Joplin woman tells of love, addiction
Globe Investigative Writer
The first time Valerie Ackerson tried methamphetamine, she thought it tasted bitter, like medicine. Eventually, she would come to love the taste.
Wrapped in a Zig-Zag cigarette paper and swallowed, the homemade drug — which resembled powdered aspirin flecked with sparkles — would take 15 or 20 minutes to kick in, but once it did, the high lasted for eight hours.
“It scared me at first,” she said. “It felt like my life was turned completely upside down. The unknown scared me. The drugs scared me. All of it did. But I liked using because it picked me up and gave me an enormous amount of energy. When I came down from it, I had the most excruciating stomach pain.”
Ackerson’s story is a snapshot of the way meth has been manufactured and sold for years in the Joplin area — a way that is changing not only because of laws that make it tougher to get the ingredients needed to manufacture it, but because of organized crime that is meeting the demand by smuggling “ice,” a more potent form of methamphetamine, from Mexico.
But more than anything else, Ackerson’s story is that of a woman desperately seeking trust but expecting disappointment. The seeds of her meth abuse may have been sown early in her family relationships, she suspects, but the match that ignited her addiction was her relationship with Butch Ackerson.
“I’ve known Butch since I was 9 years old,” she said. “It’s a weird relationship. It’s a love-hate relationship.”
Two years after that first hit of meth, Ackerson’s life was indeed upside down.
She and her husband were living in a mobile home, the utilities had been cut off, and their only
source of income was selling the batches of meth cooked in a shed behind the trailer. But their money dwindled as state laws made it more difficult to find the ingredients needed to whip up more batches, and their labor was increasingly spent in just meeting their own demand for the drug.
Their friends were other dealers, and everyone was armed.
Valerie Ackerson already had been busted twice for meth and had temporarily lost her children because of it. She was anxious, paranoid and sick all the time. When the end came, it was a relief.
“When they put the handcuffs on me the last time,” Valerie Ackerson said, “the only thing that went through my head is that I get to clean up.”
Love and hate
The 34-year-old Joplin woman knows she is lucky, but she doesn’t boast. She tells of her escape from the drug subculture with a clinical detachment, and she is quick with facts. She can tell you how long it takes to make meth using the iodine and red phosphorus method, what kind of glassware works best, and how much an 8-ball of product goes for on the street.
She’s worried, though, that she’s telling too much, that authorities will take a renewed interest in her and her husband, Butch, now serving time at the state correctional center in Moberly.
“When I went through treatment, they said I’m more addicted to my husband than to drugs,” Ackerson said. “Boy, hearing myself say some of this — just all the chaos. I’ve had dreams that I’ve had to chase Butch down and there he is with a girl. I end up feeling betrayed.”
Valerie Patton was born in Joplin but raised in Dallas.
She recalls herself as a loner who played with Barbie dolls until she was 15. She was frequently in trouble for skipping class. She quit school in ninth grade and went to work in a five-and-dime in Grand Prairie, Texas. She smoked a joint once with her older sister, who later went through rehab for LSD. Their parents divorced when Valerie was 11, and she says her father pushed her away.
“My dad cheated on my mom for 15 years,” she said. “He would come home and say, ‘You’re the third woman I’ve had today.’ Mom put up with it because she loved him. Dad is on his third wife now.”
Her father lives in Scurry, Texas. Her mother lives in Webb City.
“I remember him drunk out of his mind, with puke in his beard, calling his girlfriend,” she said.
The first time she got drunk was with her father, drinking Wild Turkey while sitting on a tailgate. She retched in a horse stall. For eight years, she attended an apostolic church. She says she was let down by a lot of preachers, including a Sunday school teacher who attempted to kiss her.
Valerie remembers when she was 11, being at her aunt’s house in Joplin, and Butch climbing on top of her and trying to take her clothes off. “He was the first one ever to kiss me, the first one ever to give me a rose,” she said. “I guess you could say he was the first one to make me feel beautiful.”
On April 13, 1991, she was reunited with Butch at a cockfight near Baxter Springs, Kan. Butch had roosters in the fight. Valerie was 20 and had been using crack cocaine for three months, courtesy of her boyfriend at the time. “I would sit around and get high for the hell of it,” she said. “I never had to pay for it. Crack went with my moods. It intensified whatever I was feeling … and I didn’t like it.”
After the cockfight, she and Butch got high together, then went to a cousin’s house and spent the night. The next day, she told Butch she was going back to Texas to live with her father, to get away from crack.
“I was there about two months before I knew I was pregnant,” she said. She didn’t know if the child belonged to Butch or to the boyfriend who had introduced her to crack. “Butch called twice a week begging me to come back.”
She eventually did, and she lived with her mother.
When the baby was born, Valerie said, there was no doubt that Butch was the father. But Butch did not see the little girl named Marcayla until she was 2 weeks old, and when he did, Valerie remembers, he had “eaten a lot of Valium.” When Valerie asked him what baby’s name was, Butch couldn’t remember.
Valerie married someone else, and she and Butch saw each other only twice during the next eight years.
During most of the 1990s, Valerie lived in towns across Oklahoma — Miami, Ardmore, Midwest City. Her husband drank and was chronically unemployed. She describes herself as a devout Pentecostal, a religious wife, a mother — a second child, Emily, was born in 1993 — and depressed. She weighed 235 pounds. She wore only dresses, and her hair, she recalls, was 3 inches past her knees.
By 1999, she was divorced and moved back to Joplin with her children. She began smoking cigarettes again and went to a doctor to lose weight. By March 2000, she was down to 125 pounds.
Butch was in prison, and they began exchanging letters.
“I asked him if he was going to clean up and what were his plans,” she said. “He said he wanted to do construction work and have a family.”
She began sending him money, between $200 and $300 a month, and racking up $600 phone bills. Butch used the money for fans, blankets and cable television. He may have used some to buy prison contraband.
“I knew he messed with it, but it didn’t seem to be a part of our lives,” she said.
Butch was released Aug. 3, 2000. He got high that night, Valerie said. They were married Sept. 23, and by November she had tried meth. She was working as an aide at Autumn Place, a residential care center in Joplin, and had brought a friend home from work to their 32nd Street apartment. When Butch got the friend high, she decided to try it, as well.
“I wanted to be a part of him, his life,” she said. “I did it just so I’d fit in.”
She would use meth continually for the next two years. It helped her concentrate, she said, and she enjoyed getting high and working at the computer. Eventually, however, the pleasant experience gave way to anxiety and paranoia.
“I didn’t like the way the dope made me feel,” she said. “I was anxious, uncomfortable. After three or four days, I would make myself go to sleep.”
By April 2001, she weighed less than 100 pounds.
“I was bone and skin,” she said. “I stayed that way for eight months, until I got busted the first time and went through treatment. I was dirty from using. My face was sunken. My family knew I was using because of the dirt beneath my nails.”
‘Black and red’
Butch and Valerie Ackerson moved to a trailer near Racine owned by Valerie’s mother, and Butch started cooking dope in the shed. Valerie started helping, she said, because Butch was “lazy” and it was difficult for him to gather all of the necessary ingredients.
“It felt good to be a part of it,” Valerie said. “At first it was just him into it, and then it was just us. Then we started selling to three people, tops.”
Soon, they became accustomed to the money. It was not unusual, she said, for them to have at least $1,000 in cash in their pockets.
They cooked according to the “black and red” method, she said, named for the iodine and red phosphorus used to reduce pseudoephedrine, obtained from cold remedies.
“Once the red and the black hit, they react,” Valerie said. “It starts bubbling and gets really hot.”
Black and red is one of five methods used across the country in clandestine meth laboratories, said Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland, and it is the most popular method in the Joplin area. It produces small quantities of high-quality dextro-methamphetamine.
It would take from two to 12 hours to achieve a successful burn, Valerie said, and the procedure yielded about 10 grams of meth. Typically, she said, they would keep 3 grams and sell 7.
An “8-ball” — an eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams — would sell for $200.
Valerie Ackerson was arrested three times on meth-related charges.
The first was on July 16, 2001, when she and Butch were pulled over in a rented Plymouth Neon by Brandon Stephens, a Neosho patrolman. Butch had been driving, but his license was revoked, so Valerie swapped seats with him.
“Upon stopping a vehicle in which this subject was driving prior to stopping and switching with his wife,” Stephens said in an affidavit filed in Newton County Circuit Court, “I found a metal tin with five white packages of a white powder substance which tested positive for meth. Also 10 boxes of pseudo-ephedrine, also a small white bottle with a metallic substance consistent with iodine crystals. The Ackerson subject had $446 in his pocket.”
Valerie, according to court records, had $13.
She says she never saw the 15 grams of meth until Stephens asked her to get out of the driver’s seat. When she saw the tin, she said, she dropped it between the seats.
“He jerked me out of the car and handcuffed me,” she recalled. A drug dog was summoned. A neighbor of the Ackersons, Andy Pike, a Newton County undercover drug officer, arrived on the scene. Ackerson remembers him as “stern.”
“The put me in a car with the dog, and Andy advised me just to tell where we had gotten the dope from,” she said. “We made the dope.”
Butch bonded out within hours, she said, but she spent two days in jail before being released on $25,000 bond. Both struck plea bargains and were sentenced to two years of probation.
But neither stopped using meth.
On the morning of Jan. 17, 2002, Butch left to take the two girls to school while Valerie stayed home. They had been up late the night before, cooking dope, but they had gotten in a hurry and the burn was bad. Valerie heard a bang on the trailer and saw on the surveillance monitor in the bedroom “six guys on the front porch.”
She remained in bed while a sheriff’s deputy arrested some friends in the trailer and chased two others who had run from the shed when the law arrived.
Butch was nearing home when he saw the raid in progress. He pulled his truck around and left. He called later, from a friend’s house 10 miles away. The call was traced, and Butch was arrested, too.
Valerie said the officers took a 9 mm pistol, an assault rifle and other weapons from the home, and they found a small quantity of meth and some chemicals. They missed, she said, a bag of dope she absent-mindedly had placed in a coat pocket the night before.
“They said a confidential informant came in to buy drugs and saw the red phosphorus in the shed,” Valerie said. “But the cops wouldn’t release the name of the informant to the judge or anyone else, so the case was dismissed.”
Valerie still lost her children temporarily. She also spent five days in jail before being released on bond, and she attended a four-week drug-treatment program at Lafayette House in Joplin.
The last time
The third and last time Valerie Ackerson was arrested was Oct. 10, 2002, and it also was the last day, she says, that she used meth.
They were still living in the trailer at Racine, she said, and most of the items taken in the bust nine months before had been returned, including all but one of the guns and the security cameras. But they had fallen behind on their $250 rent payments to her mother, and her mother had the utilities turned off.
“She had a right to be mad at us,” Valerie said. “Toward the end, it was harder to get pills, and red phosphorus was nearly impossible to find. So we started using white phosphorus. And I didn’t like the way the dope made me feel.”
While red phosphorus is stable, white phosphorus burns on contact with air. It is used in military incendiary devices and in fireworks.
“We were cooking to sustain our habit,” she said. “We were running everything by generator. It seemed like I was sick all the time.”
At 10 a.m., officers knocked on the door. Valerie walked out, locking the keys inside. She said she didn’t know where Butch was, and she was too sick to care.
The warrant, according to court documents, was based on “the contents of burn barrels” and “the smell from the residence.”
Valerie was charged with manufacturing and possession of a controlled substance. She lost her children again, for a time, spent 30 days in jail, and was sent once more to drug treatment at Lafayette House.
“The manufacturing (charge) was dropped, and they offered me a chance to go to drug court if I pled guilty to possession,” Valerie said. “I pled guilty to everything in the house, drug-wise. They got Butch for public nuisance. He got three years’ supervised probation, but he couldn’t stay clean — so he’s serving seven years.”
Butch was arrested March 12, 2003, in Jasper County for drug possession.
By the time he was sentenced, on July 19, 2004, he also had accumulated five charges of driving while his license was revoked, according to court documents. And, he had failed to verify his employment or residency with his probation officer, had failed to pay court costs, and had failed to keep anger-management and therapy appointments.
He also had failed all but one of his urine tests. When he was arrested, he was living at a girlfriend’s house in Joplin.
“Butch wasn’t allowed in the house because he didn’t get treatment,” Valerie said. “I had to choose him or my children.”
While in prison, Butch Ackerson has received treatment for his drug addition. In a brief telephone interview, he said he is determined to beat his drug addiction and looks forward to a new life with Valerie.
That life may begin soon, Valerie said. Butch is expected to be released by April or May.
“I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t want to be left at home thinking he is out with another girl. But I’ve gone through so much with Butch, and I love him, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him start a new life and be happy with somebody else. That would pi-- me off. I may have to hurt somebody.”
She laughed and said she was joking.
Valerie now lives in Joplin with her children. She obtained her high-school equivalency diploma in December 2004 and is now a nursing student at Missouri Southern State University. She says she is lonely, and she tried dating another man for a while, but it didn’t work. She felt guilty cheating on Butch, she said, and she has decided to wait for him to come home — even though the idea of giving up control of her environment terrifies her.
“I’ve told Butch if he uses again, we’re done,” she said. “I’m strong enough to follow through with that. Butch isn’t a bad person, he just has problems.”