Part One of a six-part series
ELKO — Seated behind a glass pane and wearing a bright orange county-issued jail uniform, James Corgan is trying to remember how old he was when he first tried methamphetamine. He settles on 13.
He had been kicked out of Elko Junior High just prior for bringing weed to school, he remembered, and was working with one of his parents’ friends. The older teen was driving home after a long day at work, smoking meth from a light bulb as 13-year-old Corgan was holding the steering wheel.
“I was all, ‘Hey I can’t have none of that?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, whatever, just don’t tell your parents,’” Corgan said. “I took a hit of it and right then I was hooked. Right that minute. It was over.”
Corgan is 30 now, deeply enmeshed in meth use and drug dealing in the Elko community. Last week he was simultaneously facing seven court cases against him, his attorney said, each related to meth in some way.
Corgan insists that he wants to quit the drug, to start over somewhere else where his three prison sentences won’t follow him and where he can’t fall back on dealing.
“I hate what it has done to the community,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people hit rock bottom because I’ve put a lot of people there. I watch them go from having a perfect life, a perfect family, and drop all the way down to nothing, selling stuff and completely going homeless doing sexual favors for drugs.”
After three prison sentences, dozens of arrests, losing custody of his two young daughters, and being shot in the stomach in a January altercation, Corgan doesn’t think he’s hit rock bottom yet. What might that look like for Corgan in the future?
“Rock bottom would be completely dead, I guess,” Corgan said. “I’ve always had money, I was what you would call upper-class homeless. I always have the motel room, I always have $500 in my pocket, but I don’t have stability at all. So rock bottom would be dying. There’s nothing else left.”
So who is winning the war on meth?
Corgan said that right now, it’s not law enforcement.
“They don’t have a chance,” Corgan said. “Everyone here has so much money from the gold mines and sometimes its being put right into drugs. Look at your community. Look at what’s happening out there. This affects everyone from the bottom to the top.”
Meth use in Elko is a complicated monster. While drugs like heroin and spice wedge back into younger users’ habits, meth continues its path of destruction from its original heavy appearances in the late 1990s.
Also called dope, crystal, ice, crank, tweak, speed or rock, among other things, meth is a neurotoxin, a stimulant that affects the central nervous system and can cause psychosis, stroke, high body temperature, cardiac arrest, paranoia and depression. Users can smoke it, snort it, inject it or swallow it. It is described as instantly addictive and can send the user “running” into long periods of sleeplessness and mood-altered states of up to a month at a time.
Former user Jessica, who asked that we not use her last name, described the drug’s experience as the walking dead.
“Mentally and emotionally you are dead, even though you appear awake from the outside,” she said. “Using meth puts you in a world where nothing but that matters. Meth is the only thing you think about. There is no other drug like it.”
Meth can be manufactured anywhere from a large factory operation (common in Southern California or Mexico) to a 1-liter bottle in a bathroom. Users often have uncontrollable twitching, paranoia, itchy skin, rotting teeth, low body weight, sunken cheeks, dilated pupils, hyperactivity, violent behavior and skin sores.
There is no singular socioeconomic background associated with meth use, Elko Police Lt. Ty Trouten said in an interview last week.
The variables associated with meth can make it a difficult drug to combat, he said.
“There is no simple, clear solution to this problem, I’m afraid,” Trouten said. “We’re kind of just mowing the lawn at this point. When we hit one crop, another crop pops up in its place. This is not an easy problem to figure out and it’s ruining a lot of lives. I’ve been here 14 years and now I’m dealing with the kids of people I arrested earlier. Every once in a while I’ll see someone get clean and they’ll say, ‘I never knew there was a life like this.’”
Crimes associated with meth abuse, including burglary, gun theft, domestic violence, and prostitution, have risen in the last couple years, law enforcement sources say. The Elko Combined Narcotics Unit — the county’s anti-drug task force traditionally staffed with members from the state, Elko Police Department and sheriff’s office — is running with four people, a skeleton staff for operations addressing such a large issue.
The Elko police seized 23 pieces of meth-related evidence in 2010, 69 in 2012 and 55 so far in 2013. If the rate of seizure keeps up in 2013, it will nearly double from last year.
“People don’t understand how dangerous the drug really is,” Elko Police Capt. Will Lehmann said. “It’s addictive after the first use.”
Spring Creek resident Shirley Anderson, who used meth for more than a decade, said trying to get clean can be an overwhelming endeavor.
“You can’t stay around the friends you have and be successful in getting off meth,” she said. “You have to change your people, places and playgrounds. And a lot of people aren’t willing to do that. Or they die before they can.”
Sgt. David Wiskerchen, who has nearly two decades of experience with the West Wendover Police Department, agrees.
“In my time here it’s gone from a problem to a significant problem to a very significant problem,” he said. “It’s far reaching in that it goes from the very young to people in their older years. We’re a small enough community that we recognize faces and can see the physical effects of the drug. What used to be a healthy and vibrant individual is withered away to nothing.”
The problem is particularly acute for tribal police within the Western Shoshone Department of Public Safety, said Chief Andrew Neff.
“We know who the players are,” Neff said.
PACE Coalition Executive Director Cathy McAdoo sees evidence that meth use is decreasing in the youth populations but doesn’t want to ignore the drug’s concentrated effect on families.
“Meth use costs a community a lot,” she said. “But it’s not just a financial cost. There’s a human cost. The loss of a person or production from a job. There are health and behavioral losses and sometimes those can’t be measured. Meth is always a concern because it’s one of the most addictive drugs out there. It has the potential to cause greater, longer-term harm.”
Trouten said the first battle front in solving the meth issue is helping disconnect kids from the cycle of watching their parents do the drug.
When meth is your priority, he said, kids become secondary, and that can wreak havoc on family dynamics.
“It has to do with their home environment,” Trouten said. “No one is watching them or giving them the care they need. There’s a saying that you are the sum of the five people you associate with most. That’s a big problem for most addicts because their friends and family are addicts. They go right back to it because they haven’t developed a life outside of using.”
The Department of Child and Family Services maintains a methamphetamine protocol for social workers. The protocol, said DCFS Social Services Chief Chrystal Main, is necessitated by an increase in cases in Nevada and across the United States.
“A flood of incoming children whose meth-addicted parents cannot care for them is straining child-welfare systems,” one DCFS handout reads. “Complicating the problem is the fact that so many meth users live in rural areas, where social services are minimal.”
Assistant Chief Probation Officer Randy Shelley saw that peak in meth use among kids about five years ago.
“(Meth) was a plague,” Shelley said. “It has declined and a lot of that has to do with drug court.”
Larry Yeager credits drug court with keeping him clean for the last 10 years. Using meth and running drugs for a decade, Yeager was caught in a trafficking case when a judge brought him before the court.
“The judge said he’d see me again and that I didn’t care about my son and that I’d go back to using,” Yeager remembered. “He was pushing me. It was a challenge. And I proved him wrong. I got clean, I went back to court and got my son back and after a time the tribe allowed me to go back to the colony. I needed someone to push me.”
Yeager, now 41, grew up drinking and smoking weed. He was expelled from Elko High School and quickly fell into regular meth use.
Partying turned into dealing and dealing turned into running loads of drugs into Elko. It wasn’t until he was busted on the colony on a drug charge that it began to seem serious.
“At first it was wanting to live life to the fullest, like the rock star lifestyle with drinking and partying and having the time of your life,” Yeager said. “Then I was caught and they found me faking a drug test and I got sent away. I did 13 months. It’s not nice. I saw a lot of bad stuff in there that people don’t want to see in life, you know.”
Yeager found it hard to get back on his feet after he got out because he had a felony. He went back to using and dealing, and he served additional jail sentences. He said it was a habit, the easiest way to make money.
“It got bad,” he said. “I’d leave my son with my mom for a few hours and she’d be mad when I got back. I’d be like, ‘I was only gone for one night,’ and she’d be like, ‘No, you were gone for 10 days.’”
The longest run — time spent using the drug and not sleeping — he ever went on was 28 days. He remembers losing 100 pounds. His teeth went bad and he had to have them pulled. He acquired stones in his gall bladder. He was eventually diagnosed with diabetes.
But it’s the unrepairable effect on his family that hurts him the most, he said.
“I put the drug first before my family,” Yeager said. “I didn’t know how to make it better. I burned all those bridges because when you’re doing drugs and people owe you money you’ll go into their house and take whatever you want. I know what this does to people and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
But an interesting thing happened after he got busted on a possession charge. He recognized a way out. Drug court became an option to help treat his drug issues, assist him in communicating with the people he hurt, and to help him navigate the complicated legal web he’d been caught in. Judge Andrew Puccinnelli was guiding him and he was listening. Yeager began to think he could kick the habit, get his son back and find a way to exist without drugs.
He’s been clean for a decade.
Part of building his confidence and keeping him clean was holding down a job as a busboy at a local restaurant. He’s now their executive chef. He wants to see the community give felons a second chance, to help them try to turn it around.
“We can change this,” he said. “But it’s not going to be easy. We have to talk about some difficult things.”
One of the problems with meth abuse is that there is no clear-cut solution for preventing it. Breaking the familial cycle of use is one factor, but that involves complicated socioeconomic changes and addressing abuse on a social services level, law enforcement level, judicial level, therapeutic level and educational level.
McAdoo said that while their research shows that traditional programs like DARE don’t work to prevent meth use, they are still trying to pinpoint what will be most effective.
“We’ll make a difference in meth use, but marijuana will skyrocket,” she said. “Then we’ll focus on marijuana and the use of heroin or pills will skyrocket. It’s difficult to fight that on all fronts. But approaching it through fact-based education seems to be the best way so far, what our data supports as effective.”
Anderson and her husband Dirk credit their marriage, Alcoholics Anonymous, their church and prison time with helping them get sober, but they are also focused on talking about the problem as often as possible.
“If you don’t talk about it, you’ll go back,” Anderson said. “This is a bigger issue than anyone realizes. Only a few of us walk away from this addiction.”
Dirk Anderson is equally grateful and hopes that getting the word out about his own struggle will communicate to the community that the meth problem isn’t going away.
“I can honestly say I’m glad I got caught,” he said. “Other than not trying it from the start, that was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
For his part, Corgan hopes he gets a chance to feel the same way. He said he’s been clean for six months, although there were no drug tests available in his court file. He wants to quit, he said, but wonders if it might be impossible at this point.
“It becomes part of you, your normal. I think it’s part of my chemical compound now, you know?” Corgan said. “I didn’t understand at all when I was younger. I know now that it’ll take everything from you. Everything.”
Corgan was bound over to district court on five meth-related cases over the last few months. He is facing multiple felonies and may see more prison time. He’ll wait to see if this is the last straw that gets him clean, he said.
“All I’ve ever really wanted since being through all this stuff is having a family, raising kids and having a normal life,” he said. “But it won’t be here. It can’t be here.”
Next week: A look at the history of meth and how it is being abused in Elko County.