MILLERSBURG, Ohio — More than 150 Amish men and women filled a farm building this spring to learn about the chemical curse that is surrounding them.
Methamphetamine, the drug peddled by outlaw bikers and street-corner dealers for decades, is on the rise in the land of the horse and buggy — though no one caught with the drug in the area has been Amish.
The rural hills of Holmes and Wayne counties, about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, is a place where violent crime and major drug trafficking have seldom been a problem. Many associate the region with Ohio’s largest Amish population, quilt shops and large family farms.
But beneath the idyllic setting is an underbelly of criminal cookers who have begun brewing the gritty, illicit stimulant into a growing drug of choice in a region that might be one of the last in the state to face the drug’s scourge.
“It’s a jolt to the stereotype of the quaint, rural community that we have in Amish country,” said Paul Miller, the director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio. “It’s a jolt to our own values. We don’t condone it. We don’t want to see it happen.
“I don’t profess to be totally cognizant of what is going on, but from observation and following the police blotter, you can see that it is here.”
In the past decade, meth has damaged Ohio’s rural communities, much like crack cocaine did to the state’s cities in the 1980s and 1990s. And Wayne and Holmes counties — a combined population of about 150,000 — are beginning to see the first dramatic signs of that damage.
Amish church leaders have become concerned enough about the drug and others to meet with law enforcement. The reason is simple.
“The devil doesn’t care where we live, whether in the city or in the country,” said Ed Miller, an Amish general contractor from Apple Creek. “He seeks out the weakest. . . . There’s a big concern about [methamphetamine.] We don’t want that.”
David Smith heads the Medway Drug Enforcement Agency, an anti-drug group that works mostly in Wayne, Holmes and Medina counties. In 2007, the agency dismantled one lab in the region. Last year, it cleaned up 17.
The region is less than a half hour from the epicenter of Ohio’s meth explosion — in Summit County, where the drug took off in about 2004. That’s when authorities broke up 126 labs, more than any other county in the state. The numbers have dipped since then, but authorities routinely conduct raids there and make major arrests.
Making meth in Millersburg and Wooster is much different from producing it in Akron. That’s because it is so easy to go unnoticed in rural sheds and farm fields, authorities say. It also has been affected by new, quicker cooking methods.
View full sizeKen Marshall, The Plain DealerOne of the telltale signs of cooking meth is a noxious vapor that can sicken anyone in close proximity and tar the insides of homes. In rural Holmes and Wayne counties, the vapor is much harder to detect because the houses are far apart.
“You always see it in the cities, but people will feel more secure in the rural areas because it is so open,” said Gary Aurand, the chief probation officer in Holmes County.
• In March, authorities raided a rural home in Holmes County and charged Dannel Weaver, seizing what officials called in a news release “yet another methamphetamine lab.” Sheriff’s deputies found a number of materials, including anhydrous ammonia, a farm fertilizer.
Anhydrous ammonia added to the cold medicine pseudoephedrine and lithium helps create meth. In the region’s farm fields, anhydrous ammonia is commonplace: It helps corn and other crops grow. Weaver’s arrest came a year after he was sentenced to probation in Wayne County for meth charges.
• A 14-year-old girl tested positive for methamphetamine in the months preceding a raid in July on a Millersburg home where her mother and her mother’s boyfriend lived. Authorities seized cold tablets, batteries and other chemicals used to make meth. The raid came after a police officer pulled the couple’s trash and found chemicals used in making the drug, as well as the drug’s residue. The trash pull followed an informant’s tip, according to court records.
The teenager’s mother, Lisa Wilson, 34, was sentenced to four years in prison on meth and child-endangering charges; the boyfriend, Delane Goodwin, 38, was sentenced to eight years on similar charges. Both pleaded guilty in Holmes County Common Pleas Court.
• Meth has joined marijuana as one of the most common drugs to show up in drug screens of people tested by probation officers in Holmes County, said Aurand, the probation official.
In the past 12 months, drug officials seized eight meth labs in Holmes County. While that might be two weeks’ work for Summit County drug agents, it has stunned many in a county with 42,366 people.
“I’ve seen more meth in the last year than in the past 20 years,” said Holmes County Prosecutor Steve Knowling. “From what I’m seeing, it has become the predominant hard drug of choice.”
•Two Millersburg men were indicted April 28 in U.S. District Court in Williamsport, Pa., with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Gary Stutzman, 41, and Dean Troyer, 44, were accused of delivering more than 100 grams of the drug to undercover officers near State College, Pa., earlier in the month. Investigators estimated the drug shipment was worth $11,000.
The indictment in the case says Stutzman and Troyer were involved in a conspiracy to distribute the drug since June 2010, but it does not indicate whether there were any other sales made to authorities. The men denied the allegations in court.
• Last November, authorities raided a meth lab at the home of Troy Lastohkein, north of Millersburg. The home stands less than 1,000 feet from Holmesville Elementary School. Lastohkein, 44, pleaded guilty in April in Holmes County Common Pleas Court and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Two children were at home at the time of the raid, according to published reports.
“It’s disconcerting,” said Mike Shreffler, the superintendent of Southeast Schools, a rural district that includes the elementary school. “We’re a family-oriented community. It shows that these things can crop up anywhere.”
So how did the drug spread so quickly in the two counties?
Some argue that the drug has been bubbling below the surface in the counties for years, but aggressive police and sheriff’s deputies are finding it more often, thanks to better training and informants. While that may explain the jump in the number of arrests, it doesn’t address how the drug has become a top drug of choice among people arrested.
A gap-toothed, 19-year-old meth user who declined to give his name said cookers have formed cliques, teaching and talking about various methods of making the drug. And soon, they spread out, cooking and feeding their own habits.
“You have one, then five, then 10,” he said. “Pretty soon, you have a lot of people making it.”
But possibly one of the simplest reasons for the drug’s growth in the farm region is because of a relatively new way of making it, what cookers call “the one-pot” or the “shake and bake” methods.
Several years ago, most dealers labored for hours, cooking and stirring the ingredients into a chemical stew. In recent years, however, a new form allows dealers to produce meth in 2-liter bottles, enabling them to make the drug along any road, pitch the debris and drive off with a fresh batch.
View full sizeChuck Crow l The Plain DealerPart of the rural Amish county scene in Holmes County, Ohio, where meth labs are springing up, to the alarm of residents and officials alike.
And that leaves officials concerned. They fear the new method may push the drug even farther into the rural corners of Holmes and Wayne counties.
But officials are quick to stress the region is not a drug hotspot, a place with a reputation like Scioto County for prescription pills or Meigs County for marijuana. Part of the reason is that it’s a tight-knit community and police are quickly adapting their investigative techniques.
That said, residents know that the scourge of meth is still out there and that they must remain on guard to protect their way of life.
That’s why Ed Miller, the Amish contractor in Wayne County’s town of Apple Creek, will keep pushing law enforcement authorities to speak with Amish families about the dangers of the chemical demon.
“We all have souls, and we’re all going through this together,” Miller said. “We believe that if we can help one person, one person, it will be worth it.”