May 7, 2012 Special to Crime Magazine
“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 Amazon.com
by Scott Thomas Anderson
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.