Pubdate: Mon, 11 Feb 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: National
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Author: Fox Butterfield


PRENTISS, Miss. -- The trophy houses, with wrought-iron gates and 
grand-columned entryways, keep popping up on little country roads here, in 
clearings in the piney woods and near doublewide trailers. Sometimes there 
is a Mercedes or two in the driveway.

In the affluent suburbs of Boston, New York or Dallas, these fake chateaus 
might belong to successful doctors, lawyers or software company owners. But 
Prentiss, a small town in south-central Mississippi, has no industry or 
affluent professional class in the conventional sense. The last sizable 
factory moved to Mexico three years ago, leaving an unemployment rate of 25 

Instead, the police say, many of these houses belong to drug dealers, made 
rich by a flourishing business in crack, methamphetamine, marijuana and 
OxyContin, the prescription painkiller. They are the most visible 
manifestation of an explosion of rural drugs and crime that is overwhelming 
local law enforcement agencies and bringing the sort of violence normally 
associated with poor neighborhoods of big cities.

The upsurge has been felt across the nation, from Maine to Oregon and from 
Georgia to Texas, even as drug use in most cities has been declining.

In December, for example, Ron Jones, one of five members of the Prentiss 
Police Department and the son of the police chief, was shot to death as he 
entered an apartment to serve a search warrant for drugs.

It was the most recent of 14 homicides in the last two years in Jefferson 
Davis County, which has 14,000 residents, giving the county a homicide rate 
of 50 per 100,000.

That is higher than the rates of Detroit, Washington or New Orleans, cities 
that regularly have the highest homicide rates in the nation.

Nationwide, while the rate of arrests in drug crimes has fallen 11.2 
percent in cities with more than 250,000 residents over the last five 
years, it has risen 10.5 percent in rural areas, according to the Federal 
Bureau of Investigation.

Even more striking, from 1990 to 1999, the last year for which figures are 
available, the percentage of drug-related homicides tripled in rural areas 
but fell by almost half in big cities.

To measure the problem another way, a continuing survey of drug use among 
junior high and high school students by the University of Michigan has 
found that crack is now more widely used among 8th, 10th and 12th graders 
in rural areas than among those in metropolitan areas. Methamphetamine use 
is now highest in rural areas among all three grades and heroin use is 
about equal in urban and rural areas, the survey found.

The spread of drugs in the countryside is uneven, the experts say, with 
heavy concentrations of certain drugs in some counties.

In Washington County, for instance, at the far northeastern corner of 
Maine, prosecutions in crimes involving OxyContin are 10 times what they 
were in 1998, say law enforcement officials, who estimate that at least 
1,000 of the county's 35,000 residents are addicts.

"It's gone beyond the epidemic stage," Sheriff Joe Tibbetts said. "I can't 
think of a family in Washington County that hasn't been scathed by it in 
some way."

His officers' families are among those who have been affected, Sheriff 
Tibbetts said.

In Dawson County in western Nebraska, the problem is methamphetamine. "The 
percentage of meth-related crimes is through the roof," said Paul Schwarz, 
an investigator with the county sheriff's office. He repeated two local 
sayings: "You're either stealing or dealing" and "If you're not using, 
you're a cop."

In the state as a whole, officials discovered 38 methamphetamine 
laboratories in 1999; last year they discovered 179.

"If there is a battle going on out there," Mr. Schwarz said, "we're 
honestly not winning it."

Similarly, in Douglas County, a vast timber, farming and fishing area in 
southwestern Oregon, Lt. Mike Nores of the sheriff's department estimates 
that 12 percent to 14 percent of the 103,000 residents are making, selling 
or using drugs, particularly methamphetamine and marijuana. Drug use and 
trafficking now account for 80 percent of all crime in the county, 
including killings, Lieutenant Nores said.

One reason for the growth in rural drug problems, federal officials say, is 
that aggressive prosecution in cities has led dealers to seek safety in the 
farms and forests of rural counties, which have far fewer law enforcement 

"We've seen drugs and crime migrate to the rural areas in the past several 
years to get away from law enforcement," said Tony Soto, director of the 
Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in New Orleans, a task 
force of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities established 
by the White House Office of Drug Policy Control. "It's happening all 
around the United States, as the dealers and gangs go deeper into rural areas."

In Jefferson Davis County in Mississippi, Sheriff Henry McCullum said: 
"It's gotten so bad, drugs have become our major industry. Almost every 
person living in this community is profiting from the escalating drugs, 
directly or indirectly."

Drug money, Sheriff McCullum explained, is helping contractors, building 
supply stores and grocery stores stay in business.

By his estimate about half the young men in the county have been to prison 
by the time they reach the age of 21, with almost all their crimes related 
to drugs.

Even Sheriff McCullum's brother-in-law, Billy Ray Barnes, is in the 
sheriff's jail, charged with robbing a bank to get money for crack. In an 
interview in the sheriff's office, Mr. Barnes, 34, said it would take him 
only five minutes after walking out of jail to find more crack.

"It's everywhere," he said. "The county is infested."

To spend a day with the sheriff is to hear the toll drugs are taking in 
Jefferson Davis County. A high school teacher calls, warning that 
drug-dealing students are threatening to shoot each other in a classroom. 
An elderly woman reports that a drug dealer is coming to her home to shoot 
her crack-addicted son.

Sheriff McCullum takes these calls seriously. Last year a 13-year-old, 
Brendan McCullum (no relation to the sheriff), was fatally shot as he stood 
inside his house when a drug dealer drove by looking for Brendan's older 
brother, with whom the dealer had had a quarrel.

"Brendan was a good boy, an honor roll student, a kid who went to Sunday 
school," said his older sister, Ressie Davis. At the time of the shooting, 
Ms. Davis was in state prison for shoplifting, something she admitted doing 
to support her crack addiction. She was later released but is now back in 
the local jail for not reporting to her parole officer.

As bad as the drug problem is here, "It is pretty typical for all of rural 
Mississippi," said Charlie Brown Jr., the assistant special agent in charge 
of Mississippi for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"You've got counties where there are no jobs and the income is below 
poverty level, so you have groups trafficking in drugs who take advantage 
of that, and you have local sheriffs and small-town police chiefs who have 
very limited resources," Mr. Brown said. "Everybody in the community knows 
who is dealing, but because of their limited manpower, there is very little 
law enforcement can do."

Experts in rural crime agree that the reasons Mr. Brown cited are some of 
the basic causes of the growth in rural drug use and crime.

"You have many rural areas that are persistent poverty areas, in essence 
rural ghettos," said Joseph Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at 
Ohio State University. "They were once isolated and were protected by that, 
with lower crime, but now better communications have broken down that 
buffer so they begin to resemble poor neighborhoods of big cities, where 
people are segregated by poverty."

Asa Hutchinson, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration 
and a former federal prosecutor and congressman from Arkansas, said the 
movement of drug dealers to rural areas was "absolutely something I am 
aware of."

Mr. Hutchinson said the problem was difficult to combat because of a gap in 
law enforcement. Federal drug prosecutions have tended to focus on the 
largest dealers, usually in cities, and county sheriffs and small-town 
police forces lack the manpower or experience to combat them.

One other theory was offered by Henry Donaldson, Brendan McCullum's 
stepfather. Mr. Donaldson attributes the spread of drugs in part to the 
number of young people who have moved to Mississippi from Chicago, many of 
them sent by parents, originally from the state, to escape the urban drug 

The lack of law enforcement resources is glaring in Jefferson Davis County. 
Sheriff McCullum has five deputies to patrol a county of almost 600 square 
miles. In practice, this means that he normally has only one deputy on duty 
at a time. The budget of Sheriff McCullum's office is so meager that when 
he was elected two years ago, he did not have a fingerprint kit, a camera 
to photograph suspects or a video camera. Nor do his deputies have 
bulletproof vests or computer terminals for their patrol cars, which are 
common in big-city police cruisers to call up information on suspects.

"How are we going to do an undercover operation?" Sheriff McCullum asked. 
"We can't. Everybody here knows everybody else. Besides, we don't have the 
money to make a buy."

Three men awaiting trial for murder in Jefferson Davis County recently 
escaped from the county jail.

On a drive around the county's back roads, the sheriff pointed to new house 
after new house, some with mansard roofs, some with Palladian windows, that 
he said were built with drug profits. Some dealers, Sheriff McCullum said, 
truck drugs from El Paso on the Mexican border to the county, hiding the 
drug-loaded trucks in barns before selling the narcotics to other dealers.

The sheriff pointed to one house, a new gray stone structure with twin 
brick gates, a high black wrought-iron fence and security cameras. It 
belongs to Glenn Russell, Sheriff McCullum said, adding that Mr. Russell is 
awaiting trial on federal drug charges after being arrested in Texas with 
$150,000 worth of drugs.

It may be impossible to compare the ravages of the new wave of rural drugs 
with the crack epidemic in big cities in the late 1980's and early 1990's. 
But experts say the small populations of rural counties often magnify the 
impact, making it more personal.

On Dec. 26, in Prentiss, Officer Ron Jones, 29, called his father, Ronald 
N. Jones, the police chief, for permission to get a search warrant for an 
apartment where an informer had told him there was crack. An hour later, as 
Officer Jones led a team into the apartment, he was shot in the abdomen. 
The suspect in the shooting, Cory Maye, has been charged with capital murder.

"The hardest thing for me is that I'm the one who gave him the approval," 
Chief Jones said.

His son had been taking classes in drug enforcement and was the town's K-9 

"He thought he could clean Prentiss up," Chief Jones said. "He honestly 
gave his life trying to make a difference."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager