Oelwein – The story of Oelwein is on Jeffrey Rohrick’s face. It was nearly burned off when he blew up chemicals in his mom’s home while high on methamphetamine. Doctors did their best to reconstruct his face and nose after the fire. Rohrick is the visual, sensational aspect of the meth scourge that rattled Iowa through the 1990s and beyond, but Oelwein’s deeper story is enmeshed in 25 years of economic and social decline and its battle to reconstruct itself.
Author Nick Reding, 37, told that story in the new book “Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town” (Bloomsbury, $25). Oelwein doesn’t pop into most Iowans’ minds as a setting for a book on meth – not like notorious Ottumwa – although it was known in northeast Iowa as “Methlehem.” Reding, a Missouri native whose father was originally from Algona, lived in New York City when he found Oelwein in 2005. At the time, Iowa was second in the nation for meth lab busts – 1,370 in 2004. He was led to Oelwein after a conversation with a physician, Clay Hallberg, who told Reding of seeing the burn victims of meth lab explosions.
Hallberg and Rohrick, whose name was changed in the book, an idealistic young assistant county attorney and a battling mayor, became the central characters of the book. ”Everything you read about meth is these crazy addicts and the crazy things they do, this super horrible stuff,” said Reding, who today lives in St. Louis. “To me that’s a sliver of the story … and I’ve seen that. The bigger story is the collateral damage, what it does on a community-wide scale.”
Walk the newly streetscaped main street of Oelwein today and hardly anyone knows a book came out last month from a major publisher identifying it as “Methland.” But few were surprised, and not upset, that the doctor, the lawyer, the addict and the mayor shared it.
Dr. Clay Hallberg, a slight man with salt-and-pepper hair and round spectacles who uses epic struggles in Greek mythology to describe rural Iowa, stands under old oak trees in his acreage on Oelwein’s outskirts. Cows graze nearby. He blames the farm crisis for the meth crisis. His father was a doctor in Oelwein for decades. As small farms died and big corporations ruled the economic chain of goods, he said, his father pulled four plastic bags off suicidal farmers. ”These people were depressed,” Hallberg said. The town’s population began a swift decline in the 1980s, from nearly 8,000 to 6,100 today. Empty storefronts littered the main street and low-wage jobs predominated, Nick Reding wrote in “Methland.”
Meth helped them medicate their financial and mental troubles, Hallberg said. The powerful drug is made with a few common items, including the ingredients in cold medicines. Meth also helped them feel better and work double shifts at low-paying jobs to make ends meet. ”The farm crisis began a period of extreme vulnerability in small towns which the agriculture business, particularly meat packing, took advantage of,” Reding said. “They increased the economic vulnerability. There was a lot of poverty.”
When the drugs took hold, the doctor worked overtime to help people battle the health effects of its use. People were aging before his eyes. ”I started seeing five, 10 people dying in their 40s,” he said. Meanwhile, the overworked doctor was fighting his own troubles with alcohol use. The external forces in the economy were trouble enough, now the town’s citizens faced an inner battle with substance abuse. Many just left. The first to leave, Hallberg told Reding in the book, were those with education and money.
“What you’re left with – and I’m sorry, OK? – doesn’t qualify Oelwein High as a feeder school for Harvard, OK?”
Mayor Larry Murphy comes from a large, working-class family in Dubuque loaded with politicians. His brother Pat Murphy is today Speaker of the Iowa House. Larry served as Fayette County supervisor in Oelwein before 12 years as a state senator. He returned to Oelwein eight years ago and witnessed two teen-age girls making a drug buy on a busy downtown street. ”I realized I’ve got to do something,” he said of running for mayor. The town that grew up along the railroad, which ceased operation in the 1990s, had lost more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 20 years, Murphy said, and the percentage of children eligible for free school lunch rose from 20 to 80 percent. Half the storefronts were vacant and home values sank in a town with a proud working-class past of Scandinavian immigrants in the 1800s and Irish and Italians in the early 1900s.
A couple meth labs were busted each week. There were smaller indicators, no less stark to Murphy. The number of men’s slow pitch softball league teams dropped from 20 to 6. It was the collateral damage that Reding found in a town defined by its meth problem. ”It was most troubling to see this collective low self-esteem, this shamed feeling, especially in a place like Iowa where hard work means a lot,” he said. “People started feeling kind of puny on a community level and that’s hard, man.” Murphy gathered a group of community leaders early on and made a list: improve health care, land more well-paying jobs and, at the top of the list, slow the meth problem. He hired a new police chief, Jeremy Logan, who began a series of raids on home-grown labs. Among the chased was Rohrick.
By 2001, Jeffrey Rohrick had been using drugs for 20 years, his use shifting to meth in the 1990s. He was married, had four children, and worked at a local packing plant, often 13 hours a day to make ends meet.
Meth kept him awake for days. But on a winter night in 2001, he poured chemicals associated with meth manufacture down the drain, convinced the cops were raiding his mother’s place, Reding wrote. Then he lit a cigarette. The place exploded in a chemical fire and he ran outside in flames. He described it last month sitting on a lawn chair in the front yard of his mother Connie Rohrick’s new house, purchased after the fire with insurance money. He yelled about how nobody would help him as sheets of skin sloughed off his badly burned body.
“They wanted me to die,” he said. “Everyone else was yelling, ‘Stay back! Meth lab!’ I had to run a block and a half to put myself in the ambulance.” His nose was all but gone, 80 percent of his body burned. He begged the cops to shoot him to end the pain. After 3½ months of surgeries in Iowa City, he returned, was busted for drugs and served time in prison. Out on parole, he shared his story with Reding to explain how meth ruined his life. Reding says Rohrick’s story, and that of rural Iowa, is a likely match for meth, which has a surprisingly deep history.
“It was used by soldiers and truck drivers and road workers who do physical labor,” he said. “I had always just thought of drugs as recreational. But when you look at the science of meth, it lends itself to being a working man’s drug. You don’t need to stop to eat, drink or sleep.” Rohrick, 42, said that’s why he did it. ”I call it 666. It’s the devil inside you. I wished I never did it. After the fire I couldn’t walk, see or go to the bathroom. I had to drink through a straw.”
Today, his face is disfigured, his hands are but reconstructed claws. He hurts. His life is reduced to sitting with his mother, waiting for his children to visit. But the narrative of Reding’s book turns on the comeback. Rohrick says he is trying hard to stay clean. That day, he was proud he had fixed the lawn mower and was cutting the lawn.
Nathan Lein is a local farm boy with a law degree who came back to his home in 2001 and stayed out of a sense of duty. When he saw boys riding mountain bikes with meth tied to the back, like Murphy he knew he had to do something. By 2005, issues around meth made up 95 percent of his cases. Standing 6-foot-9, Lein became a large figure in prosecuting meth makers. ”It was an epidemic. It was all over the town,” said Dorothy Rundle, who owns the Yankee Scoreboard bar on main street. A woman at the bar said a neighbor even had meth cooling in a child’s plastic swimming pool.
The book, Lein said, shows the human side of the conflict – not just Rohrick’s personal struggle, but Hallberg’s and his own relationship challenges as a young man just out of law school. Reding, who describes himself as a fiction writer weak on plot, took to the character study of non-fiction. For more than three years, he came to know Oelwein, staying up late into the night at local bars or watching addicts cook a batch. His reporting spread to other Iowa towns, interviewing Lori Arnold, an early drug lord in the 1980s in Ottumwa, he said. The sister of actor Tom Arnold is in federal prison but helped him walk through the drug network. The Ottumwa police led him to cartel sources.
New state laws limiting the sale of cold tablets used in meth production and ramped-up law enforcement helped Iowa towns including Oelwein fight low-level manufacturers. But the problem switched to Mexican cartels, Lein said. ”We’re fighting organized crime now,” Lein said. “Before, I just had to roll down the window and smell ether. Now it’s disappeared into the night. They have millions and the ability to threaten your life. We’ve had to get as sneaky as they are.”
Most here say the drug addiction problem still haunts the town. ”Just yesterday I was in court with a dad trying to get custody of his child,” Lein said. “He was on the stand tweaking.” Quick, jerky movements can be a symptom of meth use. While addicts still abound, the town’s recovery plan is beginning to work. Officials raised $3.4 million for a hospital expansion. A new performing arts center was built near the school. Superintendent Jim Patera said a new pride has taken hold.
“When a community feels run down, individuals feel the same way,” he said. “Education is the way out.” Murphy said the city has attracted 400 new jobs, including a new plastic-molding plant under construction. A manufacturer of a cancer-fighting drug took over the former meat-packing plant where Rohrick once worked. The jobs will pay between $14 and $25 an hour. The downtown is tended with a streetscape project that includes trees, lights and benches. Now only a few storefronts are empty.
“Opportunity is how you combat meth,” Murphy said. That’s why Reding changed his subtitle from “life and death” of a small town to “death and life.” ”There is a real sense of new life. If this is a book about the long-term decline of rural America, then Oelwein has turned it around,” Reding said. “The only way we can attack this is through the economy and hope the drug problem will be helped.”