When a 23-year-old woman fatally shot her two toddlers and a cousin, critically wounded her husband then turned the gun on herself on Jan. 16, investigators immediately suspected methamphetamine abuse in what otherwise was inexplicable carnage. It turned out the mother had videotaped herself smoking meth hours before the shooting.
In family photos, the children are adorable, the mother pretty. They lived in a large apartment complex near a freeway with neatly clipped lawns and mature trees. The father was recently laid off from a packing house job.
“When you get this type of tragedy, it’s not a surprise that drugs were involved,” said Lieutenant Mark Salazar, the Fresno Police Department’s homicide commander. “Meth has been a factor in other violent crimes.”
A mother in Bakersfield, California, was sentenced on Tuesday for stabbing her newborn while in a meth rage. An Oklahoma woman drowned her baby in a washing machine in November last year. A New Mexico woman claiming to be God stabbed her son with a screwdriver last month, saying, “God wants him dead.”
“Once people who are on meth become psychotic, they are very dangerous,” said Alex Stalcup, who treated Haight Ashbury heroin users in the 1960s, but now researches meth and works with addicts in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs. “They’re completely bonkers; they’re nuts. We’re talking about very extreme alterations of normal brain function. Once someone becomes triggered to violence, there aren’t any limits or boundaries.”
The Central Valley of California is a hub of the US methamphetamine distribution network, making extremely pure forms of the drug easily available locally. And law enforcement officials say widespread meth abuse is believed to be driving much of the crime in the vast farming region.
Chronic use of the harsh chemical compound known as speed or crank can lead to psychosis, which includes hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations. The stimulant effect of meth is up to 50 times longer than cocaine, experts say, so users stay awake for days on end, impairing cognitive function and contributing to extreme paranoia.
“Your children and your spouse become your worst enemy, and you truly believe they are after you,” said Bob Pennal, a recently retired meth investigator from the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
Methamphetamine originally took root in California’s agricultural heartland in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a poor man’s cocaine. Its use initially creates feelings of euphoria and invincibility, but experts say repeated abuse can alter brain chemistry and sometimes cause schizophrenia-like behavior.
Meth’s availability and its potential for abuse combine to create the biggest drug threat in the Central Valley, according to a new report from the US Department of Justice’s Drug Intelligence Center. From 2009 to 2010 methamphetamine busts in the Central Valley more than tripled to 1,094kg, the report says.
Large tracts of farmland with isolated outbuildings are an ideal place to avoid detection, which is why the region is home to nearly all of America’s “super labs,” controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations, said John Donnelly, resident agent in charge of the US Drug Enforcement Administration office in Fresno.
“They have the potential to make 150 pounds [68kg] per cook,” he said. “There are more super labs in California than anywhere else. We’re slinging it all over the country from here.”