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 Adams slipped past him by a single vote.
For two years, Adams was sheriff of Carter County, until his arrest last month on charges of distributing methamphetamine, the home-brewed narcotic that has poisoned much of this poor, sparsely populated stretch of timber country. Adams was accused of regularly snorting the drug as well.
But in this community, 130 miles south of St. Louis, Adams’ alleged misdeeds have not provoked outrage. Rather, many residents are accepting it, even sympathetically.
“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 the past decade, Missouri has led the nation in the number of laboratories discovered to be producing methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that can be made with common household products such as nasal decongestants.
In Ellsinore, the 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 mayor of Ellsinore. “You just turn your head and go on.”
Adams was one of many men 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, Adams, now 31, ran for sheriff against two-term incumbent Greg Melton. There were persistent rumors about Melton, including methamphetamine use.
Less than a month before the election, Melton was found in his garage, shot through the head in a suicide.
Adams’ 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. Adams began spending conspicuously, buying cars, building a cabin in the woods 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. And even though his new $37,000 salary, on top of his wife’s job as a nurse, represented good money in an area where the median household income is $27,000, his spending raised eyebrows.
Then there was his choice of friends, including Richard Kearbey, who had been arrested years earlier on charges of trying to buy 50 pounds of methamphetamine.
Though a federal judge in a later case described Kearbey as “the ringleader of a fairly large methamphetamine distribution network,” he served just seven days in jail. Instead he agreed to work as an informer, helping arrest a number of small-time meth cooks, according to the federal court records. After Adams’ house burned down — the man now charged with several arsons told the authorities he had been commissioned by the sheriff himself to set it on fire — he moved next door to Kearbey.
Adams hired Kearbey’s daughter, Steffanie, as a deputy, though she had no experience in law enforcement. She told authorities after her arrest last month in the case against Adams that she had helped him carry out burglaries and sell guns from the evidence room.
Despite the growing concern, few of the two dozen residents who discussed the events in recent days said they ever suspected 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 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.” According to the investigation by state and federal authorities, though, Adams had been using methamphetamine for at least nine months, with a man who became a government informer.
Last month, the unidentified informer, wearing a wire, went to Adams’ cabin to buy some methamphetamine from the sheriff, who used some in his presence, according to a court document. Adams was quickly arrested and is being held in lieu of a $250,000 cash bond.