WAUSAU — A young woman, “tweaking” on meth, runs into traffic on Grand Avenue and nearly is crushed by rush-hour traffic.
A man, high on crack cocaine, threatens to throw himself off the Scott Street bridge.
Two 14-year-old girls admit to having sex in a Wausau motel with men they just met while smoking crack.
An 8-year-old girl swallows her mother’s meth at a home in Wausau; the girl barely escapes death when her grandmother rushes her to the emergency room and calls police.
And those are the success stories, said Wausau Police Capt. Greg Hagenbucher, because no one died.
The stories, all documented in Wausau Police Department incident reports, are shocking — and increasingly common, said Hagenbucher, who keeps detailed records of all drug-related crime in the city. In 2007, Wausau police dealt with methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine 44 times, or an average of less than once a week.
Last year, that number nearly quadrupled to 155 cases, equivalent to three meth-, heroin- or cocaine-related crimes every week in just the city of Wausau.
“If you didn’t know about a drug problem in town before, you will, after reading our reports,” Hagenbucher said. “Probably two or three times a week we are dealing with some type of incident involving meth, heroin or cocaine.”
Hagenbucher’s numbers do not include cases handled by the Marathon County Special Investigations Unit; rather, his report includes routine traffic stops and other cases where officers find a drug connection. Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel said life is much different in the city now compared with 33 years ago, when he first joined the police force.
“Heroin is something we never saw years ago,” Hardel said. “Now we deal with it almost every day. We want our community to be safe. When you look at the statistics we have and the amount of drugs we’re seeing, it’s pretty clear that drug use has become a major issue that we need to continue to fight.”
Partnering with Wausau to investigate drug activity, the Special Investigations Unit, or SIU, aims to crack down not just on drug users, but the often well-organized traffickers who bring drugs in massive quantities from Chicago, Milwaukee or Madison. Marathon County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Schneck, head of SIU, said he has seen meth and heroin use skyrocket in the area, shepherding in misery, pain and property crime the likes of which Wausau has never experienced.
“Addiction creates ripples through the community,” Schneck said. “We’re not only seeing more drug use, but the violence associated with the drug trade is a huge problem. A huge amount of property crime is directly associated with drugs. Then you have dealers ripping off dealers. It’s just an enormous problem.”
A ‘good’ daughter goes bad
Fifty-six-year-old Deb, who lives in Rib Mountain and works for an insurance company, thought heroin was a “’60s drug” used only by criminals who shot up in darkened back alleys in big cities’ crime-riddled neighborhoods. That changed in 2011, when Deb caught her daughter, then-20-year-old Katie, shooting heroin into her vein in the bathroom of their home.
“How does a good, church-going, middle-class kid from the ’burbs go from an athlete who goes on mission trips to shooting up on her father’s birthday?” said Deb, who asked Daily Herald Media to withhold the family’s last name over fears that publicity could jeopardize her daughter’s fragile recovery. “How does it happen? Heroin wasn’t even on my radar.”
Deb said her daughter’s downward spiral began in 2008, when Katie, a Wausau West High School junior, was injured in a basketball game. Katie’s shattered knee required multiple surgeries and months of painful rehab accompanied by strong painkillers; Katie quickly became addicted, Deb said.
By the time Katie was 21, the once-stellar student with dreams of becoming a nurse lost her job working as a CNA, dropped out of school and began stealing from her parents and relatives to support her growing addiction to heroin, Deb said. Katie tried rehab twice without success; first, as an inpatient at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield, then as an outpatient at North Central Health Care in Wausau.
“Nothing worked,” Deb said. “I felt so helpless.”
Katie finally turned to Wausau Health Services, the city’s lone methadone clinic, for help after a family member threatened to turn Katie in for stealing valuable jewelry and selling it for quick cash, Deb said.
“(Katie) knew at that point she would be going to jail,” Deb said. “She finally said, ‘I don’t want to live this way anymore.’ My husband drove to the pawn shop and bought all the jewelry back. And then we went to the methadone clinic.”
Katie has been clean for about 18 months and is now a student at Northcentral Technical College, where she is pursuing a degree in healthcare administration.
“By the grace of God, my daughter is alive,” Deb said. “She’s one of the lucky ones, so I guess you can call this a success story. She didn’t die; she didn’t end up with huge legal problems. But this is a battle she will be fighting her whole life, and there’s always that fear that she’ll go back to using again.”
The unlucky ones
Drug-related deaths also are sharply up, said Marathon County Medical Examiner Jessica Blahnik. In 2012, six people died of drug overdoses; that number more than doubled in 2013, to 13 deaths.
“Unfortunately, it’s a growing trend,” Blahnik said. “These figures don’t even include alcohol-related deaths.”
Police vigorously investigate every drug-related death, said Schneck, the county SIU leader, and when investigators can unravel the mystery of who provided the fatal dose, suppliers face reckless homicide charges — a felony that typically carries a hefty prison sentence upon conviction.
Most recently, 25-year-old Kevin Mason of Wausau was sentenced in September to 10 years in prison for his role in the 2011 heroin overdose of Justin Selves, 26, of Kronenwetter. Tyshun Meeks, 27, of Chicago faces first-degree reckless homicide charges in connection with the death; a jury trial is set to begin in June.
In a separate case, Kyle Kennedy, 22, of Mosinee will be sentenced Jan. 31 on charges of delivering heroin to Michael Dixon, 24, who was killed in a March 23 crash after injecting the drug. And charges are pending against Lucas Zuehlke, 30, of Coloma and Nycole Creed, 33, of Wausau on accusations they were involved in the March 11 overdose death of Thomas Knickerbocker, 30, of Wausau.
“Our investigators know who the dealers are, and when we can figure out who gave that last dose, they can go away for a long time,” Schneck said. “Putting these guys away is the best thing we can do, because that’s the one thing dealers worry about.”
‘We did everything right’
Drug users defy stereotypes; they are basketball players, cheerleaders, honor students and class valedictorians, said Melissa Dotter, coordinator with the county’s Drug Free Community Program. Fueled by curiosity, boredom and peer pressure, teens are increasingly at risk for becoming addicted to drugs, she said. That addiction has spread like wildfire in central Wisconsin, destroying families, lives and futures regardless of social status.
“The most common phrase I hear from families is, ‘We did everything right,” Dotter said. “These are not bad kids. These are not people you’d pick out as potential drug users.”
Despite the sharp increase in drug-related crime, police say they are doing all they can to stem the flow of deadly drugs to the community. Officers are better trained in how to spot possible drug use during traffic stops and other routine calls. For the first time in more than 25 years, the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department employee roster includes three K9 officers trained in drug detection and Wausau will add two K9 officers in the coming months.
“If we were less vigilant about what we’re doing, you’d see even more drug activity,” Schneck said. “There’s no street corner dealing here, where it’s out in the open. If we weren’t picking away at it every day of the week, that’s exactly what would happen. You don’t get rid of it, ever, but you have to keep trying.”