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The lowest, most frightening point of Brandi Snow-Fly’s 15-year methamphetamine addiction wasn’t getting arrested, going to prison or losing custody of her children.
The bottom came when Snow-Fly was in California several years ago, on the back end of a 5-month meth bender during which she was never straight. She had been kicked out of her friend’s home and was living on the streets when she found herself one morning in a truck headed to a rural area with a homeless Mexican meth addict she had befriended and who promised to get them work.
The pair arrived at a home where two men were waiting. Her “friend” and the others tried for several hours to convince Snow-Fly to go inside, but she felt something wasn’t right. She resisted and eventually they all drove to a gas station where Snow-Fly tried to leave but was crowded in a seat between two of the men. During the struggle, she overheard them talk about money that had been paid.
They wouldn’t allow Snow-Fly to get out, so as a final resort she began to scream until passersby noticed, and the men kicked her out of the truck and drove off.
“I think the Mexican guy had sold me to those men,” Snow-Fly recalled. “I do believe they were going to rape and kill me.”
Snow-Fly retold that story recently while sitting on the edge of a bed in her Rapid City apartment, where she now lives with four of her six children. Snow-Fly spent about 30 months in jail and the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre on drug distribution charges, and was released on parole in January 2017.
So far, Snow-Fly has emerged as a rare success story in the typical cycle of meth addiction, incarceration and relapse. She works full-time at a local Walmart. She has not re-offended and said she is not using drugs or violating her parole. Other than her 5-year-old daughter who lives with her father and grandmother, and her oldest son who lives with his father in Mitchell, Snow-Fly cares for her remaining children ages 7 to 10.
She has entered the process to obtain a Habitat for Humanity home for her and her children.
During a visit to her crowded apartment, some children played video games while her daughter sifted through Christmas ornaments she had received as a gift and did handstands on the bed.
Though at times chaotic, and certainly busy, life for Snow-Fly now is almost inconceivably better than in the past.
Born in Valentine, Neb., Snow-Fly had an unsettled childhood. Her parents were alcoholics, and at age 5 she and her siblings were removed from the home and placed in foster care.
For a time, Snow-Fly thrived in a caring environment. She did well in school, enrolled in the Upward Bound pre-college program and in summers during high school lived on the campus of the University of South Dakota to attend a program that prepares students for a career in nursing or health care.
But a dark side loomed. In eighth grade, Snow-Fly got drunk and “it was nothing like I had felt before,” and soon she was drinking heavily and smoking pot.
She showed up drunk to a class at USD and was kicked out of the program. She returned to her foster home, graduated high school and got a job at a gas station, but the work only provided her money with which to buy booze and drugs.
By 21, she had moved to Rapid City and had two DUI charges on her record. Once she moved in with a drug dealer, she became hooked on meth.
She tried a change of scenery by moving to California, but within hours of getting off the bus she was high on meth that was cheaper and stronger than in South Dakota. After five months of being high on meth, becoming homeless and enduring the trauma in the truck, Snow-Fly bottomed out and returned to South Dakota where she had family and friends.
Then, a pattern emerged: get high, run with addicts, become pregnant and give birth, try to balance motherhood and meth use.
Like many addicts, Snow-Fly had periods of sobriety, including a stint working at Shopko where she was soon promoted. But on a day off, she ran into her old crowd and smoked meth. She disappeared for days and gave up her job.
With no income and children to house and feed, Snow-Fly said she faced only grim choices. “Every day I woke up, it’s like I needed to go get some meth because you just have to have it,” she said. “You need money so it’s either one thing or the other — sell yourself or sell drugs.”
Snow-Fly said she refused to prostitute herself, so she became a meth dealer who was at times moving $4,000 of the drug each day. While selling, her children would stay with friends or babysitters who Snow-Fly said were also prone to being drunk or high.
She was arrested on possession charges and eventually was caught selling meth to an undercover informant. In January 2015, she was sentenced to eight years in prison for drug distribution.
While serving time, she underwent an intensive meth treatment program and training in cognition and emotional control (she still keeps her marked-up study manuals within close reach in her apartment.) During her incarceration, her children went to live with her brother, who she said has his own substance abuse problems.
Upon release, Snow-Fly regained custody of several of her children and attended a re-entry program run by the Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City. She began attending Masses with her children, and landed a full-time job.
Snow-Fly, 35, said she is committed to avoiding the triggers and traps that led to her addiction. She said she listens to scripture and financial counseling programs, stays away from her old friends, sets healthy boundaries and routines for herself and her children, listens to advice from knowledgeable people around her, and most of all has not given up on herself or her family.
Nothing has come easy. Snow-Fly said she understands her children have been through a lot of instability, and she had to teach them how to be nice to one another in the wake of the trauma they endured. She speaks openly with them of her addiction, crimes and poor choices.
“They’re strong; I don’t know if I could have gone through all that they did,” she said. “They’re at an age where they can still grow out of it, and hopefully learn from the things that I did.”
Snow-Fly is confident she can continue on a productive path. She wants to someday own a home, run a business, go back to school and maybe write a book.
“You have to stay busy, stay active, go to church, be with your kids and plan for their needs,” she said. “I feel good, I feel really positive.”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.