Comments Off on Drugs in Ozarks Town Infect Even Sheriff’s Dept.

ELLSINORE, Mo. — Growing up in the rugged foothills of the Ozarks, Tommy Adams always dreamed of carrying a badge. He realized his wish through grim happenstance: the incumbent sheriff, dogged by rumors of corruption, killed himself weeks before votes were cast, and Mr. Adams slipped past him by a single vote.

For two troubled years, Mr. Adams was sheriff of Carter County, until his arrest last month on charges of distributing methamphetamine, the home-brewed drug that has poisoned much of this poor, sparsely populated stretch of timber country. Mr. Adams was accused of regularly snorting it as well.

But in this long-struggling community in southeastern Missouri where distrust of law enforcement has always run deep, the story of a sheriff enabling the scourge he was supposed to fight has not provoked outrage. Rather, many local residents are accepting it, even sympathetically, as another disappointing chapter in what they see as a hopeless fight.

“It shows how entrenched methamphetamine is in our system,” said Rocky Kingree, the county prosecuting attorney. “It’s something that has to be stopped, and it doesn’t seem like there is an end in sight.”

For most of a decade, Missouri has led the nation by a wide margin in the number of labs discovered to be producing methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that can be made with household products like nasal decongestants. And throughout the Ozarks, the drug has metastasized.

In Ellsinore, the creeping problem has strained the bonds of its 446 residents. People recognize the symptoms of use in neighbors but, reflecting a culture of fierce independence, say nothing.

“We all know who does what, how they do it and when they do it,” said David Bowman, a school maintenance worker who is the mayor of Ellsinore. “You just turn your head and go on.”

In a community where hunting is less a hobby than another way to put food on the table, Mr. Adams was one of the many local boys who learned to string together a living out of odd jobs, working as a fry cook, an auto mechanic and the town’s one-man, part-time police force.

Three years ago, Mr. Adams, who is now 31, ran against the two-term sheriff, Greg Melton. There were persistent rumors about Sheriff Melton, including that he used methamphetamine. Several residents said last month that he had stolen from them or had sold them stolen goods.

Less than a month before the election, Mr. Melton was found dead in his garage, shot through the head. The county coroner, who found a gun in Mr. Melton’s hand, said that despite rumors otherwise, there was no doubt he had killed himself.

Mr. Adams’s narrow victory put him in charge of three deputies and a 500-square-mile region with 6,265 residents. Keeping a lower profile than his predecessor, he quickly became the subject of rumor himself. He rarely met with community leaders or showed up at the office, where paperwork piled high on his desk. He delegated to his chief deputy, who worried about his strange behavior.

Mr. Adams began spending conspicuously, buying cars, building a cabin and paying for the in vitro fertilization that led to the birth, eight months ago, of his son.

Like many people around here, he had grown up poor. He declared bankruptcy in 2005, with just $5 in cash and $300 in the bank. And even though his new $37,000 salary, on top of his wife’s pay as a nurse, represented good money in an area where the median household income is $27,000, his spending raised eyebrows.

Then there were his friends, including Richard Kearbey, who was arrested years earlier on charges of trying to buy 50 pounds of methamphetamine.

Though a federal judge in a later case described him as “the ringleader of a fairly large methamphetamine distribution network,” Mr. Kearbey served just seven days in jail. Instead, he worked as an undercover informant, helping arrest a number of small-time meth cooks, according to federal court records. (Neither Mr. Kearbey nor his longtime lawyer responded to messages seeking comment.)

After Mr. Adams’s house burned down early last year — the man now charged with several arsons told the authorities that he had been commissioned by the sheriff himself to set it on fire — he and his family moved next door to Mr. Kearbey.

Mr. Adams hired Mr. Kearbey’s daughter, Steffanie, as a sheriff’s deputy, though she had no experience in law enforcement. Just months earlier, Mr. Adams had arrested the man who was then her husband on charges of methamphetamine possession; now she was constantly by the sheriff’s side, helping him carry out burglaries and sell guns from the evidence room, she told the authorities after her arrest last month in connection with the case, according to court records.

Despite the growing concern, few of the two dozen residents interviewed about the events in recent days said they ever suspected that Mr. Adams was using methamphetamine. Even those who noticed that his clothes hung more freely on his already slender frame saw none of the other telltale signs: the rotted teeth, the compulsive movements, the erratic behavior.

A lawyer for Mr. Adams did not return a call seeking comment. But his friends and family defended his reputation. His mother said he never would have jeopardized his dream job. His wife offered stacks of unpaid bills to show they were not living extravagantly. His father-in-law called him “one of the good guys.” And Robert Boone, who used to fix up old cars with Mr. Adams, said his friend simply could not have hidden his drug use.

“I trusted Tommy, and I still do — I don’t believe he did it,” said Mr. Boone, whose house was among those that Ms. Kearbey told the authorities she robbed at the direction of Mr. Adams. “Did he get caught up in something he couldn’t get out of? Maybe. Maybe.”

According to the long investigation by state and federal authorities, though, Mr. Adams had been using methamphetamine for at least nine months with a man who had become a government informant.

Last month, the unidentified informant, wearing a wire, went to Mr. Adams’s cabin to buy methamphetamine from the sheriff, who used some in his presence, according to a court document. Mr. Adams was quickly arrested, and his bail was set at $250,000. Despite initially boasting that he could pay immediately, he remains in jail.

“It seems like they always get caught up in it,” said David Reynolds, raising his voice above the scream of a blade at his family-owned saw mill. “A sheriff don’t have to answer to nobody.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/us/01sheriff.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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