Eugenia Phair says the 20 months she spent in prison for selling drugs taught her a
lesson about material goods and happiness.
LUMMI INDIAN RESERVATION, Wash. — For a time, Room 246 at the Scottish Lodge Motel, 13 miles south of the Canadian border, was a Shangri-La for Eugenia Phair.
With its stained carpets, its stench of vomit and stale cigarette smoke, its bathroom sink smudged with burn marks from the crack-cocaine cooks who had used the room before, Room 246 was where her drug smuggling operation began to take off, she said, the first headquarters of what would become a well-organized and lucrative drug ring on and around this reservation.
Over the next few years, Ms. Phair, 26, a Lummi Indian, and her family grew flush and dizzy with drug money, as she rocketed to the top in the ripe and cutthroat world of Indian drug trafficking, selling painkillers, she said, to everyone, including tribal officials and jobless strung-out addicts.
"It was almost an answer to your prayers," said Ms. Phair, who was released on Feb. 6 after serving 20 months in state prison. "If you came from rags and then you had a chance at riches, wouldn't you choose riches? If you lived your whole life in poverty and then you had a chance to be rich, what would you do? It's almost impossible. I never had anything ever, no new clothes, no school-clothes shopping, no nothing at all. Then you're able to have your kids go to a good school and look nice and fit in. I never fit in."
Ms. Phair was among the scores of traffickers who flourished in an exploding drug trade on Indian lands. They are getting rich on their own neighbors' addictions, capitalizing on gripping poverty or new-found casino wealth and on the weakness of law enforcement in Indian country, according to tribal and other officials and to Ms. Phair, who described her life as the leader of a drug trafficking ring in phone calls, letters and interviews over the past year.
From the earliest days — as she lived with a boyfriend in one room of the Scottish Lodge while her three children stayed with her father, Eugene, in another — Ms. Phair learned how easy smuggling was for the coterie of Indian women who worked as mules for her.
The women would cross the border into Canada and buy OxyContin pills on the streets of Vancouver. They hid the pills in condoms inside their vaginas, drove back across the border and delivered them to Ms. Phair, who sold them on and around the reservation for double the buying price.
The Lummi Nation of 4,000 people is a stark land of crabbers, clam diggers and salmon fishermen on the shores of Bellingham Bay in Northwest Washington. It is where Ms. Phair grew up, proud to be Lummi, she said, though the white children at school called her Lummi Dummy. As a child, she was surrounded by addiction, death and crime, and as she grew older she broke the law several times, with felony convictions for robbery, burglary and possession of stolen property.
In her drug-dealing heyday, OxyContin addiction had already become a scourge across the country, and drugs were beginning to rival alcohol as the vice of choice on many reservations. When Ms. Phair was selling pills, the OxyContin trade was exploding here, worth $1.5 million in 2003 alone, tribal officials said, double the profits that year from the tribe's Silver Reef Casino and far more than the flailing salmon industry, once the backbone of the tribe's economy.
She admitted repeatedly that her decision to become a drug dealer victimized her family, as she had to abandon her children when she was sent to prison, and countless others in her own fragile tribe.
"I have more victims than anybody in here," she said in an interview from prison. "My victims are the children whose parents were using the drugs I sold."
At the peak of her operation, Ms. Phair was running 12 to 15 Lummi women to Canada and back daily, each returning with 60 to 80 pills stuffed inside their bodies. Agents at the border posed few problems, Ms. Phair said. Body cavity searches are rare, the authorities acknowledge, and Ms. Phair said several of her drug runners could talk their way out of the exams by saying that they had been raped or were pregnant and that an exam would be too traumatic.
The cross-border runs were so successful, Ms. Phair said, that at the time of her arrest in June 2004 she was selling up to $30,000 worth of pills a day and clearing up to half of that in profits.
Ms. Phair, who has a tattoo of a pair of bear claws, a symbol of strength in Lummi culture, across her chest, grew up hungry, eating popcorn and canned meat when it was around. Her lone childhood memory of Christmas was finding a dress — two sizes too small — and an old wooden truck hastily left under a scrawny tree by her drunken mother.
But by the time she was arrested, two years after investigators began wiretapping her phones at the Scottish Lodge, her children were wearing $200 outfits and playing with expensive dolls — including one that had its own $100 miniature limousine. Her 4-year-old daughter, Janyha, was enjoying regular manicures and pedicures at a beauty salon. For herself she bought a Ford Expedition and expensive clothes and used drug money to support her gambling habit.
"It's a comforting thing to say that you wanted to quit, but in reality it was more that you had to keep doing it in order to keep a lifestyle you had become accustomed to," she said in a call from a pay phone at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. "You play a lot of mind games with yourself."
Ms. Phair said she was one of the few in her drug ring, which included her father, Eugene, who did not get sloppy and greedy with drug addiction. She said she did not use the pills, and her relatives said that was true. She was addicted to the cash.
Her father and grandmother, both of whom benefited richly from the enterprise, said in interviews that Ms. Phair was always on top of things. She said she practiced "dope dealer instincts."
"You don't get high on your own stuff," Ms. Phair said. "You can't sit here and use the drugs you are selling. You will fall."
Like Every Mom
A typical day as a drug trafficker, Ms. Phair wrote in one letter, was spent like "every mom."
"I would greet my babies in the kitchen," she said. "Janyha would have all the bowls set up. They would all choose their cereal. Janyha would pour the milk because she's a big girl and that's what big girls do."
Ms. Phair would fix Janyha's hair in curls or in pigtails. Her father would take care of her new infant, Payton, and the twins, Kayani, a girl, and Keonday, a boy. Ms. Phair would take Janyha to day care or preschool.
After dropping her off, she would turn on her cellphone and the dealing frenzy would begin, she said, "answering call after call," driving around in her Expedition, or arranging deals from inside the Lummi casino, where the chaos and noise made it easy to slink around unnoticed.
Ms. Phair described her decision to become a drug dealer as something that occurred in a flash, although she had considered the possibility before.
She had been working at the casino on the swing shift in the cash cage, for $9.50 an hour. But after the twins were born three months premature, she called in sick often and lost her job. Still, she was receiving public assistance.
But she saw that all around her, people on the reservation were making money, hand over fist, running painkillers from Canada. A close friend was doing it, and this friend had a new minivan, a big-screen television, and a full refrigerator.
"I wanted those things," she said. "I wanted my daughter to have the $500 Barbie truck, the twins to have things that would help them learn to crawl."
One day in the summer of 2001, Ms. Phair scraped together $300 and persuaded a friend to drive her over the border and drop her off in a drug-infested neighborhood in downtown Vancouver. There, she saw drug dealers in BMW's, and everyone was selling. All she had to do was ask anybody who came along, "Do you know somebody who has 50 80's?" meaning 80-milligram OxyContin tablets, known as "green monsters," in the illegal drug trade. Someone always did.
That first day in Canada, Ms. Phair said, she bought 25 pills and smuggled them back to the reservation in a tattered bra, hand-me-down socks and cheap shoes from the Family Bargain Store. She sold all the pills on the reservation in one afternoon for $750, more than doubling her money.
When she started out at the Scottish Lodge in the fall of 2002, Ms. Phair paid her mules $100 a run, according to court records. But she said that as her operation grew she paid the women, all from a reservation with an unemployment rate hovering around 60 percent at the time, $600 a run. For a few hours of work, they were making double what Ms. Phair had received in monthly welfare checks.
But as the authorities began to get wise to the smuggling — border agents said they noticed that women were walking with a limp or a waddle — Ms. Phair's mules proposed hiding the drugs in powwow "gear," the sacred spiritual paraphernalia that Indians carry with them across international borders for gatherings.
Other smugglers often used that strategy, Ms. Phair said, knowing that border agents had been instructed to treat the religious items delicately.
But Ms. Phair said she drew the line at hiding drugs in the gear. She was stern with her small army of smugglers, she said, telling them she refused to insult her Creator by hiding drugs in holy regalia. "That would be like rolling a joint with the Bible," she said.
The competition among the Indian organizations smuggling drugs from Canada to the Lummi reservation was feverish, Ms. Phair said. Other drug gangs, she said, would try to lure her mules into their operations by offering them more money or threatening to turn them into border authorities. Some had connections to the tribal government, she contended, and could act on tips from the Lummi police of impending drug raids.
So she scrutinized her mules closely.
"You have to be able to be in a room of complete strangers and analyze everybody," she said. "You can't be wasted on drugs. You can't sit here and make a drug deal in front of 100 people and make mistakes."
As her operation took off, she used drug money to send her three older children to private preschool, karate classes and hairdressers. She filled the refrigerators of her relatives and bought them wood in the winter.
"Janyha was always dressed to the nines," Ms. Phair's father said.
On the reservation, Ms. Phair was a well-known dealer, according to her, her relatives and court documents. Among her customers, she said, were tribal government officials. The Lummi Nation chairman, Darrel Hillaire, said that although OxyContin and other drugs were ravaging his people, he doubted that Ms. Phair had sold it to any high-level tribal officials. He acknowledged, however, that Ms. Phair might have sold drugs to some of the hundreds of people who work for the tribe.
Her buyers, Ms. Phair said, included a couple whose 2-year-old died after eating OxyContin pills off a carpet, a well-publicized death on the reservation that set off an alarm within the tribal government. It vowed to banish drug dealers from the tribe.
The couple, Ms. Phair said, later tried to trade her the dead baby's clothes — a tiny down jacket, socks still on their Kmart plastic hangers and a batch of unused diapers in an open box, all of it stuffed into a black garbage bag — for OxyContin. She turned them down, she said.
"That went back into my spiritual belief," she said. "It's like putting death on your child. Nobody should have those clothes. I almost puked when they talked to me." She added, "That's when I wanted to quit. That made me physically sick. That's sick. I said, 'Your baby just died,' and they didn't care. They didn't even really fathom it; they didn't think anything was wrong."
She refused to sell OxyContin to the couple, she said, but she continued selling drugs to others. And she would let her father, a crabber with an appetite for beer and her right-hand man, sell Green Monsters for $80 apiece, $20 more than her price, to support his own habit.
"It was a great life," Mr. Phair, 50, said in an interview at his mother's small and cluttered house on the reservation, where he was living after spending a year in the county jail for his part in his daughter's drug ring. "The money — the kids always had everything they wanted, everybody was happy, nobody was hungry. We weren't out there beating ourselves on the water."
Ms. Phair also gave pills to her grandmother, Mavis Revey, 69, who also recently served jail time for selling OxyContin, although she was not working with Ms. Phair.
She recalls growing up eating "commodity food" — noodles and cheese, peanuts, canned peaches and fruit cocktail — goods provided by the government. But sometimes there was no food, Ms. Phair said, and when she was as young as 7, "in order for me to quit complaining that there was no food, my mother would get me drunk."
Her earliest memories include witnessing a drunken altercation between her parents, one of many that led to their breakup. She remembers riding around in an old station wagon during that fight and fixating on the image of a Ranier beer can, one of dozens scattered inside the car, with its curvy big red "R" logo.
Her mother would try to placate her with presents, she said, including a kitten.
"I loved that kitten," she wrote in one letter, making the kind of spelling and grammatical mistakes she did not make after receiving her high school equivalency diploma in prison. "But one day it scrached me and I killed it. I was just a little girl! And I rember that I was so unimportant to everyone and no one payed any attention to me that I packed that dead cat around for four days before anyone noticed it was dead."
As a teenager she got into plenty of trouble. She served two years of juvenile detention beginning when she was 13, for several crimes, including stabbing a man who was trying to rape a relative, she said, and fleeing with his car. At the age of 24, Ms. Phair was arrested for her OxyContin trafficking operation after she sold painkillers to an undercover investigator.
Web of Pain
Ms. Phair said it herself many times, that her drug operation was like an octopus whose tentacles wrapped around dozens of people: the drug mules willing to do anything for the cash; her troubled father and grandmother; the addicts in her tribe; the Lummi foster mother who cared for Ms. Phair's three oldest children while she was in prison — themselves victims of the drug epidemic in Indian country.
Ms. Phair's husband, Joel DeRusha, 26, whom she married in 2003, is serving the last two years of a four-year prison term for cocaine and weapons possession unrelated to her drug ring. His brother and sister-in-law are caring for Payton, who lives the life Ms. Phair said she wanted, with a stay-at home mother, a family that goes to Disneyland on vacations. Payton, the baby she had with Mr. DeRusha, calls his aunt "Mommy."
"I call it dominoes," said the sister-in-law, Carole Foldenhauer. "One person starts off in one direction, and how many dominoes fall based on that?"
Payton was only a few months old when his mother was sent to prison. He has just begun to see her again over the last few weeks. Mrs. Foldenhauer said that when she drives by any McDonald's with Payton, where he visited with his mother recently, Payton shouts or sings, "Gena, Gena, Gena!"
Ms. Phair's father and grandmother said they believed that Ms. Phair would be easily lured back into drug trade.
"When you're doing time," her father said, "it's kind of like a dream. You're under a pink cloud. You got all these things you want to change and then you get out," but "I think she'll probably have to go back to selling drugs."
And temptations and struggles have already arisen.
A week before she was released, Ms. Phair's husband called from prison and asked her if she would "help out a friend" who was getting out of jail soon by contacting her old connections in the drug world.
"He's supposed to be in my camp," she said after the conversation, vowing to divorce him because of it. "This is the last place I expected this to come from. I can't lose focus now."
After that, Ms. Phair cut off contact with both her husband and mother-in-law, whom she had called "Mom" and who once symbolized the white, middle-class world she long believed would rescue her from her past.
Mr. DeRusha said he only suggested she make the telephone calls to comfort her because she seemed "stressed out" about money. Ms. Phair said the implication was that she could possibly get a small take from drug deals the friend would make.
Mr. DeRusha said he was baffled by her reaction. So was his mother, Margaret, who visited Ms. Phair in prison over more than a year, sent clothing, bubble bath and cosmetics to a work release program where she spent the last two months of her sentence and was preparing to order a new bed so Ms. Phair could come live with her.
"She turned from sweet Gena to ice cold snake," Mrs. DeRusha said. "I've done nothing but help her. Why would she treat me like this?"
Ms. Phair took a temporary job working for the Lummi Nation. But because she is a convicted drug dealer she faces banishment, which would bar her from working for the tribe, living on the reservation or receiving financial assistance from the Lummi. She is assigned to a grim but sacred task for the tribe: digging up the bones of ancestors, centuries-old skeletons that were discovered several years ago during the construction of a waste-treatment plant.
When she found that her three older children were leaving foster care four months early and would be living with her, she applied for food stamps but was denied, she said, because her $10-an-hour salary, in addition to disability payments for her sickly younger daughter, made her ineligible. For now, she is living with the three children at her sister Misty's in Bellingham, on a waiting list for government housing.
Payton will continue to live with his aunt and uncle, which is a relief to Ms. Phair, she said. Still, she is essentially back at Square One: earning only 50 cents an hour more than she was making at the casino right before she became a drug dealer. She is living in cramped quarters with her three children, with barely enough money to even think about how to clothe them, let alone in anything fancy, she said.
But she insists she has left the life of drug trafficking for good.
"I've learned what happiness is and how I confused it with material things," she wrote in her last letter from prison. "I'm not afraid by any means that I will go back to selling drugs because that will never happen."
In early January, Ms. Phair saw her father for the first time since she was imprisoned. With Misty along to accompany her on a day pass from work release, she visited him at her grandmother's house, where he was still living, still crabbing and scraping by, still drinking.
She and her father did not hug, and she said that was typical.
They chatted for a while. She asked him if she looked fat, and he told her he got really fat the last time he was in jail. He found a picture of Janyha in his room, an almost life-size, three-dimensional photograph Ms. Phair bought for $150 when she was trafficking, and gave it to her. Her eyes lit up, a flash of the old life before her, and she clutched the photo tightly, eager to take it back to her sparse room in Bellingham. They smoked a cigarette on the back porch; he was hiding from the tribal authorities and did not want to be seen out front, he said.
As she left, her father said, "Call me later, Gena, like around 6?"
"I can't, Dad," she said. "I don't have any quarters."