By David Abel, Globe Staff
By the time the law caught up with Dale Bernard, the paunchy addict was on the brink of homelessness -- far from the days when he spent weekends at the Four Seasons hotel and hoarded cash as a dealer of the potent, highly addictive drug he called ''Tina."
This is a story of how the 43-year-old from Boston, whom a federal judge late last month sentenced to seven years in prison, managed an illicit connection long feared by local officials: While high much of the time, he built a bridge between California and Boston, importing a steady flow of crystal meth and feeding a growing problem here -- made visible in last month's bust of an alleged meth laboratory in Dorchester.
''He was a significant meth dealer selling substantial quantities," says Nancy Rue, an assistant US attorney, at his sentencing hearing at the US District Court in South Boston. ''He was a meth addict who spread his addiction."
Over the past decade, methamphetamine has been mainly a West Coast phenomenon, but in recent years it has pushed across the Midwest and is increasingly competing with heroin on the East Coast.
In Boston, 75 people last fiscal year sought treatment for meth in local hospitals, up from 53 the year before, and compared with just five who sought treatment in 2001, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
But while federal officials say more than 1.4 million people across the country used the drug last year, meth remains a relatively small problem in the Boston area. The euphoria-producing stimulant, which increases libido, still accounts for fewer than 1 percent of those seeking treatment in Greater Boston hospitals.
''We may not see it quite as severe in our area yet; nationally, it is a huge, huge problem," Tina Murphy, a special agent from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's New England Field Division, said at a conference in February on the dangers of meth that city officials organized for local advocates. ''In Massachusetts, the greatest threat is meth being shipped in from the West Coast."
Before finding himself the target of federal drug agents in 2004, before what he describes as years of sleepless nights, unprotected sex with too many gay men he met online, nearly being killed in a drug-fueled car wreck and being robbed at gunpoint in California, he graduated from Essex Agricultural & Technical High in Danvers and headed to Penn. State in 1981, according to school records.
Raised in an upper-middle-class family in Andover, Bernard got along well with his family, who accepted his homosexuality when he came out at age 16. His mother says he regularly attended church, never got in trouble, and stayed away from drugs, aside from trying pot once.
''He was a good kid," says his mother, Carole Bernard, who still lives in Andover. ''I didn't really know what was going on."
His drug problems started, he says, when he stopped believing in God. A few years after he dropped out of Penn. State, a robber armed with a .22-caliber handgun burst into the Brighton leather store Bernard managed and shot him in the stomach. The bullet shattered Bernard's faith as well.
He spent about a week recovering at Brigham and Women's Hospital, he and his mother say, much of it on morphine. When he left, he yearned for something to kill the pain. ''The morphine felt so good," he says. ''I needed something to replace it."
In a world where God no longer existed, he figured: ''I might as well enjoy myself."
Shortly after, a friend introduced him to cocaine. ''It didn't take the pain away," he says, ''but it made it so I didn't care about it."
For a decade, Bernard balanced work with a low-level addiction to White Russians and cocaine, he says, but his real problems didn't start until 2000, when he fled the local drug scene and landed in that of Los Angeles.
Two weeks after arriving, Bernard met someone on the Internet looking to ''party-n-play," and he had his first experience with the little crystals. His new friend taught him how to ignite the crystals with a blowtorch lighter and suck the vapor from a glass pipe.
Euphoria washed over him. ''I felt amazing, invincible, like the most attractive person in the world," he says.
The benefits, to his mind, included reduced appetite -- the 6-foot-3-inch addict says he dropped from 250 to 180 pounds -- needing little sleep, and having increased sexual energy.
A few months later, Bernard lost his job and found a new way to pay his rent and feed his addiction: He bought larger quantities of meth and sold what he didn't use for a profit.
Then one day, Bernard says, he came home and found himself face-to-face with a 9mm gun, held by one of his initial suppliers. He says they tied him up, ransacked his apartment, and carted off all his possessions in his Dodge Ram pickup.
The experience, nearly two years after moving to LA, provided enough incentive to return home, where his parents took him in and he made an effort to stay clean. The effort lasted about a month, until a friend in LA sent him his clothes. Bernard found an ''eight ball" -- an eighth of an ounce -- of meth in a pants pocket. He stared at it, and let a day go by.
Lonely, empty, and sick of having little energy, he couldn't resist. ''It was right there in my hand," he says. ''I missed the money, the fast pace, the sex."
The rush lasted an entire day, and soon after, he moved out of his parents' home to an apartment near Boston Medical Center, where it all started again.
He contacted his old suppliers on the West Coast, he says, and they shipped him packages filled with coffee bags, the meth hidden inside, wrapped in cellophane. He bought by the ounce, which he says cost him a minimum of $1,400. He would sell an ounce for as much as $3,500.
He says he bought digital scales, special safes, and a stash of Slurpee straws from 7-Eleven, which he used to separate the crystals. His business quickly grew to about 50 clients, he says, most of whom he met online. ''Sex was my marketing tool," he says. ''If they smoked with me and had sex with me, then they weren't a cop."
Aside from his fillings falling out (meth rots teeth) and the need to stay high constantly -- he says he smoked an eight ball a day -- he was living large. He says he bought an Infiniti I-30, rented a new three-bedroom apartment, bought his live-in partner a car, and took him on a cruise to the Caribbean.
Then some of Bernard's associates were arrested. Business slowed, money got tight, and Bernard felt he was being watched. He chalked it up to paranoia.
But DEA agents had been following him for nearly a year. They collected Federal Express receipts and meth-lined plastic bags from his trash, recorded his calls, and discovered the CD cases and shrink-wrapped jewelry boxes where he hid his meth, according to a sworn statement by the lead DEA agent. They had informants record his conversations, in which he described his Malden apartment as ''the crystal palace, the house that Tina built."
With enough evidence, and Bernard on the brink of homelessness, federal agents arrested him in Malden on June 2, 2004.
''I observed there was no electricity or power at the residence," wrote Michael P. Cashman, the DEA special agent who investigated the case, in his report on Bernard's arrest. ''I spoke to the landlord, who stated that he was in the process of evicting Bernard for nonpayment of rent."
Before Bernard pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to distribute meth and six counts of distribution, he spent about a month at the Norfolk County House of Correction in Dedham. A judge sent him to a Cape Cod detox facility, and after five months there authorities allowed him to move to the first of three sober houses in Malden, where addicts are tested for drugs every week.
In the time between his arrest and sentencing -- when authorities sought information from him to implicate other dealers -- Bernard struggled to overcome his addiction. ''The strongest pills I take now are ibuprofen," he says.
He restored ties with his family, church, and to the idea that he could live without drugs. He went to therapy, readily acknowledged his addiction, and for the past year managed to hold on to a job as a travel agent.
''He's come a long way," says Billy Maragiogilo, executive director of New England Transitions, who runs the sober house where Bernard lives. ''He's complied with all the rules -- three drug tests a week, a house meeting a week, and three AA meetings a week. He's helped out other guys in the house. We have no complaints about him."
Still, Bernard would hear Tina's call, in his dreams or when someone recognized him on the street and offered him a hit.
''My addiction is still there," he says. ''I still feel it, the desire to get back into the lifestyle. . . . But I know if I kept going the way I was going, I'd probably be dead by now."
Last month, after US District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro sentenced Bernard to 87 months in prison and five years of probation, Bernard dropped his head, and his eyes reddened with tears. Though he had faced a potential $4 million fine and as much as life in prison, he had hoped, as his lawyers argued, that his efforts to pull his life together might keep him from going back to prison.
He starts serving his sentence next week.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.