By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"And then, all of a sudden, here I was smoking speed," he remembers. "I just ran with it. I took it to the next level. I've been like that my whole life; it's all or nothing." And now he wanted it all: the meth, the lifestyle, the money he could make selling it. Soon he was addicted to the crystalline powder, its hours-long high and, even more important, the mind-boggling amounts he could make hawking a few grams a week. "It's a nice feeling to know your paycheck isn't coming until next Friday, but you have 1,200, 1,500 bucks in your pocket," he says. He learned to control his habit, forcing down food when high to keep his six-foot-two frame to a healthy 205 pounds, and held on to his job as a tow-truck driver.
Miranda did everything with Vince, so it was only a matter of time before she did meth, too. She thought she'd just use it on the weekends, but soon it crept into her weekdays. "Internally, it made me feel like a million dollars," she says. "Wow, I can be supermom. I can clean the house, I can get all my work done, I can lose weight."
Vince and Miranda would look down on other meth users and their debilitating, humiliating "tweak projects" — their dumpster-diving and porn habits. After all, this couple's tweak project was their family. Vince used his habit to make sure he always had money for their kids. Miranda used hers to keep the household in perfect condition. They were the best parents in the world — or at least that's how it seemed. "The drug creates an illusion," says Vince. "It gives you that illusion that everything's okay, and it's not." Since the children were going to school and getting fed, the couple didn't realize that little things were slipping through the cracks — little things that added up to a lot. Like the kids staying up late, eating microwave meals. Or Vince and Miranda, fatigued and sleep-deprived, losing their temper and yelling at their children. Or, as Miranda says, how "they didn't listen, they were out of control, because I had no control as a parent. I had no self-control."
The couple just didn't see a problem, not even after Vince was caught with meth and cocaine in 1999 and got four years' probation. He stopped selling and using drugs for a while, but then "bills started piling up," he remembers, "so I went back to what I knew." Miranda would get clean for a stretch, too, like when she had her daughter in 2002, but then she'd fall back on the drug.
By the end of 2004, though, they swore they were ready to leave the lifestyle behind. Vince had lined up a new job, with better pay and better hours, so he wouldn't need to supplement his income by slinging meth. In early December, the night before he was supposed to start work, Vince stopped by a neighbor's apartment while Miranda stayed home, looking for a job online. The next day, everything was going to be different — they were sure of it.
That was the night Detective Lopez and the SWAT team kicked in their door.
The day after her task force found the baby in Thornton, Lori Moriarty called up Kathryn Wells, child-abuse pediatrician at Denver Health and medical director of the Denver Department of Human Services' Family Crisis Center. When Wells answered, the police commander did something unheard of in law enforcement: She asked the social-services specialist for help.
"Law enforcement looked at social services as someone to call if we needed a babysitter. We were busy with our own tasks and responsibilities, and social services was seen as a support mechanism, not a partnership," explains Moriarty. "Or we would call them about a child who was neglected or abused, and a lot of times, because of their workload, they would say, 'We'll make a note of it. Can you find a place for the child? We'll follow up the next day.'"
But Moriarty suspected that what she'd witnessed with this baby was abuse — and if so, she'd need to work hand in hand with social services to deal with it. Wells agreed that allowing kids to live in drug labs was tantamount to child abuse, but told Moriarty there was little way to prove or prosecute it. Since the drug cops weren't talking with social services, detectives didn't know when they should be on the lookout for child-welfare issues. Since social services wasn't getting information from the cops about their undercover work, they didn't have the information about abuse or neglect that they'd need to make smart decisions about the kids turning up on the raids. And because there were no child-abuse laws in Colorado — or anywhere else, for that matter — regarding kids in drug labs, the toughest charge you could hope for in these situations was likely a reckless-endangerment misdemeanor, a slap on the wrist that would often be dropped when the caregivers copped a plea for drug felonies they were facing. And finally, since there was no interaction between law enforcement, social services and the medical and scientific communities, there was no way to know the specific risks to kids growing up in drug environments. "Nobody was communicating," says Wells. "Whether it was medical or child welfare or law enforcement or the legal system, everybody was seeing the world through their own set of lenses."