LOVILIA, IA. — Rhonda McGee lives in an immaculate khaki-colored farmhouse with a white picket fence off Highway 5 in southeast Iowa.
McGee doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be part of a meth conspiracy.
Still, this is Iowa, ground zero for the book “Methland” and countless films and TV shows of the same ilk. None of us is exactly blown away to hear about lawyers, nursing home workers or farm wives caught using or making methamphetamine.
But I have to admit, McGee brought some compelling questions this month to the Reader’s Watchdog about the investigative techniques being used to bring down an alleged meth ring in southeast Iowa.
McGee and her supporters wanted to know how a person with no drug history could be arrested for buying too much allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine — without coming anywhere near the legal limits established in state code.
The case gained more import when some Des Moines lawyers reportedly advised clients they should back away from joining McGee in speaking out, for fear neither those clients nor McGee would get a fair trial.
McGee’s supporters wonder whether drug task force investigators are going on fishing expeditions since Iowa joined the controversial National Precursor Log Exchange, a pharmaceutical industry-backed database, as some groups like the ACLU of Iowa had feared.
Specifically: Did the Southeast Iowa Inter-Agency Drug Task Force and Assistant Wapello County Attorney Ashley Corkery go too far while trying to net McGee in a pseudoephedrine ring that made headlines in the region in January?
“It blows my mind that this can happen ... that someone has the power to do this,” McGee told me Tuesday, petting her well-cared-for lap dog, Reba, at her kitchen table. “I can’t say I’m proud to be an American anymore.”
Corkery, prosecutor in the case, and Tom McAndrew, who heads the southeast drug task force, told me they cannot talk about McGee’s case because of the ongoing investigation.
But Corkery said investigations of such rings typically go on years before any arrests are made.
McAndrew, an Ottumwa police lieutenant, said the task force had just gotten more evidence Tuesday, and investigators tell him there’s more there than meets the eye. He encouraged me to review the criminal allegations against McGee.
“We have all kinds of people buying pills to manufacture meth, and they buy under the state limit to stay under the radar,” he said.
Records filed in January allege that from Aug. 3, 2010, to Oct. 31, 2012, a span of more than two years, McGee “did unlawfully and willfully conspire with one or more persons to manufacture, deliver or possess with intent to deliver ... a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine.”
If true, the charges could amount to a 25-year prison sentence for McGee, who has one previous conviction, in 2004, for trespassing, stemming from a run-in with her husband’s ex-wife.
But what if McGee and some of the other small-town folks nabbed in the “conspiracy” are ultimately proven innocent?
Debra Mickles of Chariton thinks what has already happened to her sister is a travesty.
Mickles has been letter-bombing members of the Legislature, the ACLU and national shows like Dateline and Hardball, trying to get others to care.
“Do careers and funding at drug task force agencies depend on results?” she asked in one such letter. “If so, I hope it is not at the expense of unjust prosecution. Lives are being ruined here.”
Records: Purchases were below limit
This case began when members of the southeast drug task force obtained a warrant to search the state’s database of pseudoephedrine purchases for those suspected of “smurfing” for the cold and allergy drugs in the area.
Smurfers use power in numbers, taking turns buying meth’s key ingredients, while prepping for a planned cook.
McGee said that last fall, task force investigator Mark Milligan called her and asked her to come over to Ottumwa to explain her purchase of 32 allergy-drug packages since late 2010 — all but a couple at the Walgreens in Ottumwa.
She said she tried to explain that she has severe allergies, especially when she is out in the fields, and that she was in the habit of picking up some Wal-phed when she made the more than hourlong road trip to Ottumwa from Lovilia and back.
She said she got the medicine mostly for herself. But sometimes it was used by her husband, who also has allergies. Or sometimes she wrapped it in hot dogs to give to her dogs. Without it, she said, her border collie, now deceased, would bite at allergy “hot spots” like crazy.
During part of the time in question, McGee told Milligan, she was taking more medicine than normal because she and her husband had black mold growing in their old farmhouse. They have since had part of their home gutted and remodeled to get rid of the problem.
When the interview was over, McGee said, Milligan told her he didn’t believe her. “He told me, ‘I have a theory, and it’s never wrong.’ ”
I reviewed the Walgreens purchases obtained from the pseudoephedrine database that were given to McGee’s defense lawyer as evidence.
They show McGee bought about 20 single 48-count packs of Wal-phed within hours of others who were alleged to have been her “co-conspirators” in the ring, though a couple of those folks were never arrested. Most of the purchases flagged by Milligan were made in two- or three-week intervals last fall.
“That’s when I’m in the fields,” McGee said, “and if you’ve ever been around bean dust, it’s terrible. The other worst time is in the spring.”
By law, any Iowan is supposed to be allowed to buy products containing 7.5 grams of pseudoephedrine per month from pharmacies, which comes out to 90 grams a year.
According to Milligan’s intelligence report based on the pseudoephedrine database, McGee bought 32 packages, each containing about 1,440 milligrams of pseudoephedrine, over more than two years, according to the amounts on the packages. That’s about 46.08 grams — less than half of what she could have bought legally over the 26 months in question.
But according to minutes of testimony, Milligan alleged that McGee’s 32 purchases amounted to 90.24 grams of pseudoephedrine, an amount that could have yielded as much as 83.02 grams of meth.
I talked Tuesday to a woman in the pharmacy department at the Ottumwa Walgreens, one of the few places where you can buy pseudoephedrine in southeast Iowa. She would not give her name, but said she had sold allergy medication to Rhonda McGee.
She said lots of people are turned away at the pharmacy after they are blocked on the database for trying to buy too much. But she said that had never occurred with McGee. She called what has happened to McGee “overzealous” and “overreaching.”
“It’s wrong what they are doing to innocent people,” she said. “I think they are doing it to spread intimidation and to make themselves look good.”
Suspects warned not to speak up
A trial in the case has yet to be scheduled. Interestingly, since McGee’s arrest, authorities have amended the Jan. 17 allegations against McGee to another Class B felony, a generic controlled substance violation.
This week, I tried calling Des Moines attorneys Matthew Boles and Joseph Cahill, who are representing two other women McGee knows who were arrested in the alleged ring: Teresa Gilbert, wife of the mayor of Lovilia as well as McGee’s best friend and shopping partner; and Tammy Reed, Gilbert’s sister.
“You think the one you’re looking into is interesting,” Boles told me. “I’m representing a nurse.”
He said he would call back after checking with his client, but he never did. I never got through to Cahill, either.
On Thursday, McGee called me crying, saying she talked to her friend, and both lawyers had advised their clients not to talk.
“One said now I’m screwed, and I won’t be able to find a lawyer in Des Moines. He said the task force will find someone to lie on the stand and say I gave them pills.”
Corkery would not comment. But she agreed it would “absolutely” be a travesty if anyone who is innocent was — in my words — railroaded.
Dale Woolery of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy told me Wednesday that McGee’s complaint of “fishing expeditions” and overzealous use of the pseudoephedrine database is the first he’s heard.
The few problems reported so far, he said, have to do with software errors that incorrectly cause people to be blocked from buying.
In the first 16 months of the program in Iowa, consumers made almost 1.2 million successful purchases. About 2.47 percent of total attempts were blocked.
“By and large, what I hear from investigators is that it’s just one tool. It’s not making or creating cases, but it provides a bit of information that goes on to aid in an investigation.”
But others I talked to this week said they have witnessed troubling use of the database. That’s a subject I plan to cover more in a future column.
Until then, only a judge and jury can decide whether defendants in the alleged ring are innocent.
So far, the charges have cost McGee four days in jail while she had pneumonia, $5,000 in bail money, and tarring and feathering in the local newspaper.
She and her husband have paid a retainer to one attorney in Ottumwa, and will have to spend thousands more for one in Des Moines.
I asked McAndrew, the task force chief, what happens if, in the end, McGee is proven innocent.
He looked at me squarely and smiled. “Then I guess you’ve got a great story.”
*Photo: Bryon Houlgrave/Register Photos
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Woman faces trial after buying legal allergy pills