Bath Salts in the Wound

How a Plague of Ladybug Attractant Ravaged Roanoke, Virginia

By Rob Fischer

When Brittany Cross’s mother, Tina Crockett, died during an Amped binge in April, Brittany was left to make funeral arrangements by herself as her father and stepfather both continued using the drug.

The Roanoke Star is western Virginia’s answer to the Hollywood sign. Erected in 1949, it is perched atop a ridge south of the city, blasting 17,500 watts of neon out over the mountainous region. I traveled to Roanoke three days after tobacco stores pulled bath salts from the shelves. The glow of the star shimmered above the duplex rooftops of Southeast Roanoke, a pristine light illuminating the area’s uniform neglect. People sat on teetering porches smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of beer, laughing, and shouting with passersby on the streets.

In Roanoke’s tobacco-store parking lots, a semblance of normalcy had returned. “The last few days [after the bath salts ban] customers were peeling out of the parking lot all pissed and disappointed,” Barham said. At all the tobacco shops, people said the same thing. The cops confiscated it. All gone. After the seizures, TV-news crews were nosing around the shops. Store owners sensed the coming vilification, and they were skittish. Outside D.K. Tobacco, a guy who looked like Kevin Smith but who wished to remain anonymous said he would tell me the whole story of Amped, for a price. “I injected it into people’s arms. Shit destroyed them,” he said.

After searching high and low for a sample of Amped and turning up empty-handed, I ended up at About Time tattoo shop around 10 PM. Out front, a crowd hanging out by a pair of parked cars gave off a malevolent vibe. Inside the atmosphere was lively. The owner, Randall “Hooter” Horton, said he had been tattooing in Roanoke for 27 years. When his patrons overheard that I was there to research a story about bath salts, they shouted over each other to share their grisly tales: a cell mate throwing his mother down the stairs; a family friend hospitalized for jumping off his roof; a girl biting her mom. Hooter said that he had once watched a friend shoot Amped in his bathroom. “I was like, really? You plunge the stuff?” His friend said it was legal, and assured Hooter he had it under control. But Hooter couldn’t imagine himself injecting the contents of those cartoonish little packets. “Never would have occurred to me it could take someone down like that,” he said.

Hooter (left) and PeeWee outside the About Time tattoo shop in Southeast Roanoke.

The next day, while walking through the Southeast, I met a couple in their late 40s—Mike Williamson and Debra Sue Hoffman. They suspected bath salts were behind the bizarre behavior of one of their neighbors who they recently spotted out in his front yard, pounding his chest like a gorilla and hollering that he was going to kill somebody. At another house I visited, a pretty blond 18-year-old named Jessica said, “Most
people thought of it as a fake drug, and never expected it to hurt anyone.” Her cousin who used Amped developed a blood clot in his brain. Another guy who was young enough for acne to still be a problem said that two weeks earlier his cousin flipped out on Snowman and ended up in jail after launching himself through a window.

A kid named Michael in a Mets hat with satan scrawled in black underneath offered to walk me downtown, which is the Southeast’s euphemism for the Rescue Mission, a nearby homeless shelter. The Salvation Army, which is next to the mission, came into view with its neon-lit jesus saves cross. Half a dozen small groups milled about in front of the shelter. Two doughy guys, maybe in their mid-20s and wearing trendy mall gear, were standing around. I introduced myself to one of them, who said he had tried Amped, but it wasn’t as terrible as its reputation would lead one to believe. A car pulled up and his friend tapped him on the shoulder. They had to go. “That’s the D-boy,” Michael whispered.

“The D-boy?”
“The drug dealer,” he said.

I continued on to a gas station down the street where crack-heads often hung out. It was early evening, but the sun was still beating down on the modest office buildings of downtown. A small group was tooling around on a vacant stretch of asphalt. I asked a man who looked like an unwrapped mummy about Amped. He said he had done it, and liked it, because he could snort it, smoke it, or shoot it. His friend, a shrunken fellow with bloodshot eyes, jostled up and told him not to talk to me. He ignored his buddy’s request, which made him more agitated and prompted him to grab a box cutter from the dirt and thumb the release mechanism. “Ah! It ain’t got no blade in it!” he moaned, throwing it back onto the ground before the pair walked away.

The next day, I met a guy named Tweeker who lives on top of a hill in the Southeast. Tweeker said he only tried Amped once. He and his friends didn’t have any weed, so they bought a half gram and roamed around the neighborhood all night. “It was too heavy for me,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.” I asked him what made Amped different from other hard drugs. “You don’t expect that change from something from a store.”

A 2011 study found bath salts induced serotonin and dopamine levels on par with ecstasy and crystal meth. Both drugs were legally available before they ignited national epidemics. And while bath salts seem particularly insidious now, some evidence supports that they are worse than their forebears. Compared to MDMA and methamphetamine, bath salts require more frequent dosing to maintain the high. At the same time, substituted cathinones cause more powerful adrenaline rushes, so the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in earlier and stronger than other stimulants. But these technical distinctions overshadow the question about drugs in general: Why are certain people, of all ages, so desperate to take them?

Michael (left) with Tweeker outside his home in Southeast Roanoke.

Later on I found myself at Tweeker’s house, along with Michael. Tweeker’s younger brother had gotten a remote control helicopter caught in a tree and Tweeker climbed up to retrieve it. Michael assisted by tossing a sneaker up to try to dislodge it, but he quickly gave up and lit a cigarette on the stoop.

The sun set over the mountains, infusing the sky with orange and pink while straight ahead the Roanoke Star loomed over the city. I asked Michael why he thought so many people tried Amped. “I guess when you live in this kind of economy, everybody is fiending for every little thing they can get their hands on,” he said, and took a drag of his cigarette.

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