‘Overwhelmed Overnight’

Local Explosion Of Designer Drugs Takes Heavy Toll Before Being Quelled

Posted: February 16, 2013

Ashley Whitmer (left) gets advice from physical therapist Sarah Fagan during a rehab session Thursday afternoon at the RMH Wellness Center. Whitmer was involved in a near-fatal auto accident early last year when she was high on bath salts. Now she wants to see an end to designer drugs: “I don’t want another family to go through what my family has gone through.” (Photos by Michael Reilly)
Ashley Whitmer works out on a rowing machine during a rehab session Thursday at the RMH Wellness Center. She is recovering from an auto accident early last year that occurred when she was high on bath salts.
Ashley Whitmer heads for the massage table Thursday during a rehab session at the RMH Wellness Center.
Ashley gets a massage from physical therapist Sarah Fagan at the wellness center.
HARRISONBURG — In early 2012, Ashley Whitmer received her first dose of bath salts from a friend.

By the end of May, the 2007 Turner Ashby High School graduate was at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville clinging to life.

Police say the 24-year-old was high on bath salts, a synthetic drug, when she slammed her car into the Cargill plant in Dayton the night of May 25. Investigators allege that she, along with countless others in the area, obtained the drugs from Pamela’s Secrets, an adult shop operating at 3051 S. Main St. in Harrisonburg.

Whitmer, who last week took her first steps on her own since the wreck, paid a painful price for her use of bath salts — which for some users produces an amphetaminelike high similar to cocaine or speed.

Police say that the use of bath salts and other synthetic drugs spiked in the Shenandoah Valley in 2012.

Whitmer wants to see an end to designer drug usage.

“I don’t want another family to go through what my family has gone through,” she said.

Bath salts aren’t new to Harrisonburg, but usage in the central Valley rose drastically in 2012, police say.

“All of a sudden, we got overwhelmed overnight,” said Special Agent Mark Campbell of the Virginia State Police, and coordinator of the RUSH Drug Task Force, a special unit composed of officers from the state police, the Harrisonburg Police Department and Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2011, RUSH seized 761 grams of bath salts. Last year, the task force seized 1,463 grams of the drug, according to statistics recently released by the agency.

During 2012, the task force led a series of raids at gas stations and convenience stores, as well as at Pamela’s Secrets on April 30 and then again on May 26. Since those two raids, Pamela’s Secrets was closed by court order after the Rockingham Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office successfully argued it was a public nuisance.

The store’s owner, Augustus George Julias II, 48, and two employees are facing federal drug distribution charges, and are scheduled for trial in April in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg.

Campbell said the aggressive raids, combined with media attention and expanding state and federal laws that banned certain chemicals used to make the drug, have had an effect. The use and distribution of the drug appear to be on the way down, he said.

“They got the message,” he said, adding that there are fewer instances now, mainly from people purchasing the drugs online.

The Recovery

Whitmer’s mother, Tammy Whitmer, hopes people selling bath salts did get the message.

“I had both of my kids on it last year at the same time,” she said. “Both kids were just out of control. You couldn’t do anything with either of them. The only thing they concentrated on was the drug.”

Whitmer watched her daughter spiral out of control until she literally crashed into a wall last spring. In the crash, Ashley Whitmer suffered three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, fractures in her neck and back and a cracked skull.

“She had so much brain pressure, they had to remove both sides of the skull,” said the mother. “[Doctors] asked me to unplug Ashley. There was so much brain damage that they said she wouldn’t survive without the ventilator.”
Her mother refused.

She said with a lot of prayers from countless local churches her daughter made progress.

At the end of July, Ashley Whitmer was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Charlottesville. On Aug. 31, she was able to return to her Ottobine home.

Now, she attends physical therapy sessions at the RMH Wellness Center in Harrisonburg to continue to work on walking.

Last week, her mother saw something she thought she’d never see again.

“We heard her scream,” Tammy Whitmer said. “We headed outside to see her walking up the dirt road …  no crutches. It was the first time since the crash.”

She hopes her daughter’s story serves as an example to others using the drug. Everyone who uses it, she said, is taking a huge risk.

“You don’t know what the chemists have put in it,” Whitmer said.

Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@dnronline.com

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