“Methamphetamine is back.”
With those chilling words, state Attorney General Brad Schimel sounded the alarm last week in Eau Claire about the resurgence of a highly addictive illegal drug that threatens to destroy more families and communities as it spreads across Wisconsin.
After a temporary lull, meth has come back stronger than ever and is threatening to make inroads in parts of the state that so far have been relatively untouched by the drug, he warned during a news conference to announce new ads to support the state’s KNOW METH public awareness campaign.
“This is the No. 1 problem in northwestern Wisconsin,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said. “It will soon be the No. 1 drug in the state of Wisconsin. I’m predicting that.”
Schimel said he agreed wholeheartedly with Fitzgerald’s prediction and described how meth is gradually working its way across the state from its longtime stronghold in northwestern and west-central Wisconsin, fed by the proximity to a trafficking base in the Twin Cities.
“Right now, southern Wisconsin is just starting to experience methamphetamine, and I’m telling them down there, ‘You guys haven’t seen anything yet,’” said Schimel, a Republican seeking re-election in fall.
His Democratic opponent, former federal prosecutor Josh Kaul, called for a more aggressive response to Wisconsin’s rapidly growing meth problem.
“In addition to making sure the public knows about the dangers of meth, we need to ensure that our enforcement efforts are targeting large-scale traffickers and we need to expand access to treatment," Kaul said.
Recognizing that meth has been a chronic problem in Eau Claire County for some time, Schimel acknowledged that “for some counties, it never really left.”
Statewide, the number of meth samples sent to the state crime lab has more than tripled from 499 in 2013 to 1,696 in 2017, according to the state Department of Justice.
Most of the hardest-hit counties, including Eau Claire, Barron, St. Croix, Dunn and Rusk, are in northern and western Wisconsin. Barron County ranked third among Wisconsin’s 72 counties last year with 115 meth cases. Eau Claire County was seventh with 64, and St. Croix County was eighth with 56.
Eau Claire police Deputy Chief Matt Rokus said looking at meth cases is a limited way to assess the drug’s penetration. He explained that Eau Claire County only sends samples to the crime lab for cases going to trial.
By another measure, 320 meth-related cases were introduced in Eau Claire County Court in 2016. That number rose to a record 342 last year and was on pace to hit 436, which would shatter the old mark, in the first three months of 2018.
In Eau Claire County, the drug has been a thorn in law enforcement’s side at least since 22-year incumbent Sheriff Ron Cramer was an undercover officer trying to nab dealers in 1990.
Meth began to rise in popularity in the 1990s before cases dipped temporarily after Wisconsin placed restrictions on buying the key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, in 2005. But the drug has come back with a vengeance in the past several years, with production in mom-and-pop labs being replaced by cheaper, purer forms of meth trafficked from Mexico and Central America.
Meth even surpassed alcohol as a cause of crimes in the county in recent years, Cramer said.
“A lot of the criminal activity that’s happening within our community is directly related to the use and abuse of methamphetamine,” Cramer said, noting that a large share of the county’s burglaries and retail thefts are committed by offenders seeking cash to feed their habit.
In addition, meth-related crimes are leading to higher medical costs and overcrowding in the Eau Claire County Jail, as well as putting a strain on the area’s social services, he said.
Rokus also emphasized the widespread ripple effect of meth, which he called a much bigger problem in the Chippewa Valley than the opioid epidemic that has gotten so much attention nationwide.
When asked what advice he would give to officials in Wisconsin communities just beginning to encounter the drug, Rokus offered this cautionary message: “Be aware of the breadth of the impact of methamphetamine on your community. This is not a problem just limited to law enforcement or the criminal justice system. It impacts the entire community.”
One example he mentioned was the strain on schools that must deal with drug-endangered children and students removed from dangerous situations involving families caught in meth’s grip.
The additional crime meth addiction spawns can have a significant negative effect on quality of life, Rokus said.
Some meth-fueled crimes can be shocking and dangerous.
Early last week, 43-year-old Za Vue of Eau Claire was charged in Eau Claire County Court with misdemeanor counts of negligent handling of burning material, criminal damage and disorderly conduct after Eau Claire police responded to reports that he was trying to burn things, breaking glass to gain access to fire extinguishers and spraying people with the devices while armed with a sharpened stick.
A day later, he apparently broke into the University Housing and BMO Harris building on Water Street, where he lit fires and held officers at bay in a standoff that lasted more than 12 hours. Vue was found dead in the building Tuesday night, with a preliminary autopsy indicating he died of smoke inhalation.
In March, Michelle Mayer, 39, of Eau Claire was charged with repeated sexual assault of a child and being party to a crime for allegedly allowing men to sexually assault her two preteen children for years in exchange for meth, cocaine and money. The criminal complaint said a confidential informant told police the children often would be injected with meth to keep them awake and indicated Mayer beat the children with a baseball bat if they protested.
Rokus also recalled a 2014 case in which police say three perpetrators seeking meth and money held seven people hostage at gunpoint during an Eau Claire home invasion. In other instances, Rokus said, individuals have committed large numbers of burglaries in hopes of obtaining cash to buy meth.
Armed and unreasonable
Such cases increasingly place officers and citizens in highly dangerous situations, Schimel said, noting that meth traffickers routinely are armed, and people abusing meth often can’t be reasoned with.
“That puts officers in a situation where they’re going to have to use force where normally they would have been able to talk the situation down and take that person peacefully into custody. Not so with people on methamphetamine,” Schimel said. “This is a huge, all-encompassing problem, and that’s why we’re going to solve it with all hands on deck.”
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