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Taos detainees talk addiction
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Stephen Bunker grew up in foster homes in Florida – train hopping and hitchhiking whenever he could. He said drugs were the common factor wherever he traveled in the United States.
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Posted Friday, January 19, 2018 11:00 am
By John Miller
[email protected]
June, 2017 Taos County Adult Detention Center

Stephen Bunker, 36

“I grew up on the streets pretty much,” said Stephen Bunker inside the jail's B pod.

Bunker spent his first years along the southern coast of Florida. His parents were abusive, he said, and so he was removed from his first home at an early age.

He spent his childhood bouncing around a series of orphanages in Palm Beach, Florida. When he reached the age of 15, he ran away and hopped a train that took him up through the Florida panhandle and into a country that he had never seen before. He hopped other trains. He hitchiked.

His course was mostly aimless, he said. Every place he stopped was different – except for one thing. “Drugs were popular everywhere I went,” he said.

Alcohol came into his life first, followed by cocaine and methamphetamine. As heroin started spreading across the United States in the mid-1990s, he began to use that as well.

When he would get picked up in some town far from the one he had left months prior, law enforcement would send him back to where he started back in Palm Beach.

But when he turned 18, he set out to wander for good. Throughout his travels, drinking and drugs formed his only course.

He said that alcohol continues to be his greatest challenge. He said recently that he would sometimes drink as much as two fifths of whiskey in a single day.

“I wake up drinking it,” he said. “I go to sleep drinking it.”

Bunker eventually found homes on farms and ranches. Just a few years ago, he hired on at a ranch in Montana, where he met a girl, he said. Together, they moved down to Taos, where, once again, drugs and alcohol were the common factor.

In May, law enforcement arrested Bunker on aggravated battery and assault charges.

According to court records, Bunker had been drinking with a friend and a roommate, became infuriated and allegedly started throwing punches. A Taos County Sheriff's Deputy would arrive at the residence to find both individuals with lacerations to their face.

"He told me he has been through this before and knows the routine, and to take him to jail," the deputy would write in their report.

Bunker was incarcerated at the detention center that day.

A short time into his incarceration, he met Abe Gordon, a peer support counselor with Inside Out Recovery. Gordon agreed to serve as Bunker's advocate. Along with support from Delancey Street Foundation, Gordon was able to persuade the court system in Taos to grant Bunker acceptance into the program, a long-term recovery center located along the Río Grande north of Española.

Bunker was released the day of The Taos News interview, on June 29.


Before he left, he said he knew how easy it would be to leave his problems behind again – to cross a border and leave his charges where he picked them up.

“I’m a train hopper, you know? And these are misdemeanors. They can’t extradite me. I can just cross a state line and they couldn’t do anything," he said. "But I want to. I want to do it. I want to stop drinking and do something other than work for $10 dollars an hour for the rest of my life.”

He believes that getting clean and sober means leaving Taos, where he has seen drugs and alcohol ruin the lives of numerous friends and acquaintances.

“It’s just drugs here, man,” he said. “You see these kids that grow up here. They’re all on heroin. Everyone you know has family members that have been to prison and been on heroin. It’s just the way it is.”

In January, Bunker was at Delancey Street, but the program's rules did not allow a follow-up interview. New Mexico court records show he has picked up no additional charges since June, 2017.

Matthew Mendez, 27

“I was playing football and all the football players were doing it,” said Matthew Mendez. He means Oxycodone, an opioid that has been abused all across the United States over the past 20 years, often to the point of overdose, and often leading to heroin use.

The problem, it seems, starts as early as high school.

It’d go like this, Mendez said: A football player would get injured and go to the doctor, who would write a prescription – often for an opiate-based pain medication, sometimes coupled with other therapies, but sometimes not.

Addiction came quickly, and with a supply of pills available to one player, addiction also spread.

Mendez, too, became addicted, and soon started doing things he said he would have never otherwise done to get it.

“My dad was in a wheelchair,” Mendez said. “He used to get Oxy 15s. I used to steal his medication.”

But that wasn’t enough, and he soon turned to burglarizing and robbing homes around Taos County to find items to fence, desperate to support his habit in any way he could.

A friend, who had started dealing heroin, told him that he was missing out on something better – heroin.

“It’s a lot cheaper and it’s a better high,” the dealer told him.

But through his addiction, Mendez managed to enroll in college, where he was studying nursing. “I was an A student before I got into trouble,” he said.

Mendez was picked up on burglary and forgery charges in May. He does not know when he will be released, but when that happens, he says that he wants to continue his education, with a particular focus on helping recovering addicts who have been incarcerated.

He knows, however, that he has a steep hill to climb before that can happen. He has yet to shake his addiction.


For others considering using an opioid – whether a painkiller or heroin – Mendez said, “If an opportunity ever comes your way, just shut it down as soon as it comes to you because all it takes is that one hit. From there, you can get stuck. For me, it was just that one try. From there, I was finished, and my life has been going downhill ever since.”

Efforts to reach Mendez for a follow-up interview in January went unanswered. New Mexico court records show his trial is scheduled for April.

Michelle DeHerrera, 41

“My addiction started in Riverside, California,” Michelle DeHerrera recalled as she sat at a table inside the woman’s pod.

Gangbanging was a way of life in the Riverside barrios she grew up in, she said, and drugs were what fueled that lifestyle.

She became embroiled in both before she reached her teen years, and started using methamphetamine, a popular and cheap narcotic in poor American towns across the United States.

When she and her sister moved out to Taos to be with their father, who was then dying of a battle with AIDs, DeHerrera thought that moving out of the neighborhoods where she had been introduced to narcotics might make for a clean start.

But drugs, she said, were just as prevalent in small town Taos as they were in Riverside, and heroin, a drug that once paled in comparison to the meth that she had seen trafficked through her hometown, seemed to be everywhere.

So she would continue her using, occasionally countering the pitched highs of meth with the numbing, soporific lows of a shot of heroin.

The boyfriend who she met and would later marry in Taos also used, she said. They had two daughters, but their shared addiction led to another affliction that pervades homes in Taos – domestic violence – leading DeHerrera to end the marriage.

DeHerrera’s addiction was generational. After DeHerrera's father passed away, her mother began abusing prescription opioids, and DeHerrera would later find her inside her home, cold and blue from a fatal overdose.

Just last year, DeHerrera said she, too, suffered from an overdose she was able to come back from.

And so when DeHerrera arrived at the detention center three months ago, she did not have the option to leave her children with their grandparents.

Like many of the other women in the women’s pod at the jail, her children – two daughters – are the remaining, unaccounted for consequence of a partnership formed and then broken by addiction.

For DeHerrera, piecing her family back together has been a lifelong struggle.

In July, she said that the Taos County court system was discussing sending her to prison.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We’re not violent criminals. A lot of us are mothers. It’s like, let us move forward. We’re trying to get back to our children, trying to get a home and a job.”

“We’ve made mistakes and we’re paying for them,” she said, “but they need to be able to help us get through it.”


In December, DeHerrera was reincarcerated at the Taos County Adult Detention Center for violating the conditions of her probation.
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Do you ever notice that every single article written about heroin in the last 10 years makes an obligatory reference about how cheap heroin is compared to pills?

every damn time I read about dope in the paper it's: OMG HEROIN SUCH A DEAL. SUCH A BARGAIN. SO MUCH CHEAPER THAN PILLS!!!

I can't fully explain why this bothers me so much. I just know that in my mind, this worn out factoid being repeated ad nauseum is indicative of the disconnect between what addicts know about drugs and what Joe Citizen thinks he knows/wants to know.

My heart goes out to anyone who is forced to kick in jail. Quitting opiates is hard enough when you are somewhere comfortable. And how hard must it be to walk away from the meth AND dope tag team after they have gangbanged your dopamine receptors. Good god.

Anyone who can kick heroin or meth or crack or whatever and come out of it a functioning adult, ideals intact, hopes alive.... Man....These people are my heroes. My people.

Sobriety is hard.


Sometimes traveler is traveling.
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My heart goes out to anyone who is forced to kick in jail. Quitting opiates is hard enough when you are somewhere comfortable. And how hard must it be to walk away from the meth AND dope tag team after they have gangbanged your dopamine receptors. Good god.

Anyone who can kick heroin or meth or crack or whatever and come out of it a functioning adult, ideals intact, hopes alive.... Man....These people are my heroes. My people.

Sobriety is hard.

partial quote here but hell yeah I so agree with you.

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