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Efforts to reduce addiction highlighted ahead of North Texas Overdose Awareness Day

Drug addiction was once a “full-time job” for Victoria Markle.

She spent much of the last decade revolving through the criminal justice system for drug-related charges.

Now, at age 37, the recovering methamphetamine and heroin addict is a nearly two-year member of the Denton County Drug Court — a treatment program that aims to assist high-risk felony drug offenders in their rehabilitation and reintegration into their families and communities.

The drug court, which is in its third year, operates out of Judge Brody Shanklin’s Denton County 211th Judicial District Court and has an enrollment cap of 30 participants, according to Kevin Edwards, probation officer for the drug court.

Shanklin presides over the drug court and is assisted by Judge Steve Burgess, who oversees the 158th Judicial District Court. Shanklin was not available for comment for this story.

Before entering the drug court program in 2017, Markle had been homeless, living between a trap house in Dallas’ Oak Cliff, under a bridge and in people’s cars. She said she was facing her sixth felony drug charge in nine years when she failed to appear in court.

Mark Finley / Emily Olkkola/For the DRC 

Denton resident George Roland, standing left, a criminal defense lawyer, speaks to members of the Denton County Drug Court as he informs them that volunteers are needed at the upcoming North Texas Overdose Awareness Day. Members of the drug court are able to earn “two-for-one” community service hours for volunteering at the awareness day event scheduled for Saturday on the Square in downtown Denton.

After a warrant was issued by Denton County, Markle said her addiction began to spiral. In the time frame leading to her arrest, Markle said she had woken up in a hospital four times after having overdosed on meth, heroin and cocaine.

Despite her brushes with death, she sought maintain her addiction through whatever means possible.

“[Addiction] was a full-time job for me,” Markle said. “It was staying up for a week at a time. It was shooting things that kept me up while maintaining my heroin addiction, while selling drugs, while robbing people — I was OK with that.”

Markle spent 90 days detoxing in Denton County Jail leading up to her court date for a felony possession charge. She said she was ready to “sit out her time” in a cell — that is, until prosecutors sought to enhance her penalty to a third-degree felony because of prior run-ins with law enforcement.

Markle, who had no home or vehicle at the time, said she had to get on board with the idea of drug court after her bail was denied. In addition, she said her court-appointed attorney, George Roland, acknowledged the court would most likely make it “impossible” for Markle to “accomplish this easily.”

Roland and his sister, Sarah Roland, who are both criminal defense lawyers in Denton, are involved with the drug court. They also help organize North Texas Overdose Awareness Day, which will have its second annual event Saturday on Denton’s downtown Square.

George Roland said Markle deserves “all the credit in the world” for pursuing membership in the drug court. He credits a change in mindset and greater access to available resources as factors that assisted Markle’s ongoing recovery.

“[Markle] has already changed the way she’s thinking about things. She’s thinking long-term now, not short-term,” George Roland said. “She’s saying, ‘I want to do something to stop this and stop getting arrested.’”

Sarah Roland said there has been a “market shift” in the way people think about substance addiction, although not everyone considers it a disease like diabetes or cancer. Still, the change has led to positive outcomes for members of the drug court, such as Markle.

“You don’t overcome it, right? You treat addiction much like you would treat diabetes, cancer or anything like that,” Sarah Roland said. “I think the similarities of those things are, they’re all influenced by environmental, behavioral and genetic factors.”

Sarah Roland said that much like any disease, addiction is typically a combination of factors that require treatment, rather than simply “getting over it.” Instead of a cure, she said, addiction can only be treated and the disease can only be managed. She said Markle is doing “remarkably well” at accomplishing this, as well as many others who are involved with the court.

Edwards, who has worked with the drug court for three years, said there was little offered in terms of treatment for drug offenders when he began working for Denton County 19 years ago.

When he was hired, Edwards said, the criminal justice system tended to be a very punitive-based system — a person could face jail time after failing two or more drug tests. However, over the years, Edwards said the justice system has experienced a shift toward a more progressive model that includes therapy.

“Over the years, we’ve seen the shift to progressive sanctions, where if you tested positive, then yes, you may get a week in jail,” Edwards said. “But we’ll also increase the amount of therapy that you receive, as to match punitive and therapeutic sanctions.”

Edwards said he is encouraged by the problem-solving courts that have popped up in the county within the last five to 10 years. Denton County’s specialized treatment court programs are available for first-time drug offenders, military veterans, DWI offenders and people who need mental health treatment.

Markle, now 18 months into her sobriety, said she believes the drug court is designed to set people up for success. She said the program and its administrators realize that relapse is part of the recovery process, and the program is there to help.

“Yeah, there’s a small punishment when people fail a drug test, like a weekend in jail or something like that,” Markle said. “But ultimately what the program does is offer them help or to go back to treatment, or if they need to get a person into sober living because they need more accountability.”

Now in Phase 3 of her program and expecting to graduate in March, Markle said she credits her ongoing recovery to efforts of the drug court, a newfound relationship with God and her three kids.

“I have been taught and learned from my own experience that anything I put before that power is the first thing I’m going to lose,” Markle said. “So God has to come first, then my kids, my job and carrying the word is equally important, because I can’t let my job substitute my program.”

Markle has worked as a recovery advocate at the Stonegate Center in Azle and occasionally at the MHMR of Tarrant County’s Pine Street Rehabilitation Center in Fort Worth, as part of her mandated drug court work requirements, for nearly 10 months. She meets with recovering addicts either one-on-one or in accountability groups. Although this work is required by the program, she said it helps keep people sober when all else fails.

“It’s necessary for me to give it back, and actually, it’s actually the main purpose of the program,” Markle said. “On Step 12 of the program, we carry the message to the addict that still suffers — that’s the one thing that helps keep us sober.”

Drug court members are required to complete a set number of community service hours, which is typically determined during the plea agreement, according to Edwards. This year, drug court participants will be able to earn “two-for-one” service hours for volunteering at North Texas Overdose Awareness Day, Burgess said during a drug court meeting Thursday.

Mark Finley / Ryan Higgs/For the DRC  

Sarah Roland, left, watches the release of balloons as her mother, Sharon, embraces an event-goer at last year’s North Texas Overdose Awareness Day on the Square in downtown Denton. At the conclusion of the event, balloons carrying the names of loved ones were released into the sunset, which served as time to remember the lives that were lost through addiction and overdose.

Cross Roads resident Sharon Roland — who organized the event with the help of her children Sarah and George and daughter-in-law Rachel — said the awareness day is in memory of her eldest son, Randy, 32, who died of an overdose in 2016. The event, Sharon Roland said, aims to educate the community and provide resources for those struggling with addiction.

Near the conclusion of Thursday’s drug court meeting, George Roland addressed the packed courtroom, asking for volunteers to “come out and help.”

“We could really use as many of you that are available to come out,” he said, as one hand, followed by another, shot into the air and people asked who to contact to be involved. “You can contact me, and I’ll set it up.”

Markle, who participated last year and intends to be at Saturday’s event, said seeing the Rolands rallying the community around the issue is “inspiring.”

“Unfortunately, there’s such a need for [North Texas Overdose Awareness Day], and it sucks that it took an epidemic that was very much present 10 years ago,” Markle said, referring to the opioid crisis and the influx of fentanyl over the years. “But I hope that this year is even bigger than last year — it was very inspiring and the Rolands are amazing.”

The second North Texas Overdose Awareness Day will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday on the south lawn of the Courthouse on the Square. The event will feature guest speakers, educational materials, and demonstrations on how to administer naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.


News
featured
91 down, countless to come for fair and rodeo

Despite the heat, the North Texas Fair and Rodeo seems to have broken this past year’s attendance record.

Glenn Carlton, executive director of the fair, said workers estimated 195,000 people attended the nine-day event. That’s up from the approximately 190,000 who came in 2018.

“I think we were hindered a little bit by some pretty hot weather,” Carlton said.

Conversely, he said this past Saturday might have been a record-breaking day for attendance, and the explanation for that is fairly simple.

“Two words: cool front,” he said Sunday morning. “It was really nice yesterday.”

The fair lives up to its name, Cartlon said, since people truly come from all over.

Despite being situated in Denton, the fair, which just completed its 91st year, draws nearly 40% of its attendees from outside Denton County, according to a survey completed this past year.

While some classic staples remain, this was the second year to use a new payment system. Instead of worrying about which vendors or attractions take cash or cards, all attendees were issued a prepaid card they could load additional funds onto. That’s a departure from 2018’s use of bracelets to serve the same purpose.

All things considered, Carlton said the change made things run smoother than before.

“It takes human error out of the accounting,” he said.

Anybody with access can watch sales from gates, individual vendors, rides and anything else in real time from a computer screen. In practice, that means he can dispatch people to help knock down lines before they get out of hand at entrance gates.

While Carlton’s happy with the turnout in recent years — 2015 still holds the record for most attendance with roughly 215,000 — he’s confident the fair could triple given more space to breathe.

“The event has great momentum, but it’s held back geographically,” he said.

In 2014, the North Texas Fair and Rodeo Association announced the purchase of a 109-acre plot of land on the northwestern portion of Denton, near Interstate 35. The current fairgrounds is less than a third that size, sitting at only 33 acres.

At that time, Carlton estimated it would take five to 10 years to raise the money necessary to move one of the county’s longest-running events. For now, he said it’s a matter of waiting for an economic impact study to come back from the Professional Development Institute at the University of North Texas.

Once that’s in, fundraising can begin in earnest to make the transition. While he doesn’t have an official timeline set at this point, Carlton hopes to have the event moved to the new site in the coming five years.


News
The Watchdog: Texans pay more for electricity now than other major markets, and a wholesale price record is to blame

Did you hear that the wholesale cost of electricity in Texas this month spiked to around $9,000 a megawatt hour? At one point, wholesale prices were said to have surged 36,000%.

Those aren’t typos. Bloomberg News reported, “It’s a record that has turned the Lone Star State into the most expensive place to buy power in all of America’s major markets.”

One Plano customer sent me his bill showing he paid almost 25 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). His bill for only the first two weeks of August is a whopping $641.

Most electricity customers are locked into fixed-price contracts. They don’t feel that kind of pain. These contracts are supposed to protect them from sticker shock.

Dave Lieber

But there’s one group of customers that was hit especially hard. This group had little protection. These are customers of Griddy, which says it offers customers wholesale prices “by connecting them directly to the grid” without middleman markups.

Think of that. No middleman taking a cut, which is the opposite of how deregulated electricity shopping works. When our state leaders deregulated electricity 20 years ago, the portal for middlemen spread wide open.

In contrast, Griddy sounded so good. In a listing I made last year of companies that help you shop for electricity, Griddy sounded like one of the best consumer deals because in addition to offering the wholesale rate, it only charges a $10 monthly service fee.

As I reported, “Griddy says its average kWh rate is about 2 cents lower than the state average. The company says its mission is to show Texans they can eliminate higher retail prices.”

Until recently, I had never received a complaint about Griddy. To the contrary, I received fan mail from readers recommending it. In winter, fall and spring, customers were saving money, they said.

“I am pleased,” one person wrote me.

“My rate is between 3 and 4 cents a kWh,” another said.

Wow. Three cents.

I’m unable to personally test these companies because I’m forced into a non-competitive electricity co-op serving my neighborhood. So I rely on reports from readers, citizens of my Watchdog Nation.

In news releases, Griddy promised to launch a revolution in the Texas electricity marketplace that would change the balance of power in favor of consumers.

Somebody needs to, since state regulators and lawmakers refuse to make any effort to revamp a scheming electricity marketplace that strives to confuse consumers. They don’t care.

‘Stressing like crazy’

Griddy executives say they are going through their biggest crisis.

“We are stressing like crazy,” CEO Greg Craig says in a video.

He said that customers who have been with the company for a year will likely still come out ahead.

“If you just joined Griddy in July or August,” he continued, “this probably feels terrible.”

The company can’t refund electricity costs, but it is waiving the monthly $10 membership fee for August for all customers, he said. The company must pay for electricity used, so there are no other refunds coming.

If customers want to leave, there are no termination fees. And quitting can be done online, he added.

In an email to The Watchdog, company spokeswoman Cristina Calderon told me, “We’ve received tens of thousands of incoming calls and emails that we are working feverishly to address. We have pulled all hands on deck and have launched a temp staff member service team which doubled our team’s size. We will get back to everyone as fast as we can, but obviously we’re receiving a lot of questions.”

Failing ERCOT

The company warns customers on its website that their bills could spike higher than a fixed-rate plan. But those spikes usually last five minutes at a time, it says. The company sends its customers alerts on price spikes so they know to use less power.

This month, however, during a particularly hot Texas summer day, the record-breaking spike didn’t last five minutes. It lasted several hours.

“This peak is about five times worse than anything we’ve seen in Texas for the last five years,” Griddy’s Calderon told me.

This isn’t Griddy doing this. It’s ERCOT, the Texas grid operators who are supposed to keep the Lone Star State buzzing with power.

Is ERCOT prepared to handle the continued growing population of Texas? With millions more expected, Texas, the energy state, ought to stop bragging about how wonderful it is to have its own independent power grid.

One customer sent me his Griddy electric bill for the first two weeks of August — $437 and a kWh rate of 37.5 cents. Another customer showed me a $119 charge for one day of usage. (Griddy takes automatic withdrawals from its customers’ accounts.)

Not up to capacity

The spike came on a record day of power usage.

As Griddy explained to its customers in an email: “This put a severe strain on the grid, forcing every available generation plant to run at its capacity. However, there were several units that were unable to run at capacity for operational reasons: a coal-fired unit in Houston, a combined-cycle gas-fired unit in South Texas and a steam generation unit in North Texas all failed to run as expected, straining the grid even more.”

What did Griddy recommend in its email?

“Turn it [air conditioning] off altogether and go hang out at the movies, pool or mall.”

When the company you buy electricity from tells you to leave your house on a hot day and go to the mall, you’ve got a problem.

Final note: Recently, when one of my bosses, new to Texas, asked me for a recommendation on how to shop for electricity, I told her, “Try Griddy.”

Uh-oh.

Pray for me.


Politics
AP
Pastor whose child was shot at Texas church runs for office

AUSTIN — A Texas pastor whose teenage daughter was among more than two dozen people killed in a mass shooting at his church in 2017 said Sunday that he will run as a Republican next year for a seat in the state Legislature.

Frank Pomeroy — whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was killed in the November 2017 attack at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs — is launching his campaign at a moment when gun violence is again at the forefront of Texas politics following a mass shooting in El Paso this month that killed 22 people.

The two mass shootings were part of a “trajectory” that led him to run for the state Senate, he said during a brief phone interview before stepping into a restaurant with his family. The shooting at his church compelled him to have more conversations with people about guns and other leading political issues, he said, while the El Paso attack troubled him in the way the victims were used by others to score political points.

“I felt like something needed to be brought to the conversation, like civility and real intelligent discourse,” he said, adding that he’s concerned by the way “integrity and morality are degrading,” particularly within the Democratic Party.

Pomeroy said that owning guns is not the problem that has led to mass shootings and the focus should be on issues such as mental illness.

First Baptist Church opened a new sanctuary this year after the old building was turned into a memorial, following what remains the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. A gunman shot and killed 25 people at the church; authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the victims was pregnant.

Pomeroy, who has never held elected office, had not been outspoken politically in the two years since a discharged Air Force airman with a history of violence opened fire in the church where the gunman’s wife and mother-in-law attended.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott emerged this week from a lengthy, closed-door meeting with lawmakers noncommittal about tighter gun laws in wake of the El Paso attack. And Texas’ powerful gun lobby is already pushing back after Abbott on Thursday floated ideas that might restrict private gun sales or allow “welfare checks” on some people who have access to firearms.

Pomeroy, 53, will run in a senate district that is considered safely Democratic — President Donald Trump lost it by double digits in 2016 — and sprawls hundreds of miles from Austin to the U.S.-Mexico border. The incumbent, Democrat Judith Zaffirini, took office in 1987 and was the first Hispanic female to serve in the state Senate.

Zaffirini, after being told of Pomeroy’s critical comments of Democrats, said she was “very surprised to hear such a harsh comment coming from a pastor.”

She said she knows both Pomeroy and his wife and described the pastor as “a man of integrity” who’s committed to his community.

“I always treat every challenger seriously and every challenger respectfully and that is how I hope to engage with him,” she said.

Across the U.S., there have been several instances of family members of mass shooting victims running for office — and not always as Democrats pushing for tighter gun laws. In Connecticut, state Senate challenger JT Lewis is a Republican and Trump supporter who is the brother of one of 20 first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

In Florida, following the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in 2018, mother Lori Alhadeff won a seat on the school board after her daughter was among the 17 people killed in the attack.

Gun-rights supporters in Texas, some carrying assault rifles strapped on their shoulders, rallied outside the state Capitol on Thursday before the governor met with lawmakers. Among those carrying a weapon was Stephen Willeford, who lives across the street from the Sutherland Springs church and used an AR-15 rifle to fire back at the gunman, who later killed himself.