The Predators of Demopolis

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"What brings you to Demopolis?" 

The question seemed harmless, as did the questioner, Sgt. Tim Soronen of the Demopolis, Alabama police department. Diane Avera, the 45-year-old grandmother from Meridian, Mississippi to whom that question was posed, couldn't see any harm in answering it candidly.

"I came over to buy some Sudafed for our scuba diving trip this weekend, since we can't buy it in Meridian anymore," Mrs. Avera explained. 

Soronen asked Avera if she knew it was against the law to cross the state line to buy Sudafed. 

"No, sir, I did not know," the startled woman replied.

"I need you to step out of the car," Soronen demanded.

"For what? I swear I didn't know. What did I do?" Avera asked in alarm.

"You came to Demopolis to buy some Sudafed," came the curt response. "Step to the back of the truck."

Before the sun set on July 29, 2010, Diane Avera was in the Marengo County Jail, where she would remain for forty days. At one point she was shackled to a restraint chair for 17 hours. During that time she was denied water or access to a bathroom. She also developed edema in her feet. Edema-related blood clots have been identified as the cause of death for several of the inmates who have perished while chained to the "Devil's Chair."

Using the threat of kidnapping Avera's grandchildren, Soronen extorted from the terrified woman a confession that she had knowingly purchased Sudafed for the purpose of manufacturing crystal methamphetamine. After more than a month in a government cage, Avera was released from jail on $51,000 bail.

Marengo County DA Greg Griggers offered Mrs. Avera his standard plea bargain: Five years of probation if she agreed not to defend herself in court. If she turned down that deal, however, Griggers promised, "I will send you to prison."

If Avera had been a meth dealer, she almost certainly would have accepted Griggers' offer. As an innocent woman whose unwitting violation of an obscure technical statute had injured nobody, Avera contested the charge. 

During Avera's three-day trial, Judge Eddie Hardaway gave Griggers generous latitude to make entirely unsubstantiated claims, among them that Diane had confessed that she and her daughter had been using meth for at least two years. He also insisted that Avera had somehow "diluted" drug tests she had undergone after being bailed out of jail — a charge that was refuted by the clinicians who had examined the samples. 

Avera was found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture crystal meth and sentenced to a year in prison with an additional seven years of probation. She was released two months later after filing an appeal, and remains free today on a $20,000 appeal bond — if the word "free" applies to someone living in the shadow of a prison sentence.

"This has cleaned out my retirement savings, and [her husband] Keith's as well," Diane Avera told Pro Libertate. "We can't get any answers as to when the appeal hearing will be held, because nobody in Marengo County seems interested in filing the paperwork. So right now, all we can do is wait with our lives on hold, and with this thing hanging over my head."

Prior to her arrest in July 2010, Diane had no criminal record, and no history of drug abuse or addiction of any kind. 

"I have known Ms. Avera for approximately 10 years," wrote Dr. Dennis Sims in an October 8, 2010 letter to Judge Hardaway. "Ms. Avera worked as a nursing assistant at Rush Medical Group for many years. She worked part time for me as a nurse…. I have never heard the first hint concerning any drug use, drug dependence, or any hint of scandal whatsoever."

Dr. Simms related that he has treated Diane for "recurrent sinusitis and recurrent allergy symptoms" on roughly a dozen occasions over the past decade, and that she has undergone surgery to deal with this persistent problem. Diane routinely purchased pseudoephedrine as an over-the-counter medication to treat the problems described by Dr. Sims. In July 2010 — just weeks before Diane was arrested — a new state ordinance went into effect in Mississippi that made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. Dr. Simms astringently refers to that measure as "a rather asinine law."

It wasn't allergies that prompted Diane to buy Sudafed in the middle of the summer — it was her newly acquired hobby of scuba diving. 

She and her husband Keith — a Public Safety Diver with the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency — were planning a scuba trip to Panama City, Florida.  Dr. Simms explains that "changes of air pressure when diving can lead to ear block, sinus block, sometimes with grave and immediate consequences including acute dizziness and disorientation." 

In his own letter to Judge Hardaway, RC Sample, the Master Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDT) who instructed Diane, testified that "when Diane would travel to depth, she had difficulty equalizing the pressure at the boundary of her eardrum of a number of reasons … relating to her sinuses," a condition that can be treated through the judicious use of pseudoephedrine.

"Pseudoephedrine, contrary to what law enforcement believes, is used for something other than making crystal methamphetamine," wrote Sample, displaying the kind of weary patience exhibited by adults trying to explain the obvious to a resolutely dim-witted child. "Without belaboring all of the biochemistry involved … [the medication relieves] inflammation of the nasal membranes," thereby reducing "the effort needed to equalize the pressure on the eardrum when scuba diving…."

"It is common among our group of divers to use an over-the-counter decongestant sinus medication to aid in equalizing the pressure associated with the water depth required to scuba dive," confirmed Liza Gilton, another member of the Meridian-based diving group, in her letter to Hardaway. "I have been on literally hundreds of dive trips and have personally used such medication on almost every trip." 

The explanations offered by Sims, Sample, and Gilton are perfectly reasonable and should be sufficient to convince any rational person.  The deranged people responsible for the Drug War would probably view those letters as an admission that Avera's scuba club is a front for a meth manufacturing ring. In fact, that was essentially the charge made by DA Griggers in court, when confronted with more than a score of people who had come to act as character witnesses on Diane's behalf.

 "He claimed that all of these people were somehow involved in meth trafficking," a disgusted Keith Avera told Pro Libertate. 

Perhaps we should expect to see "Diver Down" bumper decals added to the informal profile used to conduct forfeiture-focused pretext stops. I wish I were kidding. 

 In anticipation of the trip to Panama City, Sample advised Diane to pick up a box of Sudafed. On the suggestion of a Wal Mart clerk in Meridian, Diane decided to go across the state line to Demopolis, where it would be possible to obtain it over the counter. 

In the company of her 27-year-old son Larry, his girlfriend Shana, and three small children (her grandsons Gavin and Caleb, and the girlfriend's nephew), Avera made two stops — the first to the CVS pharmacy, where he son and his girlfriend each bought a box of Sudafed, and then to Wal Mart, where she bought another, in addition to crayons for the grandchildren.

At the time the Demopolis PD was "conducting a sting operation," reported the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. As it happened, the oh-so-helpful pharmacist at CVS was a police informant. 

As soon as Avera pulled out of the Wal Mart parking lot, Soronen intercepted her. 

"If it's against the law" to make an out-of-state Sudafed purchase in Demopolis, Diane asked the officer, "why did Wal Mart sell it to me?" Soronen was too busy calling for back-up to reply. Within a few minutes two additional officers arrived and started to search the vehicle.

"How much Sudafed did you buy?" Soronen demanded of Diane.

"I only bought one box," she replied.

"So, if I search the truck I'll find one box of Sudafed," he persisted.

"No, sir," Diane responded. "I bought a box, my son bought a box and Shana bought a box. So you'll find three boxes." 

Up to this point — as her ingenuous candor demonstrated — Diane assumed that she was mired in a misunderstanding, rather than caught in a trap. When Soronen told her that he could "call in the DEA to come down here," she mistakenly assumed that the officer was trying to help, rather than making a veiled threat.

"I appreciate it," she said. "I'm sorry, I didn't know it was against the law."

By this time, Soronen surely knew that he wasn't dealing with a drug manufacturer. He just as clearly didn't care. The officers continued pawing through the vehicle. They eventually exhumed a bottle of methadone that had been prescribed to Diane's son Larry, a habitual drug user who had been through several rehab programs. A few minutes later an officer found a pouch containing drug "paraphernalia" — which Larry admitted belonged to him.

Diane's grandsons had been taken into custody and were in the back of a police vehicle. One of the officers loudly inquired of Soronen, "Do you want me to go ahead and call DHR to pick up these kids?"

This sadistic bit of stagecraft had the desired effect.  

As a child, Diane and her siblings had been seized by "child protection" bureaucrats in Mississippi and scattered across the state.  When Soronen announced that he was going to handcuff the adults and call for the child-snatchers to collect the children, Diane's reaction was immediate, and visceral. She broke down entirely — which was the intended result.

"What do I have to do to prevent DHR from picking up my grandkids?" Diane pleaded. Soronen insisted that Diane would have to "confess" that all of the Sudafed was hers. He didn't explain that this put her over the legal limit in Alabama.

Soronen’s roadside interrogation of Diane lasted roughly an hour. The entire incident was captured by way of a concealed recording device worn by the officer. Only a few minutes of that recording was played in court — the portion containing her purported confession. In her appeal, Diane is demanding that the complete record be entered into evidence.

Diane's son Larry — an admitted drug user — was permitted to drive the children back to Mississippi. She was taken to jail, where Soronen — acting as an exceptionally demanding copy editor — had his victim commit the bogus confession to writing.  "I did not know it was against the law to cross the state line to purchase Sudafed," Avera's statement concluded. "I promise to never buy another box in my life."

During the five weeks she spent in Marengo County Jail, Diane was denied the rudimentary decencies of a human existence. Blankets and sheets were withheld from her, leaving her to freeze on a bare metal bunk. For an entire week, she and the other inmates were deprived of utensils and forced to eat with their fingers. Each inmate was given a single set of clothes. The 17-hour torture session in the restraint chair inaugurated a regular course of smaller acts of calculated cruelty by the jail staff. (In her appeal, Diane is seeking video records of the abuse she suffered.)

This question should be considered in light of the mistreatment Diane endured: Why would she turn down the plea bargain and risk a prison sentence after suffering as she did, unless she is innocent?

Keith Avera describes Diane as "a prisoner of the drug war going on inside America." Under Mississippi's newly enhanced "meth"-control law, he points out, people can be arrested on drug charges for possessing "isopropyl alcohol, Hydrogen peroxide, acetone, potassium, and many more commonly used house hold items" — all of which are listed as meth "precursors."

"When common household medications and disinfectants are now illegal to possess, I believe we have gone overboard in the drug laws," he observes. 

Embellishing on that point, it should also be said that when your local pharmacy clerk is a police informant ready to report you for buying an over-the-counter cold medicine, it should be obvious that, whatever the USA may have been at one time, it has formally degenerated into a Reich. Avera's case is particularly infuriating — not just because of the practiced viciousness with which Soronen used her grandchildren as hostages, but also because the snitch that got the grandmother in trouble works for a large corporation that was spared federal charges for its admitted role in providing large amounts of pseudoephedrine to meth manufacturers.

Since 2005, over-the-counter cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine have been treated as a controlled substance. Jeffrey Tucker of the Ludwig von Mises Institute points out that "Before 2005, you could by as many Sudafed packages as you did Big Mac sandwiches…. Now, your 30-allotment is nine grams," which for most people isn't sufficient to withstand a typical cold and flu season. The government-approved replacement is a placebo.

Pharmacies are required to limit customers to no more than 3.6 grams a day, supposedly to make it more difficult for would-be traffickers to obtain the raw ingredients of methamphetamine.

In predictable fashion, this created a flourishing black market for pseudoephedrine. Cash-strapped people are eagerly acting as "smurfers" — that is, proxy buyers who obtain huge quantities of Sudafed and other cold remedies on behalf of meth dealers.

About a year ago, CVS, whose corporate leadership admits that it knowingly allowed extensive purchases of pseudoephedrine by "smurfers," avoided criminal charges and given a large fine that was passed along to customers. As Avera's case illustrates, the pharmacy chain is also eager to aid in the prosecution of small-time defendants who purchase forbidden amounts of cold medicine. Some of them face years in prison — where meth and other illegal drugs are readily available. This is particularly true in Alabama.

In early 2009, reported the Opelika-Auburn News, twenty-five people in that region of Alabama were arrested on "meth-related charges." Of those arrested, only two were charged with either possessing or manufacturing methamphetamine; the others were arrested for what was described as "unlawful possession of a precursor" — that is, "purchasing over the legal amount of pseudoephedrine."

The Averas point out that Diane is not the only Mississippi resident who was entrapped in Marengo County's Sudafed snare: During her ordeal, Diane met another Meridian-area woman of similar age and background who fell prey to the same racket. Unlike Diane, however, the other victim (who prefers not to be named) accepted a plea deal from Griggers.

Tim Soronen seems to typify the kind of "good people" Isabel Patterson described in her essay "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine" — the kind who routinely do horrible things they believe "to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends."

Soronen's name appears in the 2009 case Baney v. State, in which the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction of a man who had been caught in one of Soronen's child predator stings. 

The ruling describes how Soronen "developed several teenage-girl profiles in an Internet chat room," two of which attracted the attention of John Baney. 

After enticing the deviant into sending explicit images of his anatomy and of a self-administered sex act, Soronen attempted to lure him to a nearby park. Although Baney appeared to take the bait, he "failed to show up at the designated place and time." It was never proven that Baney had acted on his degenerate impulses. However, the applicable statute doesn't require an overt act — only evidence of a "culpable mental state."

Which is more loathsome — pursuing sexual liaisons with underage girls, or exploiting those depraved impulses by playacting the role of a potential victim? That question is best pondered by someone equipped with a mind more subtle — and a gag reflex less sensitive — than mine. This much, however, is indisputable: Someone who would wring a confession out of an innocent woman by using her grandchildren as hostages is a child predator at least an order of magnitude more contemptible than John Baney.

Reprinted with permission from Pro Libertate.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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