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Wednesday, March 1, 2006 07:59 am

Requiem for a tweaker

He should be a poster boy for drug treatment. Instead, he’s behind bars.

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COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MATTHEW SCHULTZ

Thomas O’Dell was a mess — and in deep trouble.

One of his tennis shoes had come off as he ran through a cornfield, desperate to get away from the Moultrie County sheriff’s deputy who had pulled him over at 3 a.m. He hadn’t stopped to retrieve it, so here he was, nearly four hours later, trudging down the road, half-shoeless at daybreak after a night spent hunkered down among cornstalks. His mind was racing, but he couldn’t come up with a plan. Only madness and methamphetamine had taken him this far.

O’Dell was the quarry in a seven-agency manhunt. Tracking dogs were after him, roadblocks were set up, and an Illinois State Police plane would be aloft shortly. Somehow he’d slipped through the search perimeter and made it back to the outskirts of Gays (population 260), where all this had started. It was stupid to have even left his girlfriend’s house in Windsor, where he cooked nearly every day. He already had a stash, but O’Dell loved to make meth.

He’d collected cold pills, lithium, lye, phosphorus — everything he needed except anhydrous ammonia. So he threw an empty propane tank in a borrowed Ford Escort and headed for the nearest farm-supply depot. His cousin rode shotgun.

The deputy was parked outside the depot, about 75 miles southeast of Springfield, when they arrived, so O’Dell kept driving. But he knew that he was going to be stopped — that’s what meth-country cops do when someone unexpected shows up at one of the largest anhydrous-ammonia tanks in the county in the middle of the night. Sure enough, the deputy started tailing them.

O’Dell turned onto a side road. Before the deputy could make the turn, his cousin tossed the propane tank into a cornfield. The deputy stopped them within minutes, after determining that the Escort’s license plate had expired. My friend here just got in a fight with his girlfriend, so I’m taking him home, O’Dell fibbed. He had a .32 Mauser pistol tucked in the small of his back and a Colt revolver stashed under the passenger seat, byproducts of drug-fueled paranoia.

“I was a little guy — I thought everyone was out to get me, so I had to be armed,” he explains.

Step out of the vehicle, please, the deputy asked. Then he wanted to search the car. Sorry, sir, O’Dell said. I don’t own this car, so I can’t give permission. The deputy peered inside, flashlight in hand. Suddenly he drew his weapon. He’d spotted the revolver, which had slid backward and was now on the back floorboard, in plain view.

The deputy ordered both men to put their hands on the roof of the car. Then he told O’Dell to reach inside and shut off the engine. Instead of the ignition, O’Dell went for the shifter. He put the car in gear and hopped inside, along with his cousin. The deputy chased for about a half-mile before O’Dell bailed into a cornfield.

O’Dell’s cousin wasn’t much help — he stayed behind and told police who they were looking for and where they might find him. Nonetheless, O’Dell was starting to catch some breaks. A pair of police dogs couldn’t find him. Instead of his girlfriend’s house, where police figured he’d go, he went the opposite direction — straight back to the farm-supply depot. He was in luck. A depot employee had left a company pickup truck parked with the keys inside, plus a work shirt he could use as a disguise. He was on the brink of freedom.

But then O’Dell made a huge mistake: He headed back to the cornfield, which was still surrounded by police.

“I had a pickup, so I thought I should go back and get the propane tank,” he explains. “This is meth — this is how messed up your brain is.”

O’Dell tried to cover his face as he drove around a roadblock and through a ditch. He returned to the road, then took a hard turn straight into the corn, right in front of police. Deputies found the truck ditched about a quarter-mile into the field, less than 100 yards from the propane tank.

Still, dogs couldn’t track him, nor could the search plane find him. But his luck was running out faster than the drugs were wearing off. Shortly after noon, a state trooper spotted O’Dell entering a cornfield nearly two miles away. Police found him hiding under a 500-gallon propane tank next to a grain bin. After nine hours of hide-and-go-seek, O’Dell was finally busted.

Jail time

O’Dell wasn’t finished running. About a month after his arrest, he escaped from jail. It wasn’t particularly difficult.

“I just walked out the back door,” he says.

He spent three days on the lam, getting lost and walking along railroad tracks in jailhouse slippers until his feet were in agony.

“All I could think of was getting high,” he recalls. “I figured I could steal a car or something — make a batch and leave the state.”

He made it to Arthur, a town about 15 miles from the jail, before he was caught. He ended up pleading guilty to attempted manufacture of methamphetamine, escape, and unlawful use of firearms. Prosecutors in other counties piled on two drug charges and a firearms offense stemming from other brushes with the law. O’Dell pleaded guilty to everything.

Less than three years after cooking his first batch and becoming a full-time tweaker, O’Dell was going to prison for as long as a decade. It was about time — and O’Dell knew it.

“He actually said he was glad he got caught because he knew that if he kept it up, he’d wind up dead,” says Marvin Hanson, former Moultrie County public defender.

Hanson knows criminals. He’s gone from public defender to state’s attorney in Moultrie County, and he easily recalls O’Dell’s case.

“I represented 200-or-so clients a year, and he stuck out,” Hanson says. “Very few were as intelligent as Mr. O’Dell. He was one of the very few who struck me as having half a brain.”

O’Dell’s love affair with meth started in the bars where he played guitar and sang in bands. He’d play country-western or anything else that paid, but mostly it was Rush, Led Zeppelin, and other classic rock, cranked out in small-town bars.

“I wanted to be a rock star — I thought I was a rock star,” he says.

Bumps of crank and cocaine came with the gigs — there was always, it seemed, someone who wanted to get the band high. He didn’t go overboard until a buddy introduced him to a cook who had all the equipment but needed a place to set up a lab. O’Dell offered up his parents’ house in the country.

“I thought, ‘This is great — I can get free drugs and I can make some money,’ ” O’Dell says.

Before long, he was cooking every day.

“I did more than I ever sold,” he says. “After a while, it wasn’t about money at all. I could do it all the time. I could stay up for a week.”

His obsession with meth forced nearly everything else out of his life. He stopped playing gigs and made an occasional buck giving piano lessons. He remembers his hands’ swelling up from playing keyboards for 16 hours straight, tweaked out of his gourd and unable to stop. Something had to give, and, in this case, it was O’Dell’s freedom.

Treatment and a chance

O’Dell was sentenced to seven years for the attempted-manufacturing charge, with three years tacked on for the escape. Everything else would run concurrently.

Shortly after arriving at the Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, he entered a drug-treatment program. O’Dell’s motives weren’t entirely pure.

For every three months a prisoner spends in treatment, he gets 45 days knocked off his sentence. But it isn’t easy.

Instead of watching television all day, O’Dell had to rise early. His days were tightly structured, with half spent in group therapy and the other half on vocational assignments. Prisoners in drug treatment are segregated from the general population, so he couldn’t hang out with anyone he chose. Shirts are tucked in and swearing isn’t allowed. O’Dell had never been to prison before, and he says that he did his time without committing any infractions — if he misbehaved, he risked being expelled from the treatment program.

It’s a bit like boot camp, says John Pugliese, vice president of program initiatives at the Gateway Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that holds the contract to provide drug treatment in Illinois prisons.

“You’re not only responsible for yourself, you’re responsible for the entire living unit,” he says. “There are very high behavior expectations.”

By all accounts, it worked for O’Dell.

“He completely turned his life around,” says Brenda O’Dell, his mother. “The drug program they have there is excellent. I think it was a godsend he got sent there.”

At last, O’Dell saw hope. Instead of spending a decade in prison, he’d be out in less than four years. And he wasn’t buying what guards and fellow inmates always said.

“Everybody tells you: When you get out, you’re not going to be able to find a job; you’re going to fail,” O’Dell says. “I knew I could make it. I knew I could do what I had to do.”

Then, in January 2003, after two years of treatment, the Department of Corrections informed him that a mistake had been made. The drug-treatment carrot was designed for less serious criminals than him. Meth cooks, including anyone convicted of attempted manufacturing, can’t earn sentence reductions for undergoing treatment, so the 325 days of good time he’d earned were being wiped from the books.

Even so, O’Dell remained in treatment, although he knew that he wouldn’t be rewarded with any more sentence reductions. He also hired a lawyer and sued the Department of Corrections, demanding that the state restore the good time that had been rescinded.

In March 2004, a Montgomery County judge ruled in his favor, essentially saying that a deal is a deal and noting that O’Dell had lived up to his end of the bargain by successfully participating in drug treatment. He was promptly released from prison — but the state didn’t give up. The Department of Corrections appealed the circuit court’s decision.

While the state pushed to put him back behind bars, O’Dell proved everyone’s predictions wrong. He got a job as a bartender in Mattoon and spent less than a month living with his parents after his release.

“I didn’t want to live off anybody,” he says.

He says that his parole officer objected to his working in a bar and told him that sort of employment would be terminated as soon as he made a mistake. But O’Dell didn’t screw up.

At least once a month, O’Dell took a random urine test. Even though he had no parole violations, the Department of Corrections ordered him onto electronic detention three months after he was freed from prison. O’Dell was allowed to work but was otherwise required to stay at home. He did that for nine months before he was allowed to remove the monitoring bracelet. In a to-whom-this-may-concern letter written in November, a parole officer says that O’Dell was in “total compliance” and that he was released from electronic detention because of his “excellent adjustment while on parole.”

In the just-the-facts-ma’am nomenclature of the Department of Corrections, parole officer Richard Smith practically gushes.

“It is my opinion that Mr. Thomas O’Dell is a model for all parolees to follow, by not only meeting the conditions of parole, but going above and beyond his responsibility to be in compliance with those conditions,” Smith writes.

O’Dell’s son, now 11, moved in with him last year. He’d been struggling in school, O’Dell’s friends and family say, but his grades improved after he started living with his dad. And O’Dell didn’t make a career out of bartending.

While on electronic monitoring, he got a job selling residential air-ventilation systems, following up on contacts made by telemarketers. He wasn’t satisfied with that, so he landed a job last September selling advertising for the Cromwell Group of Illinois, a consortium of radio stations. He wore a suit and tie every day. His colleagues say that he was a born salesman who had management potential.

“He was here every morning before everybody else,” says Kathie St. Clair, business manager for the Cromwell Group.  It took him a while, but, at age 33, O’Dell had finally grown up. Then he got the worst possible news.

Back to jail

In November, an appellate court ruled in the state’s favor, overruling the judge who had set O’Dell free. O’Dell would have to go back to prison to serve another 325 days.

His family, his friends, and his supervisors at the radio station wrote letters to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, begging for mercy.

“He is always on time (and in most cases comes in early), follows through on tasks and goes the extra mile for our company, working many weekends and evenings,” wrote Carol Floyd, market manager for the Cromwell Group. “Tom O’Dell has been a great addition to our team, and I have never regretted bringing him on board, as he represents our company in the manner that is expected of all employees.”

In the end, it didn’t matter that O’Dell had been free for nearly two years without a single sign of trouble. It didn’t matter that he’d become a taxpayer. It didn’t matter that his son needed him. It didn’t matter that so many people saw so much potential.

“One day, he wasn’t there at the door smiling when I walked in,” St. Clair says.

On Jan. 10, at 4:30 a.m., O’Dell got a phone call. The cops and a parole officer were at his door to pick him up. Fortunately, his son was spending the night at his mother’s house, so he didn’t have to see his father being taken away in handcuffs.

“It was a big tactical move, like I’m going on the run,” he says. “They could have just called and said, ‘We’re taking you back to prison; meet us somewhere.’ ”

Nine days later, Gov. Rod Blagojevich admitted that the state wasn’t winning its war on drugs, even though Illinois has some of the toughest meth laws in the nation. During his State of the State speech, he announced that the state will expand drug treatment in prison for meth users.

“What we’ve learned is that, like other addicts, most meth users go to jail, serve their time, come out, and they’re addicted again,” the governor told lawmakers in the annual address. “This means they’ll receive treatment. They’ll receive counseling. They’ll receive job training. And they’ll have a better chance of leaving prison without the drug addiction that threatens our communities.”

O’Dell smiles at the irony as he sits in a visiting room at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center, where he spends 20 hours a day in a cell with nothing to do but read. It costs taxpayers $15,500 a year to keep O’Dell in this human warehouse, which is one step below maximum security and considerably more restrictive than the prison he was in before. He’s also farther from home, which makes it difficult for friends and family to visit.

“They sent me to the worst possible place they could send me,” he says.

Corrections officials say that rules are rules and that the system worked as it was designed to in O’Dell’s case.

“By statute, certain offenses are prohibited from getting good-conduct credit,” says Dede Short, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “This is a time-calculation issue. The circuit court gave him the time. We disagreed all along, and we appealed it. Inmates have a right to file suit. We have the right to appeal.”

O’Dell thinks that the system should figure out a different way. He’d do just about anything to be free.

“Think how much community service they could get out of me,” he says. “I did everything in my power to make sure I wouldn’t come back. The first instinct is to rebel — I did all this for nothing. I’ve been clean since 2000. My life was great because I stayed away from that stuff.”

If nothing else, O’Dell says, he could encourage other inmates to stay sober at the new methamphetamine-treatment units the governor has touted — show them that life with a felony record doesn’t have to be a dead end.

“How great would that story be to people who have no hope?” he asks.

Short won’t say why O’Dell is at Pinckneyville instead of a less restrictive facility.

“It could be bed availability; it could be programs,” she says. “IDOC can place an inmate at its discretion at any facility. “It was thought it was appropriate to place him there for now.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com. 

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