By Maggie Seybold
Brittany Fitzgerald started stealing her mother’s prescription medicine when she was 14. It wasn’t long before she was addicted to methamphetamine, according to testimony in Rockbridge County Circuit Court.
Christine Fitzgerald shared her daughter’s experience with drugs when she testified as a witness at a trial on Monday.
Phillip Flint, a member of the Rockbridge Regional Drug Task Force, has seen cases like these before.
“We see that kind of thing all the time,” Flint said. “Kids get into their parent’s medication. They take one pill here, one pill there. Some of the adult drug abusers we talk to say they started with drugs when they were 11, 12, or 13 years old.”
Buena Vista Police Chief Keith Hartman said the task force uses informants to investigate drug trafficking. Informants are typically people who are trying to earn reductions in existing charges and sentences.
“We get help from people who have already gotten into trouble,” Hartman said.
Drug use, according to members of the task force, is nothing new in the area.
“Drug use migrates,” Hartman said. “It started with marijuana; it’s easy to get, it’s cheap, and there is an ample supply. And then there’s meth.”
Hartman and Flint say meth use has increased in the Rockbridge area over the past few years, as the drug has traveled down Interstate 81 from Augusta County.
“Meth is the biggest issue here,” Flint said. “It’s an epidemic everywhere.”
The task force handles approximately 150 cases each year; Flint estimates that at least 85 percent of those cases involve meth.
In the Lab
Because meth is so easy to make, Flint said, meth labs can pop up anywhere.
In October 2014, an employee at an I-81 Rockbridge rest area was making meth in a janitorial closet when the concoction exploded, setting the man on fire.
And Flint recalls a traffic stop behind the Lexington CVS: “There was a meth lab in the back seat of the car.”
Meth lab explosions, he said, are very dangerous and can occur easily.
“When you’re cooking meth, you have to ‘burp it,’ or release the pressure. If you do it too fast, the concoction will explode.” He added that if lithium, which is one of the ingredients, touches water in the mix, “that could also cause an explosion.”
The toxins from a used meth lab could easily end up in the wrong place, Flint said. A used meth lab, he said, could be anything: A discarded soda bottle could easily end up in a creek — or blow up in a forensic lab while being identified.
“People who clean up trash could unknowingly pick up a used meth lab, like a Gatorade bottle,” Flint said.
In 2014 and 2015, the task force uncovered several meth labs in the Rockbridge area. Flint noted that not all of the raids occurred in low-income areas; some of the labs were in trailer parks, others in popular neighborhoods.
“People don’t realize how big of a problem meth is,” he said. “Now it’s every race, every class…it’s everywhere.”
While the production of meth in the Rockbridge area has slowed since the raids, the task force said use and distribution are still high.
“We spooked everybody with the search warrants,” Flint said. “Now the users are afraid, and they have to come up with money to pay for meth. They’ll steal from stores — even from their families.”
An Expensive Habit
After the meth lab busts, Flint said, users had to find another way to support their expensive addiction.
Flint’s partner on the task force, Alan Buzzard, says most of the dealers “are addicts that are just selling to support their own habit.”
Those habits, however, are expensive. Buzzard said one gram of meth typically sells for $120 in the Rockbridge area.
But that doesn’t stop users like Brittany Fitzgerald from finding the dealers and finding the drugs. Brittany’s mother, Christine Fitzgerald, testified on Monday as a witness at a trial that involved a family friend’s drug possession charges. She said that when her daughter started stealing her medicine, she had to lock it up and hide it.
“The users know what doors to knock on,” Hartman said. “It’s a never-ending issue. We’ll get one dealer, but there is always another one waiting in the weeds.”
And selling meth, he said, is lucrative.
“It’s easy money,” Hartman said. “If you’re 12 or 13 years old and you’re slingin’ dope and you’re making a couple thousand dollars a week, why even bother going to school?”
Hartman also said that there have been instances when a kid accidentally takes the wrong backpack, full of mom and dad’s drugs, to school. Even if the kids aren’t directly involved, drugs can take over their lives too.
“We see so many young kids get caught up in it,” Buzzard said.
And while the task force deals primarily with adults, even infants are not immune to the dangers of meth use and distribution.
“The last meth lab we busted, there was a terrible smell coming from this trailer,” Buzzard said. “The first one out was a woman with a 1-year-old.”
In 2016, 113 men and 44 women were charged with drug offenses. This week alone, more than half of the cases heard at the Rockbridge Circuit Court were drug-related.
“Part of the dilemma is that we really don’t know what the solution is,” Flint said. “We want to arrest the dealers, but our jails are overcrowded and our court system is backlogged.”
Kelly Brotzman, a visiting professor at Washington and Lee University in the Shepherd Program for Poverty and Human Capability, spent some time visiting female inmates at the Rockbridge Regional Jail last year.
“Most of the 25 ladies we spoke to were in jail for drugs,” Brotzman said. “One of the ladies told me that she knows that once she’s out of jail she had to get out of Rockbridge.”
Flint agreed, noting that the cycle of meth production, distribution and use is vicious, and hard to stop.
“We’ll never win the war on drugs,” he said. “We’re just trying to slow it down.”