By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Meth worms into families remarkably quickly. A month after Olivia started using the drug, she began employing her sales skills to peddle crystal. Seth moved in with his grandfather. Olivia neglected her real estate job to work at a Montrose clothing boutique -- a drug front -- where she once sold a solid pound for $18,000. It was a good value. Compared to crack, meth's high lasts ten times as long.
But it's not always a blissed-out rush. Olivia's meth-fueled life quickly became an intricate web of paranoia. She and Scout moved into a hotel that she called Sketchland with a drug dealer named Chris and another she called Skanthony. She grew convinced that they were being monitored by the hotel's pigeons, which were really robots equipped with video cameras. Once, when she hadn't eaten or slept for days, Skanthony took her through a Jack in the Box drive-thru. They fell asleep at the pickup window. Olivia woke up and saw a blinking woman holding her food. "And then I look to the right," she says, "and there's a pigeon!"
Through all of this, Olivia says, she remembered to feed Scout. In return, Scout, who chose his own name for this story, earned his moniker. His young eyes were adept at scouting for certain makes and models of cars that Olivia believed to be tailing her. Sometimes she would drive all the way to Brenham and back, just to make sure she'd shaken them. Or she would abandon the car entirely and call someone to pick her up.
That's not to say she was cautious. By mid-July, she hadn't slept for two weeks. She strapped a bag of meth to her crotch, flew to San Diego for the gay pride parade and partied at the Warwick Hotel. She logged a full month without sleep and dropped 20 pounds. "I would just sort of keep bumping it," she says, "a little at a time, a 20-bag."
Even through the haze of debauchery, however, Olivia sometimes thought of uniting with her elder son. "That was my total dream," she says, "for us to be in a home together."
But there were more pressing concerns. Summer ended and school began. Scout suddenly had a schedule. Olivia still didn't. Driving to pick him up one afternoon, she blacked out at the wheel. Her Suburban barreled across Shepherd, crumpled into two parked cars and was totaled.
Meth first took off in places where traffic was thin and roads were scarce. In the 1980s, dealers used volatile chemicals to produce the drug themselves in rural barns, trailers and shacks, which often exploded. Modern labs are equally combustible, but much more compact. Set up by amateur chemists in bathrooms and kitchens, they yield meth at a fraction of its street cost. Montgomery County cops have busted hundreds of them. "These small labs are done in the place where you live," says Lieutenant DiMambro. "You can be cooking in a beer bottle on a stove while your kid is sitting nearby eating corn flakes."
"Meth users and cooks are not the cleanest or most aware people," says Jenny Gomez, a child counselor in Irving who founded the Texas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children. Gomez has seen the toxic legacy of meth ingredients that are left strewn around homes. This spring, a girl in Dallas swigged from a Mountain Dew bottle filled with the toxic meth precursor acetone. It scalded her esophagus. In June, a small boy in Wichita Falls drank from the wrong coffee carafe. Doctors found his stomach was filled with sulfuric acid, anhydrous ammonia and lithium.
Many kids are exposed to meth without even touching it. Smoke and vapors from labs permeate entire houses and are absorbed through the lungs and skin. Children removed from such homes often test positive for the drug. A Texas law enacted in this session subjects any parents who keep kids near meth labs to possible charges of child endangerment.
The labs are so dangerous that DiMambro and other cops enter them wearing gas masks and plastic hazmat suits. Acids soaked into carpets and bathtubs can fry the skin. Caches of ammonia can destroy the lungs. Pots of lithium can explode. And yet all of these meth precursors can be purchased over the counter -- in common cold medicines, camera batteries, fertilizers and the strike plates of matchboxes. "They are going to Wal-Mart, they are going to Walgreens, they are going to Home Depot," DiMambro says. "They get high for a while, and then they go collect again."
The ease of producing meth has fueled its spread from the country to the far suburbs. Sarah, the New Caney meth mom, cooked in suburban motels. A hose came off a jar one day and set fire to her room in a Super 8 in Cleveland. She and her boyfriend fled. Rusty Smith, the Montgomery County Drug Court coordinator, says most people who come through the program are on meth. And the drug is making inroads into Houston. About 10 percent of Mary Covington's Harris County Drug Court cases are now meth-related, the program manager estimates. In the metro Houston area last year, cops seized 200 pounds of the drug, 20 percent more than three years ago.