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Meth spreading like 'wildfire'

Read this update on meth from the Quad City Times on Feb. 7, 2024, including interview with One Eighty resident Justin Hoffmann

By Tom Loewy, Thomas Geyer, Anthony Watt

Justin Hoffmann used methamphetamine for the first time when he was 16 years old.

He is now 37 and in recovery from a meth addiction that he says took everything from him.

Hoffmann talked about how meth has changed since his teenaged party years in his hometown of Maquoketa. He remembers when the drug was locally produced by a small number of people using material found at discount stores. And he saw his addiction grow as he and other users were introduced to potent, lab-produced meth that is brought to the Quad-Cities through supply chains that run from places like California, Arizona and Oklahoma.

"Back when I was 16, the meth you saw was stuff that had been cooked up in a kitchen or somebody's basement," he said. "For me, back then, it wasn't something I saw all the time. It was rare and if someone had it at a party, I would use it.

"But back then, you really had to search it out, you know?"

The world of meth changed about 10 years ago, according to Hoffmann.

"I was 27 when I really started using meth, I mean I started using it daily," he said. "That's when 'ice' first hit this area.

"It was readily available and it came around and it just kept coming. By a few years ago, meth was everywhere. And I know it still is."

'It's not a war. It's a wildfire'

Meth is everywhere, said Andrew Fratzke, director of the Quad-City Metropolitan Enforcement Group. Q-C MEG was created in 1974 to combat the local illegal drug industry.  

“When people ask me about how I’m fighting the war on drugs, I tell them it’s not a war,” he said. "It’s a wildfire, and we’re trying to control it so it doesn’t spread and get bigger.

“The borders are flooded with it, the big cities are flooded with it, the small cities are flooded with it. I don’t think there’s anything out there that really describes how bad the situation is.”

The meth that is seized today is all produced south of the border by the drug cartels and then shipped to the United States by any means possible, he said.

It’s not just so-called “mules” who are bringing the meth into the country, it’s getting here by boat, plane, train and is shipped through the mail and parcel services, he said. The mail services are overwhelmed with seizures, he added.

Law enforcement at all levels are making huge busts on the nation’s interstates, including here in the Quad-Cities.

“You didn’t see this on the interstate 10 years ago,” Fratzke said. “It’s hundreds and thousands of pounds that they’re seizing now. As long as 15 years ago you didn’t come across it. Now, it’s just taking over. It’s overwhelming, the amounts.”

Looking at the website for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Fratzke scrolled down the page, vocally listing off seizures and amounts. The list of seizures on the Customs and Border Patrol website goes on and on with drugs and guns.

Despite all the seizures at the border, meth is making it into the United States and is being distributed nationwide. If it comes in the country in liquid form, the cartels have the labs to press it into pills and send it on its way.

“It starts at the borders,” Fratzke said. “Unless they close the southern border there will never be an end to the meth problem.”

While a normal dose of meth is often described as one-tenth of a gram, Fratzke said he has never seen anyone sell one-tenth of a gram.

“It’s usually a ‘teener’ which is 1.75 grams. That’s kind of your normal user amount," he said. "It cost about $300 to $500 on average for an ounce of meth, which is 28 grams."

The meth produced by the cartels is much purer than what can be produced by the so-called “cooks” with their one pot methods and mixing their ephedrine purchased from the drug stores, Fratzke said.

“Meth re-programs people, and they go from making great money and having jobs to not wanting to get out of bed,” he said.

Meth users can end up dealing to support their habit. If their use becomes larger than what they sell to support their habit, then they may begin dealing with the cartels. Fratzke said these people really don’t understand what they’re getting into when they begin dealing with the cartels. Once someone is involved at that level, it's hard to get out.

There also is plenty of gun violence to go along with it, he said.

A case of meth and murder?

During the early morning hours of Jan. 16, the Davenport Fire Department responded to the report of flames coming from the home at 5210 N. Division St.

They found the bodies of Brian L. Goodwin and Amy M. Smith in a lower bedroom. In a search warrant request, police investigators said Goodwin had trauma to his head. They had been shot multiple times.

The killings devastated families and friends of Goodwin and Smith. The violence also sent shock waves through portions of the meth-using community in Davenport and across Quad-Cities.

"People who knew Brian knew he was a good guy who would help anyone out," a friend said. "If someone wanted something from Brian, all they had to do was ask. Brian took people in and helped people. No one deserves to be murdered."

Quietly, a number of people who spoke with the Quad-City Times worried Goodwin's and Smith's associations may have put them in the orbit of their killers.

Smith battled meth addiction for a number of years, a struggle she admitted to in 2018 in a Clinton County Court after she was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. She also was arrested three years ago for being in possession of a stolen camper.

Goodwin was named in a pair 2023 search warrants and meth was found in both locations. He was not charged with a crime after those searches.

One of the people Goodwin tried to help was Adriana Prieto, who was found guilty of possessing 2.94 grams of meth in 2020. She was staying in the house at 5210 N. Division and was arrested just a few days after the killings. She is charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and her bail totals $2.2 million.

No one has been charged with the murders of Smith and Goodwin. Investigators have not named any suspects, offered any motive for the killings or said whether meth was involved.

Investigating the pipelines

Several methamphetamine investigations reported on by the newspaper exemplify the scale of drug trafficking and distribution that is bringing methamphetamine into the Quad-Cities from other regions.

The oldest of these example investigations dates to 2015 and 2016. The most recent is from 2022. Police recovered about 37 pounds of meth during these investigations and made numerous arrests.

In May 2022, police recovered 16 pounds of methamphetamine during a traffic stop on Davenport’s Rockingham Road and detained Michael Sean Russell of Buffalo, whom authorities allege was driving the suspect vehicle.

According to Scott County court documents, police suspected Russell and others of being involved in bringing meth to the area from Arizona.

Authorities also allege Russell told investigators that a man named Archibaldo, from Mexico, owned the meth.

The investigation resulted in federal charges for several people, including Russell. He now awaits sentencing in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Iowa in relation to the case.

During the 2015-2016 investigation, law enforcement recovered 20 pounds of methamphetamine. The investigation resulted in six arrests, including that of a woman named Theresa Morales, then of Bettendorf; and of a man named Cesar Ballesteros.

Police suspected the drug trafficking ring targeted by that investigation had ties to Arizona and Mexico. Allegations included that Morales transported drugs provided by Ballesteros.

Police initially recovered eight of the 20 pounds in November of 2015. Officers were trying to stop a vehicle on Interstate 80, and the occupants, including Morales, threw the meth out.

The remaining 12 pounds officers captured during a traffic stop in March 2016. Investigators found it in a spare tire and a speaker box.

After her arrest, Morales told police she’d transported meth for Ballesteros about a dozen times, with the largest amount being about 15 pounds. The transportation jobs took her to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

A March 2021 traffic stop netted about 1 pound of meth that Quad-Cities police suspect came from Colorado. The drug ring investigated in that case had been operating at least since July of 2020.

Another investigation that began in November 2020 in Davenport targeted more meth coming from Arizona.

That distribution ring had been operating since at least April of 2020, according to federal court records. The investigation led to the arrest of Art E. Thomas, then of Davenport.

Authorities alleged that Thomas trafficked in at least 37 pounds of meth, but did not specify how much of that methamphetamine police captured during the investigation.

In late 2023, Thomas received a 27-year sentence in federal prison for the part authorities said he played in the ring.

A dose of methamphetamine is one-tenth of a gram, according to police.

The amount of drugs authorities said they confiscated during these cases is about 37 pounds – the equivalent of about 16,500 grams.

That is about 165,000 doses.

A dose is currently worth anywhere between $15 and $25, according to police. At those prices, the confiscated meth would be worth between almost $2.5 million and $4.1 million.

Sheriff: Quad-Cities meth coming from south of border

Sheriff Tim Lane said all of the meth hitting the Quad-Cities today is made by the cartels south of the border and moved into the states, or the cartels have set up manufacturing facilities within large U.S. cities where they can blend in.

Meth trafficking from the cartels has been on the rise since at least 2016, he said.

“It’s a mess and it’s going to get worse,” Lane said.

No one manufactures meth in the Quad-Cities anymore, he said.

Lane spoke of Operation Methed Up in 2016, which was aimed at combatting meth production in the Quad-Cities. At least 46 people were arrested, either for manufacturing meth or buying meth precursors and giving those to the people cooking the meth.

However, Lane said local cooks were going by the wayside given that the meth from south of the border is purer and cheaper.

Additionally, the precursors of meth are tracked in many states which means buying meth made south of the border provides less risk of getting caught.  

Lane said he couldn’t remember exactly when his deputies last arrested anyone for cooking meth, but it was sometime in 2019 or maybe 2020.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen that in a long time,’” Lane said of the person who was using what was then called the “one pot” method of cooking meth.

Using street drugs now like Russian roulette

Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson said he has been with the coroner’s office in some capacity for 30 years.

“It’s only been in the past seven to 10 years that I first began seeing overdose deaths attributed to meth,” he said.

Gustafson said he does not understand why the local dealers add fentanyl to meth.

“They create the opposite effects,” he said. “Meth will keep you jacked up for days, while fentanyl brings you down. I don’t get it.”

It was one thing to buy marijuana and other drugs from a street dealer 20 or more years ago. It’s a whole other ball game today.

“Buying drugs off the street today, whether it be meth, marijuana, or whatever, is like putting one bullet in a revolver, pointing the gun at your head and playing Russian roulette,” Gustafson said.

'It'll cost you everything'

Justin Hoffmann was arrested for meth possession twice in 2023. He spent 30 days in the Scott County Jail — the first stint from March 27 to June 28 and the second from Sept. 6 to Dec. 6.

After he was released for the second sentence, he immediately checked into One Eighty, a faith-based agency that offers a 14-month residential recovery program.

Hoffmann's situation was a familiar one for One Eighty's staff. Jenny Halupnik, the agency's director of engagement, said 46 of 89 total intake clients in 2023 were addicted to meth.

Dakotah Smith, who was addicted to heroin, but is now One Eighty's director of operations, said the availability of meth has "soared."

"It is the drug we see most often, by far," she said. "Addiction is very different for everyone, but meth is highly addictive and has quickly become the drug of choice for many people.

"It's not really expensive, it's available, and many people get addicted to it quickly. Over the course of the last four years, we have seen an explosion in the number of people coming to us with meth addiction."

Hoffmann said he "feels free" as he works through recovery, but knows he "has a long way to go." He smiled as he talked about working in One Eighty's vehicle maintenance department and fixing the blower on an agency van.

"You see, I had a great job. I worked as a mechanic on semi trucks and trailers," he said. "And for seven or eight years, I was a meth addict going to work every day.

"But I thought that drug was so good that it came first. I lost my job. Then I stopped going around my family. Eventually, my son's mother stopped allowing me a chance to see him. What other choice did she have?"

Hoffmann said he tumbled down to a life spent in hotel rooms or on friends' couches — if he was lucky. There were times when he was on the streets.

"Meth does really screw up your judgement," Hoffmann said. "You'll do anything for that drug.

"What I know about meth is this: It'll cost you everything. My son is 6. Until recently, I had not seen him since he was a little baby, so basically I haven't seen him for five years of his life. I put meth ahead of everything, even my own son. It's really hard to come back from that."

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