Drug Court saga

billwagnerCowlitz County Drug Court saga takes a dark turn.

By Tony Lystra / The Daily News | Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 10:00 pm

Photo: Bill Wagner.

Don Pomerenke attended countless hours of group therapy, counseling sessions and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The government gave him a housing voucher so he could rent an apartment. And when Pomerenke graduated from Drug Court nearly a year ago, a judge shook his hand instead of sending him to prison.

But none of it was enough to keep the 41-year-old former cabinetmaker from getting high again.

Since completing the Drug Court program in June, Pomerenke has been fired from his job, dumped by his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, locked up for stealing NyQuil from Safeway and booted from his Kelso apartment for allegedly letting drug users live in his garage.

His Narcotics Anonymous sponsor said Pomerenke was even high while doing landscaping work last year at the home of Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning, who presides over Drug Court and has been one of Pomerenke’s biggest supporters. Pomerenke denied the allegation during an interview last week.

Pomerenke had been held up as one of the great success stories of the Drug Court program, which allows certain defendants facing nonviolent felony charges to avoid prison if they complete a rigorous treatment regimen. His involvement with the program helped him get housing and support from a broad coalition of counselors and community members, including a dentist who volunteered to pull his rotten teeth and replace them with bright, clean dentures — free of charge.

Before joining the program, Pomerenke had been living in a rickety shelter along the Cowlitz River and stealing metal to feed his meth and heroin habits. He said he racked up nearly 60 arrests, as well as four felony convictions. Yet, by the time he finished the Drug Court program, Pomerenke had strung together 16 months of sobriety.

At Pomerenke’s Drug Court graduation, Debbie Garvin, who oversees the program, called Pomerenke a “miracle” and told him, “You have such a heart. Please never go back out there. It will kill me.”

Last week, even as she insisted she wasn’t ready to give up on Pomerenke, Garvin called his story “a great success … and then a terrible fall.”

At the Drug Court program’s core is the belief that it’s cheaper and more beneficial to put addicts through recovery programs than lock them up. Garvin said it costs about $4,000 for a single defendant to complete the program, which is less expensive than the ongoing cycle of property crime, prosecution and incarceration wrought by drug addiction.

A 2004 study (the most recent available) showed that 90 percent of Cowlitz County Drug Court graduates had not committed a felony one year after finishing the program. Seventy-five percent of Drug Court graduates had not committed a felony three years after graduating.

But Pomerenke’s return to drug use is living proof of the intractable nature of the community’s drug problems and the difficulties addicts face, even after intense intervention from the courts and social services.

“The addiction is not gone. It’s waiting for you,” Garvin said. “It’s very disappointing and sad, but it’s the nature of the disease.”

Pomerenke said during an interview Wednesday that he has used drugs “probably three or four times” since he graduated from drug court last year. The last time, he said, was about a month-and-a-half ago. He declined to say what drugs he’d taken.

“I can do what I want as a grown adult,” he said.

Asked last week why he’s been getting high again, Pomerenke said, “Just to open my eyes again, I guess. … It was a friendly reminder of the past.”

Dennis McCracken, a Drug Court graduate and Pomerenke’s former Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, speculated that Pomerenke returned to drugs partly because he was no longer under the strict watch of Drug Court officials. McCracken said Pomerenke also lost his primary motivation to stay clean.

In March 2009, just months after Pomerenke joined Drug Court, his then-girlfriend gave birth to a methadone-addicted baby girl named Sativa Marie. The infant was treated in a hospital for detoxing infants, then placed in a foster home. Pomerenke believed he was Sativa’s father and set out to quit drugs, regain custody of the girl and raise her himself.

The baby seemed to bring out the best in Pomerenke. He stocked up on toys and kept a neat apartment. He fed the infant her bottle twice each week while visiting her under the supervision of Children’s Services officials.

But a DNA test revealed that Pomerenke was not Sativa’s father. He lost his rights to see the girl. He said he was devastated but vowed to continue his sobriety. “That girl made me want to change my life,” Pomerenke said when he graduated Drug Court. He had Sativa’s name, as well as a picture of a baby girl tucked into a flower, tattooed on his left shoulder. (Sativa is part of the species name for marijuana – cannabis sativa. But Pomerenke has said he chose it because it means “cultivated flower,” and not because it designates pot.)

McCracken said last week that the loss of Sativa “had everything in the world to do with Don going back out” — a common phrase in recovery circles for using drugs again.

Pomerenke would not have gotten high again if he “would have got that kid,” McCracken said.

Drug Court officials said they have been worried about Pomerenke for months.

Garvin said Pomerenke’s landlord called her in September, complaining that Pomerenke was letting drug users stay in a garage below the apartment. Garvin, who administers federal housing vouchers through the Drug Court program, said she called Pomerenke to her office and explained that she was taking away his voucher and that he’d have to find other housing.

She said last week that it was the only time she’s had to take such measures.

Pomerenke started bouncing in and out of the Cowlitz County Jail on misdemeanor citations. He was booked into the jail on Nov. 29 for third-degree driving with a suspended license. On Dec. 11, police said, Pomerenke bought groceries at the Kelso Safeway but didn’t pay for a bottle of NyQuil that he’d slipped into his pocket. He was sentenced to five days in jail.

McCracken, 40, said Pomerenke had done a great job working for his landscaping business, but things started to go awry in the late months of last year. Most significantly, McCracken said he discovered that Pomerenke had been high while doing landscaping work at Judge Warning’s residence.

That Pomerenke was high while working at the home of the Drug Court judge — the very judge who pardoned him of a felony heroin charge upon completion of the program — was simply too much.

“It was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’ “ McCracken said. “I had to let him go. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Last week, Pomerenke denied the accusation. He said he’s been living in a South Kelso apartment and taking odd maintenance jobs to pay rent. “I’m not out getting high every day,” he said. “I haven’t slipped back into my old habits yet. I ain’t going that way.”

Still, McCracken said he felt he’d failed as Pomerenke’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor – a supporter and confidant integral to 12-step support groups. McCracken said he hasn’t sponsored anyone in the program since.

On Wednesday morning, McCracken said, Pomerenke got in touch with him and asked for his old job back. McCracken said he’d try to get Pomerenke at least some work if he would submit to regular drug tests – much the way he had when he was enrolled in Drug Court.

He said he worried that Pomerenke’s decline would reflect badly on the program — and he wanted to give Pomerenke another chance.

“I love Don to death, and you can trust him if he’s not using,” McCracken said.

Warning said Thursday he still is willing to allow Pomerenke to work on his property again. “At this point I trust Dennis (McCracken’s) judgment,” Warning said. “He’s there. He sees Don.”

Garvin, too, said she wouldn’t give up on Pomerenke and insisted that “every dime” of public money, every bit of support Pomerenke had received from the community, was not wasted.

“I think we had an impact on him even though it hasn’t gone exactly like we hoped it would,” Garvin said. “He knows what to do. He knows where to go to get back into treatment.”

“We have to keep trying. We can’t give up on addicts. … I mean, Don’s a human being.”

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