Postcard from Texas Meth Country
The pride and shame of Lufkin, Texas, are located about a half mile from each other. Just west of the town's east loop, there's Abe Martin Stadium, site of many triumphs for the Lufkin Panthers, 5A state champions in 2001 and perennial contenders for the crown. About a quarter-mile up East Lufkin Avenue, there's the Angelina County Jail, the frequent home of the town's many meth heads, dealers and cooks, including James "Bull" Durham, one of the most frequently arrested men in East Texas history.
As jails go it's an almost cheery place. County Sheriff Kent Henson has long encouraged artistic inmates, and they've obliged with murals of rodeo scenes, portraits of cops and jailers and Texas history tableaus. Perhaps the most talented of these artists was "Iodine Mike" Russell, one of Lufkin's most notorious meth freaks and a mentor to Durham. Iodine Mike's work dominates the jail's small chapel, including his masterpiece: a colorful mural of three rugged old crosses in a Holy Land sunset setting. It will remain his finest achievement; he died last year at age 36 of liver failure.
Sheriff Henson, a Pentecostal Sunday school teacher in his spare time, is very proud of the work and its message, but if he intended for this dead meth head's vision of the Promised Land to serve as warning for those following in Iodine Mike's wake, too few have heeded it. One such scoffer is Durham, who is awaiting transfer to state prison and looking at 25 years' hard time. After a long visit with his new girlfriend, Durham is at last ready to talk. But first he has a few grievances to air with Henson.
"Hey James, what're you doin'?" asks Henson good-naturedly as a guard leads Durham into the chapel. A ruddy-faced, sandy-haired 52-year-old with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Henson's the type of man who hates the sin but loves the sinner. He greets even a wild-eyed, inked-up veteran criminal like 39-year-old Durham with a smile, and will tell you that Durham's a great guy when he's off the meth.
"Hell, what I do best," Durham sighs. By Durham's own count, this is his 48th trip to Angelina County Jail. This summer, Durham pleaded guilty to burning down his mother's home when a small, portable "shake-and-bake" meth lab erupted in his bedroom. Durham's mother lost both her home and car in the ensuing inferno, and Durham's torso was scalded by chemicals. That disaster was one of several in the worst of Durham's 39 years on the planet. He now claims to have been coerced into pleading guilty.
"I didn't burn that house down," Durham tells the sheriff with no more preamble. "I know you think I did and you think I'm a piece of shit, but I didn't burn that house down. I got burnt, I've been shot, I've been slandered, but I didn't burn that house down."
Durham also wants to know why nobody's in jail for what happened after the fire, when he was out on bond and two young men came by the shack where he was living, a little hovel he built behind what was once his mother's home. One allegedly clubbed him with a two-by-four, and the other allegedly shot him with each barrel of an old-timey over-under gun. (One barrel fires .22-caliber bullets, the other is a .410 shotgun.) Durham says they were acting on the orders of an ex-girlfriend whose bid to rekindle their romance he had spurned. The alleged shooter was charged with aggravated assault and is out on bond, but a local grand jury declined to charge the other. The woman has not been charged.
"I was laying on the ground for dead with a bullet in my guts and this man come up to me with that shotgun and shot me dead in my butt-hole," Durham cries to Henson, his voice rising. "You wanna see it?" The sheriff declines. "He shot me not in the ass but in my asshole," Durham continues. "And now I gotta wear a bag!" He parts the folds of his orange jumpsuit and shows us his colostomy bag.
"It's all 'cause I'm Bull Durham, Lufkin's most hated," Durham grouses.
"Naw, you're James Durham," the sheriff says.
Henson eventually gets an earful and reminds Durham of the time he caught him stealing his lawn mower. Durham says he had no idea how the lawman's mower wound up in his truck. He didn't even know that house belonged to the sheriff.
It ain't easy being Lufkin's Most Hated, and Lufkin's Most Wanted, but that's who Durham is, at least in his own mind. He's tattooed those descriptions across his elbows, where they compete for space amid the blue-black welter of jailhouse tats that cover his whole bullet-ridden, shotgun-blasted, hernia-addled, meth-burned, knife-poked, razor-slashed, colostomy-bagged body.
Truth be told, Durham's not as rare a bird as he likes to think. Henson's jail is full of guys like him. In the past year or two, Henson and his deputies have also played host to Donald Brooks, who was the cook at what is believed to be the largest lab in county history. There's also David Dunman, the man at the heart of a 66-count federal meth indictment, and 13 members, most in their early 20s, of an even bigger meth conspiracy also being prosecuted by the feds. One of those, Robert Wayne Dillahunty, the 41-year-old son of a respectable Lufkin family, is still in Henson's jail awaiting his federal sentencing. He's been arrested at least 10 times since 2004 for meth-related mayhem.
"I've seen things really change," Henson says. "Used to be everyone was growing marijuana. Then the meth came in. I've never seen nothin' like it. Our judicial system is just getting overwhelmed with these people." He says that on any given day, 50 to 60 percent of his inmates are where they are directly or indirectly because of meth, and chasing meth leaves his two-man narcotics squad, headed by Sergeant Allen Hill, time for little else.
If you believe the most recent statistics, meth use is actually down from 10 years ago. Supposedly, when the federal government forced people to register their IDs when purchasing Sudafed and other cold medicines containing meth's key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, domestically produced meth would fade into oblivion.
The Sudafed law did put a kink in the domestic meth trade for a couple of years. According to the Department of Health and Human Services' annual National Survey on Drug and Health, the number of past-month meth users has declined from 731,000 people in 2006 to 353,000 in 2010. Only 105,000 people became first-time users of meth last year, down from the peak of 299,000 in 2002. But according to Drug Enforcement Agency seizure and arrest records, meth is climbing again after a dip that bottomed out in 2007. In 2005, the DEA seized 2,161 kilograms of meth. That number fell to 1,113 kilos in 2007 but was back up to 2,067 kilos in 2010.
Overall, the stats would seem to show that there are fewer new users of meth and that an increasing percentage of it is coming into America from south of the border. But that is not what happened, at least not in Angelina County, according to experts on either side of the law.
Hill disputes just about every one of the findings and stats except the one showing the imported Mexican meth is up. As Durham puts it, "When the laws do somethin', the junkies are gonna do somethin'. They're never gonna stop it."
This time around, that something has been the advent of the shake-and-bake lab. The line between meth fiend, dealer and cook has been blurred as never before. Older methods of meth cooking, the so-called "Nazi" or P2P and red phosphorus styles, took more time and more expertise.
"It took them about 18 hours to get the meth oil and another 20 to get the finished meth from that," Henson says of the Nazi method. "You could smell it — they used ether to kick it off and it smelled like rotten eggs." Henson says the users reeked of their product, too.
"My wife and I could go to Walmart and you could smell the Coleman fuel," he says. "They have sores on 'em called 'spider bites,' but they are really blisters and they're always scratchin', and when they bust, you can smell it. Those chemicals want to come out."
In the old days, meth labs were located deep in the backwoods. What's more, some of the components, chemicals like P2P and anhydrous ammonia, were somewhat hard to come by. That's not the case today with shake-and-bake labs. Any fool can now go on the Internet and look up a recipe, obtain all the components and whip up a batch inside of an hour in his or her home, a motel room or even a car.
"Now I can walk in one store and come out with all the ingredients for a lab," Durham enthuses. "One store! I can go to Walmart right now and come out with the best dope you ever seen in your life. Throw some lithium in there, a little fuel, a little bit of red lye, you got it goin' there. It's called a reaction and you've got a good reaction, you've got good dope. It just ain't gonna be as pure as the other dope."
"Everything that they put in it except for the Sudafed has a skull and crossbones on it: iodine crystals, Liquid Heet, Drano, muriatic acid, Coleman fuel," Henson says.
Meth heads like Durham don't mind the idea of literally fueling themselves up. Durham looks on his own meth recipes with pride. "When shake-and-bake first started it was trash," Durham says. "But then I started lookin' at it and figurin' out ways of my own."
He prided himself on his technique. He was not one to just slop everything together and shoot up a quick fix. Call him the Guy Fieri of meth: "It's just like macaroni and cheese," Durham says, grinning big. "If you take that and throw it in a pot for three or four minutes, you can just throw in the cheese and eat it. But if you let it slow-simmer for eight or ten minutes, then put you in a li'l milk and some bacon bits and some butter, and then put the cheese in there? The bomb! Right?"
Durham says his dope always had the key quality meth freaks craved. "They want legs, and what legs means is they want to ride for a matter of days. Boom!"
He says that his trips to Walmart often turned into chemical searches. He would read the labels of every fuel, cleaner, solvent and medicine. "It's just a habit," he says. "And if you see somethin' that has sulfuric acid, you're gonna go, 'Hmmm.' 'Cause if that's in there, you can find a way to take the rest of the stuff out. You can separate it. They put it together, and if you know how to separate things, then you got it. That's how shake-and-bake came about and now it's bad to the bone."
Thanks to relatively poor soil, Angelina County has long stood apart from the rest of East Texas. The first Anglo settlers were not slaveholding cotton farmers but Scotch-Irish backwoods folk. Culturally, the county was less moonlight-and-magnolias Dixie than a little pocket of Appalachia, where pioneers, often from similarly hardscrabble areas of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, wanted nothing more than to carve homesteads out of the Piney Woods and river thickets, farm a little, maybe raise a scraggly herd of tough cattle to drive to market in New Orleans. They also wanted to brew up a little whiskey and subsist on the bass, catfish and perch they hauled from the Neches and Angelina rivers and whatever they could trap and shoot on dry land. In 1861, alone in East Texas, Angelina County voted against secession. (Their electoral peculiarity continued through the 20th Century — Angelina County was the seat of power for swashbuckling politico "Good Time Charlie" Wilson, aka "the liberal from Lufkin.") They were, and are, a self-sufficient breed, good with their hands, bluntly honest and leery of all central authority.
Over time, the criminal underworld of Angelina has evolved. Virtually all of the moonshine stills are gone, and the 1970s pot farm craze has abated. Crystal meth is at the heart of just about every social ill in the white community. Which is why, for the past several years, Hill has made guys like Bull Durham his top priority. Where his boss Henson has a golly-gee demeanor and a twinkle in his eye, the brawny, bull-necked Hill cusses up a storm and loves tearing it up in his leisure time.
On a ride-around of east Lufkin's meth country, he explains how he and Tom Matthews are the entirety of the Angelina County Sheriff's Department's narcotics squad, and they subsist off what they can seize from drug dealers. No tax money funds them. Behind his office, he has a whole warehouse full of captured meth labs, video equipment, a flashy BMW and a late-model pickup, and bicycles that he's gotten from raids in the past couple of years. This is just the swag they are keeping for official use, destroying or donating to area children. The rest has been auctioned off to pay his salary and overhead.
He drives past one scene of rural squalor after another: trailers falling apart at the seams but nevertheless occupied by meth heads, packs of dogs running free amid trash heaps and burned-out cars. Most of these pooches are East Texas curs, but in one predominantly Hispanic trailer park, there were also little packs of semi-feral Chihuahuas. Hill says Hispanic drug dealers, most of whom at least claim to be affiliated with gangs like MS-13 or Mexican cartels, are increasingly getting into selling cartel-made, Mexican-imported "ice"-style meth instead of cocaine or crack because there's much more money in it these days.
One day last year, Hill took down three labs in a single day. And there's still so much more work to do. Easing up to one intersection, Hill says that he knows of no fewer than five active cooks within a mile's radius. "Every one of 'em I've put in jail, and they're either out on probation or bond," he says, and adds that he plans to catch them all in the act again soon.
It's a timing thing, he says. You have to know when they are cooking and sweep in immediately. He's good at it: He's caught people with syringes in their arms and dope stashes in their laps. In one case, Hill burst into a room at Lufkin's Motel 6 in which he found a cook in the bathroom frantically trying to pinch closed a balloon containing deadly phosphine gas, a meth by-product. If that cook's fingers had slipped, everyone on the scene could have been killed. Another local was caught with a shake-and-bake lab in the trunk of his car in the parking lot of the local probation department.
Hill worries some about the long-term physical consequences of raiding all these labs. In some homes he's raided, the meth fumes have corroded metal doors and, in one example, the casings on some rounds of .50-caliber ammo. Hill wears a respirator, but he draws the line at a chemical suit, especially in the summer. "I could either die of cancer down the road, or a heat stroke today," he says.
The job takes an emotional toll, too. He tells of one bust in which he had hoped to arrest a young girl's parents before her school bus dropped her off at home. But he hit a snag and the raid was delayed, so when the bus dropped the girl off, her schoolmates saw her yard full of cops and her parents stuffed in the back of a squad car. "And it was right before Christmas," Hill says. "It can be pretty tough."
Henson says they've started enhancing the punishments of dealers and cooks caught with children in their midst. He's found kids' toys and baby shampoo in the same bathtub used to cook up a batch of meth. "We started getting CPS involved and testing the kids, and if they test positive, we turn around and file on the parents for endangering their children," he says.
He pulls up to what's left of the Durham home. A charred square on the ground next to a scorched tree marks the site of what used to be Ruth Durham's home, but behind where it once stood, James Durham built himself a shack resembling less a residence than a clubhouse for a precocious delinquent. An apparently well-fed and friendly dog still lives in the yard. The shack's walls are decorated with collages made up of cut-out photos of hotties and his favorite band, Metallica, alongside hand-drawn pictures of dragons and a Rebel flag. Plastic bottles are strewn about the floors, a musty, bare mattress squats in one corner and there's a 40-year-old TV in what passes for a den. Even after Hill has carted off lots of evidence from the scene, the yard is still littered with empty Sudafed blister packs, stripped lithium batteries and other meth-related detritus.
Durham says he got hooked on meth when he was 11 years old and working full-time as an off-the-books catfish skinner for $20 a day. He says he maintained like that for years, just another hardworking dropout stiff with a monkey on his back. He didn't cause anyone any trouble until his brother Brad stuck him in the guts twice with a butcher knife in the early 1990s. He says that sent him spiraling into crack. He says Iodine Mike weaned him off crack by turning him on to red phosphorus meth, and it's been Katy-bar-the-door ever since.
According to Durham, his dad was a "real bad alcoholic" who stood six-foot-four and weighed 390 pounds. Henson, who along with Hill disputes many details of Durham's version of his life in meth, doesn't exactly scoff at that estimate. "He probably was 400 pounds there towards the end," he says.
"Mama taught us goodness and the Bible, but Daddy was mean," Durham says. Asked if his dad was a mean drunk or a mean sober, Durham says: "He was mean period. He was just a mean tush hog. You take Highway 94 out towards Groveton and there's a strip of bars across the [Neches] river — there used to be Slim's, the Jug and about four others. Nobody across that river could whoop my daddy. He taught us to take no shit and that's probably part of my problem right now. I just don't care what nobody thinks about me no more."
As the boys got older, they started fighting back against their tush hog of a daddy. "It's like Hank Williams sang, 'Family Tradition,'" chuckles Sheriff Henson. "They've stabbed each other, beat each other, you name it. Lotta times when James'd come in beat up, his brother or his daddy done it to 'im. They fought like cats and dogs. There's been a few times I've had all three of 'em in the back of my car."
Once Durham started going to jail, he couldn't stop. (Neither could Brad: He's now about a year into a 30-year stretch for robbery.) Since that first arrest, James has been busted for engaging in organized criminal activity, theft, public intoxication, DWI, burglary, felon in possession of a firearm, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, manufacture/delivery of meth, evading arrest, tampering with evidence, fraud, forgery and arson.
And yet by 2004, between stints in county jail, the state jail and state prison, where he says he witnessed horrors "that could make a billy goat puke," Durham managed to find the time to claw his way to what he claims was almost the very pinnacle of the Lufkin meth trade, just two notches below the kingpin: the now federally incarcerated Mike Keene.
"When I was a kid growin' up, Mike Keene was just a name," he says. "I never thought I could be that big some day. I was just a dope fiend chasin' dope. Then I started meetin' people who knew them and then I became one of them because I listened, I minded 'em, I wasn't doin' all my dope, I was slangin' it and maintainin' and doin' what I'se s'posed to do. Bringin' in all the money."
Durham says Keene ran his operation out of a bunker-like Lufkin scrap yard. "All that man did was give orders," Durham says. "He had cameras set up all around his wrecking yard, armed guards, Rottweiler dogs, pit bulls, thousands of fucking cars and a huge fence. All that wasn't there to stop break-ins."
For Durham, these were the salad days. He kept four cell phones, all of which he ditched and replaced weekly. He claims he had two bodyguards and never walked around with anything less than $20,000 in cash. He also says Keene bought him a flashy Lincoln Continental. (Sergeant Hill scoffs at that tale: He says Durham's Lincoln was a rattletrap old junker that once belonged to his dad. Basically, Hill scoffs at anything Durham says about his life in the drug trade beyond him admitting to being a meth freak and low-level cook and peddler.)
Back then, Durham had more meth than he could handle. "It would just start gettin' good on me at 15 days," he says. "When I'd start gettin' to 20, 21, 22 days, that was when it was time to chill out." Unlike many meth heads, he paid attention to his health and appearance. "They say meth rots people's teeth out. Well, it does. You know why? Lack o' brushin'!" He barks up a laugh. "I've been doin' dope since I was 11 and I have some big teeth, but they're healthy and strong. And I kept eatin' and drinkin' Gatorade. Lotsa Gatorade. That's how you kept your body refreshed, nourished."
But the power, money, fake friends and dope whores went to his head, he says. He started to believe he was invincible, to think he was able to buy off cops or hire lawyers to get himself out of any jams. He also didn't care what his neighbors thought about his unconventional lifestyle. "If my yard needed a Weed Eater and it was three in the mornin', I got that headlight on and I'm out there mowin' the yard right then and there," he laughs. "I didn't give a damn what my neighbors thought. This is America! That's what my daddy taught me. I was not thinkin' I was embarrassin' myself. I didn't care, 'cause I had the power. I had the money, I didn't give a damn. I'm Bull Durham!"
Eventually Durham fell out of favor with Keene. According to Durham, shortly before Keene was arrested, the Lufkin kingpin stripped Durham of his guns, bodyguards and prized Lincoln because he believed that Durham was too "hot with the laws." In February of 2004, Durham got caught trying to swap a shotgun for crack and cash, and after attempting to evade cops, he was arrested and given six years in the pen. After paroling out and violating a couple of times, he got out in 2010, just in time for the worst year of his life as a free man.
Once out, he hooked up with a troubled, recently widowed woman who Durham claims had a pill problem. It was a tumultuous relationship, and part of the reason he was at his mother's house when it burned down was that he and "Krystal" were on the outs.
He says that on the night of the fire, he had just been dumped. In a funk, he got drunk and went to his mother's house. As he went to leave, his mom urged him to stay and sleep it off. He gave in, but claims that before he went to bed, he noticed that his recently incarcerated brother Brad had rigged up an entertainment system consisting of a TV, a VCR, a DVD player, a stereo and a descrambler all off one outlet.
Durham says he told his mom it was a fire hazard and then passed out. When he woke, the house was on fire and his mom was frantically trying to douse the flames. He says he pulled his mom away from the blaze. He says that what were later found to be meth burns on his torso came instead from a flaming mattress he was trying to wrestle into the yard. He wants to be credited as a hero for saving his mom.
After he bonded out on the arson charge, his relationship with Krystal continued to sour, and months later Krystal's son and son-in-law beat and shot Durham in his mom's yard. Durham says both boys were "slobberin' drunk off Mad Dog 20/20" when they arrived at his house, where he was mowing the lawn and attempting repairs on the scorched property. He says that after his stepson hit him a few times with a two-by-four, Durham managed to restrain him, and the younger man collapsed weeping in his arms, wailing that he wanted his family back.
"And I was like, 'I do too, but I cain't,'" Durham remembers saying. "Right then sumbitch" — his ex's son-in-law — "went BOOM and shot me in the goddamn gut. And I went, 'Augh!' [His former stepson] went, 'Oh my God! What did you do?' And when I hit the ground, [Shires] got out of the truck. I went 'Stop! Stop!' and raised my hand up to him, but he walked up to me and shot me right in the butthole."
Durham says he was in a coma for days and when he came to, he had a colostomy bag. (He believes the scar tissue and mesh in his guts from his brother's stabbing might have saved his life.) He had to relearn to walk and talk.
"And the papers clowned me," he says. "They said, 'East Texas Man Burned His Mother's House Down.' Now why did they have to say that? They should have said, 'Charged with Burning' or 'Accused' or something because I ain't even been to court on that yet. It should have said, 'East Texas Man Shot While Rebuilding Mother's Home,' 'cause that's what I was doin'."
Whatever Durham was doing, his travails, along with what Hill and Henson report from their respective daily grinds, seem to stand in contrast to what the mostly cheery federal meth statistics would have you believe. Hill thinks that there are as many new users as ever — they just lie to surveyors now because of the drug's stigma. After all, with so many of the old cooks and fiends dead or in prison, if not new users, who is consuming all the meth he finds?
In the past year, he's helped take down Donald Brooks' historic meth lab. And while Brooks was middle-aged, Hill is also arresting plenty of college-age kids. In the big 13-member bust that snared Dillahunty, virtually all of the others were in their early and mid-20s.
Hill believes that while cops are supposed to report the discovery of a small-batch shake-and-bake bottle to federal authorities, few take the time to do more than mention it in an in-house report that never gets tallied by the feds. (And some don't even bother to do that.) He also thinks it's a "serious mistake" to underestimate the production capability of the shake-and-bake cooks.
"A one-pot cook can make ten to 15 grams at a time and do so in just a few minutes," he writes in an email. "That's over a half ounce at a time and they can do this many times a week easily surpassing the production of a large lab that makes 100 to 200 grams at a time and is only set up and used once or twice a month."
Hill loves Henson's openness approach, but thinks meth can be fought much more effectively at the national level. And there might just be a silver bullet. In 2006, Oregon, a state once so meth-plagued that it gave us the "Faces of Meth" mugshot series, enacted legislation making medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine prescription-only. Since that elegantly simple solution was enacted, meth lab seizures have fallen from 192 in 2005 to a mere 10 last year. Meth-related arrests were half of what they were in 2006.
Hill acknowledges that the Mexican cartels would leap at the chance to try to fill the domestic void, but thinks that assets could be redeployed to partially check that flow at the border. In 2010, Mississippi became the second state to pass such a bill. However, experts predict that lobbyists from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Merck, mindful of the collective $500 million a year these cold medicines bring to their coffers, would fight a similar national bill tooth and nail.
Hill also believes that drug education should be mandatory in high schools. Kids will be exposed to drugs at some time in their lives, he says, but at least they would know what they were getting into. The 11-year-old catfish skinner James Durham certainly didn't have that wisdom. He went on to flunk three grades at school, and it took him seven years to get his GED in prison, and he says it was the only time his mother was ever proud of him.
And Durham says he is desperately seeking a way to make her proud again. Much of Lufkin continues to heckle and "jeckle" him even as he heads for his longest stint in the pen. They've heard his lies and broken promises before.
Durham doesn't care. He dreams that his sentences will be overturned and that someone will make a movie of his life, earning him millions and making his mama proud, he says. Failing that, he says, he could serve his time and become a drug counselor, spend the rest of his days telling kids not to do as he has done.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.