In the days since Angela Guzman-Rogers’ friend Ryan had been released from the Flathead County Jail, they’d celebrated his new freedom by keeping the methamphetamine buzz at fever pitch. Nothing really compares to the rush of that first shot of crystal meth when you’re just out of jail – but like everything good, that rush is impossible to hold on to. After a couple days of mainlining, the rush isn’t coming back, and at four in the morning on the third day you’re scraping the bottom of your bag with a razor so hard that the plastic comes curling away with the last residue of the dope.
Angela and Ryan were ready to get out of Kalispell. Between them and two friends they were holding $5,000, and Angela had her mother’s car, a reliable red Subaru Legacy. They all got high again and headed for Colville, Washington, to meet a cooker and get some more dope. An unidentified young man rode with Angela into the cold predawn of October 13th, 2003. Ryan rode in the lead car, to show them all which way to go.
The road west is Highway 2, which leaves the Flathead Valley and winds through an endless dark timber country of low mountains and thicketed river bottoms. But Angela would never get to see that road again. The lead car sailed through the flashing red light at the intersection of Highway 2 and Reserve Street, still in Kalispell, and Angela followed without a pause. A massive self-loading logging truck heading out for the first run of the day slammed into the driver’s side of the Subaru at an estimated 45 miles per hour.
Angela was killed instantly, thrown, still hanging in her seatbelt, into the passenger side of the car. For her passenger it must have been like being inside a detonated bomb, but he survived. He staggered from the wreck, bleeding from a head wound, and disappeared into the dawn.
Outside of town, in a secluded and comfortable home at 400 West Valley Drive, Richard A. “Dick” Dasen would have been just getting ready for work. At 62, Dasen was among the most prominent businessmen in the valley, an award-winning developer of commercial properties such as the thriving Outlaw Inn convention center. He was a partner in Peak Development Corporation, one of the valley’s most successful development firms, and the owner of Budget Finance, a business that, among many other ventures, was an investor in Winter Sports Inc., the ski resort on Big Mountain that had transformed Whitefish, Montana into an international luxury resort destination. He contributed to the community tirelessly—as a church elder, in various charitable groups, and as a volunteer at Christian Financial Counseling, where he helped people struggling with debt. Many of those who showed up at Christian Financial Counseling were young women with children, like 25-year-old Angela Guzman-Rogers. And many of them, like Angela, were single mothers struggling with addiction, swept up in the plague of cheap methamphetamine that was inundating the Flathead Valley.
And Dick Dasen, for all his success, was struggling in the mire of a consuming addiction of his own. Sometime during his years as a volunteer credit counselor, the help for many of the women who came to him, or were sent to him by charitable organizations, became an arrangement where he would exchange cash and checks for sex. These arrangements became part of life for many of the women, and were referred to as “appointments” with the businessman they called “Mr. D.” In statements made to police after his arrest, Dasen has said there were too many of these women to count, but law enforcement officials have estimated the figure in the hundreds.
At some point in the last few years, the appointments had gotten out of hand. Huge sums of money— estimated between $1 and $5 million total — were flowing out. Dasen told police that he had paid some women as much as $100,000. The women involved referred to themselves as “Dasen girls,” and they recruited among their friends, taking payments of as much as $2,000 just for bringing in anyone new who was young, thin, reasonably good-looking, and down on their luck. Since methamphetamine is perhaps the greatest luck-destroyer on earth, many of the girls came into the circle by way of using the drug. So much of the cash flowed directly back into the methamphetamine trade, law enforcement officials say, that Kalispell, population 15,000, experienced a big-city style epidemic of addiction and all that goes with it — crime, domestic abuse and violent conflicts over drug deals and money.
For years the local police paid little mind to the occasional rumors that floated around about Dick Dasen. But the car crash that killed Angela Guzman helped set in a motion a series of events that eventually ended the bizarre underground world of Dasen and his girls. Guzman’s mother, Connie, a sturdy survivor who had freed herself from an alcoholic husband and a lot of bad luck to build a successful rock business in the Flathead Valley, had been trying for years to get her daughter and her daughter’s friends out of the meth death-spiral. After Angela died, Connie finally took the girls’ stories and some photocopied Dasen checks and went to the FBI and the Kalispell police.
Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner pondered his options. “I had a hard time categorizing these women as victims, or suspects,” he said. But as more information came in from his detectives, he made a decision. “I had to make the decision whether to be the Chief of Police who knew about this and let it go because of the prominence of the offender, or act, and take the consequences. I had to act, even though there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn’t. As more of this story has come out, more of them are starting to agree with what I did, but not at first.”
Dasen has amassed an impressive array of charges, including one misdemeanor and nine felony counts of prostitution, felony charges of promotion of prostitution, aggravated promotion of prostitution, sexual intercourse without consent and sexual abuse of children. The charges relating to alleged sexual escapades with underage girls are by far the most serious, and Dasen – who has pleaded innocent – faces 300 years in jail if he’s found guilty of all charges. The trial, twice-postponed, is now scheduled for April.
Yet the Dasen story isn’t ultimately about prostitution, or at least not the simple sex-for-money transaction that people associate with the word. Rather it’s about the hunger of addiction – the meth user shooting up more often, with larger doses, trying dope made with different precursor chemicals, always hoping to duplicate that first wonderful rush. Or the businessman run off the rails by a raging obsession, by a need for power, or sex, or a combination of both – always looking for more girls, and eventually, it’s alleged, for girls who would do it with each other, and then for younger girls, and finally for most any girl, even though he had to have known how easily he could be caught.
And the Dasen story is about a world that most business people and most of the New West migrants in the booming Flathead Valley –the dotcommers, trustfunders, the ski and trout fanatics and the nature-loving urban transplants — see only for brief moments, if at all. It’s a low-wage, no-wage world, inhabited by the children who grew up in the death throes of the old economy. Their parents worked in the aluminum mill in Columbia Falls, or in the big sawmills that ran three shifts a day. They cut the timber or ran the skidders that jerked it from the forests, or drove the trucks that hauled it to the mills.
Those were good jobs and they paid for simple houses and cars and fed families with food supplemented by gardens and by hunting in the spectacular wildlands that surround Kalispell. But those jobs are gone now, and the children of those families, all grown up, are marooned in a new economy, kicking for scraps cleaning hotel rooms, punching a till, serving coffee, hammering nails in the condo developments, or doing nothing at all.
There are no lattes here, no Patagonia fleece or Sage flyrods. It’s a place where home-cooked methamphetamine is king and queen, and blasting the woods with a Chinese-made assault rifle is a far more popular recreation than snowboarding or hiking. People from that world don’t go skiing at Big Mountain on Saturdays. They meet in front of the Flathead County Jail, smoking cigarettes and talking about who’s locked up, and who’s getting out. And you can see them there, the impoverished young women, many of them with children and worthless boyfriends or runaway or imprisoned husbands, pale from meth use or from serving endless hours behind a cash register. They are always in bad need of cash.
Rarely do they happen on a source like Dick Dasen.
The house was built by Habitat for Humanity at the end of the 1990s, and it is warm and spacious enough, even given the many people who live, visit and shelter in it. Two boys, Dyan and Dillon, wrestle in front of a television in a side room that still needs some finish work, and Daysha, a blond-haired little girl three years old, flits in and out of the kitchen, wearing a pair of gauze angel wings that look almost too natural on her. Connie Guzman is in rapid motion as usual, busy at the kitchen counter, preparing yet another snack for the kids or for one of the many visitors that come and go in this house in south Kalispell.
Connie came to town from California fourteen years ago, an alchoholic husband and babies in tow. She was looking for a fresh start, and she found one, building a business picking, selling, and brokering rock for the wave of high-end construction that has come to the Flathead Valley over the past decade. Her big late-model Dodge flatbed parked outside has custom license plates that say “THE ROC LADY,” and she is known by that name throughout much of the valley. She is in her early forties now, divorced and a grandmother four times over. Her black hair is lined with a few strands of gray. Her body is sturdy from years of handling stone and has the kind of power that women who live different lives seek in the health clubs in other parts of town. When she talks about her daughter Angela, she cries, but her voice never wavers.
Angela Guzman-Rogers was one of Dick Dasen’s girls, and the mother of Dyan, Dillon, and Daysha. On October 13th, 2003, she died in a car wreck on Reserve Street in Kalispell, at 5 a.m. Connie, who had raised three children already, is now raising three more. “Oh, I’m grateful for the load,” Connie says, pouring cereal into bowls. “My three little survivors.”
In the corner by the woodstove there is a small shrine to Angela, with candles burning beneath a photo of Angela and Connie taken on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise in the Carribbean. Both women are smiling with undiluted happiness, their teeth bright white in tanned faces. It is one of those mother-daughter photos you sometimes see where the direct lineage of energy and beauty is clear, shining and somewhat fragile in the younger but infused and durable in the elder. “She beat meth three times,” Connie says, “and that picture was taken during one of those times. But it didn’t last. Ange learned from her dad that when the going gets tough, you check out.”
Angela’s life was chaotic. She had been married just before her 16th birthday to Christian Rogers, who fathered her three children. They split for awhile in 2001, in part because of Angela’s meth use, and when they got back together, Angela went straight and got pregnant with Daysha. Chris was working for Connie in the rock business, and things were smooth for once. But an early morning knock on the door shot it all down again.
Chris was arrested for a sexual assault that occurred while they had been split up, and he was sentenced to 20 years, with seventeen suspended. Daysha was born after he was sent to prison, and the burden proved too heavy for Angela to carry sober.
Before and during her pregnancy, Angela worked cutting hair at a shop in Kalispell owned by her friend Deana Dimler. Dimler was 33, slim and youthful with a finely wrought tattoo of a mandala on her neck, and tribal bands encircling her arms. She had a manic, fast-talking enthusiasm that matched Angela’s personality. “Whenever they were together, the room was just lit up,” Connie Guzman said. “They were born to be friends.” And there was a bizarre connection that lay back in the past, in another place, another prison. Connie Guzman was born while her mother was incarcerated in California’s Chino Penitentiary. One of Connie’s mother’s best friends in Chino was a Native American woman named Patty, who after her release would wander north to Kalispell, and work for years waiting tables at a little restaurant called Fred’s, where she would, after some initial butting-of heads, befriend a fellow waitress, a newcomer named Connie Guzman. Patty’s daughter was Deana Dimler.
Deana was married, with two children, and she had a passion for the pit bull dogs that she bred and raised. She had a passion for methamphetamine, too, and like the pit dogs, the drug tended to catch hold and not let go. She had been in jail for meth before, and had a suspended sentence hanging over her head, but she was still using, because meth is a lifestyle, a swift antidote to the boredom of the ordinary. And there is nothing more ordinary than being broke in Kalispell, Montana, despite the looming snow capped mountains all around, the signs for Glacier National Park, or the shiny SUVs bombing by with the snowboards and skis and mountain bikes strapped to Thule racks that cost more than you can make in a month of working.
Coming home from work at Deana’s hair salon, Angela would tell Connie about a kind and interesting businessman that came to the shop to talk and laugh with Deana. The man’s name was Dick Dasen, and he had been friends with Deana for a long time. He had paid for her to go to treatment for meth addiction once when she was spun so far out that she had no other option. Dasen even supported Deana at times, in exchange for sex. He had a reputation for doing that with a lot of local girls who were down on their luck. To Angela, Dasen was unfathomably powerful, connected to the wheels and gears that whirred and spat and drove the world from an orderly plane somewhere high above the messy place that she and her friends inhabited. Occasionally, some thunderbolt would shoot out from on high and claim someone from her world — the out-of-the-blue arrest of her husband Chris was a perfect example of that — but Dasen seemed to travel between those worlds without effort, trailing a strong current of power and leaving cash in his wake. He visited the hair salon a lot. And at some point, he started supporting Angela, not asking anything in return.
“She would call here from the La Quinta, and say that she was staying there for a few days, and I’d say, ‘Where’d you get the money for that? What are you doing?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh just chillin’, hot tubbin’ with my friends,’” recounts Connie. “After Daysha was born, Ange went down fast. She had all this money to spend on dope, and she spent it all.” The only time Connie ever met Dick Dasen, it was in Angela’s hospital room, right after Daysha’s birth. Dasen was standing over Angela’s bed, talking with her, when Connie arrived.
“He didn’t look at me, didn’t introduce himself or shake my hand. There was something wrong, I knew that.” Angela told Connie that Dasen was just there to help her, because he was her friend and because he knew her man was locked up. A few months after Daysha was born, Connie says, Dasen told her daughter that he needed something from her in exchange for all the help. “And she started in with him, just like Deana, even though she had told me she’d never do that. But by then she was used to the money, and she was back shooting meth, just skin and bones.” The scale of the payments seemed impossible, too much money to be true. At one point Angela was driving a brand new Dodge Dakota, financed through one of Dasen’s companies, Budget Finance. “The girls were getting $1,000, just for introducing new girls,” Connie said, “I know she refused to introduce her best friend, but she did bring others in.”
During the summer of 2003, flush with cash, Angela fully fell into the grip of a murderous addiction. Her arms were covered with tracks, her skin yellow. In a photo taken late that summer she is skeletal, her hips sharp in her jeans, her smile like a grinning Halloween skull. She was, clearly, killing herself. And her friends were right behind her. “Connie and I used to sit at my house and try to figure out how to save her and the other kids,” said Connie’s friend Amy (her name has been changed for this story). “How are we going to get them out of this before one of them dies? And of course, then Connie got the call.”
When Angela Guzman died, her friends coped in the way they knew how: they went on a meth binge that lasted almost a month, a binge so extreme that as it slowed, the voices of Amy and Connie, the pesky elders (“for a long time we were just the big bad awful bitches, ruining everybody’s good time,” Connie says) began to make a little sense. Amy and Connie had been calling themselves, humorously, “the MAMs” –- Mothers Against Meth — for some time. But in the months after Angela’s death, they changed the acronym to “MADAMs” for Mothers Against Dasen and Meth. They did so only half-joking, drawing on that giddy energy that surfaces when the worst has happened, when the grief and shell-shock are part of the fabric of every day.
The police documents describing the many months of investigation leading up to Dick Dasen’s arrest can be read as a chronicle of human weakness and fallibility. But the weakness described there is not Dasen’s; on the contrary, one marvels at the level of organization and pure intelligence it must have taken to run successful businesses, engage in charitable works, support a household and still maintain relationships with so many different people, so many of whom were portraits of chemically-induced disorders and bad judgment on a fantastic scale. The voices of the police informants cited in the documents rise to a kind of cacophony by the late winter of 2004; it seems that half the people arrested in Kalispell that fall and winter had something to say about Dick Dasen.
And he might have been the most unlikely person in the whole Flathead Valley to be the topic of conversations like those.
Richard Arnold “Dick��? Dasen came to Kalispell from Michigan in 1968, part of a small wave of Michiganders who held good jobs with the big automakers but whose lives were forever changed by the bloody Detroit race riots of 1967. This wave left home in search of a safer and healthier place to raise their families, and many of them found it along the rivers and in the mountains of western Montana. Dasen brought with him his young and growing family, an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, and that classic combo for success in the American West: boundless energy and a natural gambler’s assessment of risks.
After a short stint as an instructor at Flathead Community College, he and a fellow University of Michigan alumni teamed up to buy City Service, a wholesale fuel distributorship. In 1972, when he was forty years old, Dasen partnered with an established local entrepreneur to build the Outlaw Inn and convention center, which he later sold for a hefty profit, and which is still a serious engine of the Flathead Valley economy.
The business ventures that followed were shrewd exercises in synergy. The expansion of City Services required real estate for gas stations and convenience stores, so Dasen formed Northwest Investments Partnerships to buy it. He created Arrowhead Construction to build the buildings, and soon became a major builder of other large-scale commercial projects around the valley. He made forays into banking, among them the creation of Budget Finance, a company that offered loans to low-income borrowers. As the Flathead boomed in the late 1980s and early 90s, real estate became the dominant part of Dasen’s business. Northwest Investments became Peak Development in the ’90s, building office parks like Ashley Square and the Southfield Tower. Through Budget Finance, Dasen owned almost a quarter of the Big Mountain ski resort at one point, and he sat on the boards of prominent local companies including Semitool.
And all that time, Dasen cultivated an impressive resume of good works, serving on the boards of the local hospital, the Immanuel Lutheran Home, and a Christian school. He served as head of the Chamber of Commerce, and was given the Chamber’s highest honor, the Great Chief Award, in 1999. He created a foundation called the Education Recovery Center, to help troubled teens finish high school. And then there was Christian Credit Counseling, where he volunteered his time and expertise to help people with money problems, managing debt, obtaining loans, teaching them the basics of an art that he had long ago mastered: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
The prostitution sting was conducted in late February of 2004, in rooms 402 and 403 of the Blue and White Motel. A young woman named Holli Rose agreed to set it up, and Room 402 was wired for sound and video. According to police, in that room, Rose and Dasen discussed the $2,500 she needed for a bail bondsman and her worries that she had not been able to make the payments on her truck to Budget Finance. Dasen assured her that he would take care of the problems, and the two undressed. Police entered the room shortly thereafter and arrested Dasen, who was wearing his underwear and socks.
The news of Dasen’s arrest was initially greeted with disgust by many in the local business community. It looked like a case of a straight-laced, small-town police department targeting one of the region’s most popular and dynamic businessmen, wrecking a good man’s life for a moment of weakness and a victimless crime. Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner asked the community to please be patient. The investigation had been going on for more than a year. There was, Garner assured them, much more to the story.
The police soon revealed a lurid tale of alleged sex-for-pay relationships with dozens of girls and women, many of whom claimed to have been trapped into participation by debts to his finance company, or lured by payments so large they were impossible to resist. There were accounts of underage girls, lesbian scenes, videotapes, sex toys, young women flying in from California for liaisons, others traveling from Great Falls, or little prairie hamlets like Choteau, and returning flush with cash and loaded with drugs. Informants included an outraged grandmother, jealous boyfriends, suspicious mothers and the girls themselves, arrested, or simply furious at being “cut-off��? from payments. Lists of items seized in police searches at Dasen’s businesses showed an odd integration of business and pleasure, with sexual aids and nude photographs sharing space with financial records and bills.
And even though it turned out that methamphetamine was at the heart of the story, nowhere is there any allegation that Dasen himself ever used drugs, or that he ever had a problem with alcohol. He conducted most of his alleged business with the women during the daytime.
For Dasen’s fellow members at Kalipell’s Trinity Lutheran Church, where he served as an elder and board member for more than a decade, the news of his arrest was a bolt from the blue. Ed Croymans, vice president of Trinity Lutheran and a friend and business associate of Dasen’s for over twenty years, was away on business when he called home one night. “My wife said ‘You’ll never believe what is on the news,’ Croymans said. “Dick had been arrested, but that just didn’t register with me. I was bewildered by it, shocked. This is a man who’s blessed with a natural mind and talent for business, and who’s used it to help so many people in this community, in so many ways, without charge. People who were about to lose their homes, their businesses. He has a sense of his purpose in God’s calling in his life, and he’s followed it, he’s served his fellow man.��? Croymans paused. “My wife’s first husband was an alcohol and gambling addict, and left her high and dry with two small children. She went to Dick, and he helped her get a loan that she would never have been able to get on her own. She got a car with it, and got back on her feet. She still has a study Bible that he gave to her, and she still feels that he is a great man. He never asked her for any sexual favors, and you can find a lot of people who can tell you the same story.��?
Many charitable organizations in the valley referred their clients to Dasen and his staff. Sherry Stevenswolf at Kalispell’s United Way said that over the course of fifteen years she had referred hundreds of people to him. “Unless they were uncomfortable with the Christian aspect, we always sent them there for help. He was the payee for so many people in this community who were physically or mentally incapable of handling their own finances.��?
Dasen closed Christian Credit a couple of years before his arrest, calling Stevenswolf to ask her not to send any more clients to him. “We were grateful for all the years he’d helped us,��? she said. “In all that time, we never heard anything but good from the people we sent to him.��? But, Stevenswolf said, since Dasen’s arrest, she has heard a different story. “None of us in social services ever suspected anything, but our clients, people on the street, have told me that it was common knowledge that there was a problem.��?
Indeed, in that other world, there were lots of problems.
t’s a cold afternoon in December, still no snow. The neighborhoods of south Kalispell are gray and bleak, the elms and silver maples bare and trembling in the wind. It’s raucous at Connie Guzman’s house, even more than usual. Amy (her name has been changed for this story) is sitting in a big chair holding the tiniest of babies. Connie is tending to a pair of robust-looking twins, juggling some kitchen work, and monitoring the situation in the living room where her three grandchildren are suspiciously quiet. She pokes her head around the corner to check on them, and says, “Man, if I’m not the little old lady who lived in the shoe, I don’t know who is!”
Three women come in from the backyard where they’ve gone for a quick smoke. The tiny baby belongs to Summer Rae Mahlen, a fairly tiny 20-year-old woman who would have to show a driver’s license to buy cigarettes. The father of her baby has told her not to talk about her involvement with Dick Dasen, or with meth, but he’s just been sent away to jail, so she’s pretty much free to do as she pleases. Jenna Clark has left her two children at home with the babysitter she uses while she’s working her new job as clerk at a gas station. She has to be there in a couple hours, for the afternoon shift. Ryan K, the best friend of Connie’s deceased daughter Angela, is a tall young woman with long black hair. She scoops up her twins without any apparent effort at all, and stands rocking them from side to side, grinning at them like an advertisement for youthful vigor.
Eighteen months ago, these three women were mainlining meth every day and night, almost as hell-bent as Angela. Jenna and Summer were taking “appointments” with Dick Dasen whenever they needed cash, even though Angela had tried to keep them away from him. “Ange told us that if you went to Dick there were huge sacrifices to be made,” Summer says. “She’d been in it long enough to know.”
“For me, I just really needed that money,” Jenna says, “I was struggling to pay the bills. I wanted to buy my own trailer, and have a place for my two kids, and I was messing with all that dope. I came home one time and he’d left a message for me on the answering machine, saying ‘I think we can work something out….’” She pauses, grins with disgust, “And I remember the ladies down at WIC, telling us, ‘oh, he’s such a great man, he helps everybody so much’ right about the same time.”
“In this valley everybody’s got money problems. I probably had less trouble like that,” Summer says. “I had a closet I liked to stay in at Jenna’s and another one at Ryan K’s. I never slept, so I didn’t really need a house. It’s funny, when you first start doing meth, snorting it or smoking it, you’re all high all the time. Then when you go to the IV, it’s a different feeling—like being a zombie. You don’t care about anything, you can’t feel anything.”
“I didn’t want to feel what I was feeling then anyway,” Jenna said. “My give-a-shitter was broken.” She looks distracted for a second, and then says, not to anyone in particular, “All our give-a-shitters were broken. That’s what it was.”
Summer does not say that Angela introduced her to Dasen, a prominent businessman who is now awaiting trial on an array of charges relating to alleged sexual relationships with dozens of local women and girls. “I heard about Dick through my friends. There were lots and lots of girls seeing him. Sometimes four girls a day. I sent my friends to him if they were broke. I saw him twelve times in December and January, for a thousand dollars each time. He just went down on me, we didn’t ever have sex, even though he was always saying he wanted to. And he was always telling me how much he wanted to see me and my friends together, even though I’d keep telling him we just don’t go that way.”
“Oh yeah, he was always saying that,” Jenna says. Then, in a mocking voice, “ ‘Oh baby, I’d leave my wife for you in an instant. Don’t think I wouldn’t…’ Isn’t that what he told everybody?” Summer uses the same voice, closes her eyes “‘Oh baby I wish I could take you to Brazil right now….I’d like to see you dressed in this or that…’ It was part of the power, trying to make sure everybody wanted to be his number one girl…”
Another part of the power, Jenna and Summer said, was to stop payment on the checks that were written to the women for sex. “You’d go to cash the check, and the bank teller would say there was no money in that account, and then you’d go call Dick, and he’d be out of town,” Summer says, “and it would be right when you needed the money the most.” And then they would wait, as long as it took, for him to call them back and tell them the money had been deposited to cover the check. “That’s how I finally lost my trailer,” Jenna said. “The money didn’t come through in time, and they foreclosed on it.”
There is little doubt that the flow of money, when it did come — and it usually did, eventually — was not the lifesaver that everyone imagined it would be. It seemed like just another trick, kind of like the meth they all bought with it, that seemed like it would make everything alright, but actually it just disappeared, wrecking your life in the process.
“I don’t know of anybody who did anything positive with the money,” Connie said. Thousands and thousands of dollars went into local keno and poker machines, hours and hours spent sitting, high on meth, staring at the blinking lights, smoking. “They could never tell any of their families where they got all that money,” Amy says, “So they could never give them any of it. But if they claimed they’d struck it big on the keno machines, then they had an explanation for some of it, anyway. That was the low, low budget way to launder Dasen’s money.” For the first time that afternoon, everybody laughs, because what she said was so indisputable, and because there is an almost tangible feeling around that kitchen table, now that everybody is working jobs for such short pay, of all the money squandered on keno machines and pounds of brain-killing chemicals and boyfriends who didn’t like where it came from but didn’t mind spending it.
“Where did you get those?” Summer asks. “Oh, I have my ways,” Amy replies, laying out a stack of photos on the table, taken some drug-fueled night last year. Here is a boyfriend, his skin looking pale and thin as toilet paper, holding a syringe and getting ready to shoot up. Angela reclines glassy-eyed on a bed next to an impressive collection of weaponry — pistols, high capacity magazines, an SKS assault rifle. There is a photo of Summer, passing by the camera and looking like a model, her hair much longer, and her face much younger in a way that is not exactly physical. And one of Deana Dimler, tall and lean, wearing scholarly glasses and a sober and challenging expression. Although the photos were almost certainly taken in the rush and excitement of meth, there is, present in them, that awful boredom of drugs, that lie that because your heart is pumping triple-speed and the room is filled with kaleidoscopes of color and emotion and desire, that something significant is actually happening, when in truth, nothing is. Another trick, perhaps the first in a string of them that leads to death.
But from Angela’s death in a violent car accident last year came at least some glimmers of life. Jenna and Ryan K came to Connie because of Ange’s death. Then Summer came in, “the little holdout” as Amy calls her. The girls ended up staying at Amy’s house, since Connie had all she could handle with the grandchildren, and since Amy was already running a sort of informal halfway house for their circle of friends — eight of them at that time who were trying to get away from the meth and other drugs. Amy cleaned the girls up and sweated out their addictions with them. Connie took the girls’ stories and photocopied checks and went to the police. Some of the women were immediately charged with prostitution, as they suspected they would be, but they were off the dope, and very clearly, out on a limb.
It’s a clear morning, mid-May, and the logging road switches back above Birch Creek, climbing the face of the southern Swan Range. The new needles on the larch trees are a luminescent neon green, the creek bottom is a riot of willows bursting forth under the strong sun. On a spur road, just a two-track in the woods, you pull over to look at something that seems out of place. Somebody had a campfire here, in the very center of the road, dozens of empty packets of Sudafed still melting and smoking in the ashes, a small pile of batteries that look like they’ve been cut length-wise with a pair of snips.
Tossed in the weeds at the edge of the road are half a dozen coffee filters stained blood red, and an empty jug of lantern gas. There’s a lingering reek of ammonia, just the remnant whiff of ether, and mud churned by the boots of somebody who was standing and crouching here for a long time, drinking and cooking methamphetamine. You get back in your truck, the morning forest suddenly full of menace, and decide to find a different place to hike. Below you, the valley holds a slowly lifting fog from the north end of Flathead Lake, the outskirts of Kalispell just barely visible. Somewhere down there, money’s changing hands, and people are killing themselves on the drug that was made last night in the middle of that spur road.
The above scene is imaginary in its specifics, but Forest Service and law enforcement officials say it is one that is becoming all too common in the West.
Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner says that there has been a 500 percent increase in meth-related crimes in Flathead County over the past six or seven years. His officers have seized over fifty labs in that period. “The drug is tied to so much of what we do now,” he says, referring to everything from burglary to partner assault to child protective services in addition to drug arrests. And it taxes more than just enforcement budgets. Because of the toxic chemicals and solvents involved in meth production, the average cleanup of a lab costs $25,000 to $30,000.
According to Kevin Burns, the director of the Northwest Drug Task Force based in Kalispell, there were 85 arrests last year for meth-related crimes and 25 labs were investigated in 2004 alone. “About five years ago methamphetamine and methamphetamine labs became a huge problem particularly in Northwest Montana. Since then the problem has spread over the rest of the state. The problem started in Mexico and California and over a period of time slowly progressed east into Montana. I believe the reason methamphetamine is such a problem is fact it is such an addictive drug and is very easy to manufacture using precursors that are relatively easy to obtain.”
Burns said while domestic production was up, it never equals that of the “super labs” found in Mexico and California, which produce pounds at a time. Those labs and the drugs they produce are controlled mostly by a mixture of Mexican gangs and outlaw biker gangs, who transport them into eastern Washington for distribution around the West.
A lot of volatile and toxic chemicals are needed to make methamphetamine — one reason the domestic variety is a rural drug, made in the woods, in cabins and trailers set back from the road. Another reason is that good precursor chemicals are more available out in the country. Anhydrous ammonia, a key solvent that meth cooks call “annie,” is used as fertilizer in many farming operations. Toluene and acetone work well too, and they are both used for cleaning greasy machinery, from chainsaw chains to the brakes on a swather. Ether works, and it’s standard equipment for starting a truck on a sub-zero morning. Iodine prevents infection of cow’s teats at the dairy. Even methyl sulphonyl methane (msm), the powder used to cut pure meth and bulk it up for greater profits, is used primarily as a nutritional aid for horses and dogs and is available at feed stores.
Ron Clem has been forced to learn most of what there is to know about methamphetamine in the Flathead Valley. With the natural reserve of a career policeman, he won’t discuss the Dick Dasen case, except to say, “Meth is at the heart of it. Dasen was caught because he was dealing with all those completely unpredictable people.”
Clem came to the Flathead Valley more than twenty years ago, after retiring from a career as a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles. He was looking for a safe and beautiful place to raise his family, and he found it in Whitefish, with the towering Swan Range looming on the west of town and the rolling Salish Mountains to the east. It seemed far removed from the incessant crime and drugs and violence of urban southern California.
But there was a new peril rising, this one born not in the inner cities or the crowded suburbs, but out in the country, in the woods and on the farms and on the outskirts of small towns like Kalispell or Whitefish. Methamphetamine would claim his daughter Carren, who at age 18 was a concert violinist, and a highly unlikely victim. It would take everything that he and his wife could muster to take her back. “In following my daughter around the valley for those three months, trying to get her back, I saw things that surpassed anything I ever saw as a cop in LA,” Clem said. “Methamphetamine is a disaster. We know that 13.9 percent of the kids from 13 to 17 in Montana are using it. We are the number two state in the nation for illicit drug use, number two for suicides. We had a needle exchange going in Kalispell that had 250 people in it in 2002, and by 2003 there were 900.” Then, Clem adds, with a look of pure frustration, “They cut off the funds, because the health department didn’t want to be seen as fostering drug use.” He continues, “67 percent of the women and 85 percent of the men in Montana’s prisons are there because of meth-related crimes. The meth lifestyle generates rape and Hepatitis C and other STDs. And Montana has no money anywhere for treatment of addicts. We sold our house, spent $110,000 so far. We’re lucky we had it to spend. If your daughter had cancer, you’d do that. It’s the same thing.” Clem points out, from hard experience, that traditional ways of dealing with an errant or drug-using teenager result in the worst possible outcome if meth is part of the problem.
“Tough love, you always hear about that. You can’t stay here and be using drugs. So you kick them out, and there’s some low-life waiting right there in a car to take them away forever.”
Carren Clem is in treatment at a center in Jamaica, and seems to be doing well. Ron spends an enormous amount of his time working with a group he founded called Teens in Crisis, trying to help families deal with the surge in meth use and addiction in the valley. One of his partners is Gerri Gardner, whose daughter Angela began shooting meth while a student at Whitefish High School, after being introduced to the drug by an older man at her after-school job. Angela descended disastrously into the classic pattern of binging and crashing, committing petty crimes and being arrested for meth possession. After a short stint in jail and a treatment center, Angela walked away from a pre-release center in Missoula, and shot herself in the head. Her father, Troy, was unable to survive his grief. Less than two years later, he took his own life. Gerri was left alone, and eventually came to understand that her story held the potential to save other young people, other families. “It may not seem like it, but God has been very good to me,” she said quietly, leaving the podium at a recent meeting Kalispell.
Teen in Crisis has proven to be an effective group for local families to obtain support and information. Clem, Gardener, and others in the group have been successful in reaching out to people from every income bracket and background. But the meth epidemic is burning hottest among people in their late teens and twenties and older, people who are unlikely to show up at an anti-drug meeting of any kind. Families lose them, or shun them, because their addictions and their lifestyles make them untrustworthy and abusive. They are people like Angela Guzman-Rogers, Summer Rae Mahlen, Jenna Clark, Kim Neise, Ryan K., or almost any of the other adult women named in the Dasen case. There is no war chest for treatment here, no place to go other than jail. At a recent Teens in Crisis meeting, one of the speakers mentioned spending $45,000 on a treatment program for her daughter, and a woman sitting in the back, who has close ties to the Dasen case, hung her head. “My son is in jail,” she said. “that’s the treatment we could afford.”
Treatment for meth addiction is usually unsuccessful unless it is long term, as long as six months or more. There are some odd physiological reasons for that, which until recently were poorly understood. The action of the drug in the brain causes a flush of the chemical dopamine, which is generally considered to be responsible for feelings of pleasure — it is also released by exercise, chocolate, and sex, although in lesser, more controlled quantities. The “rush” that meth users seek, and become addicted to, is a result of that flush. So is the “crash” — the exhaustion and depression that inevitably come when the drug fades from the system. With heavy use, or intravenous use, the supply of dopamine gets low, and the experience that so many users talk about — “ you are like a zombie, you can’t feel anything” — becomes a physiological reality. With long-term use, the neurons that produce dopamine become damaged and production goes down. Science still isn’t sure they will regenerate.
Less well understood, but familiar to users, is the action of the drug on seroserotonintonin levels, which are directly related to sleep, a scarce commodity for many meth users. A roller-coaster production of serotonin is common in many kinds of chronic drug use — the chemical is released during the REM stage of sleep, which is disrupted by depressants and stimulants alike. (The delirium tremens experienced by alcoholics is a result of the “rebound” of serotonin production after a long period of suppression). It is known that serotonin is a key to growing brain tissue (babies dream, on average, four times as much as adults).
Taken together, these drug-caused disruptions change the overall function and even the structure of the brain in unknown ways. Some researchers have documented an actual shrinking of brain tissue from heavy meth use, where the brain resembles that of a late-stage Alzheimer’s victim. Users who enter treatment, or try to quit on their own, must undergo a frenzied psychological roller coaster as these processes slowly relearn to regulate themselves, enduring extremes of depression, anxiety, and instability. And after about six months, as Ron Clem explains it, “they hit a wall,” where the processes mysteriously change again, and users who feel that they have successfully combated their addiction are suddenly thrown back into craving and despair. Suicides and attempted suicides often occur at that stage.
The odds are stacked against a heavy user of methamphetamine, in every way that can be measured.
For the past ten months, Kim Neise has been an inmate at the Flathead County Jail, waiting for a slot in a meth treatment program. She is serving ten years, with five suspended, for forgery and aggravated promotion of prostitution. Without the meth, she’s a lot heavier now, a bit pale and jail-worn. The tattoo on her forearm that says “Legalize Freedom” echoes from a different life. She says she’s glad to be in jail, that sometimes you have to wreck everything in order to start over.
Back in the spring of 2003 she was living in her car, after having been arrested and jailed for forging checks she’d stolen from her grandmother. Kim grew up in Columbia Falls, a mill town just up the road from Kalispell. Her father had worked most of his life in the aluminum plant there, but he was retired and could not offer her much help. She was twenty-three years old, had been using methamphetamine since she was thirteen. For the past three years she’d been an intravenous user and considered herself an addict. She was down to about 95 pounds.
Kim had, according to a Flathead County prosecutor, been in some “pretty awful places” in her life, but she had never been a prostitute. “In fact,” she said, “I’d never even heard about prostitutes in Kalispell before. I never considered myself one, either.”
Kim was introduced to Dick Dasen by her friend Leah Marshall, and for the first time in her life, she found herself flush with cash. Leah had set up an appointment for her to meet Dasen at Kalispell’s Aero Inn, the first of six sexual meetings she would have with him. The money was simply too good to turn down. Within a month, Kim had moved out of her car and rented a three-bedroom townhouse for $775 dollars a month, just down the road from the offices of Peak Development. Over the course of that month, she said, Dasen would give her $35,000 in checks, and about $15,000 in cash. Much of the money was for referring other girls, among them a young mother named Holli Rose, who was just getting into the Kalispell meth scene, and who became a favorite of Dasen’s, and who would eventually set him up in a sting operation. The usual deal was that the new girl would take $2,000, and split it down the middle with Kim. It was the same deal Kim had followed with Leah.
Kim and her friends moved in a slightly different constellation than many of the other girls and young women who received money from Dick Dasen, though in a small town most of them they knew each other through the common bond of meth and the many drugs associated with trying to come down from it — the downers and opiates, the Oxycontin and the Lortabs, Klonopin, Xanax, the marijuana. Kim would see Angela Guzman only once, in Dasen’s office at Peak Development Corporation, just before the logging truck killed her. Angela was sick with meth addiction, and out of control, threatening Dasen, telling him she was going to tell the cops about him. In more ways than one, Angela was on her way out, and Kim was on her way in. Kim never thought about it much, she says. It was certainly nothing out of the ordinary to meet other girls at Dasen’s office. “Sometimes you’d go in there and they’d be lined up waiting to see him.”
The new townhouse saw a lot of traffic, too. For awhile, according to Neise’s testimony, Misty Gibbs Yeates, who was also seeing Dasen, lived there. Kim’s boyfriend made meth, dry-cooking the cut-rate variety they call “lith dope,” using the strips of lithium torn from the batteries that power high end flashlights. (“That dope tastes funny,” Kim said, “and it messes with your head really bad.”) Everybody liked to get really high and drive out to Tally Lake late at night and unload on the woods with 9mms and SKS rifles. People in the meth and party world came and went from the house at all hours during the summer of 2003. Among them were two high school girls, identified in police documents only by the initials T.F. and M.M., who, Kim says, acted as if they were in a lesbian relationship. Knowing pure gold when she saw it, Kim urged them to set up an appointment with Dick Dasen.
Kim would testify that the deal she agreed on with M.M. and T.F. was simply that they would make out with each other, and have no physical contact with Dasen, and for this they would receive $1,000. In late July, the two girls came to the townhouse to close that deal. M.M. was fifteen years old that summer, T.F. sixteen.
It went badly for them. Not only did the sexual encounter with Dasen go much further than they had been told to expect, the pay was only $500 because either Kim or her roommate decided to keep the rest. Police documents say that the girls “did not talk much to each other about what had happened until some time after the incident.” They eventually went together to Dasen’s office at Southfield Towers and asked for their money. Dasen, they said, immediately wrote them a check for $2,000. The girls declined his offer to meet again. In December, T.F. confided to her mother about what had happened with Dasen, and her grandmother called Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner.
There is another dark element that enters the story that summer of 2003, another current of disequilibrium. In February of that year, a woman named Darlene Wilcock was found strangled to death on a bed at the local Motel 6. DNA from Dick Dasen was found on the bed beneath the victim, but Dasen was never, according to Chief Frank Garner, a suspect in the murder.
But the unsolved murder of Darlene Wilcock came to serve another purpose. Kim Neise would testify that Dasen and Leah Marshall both told her that what happened to Wilcock was “what happened to people who threaten to go to the cops.” Neise told M.M. and T.F. the same story.
Kim Neise said that she and her friends were “a little scared of Dasen,” now. “But I’ve been around a lot scarier people than Dick.” She added that Dasen “thought he had it all under control. I know he never thought it would end up this way.”
Dasen’s house, perched in the fir trees and juniper of a sunny bench on the outskirts of Kalispell, is for sale now. The life-sized bronze statue of a moose, painted in rich and surreal colors, gazes over a swimming pool drained for the winter, and an empty yard that has been well-used by grandchildren. Dasen is out on $150,000 bail, and he and his wife Susan have been living at their vacation home in southern Arizona. He has pled innocent to all charges, and the trial has been postponed twice.
Civil lawsuits are piling up as well. Rhonda “Nikki” Hawk, 26, is charged with prostitution in the case, and she’s filed suit against Dasen and Budget Finance, asserting that Dasen used the company to trap her in debt. She claims that she posed for nude photos in exchange for mortgage payments, but by December of 2003, the photos were no longer enough for him. She’s seeking compensation for negligence, emotional distress, conspiracy, sexual assault and battery.
Another lawsuit has been filed against Dasen and Kim Neise by one of the minors in the case, named by the initials T.E.F., and her mother, initials D.G., for damages resulting from an alleged assault and rape.
Southgate Mall Associates, LLP, a development company based in Missoula, is suing Dasen for more than $1 million, alleging unpaid debts and malicious misuse of funds in their business partnership with him.
Investigators at the Montana Department of Health and Human Services are still trying to determine what happened to about $500,000 that remained in a trust for Chad Emery, who was awarded a product liability settlement after choking on a marshmallow as a child and being rendered brain damaged. Dasen was the conservator of the trust, and in 2000 filed a one-sentence report saying that the money was all gone.
For all the mountains of evidence in the case, and the months of effort, Kalispell prosecutors are surprisingly nervous about the upcoming trial. Witnesses like Kim Neise — pleading with a reporter not to write anything bad about her, since so many people already think so badly of her — do not generally inspire sympathy from a jury. Poor young women, rendered sickly and angry and dangerous by addictions they can’t control, are much easier to despise than wealthy, seemingly genial men like Dick Dasen.
Deana Dimler, finishing up a jail term for meth-related charges at a Butte pre-release center, offers one line of defense. She freely admits that, some years ago, she had a sexual relationship with him in return for his financial help. “You know, everybody’s talking about Dick, how he gave us all this money and made us victims, like we can’t take any responsibility for ourselves. I don’t buy that. I’m a grown woman and I’m responsible for what I do, and for what I did with the money. You ask if I’m pro-Dick Dasen, and yes, I am. Dick for Mayor! I notice nobody is asking if just maybe Dick is a victim of all of us. How come nobody’s asking that?”
The prosecution’s case rests heavily on the allegations relating to underage girls; take those away, and what’s left is series of felony promotion of prostitution charges (involving 16 women) that can carry up to 10 years, but could also result in little or no time. On the charges involving minors, Dasen is likely to claim that he didn’t know the girls were underage, which under Montana law can be a defense on the rape charge (relating to 15-year-old M.M.), and on the charge of sexual abuse of children (relating to sexual photographs of two minors seized from Dasen’s computer). Still, when it comes to the aggravated promotion of prositution charges, which involve five different minors, ignorance is not a defense – though it could elicit sympathy from a jury if they believed it. Dasen has also claimed that he has a “sex addiction” and that may play in the defense as well.
Dasen’s attorney, George Best, has twice asked for a change of venue for the trial, and complains that prosecutors are trying the case in the press. He even commissioned a survey that showed that a majority of registered voters in the area already believed Dasen was guilty. Best has declined to comment on the case or make Dasen available for interviews.
Assuming the case does go to trial, the jury will have some complicated judgments to make. The legal penalties for sex crimes with underage girls are fairly clear, and severe. But what should be the sanction, legal or otherwise, for enabling addiction, for feeding the meth economy, for taking advantage of weak, desperate people for your own gratification, for abusing a position of trust? And what’s the lesson of a case in which a long series of “victimless” crimes somehow resulted in a lot of victims? In another age — not so long ago in a place like the Flathead Valley — Dasen’s involvement with so many young women would have brought forth a storm of infuriated brothers, cousins, fathers or grandfathers. But now it’s up to the mothers and grandmothers and the inelegant mechanics of the legal system to bring about some kind of justice.
The wreckage left behind in Kalispell is the aftermath of a collision between two universes of perverse desire, one feeding the other to produce a variety of unsustainable and destructive energies. It asks questions about the hungers that at some level are common to us all, the impacts they have on others, the deals we make to satisfy them and the beliefs we cultivate to blunt their power. Like a spectacular car crash, the story holds the fascination of the familiar — there are people, caught inside, people who are mostly just like us. It offers no simple truths.
Dick Dasen’s trial is set to begin on April 25. Jury selection is set for March 30.