The Agony And The Ecstasy

Amy Ralston took ecstasy for the first time in the spring of 1985. It was Saturday night, and Ralston, a striking 25-year-old blonde, had a blind date. At a girlfriend's urging, Ralston says she dosed up before heading out to the now-defunct nightclub Papagayo, a laser-lit meat market that was popular with North Dallas scenesters.

Ralston was entertaining her date--a dud, it would turn out--when an older gentleman asked her to dance. The man was Charles "Sandy" Pofahl, a fit, 43-year-old Dallas suit who had his own taste for ecstasy and who, as it happens, was just starting a new business that would soon make him one of the biggest ecstasy dealers in U.S. history.

Ralston brushed him off.

Ralston had smoked pot and snorted cocaine in her day, but when the ecstasy started to kick in, it was a new sensation: Cigarette smoke began to scratch her nostrils and the floor turned underfoot, while the club's throbbing dance music rapped oppressively at her skull. Feeling overwhelmed, Ralston stepped outside for some air.

"I remember looking up at the moon," Ralston says, "and it was full, and it was, like, OK, I'm looking at the most beautiful moon I'd ever seen."

Moon-bathed and buzzing, Ralston decided she wanted to continue her journey by herself. She went back inside the club and was trying to scare up a ride when someone tapped her shoulder.

It was Pofahl.

"He said, 'There's something about you. I have to see you again. I've been watching you all night,'" Ralston recalls. "I said, 'If you can remember my phone number, you can call me.'"

Making a mental note of the number, Pofahl scampered off in search of a napkin. Before Ralston left, she took one last look at the room and spotted Pofahl across the bar. And that's when it happened.

"As soon as I turned around, that thing--that spark--went off. It was just kind of like a feeling," Ralston says. "Then he picked up the napkin and started waving it to me in the air. Several years later, he gave it to me as a Christmas present."

When she got home, Ralston headed straight for the bathroom.

"I don't know why, but I know I had to go look into the mirror, and I saw my pupils dilated," Ralston recalls. "I just went into this whole spiritual journey by myself. I just kept saying, 'I'm looking into my universe,' and I kept looking into these two huge black holes, and I just went through this whole metamorphosis. Or whatever."

Ralston did begin a wild trip that night. The problem was, it wouldn't end for 15 years.

Instead, Ralston traveled through the Dallas ecstasy scene of the 1980s and into the center of a complex international drug smuggling operation, controlled by Pofahl and a Dallas chemist named Dr. Morris Key. It was called the Ecstasy International Export & Import Organization--EIEIO, for short. At its peak in 1989, EIEIO stretched from Dallas to Guatemala and Germany, generating millions of dollars in ecstasy sales until an international scrape with Libya inadvertently exposed it to U.S. authorities. Like most Americans, Ralston had heard about a "war on drugs," but as she stared into those big black pupils that night, she didn't realize she was looking at someone who would wind up on the battlefield--a future target of federal agents who would spend two years tracking her from Dallas to Los Angeles before handing her a 24-year prison sentence in 1991.

Ralston would still be in jail today if she had not had the fortune of becoming a national poster child for opponents of the mandatory drug laws that took effect in the mid-1980s. Last summer, that status netted her a high-profile--and drastically distorted--write-up in Glamour in which Ralston emerged as an unintended casualty of the war on drugs, a "blindly loyal wife" whose husband lured her into a criminal lifestyle, then betrayed her to save his own behind. The press helped Ralston rally the support of several influential politicians and, ultimately, President Bill Clinton, who commuted her sentence in July.

Today, Ralston lives with her parents in Charleston, Arkansas, where she maintains that her 15-year saga is a testimony to the injustices of the U.S. legal system. Although there is no question that Ralston shouldn't be in prison, a closer look at the case reveals that Sandy Pofahl wasn't quite the heartbreaker he was portrayed as being--and that Ralston isn't quite the innocent she paints herself as. In fact, untangling the web of half-truths found in her story calls to mind the title of a "semi-true" screenplay Ralston wrote shortly before her 1991 arrest.

She called it "Nothing's Black & White."

A Higher Love