'It’s a monster’

Meth in Moody County

Moody County is not immune to the growing meth problem and its related crimes.

In 2015, there were 28 felony ingestion cases in the county and 41 possession arrests, according to numbers kept by Moody County State’s Attorney Paul Lewis. The following year, there were 59 ingestion arrests and 82 possession charges, numbers that are a good indication of meth arrests versus other drugs. The numbers for 2017 won’t be finalized until mid-summer, he said.

“It’s a monster,” Lewis said.

The trend keeps holding strong, said Flandreau Police Chief Zach Weber recently. “It seems about in the last two months we’ve had a lot more than ever before.”

Maybe law enforcement is looking for meth users more or maybe they are stopping the right people, he said. “It’s prevalent around here. It’s not going anywhere at this point.”

The reason for a climb in meth cases are many and varied, those involved in the legal system say. Recently, one arrest led to three people in one car being charged with possession.

“We are in between two very large counties. We are on an interstate that is very heavily traveled from the Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border,” Lewis said. “We’re only off the interstate by seven miles. We have a gaming facility. That’s a draw. It’s an adult playground over there.”

In addition, a portion of the community is transient, he said.

Where the meth comes from is in part answered by the good route Interstate 29 offers.

“I think they’re going from the south to the north,” Lewis said of the distribution pipeline.

Weber said he sees meth coming in from larger nearby cities, including Sioux Falls, Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D.

“Then it goes onto the reservation,” where it is broken up into smaller quantities to sell, he said. “It’s definitely not just a reservation issue. That’s just where it’s coming in.”

Flandreau, like any community has dealers, Weber said. So far, most arrests have included people who use meth and typically not those who make it or distribute the drug. The cases can be frustrating because law enforcement and the court often see repeat offenders and lenient sentences.

“Our judicial system is flawed in that aspect where it’s too much a slap on the wrist than an actual consequence,” Weber said.

Punishment varies

South Dakota law is cracking down on those who make or distribute the drugs. But those who are caught breaking the law using the drug rarely serves prison time, even if they are repeat offenders, Lewis said.

He calls the punishment “a hug and a handshake,” something that frustrates and discourages prosecutors.

Defense lawyer Bob Pesall of Flandreau said those who break the law by using meth do sometimes get prison sentences if there are aggravating circumstances or repeated charges. But under the law, judges have discretion and can give probation and a suspended sentence as an incentive for users to get treatment.

When Pesall started taking court-appointed cases nearly a dozen years ago, he doesn’t recall any meth arrests. Now he defends about 50 cases a year as one of two court-appointed lawyers in Moody County. Meth accounts for about half of his court-appointed cases, he said.

“Meth is a very troublesome drug. It’s very addictive. It’s hard to quit,” he said. That leads to clients who sometimes get charges added onto previous charges or charges in multiple counties, he said.

Defense lawyer Jason Unger of Flandreau also sees repeat offenders because of the addiction issues with meth. Meth cases are among his top three most frequent in the county, along with drunk driving and marijuana charges

“I know it’s getting worse,” he said.

In addition, there are too few places to treat those who need help, he said.

“A lot of these drug cases end up being more like counseling,” he said. Many defendants plead guilty because there is evidence of use. But with treatment facilities overwhelmed, there is a need for more spots to send those who are addicted. A “hug and a handshake” is a good approach when dealing with addicts who want to make a change, he said.

“We’re trying to avoid prison time. We’re trying to get people treatment help as opposed to criminal punishment,” he said.

Many of the people he sees with local meth charges live elsewhere, Unger said. He also knows of only a couple of cases in the county this year that included charges of distribution and hasn’t seen a specific link between meth charges and the local reservation, other than people using a hotel room to break up the drug.

“I don’t think we’re a meth haven. There’s certainly more that there should be,” he said. “I think it’s a dangerous drug for any individual to be dealing with. For that reason alone, I think it’s bad for the community.”

Social costs

While use of meth continues to increase, its prevalence leads to other problems in homes, at work and on the street. The county has seen aggravated assault and abuse and neglect cases that have involved meth use. It also increases the cost of police protection and prosecution for the city and county.

“We’ve had a handful of abuse and neglect cases … where methamphetamine was a big part of it,” Lewis said. “This is completely destructive on families. It’s very unfortunate the consequences children face as the results of their parents and guardians.”

In addition, addicts tend not to keep jobs and can resort to other crimes, such as thefts, to pay for their habits, Lewis and Weber say. Those high on meth also endanger others by driving.

“They don’t see they’re hurting somebody…all they’re worried about is getting money for their next fix,” Weber said.

His department also has gone on abuse calls, including one case in which the meth dealer sexually assaulted the user’s preteen child.

So far, the county hasn’t seen a homicide linked to meth use.

“But I’m not foolish enough to say we’re not going to have a capital case,” Lewis said. “We probably will.”

Meth use can make users paranoid and is extremely addictive. When offenders are released, they tend to become repeat offenders.

“From that very first hit of meth, their brain just got rewired in radical and dramatic ways,” Lewis said.

The county pays for the drug abuse of those arrested here with jail costs, court-appointed lawyers, prosecutor time and law enforcement costs for taking those who are arrested and charged back and forth to court hearings.

When people are convicted on a meth charge but avoid prison time, they often spend time in jail, filling an already burdened system, said Sheriff Troy Wellman. “They might get 30 days, depending on their history,” he said.

Wellman sees meth playing a big part of the driving under the influence cases along with other crimes, including an increase in the number of simple assaults in the county. “They’re doing meth and getting into fights and stealing things to support their habits,” he said.

That happens in every community in the county and in rural areas, too, he said.

“People, I would say, should be locking their doors and keeping the keys out of their vehicles. It’s not Mayberry, and some people still think it is,” he said.

Pesall has personal experience with what he thinks was a drug user breaking into his grandmother’s rural home and taking his grandfather’s wedding ring a couple of years ago, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges that I’ve seen, active drug users will commit property crimes,” he said. While not all of his clients are guilty because some have been charged through a mistaken identity or because of other errors, many of those in the system are at a tough spot when it comes to turning things around.

“Meth in particular is truly an unfortunate drug. It can ruin a person’s life and do it fairly quickly. By the time they get to my office, we’re just doing damage control,” he said.

Taxpayer costs

Lewis is not able to estimate the expenses to county taxpayers, but it is a number in the six figures, he said. “It does carry real value, real considerable value.”

Emergency 911 calls have increased in both the city and county, overall, along with the rise in drug cases.

Through June 2, the police department has had 1,651 calls for service, compared to 1,401 for the same time last year. Overall county calls to the 911 dispatch have increased, too, with 2,129 calls this year compared with 1,538 for those months last year.

Some of those additional calls include prescription drug abuse, which is on the rise as well, Weber said.

“I don’t want to say it is a crisis, but it’s everywhere,” he said. “We have just as many calls for meth as we do the prescriptions.”

When citizens complain about being stopped by officers for dirty license plates, a light out on their vehicles or speeding, the flip side is those stops often lead to drug arrests, Weber said. “There is a reason why we do that.”

Meth users also are a danger to law enforcement during traffic stops or on 911 calls, he said. “You don’t know what they’re going to do or what they can do. You don’t know their state of mind so that poses a threat to law enforcement.”

In one case earlier this year, state troopers brought in a person who was on drugs and trying to hurt himself, Wellman said. In the process, the suspect broke out a side window of a patrol car. “It took seven of us to hold him down in the office,” Wellman said.

Weber encourages citizens to let law enforcement know if they suspect drugs in their neighborhoods because if the authorities aren’t made aware, the problem will grow. There is an anonymous way to report a drug crime if needed: text “drugs” to 82257.

Weber says the crimes that happen in larger places such as Sioux Falls will happen here, too.

“Their last five or six shootings have all been basically drug related. Unfortunately, I can see it coming here,” he said. “We are a small community, but we also have a lot of crime for our community.”

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