Montana’s Drug Superhighway: How traffickers conceal carloads of drugs from police

BILLINGS- Methamphetamine is the second most common illegal drug being distributed in large quantities into Montana, with marijuana being the first. It comes by way of the interstate system and directly from Mexican drug cartels.

“They are making it in super labs,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department.

“So you are getting high purities 98 pecent, 99 percent pure meth,” he said.

Montana communities are seeing the impacts of the drug trade first-hand, leaving local law enforcement left to deal with an increase in crimes associated with meth.

It’s something the city of Billings and law enforcement know all too well.

Violent crimes across the state of Montana have increased 34 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In Billings alone, violent meth-driven crimes have increased by 75 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the Billings Police Department.

The Eastern Montana High-Intensity Drug Task Force

For over two years, Wooley served as commander of the Eastern Montana High-Intensity Drug Task Force, or HIDTA, working undercover and in sometimes less than ideal conditions, to gain information that could dismantle and take down drug organizations coming into Montana.

Today, he’s moved on from that position and is able to speak candidly and openly about the drug scene in Billings.

“We’ve done search warrants in literally every neighborhood in this community. In neighborhoods that you would go and see a couple of million-dollar homes, and here we are executing search warrants related to drug trafficking in these neighborhoods,” said Wooley.

Billings serves as the host agency for HIDTA ,but it’s a multi-jurisdictional task force composed of local officers from city, county and federal organizations such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Homeland Security. The task force is federally funded through grants from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In 2017, the drug task force kicked into high gear with over 56 pounds of meth and $300,000 in bulk cash seized off the streets.

“Just this year alone, to date, there are over 120 pounds of meth and over $600,000 in bulk cash seizures,” said Wooley.

Montana’s drug scene

The drug scene in Montana has significantly changed. Years ago, meth was manufactured in homes but state laws cracked down on homegrown labs and awareness about the drug was highly publicized with the Montana Meth Project.

“The old way, was you go to WalMart and get everything you need,” said Wooley. “The chemical compounds that they make and that they use south of the border are still very similar but maybe a little bit more sophisticated.”

Now the supply comes directly from Mexico and drug cartels who see an increasing demand for meth in northern states like Montana.

“The best way to think of the drug problem and after my years over at the task force, it really is pretty simple and it’s based off of a business model. It’s supply and demand,” said Wooley.

“On the demand side, you have the addicts, the drive, the desire or the need for the drug. On the supply side, you have the manufacturing and then you have the distribution hubs. You have the traffickers to get it to place,” he said. “And then you have more distribution at the local levels. Then the infrastructure to get that from point A to point B is much like a trucking company, you have to have staff, bosses, you have to have managers.”

In Billings, drug seizures exceed any other city in Montana.

“Our geographical location,” said Wooley. “Billings has always had a pretty healthy appetite for meth.”

But as the Eastern Montana Drug Task force makes progress in taking down drug operations, Wooley said law enforcement is still seeing an increase.

New hiding places

Traffickers have gotten incredibly creative in finding new ways to avert law enforcement and drug-sniffing K-9s by retrofitting drug cars. Wooley revealed to MTN, the way traffickers do it, by creating closed-off compartments in an ordinary vehicle, as a way to hide drugs.

At a Billings towing yard, he points out what looks like an ordinary passenger car, except that’s it not.

“During a search, our guys are looking for anomalies, things that are unusual,” he said. “The first thing that kind of popped out in this situation was a trunk release switch underneath the seat padding, that’s not normally there.”

Wooley unveils a yellow button tucked under the driver’s side seat.

He says that trafficker has started to manufacture a combination of multiple switches only activated in sequence to trigger a drug compartment to open.

In this same vehicle, a drug trafficker would press that yellow driver’s side seat switch, followed by a variety of other knob turns or switches such as a heater gauge or windshield wiper to get the secret drug compartment to open.

“If this vehicle was pulled over and there is a roadside search, if an officer is going through quickly, not taking his time, he would probably likely miss this,” said Wooley.

The drugs were then hidden in the cavity of the car under the seats, extending from the dash all the way to the trunk, enough room to get several pounds of drugs hidden and transported for miles.

“It’s pretty crude really,” said Wooley.

Task force officers are also learning that vehicles with aftermarket switches and compartments are also being used to cross the border into Mexico and come back up to Montana, likely several times.

Billings’ violent drug-driven crimes

Wooley said law enforcement is seeing actual Mexican drug cartel presence in communities like Billings, because the distribution pipeline has shortened, cutting out a middle man and allowing for more profits for distributors.

However, along with that, comes the crime.

“I do think that our problem here in Billings is much worse,” said Wooley. “I mean look at all of our violent crimes. Most of our homicides are methamphetamine-related, the majority of our officer-involved shootings are methamphetamine related.”

And Wooley says the drugs are not immune to any one area or a specific type of person, changing much about what the ordinary person believes to be true about meth.

“We’ve done cases on people from all walks of life that have been former politicians, lawyers, doctors you name it, all the way down to somebody that hasn’t graduated school,” he said.

Montana’s law enforcement and specifically Billings police know they have their work cut out for them in terms of the meth epidemic. Still, Wooley believes you can’t attack the problem from one side.

“We aren’t going to arrest our way out of the problem, but at the same time we have got to realize some of law enforcement’s limitations,” he said. “The community needs to obviously have some more resources and we need to come at it at a few different angles.”

Looking ahead

In the next part of this series, MTN takes an in-depth look at why so many people get addicted to meth in the first place, talking to a woman who for many years, was addicted to meth, who sheds light on the how controlling the drug is.

Montana’s Drug Superhighway: Troopers form specialized team to stop interstate drug loads

BILLINGS- You might call the interstate system a lifeline for Montana.

From west to east, Interstate 90 pumps millions of dollars of commerce into the state, and Montanans travel it for business and pleasure. But in term of the drug trade, this major arterial road also leaves Montana exposed.

“There is a significant drug problem in Montana,” said Sgt. Jim Sanderson of the Montana Highway Patrol. “We know that most all meth comes from Mexico.”

Sanderson said meth, heroin, and marijuana are some of the most common drugs coming into Montana by way of the highways, directly from Mexican drug cartels. He says over the years, it’s become a trafficking epidemic that’s forcing law enforcement to pay attention in ways they never have before.

On the interstate, the Montana Highway Patrol acts as the first line of defense in the fight against Montana’s meth epidemic. Because that’s where traffickers are driving the drugs in.

The criminal interdiction team

“So we are focusing on I-90, I-94 and I-15,” said Sanderson, who heads up the Montana Highway Patrol criminal interdiction team.

In 2017, the Montana Legislature funded the criminal interdiction team. It’s a group of six full-time troopers with specialized narcotics training who conduct high volumes of traffic stops looking for criminal activity.

“It was successful well beyond what we felt it would be,” said Sanderson. “To put it in scope, the teams themselves- and this is six team members- seized just over 57 pounds of meth within the first year.”

A pound of meth in Montana is significant, according to Sanderson, because a standard user might use a tenth or a quarter of a gram, meaning traffickers are gaining a significant profit off the demand for it.

“We have seized vehicles that we believe came directly out of Mexico,” said Sanderson.

And they have.

Most recently, the Montana Highway Patrol interdiction team announced details from a major drug seizure in eastern Montana, in a massive drug case was being investigated and adjudicated for two years.

The bust happened in 2017 in Custer County, which was one of the largest seizures in Montana history, according to the Department of Justice. On Nov. 8, 2017, the interdiction team stopped a Nissan passenger car. A trooper and K-9 determined there were drugs in the car and through the course of the traffic stop, 29 pounds of meth and six pounds of marijuana were pulled off the streets. Troopers discovered the car was en route to North Dakota from California.

While that case was a large one for the criminal interdiction team, Sanderson said many times troopers are working with local drug task force officers to pin down traffickers and pull them over with large loads and sometimes small ones.

“Even if we can’t put a bunch of small cases together or completely identify an entire group, we can at the very least hurt them where it hurts the most, and that’s by taking their product off the road,” he said.

What is the drug route?

Drugs are transported in cars, on bus lines and even in the U.S. mail system.

Meth is ordered from a supplier in Montana from a drug cartel out of Mexico, and then the distribution begins. The product is then most often driven through a border crossing and into a southern state.

Sanderson said the distribution usually goes one of two ways. The first is usually from Arizona to Salt Lake City or Denver, then directly to Montana’s eastern side into Billings. Or from California along the west coast through Seattle, the Tri-Cities, Spokane and along Interstate 90 through Montana where the distribution often either ends, heads farther east or goes north to Canada.

“Drugs are coming into Montana. It’s coming from all over the place,” said Sanderson.

So, he said, the interdiction team stations themselves on both the western and eastern sides of the state, patrolling and working with local officers to stop a load in its tracks.

“So we can conduct targeted enforcement based off of information that they can provide us that they are drumming up through days, weeks, months, sometimes years of investigative work from the ground up,” said Sanderson. “And then we can capitalize on that information and take down a significant load of drugs.”

While the interdiction team is making tangible progress in their work, Sanderson said they plan to expand with more officers in the coming months and take more drugs off the streets.

One day at a time

On a brisk fall day, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Darvin Mees sets out on shift. He starts by checking speeds on Interstate 90 from Laurel to Lockwood.

“My responsibilities are those of any other trooper out here. Crashes, complaints, DUIs,” he said.

He’s been a trooper with the patrol for 18 years in the Billings area and is a supplement of the criminal interdiction team because of his canine partner.

“In addition though, I have this tool that is used for drug interdiction,” he said.

Mees works with Saar, a drug tracking K-9.

At this point, the criminal interdiction team doesn’t use K-9 officers, so Mees is often called upon to join in on a traffic stop where drugs are suspected in the car.

“You’ll notice that she will really get fired up,” Mees says.

His relationship with Saar is like many K-9 handlers. They bond with a game of ball or fetch. During a shift, they work. Unlike some police dogs, Saar is vocal, something Mees enjoys. When Mees switches on his police lights to engage in a traffic stop or speeds up his patrol cruiser, Saar gets up from her backseat compartment and starts barking. She gets excited, said Mees.

“In her mind, she is always hoping that she is going to get out and do a little bit of work.”

This year alone, the duo made over 60 drug seizures. And on just an ordinary Wednesday, Mees is about to do one more. A mere two hours into his shift, Mees spots a car in Billings with a shattered windshield, so he opts to pull the vehicle over because of an obstructed view.

The vehicle ends up pulling over in the Motel 6 parking lot in Billings and not long after its stopped, another unmarked Montana Highway Patrol car arrives as well as an officer from the Billings Police Department.

It only took a quick glance in the windows, and Mees notices drug paraphernalia is scattered throughout this car.

“There were some needles, some Q-tips and cotton balls, filters, foil with burn marks, lots of foil, brand new foil,” he said. “There is a couple of scales in there, I didn’t find a bunch of new bags, but there were two bags with heroin.”

Inside the car, Mees and the other officers found seven grams of meth, a small baggie of heroin, something that is referred to on the streets as chocolate.

The drugs are likely from a Mexican drug cartel and sent to Montana to be distributed to low-level dealers, according to Mees.

Mees was told there was an altercation at this same location, with the same group of people just hours before.

Officers had recognized this car before with evidence tape still stuck the vehicle. With obvious drug paraphernalia in the car and signs of intention to distribute, one male occupant was arrested for warrants, but the other two were not.

In this case, as many Montana law enforcement officers face, Mees was forced with a tough decision on this day. He was informed earlier in his shift that the Yellowstone County jail was full, only violent offenders allowed, which means the drugs are seized and the occupants go free.

“The next best thing is to get them a court date, get them in front of a judge at some point in the near future,” said Mees. “It’s not something that just takes place in the shadows you know in our community, its something that’s going on any hour of the day really.”

Next, the drugs are admitted into evidence to built a case from and at least, the drugs are taken off the streets said, Mees.

The drug impact

“All you have to do is really take a look around, and you’ll be able to see how that is affecting your community,” said Sanderson.

But the solution has to be a collaborative effort, according to Sanderson.

“We completely understand that we are unable effectively combat drug abuse and substance abuse in Montana. That is a collective effort, but we are doing what we can on our part on the road,” said Sanderson.

Looking ahead

In the second edition of this series, MTN News takes a deeper look into how local drug task forces are seeing first hand the special ways traffickers are trying to avert law enforcement. Those who specialize in investigating drug operations talk about how the meth epidemic has also plagued the city of Billings with violent crimes.

Meth epidemic overwhelms Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. — In one of western Montana’s most beautiful valleys, you can also find an ugly, growing problem.

“I didn’t care for anything that made me sleepy or slow,” said St. Ignatius resident Karen Tromp. “I was all about going fast. I was a functional user all the way to jail in Lake County. But that doesn’t make it right.”

Tromp quit using methamphetamine 18 months ago, after 45 years of drug addiction.

“Back in the day, which was a while ago, there wasn’t such a thing as what they call methamphetamine,” Tromp told us. “The first drugs I used that led to my addiction is whites. Little white pills the truckers used to take. From there it went to meth or crank. It’s all related, it just comes in different forms.”

The first time everything came crashing down for Tromp was in Arizona.

“I went to prison. At that time good behavior got you everywhere, and jumping through the hoops was easy for me,” Tromp said. “I did a five-year sentence in seven months. And that was the first time my using and all that had ever affected my family. My kids were young. After that I stayed clean for probably about a year and a half.”

Tromp started using again and hit bottom in 2017, when she was arrested again for meth.

“I almost went crazy. I couldn’t breathe. It was the most devastating thing, and it wasn’t like I’d never been to jail before. It’d been so long ago. At my age and what I have to lose, that’s what I was doing. I prayed. I prayed that if you can possibly let me do something to get out of this, I promise I’ll never ever use again, and I meant it wholeheartedly.”

Tromp is not alone. The statistics are alarming. One study says meth accounted for 86 percent of the drugs trafficked in Montana in the past five years. From January to June of 2018, the state health department says 72 percent of child abuse cases in Missoula were drug related, and 81 percent of those involved meth.

“Real-life stories are things of nightmares,” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said at a press conference earlier this year. “Montana is in the midst of a substance abuse crisis. We see it all around us every day, rising crime rates, the deaths of our friends and loved ones.”

We see it in one story after another. Some of the most heartbreaking are when children are involved. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being conducted a study that focused on little boys. It showed if they experienced six or more instances of abuse or trauma, they’re over 4,000 percent more likely to use drugs as adults. And the cycle continues.

You can see the impact of drugs in so many of the stories we cover at NBC Montana, many of them bringing us to tears. So how do we break this cycle?

The Montana Meth Project focuses solely on this question. You probably remember their shocking ad campaigns a few years ago. You won’t see them on the air anymore. Instead, they’re targeting a younger audience on mobile platforms.

“We need to find new ways and new people coming forward and sharing their personal accounts,” said Amy Rue, the director of the Montana Meth Project. “The more we can stir these authentic conversations about where meth will take you and where people have ended up and what they’ve lost and what they’ve traded.”

Two new statewide initiatives also aim for prevention and treatment, not just jail time.

“There’s a societal bias, and there has been for some time, that an individual with a substance abuse disorder is for some reason a second class citizen that isn’t worthy of our love and support and resources,” Fox said when announcing a new initiative. “I know everyone standing behind me doesn’t believe that. They believe firmly that there’s value in every human life.”

Fox says drug abuse affects every single person in Montana, either through personal stories or indirectly through taxpayer dollars. If that doesn’t get you, how about this? Most of us are exposed to small amounts of meth on a daily basis.

NBC Montana did a story earlier this year when we tested cash from different people at our station. Tests came back so hot the cash would have needed abatement if it were part of a wall.

Drug courts are helping put people through treatment instead of just jail time. That’s what pulled Tromp up from rock bottom. She is the first graduate of Lake County’s drug court. But it wasn’t easy.

“I was going to lose my house; I was going to lose my 10 horses; I was going to lose everything. My life was over. And then it was not easy. I had something to do with that program Monday through Friday. It was a full-time job, actually, just doing what they required,” she said.

But drug courts aren’t a magic wand that can fix everything at once, and they can only serve so many people at a time.

Law enforcement officers want the public to change the way it views meth, not just as a statistic, but real people.

One Montana sheriff broke it down in a Facebook post recently when he said a bust of 107 doses means 107 very real possibilities of domestic violence, assault, child abuse or other violent offenses.

“This drug will take anybody,” Rue said.

“There’s no age,” Tromp says. “Believe me. I’ve been around the circle long enough there are a lot more my age that are still using.”

And everyone we talked to seems to agree it will take a village to combat a problem that seems as big and formidable as the mountains that scrape against Montana’s big sky.

Guest column: The battle against Montana’s drug epidemic

Guest column by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines

Montana is a place where we pride ourselves on having strong, tight-knit communities. However, our communities in every corner of the state are facing a very real crisis: an opioid and meth epidemic.

We are seeing constant stories on the impacts of meth and drug use making headlines in Montana. This past summer, a man was charged with abandoning a baby in the woods near Lolo Hot Springs. He admitted he was high on meth and bath salts. While this story is truly horrific, it is just one of the many tragic stories of meth in Montana.

For years, the opioids epidemic has been steadily growing and engulfing communities across Montana and the nation. In Montana, opioid overdoses have claimed the lives of 700 people since 2000. From 2013 to 2014, 42 percent of all drug-related deaths were caused by opioids. With easier access and a larger supply on the street, drugs are making their way into the hands of Montanans. This reality is tearing families apart, and devastating our communities.

In addition to opioids, a far deadlier epidemic is wreaking havoc in Montana — the meth epidemic. In Montana, meth is destroying families and communities, and disproportionately impacting Native American tribes. There has been a 415 percent increase in meth cases from 2011 to 2017 and a 375 percent increase in meth related deaths in that same period. In 2013, law enforcement seized 40 pounds of meth. In 2017, that number more than quadrupled to 188 pounds. A majority of this meth reaching Montana is smuggled across our southern border with Mexico.

What we are seeing is a direct link between violent crime and meth use. Montana has seen a 35 percent increase in violent crime since 2010. An increase in murder, robbery, aggravated assault and rape have been connected to higher meth use in Montana. Nearly every Montanan has been impacted in some way by the drug crisis and increase in violent crime.

Congress needed to act. After working in a bipartisan fashion, we delivered landmark legislation combating this epidemic. This legislation, known as the Opioids Bill, was signed into law by President Trump just last month. At the federal level, the goal must be to partner with states and communities to overcome this growing epidemic. For this reason, I fought in Congress to include specific provisions in the bill.

I was able to include my bipartisan bill, the Mitigating METH Act, which expands the state targeted response to the opioid crisis grants to include Indian tribes as eligible recipients. My other bipartisan bill, the STOP Act, was also included and signed into law. This bill will help stop illegal drugs from crossing the border that are being shipped through the postal service. I’m also pleased that programs like the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, drug courts and the COPS Anti-Meth program were all reauthorized in this package. In fact, just days after the President signed the law, Montana received its first COPS Anti-Meth grant, which will be used to stop the flow of Mexican meth into our communities.

In what has become a rather politically divisive time, I’m pleased that we were able to work together to push this important legislation across the finish line, and I’m thankful President Trump signed it into law. I am also grateful for all the work Montanans are doing. Attorney General Tim Fox, U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, U.S. Marshall Rod Ostermiller and our law enforcement agencies have been on the ground in Montana diligently working to combat this crisis.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with local, state and federal law enforcement as well as members from drug courts and others on the front line of this issue. Together, I believe we can chart a path forward to heal and protect our communities from violence, addiction and the devastation meth is causing.

We’ve taken an important first big step to curbing the drug epidemic hurting our families and communities. This is a battle we must win.

6 campaigns examining drug and alcohol addiction

In America, the drug epidemic is at an all-time high. Drugs and alcohol disease awareness ads seem to focus on the “shock factor” for their point of view. This approach makes me wonder if these ads are the most effective way to create change in our society. They visualize the problem of addiction, but don’t offer solutions. As stewards in the healthcare space, it’s important for us to look at how our targets are being marketed to and the messaging they are receiving from a disease awareness standpoint before we deliver solutions.

Thief
Montana Meth Project, Venables Bell + Partners

How quickly can someone who is active in their community — a brother, a son, someone you would least expect — become a drug addict? Sometimes there are no warning signs. This ad does a good job bringing to the forefront the idea drugs don’t discriminate. Society needs to accept addiction can happen to anyone. This ad subtly shows drug addiction affects more than just the user — it affects the entire family. Like any disease, it becomes a family problem.

Downfall
Blaues Kreuz, BBDO

Alcoholics not only harm themselves, but also their partners and children. I like the way this ad clearly ties every drink this woman swallows as going directly to her family. It becomes not only her downfall, but also the downfall of their relationships. It’s beautifully art-directed as conveyed by the absent look on her face in juxtaposition to the terror seen in the husband and child in her throat.

Heroin
Crenvi, Bronx Comunicação

No matter where in the world we see these ads, they all have one common thread — addiction is never a solo problem. This ad takes a spin on how a family is portrayed, intertwining the addiction problems of the husband and father, while all are connected in pain by the molecular structure of heroin. The man’s suit subtly hints addiction doesn’t discriminate.

Pillcase — Caskets
First Call, VML

First Call took quite a different approach to a recovery helpline ad, stating, “Today could be the day [you overdose and die].” The pill case in the ad is a CGI-rendered metaphor for the unfortunate reality of opioid addiction. Traditional help hotline ads are either encouraging and hopeful or someone on the edge of defeat. This ad is a more abrupt, gruesome take on reality.

Know the Rx Gun
The Cuyahoga County Opioid Marketing Task Force, Doner

Drug overdoses in the U.S. kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined. People know the heroin epidemic is a problem, but they don’t realize how it begins. Focusing on early intervention, Cuyahoga County in Ohio and local health systems partnered to address the epidemic. This ad’s simple, clean design conveys how quickly an innocent prescription for pain can escalate into something lethal.

Opioid Fashion
Premier Health, DeVito/Verdi

At first this looks like an ad for a sleek new phone, but when you look closer, it has a surprising twist. By not looking like a typical addiction awareness ad, it increases the chances of viewers continuing to read and actually getting the important message. Overall, it successfully gives viewers a glimpse into the realities of what goes through an addict’s head when they want one more high, although it rarely ends there.

The 15 Creepiest PSAs Ever Made

There’s plenty of ways to address public concerns about personal safety, drugs, child abuse, and risky behavior. You can teach it in the classroom. You can build public health centers. You can allocate money to non-profit organizations. Or, you can take to the airwaves, and do your best to scare the bejesus out of people.

A well-made PSA is like a miniature horror film. It opens with a deceptively normal setting. But then, there’s an intrusive plot element, followed by a grotesque visual. And usually, the PSA concludes with a last-minute twist. Sometimes, public service announcements are inadvertently hilarious. But done properly, they linger in people’s minds.

Here are the 15 creepiest public service announcements ever made. These are not PSAs of the “This is your brain on drugs” or the “I learned it from you!” variety. Those are cute by comparison. These are the stuff of nightmares. And if you feel unsettled, that’s precisely the point.

And if you remember any other PSAs from your childhood that kept you up at night, let us know in the comments.


15. A Smokey Surprise

It’s not clear how creepy this 1973 Ad Council PSA was originally intended to be. But the whole thing feels wrong. It was unsettling enough that Joanna Cassidy was purring sexily about fire safety. But when Smokey the Bear reveals that he’s wearing a Joanna Cassidy costume and gives a baritone chuckle? It reaches another level of disturbing.

14. What About Her?

The Montana Meth Project released a wave of visceral, disturbing PSAs in the early ’00s, designed to combat the growing meth epidemic in the state. And although critics are split on the PSAs’ overall effectiveness, they spread to several other states on the strength of their gut impact. This particular one, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, The Revenant), gets its point across with heavy implications of heinous acts.

13. And This Is What I Said

Here’s one more from the Montana Meth Project. It’s directed by cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception), and it takes an interesting turn. Rather than focusing on the pain and suffering of the addicts, it turns a critical eye on the bystanders around them. The Montana Meth Project ads could fill an entire list by themselves; if you want to see more–a whole bunch of them are directed by Darren Arrofonsky–you can check out this archive.

Learn the stories behind Helena’s many outdoor murals

If “art is the signature of civilizations,” as Grammy award-winning opera singer Beverly Sills is famously quoted as saying, Helena is just about as civilized as it gets. Not only is Helena home to the Archie Bray Foundation, the Holter Museum of Art and several other renowned arts organizations, it also boasts a large collection of outdoor art on display for the world to enjoy. Here are some of our favorite outdoor murals in Helena.

150th Anniversary Mural

Created by Dennis McCahon and Janet Welsh, the brightly colored mural on the north wall of Performance Square on the Downtown Walking Mall celebrates Helena’s landscape and distinctive historic architecture. It was dedicated during Helena’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2014.
Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Anti-meth mural

Graffiti artist Cole Kerby painted the bold and bright anti-meth mural at the Helena Housing Authority in 2016. A flamboyant rainbow of colors, the mural on Billings Avenue depicts some of Helena’s most prominent landmarks — the surrounding mountains, the Cathedral of St. Helena, Helena Civic Center and the Capitol. Arching overhead is the slogan “Not Even Once” and “Not in Our House” — with the banner Montana Meth Project below. The mural was a joint project of the Montana Meth Project and Helena Housing Authority.
Marga Lincoln, Independent Record

Women’s Mural

Painted in 1979 upon the plaster wall of the Livestock Building facing Broadway, the 3,000-square-foot Women’s Mural depicts the roles of women throughout the history of Helena. It was painted by Delores Dinsmore, Ann Appleby and Marilyn Sternberg.
Eliza Wiley, Independent Record

Memorial Park band shell

Completed in 2010, the mural in the Veterans Memorial Park band shell was funded with $18,500 of federal stimulus money. The images of trees and flowers that had provided the backdrop in the band shell for more than a decade were replaced by depictions of several of the city’s iconic structures — the Cathedral of St. Helena, the fire tower and the state Capitol. Lewistown artist Carol Poppenga, whose proposal was unanimously selected out of 11 submissions, also painted soldiers on the wings of the band shell and colored its front arches red, white and blue.
Eliza Wiley, Independent Record

United Way building

What was once a bland, gray wall on the side of the United Way building at Lyndale and Logan now features the faces of an East Indian baby, a black toddler, a white teenager, an East Asian adult and an American Indian elder. A group of young artists from the Holter Museum of Art completed the mural in 2015. They used the tree roots to connect the people. The key words became leaves sprouting on the tree.
Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Jackson Street parking garage

Although the Last Chance Gulch gold rush died down around 100 years ago, a new miner arrived in Helena in 2017 in the form of a mural downtown. The graffiti-style mural on the Jackson Street parking garage’s north side features a mustachioed 40-foot-tall miner panning for gold. Commissioned by Helena’s public art committee, the spray painted mural went up over the course of two days. The Connecticut-based artist, Ryan “ARCY” Christenson, won the art committee’s $5,000 bid for the downtown mural with his submission of “The Miner,” which he hopes will hit home with locals by reflecting the history of Helena.
Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

Portraits of Meth

Meth is the most addictive drug according to Tammera Nauts, executive director of Recovery Center Missoula rehab facility.

“People think that addiction is a choice, it’s a brain disease,” Nauts said.

The Good Daughter

Mandy looked out her window and saw eight police cars. She opened the door and the police cuffed her. They scoured the house, they found marijuana in her room. But they found what they were looking for in her mother’s room — a pound of meth.

Her mother was taken to county jail for three months. She was charged with possession of meth with the intent to sell. Every Sunday Mandy would visit her. She wanted her to get clean. She was going to help her get and stay sober. Her mother was sent to a rehab center in Billings. After treatment, her mother returned to their home in Pablo. The two were close for that year of sobriety.

Mandy’s mother was introduced to meth through a friend. Mandy thinks her mother continued to do it to fight her depression and physical pain she was going through.

Her mother started selling meth to pay the bills.

Mandy was kept in the dark for most of her mother’s meth use, but money was no longer an issue. Then she walked in and found meth sitting there. This caused a rift between her and her mother.

After finding out, her mother became more public in her use and her behavior became more extreme.

When high her mother would slam her head into the walls. She would try and hurt herself.

Mandy had become the parent.

“I made sure she was okay,” Mandy said. “I would take her to bed. I would take care of her.”

She grew so desperate to connect with the mother she was losing Mandy made a fateful decision, she decided to connect with her mother by using meth. Finally, she thought they would have something in common.

Inside her mother’s room they started to crush the meth with a razor. She snorted it. An immediate jolt followed.

Her joints ached. She plucked her eyebrows. Her tongue felt like sandpaper. When she would smoke it she could taste the chemicals in it. It smelt like burning hair. Mandy knew that this wasn’t her.

After a month of using she chose to stop. Mandy saw herself as someone with a career, with a life. When she decided to quit her mother was supportive.

“Good. I didn’t like you doing it anyway,” her mother said.

Mandy thinks people do drugs to fill a void. It’s more nuanced than we think. People do it to forget about the pain. People do it to fit in. They can do it to mend broken bonds.

After a year of sobriety, her mother returned to meth. She is once again getting treatment.

But the rift between them has only grown. Mandy will help her mother as much as she can, but she knows that the only way to overcome the addiction is by choosing it for herself. Her mother has sent her letters, saying that now she can see through clean eyes she can apologize.

“Until you’ve had an addiction you won’t understand it,” Mandy said.

Mandy is still willing to wait for her mom. But she knows her mom needs to take care of herself. She knows you can’t have a relationship with someone without being content with yourself.

The Father

Billy Antoine wasn’t pressured into trying meth. His friends warned him against smoking it with them. But it was available, so he thought he should try it.

Meth was around so much that it was hard to fight the temptation, he remembered. He spent his time with people who were drinking. That crowd evolved into a group who would smoke meth.

The crowd pulls you in.

The first time Billy smoked meth it made him sick. By the third time, he was seeing stars. He was awake for two and a half days. When he started to come down from the high he could feel the sweat coming out of every pore. He felt ants crawling on his skin.

When Billy was in Pablo he would smoke three times a day. Jumping from one house to the next. Meth was just a way to keep the party going. Some people could go for weeks. Billy could only stay awake for three days.

“I got high because I felt like I would miss out,” Billy said.

Billy thinks the meth use was at its worst in 2013. People in the projects of Pablo were stuck in it. Meth from Washington was coming in, everyone had money for it.

Billy noticed a rise in heroin use in the Pablo area. He said that people high on meth would make fun of them, they would call them the “nod squad” because they would be drifting in and out of consciousness.

Throughout his long-term bender his two children were living with their grandmother. He would visit occasionally. He arrived at his mother’s house and his daughter came up to him and said she missed him. It was enough for him to consider it his lowest point.

He believes, like Mandy, the decision can only be made by the addict. Nobody can stop make the decision except themselves.

This is where the real challenge starts. Dr. Richard Rawson, researcher at UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, said that the danger of methamphetamine addiction is the relapse.

Rawson said that methamphetamine releases a spike of dopamine – providing sensations of pleasure and satisfaction. With continued use the dopamine system is suppressed, and the number of dopamine receptors reduced. Rawson said recovering meth users often relapse because they seek out the pleasure that meth releases and they no longer can generate on their own.

Rawson said that there is good news, for some after six months of sobriety the brain will release more dopamine again.

Billy has been sober for three months.

“People need to know what they are walking into. You’ll lose everything,” Billy said. “You can’t see anything beautiful. You’ve got to be your own light out of the fog.”

He doesn’t see his old friends as much anymore, he said that his kids are his friends now. He said, you’ve got to find the thing you love before you get addicted, that the best support for getting sober was when his little brother told him that he believed in him to get over the addiction.

“Maybe we should tell each other that more,” Billy said.

The Partier

When Jarrett Hopewell was alone he started to crash. The extreme euphoria was wearing off and he could feel the depression creeping in.

It was only a couple of hours after his first time with meth.

Jarrett was at a party and play. A party and play is a casual hook up term meaning sex and drugs. Party and play are popular in the gay community, Jarrett said, and the drug of choice is often methamphetamine.

His friend took him to a hotel where they met up with two men. His friend and one of the men were both chronic users of meth.

They brought out a pipe to start. It was long and slender with a bowl at the end. They stuck crystals underneath the bowl and had a fire under the bowl. It smelt like burning plastic.

Jarrett said he is spontaneous so he decided to try it. The smoke was smooth when he inhaled. Jarrett felt warm inside after using it. Everything felt euphoric.

According to a 2013 paper by Dr. Jane Maxwell, who works at the Addiction Research Institute of the Center for Social Work Research at the University of Texas, men often use meth for enhanced sexual experience, enhanced mood and euphoria.

Jarrett didn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t because the high kept going. In the morning he called a friend to pick him up. He thought to himself that he would try it again in a month.

“I felt like the addiction was starting. Part of my brain was already craving it,” Jarrett said.

He saw one of the men again after that night. Jarrett said he couldn’t afford his groceries, opting instead to shoot up. The last time Jarrett saw him shoot up he was trying to find a vein he hadn’t used up. He found one in his neck and shot up. He leaned back with his head in his hands. Jarrett thought that he was in pain.

He didn’t say anything, he knew that it wouldn’t make a difference.

“I knew that an acquaintance couldn’t change his mind, only he could change his mind,” Jarrett said.

Jarrett never touched meth again.

The Suicide Mission

B was looking for death.

In the midst of a divorce and heartbreak, he was looking for something to take him away from his misery. He started drinking, but soon found himself trying meth for the first time. He was up for three days after that.

The initial blast is something you can never forget, B said. It’s something you chase forever; you’ll never get that feeling again.

They call it chasing the dragon.

B would chase it no matter what it cost him. He chased it for 12 years.

“I was on a suicide mission,” B said. “I didn’t care what happened.”

He used the drug to keep away from his depression. At bottom, he weighed 96 pounds. He had friends pull guns on him. He would beat himself up for using before a drug test at work. When he was angry and high everyone was afraid of him.

With chronic use of meth a person can lose their normal sense of pleasure said Dr. Richard Rawson. Rawson said the addiction is very Pavlovian for chronic users, they know that they will get pleasure as soon as they use again.

B remembers need that pleasure but also remembers how different the meth scene was in the 90s. The drug was coming in from Washington, but there were also many labs around Missoula. He said there was a prolific drug dealer in Missoula they called God. God would create meth that would make your heart feel like it would explode out of your chest. But according to B, the meth in the 90s was nothing compared to the meth created now.

“The stuff that’s coming out now is like snorting the corrosion off of your car battery,” B said.

“According to a 2013 research paper written by Dr. Jane Maxwell, a scientist at the Addiction Research Institute of the Center for Social Work Research at the University of Texas, a large problem with the meth produced recently is because of 1-phenyl-2-propanone (P2P). This drug increases the potency of meth from 64 to 90 percent.

“It taught me how to hate,” B said.

B eventually left Missoula and lived in Daytona, Fl. He stayed clean but knew he would live in Montana or Colorado. Eventually he came back with his girlfriend, but as soon as he came back he started using again.

There was no grand moment that made him decide to stop. He just knew it was time to stop.

He distanced himself from friends that would use. He relapsed two times. He eventually got sober with the support of his girlfriend, who had become his wife. He’s been clean for 17 years.

There was no grand moment that made him decide to stop. He just knew it was time to stop.

“I just needed to quit,” B said. “I didn’t need death anymore. I found something to live for.”

An arduous part of removing himself from that life was watching old friends die from meth because they couldn’t overcome the addiction.

They haunt him and so does the dragon. Sometimes he still smells meth. The odor of a scented cigarette could set him off. His brain shuts down and the only thing he can do then is go for a walk.

Editorial: Montana making much-needed headway on meth response

Montana methamphetamine users are no longer cooking the drug themselves using cold medicine and other common household goods. Instead, many are buying it from dealers who traffic in cheaper, larger quantities of meth made in massive production facilities in Mexico.

Montana’s rural and urban communities alike are seeing more emergency room visits and drug busts, overburdened police and courts, and overcrowded jail cells. More children are in foster care because their parents are meth users. The state currently lacks an effective means to clean up meth-contaminated homes.

Meanwhile, those on the front lines are teaming up to find more effective ways to respond to the meth epidemic. Law enforcement agencies are catching drug dealers on the Montana’s highways. More courts are requiring that addicts try treatment, and addiction experts are working to expand treatment options.

Montanans have a detailed, comprehensive understanding of all this thanks to an unfolding series of news stories closely examining meth in Montana. The series, collectively called the Meth Effect, is part of a multimedia reporting project undertaken by a team of students in the University of Montana School of Journalism working to share the many stories of meth in a number of ways, from written words and photos to audio interviews and online social media.

This series is being featured in the Missoulian as well as via the project’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. A website, www.metheffect.com, contains the team’s entire collection of published work. Taken together, the project not only paints a tragic picture of the meth problem in Montana, it points to places where Montanans are trying out different solutions – and where some wider public attention and support might be helpful.

The proposals are as varied as the problem itself, and can be found in the realms of addiction and treatment, family trauma and separation, law enforcement and child protection services, and they are all related. After all, a treatment program that works to keep a meth user employed, housed, out of jail and home with her children will also help free up court resources, jail space and social workers.

Here are just a few specific takeaways:

  • Stopping meth the moment it enters Montana is a growing priority. In 2016, Montana Highway Patrol troopers confiscated nearly 1,300 pounds of drugs; not just meth, but also marijuana, heroin and other drugs. Compare that to the 450 pounds confiscated in 2012. That year, troopers made fewer than 60 felony drug arrests; last year, they made more than 250.
  • More families, schools and communities need to become part of the network of resources to help them prevent meth use, watch for the warning signs, and know where to turn for help. The nonprofit Montana Meth Project has served as the state’s primary prevention initiative and information clearinghouse since 2006, with attention-grabbing ad campaigns, community outreach and links to helpful resources at montanameth.org. (Note: Missoulian Publisher and editorial board member Mike Gulledge serves as chair of Montana Meth Project’s board of directors.)
  • In April, the Montana Department of Justice launched a new initiative called “Aid Montana: Addressing the Impact of Drugs,” which aims to bring together law enforcement, treatment, education and coordination efforts into a comprehensive, community-wide approach to addressing the larger issue of substance abuse, not just meth. Over the summer, the department will be hosting listening sessions throughout the state and gathering ideas for combating substance abuse, with the goal of completing a strategic plan before the start of the 2019 legislative session.

There’s a lot more that can and must be done, of course, but it’s encouraging to see dedicated efforts to address the myriad problems associated with meth gaining a foothold in Montana. Understanding the meth epidemic is the first important step in fighting it.

Montana officials say surge in meth use deeply troubling

HELENA – Methamphetamines continue to make an alarming surge in Montana, as law enforcement, health officials and communities struggle to address the problem.

Panelists at a drug summit convened Saturday by the Montana Legislature said resources are being strained because of a widening prevalence of the drug.

While authorities attempt to stanch the flow of meth into the state from Mexican cartels, courts are burdened by a growing caseload of drug cases. Family services are also strained by drug-related cases that are tearing apart families. And drug clinics are struggling to serve an increasing population of meth users seeking to treat their addictions.

As meth use in Montana continues to rise, authorities are also bracing for a possible influx of heroin in an expansive rural state whose borders aren’t easy to patrol.

“I’ve never seen it this bad before,” said Bryan Lockerby, with the Montana Department of Criminal Investigations. “The problem we’re all trying to solve is like boiling the ocean, and we have people drowning in meth.”

The concern over meth and opiates, such as heroin, in Montana is shared nationwide. More Americans are dying from opioids than at any time in recent history, with overdose deaths hitting a peak of 28,000 in 2014. That amounts to 78 Americans dying from an opioid overdose every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But meth remains the drug of choice in Montana and other nearby states because it is inexpensive and so widely available.

Lockerby told legislators that law enforcement is but a component in the effort to eradicate the drug from Montana. But the challenges, he said, are daunting as the meth supply transforms a homegrown substance cooked in clandestine labs to a well-financed out-of-state import that crosses state lines and national borders.

In 2015, the state’s crime lab analyzed about twice the number of samples as two years prior, according to state statistics.

Montana health officials say meth-related cases now account for more than 40 percent of the caseload being handled by the state’s child and family services – doubling from a decade ago.

Meth is the primary drug encountered by Montana’s 11 drug task forces, according to the Montana Department of Justice.

Attorney General Tim Fox called for more collaboration among state, federal and community agencies to deal with the issue.

“One of the largest challenges is for us all to work together,” he said. “We have various agencies with all the same general goal to protect our citizens and in promoting health. Because we’re compartmentalized in separate places, and we all have our separate missions, we sometimes don’t work together well.”

That means identifying “all the stakeholders, what money is being spent where, what kind of success rates we have and where are we not doing enough,” Fox said.

What’s needed in particular, Fox said, is to develop stronger partnerships with tribal authorities, who are also struggling to attack the scourge of meth and other substances on reservations.

“Meth is so devastating to a community, to a family, to children,” said Alexis MacDiarmid, an addiction counselor at the Helena Indian Alliance.

Zoe Barnard, an administrator for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, called the economic burdens associated with substance abuse alarming.

From 2010 to 2014, she said, there were $714 million in charges for hospital admissions in Montana because of substance abuse. About a fifth of that amount was charged to the taxpayer-funded Medicaid program.

Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, said the summit sought to bring awareness about the state’s drug problems and to help fellow legislators understand the need for more resources, particularly for drug treatment programs.