Shadow People: How meth-driven crime is eating at the heart of rural America

May 7, 2012 - by Scott Thomas Anderson

May 7, 2012 Special to Crime Magazine

Shadow People: How meth-driven crime is eating at the heart of rural America

“Shadow People” — the term refers to hallucinogenic figures glimpsed by methamphetamine addicts after days without sleep. But, in reality, it’s the addicts themselves who are living in a shadow, growing in numbers, becoming an alarming subculture on the periphery of rural America, engaging in crimes that are having devastating impacts on places where traditional life is valued most. Between May 2010 and October 2011, award-winning journalist Scott Thomas Anderson worked as an embedded reporter with law enforcement agencies, partnering with officers on night patrols, accompanying detectives on warrant searches and probation sweeps, observing SWAT operations and spending hundreds of hours with attorneys and victims’ advocates in small-town courtrooms. The result is Anderson’s new book, Shadow People: how meth-driven crime is eating at the heart of rural America. The following excerpt from Chapter 5 of Shadow People follows several cops and prosecutors in Amador County, California, during a hot week in July, 2010. Available on

by Scott Thomas Anderson

Chapter 5

Jackson, California: June 13, 2010


Mike Collins pounds the accelerator. The voice calling for backup over his radio belongs to a police officer in Sutter Creek, Jackson’s sister city to the north. To Collins, it sounds like a fellow cop is approaching two burglary suspects caught in the act; and he’s confronting them utterly alone. Mosquitoes are swarming as the Jackson cruiser drives under the bloodshot silhouette of a mine frame, ridges and rooftops below swept by a champagne curtain of light. The car moves through an intersection, past a white, plaster slum structure with rusty air units and bed sheets hung for drapes: Carrion eaves, cracked Spanish arches, its condemned walls flash by the veteran’s eye in an instant. Radio traffic advises Collins that the policeman has his suspects cornered in a cemetery. By now, the cruiser has pushed through two staggered intersections to an upper gateway to Sutter Creek. For an instant Collins can see down the rolling vista to a basin of houses and yards a magazine once deemed “the city without crime.” 

It’s all in the eyelids — the burglar’s are low, ruby flaps of half-hung skin. Below them, two pupils shutter into postmortem windows, wobbling and wandering on the salmon-white glaze of his corneas. The eyes are vacant, deeply chiseled into a gaunt, shaven skull. The burglar’s agitated. Trembling. He can barely speak. Moments before, he had no problems pattering to the Sutter Creek officer in front of him, even joking that the reason he and the emaciated woman at his side were spotted creeping out of garages was because they’d been taken by the carnal urge. Laughing, he’d quickly dropped the line that they were just looking for an impromptu place to satisfy it. But two black bags lay near a headstone, and Collins is watching as his fellow officer searches through them, discovering twenty-one stolen items hidden under knotted clothes and a bottle of Hennessy. The last thing the officer pulls out is a roll of toilet paper. Securing his gloves, he moves his fingers up inside its cylinder to discover a crystal pipe loaded with methamphetamine.   

“That’s insulin,” the burglar assures everyone.

Handcuffs slide out of a leather sheath. The Sutter Creek officer moves in, but his suspect suddenly wants out of the graveyard at all costs. The wiry man locks his fists as a frail snare line rattles through his elbows. The much larger officer wrenches the burglar’s forearms. The meth is good for one more push, a trapped tugging and some wordless defiance. Collins is ready to step in and help when the Sutter Creek officer, in one motion, forces his suspect down on the hood of the patrol car.

Collins cuffs the thin girl and leads her into his own vehicle. “Amador: Four-pol-four,” he mumbles into his radio, “In route to CJ with one.” The car drifts back from cemetery oak trees as flint-washed and cinereous as the headstones their leafless branches orbit over. Collins glances at the girl in his rearview. She’s hardly impressive, as far as criminals go: Drawn, flushed, a weepy pink salamander shade bruising beneath the hopelessness in her eyes. Yep, Collins thinks, not much of a hardened criminal at all; and Mike Collins has seen his share of hardened criminals.

Raised in the family of the Los Angeles Police Department, Collins’ father was an officer who preached that the secret to surviving the most dangerous profession in America is knowing how to talk to people. And Collins inherited that gift. Stormless when he can afford to be, commanding when he needs to be, the Irish-descended beat cop has a knack for getting cooperation from the most indurate drug offenders through his plain, “no bullshit” manner of speaking to them.

The Garden City Police Department in Idaho recognized his talents early on, promoting him to the most coveted of all law enforcement jobs, homicide detective. Collins worked three murders right out of the gate, including the brutal extermination of a female gas station attendant in April of 1981. Today, during late hours on his graveyard shifts, when his car’s spotlight lances slowly over black stumps and darkened fields, Collins still thinks about Dixie Wilson soaked in blood. It’s a permanent picture in the officer’s head, the night two men wandered into her gas station, one staying behind the register as the other hauled Dixie into a small oil room. The perpetrator up front handled customers that roamed in. His partner sexually tortured Dixie during lulls in foot traffic. The two men eventually stabbed her thirty-six times before ending her nightmare with six bullets to the head. They grabbed $47 in cash out of the register before walking away from the woman’s desecrated body. Detective Collins caught both of them. He put one on death row and the other in an Idaho state penitentiary for life; but, during soundless moments in a patrol car, the whipped, red droplets of Dixie’s crime scene can find Mike Collins again, one of the few slayings he ever investigated that wasn’t drug-related, one of the only acts of human degradation he ever confronted without a motive beyond sheer depravity.

By the late 1980s, Collins was working narcotics, executing high-level cocaine and heroin buys that took him from Boise to Salt Lake City and, in some cases, back to his hometown of Los Angeles. He helped surround Ryder moving trucks stuffed with bags of white powder. He used crowbars to bang open coffin-shaped crates packed with AK-47 rifles. He followed cars on surveillance details while speaking to helicopters that trailed high above. It was the proverbial big time; but Collins slowly began to want something different from the badge: He wanted to have laid-back dinners with his friends, to throw the squeaky toy for his dog, to watch a good Sunday NFL game. More than anything, he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Cathy. In 2002 he walked away from urban law enforcement altogether, finding the rewards were everything he hoped for. At the same time, the Jackson Police Department realized it had scored an experienced drug cop who quickly adapted his skill set to the city’s methamphetamine problem.

Collins was learning quickly that meth addiction made rural law enforcement harder than most city cops guessed, and the species of criminals running rough powder through the hills fed into tense encounters. One night in December of 2008, Collins caught a member of the Hells Angels preparing to burglarize an auto shop on Scottsdale Road. The Angel had a four-prong stun gun, a homemade blackjack and a cocked-and-loaded crossbow, all within easy reach of the driver’s seat of his pickup. Collins was hardly surprised to discover that the five-time convicted felon was also transporting a bag of methamphetamine through the south end of the city. Collins managed to talk that suspect into handcuffs without drawing his .40-caliber; but he’s pulled his piece plenty of other times in his nine years in Jackson. Christopher Jarod Stockton is proof enough. Collins has lifted his gun on The Giant twice now.

Though rural police work had its surprises, there are elements of it Collins has come to forever embrace. Officers typically have more time to investigate cases than their counterparts in larger agencies. They often get more breathing room to be genuinely sympathetic to victims and their families. For cops who care to get involved, there’s plenty of face-to-face time with drug addicts trying to get clean, and occasionally opportunities to stop them from, in Collins’ words, “seriously screwing up.”

Most small city police officers also develop unusually close bonds with residents, merchants and community leaders. And in the veteran’s mind, there’s something above even those privileges: Officers truly get to know troubled and at-risk youths.  Sometimes they even get small chances to help them overcome the inner turmoil — that deep, inherited poverty of the spirit — so many in the rural underclass are born into. When people ask Mike Collins what it means to him to be a Jackson police officer, his answer is never long in coming. “It’s pretty simple,” he says, raising his eyebrows, “Out here, one cop can do a lot of good.”

Five days later, the weekly newspaper starts pelting doorsteps across Amador County. The burglar’s deep-set, cindered eyes are featured in color on page eight. Though locals are becoming half-immune to reports of drug-related crimes in the Gold Country, there’s something noticeably different about this smudged 11 inches of newsprint. It’s a prowler tale, a methamphetamine story; but its cemetery is not in West Point, River Pines, Jackson, Ione or San Andreas. Readers might have to look twice, but this is an article about the city of Sutter Creek.

Even in the height of the Great Recession, Sutter Creek has remained a darling of the California travel media. Hailed as “the Jewel of the Mother Lode,” Sunset magazine frequently showcases its Dickensian balconies and gingerbread gables, reveling in the tidy kaleidoscope of Victorian snapshots, the rare window to hardy Gilded Age dreams — a painted, polished five-and-dime tribute to lasting western elegance. Along with the town of Murphys forty miles south in Calaveras County, it’s one of the region’s top tourist attractions. And now, there are two long columns of text about desperate individuals stumbling around the most picturesque avenue in “the city without crime,” hiding crystal meth in their grab bags as they burglarize addresses in broad daylight, all while the unsuspecting residents are home. 

Todd Riebe glances at the online version of the headline with his smart phone. Moving in and out of an office crowded with files, the district attorney can imagine the wave of concern for property values that’s hitting Sutter Creek this morning. Odds are the newspaper will be getting complaints from numerous real estate agents before the day is out. For his part, Riebe’s mind is on a slew of pending cases, including a major investigation into fifty-two-year-old Victor Callahan, a man Riebe’s preparing to charge with second-degree murder.    

On a scorching July morning in 2009, Callahan was speeding down Highway 88 along tall humps of brass-baked grass near Amador County’s western border. The ranchlands fell around him in knuckled grades of frightening dryness — an arid harbor of yellow swells that intensified in the sun’s early rays. Grazing heifers blurred by his Ford Taurus, their tough, ropy tails swinging through visible heat waves. Callahan’s eyes drifted across a lone scarcely wooded hilltop. As his hand rocked on the steering wheel, the skin inside his left elbow was crinkling the crater of a fresh needle mark.

Five seconds later, Callahan’s Ford became a gleaming, silver streak in the brightness. It veered across the double-yellow lines of the highway, crossing into oncoming traffic, sideswiping one car and then barreling head-on into a red Buick Lacrosse. Callahan’s face was the last thing 84-year-old Ysauro Bernardo Lujan and his wife, 92-year-old Mildred Lujan, saw before the vehicles collided. The Lujans’ hood snapped. Frosty blue webs spun and crawled up their windshield as the Buick’s entire front end imploded. Ysauro felt the driver’s side “A” pillar collapse. His ears were filled with the blare of metal tearing like paper. As the roar hit a crescendo, the dashboard gouged into Ysauro’s body, cracking his ribs, crushing his pelvis and sending a transverse fracture up his sternum. The sounds reverberated and the dash continued to press inward. Ysauro’s spleen split open. His bladder ruptured. Fluids began hemorrhaging into his abdomen.

Then silence.

Mildred looked out on the roadway to littered soil and a metal cattle fence peeking over shaggy weeds. She was motionless from a fractured spine. Her chest had slowed from deep, internal injuries. Mildred turned her eyes to her husband Ysauro, watching him take his last, lagging breath. Firefighters soon pulled her from the wreckage. She could feel the paramedics readying her battered body for an airlift across the valley. As they fastened straps around Mildred’s skull, Ysauro was laid near the rear of the Buick, his medical board smashing down on the brittle amber grass with crushing finality. His eyes were peeled open. Firefighters moved a yellow tarp over his face.       

Patrick Ong and Frank Peixoto of the California Highway Patrol soon approached the emergency responders attending to Callahan. One medic, a retired cop, told them he was seeing “objective indicators” of a drug roiling through Callahan’s central nervous system. Ong looked his suspect over: Gauzy red trickles splintered on different parts of Callahan’s dark flesh; and his small ribcage was laboring up and down, lurching painfully. Ong hunched over to study the man’s dilated pupils. His gaze moved to the fresh, open needle mark on Callahan’s left arm. Ong got eye-level with his suspect. “Sir, you’re under arrest,” he’d said, “on suspicion of driving under the influence of a controlled substance.”   

Callahan was rushed by helicopter to University of California, Davis Medical Center. Three weeks later, Ong and Peixoto got their hands on the results of his blood work. Any doubts were put to rest: Callahan had been under the influence of methamphetamine when he slammed into the Lujans. Ong made a personal visit to Ysauro’s widow eight months later. The 25-year veteran investigator could see Mildred’s body was mending, but the trauma of the collision had been seared into her mind as permanent scar tissue. Ong told Mildred he was sorry for what she had gone through. Mildred replied that she was still going through it — that she was reliving the sights and sounds of firing glass in her thoughts every day. A picture of Ysauro slowly taking his last breath was waiting when she closed her eyes. There was nothing she could do, she admitted to Ong, to stop seeing her husband die.

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