Last month's drug sweep netted 30 arrests
Lee County is the epicenter of abuse
OxyContin has been linked to at least six fatal overdoses and a
surge in crime.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
JONESVILLE - The morning sun had just cleared Wallens Ridge when a small army of deputy sheriffs assembled at the Lee County courthouse.
They sat stiffly in bulletproof vests, the butts of their holstered handguns scraping against the wooden courtroom benches.
clad in a black T-shirt and black pants walked to the front of the room, holding up a stack of indictments. Each one bore the name of someone charged with distributing OxyContin.
"Are we ready to rock and roll?" he asked.
Indictments in hand, teams of deputies fanned out from the county seat, pounding on doors of apartments and houses where the drug was allegedly sold.
About an hour later, Sheriff Gary Parsons sat on a bench outside the jail and watched as suspects were occasionally led past him, hands cuffed behind their backs. They ranged in age from 17 to 68, from the middle-class to the unemployed.
"This thing knows no class or gender or age," Parsons said of the problem with OxyContin, a prescription painkiller that has been linked to at least six fatal overdoses in his county and a surge in crime.
If there is an epicenter for OxyContin abuse in Virginia, Lee County ont>The county is among the poorest in the state, with an average per capita income of $16,449. Thirty-nine percent of its 23,000 residents receive some type of government assistance.
Many of them are in pain, hobbled by injuries from coal mining and farming accidents. That means lots of OxyContin was prescribed in Lee County after the drug was introduced in 1996.
Sandwiched between Tennessee and Kentucky, the county is a prime location for "doctor shopping." Addicts who go from doctor to doctor, faking back pain or other ailments to get OxyContin, are harder for police to apprehend when they criss-cross state lines.
Economics. Supply. Location. With those and other factors combined, it didn't take long for OxyContin abuse to get out of hand.
"All of a sudden it just blew sky high," said Beth Davies, co-director of the Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap.
Even the sheriff's nephew, Todd Williams, is fighting an addiction.
Williams didn't think much about popping pills when he was growing up. Neither did many of his peers; a survey of juniors at Lee High School recently found that 39 percent said they had abused Percocet, a painkiller containing oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, or vicodin, another narcotic painkiller Twenty-two percent had tried OxyContin.
"I thought I was normal," Williams said.
So far, OxyContin abuse has left few visible scars on the county's pastoral landscape. Unlike the way crack is peddled openly on city streets, most OxyContin transactions are made behind closed doors. In a community where most people know one another, word-of-mouth easily connects users and dealers.
It used to be that Parsons could rattle off the names of the county's drug dealers almost from memory. He can't do that with OxyContin. A cache of the drugs could be buried in the back yard of a nice-looking home, and an addict could be sitting one row behind him in church.
"There are so many people who are doing it, you can't tell anymore," he said.
Last month's drug sweep netted 30 arrests. That may not sound like much by big-city standards. But considering that the county jail was built for 34 and was holding 49 people before the raid began, it was all the Sheriff's Office could handle.
"We're just going to stack them in there," Parsons said as another suspect was led past.
Some of those charged the morning of May 15 were no strangers to the inside of the jail. As Tina Marie Parks was being fingerprinted and photographed, she ruefully remarked that she was wearing the same gray sweat pants she had on the last time she was arrested.
"I'd burn those if I were you," a sheriff's deputy advised her.
Parks proceeded in leg irons to the magistrate's office. Noting that the 31-year-old was currently on bond for another drug charge, the magistrate ordered Parks held without bail on two charges of distributing OxyContin. Parks was shuffled back to the rapidly filling jail.
Earlier this year, Dr. Art Van Zee, a Lee County physician, decided that something had to be done.
He and other members of the Lee Coalition for Health organized a national petition drive asking the Food and Drug Administration to recall OxyContin. The coalition also held a town meeting to discuss what it called "the epidemic of OxyContin abuse."
An overflow crowd packed Lee High School's 750-seat auditorium the night of March 9. With a lineup of speakers that included preachers and lawmen, the atmosphere was part church revival, part crime watch meeting.
The crowd listened politely when told of how hard it is for addicts to get off the drug, but roared in approval whenever a speaker advocated tougher prison terms as a solution to the problem.
One member of the audienceused an ink pen to make a sign. "Tell On Drug Pushers" read the makeshift poster that Taylor held above his head as he walked up and down the aisles. The crowd applauded.
When the meeting was over, recovering OxyContin addict Lisa Messick stopped Parsons before he could leave the stage. She told the sheriff that treatment, not prison, is the only way to solve the county's drug problem.
"We're not bad people, we're just sick people," the 27-year-old said before the meeting. "We have a problem."
Later, Parsons agreed. But, he said, "all I can do is to lock them up. We havenothing to offer these people who are addicted." Lee County has no 00 miles to the nearest methadone clinic for help.
Yet for every addict who wants help, there seems to be a law-abiding citizen who is calling the sheriff to complain about another burglary or theft committed by someone desperate for drugs.
Already, the situation has turned deadly.
Billy Gene Lawson was in bed in his Dryden farmhouse around 3 o'clock one morning in March 2000 when he heard a noise at his kitchen window. He grabbed his gun and went to investigate. Lawson didn't know it at the time, but two young men were trying to get to his wife's prescription drugs, which she kept on the window sill.
Lawson fired one shot that killed 26-year-old Shannon Fleenor in his tracks.
Although he declined recently to talk about the case, evidence presented at Lawson's trial suggested that he acted out of fear at a time when drug-related crime was increasing rapidly in Lee County.
"A lot of people in the community said that he deserved a medal," Parsons said.
But because Fleenor was outside the house when he was shot in the back of the head, authorities charged Lawson with second-degree murder.
Last month, a jury of 12 county residents voted to acquit.
Laurence Hammack can be reached at 981-3239 or firstname.lastname@example.org