he nodded morosely as he listened to Graham explain exactly how he would help catch his friends. “This is going to cost you,” the informant said.

Later that afternoon, at a clearing in the woods outside Spurger, they met again. The informant paced back and forth nervously under the pine trees, dragging on a cigarette. Graham put a wire on him and fastened an antenna to his truck that would pick up the sound of the hidden microphone. Then Graham followed him, at a safe distance, to the house. From his truck, he monitored the brief transaction inside, sometimes straining to hear the conversation through the static feed of the informant’s body wire.

“You want a bump?” the dealer could be heard asking, slapping his own arm as he searched for a vein.

“Nah, I’m fixing to do it with my girl,” the informant said.

He emerged from the house a few minutes later, and Graham followed him as he drove back to the clearing in the woods. The informant dug a gram of meth out of his pocket and handed it over. At Graham’s request, he made a map of the interior of the house, sketching out the layout of each room. “If my momma knew what I was doing now . . .” he said, shaking his head.

“You’re doing good,” Graham assured him.

The informant frowned, as if the cop knew nothing. “Well, if they find out it’s me, they will burn my house down,” he said.

“NO ONE ELSE AROUND HERE was working meth five years ago; I was it,” Graham said afterward as we drove back to Nacogdoches. “I didn’t have a clue how to even start. None of us knew much about meth. We had to make it up as we went along.” In the late nineties, a string of house fires—accidentally sparked by amateur meth cooks—heralded meth’s arrival. “There were houses going up right and left,” he said. “We’d always find a jug of muriatic acid inside or some iodine crystals and acetone.” Graham had already worked narcotics for five years in Nacogdoches County, first as a patrol officer intercepting drugs as they were ferried north on U.S. 59 out of Houston and later as an investigator for the Deep East Texas Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force. After the rash of house fires, he was told to devote himself to tracking down meth labs full-time. His beat, which covered Nacogdoches County, where the task force was overseen by the sheriff’s department and the four counties that helped pay for the task force’s assistance—Angelina, Houston, Shelby, and San Augustine—spanned five thousand square miles. He had little to go on at first other than a handful of leads: a few names of suspected meth cooks that neighbors had called in to a police hotline.

Wearing street clothes, Graham paid each one a visit. He knocked on doors, explaining who he was and who he worked for. “We’ve heard that you might be cooking dope around here,” he would say offhandedly, as if he were talking about the latest change in the weather. “Would you mind if I took a look around?” Graham speaks unhurriedly, usually with a wad of snuff tucked under his lip, and his manner put people at ease; strangers, even those who shouldn’t have, usually let him in. Soon Graham had informants who were calling him with tips. “If we didn’t find three labs a week, it was unusual,” he said. “Once we did three in a day. The only thing that kept us from busting more was that we’d get tired. I’d drive home at night and think, ‘Good Lord, this place is just eaten up with this stuff.’”

Graham needed a partner, and in 2001 he found Kim Courtney, a third-generation cop from Palestine who had made hundreds of cases by working undercover, from $20 crack buys to major meth lab busts. Courtney had been the valedictorian of her police academy class and went on to receive one of the DEA’s highest accolades, the Administrator’s Award of Honor, for her undercover work, but her strength lay in her ability to make men think she was just a pretty face. She had been a twirler in high school, and she knew how to play the part. “When I’m undercover, I always act like a dumb blonde, and I giggle a lot,” she said. “If people start asking me too many questions about who I am, I’ll get up in their face and say, ‘Why are you getting all in my business? I’m not getting in your business!’ And they always back down.” If Courtney cocks her head to the side and lets loose a barrage of abusive language, she can transform herself from the woman she is—an attractive, fortyish mother of two who always double-checks the mirror to make sure her lipstick isn’t smudged—into a foul-mouthed, strung-out crack addict in need of a fix. “Nobody’s better,” said Graham.

For both Graham and Courtney, undercover operations are dangerous work. During one deal, a meth cook made a point of showing Courtney his machine gun. “If any cops come out here, this is how I’ll take care of them,” he told her. Graham had his cover blown during a meth deal in Shelby County when the woman who came to the door recognized him. “I said into my wire, ‘It’s not looking real good for the home team right now,’” Graham remembered. “I was easing my hand toward my back pocket when everyone in the room decided to clear out.”

Graham has better luck working with informants who agree to wear a wire while making a meth buy. This establishes probable cause, which allows Graham to obtain a search warrant, organize a group of local sheriff’s deputies, and raid the house. But that too can be dangerous. The more advanced meth cooks have surveillance cameras, radio scanners, night-vision goggles, guns, and explosives. Sometimes meth labs are booby-trapped; the first one Graham entered, in 1999, had an electric current running through its front doorknob. Earlier this year, he called the ATF into a lab after finding a homemade bomb. “We’ve been lucky,” Graham said. “These people are very volatile. By the time we find them, maybe they’ve been up for ten days or they’re in a state of psychosis. They spend a lot of their time thinking about cops.” He recounted some of their paranoid fantasies: “They’ll say, ‘We’ve been expecting you. We saw you in the trees.’ Or they’ll tell us that they know about our special hologram projectors or our helicopters that fly in ‘whisper mode.’”

During a raid, after the entry team has handcuffed everyone inside, Graham and Courtney strap on respirators and what they call their “bunny suits”: the white jumpsuits that are usually worn by Hazmat teams. Dismantling a lab is often more dangerous than the raid itself. If an amateur meth cook has mixed the wrong ingredients or heated them too quickly, the air inside can be noxious or potentially combustible. Red phosphorus is particularly dangerous; when it burns, it turns into a lethal, odorless nerve gas. Federal law requires anyone who dismantles meth labs to be certified by the DEA, and both Graham and Courtney have received training at the agency’s headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. The polluted interior of a meth lab can look otherworldly. “I had to take down a wall in a mobile home once, just to get it ventilated,” he said. “The air inside was cloudy.”

Inside meth labs, Graham often finds children. “You’ve got a whole generation of kids being brought up who are watching Mom and Dad cooking dope,” he said. “This is normal life to them. Dad’s in the trees with his binoculars, looking out for cops. Meanwhile they have no food. They’re dirty and carrying around bottles of spoiled milk. They’re exposed to everyone who comes into their house to buy meth, people who will take advantage of them in any way they can. These are people who are oversexualized because of the drug, so we see a lot of incest and sexual abuse.” He can recite a litany of cases. There was the man who got his teenage daughter hooked and then sold her body out for the drug. The baby who was found crawling on a floor covered with dirty needles. The man who kept his son out of school because the teenager could cook better speed. The child who was brutally beaten when his addicted mother flew into a rage. “It’s the kids that get to you,” Graham said.

Sometimes the futility of it all can get to Graham. Most of the people he arrests plead out to lesser charges and see little prison time. For each cook he puts away, there is always another guy who has decided to start making speed himself. Of the hundreds of people he has arrested, he knows of only fifteen who have sought treatment and only one who has stayed clean. He takes comfort in the fact that things could be worse. “If no one had been working meth these past few years, there’s no telling how bad it would be now,” he said.

A few weeks after the informant’s meth buy in Spurger, Graham returned to Tyler County with a search warrant in hand. He met with a county judge, who read through the document, signed it, and wished Graham good luck. Later that afternoon, behind closed doors at the sheriff’s department, Graham held a briefing for everyone who would help execute the raid: Sheriff Wolf, his deputies, Courtney, two other task force members, and the local game warden. Graham went over the layout of the house and assigned officers to the entry team. Before heading to Spurger, he fielded questions about the dealer they hoped to arrest. “I don’t know if this guy’s going to be violent,” Graham warned the group. “We should assume he will be.”

“He got in a knife fight a little while back,” offered one sheriff’s deputy.

“Well, I want everyone to leave the house the way they came in,” Graham said. “I don’t know if there will be weapons, but expect them.”

“We have reason to believe there will be children in the house?” asked a CPS worker who had been asked to come along.

“Yes, a ten-year-old boy.”

“Any dogs?” one of the deputies asked.

“I don’t know. We do know that he has a police scanner, so no talking on the radio. We need radio silence until entry has been made.”

At the end of the meeting, the team suited up in bulletproof vests and loaded their pistols. The team piled into the backs of two pickups and crouched down out of view. After a bumpy half-hour ride through the woods, the two pickups took a hard left turn into town and pulled up to the white farmhouse.

Sheriff’s deputy Elbert “Bubba” Sheffield led the entry team, running up the front walkway with half a dozen officers behind him. “Police!” he called out before kicking in the front door. “Search warrant!”

The door swung open, and deputy Sheffield saw a boy who looked to be about ten years old standing motionless, halfway down the stairs inside the house. His father was a few feet away, frantically trying to pull something out of his pocket. “Get down on the floor!” the deputy yelled at the man. “On the floor! Put your hands behind your back!”

“Please don’t hurt my dad!” the boy screamed.

Behind him, inside the house, the entry team saw windows covered with blankets and black plastic. There was little light except for the glare of a bare bulb. Pink insulation hung from the ceiling through cracks that ran the length of the kitchen. A pot of stew that was days old sat on the stovetop, rotting. Parts of the floor were damp and covered in piles of unwashed clothes. Propane bottles lay scattered across the living room. The tinny, magnified sound of a police radio scanner echoed through the house.

The man was handcuffed and led outside. “What are they doing to my dad?” his son asked, trembling. “I want to be with my dad.” He looked up at the officers in black bulletproof vests holding guns.

“What’s going on?” the man’s wife asked, incredulous, as she was also led away by a sheriff’s deputy. She was in her twenties, but most of her teeth were missing. She was slight, and her skin was covered with sores.

“I’m sorry, baby,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s bullshit.”

Sheriff’s deputies fanned out across the house. Closets were opened, drawers were emptied, the attic searched. The officers found no glassware or pH strips, no red phosphorus or muriatic acid. The garage held nothing but empty boxes. It soon became clear that the local supply of meth was being cooked somewhere else. The house contained several grams of meth, a few glass pipes, and more than $1,000 in cash but no lab. Outside, Courtney read the handcuffed woman her Miranda rights. The CPS worker asked her if she wanted to place her son in the care of a family member while she was in jail. The woman became hysterical. “What have I done?” she shrieked.

Courtney held up a plastic bag of meth that had been found. “You’ve got kids running around this house and you don’t know where this came from?” she said. “I guess it just fell out of the sky.”

Her son sat on the back of a pickup, his head buried in his lap. Every now and then, he wiped tears away with his knees. After a few minutes had passed, the CPS worker gently told him that it was time to go. “I don’t want to go,” the boy said. “I want to be with my dad.” The social worker talked to him until the boy finally relented. “I love you, Momma!” he called out, as he followed the man to his car. Just before he climbed inside, he broke away and ran to his father, hugging him around the waist. His father stood rigidly above him in handcuffs. The boy finally let go and walked back to the car. As the car pulled away, he turned in his seat, craning for a view of his father.

LATER THAT EVENING, back at the task force office in Nacogdoches, Graham sat under the fluorescent lights, studying the meth that was seized in the raid. The powder was bright white and crystalline, as jagged as broken glass. He rarely saw meth that clean—the kind made with laboratory-grade equipment, from a large-scale meth operation—and he knew that the Spurger drug bust could lead him to meth cooks higher up the food chain. All Graham could hope for was that the boy’s father would start talking and lead him to his supplier.

Before he turned out the lights and headed home, Graham asked the question that had been nagging him all evening. “Who do you think that kid thinks is the bad guy: his dad or the cops who hauled him off to jail?” he said. “His dad is his hero. This is the only life he knows. In ten years, we’ll be looking for him.”

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