In talk to students, Kihei man puts a face on dangers of meth addiction

KAPALUA – After a decade and a half of addiction, a former methamphetamine user spoke to students at Maui Preparatory Academy about how he had lost everything from his family to himself.

“Drugs have a way of changing who you are,” he said. “I lost my kids, my wife, my job . . . and a lot of teeth.”

William Wandell of Kihei was a guest speaker for Hawaii Meth Project’s informational assembly at the private school in Kapalua earlier this week. Around 85 high- and middle-school students learned about the dangers of meth and its widespread use in Hawaii.

Colby Takeda, program manager for Hawaii Meth Project, opened the assembly and presented students with statistics and an explanation of the detrimental health effects of meth.

Takeda said that the drug affects the pleasure centers of the brain and eventually can prevent users from feeling any pleasure. Users begin to suffer from adverse health effects, such as memory loss, malnutrition and psychotic behavior.

“It’s all about getting the message to (students of Hawaii), helping them understand how dangerous this drug really is, knowing what the drug can do to your brain and body, and going out and telling your friends about it,” Takeda said. “Hopefully, this will change the attitudes of teens across the state so they can become advocates for their friends.”

In his presentation, Takeda said that 42 percent of Hawaii’s drug enforcement operations go to dealing with meth.

“Eighty-five to 90 percent of first-time users become addicted,” he added.

After Takeda’s presentation, Wandell spoke about his first time using meth. Growing up in Roseburg, Ore., he said that he was a scrawny teenager with bad acne and with only a few friends. He said he started to experiment with drugs, such as marijuana, but did not use meth until one of his friends introduced it to him after high school.

“I was at a party, and I told my friend I was really tired,” he said. “That’s when he gave me meth. He didn’t tell me what it was, just that it would give me energy.”

That marked the beginning of what would end up being a 15-year drug addiction and a crime spree that included five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, he said.

Wandell, 38, said he would snort or smoke methamphetamines multiple times a day, and at one point injected the drug in his veins.

In a follow-up interview by phone, Wandell talked about his meth addiction on Maui.

In 1998, his family, which included his wife and son and daughter, moved to the Valley Isle, but three years later he was separated from them. At this point, he said he was homeless, staying with friends and fellow drug users in West Maui.

“I almost got myself killed over a drug deal,” he said. “With that realization, I just broke down and called my mom, and she paid for the airfare for me to come back to Oregon and clean up, but then my friend gave me a call, and I was back to using.”

Six years later, Wandell began to turn his life around when he started painting and roofing houses for a businessman in Kihei.

“He was an unemployed painter, dating my daughter,” said Dale Ward, owner of Award Roofing Inc. “So I hired him to do some paint jobs, and he did a really good job.”

As a small-business owner, Ward said it is difficult to find reliable workers, and Wandell had a good work ethic. Wandell eventually became Ward’s right-hand man, and the two would frequently work jobs together.

Initially, Ward was unaware of Wandell’s drug addiction and only found out after a job in Kula.

“He was really lethargic, and he kept dropping his tools off the roof,” said Ward. “I yelled at him and said, ‘C’mon Will, get it together.’ From what I understand, when people are coming down from meth they just want to sleep. He was drinking coffee like crazy, enough to make peoples’ hair stand up.”

Ward said this happened several times, and Wandell began showing up to work hours late. When Ward spoke to Wandell about his declining work habits, Wandell said he could no longer handle the responsibility and quit.

“I was caring less and less about making it to work on time,” Wandell said. “Work was cutting into my using time.”

He reached rock bottom in late 2006, when he was arrested for threatening a man in Lahaina, while attempting to steal a car. Sitting in jail and without any friends to call to post bail for him, Wandell turned to his former boss.

Although Wandell was no longer dating his daughter, Ward not only posted Wandell’s bail but brought him into his home.

“He was my right-hand guy,” said Ward. “I didn’t want to just bail out on him when he was going through problems. I really felt if he could get his head on straight, he could turn his life around.”

Ward and his wife, Melanie, took care of Wandell for about three months before his court hearing on the auto theft charges in 2007. At the hearing, he was sentenced to one year in jail, an experience that finally helped him overcome his addiction, he said.

“It felt different,” he said. “I was finally over the insanity. The obsession to use was so strong prior, but now it felt like it was doable (to stay clean).”

Wandell went to live with the Wards again after being released in late 2007.

“With my faith in God, I don’t believe anyone cannot be helped, so I encouraged Will to help out in the community” said Ward. “None of it was major initially, but in living with us he looks like he was changing his perspective on life.”

Ward said he initially took Wandell everywhere he went, helping him find his faith in the process. Wandell began going to church frequently, occupying his time with Bible studies and volunteer opportunities.

He also said he has mended his relationship with his children, who at one point had nothing but hatred for him. At a recent barbecue, he said his daughter asked him if he really was clean.

“I said, ‘Yes.’ I could see tears well up in her eyes, and she started bawling and said, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said. “It was such a strong emotion, it was huge. Just to see her, how she had been holding out for me and waiting for me to relapse . . . That’s really one of the hugest things.”

Wandell still lives with the Wards but is looking to move into a place of his own. He has a new girlfriend and a painting business, which he is hoping to expand.

“I’m just now getting ready to propose so we’re in a transitional point now,” he said. “With everything lining up though, it feels like I’m finally able to move forward.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at