Victims show drug offenders the consequences of their actions

Jeff - no last name, please - is fidgety.

Cradling a giant bottle of Coke, he squirms in a straight-backed chair in a classroom at the Family Support Council office in Gardnerville as recovering drug addict Mark Lera asks the half-dozen court-ordered participants about manipulation.

"Manipulation?" says Jeff. "It's using anybody to get what you want. Cold-hearted son of a bitch."

He pauses for a moment.

"Sorry for my foul mouth," he says, offering no further explanation.

Lera is unflappable.

In recovery for eight years, the 45-year-old has dealt with hundreds of Jeffs at the thousands of meetings he's attended or facilitated.

This night, he and Orita Keebaugh are in charge of Victims Educating Drug Offenders (VEDO), a monthly meeting organized by the Family Support Council.

The new program was patterned after the Victim Impact Panel started by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to deal with DUI offenders.

Jeff is attending with a young man he identifies as his son who was ordered to the meeting under Douglas County's Alternative Sentencing Program.

There are five other people at the meeting, including a mother and her young daughter, two boys who know each other and Jared Thomas, 24, who drove down from Reno.

Some are willing to identify themselves but it's not required.

It's a typical cross-section of convicted offenders for the two-hour meeting.

Lera explained how he conned himself into believing he was enjoying the life until his wife showed up to visit him at Douglas County Jail in December 1998 with their three children, ages 1, 2, and 7.

"The kids were pounding on the glass, crying. I couldn't do one thing. I was powerless. I swore I would never let that happen again."

And that's when Lera made the decision to halt his 25 years of drug and alcohol abuse in favor of recovery.

"Within a few months, I found myself doing it (recovery) for me," he said.

Thomas is new to a substance-free life and he knows how fragile recovery is.

"I'm going to meetings three or four times a day," he said. "They told me to chase sobriety out there like you're chasing the bag or the bottle."

Thomas answered affirmatively when Lera asked what substances attendees favored. Methamphetamine? Marijuana? Cocaine? Alcohol? Denial? All of the above?

"By the grace of God I am sober," he volunteered.

A lost son

Participants may ask questions at the meeting, but they are there to listen.

Even the most disaffected attendee had to be touched by Keebaugh's story of her 40-year-old son Clayton's drug abuse and how it twisted her life.

"My son was the most handsome child and young man you'd ever seen," she said. "Clay was generous, tender, kind, and caring. People were drawn to him because of his charisma."

She said as her own marriage disintegrated, her son started to smoke marijuana and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

He moved up to cocaine and thievery to support his habits, eventually landing in the juvenile justice system.

He missed his middle school graduation because he was in detention and eventually he dropped out of high school.

Clayton Keebaugh was sent to prison at San Quentin where his mother shared the story of visiting her son behind bars.

"It was the most horrifying, demoralizing, shameful experience I ever had," she said.

"I was having a conversation with someone I didn't know anymore. What day did I lose my son?"

He got married and has a son.

"His son is hurt the most," she said. "That little guy loved to be with his daddy. He looks just like Clay."

He served his sentence in California, returned to Nevada where he committed a burglary, and was sent back to prison.

Keebaugh said she hasn't spoken to Clayton for years. She's not sure when he's due to be released.

"We have no contact whatsoever," she said. "But not a day goes by that I don't think of my son and think of him with sadness.

"I ask myself, 'What did I do?' then a small voice says it isn't me. It's the drugs," she said.

"My only hope is that Clay becomes the person I knew he is inside with the capacity to love deeply and the capacity to figure out why he's spent nearly half his life locked up."

Speaking directly to the young offenders, Keebaugh said there is a commonality mothers share.

"We have felt you move before you were ever born. We went through physical pain to bring you into the world. You take drugs not to feel pain, but you're missing the best part of your life living and loving," she said.

Lera talked about how he used drugs with Clayton Keebaugh long before he met Orita and learned about the impact their behavior had on her.

"Think how hard it is being a parent," he said. "There are mothers and fathers involved, it's not just about you.

"My story is just a war story. But this is not about how big or how bad you are. It's about the hurt you caused other people."

Alternative to jail

Lera said help is available in Carson Valley every day.

"If you think nobody cares about you, you're wrong. We wouldn't be here spending our own time if we didn't. You know what tough love is? Being hard on somebody? Try a little tough love on yourself."

He encouraged the offenders not to waste more opportunities for sobriety.

"The judges, the District Attorney's Office, the probation officers, they all want you to wake up before you end up in prison," Lera said.

That is one of the philosophies behind the program, according to East Fork Judge Jim EnEarl who orders first- and second-time drug offenders to attend.

"I hate to see young people, especially, going to prison," EnEarl said. "There isn't a judge in this county who doesn't feel exactly the same way."

The judges and the District Attorney's Office try to get first-time, misdemeanor offenders into the Department of Alternative Sentencing where they are tested, monitored, sometimes ordered into rehabilitation and kept out of jail as long as they don't reoffend.

Even with more than 40 years in law enforcement and on the bench, EnEarl said he was unprepared for the deluge of drug offenders he's seen in the last 10 years.

"I never thought methamphetamine would reach the acceptance level and widespread use it has here. It crosses every generation. I see offenders from 18 to 65 years old," EnEarl said.

He doesn't know if programs like the drug offenders' sessions will work, but he won't stop trying.

"Every so often you have somebody you were about to write off turn around. For some reason, this time it worked for this person," EnEarl said.

"Is VEDO going to save anybody? I don't know. But we can't keep filling up jails and prisons."


Victims Educating Drug Offenders meets the third Monday of each month from 6-8 p.m. at the Family Support Council, 1255 Waterloo Lane, Gardnerville. Court-ordered offenders pay $25, but the meetings are free to community members who wish to attend. Co-ordinator Shannon Harris is also looking for volunteer panel members. Information, 782-8692.


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