Life of crime, addiction
VINCENT- – Silence settled over Lynn Laing’s normally talkative third period health class Wednesday as Dan Baxter walked to the front of the room.
Hands shackled together, clothed in orange, accompanied by a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy, Baxter is a jarring site for most of the Warren High School students, and he knows it.
“I see the way everybody looked when I first walked in,” Baxter, 24, told the class.
But despite their first impressions of the Washington County Jail inmate, Baxter goes on to paint a picture of himself that is not so different from the students seated before him.
As a Belpre High School graduate with a promising collegiate athletic career, all that separated Baxter from the students listening to him is a chain of bad choices-choices that didn’t even seem so bad at the time.
Baxter’s candid detailing of his fall into drug abuse is a story that he has shared with hundreds of elementary and high school students around Washington County over the past couple of weeks as part of a program implemented by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and its D.A.R.E.(Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Program, explained Washington County Sheriff’s deputy and D.A.R.E. Officer Craig Brockmeier.
For the past five years, the program has been bringing select inmates to share their stories in local schools, mainly focusing on fifth- and sixth-graders in the D.A.R.E. Program, he added.
“Books are great, but something hands-on they respond to,” he said.
For Baxter, the experience is a chance to change students’ perceptions. Though embarrassing for him, if he can divert just one student from making the choices that sunk him then he considers the talks a success, he said.
And so he starts with his first experience with drugs-smoking marijuana at 13. That drug habit ultimately led him to lose his starting position on the Ohio University basketball team and got him suspended from college.
“I started dating a girl that was big into Vicodin, Xanax, opiates,” he said.
To stay close to her, Baxter molded his lifestyle to hers and started taking pills.
“I didn’t go back to school. I got addicted to pills,” he said.
As his addiction and tolerance to the pills grew, Baxter made the jump to doing heroin and then selling drugs to fund his expensive habit.
“I could make $10,000 selling heroin in three days, but my habit was just as expensive. I was spending $2,000 a day to get high,” he recalled.
But it was a $30 bag of heroin that Baxter watched nearly snuff out the life of his son’s mother.
“I watched her face turn blue. I went into the kitchen and poured some water on her. She still wasn’t breathing. Finally I punched her in the chest. That’s what you do when someone is overdosing on heroin to restart their heart. I probably broke a few of her ribs, but she wouldn’t let me take her to the hospital. Me being a heroin addict, I didn’t want to take her. I didn’t want to get in trouble,” he recalled.
Now that woman is facing two to 10 years in prison in West Virginia. With Baxter set to serve another 190 days in jail, his oldest son is being raised with no parents, he said.
Though they stayed quiet, Laing said she could see the wheels turning as her students listened to Baxter’s story, and the students said the reality of the talk hit hard.
“It changed my perspective on a lot of things,” said 17-year-old Tamia Grant, a junior. “I never knew (marijuana) was a gateway drug, not as extreme as that.”
Sophomore Brittni Cline, 16, said she had never considered the fact that the prisoners at the local jail included graduates from as nearby as Belpre and even her own high school.
“You hear a lot about it, but you think that’s not going to happen to people I know,” she said.
While the high school students quietly chewed on the message, Brockmeier said elementary students are typically much more vocal after the prisoner talks.
Several students took Brockmeier up on the opportunity to write letters to Baxter after he spoke, and those letters have stuck with him, he said.
“It helps me a lot too,” he said of the experience. “Those notes from those kids, they don’t know how much I look at them.”