Rehab or prison? No easy choices in the battle against meth

By John Tompkins

Capt. Mark Riley, a 23-year veteran of the Lexington Police Department, wasn’t surprised when he first heard that a local 19-year-old woman had been charged with operating a mobile methamphetamine lab across the street from the city’s Central Elementary School.

“I’ve seen some of the wealthiest kids you’ve ever seen with the greatest starts in life end up in jail or addicted to this drug. It hits every floor of the social ladder—young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter,” Riley said. “It’s heartbreaking … she’s somebody’s daughter … somebody’s sister.”

For Riley, Ashleigh Shendock’s situation had all the tragic ramifications of a typical methamphetamine case involving a young defendant struggling to overcome addiction.

First of all, her April 2015 arrest wasn’t a planned bust.

Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Deputy Troy Wimer was headed home from his night shift at about 4 a.m. when he stopped by the Lexington Sheetz on East Nelson Street for a cup of coffee. While inside, Shendock caught his eye.

He had been investigating a string of robberies at Lexington’s Wal-Mart and recalled surveillance footage that showed a suspect who was wearing a Washington Redskins beanie. Wimer said he saw Shendock inside, and she was wearing a similar Redskins cap.

Wimer followed the car Shendock got into and pulled the driver over because of “illegal window tint.” He commanded his K-9 dog, Blix, to search the perimeter of the car after finding that none of the occupants had valid drivers’ licenses. The dog reacted to the rear passenger seat, prompting Wimer to search the vehicle.

At Shendock’s feet, he said, he found a syringe and a jug filled with pseudoephedrine (nasal decongestant), lithium, dry ice and other chemicals. It contained nearly 340 grams—almost three quarters of a pound—of liquid meth, according to the forensic scientist who analyzed the evidence collected at the scene.

“That was probably one of the largest [meth labs] I’ve ever had to deal with,” Wimer said.

Shendock, who was barely out of high school, and two men in the vehicle each were charged with possession of materials used to manufacture meth, manufacturing meth and manufacturing meth within 1,000 feet of a school.

She pleaded guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine in a deal with Robert “Bucky” Joyce, then commonwealth’s attorney for Rockbridge County and the City of Lexington. She was sentenced to just over a year in prison as well as probation upon her release.

But Shendock’s story isn’t unique. Her case was one of eight meth lab busts conducted in Rockbridge County in 2015 and 2016, according to the Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force.

A combustible mix of chemicals

Police charged brothers Jody and Anthony Bryant of nearby Buena Vista with possession of materials used to manufacture meth and the manufacture and distribution of over 80 grams of liquid meth in a March 2015 nighttime sting operation. The pair were members of a five-person ring operating from a Forest Avenue house.

Police found several toddlers in the home. A shed behind the house contained liquid petroleum fuel and hydrogen peroxide. Officers wore Hazmat suits and gas masks as they removed the volatile chemicals.

A station wagon, parked on the street in front of the house, contained a plastic Gatorade bottle filled with a mix of black lithium and off-white liquid sludge.

Inside the shed, police also noticed a CVS receipt for nasal decongestant pills. The discovery revealed how easy it is to obtain the materials needed to make meth.

Jody Bryant pleaded guilty to the possession of materials intended for the manufacture of meth and distribution of the drug. He was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison and four years probation.

By then, he also had two prior felony drug convictions. Had he decided to take his chances at a trial and lost, he would have been sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison under Virginia’s three-strikes laws, said Christopher Russell, the commonwealth’s attorney for Buena Vista.

Anthony Bryant initially avoided prison time through a plea agreement. But he was charged with the manufacture of meth and distribution of meth within 1,000 feet of a school in a separate case nearly one year to the day after his original arrest.

After accepting another plea agreement, Anthony Bryant was sentenced to three years in prison, coupled with five years of probation upon his release.

Russell prosecuted the Bryant cases—the details of which he said were reminiscent of scenes in the AMC television drama “Breaking Bad.”

“In a town this small, we have a little bit of every problem, and drug abuse, both meth and prescription, is the frequent thread that now runs through these cases,” Russell said. “[Meth abuse] is just kind of a constant thing. I don’t see the underlying problem getting better or worse. It’s not going to leave us any time soon.”

‘Shake and bake’

The materials found in both the Shendock and Bryant cases were clear indicators of small-scale, homemade “shake and bake” meth labs, Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force Officer Greg Gardner said.

Wimer said the “shake and bake” method is the easiest but most dangerous way to manufacture meth.

So-called cooks fill bottles with a dangerous blend of fuel, fertilizer, lithium batteries, crushed nasal decongestant pills and a variety of other ingredients. The bottles are then flipped and shaken to create a chemical reaction so intense that, at times, it can be explosive.

In October 2014, a Rockbridge area man burned to death while attempting to manufacture meth using the “shake and bake” method at a rest stop off I-81.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive, synthetic stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

Its ease and low cost of manufacturing led to an epidemic throughout areas of the West and Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the National Institute of Justice.

By the millennium, meth had become the drug of choice in many parts of rural America. A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 1.2 million people across the country had used the drug in the past year.

The average age of new methamphetamine users, according to the study, was just 19.7 years old—roughly the same age Shendock was at the time of her arrest.

But Lexington Police Chief Samuel Roman says the methamphetamine plaguing Rockbridge County isn’t coming from across the nation. He said it’s being manufactured in southwestern Virginia’s own backyard.

“It seems the majority of our cases come from Augusta [County] and Harrisonburg,” said Roman, who was a police officer in Roanoke for 25 years. “Meth is definitely the drug of choice around here. Along with opioids, it’s unique because it crosses economic boundaries. It’s very hard to categorize because it’s just so widespread.”

Four meth lab cases were reported in Augusta County, immediately to the north of Rockbridge, and two meth lab cases were reported in Botetourt County, immediately to the south, from 2004 to 2012, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Clandestine Laboratory Register.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias. (Photo by Caroline Boras)

But Wimer said the flow of drugs across the Mexican border in recent years has started to make “shake and bake” labs a thing of the past. He said this development has created an even more challenging problem for law enforcement.

“I couldn’t tell you the last time we saw a [“shake and bake”], because getting crystal meth is so much easier and so much safer,” Wimer said. “You’ve got pounds and pounds of meth coming up from the south.”

Hiding in plain sight

Small meth labs are especially hard to detect because they’re often located in rural areas and indoors, out of the view of law enforcement, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Chris Billias, commonwealth’s attorney for Rockbridge County and the City of Lexington, said this aligns with his experience in prosecuting meth crimes.

“That’s the problem with it,” he said. “It can be in your basement, your shed, your garage, your neighbor’s house, your apartment. It’s pretty easy to hide that stuff.”

To address these challenges, Roman said the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police is advocating for the establishment of more regional drug task forces to coordinate enforcement efforts in the counties.

There are approximately 30 regional drug task forces operating in Virginia’s 133 localities, Gardner said.

Rockbridge County established its task force in June 2013, composed of one officer from each of its law enforcement entities—the Lexington Police Department, the Buena Vista Police Department and the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.

Roman said the task force coordinates “seamlessly” with the three departments to bolster collective resources and improve efficiency in attacking the methamphetamine issue.

“The problem may be getting worse, but the coordination between law enforcement to combat this issue is getting far better,” Roman said. “Working together used to be rare.”

The DEA did not record any meth lab cases in Rockbridge County in its 2004 to 2012 national register. But local law enforcement officials say they busted nine labs in the last three years alone.

In 2014, there were more cases of methamphetamine abuse per capita in Rockbridge County than in any other Virginia locality except Wythe County, according to the most recent data available from the Virginia Social Indicator. The Indicator collects behavioral health data from government agencies across the state, including the Department of Forensic Science. A total of 92 cases were reported in Rockbridge County at that time.

The Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force was formed with a primary goal of combating this issue. Gardner, the task force’s Lexington Police Department representative, estimated that 95 percent of what he and his team deal with on a regular basis is meth-related.

Task force officers led the operations in which the Bryants were arrested. The officers used a combination of search warrants and confidential informants to investigate the labs and carry out the busts.

A confidential informant wore a hidden recording device and bought the drugs with marked bills in Anthony Bryant’s second arrest on meth charges. Gardner said this tactic is standard procedure.

Rehabilitation v. incarceration

Russell said locking everyone up is not the solution to methamphetamine abuse. He said he is a strong proponent of rehabilitation for low-level drug offenders.

“I think we need more structured programs for people coping with this disease,” Russell said. “If we had a drug court … I think that would greatly help the community.”

Roman, who became Lexington’s police chief in October, said he’s already seen the effects of meth abuse in the Lexington community.

“This is certainly not an issue you can arrest your way out of,” he said. “There has to be some process of allowing individuals the opportunity to become better.”

The Roanoke Valley HOPE Initiative is a rehabilitation model Roman would like to see in operation in the Rockbridge area.

The HOPE Initiative connects local volunteers, charities and police officers with individuals suffering from substance abuse. Its goal is to provide professional resources, encouragement and treatment to help addicts overcome their addictions.

“This program has the unique ability to address accountability, as well as mental and medical issues caused by methamphetamine,” Roman said. “I think now is the time to start to push it out to other geographic areas with the same model.”

Billias said he thinks rehabilitation should play a key part in addressing Rockbridge County’s low-level methamphetamine abusers. But he also said he believes incarceration is key to reducing recidivism.

“Treatment is only as good as the person willing to engage in the treatment for help,” Billias said. “If you’re out on the street, to not use voluntarily is an incredibly difficult task. What you find in a great majority of cases is they’re not able to get treatment out in the real world to help themselves. … If you’re incarcerated, you’re not out on the streets able to get whatever you want.”

Wimer argued that methamphetamine abuse “is not a victimless crime.” He said meth users often commit larceny, assault and other criminal acts, posing physical danger to residents of Rockbridge County.

Roughly 33 percent of regular meth users reported they had engaged in larceny, according to survey results published in a 2010 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, a peer-reviewed academic publication. Only three percent of non-meth users said they had engaged in the same crime.

“If you’re not going to get punished for doing wrong,” Wimer said, “then what is your reason to keep from doing wrong?”

The number of people locked up in state prisons for drug crimes increased 11-fold between 1980 and 2015, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project, located in Washington, D.C. And there are now nearly as many people in federal and state prisons for drug-related crimes as there were for all crimes in 1980.

“Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense,” the Project’s findings state.

Hope on hold

Matthew Pack, Shendock’s defense attorney, filed a motion just three days after her sentencing asking Circuit Court Judge Joseph Canada to reconsider his ruling. Instead of keeping Shendock in prison for the remainder of her sentence, Pack requested that she be allowed to complete the McShin Foundation substance abuse program, into which she had been accepted.

The McShin Foundation is a rehabilitation center in Richmond.

Pack included Shendock’s Blue Ridge Community College application and class scheduling forms in arguing that she was attempting to move forward with her life.

Pack succeeded in getting Canada and Billias, who by then had succeeded Joyce as commonwealth’s attorney, to agree to the transfer about one month after Shendock’s sentencing date. But the Department of Corrections refused to honor the judge’s April 2016 order mandating her move from the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women to the McShin Foundation.

A fight between Pack and the DOC ensued. Pack filed a motion to hold the prison’s warden, records manager and counselor in contempt of court for ignoring Canada’s order.

The DOC relied on a 2013 Virginia Supreme Court case, Stokes v. Commonwealth of Virginia, to insist the court lost its jurisdiction over Shendock once she was taken into custody. The ruling said that after 21 days from a sentencing date, the DOC’s custody of an inmate is “absolute” and “no exemptions” will be made to alter it, Billias explained to Canada in an email.

Both Shendock and Pack could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts to contact them.

McShin Foundation President John Shinholser said he was disappointed when he learned that Shendock had lost a chance at rehab.

“We have a choice to make as we move forward,” Shinholser said. “Do we want to increase the size of our criminal justice system, or do we want to reduce recidivism, save families and heal lives?”

Lexington Public Defender Teresa Harris, who represented Anthony Bryant in his most recent case, said Shendock’s experience shows that the justice system is fundamentally flawed.

She said the U.S. government focuses on punishing addicts for diseases they cannot control instead of spending resources on treatment to keep them out of prison. Harris said the system must work better to address the root causes of addiction, like poverty.

“Until we approach addiction from a systemic point of view, we will lose this war,” she said.

Sometimes, it works

Billias said he is usually skeptical of defendants who say they want to seek treatment. But he said Ashleigh Shendock is the exception.

The prosecutor said she is “unrecognizable” today, compared to her mug shot taken a year and a half ago. He said the dark circles under her eyes have faded, her hair has grown back, and she’s getting her life back together.

Shendock served the rest of her prison sentence behind bars. She was released on March 8, 2017.

She sought treatment while in prison, and with the support of her family, continued with a voluntary recovery program, Billias said. She manages a fast food restaurant in Waynesboro.

“Any time I hear someone say that treatment will never work or they’ll never heal … Ashleigh Shendock did it,” he said. “That’s what I tell people.”

Published Dec. 13, 2017