Advertisement

Drug Problems Getting Worse in Ventura County, Official Says : Abuse: No element of society seems immune. One report shows a 73% increase in charges against adults countywide from 1992 to 1994.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A young athlete and honors student throws herself against the walls of her Thousand Oaks bedroom, breaks its windows, and later tries to run over her mother in a car.

A Ventura insurance agent loses her house, her yacht, her job, her husband.

A Moorpark office manager has her children taken away from her after she does not feed them, does not buy them clothes, and skips their school plays and parent-teacher conferences.

A hospital executive who lives by the beach in Oxnard ends up curled in the fetal position on the floor of his cave-like apartment with his phone pulled out of the wall, blankets over the windows and towels under the door.

Advertisement

These are the ravages of drugs in Ventura County.

The popular image of illegal drugs may tend to Colombians in black Mercedes limos or crack addicts on Downtown Los Angeles sidewalks. In fact, however, federal statistics show that of the estimated 12.2 million Americans who use illegal drugs at least once a month, two-thirds are employed and three-quarters are white.

A few of the more sensational Ventura County cases have made headlines: an Ojai mother who let her baby starve to death as she fed her own methamphetamine habit; a Ventura aerospace engineer who robbed three banks to pay for heroin, the owner of a Santa Paula Chevrolet dealership whose murder was linked to drugs.

But there is no shortage of Ventura County users whose painful, mostly private ordeals show that just as easily as narcotics can turn slums or South American countries into deserts of violence and despair, drugs can wreck the lives of affluent, white, suburban professionals.

Advertisement

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Lt. Craig Husband, who heads the narcotics unit for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. “We see the damage that drugs do to families, to the children of the users . . . that they’re not working, that their kids aren’t being fed.”

*

Because not every drug abuser seeks treatment or gets arrested, it is difficult to say how many there are in Ventura County. But the latest statistics from the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs indicate that in recent years, Ventura County police have made between 4,000 and 5,000 arrests annually on drug charges--about 70% of them for using drugs, not dealing. Ventura County hospitals and treatment centers see another 2,500 drug cases a year, according to the statistics.

Though the publicity surrounding the so-called war on drugs faded with the end of the 1980s, recent nationwide surveys show that drug use among teen-agers, which had declined since the late 1970s, has been on the rise again since 1991. Locally, authorities report a tenfold increase since 1991 in criminal drug charges against juveniles.

Among adults, prosecutions for methamphetamine possession have tripled in the past three years. In the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction alone, all drug charges against adults have increased by 73% from 1992 to 1994.

Husband said the growing numbers indicate heightened efforts by law enforcement officers, but said they also show that Ventura County’s drug problem is becoming increasingly severe.

“It means there are more drugs out on the street,” Husband said.

*

Advertisement

Not everyone who tries drugs becomes an addict. But for those who are hooked, the numbers detailing hours in court, nights in jail and weeks in treatment hardly suggest the reality--years of suffering that spread to affect friends and relatives.

*

Vicki Turner started smoking marijuana when she was 16. It was the early 1970s, and at Chatsworth High School, “everyone smoked pot,” she said.

“I did it on the weekends. I used to get just a little,” she said.

At 18, she tried cocaine. She tried lots of other things too. “I tried every drug there is to do except heroin,” she said.

She kept her habit under control for a long time. From 1980 to 1985, she worked for an insurance company, progressing from file clerk to claims adjuster. In the late 1980s, she was earning $30,000 a year, supervising seven people as the office manager of a Los Angeles communications company.

By the time she moved to Moorpark four years ago, she had lost her job and become more dependent on her habit of free-basing cocaine--cooking it over her kitchen stove in a cigar tube with baking soda and water, then smoking it in a glass pipe. She traveled to the San Fernando Valley as many as three times a day to renew her supplies, she said, consuming as much as 15 grams of cocaine a day.

*

Advertisement

She went back to school for nurse’s training. But she couldn’t hold a job and went on welfare. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and she suffered seizures after staying up for five or six days at a time on partying binges.

To pay for drugs, she borrowed from her boyfriend’s father, a government lawyer. And she sold her prized Harley Davidson motorcycle. Bills went unpaid.

“I look back now and think about all the money I spent on drugs. I would be rich,” she said.

Worse, she said, was the effect on her two daughters, Shannon, 11, and Kodi, 7. Turner’s parents took the children away from her for a year, but they were with Turner long enough to leave her with horrible regrets.

“I feel like such a rotten mom. I was terrible,” Turner, now 38, said recently, her blond-haired daughters looking on.

When she was on drugs, her daughters called her “wicked Wanda.”

“I was locked in that back bedroom,” Turner said. “The kids would knock on the door--'Mommy, I’m hungry.’ ”

“Don’t bug me,” Turner remembers answering. “The drugs always came first.”

*

Turner said she never attended school events or helped with homework.

“I blew those things off because I’d be too high,” she said.

On Nov. 17, 1994, Ventura County sheriff’s deputies raided Turner’s Moorpark apartment, suspecting that her live-in boyfriend was involved in drug dealing. She was convicted of being under the influence of drugs and went to jail for five days. Her boyfriend, Kevin Barchiesi, was convicted of possessing a quarter gram of methamphetamine, violating his parole. He will be in prison until at least March.

*

Steven R. Chatoff has done marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methadone. But Chatoff, who now lives on the beach in Oxnard, says his first drug was ice cream. At age 6, he would sneak half a gallon out of his parents’ freezer, lock the door to his bedroom, turn on the TV and eat until he passed out, he said.

The point, he said: “it’s not the substance, it’s how you’re using it.”

Ice cream did not satisfy him for long, however.

At junior high school parties in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., he would down gallons of cheap wine and smoke all the pot he could get.

*

By age 16, he said, he was using heroin, putting his life at risk for his daily fix in New York City during the turbulent late 1960s.

“Here I am this nice white Jewish boy from Scarsdale, running around Harlem trying to find heroin on a daily basis,” Chatoff said. “I’ve had shotguns in my head. I’ve seen people die. I’ve overdosed myself and woken up two days later with a needle still in my arm.” His parents paid for him to see the finest doctors in New York City, then locked him up for three months in a psychiatric hospital, Chatoff said.

In 1970, he kicked heroin by switching to methadone, a drug distributed through government clinics and designed to wean addicts away from heroin. Chatoff said he was hooked on methadone for 10 years. His weight ballooned to 350 pounds. Methadone, he said, was worse than heroin.

“I couldn’t get off,” Chatoff said. When he tried, his bones felt as if they were coming out of his skin.

“It is the most uncomfortable feeling on earth,” he said.

Ironically, even while he was addicted himself, Chatoff was working in and running mental health centers that included substance abuse treatment programs throughout the 1970s.

*

When he moved to Los Angeles in 1980, he worked as a nursing administrator at a prestigious hospital in Santa Monica. The geographic change was an effort to get sober, and it worked--for a month and a half.

Soon, however, he succumbed to the lure of the glamorous early 1980s cocaine scene in Los Angeles.

He went to starlit parties in the Santa Monica Mountains, snorting cocaine off silver trays and sipping expensive Russian vodka.

Soon, he was smoking, shooting and snorting cocaine in three- and four-day binges in his cave-like apartment. A self-described cocaine psychotic who felt his skin crawling, he brought tears to the eyes of a friend who discovered him in 1983 curled up in a corner on the floor.

*

Brenda Brock-Davison started drinking on the weekends as a student at Thousand Oaks High School. Before long, she was also taking amphetamines to keep her weight down.

“To be lovable, you had to be thin,” she said.

Her mother was a nurse and head of the maternity ward at Los Robles Regional Medical Center. Her father was a map maker at Litton Industries. They tried taking a hard line against their partying daughter.

“My mother kept saying, ‘If you’re going to live here, you have to do these things . . . like come home at night.’ Well, I wasn’t having any of that,” Brock-Davison said.

For a long time, she confined most of her drug use to the weekends. That allowed her to keep her job as a Ventura insurance agent from 1983 to 1989. She and her husband bought a house in mid-Ventura and a Well-Craft powerboat that could sleep four.

The drugs she used went along with her lifestyle. She drank Chardonnay, not Thunderbird. She never used needles.

“I considered myself a pretty classy user,” Brock-Davison said.

But she became increasingly dependent on speed.

“In order to party, in order to work, in order to be a mom, I had to have this drug to get it all done,” she said.

*

Her life soon got worse. She estimates she was spending $100 a day on weekends, $25 to $50 a day during the week to support her habit. Bills started going unpaid. Her credit cards were at their limit. The house went into foreclosure and they had to sell the boat.

“It just all went down the drain and it went fast,” she said. “It was really out of control and it was really terrifying.”

In October, 1989, she tried entering a rehabilitation center in Ojai. It didn’t work. “I just thought I was there for a rest,” she said. “When I got done I just promptly went over to my friends’ house and started getting loaded again.”

Her husband asked for a divorce. Finally, she moved into a dilapidated rooming house where her deteriorating health started to scare her. She was hiding from the police, who had a warrant out for her arrest in connection with stealing self-help books from K-Mart.

“I don’t remember eating or drinking at all. It was just really sick,” she said. She developed mouth sores. Her hair started falling out. And, she said, her feet developed cracks so deep that they snagged on the carpet. “My body was disintegrating on me. It was just pitiful,” she said.

*

As devastating as drugs are to users, they can be painful to parents, too. Consider one Thousand Oaks couple. Her mother died of alcoholism. His father, a drinker and smoker, died of liver cirrhosis and emphysema.

And in the past year, they have spent $60,000 they had been saving for retirement or for their daughter’s college tuition to pay for drug rehabilitation programs for the daughter. Their names are not being used to protect the teen-ager’s identity.

An athlete and a scholar, she was a parent’s dream--until the fall of 1993, when her habitual beer and occasional pot on the weekends escalated into an addiction to crystal methamphetamine.

Her parents sent her away to school, but she soon regained access to the drug. When she came home, she immediately started hanging out with a bad crowd. “They were jobless dropouts,” said her mother, “dirty, rude, arrogant: everyone’s nightmare of a teen-ager. These were her new friends.”

Her parents sent her to hospitals and drug treatment centers. Five times, they failed.

The parents said their relationship with their daughter turned into a pitched battle; as they tried to set rules, the daughter threw tantrums, breaking windows, screaming, yelling, throwing things against the walls.

“Christmas was real ugly,” her father said. Their daughter refused to join them at their vacation home and they spent the holiday apart for the first time ever.

*

At the low point, the mother said, her drug-crazed daughter tried to run her over with a car.

Still, the teen-ager had enough affection left for her parents that she clung to them for hours sobbing and apologizing when she was finally arrested in connection with her drug use.

“It just about tore my guts out,” her father said.

“I buried my mother from this stuff,” her mother said. “We can’t save our own child, and that is very frustrating.”

*

Addicts said that in the depths of their troubles, they felt as if there was no way out.

“I honestly thought I was the sickest son of a gun on earth and I was hopeless,” Chatoff said.

But within the county’s borders there are many resources devoted to helping drug abusers regain control of their lives. There are chapters of such 12-step programs as Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. There are 19 publicly funded treatment centers and dozens more private hospitals, doctors and counselors.

Drug abusers can choose a “medical model” or a “social model,” on an inpatient basis or as an outpatient, under coverage by health insurance or by paying out of their own pockets.

Officials say the county is still far from attaining the ideal of treatment on demand, a situation where any addict could receive immediate treatment at any time. Many programs have monthlong waiting lists. Still, the experiences of at least some Ventura County residents demonstrate that there is hope.

*

The friend who found Chatoff curled up on the floor of his apartment took him to a meeting of a 12-step program. Chatoff said that with the help of such programs, he has been off drugs for the past 12 years.

Chatoff married a doctor, drives a Lexus and owns a home on the beach in Oxnard. He is executive director of Anacapa by the Sea, a drug treatment center in Port Hueneme. His weight is down from 350 to a trim 200 pounds, in part, perhaps, because he doesn’t eat ice cream anymore.

“The wonderful thing about Southern California is that there’s so many types of 12-step meetings,” Chatoff said. “Southern California is a recovery mecca.”

Brock-Davison’s ex-husband told her about Miracle House, a Ventura residential drug treatment center for women. She said she has been drug-free since she entered the house in February, 1991. She served five days in jail and paid back the store for stealing the books.

She has remarried her husband, and she now works as executive director of Miracle House, which, like many publicly funded drug-treatment programs in the county, is always full and has a monthlong waiting list.

She lives simply in a Ventura mobile home park, and said her new life is “wonderful.” Still, she said, “the sad part is wondering where I could have gone with my life had I never drunk and used.”

*

The Thousand Oaks parents sent their daughter to a two-year school and rehabilitation program in Idaho. They are hopeful that her sixth attempt at kicking the habit will be her final, successful one.


Advertisement