A life gone bad

Jamie France was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World in 2009 as a high school senior. Now 23, she was charged this week with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance.

Jamie France was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World in 2009 as a high school senior. Now 23, she was charged this week with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance.

Ex-Oregon teen pageant winner among 3 arrested in Keizer drug bust”

That’s the kind of headline that turns readers into rubberneckers and invites ridicule. But behind every set of mug shots like these lies a sad story.

In this case, it’s the sudden freefall of a former teen pageant winner who was one of three people arrested this week after a raid where cops found heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Just five years earlier, Jamie France was a high school senior who was crowned Miss Teen Oregon-World. On Tuesday, at age 23, she was charged with possession of meth, heroin and a controlled substance. Earlier this year, an astute reader pointed out, she was one of two drivers who were both cited for DUII following a head-on crash in the wee hours on a major highway about 25 miles west of Portland.

How, when and why a young woman of such promise got hooked on nasty, hard drugs is baffling. But the takeaway for me is the same as what I experienced a day earlier, when I was reporting on the suspicious death of a 39-year-old man whose body was found in a car in a ditch outside a small, desolate town in Kansas.

In short, a life gone bad.

***

And why would I be reporting on a dead man in Kansas?

Turns out the guy was originally from Portland. Find out what you can about him, my editors said. See if you can talk to any of his Portland relatives.

In short order, with the help of our crack news researcher, I learned the man had been sentenced to prison two years earlier for dealing meth. He’d been put on probation in lieu of a prison sentence, but had absconded in late October. Local authorities in Kansas said they had identified three “persons of interest” in his death. Hmmm. Might these suspicious characters have equally sketchy backgrounds? Might they also be involved with hard drugs?

I called the man’s aunt in Portland, offered my condolences and asked, gently, what she could tell me about her nephew. She hadn’t seen him in more than 20 years, she said, but she knew he’d been in trouble. He’d done 10 years in a Idaho prison for grand theft, she told me. She was aware he’d been busted in Kansas.

Her nephew left Portland shortly after high school. Never married but had a girlfriend and an adult daughter from another relationship, both living in Missouri. The aunt said her sister-in-law had simply quit being a mom to this guy and his brother when they were still kids. Other family members stepped in to raise the boys. Things hadn’t turned out much better for the other brother, she said.

“There were issues in his life that he couldn’t overcome,” she said of her nephew. “Let’s just say he didn’t land in fertile ground.”

It was a sad story, she said with a raspy voice, but not uncommon.

I agreed, thinking of countless inmates across the country. How so many lives have gone bad. How each of their families have had their hopes and hearts broken.

“How will you remember your nephew?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m not clear about that. It’s a sad situation.”

I hung up the phone, consulted with my editors. Forget about it, they said. No need to flesh out a story on a methhead with tenuous connections to Portland. No need to subject a family to further pain.

It was the right call, of course.

Barely 24 hours later, news of the one-time teen pageant winner crossed my screen. Even before I saw the before-and-after photos, and even before I read the details of her arrest, I knew how I’d react.

Another life gone bad.

***

By the way, The Washington Post reported last year that:

– The U.S. prison population is more than 2.4 million.

– That’s more than quadrupled since 1980.

– That means more than one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.

– About 14 percent of the prison population is in federal prison.

– The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.

***

Photographs: Keizer Police Department

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4 thoughts on “A life gone bad

  1. Our system is broken. Young people who face mental health challenges are not getting the help they need, so they make poor choices and self-medicate with illegal and often deadly drugs. They face stigma, discrimination, neglect and abuse. One in four Americans faces mental health challenges. It is estimated that more than fifty percent of American prisoners suffer from depression, mania and psychotic illness. Systems should be in place to find and assist children who are experiencing these types of problems in the schools, before symptoms become full-blown and sometimes untreatable. There is an enormous disparity between our current understanding of mental health issues and the way our society deals with them. This is a case of “Perhaps if we ignore it, it will go away.” These difficulties have plagued humanity since our species began and they will not go away without a shift in societal responsibility. Advocacy and a change in mental health care attitudes focusing on prevention and treatment are critical but there is no groundswell of public opinion. Taking care of people with mental health issues is expensive and resources are scarce. We need to change the way we educate, house and employ our most vulnerable citizens. We need to make a commitment to research and development of treatment options. When will mainstream public health policies and societal attitudes catch up with our country’s mental health needs?

    • I so appreciate your comments, Patricia. You’re thoughtful, compassionate and constructive. Agree with everything you say.

      In this young woman’s case, I can only speculate what tipped her in this direction: poor self-esteem, recklessness, some sort of void she thought the drugs might fill? Ultimately, I imagine you’re right. Something not quite right with her mental health. Hopefully, she’s young enough to make an effort to overcome the addiction.

  2. Having spent almost 35 years in the prevention and treatment of substance use in California, I’ve learned there is no single contributing factor to what causes a young, aspiring and presumably talented young woman to fall into chronic addiction. But, I assure you that whoever introduced her to meth and heroin knew they were cultivating a life-long customer.

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