Not a day goes by that Dr. John Swyden doesn’t remember his children’s eyes.
There was a time — not so long ago — when he was a respected member of the Owasso community — a doctor, a loving husband and father.
But somewhere along the way, he stumbled, first experimenting, then using methamphetamine, and ultimately paying a steep price for his addiction.
“That case was a good example of what meth can do to a person’s life,” said John Singer, investigator and six-year veteran of the Claremore Police Department.
“Once he began using meth, that became his whole life —nothing else mattered,” Singer said. “He lost his family, his wife divorced him and wouldn’t let him see his kids, he lost his practice, and was in the process of losing his license to practice medicine when we arrested him in 2003.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it, Singer added.
“When we arrested him, there was an enormous meth lab in his house,” he said. “He was harboring a fugitive, who was helping him cook it, and there was a 15-year-old on the premises that he had been injecting methamphetamine into.
“That’s what crank (meth) does — it gets ahold of a person to the point that even someone who’s a stand-up member of the community will do anything to support their habit,” he said. “It made Dr. Swyden feel it was OK to turn his beautiful home into a meth lab, to keep a fugitive from the law there to help him manufacture it, and that it was all right to inject a 15-year-old with drugs.”
Stories like Swyden’s are too common to Singer. The kind of things he sees on a routine, sometimes daily basis, but never enjoys or gets used to.
On the wall of Singer’s office, a recently-hung plaque declares him Oklahoma Region 2’s “Narcotics Investigator of the Year.”
It’s an honor he earned the hard way.
“One guy in particular — Gary Nolan — had been cooking and distributing meth in eight counties. He was one of the ‘big fish’ on the Oklahoma meth scene,” Singer said. “We’d been working on that case since 2004. I’m very glad we got him, plus there were nine others who were indicted as coconspirators (to manufacture), so that was a big case for us.”
But big or small, Singer never enjoys seeing the destructive effects methamphetamine has on lives.
“Seeing what meth does, how it destroys a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them — their families — that’s never pleasant,” he said. “People may not hear as much about meth these days, but it’s never gone away.”
Although Singer said that the passage of stricter laws regarding pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in meth — helped curtail the local manufacturing of the drug, it continues to find its way into Claremore through clandestine labs and drug traffic from Mexico.
“While the (pseudoephedrine) law definitely decreased the number of meth labs we saw, it did little to slow down (meth) traffic coming into Claremore from other places,” he said. “Claremore has several major roadways that run through it — the Will Rogers Turnpike and Route 66, among them — giving meth traffickers too-convenient access into and out of the city.”
But the usage of the drug isn’t the only aspect of meth Singer sees.
“When you’re talking about meth cases, you’re not just dealing with the drug,” Singer said, “you’re dealing with the crimes people will commit to try and feed their habit.
“Most of the time when I’m working bogus check cases or thefts, I’m working cases that deal with drug addictions,” he said. “There’s no way for a person to be addicted to crank and continue to function as a normal citizen — it just won’t happen, so they have to steal and pass bad checks to support their addiction.”
Although Singer has been working meth cases since he came to the police force, he said the reasons behind persons ever starting the drug still mystify him, given the inevitable outcome.
“Reasons behind meth use are ... in many cases interrelated to sex — meth and sex go hand in hand,” he said. “The first time a person uses crank, it fires off all the pleasure receptors in the brain, so it’s like the best sex they’ve ever had. After that, they’re trying to recreate that first ‘high’ which they’ll never get — they start tweaking, and will stay high for days at a time to try. They’ll keep going, firstly, to keep that feeling, and secondly, to try and keep from crashing. They used to call that ‘chasing the dragon.’”
Singer said one common thought is that first-time meth users become “instantly addicted,” but that’s not necessarily the case.
“There aren’t any drugs we know that will turn a person into an addict the first time, but it’s too great a risk to take,” he said. “You can’t predict what a person’s tolerance to a drug will be, what dosage it would take for them to be addicted. Every person’s physiology is different, so there’s no way to know when they’ll become addicts — it sneaks up on them. The best way to keep that from happening is for them to never use (meth) in the first place.”
The “before and after” photos in Singer’s files graphically tell the tale of what meth usage does.
“You can’t even recognize some of these meth-users photos as the same people,” he said. “Crank by itself does some nasty stuff to your body, but if you even take it out of the equation, the lifestyle that goes with it would take years off of your lifespan,” he said. “If you, as a clean and sober person, lived the life of a cranskter, you’d be doing irreparable damage to your body.
“The body was not meant to stay awake for days at a time, or sustain a heart rate of 130, 140 beats per minute. Living the life of a meth addict takes a terrible toll on a person, even before you factor in what the drug itself is doing,” he said.
And the chemicals are even more damaging to the user.
“Two major forms of making meth in Oklahoma are the ‘Nazi method,’ used in western Oklahoma, and the ‘Red Phosphorous method,’ which we find in eastern Oklahoma,” Singer said. “Both use pseudoephedrine, but in the meth we see around here, the ingredients also include iodine crystals and a source of phosphorous, like re7d or white phosphorous flakes, or orthosphoric (phosphoric) acid.”
Vapors from the iodine flakes lead to skin and eye irritation, as well as breathing problems, and the phosphorous flakes irritate the user’s nose, eyes, throat, lungs and eyes, Singer said. Phosphoric acid can cause skin burns and result in severe lung damage if inhaled.
“Another effect of meth use is what we call ‘meth mouth,’ where a person’s teeth start to decay at a rapid rate,” Singer said. “Meth chemicals accelerate tooth decay and reduce the amount of saliva, which fights tooth decay — plus bad hygiene goes along with meth use.”
While Singer said “meth mouth” isn’t always present in users, it’s only one of the many harmful effects possible from the drug. Carcinogens used to make the drug will eventually lead to increased risk of cancer, he added.
“Anyone who is a meth user will never be a happy person once they start using,” he said, soberly. “They’ll be destined to a lifetime of bad health and unhappiness.”
It’s another day on the job for Singer.
Despite weariness and frustration, he continues his pursuit of those handing meth — users and sellers.
He knows it’s an uphill battle, but it’s one he fights willingly.
“We know this is a fight that’s ... almost impossible to win, but we won’t stop fighting it,” he said. “I take satisfaction when we do catch the ‘big fish’ in the meth circles — that helps keep it out of people’s hands at least, but it always upsets me when I know about people, young people, who start using meth. They have absolutely no clue what they’re getting into — absolutely no clue.”
Contact Tom Fink, email@example.com or call 341-0220.