By Jim Salter
VAN BUREN, Mo. — One county on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks seemed oddly immune to the scourge of methamphetamine ravaging the state, boasting few meth raids or arrests in recent years. Some residents now think they know why, after a meth bust landed the Carter County sheriff himself in jail.
Tommy Adams, county sheriff for a little more than two years, was arrested earlier this month after giving meth to an informant at his cabin on a remote and hilly gravel road, according to a court document. He also allegedly snorted the drug himself with a straw. Authorities would not detail the extent of Adam's alleged meth involvement, but charged him with meth distribution. He is being held in Cape Girardeau County jail on $250,000 bond.
Now, a county once seen as an exception has become the latest example of how deeply meth has saturated every corner of rural Missouri life. Other rural law enforcement officers have been linked to drugs over the years, but Adams is one of the first arrested for meth.
"I think it's pretty sad," said Vicki Babbs, 46, of Van Buren. "You've got someone who's sheriff riding around high on meth with a gun. It's pretty scary."
County residents hope the case sheds light on the extent of the local meth problem as well as other crimes. Days after the sheriff's arrest, his chief deputy, 23-year-old Steffanie Kearbey, was charged with burglary and receiving stolen property — a gun taken from the department's evidence room.
No state has been hit harder by the meth epidemic than Missouri, which led the nation in meth lab busts every year for a decade before Tennessee took over the top spot in 2010, dropping Missouri to second. Missouri has reported more than 13,000 meth lab incidents in the past seven years. The highly-addictive drug, made by cooking common chemicals, has caused countless fires and explosions, along with severe health problems among users.
Carter County sits in the Ozark Mountain foothills, surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest. Thousands of visitors come each year for float trips and to visit Big Spring State Park, just outside of Van Buren, where crystal-clear water bubbles constantly into a meandering stream.
Just more than 6,000 residents live here. Good jobs are hard to come by.
Adams, 31, worked as a laborer around Ellsinore, his hometown, before getting his law enforcement certification about four years ago, and was soon hired as an Ellsinore city officer, Mayor David Bowman said. "I never had any trouble with him," Bowman said. "He was outgoing, friendly."
After just two years of law enforcement experience, Adams, a Republican ran for sheriff in 2008 against favored Democratic incumbent Greg Melton. But just weeks before the November election, Melton died in what was ruled a suicide. It was too late for the Democrats to replace him, and Melton's name remained on the ballot.
Adams won by a single vote — 1,424-1,423 — and took over the $37,000-a-year job.
Other southern Missouri counties have had dozens of meth lab busts in recent years. But Carter County had just five since Adams took over as sheriff — two in 2009, three in 2010.
"I think meth is out there and maybe he knew what was going on," Carter County Presiding Commissioner John Bailiff said. "I think a lot of people just turn a deaf ear to it, including maybe the sheriff."
Lloyd Parsons, 37, a member of the Van Buren Fire Department, never figured Adams for one of the bad guys. He described Adams, the married father of an infant son, as professional and knowledgeable.
"I've worked several accidents with the guy and he knew his stuff, even the medical part," Parsons said.
But Richard Stephens, who was a Van Buren officer before being appointed as temporary sheriff until a special election can be held this summer, said he had concerns about Adams.
"I had a suspicion that things weren't being handled effectively and professionally," said Stephens, 42. He would not elaborate, citing ongoing state and federal investigations.
Mark Alan Kennedy, attorney for chief deputy Kearbey, said his client had no law enforcement experience before the sheriff paid for her certification training, then hired her for the $20,000-a-year job.
He said Adams was the "instigator" of the crimes alleged against Kearbey. She is accused of selling a gun that had been stolen from the sheriff's department's evidence room and taking a duffel bag of coins from a house.
"We're hoping that an eventual jury will understand that this young woman was under a lot of pressure from the sheriff," Kennedy said. "She was new in law enforcement, and acted under threats of loss of her job or physical threats."
Adams and his attorney declined several interview requests. The Missouri Attorney General's office has taken over prosecution of the case.
Stephens and county commissioners are trying to ease the minds of residents left angry and disappointed.
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"They're upset about the breakdown in trust," Stephens said. "We need to be bending over backward to try and regain that trust with the public."