Bad Choices: More Rockbridge women dealing drugs

By Eric Wisotsky

In Rockbridge County, Va., more and more women who are getting into trouble with the law are using and selling drugs, often prescription painkillers.

The increase is particularly noticeable in Buena Vista, where Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher Russell estimates that about one-third of the 150 or so felony indictments that have crossed his desk over the past year have involved either women using drugs, selling drugs, or both.

“In 2012, we’ve had quite a few felony cases involving women using drugs and selling drugs,” he says.

The women are winding up in the Rockbridge Regional Jail. Lt. Anthony Teague of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office says the jail is designed to hold 12 women comfortably. In recent months, he says, it has housed between 22 and 24 women.

Christopher Russell, the commonwealth’s attorney in Buena Vista, says more women are getting arrested for selling drugs.

Since the late 1980s, the incarceration rate for women has exploded, mainly because of drugs. From 1980 to 1998, the incarceration rate for women jumped 516 percent, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

From 2000 to 2011, the number of women in jails has increased more than 30 percent, according to Justice Department statistics.

Russell blames the increase in drug-related crimes committed by women in the area in part on “bad economic times.”

The prosecutor says he suspects other factors at play, including bad choices in men and other friends.

Buys and Busts

Most of the women interviewed for this story were arrested after they sold drugs to police informants in “buy-busts,” a popular tactic among police nationwide and especially in Buena Vista.

Russell says “citizen informants” are sent to make drug deals by a regional drug task force of officers from the Buena Vista Police Department, the Lexington Police Department and the Rockbridge County Sherriff’s Office.

In several cases involving women interviewed for this story, police met with informants, gave “marked” money to them, equipped them with recording devices and sent them to buy drugs.

Russell says a typical buy-bust happens this way: Task force officers follow the informant as he or she drives to a meeting place, pre-arranged with the targets of the investigation. The cops watch from a distance and videotape or wire the informant for an audio recording as the cash is exchanged for drugs.  After the deal, the informant meets with the cops, who confiscate the drugs.

The prosecutor says the ultimate goal of the controlled-buy approach is to go as high up the chain as possible to “get the biggest fish they can possibly get.”

He says police also want to “hold anyone accountable who chooses to sell drugs in our communities.” In doing so, Russell says, the task force is trying to punish offenders and deter others from using and selling drugs.

But the prosecutor says he does not “see the cycle ending anytime soon.”

David Natkin, a local defense attorney, often represents women charged with drug crimes.

Of the citizen informant system, he says, “It’s an ugly business, on every side. Once you get into the drug trade in every way, I guess it’s ugly on the supply side, the purchaser side, and that people get themselves in trouble and end up acting as informants. It’s just a sad, ugly business.”

Not typical drug dealers

Many of the women serving time in Rockbridge County say they turned to dealing drugs to make ends meet.

They admit they used drugs from time to time, beginning as teenagers.

Like many women in her predicament, Jennifer Weeks, 33, of Buena Vista, insists she’s not a “drug dealer.” She admits to having smoked marijuana, but not for about 3 ½ years.

Weeks is in jail awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to three felony counts stemming from a sale she made of crack cocaine to an informant on July 18 of this year.

After moving to a different home in Buena Vista, Weeks says she did not have the money to buy a refrigerator and stove she needed.

Jennifer Weeks says she sold crack to get money to buy appliances.

She says she asked her mother to lend her the money. ButWeeks says, her mother could not help because she also was struggling financially.

Her mother suggested her landlord.

Weeks says her mother’s landlord initially said he could not help. But she says he eventually put her in touch with a friend of his.

She sold cocaine to that man to make the money she needed to buy a refrigerator and stove, Weeks says.

“I thought I had to hurry up and do what I had to do and (selling drugs) was a way to be able to do it,” she says.

Vanessa Wood, 24, of Buena Vista, has also had financial problems, though she claims she never sold drugs for the money.

In 2011, Wood was charged with stealing an mp3 player, pants and a purse from the Walmart in Lexington.

“I was 7 months pregnant at the time. I took an mp3 player, I was going to get for my son for Christmas, because at that time I didn’t have a job, didn’t have any money, (and) my boyfriend was locked up at the time,” she says.

Bad choices

Ines Ford’s situation highlights another common theme among women arrested on drug charges: She made what Russell describes as “bad choices” in friends and boyfriends.

Ford, 29, of Lexington, is locked up at the Rockbridge County jail for selling cocaine on March 26.

As a kid, Ford says she wasn’t involved with drugs because she was an athlete, playing basketball and volleyball and also running track in high school.

But she says friends and her family, in particular, were involved with drugs—and she was exposed to the lifestyle.

She says she started using drugs after her athletic career ended.

In her senior year of high school, after she had her baby, she moved out of her aunt and uncle’s house and into an apartment of her own. The father of her child, who was a drug user, began to hang around her apartment and influenced her to begin using drugs, she says.

Hanging with the wrong crowd

Wood says she also began using and selling drugs because of friends. She is awaiting sentencing in January after pleading guilty to selling Vicodin this past June.

Her sister, her sister’s friends and her sister’s boyfriend introduced her to drugs, she says.

Wood says she began using drugs regularly because she “was so young and naïve at that time” and thought it was “fun and the thing to do.”

Vanessa Wood says she used drugs to go along with friends.

“There was times where I was hanging out with certain people where every day we were using, and then there were some where I went back home to my family and stayed off of them for a while,” she says.

A few years ago, Wood says, she began selling drugs, not because she needed the money, but because of the people she was hanging around with.

She also says she got into jams when she tried to help other addicts by supplying them with drugs that she had.

“I can say I’ve sold a little bit of everything here and there,” Wood says.

About a month before the sale of Vicodin, she says she “started hanging out with old friends,” and “got in the mix and that did it to me.”

Self-medicating

Like many women in trouble with the law, Ford says she used drugs to battle depression.

When she was a child, Ford suffered severe burns on her legs and feet that she received from being placed in a bathtub filled with boiling hot water. She says she had to undergo skin grafts and spent time in the hospital.

She says she had always been told that her mother’s boyfriend was responsible for her burns. But this past year, she says she found out that her mother had burned her.

Ford says she fell into depression after learning the truth about her injuries. Instead of seeking counseling, she says, she turned to cocaine as a coping mechanism.

Pamela Sibold-Sensabaugh, 50, of Goshen, says she also used drugs to manage depression and other mental health issues.

Her drug of choice was amphetamines, which she used primarily when she worked as a truck driver. She is serving two years in jail for shooting at a woman during an argument.

Children left behind

When a woman gets locked up, she often leaves husbands, boyfriends, parents and other family members on the outside. And there are usually children who are placed in the care of people with problems of their own.

Most of the women interviewed for this story gave birth to children when they were teenagers.

More than four in 10 mothers in state prison who had minor children were living in single-parent households in the month before arrest, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Wood has a seven-year-old son, Bryce, a five-year-old son, Colton, and a 10-month-old daughter, Zoey.

All three children have different fathers and Wood says she is no longer in contact with any of them.

Since she’s been in jail, Wood’s children have been split up: Bryce lives with his paternal grandmother in Roanoke, while Colton and Zoey stay with Wood’s parents in Buena Vista.

Wood’s mother is trying to collect disability benefits and her father works for the Public Works Department in Buena Vista. Wood says she knows that caring for two of her children has put a financial strain on her parents.

Like Wood’s children, Ford’s boys—Jailik, 10, and Jermon, 8—have been living apart for years.

Ford says Jermon has moved from place to place since she first got into trouble in 2005. He now lives with Ford’s sister in Lynchburg.

And Ford’s sister has her hands full, Ford says. The sister, who goes to school and works, is raising a child, who according to his mother, suffers from bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a sleeping disorder.

Since 2005, Jailik has been living with his father’s aunt and uncle.

Weeks is also the mother of two children who have lived with relatives since their mother went to jail in 2010. Her children—Jamal, 16, and Alexis, 11—and her fiancé live with her mother.

She says she regrets that she will still be in jail when Jamal graduates from high school, but she hopes this experience will help her in the long run.

“I messed up, and now I have to learn from that mistake and become a better mother, better woman and better person,” she says. “I’m here for a reason.”