The 684-square-foot, 83-year-old home on Burton Hill Road looks every bit its age. Neglect and indifference, even while lived in all these years, have peeled its white paint and rotted its wood like a slow-moving cancer decaying the structure from the inside-out to its state of disrepair.
The same some might say about Judy Beth Rice, the house’s lone, and likely last, occupant.
Her weathered and wrinkled exterior looks of a woman more than her 69 years. Underneath, withering hips and an overstressed heart are crumbling like the eroding foundation of the wood-frame house. Such is Rice’s state from a near-lifetime of constant drug abuse, from a free-spirited start tripping on LSD in the 1970s in Trinity Park to a much darker, lonelier place — this very month blowing a chunk of her $850 Social Security check on dope.
Instead of paying her water and electric bills, Rice chose passing a pipe of admittedly low-grade meth with a too-young crew who could be her grandchildren, but who visit her ramshackle home to get high with her, steal from her and sleep on her splintered, wood-plank floors or in the shed out back.
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So the water and electricity were cut off on Jan. 22. On Jan. 26, the City of Westworth Village building official stapled white and yellow notices by the back door declaring the structure substandard and in violation of city ordinances. The occupants — Rice and her three cats — are ordered to vacate the house nightly until it is brought into compliance.
With $8 left, she thinks, to last the month, getting the permits and repairs she needs is a pipe dream.
Two weeks ago, a neighbor called the Star-Telegram concerned that an older lady who lives alone might be sleeping outside in the cold after he read the notices stapled to her house.
But what at first might have seemed a sad, but sympathetic storyline, a personal struggle that might find a happy ending with a helping hand, instead delivered a glimpse into the narcotics crisis gripping the country’s cities and rural areas alike.
“No, uh-uh, there’s no reason they should have sympathy,” said Rice, as she slid into the only chair in a remarkably disheveled living room, bundled in layers of clothing and a ratty blue, wool coat, mittens hiding slender fingers and a black ski hat perched above her ears. “I’m 69 and can’t pay my bills. I mean, come on.
“I’ve created this whole monster by myself.”
Rice, whose mental capacity outshines her physical fragility, fully understands how she arrived here, alone, broke and on the brink of homelessness. She says she wants to leave the house and move to a rent-controlled apartment. But she has no available funds until March 2 when her next Social Security installment clears. Then there’s the inconvenient felony charge in 2016 for getting busted with meth — at age 67. She served 10 days in jail and now wonders if it will disqualify her from renting.
So she stays.
“I can be here from six in the morning to 10 o’clock at night, and then I have to find some other place to go,” she said.
Where does an addict with few friends, a few bucks, no phone and no car go at night?
“To bed,” Rice said, matter-of-factly. “Yes, I have been staying here.”
She waved her finger as if to suggest not to tip off the cops. The Westworth Village Police Department doesn’t need the Star-Telegram for that.
On one cold night a couple nights after the notices went up and with temperatures sinking into the low 30s, two police officers knocked on the door. She thought it might be someone she knew, someone who might get her high, so she opened the door. The officers told Rice she can’t be inside, and warned next time she’ll go to jail.
Nowhere else to go, she stays. A cylinder propane tank outside at least allows the stove top to warm her supply of ramen noodles as well as the kitchen, at least until 10 o’clock.
“Lights out,” she said.
Rice crawls under the covers, fully dressed, and easily, she said, drifts asleep. Pitch-dark inside, the only peeps come from the family of raccoons that rummage in the shed.
“I’ll go out and make a show of it, locking the door and I walk down the trail a bit and then come back,” Rice said, clicking her dentures as she speaks. “One night I got up to get some water and I saw (a police car) turn the corner and stop, then come around.”
Officers walked the perimeter with flashlights, her windows blacked out the best she could with curtains and bed sheets.
“I was in the living room and I hit the floor,” Rice said with a chuckle.
The officers haven’t returned.
‘He got away with it’
Rice has lived in the house off and on over the last 60 years, in earlier days with her mother, a heavy smoker and drinker now deceased 30-some years from lung cancer; and since 2004 with her 81-year-old brother, Warren Rice. She surprised the lifelong bachelor, and her only living relative, by moving in. After all, she thought, half the house is hers, so why keep coming up with rent? Warren said he was not amused.
Warren’s days in failing health now seem to be spent mostly alone at a Fort Worth nursing home just a few miles from the house, although he keeps the location from his sister. Both said they are long-time adversaries. Warren, frail and struggling to draw words, said there’s no turning back. He doesn’t want to see her again.
Warren has apparently left the house for good. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital in November for a breathing issue. From there, a middle-aged couple in the neighborhood who befriended Warren Rice when out for a walk three years ago and since care for him, aided his move to the nursing home.
He washed his hands of the old house and his unwanted housemate, and of paying the bills, too.
Rice said her brother, 12 years older, always treated her with meanness. The night of May 10, 1954, might have something to do with it. Rice, 5 at the time, wiped instant tears telling the story of her “raging alcoholic” father pressing the barrel of a .22 rifle to her mother’s forehead in the living room of their Lake Worth house. As Judy Rice watched, 17-year-old Warren grabbed a .30-30 Winchester and blew away their father.
“It was real dramatic,” Rice said. “I look at it now and I don’t think she expected him to kill her, but I guess my brother did, and he got away with it. They ruled if one parent is fixin’ to kill another one, you have the right to kill the offending parent.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1954, Warren enlisted in the Navy and left behind Rice and their mother, Obie, poor and shell-shocked. All of Lake Worth knew what happened, and at school everybody now knew Judy Beth Rice.
At 9, her mother purchased the small house at 217 Burton Hill Road in quiet rural Westworth Village.
A few years later, starting with diet pills, amphetamines, Rice’s long, strange trip began in earnest.
‘It’s out of our hands’
At the Westworth Village Municipal Complex, a literal stone’s throw from Rice’s house, staff knows all too well their resident senior addict. Warren, toothless and near penniless, was likeable, they said. He would attend the monthly community luncheons at the complex.
“From a city standpoint, we’ll do whatever we can within our power and our legal right to help our residents,” Westworth Village city administrator Sterling Naron said. “But there comes a point to where it’s out of our hands, and I think we’re at that point.”
Naron said neighbors have called complaining about people sleeping in Rice’s shed. Rice enjoyed entertaining an active stream of young addicts for the meth as much as to stick it to her brother, she said. Her visitors drove him crazy, but old and weak, he was helpless to send them away.
A cursory inspection of Rice’s house by the city’s building officer showed some minor repairs needed with the key issue being the need for a water heater and for it to be professionally installed. And that’s a mystery to Naron because not long ago he said a neighbor donated a full-size water heater to her and another neighbor paid for it to be installed. And the city, Naron said, waived the permit fees.
Rice claims the water heater never worked properly, and then she allowed, Tim, one of her 20-something neighborhood meth friends, a go at it. But he screwed it all up, she said, so she took it out to the curb. Now a mini-water heater sits on a TV tray inches from the gas stove.
“I’ve known her 20 years,” friend Mel Pardue, a 69-year-old retired and disabled veteran who lives in Colleyville, said. He checks on Rice during semi-frequent trips to Navy Federal Credit Union a mile and a half from Rice’s house. He met her through a good friend who is now deceased, but almost became Rice’s third husband. Pardue said he has had it with her.
“She started letting those meth heads come over there,” Pardue said.
He checked on Rice a few days ago, and found three girls, as he described them, sleeping. He refers to her young visitors as “bicycle and cellphone tweakers.” Meth addicts are called tweakers, and these, Pardue said, get around by bike and care for only their phones and the high.
Rice gave her friend Disney, a 21-year-old user, her inoperable cellphone hoping she could replace the suddenly missing SIM card. Pardue has a good idea who stole the SIM card, the “kids” she welcomes. He said they feed her Xanax, she passes out, and they steal her debit card, food and even recently a scooter she inexplicably bought from a guy. Pardue told her not to.
“If somebody will give her drugs, she goes to the ozone layer,” Pardue said. “I told her your Social Security is to pay the utilities and clean this nasty house you got. Next thing you know, four or five of them are sleeping on the floor and a dog sh---ing on the floor.”
‘Never expected to live this long’
Pardue let Rice borrow his phone to call United Healthcare. She needed to arrange a ride to her appointment at 8:30 Thursday morning with a cardiologist. She said she has congestive heart failure and will need surgery.
She doesn’t necessarily want to go through with it at her age and essentially alone, but lately, with no power and no water, she’s been thinking maybe the entire ordeal, surgery, the rehab, a stronger heart, can be a watershed moment, a last opportunity to stop using drugs. But, she woke up at 7 she said, and having not showered for a week, felt too dirty to see the doctor. So she skipped the appointment. She said she’ll reschedule.
“I never expected to live this long. I’m totally surprised and not real pleased kinda,” Rice said, decades worth of polluting her body failing to dull her wit. “You know, I expected to be gone by now.”
Rice said at 17 she knew she’d probably wind up an addict, and it’s why, she said, God gave her 100-words-a-minute typing skill. An orderly during a brief move to Denver, she landed a typing job at the hospital, leading to a pretty successful career as medical transcriptionist back in Fort Worth. For 20 years during her second marriage, she said she made good money working for herself and contracting with local hospitals, up to $80,000 a year, well more than her bricklaying and drug-addicted former husband.
But, as a “functional drug addict,” her income was just always tossed “here and there,” she said.
Her drug of choice started as the cancer medication Dilaudid, and she said a cousin who was a doctor got the whole family hooked on the barbiturate Tuinal, a powerful sleeping pill. From there, pretty much anything went.
“I’ve done some of the best drugs in the world,” Rice said with a smile and more than a measure of pride.
From 1970 to about 1984, heroin invaded.
“That’s how I got into opiates, and I loved them,” Rice said. “Opiates gave me lots of energy. Some people are like that. My mother was like that.”
For a time, crank — an impure form of crystal meth — made her very happy; the best speed she said she’s ever done.
“Even better than pharmaceutical methamphetamine,” Rice said. “It’s just the very best. You could snort a line just like a coke spoonful, which is a little, bitty thing, and within two minutes you’re cleaning out the refrigerator. It was great.”
Then days before getting married again in ’84, she told her fiancé she’d had enough. She went to a methadone clinic in Fort Worth.
But she then spent almost the next 30 years hooked on increasing doses of methadone, meant to serve as medication-based therapy for opioid-based drug addictions, like heroin and prescription painkillers.
“Last time I went, there were all these kids who had been strung out on hydrocodone, pills,” Rice said. “They weren’t shooting dope or anything, they were on pills.”
When she finally kicked methadone around 2012, Rice vowed it was the end.
But, a week later, she found meth.
Nearby River Oaks, she said, is teeming with it, and the ongoing meth crisis in Texas and Oklahoma is equal to the opioid crisis here and elsewhere in the country.
‘It’s time to stop’
It appears Rice will try to tough it out at her substandard house where she’s not supposed to be after 10 o’clock at night.
This weekend she said she plans to stay with her friend Kathy, where she can at least take a shower and not have to worry about keeping buckets full of water handy so she can flush the toilet.
When she awoke Tuesday morning after another cold night, Rice said she realized leaving the house is her only realistic option. She said there is no meth in the house, and even if Tim and Disney and her other friends stop by, she won’t pass the pipe. After all, she said, the meth the kids get “just isn’t any good.”
And maybe, just maybe, as life’s latter stages take hold and only cups of ramen noodles fill open cabinets in a filthy kitchen, and basic bills can’t be paid, perhaps there is the ability, and hopefully the will, to break through.
“I have to, I really don’t have any choice,” Rice said. “I can’t afford to buy pills and I don’t want to. It’s like I’ve done every kind of drug there is to do and I’ve abused all of them and it’s time to stop. I don’t want to go backwards. I can find some methadone on the street and get back on methadone in a minute.
“But I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to.”
When she eventually leaves, one way or another, the house is expected to be bulldozed.
For now, she stays.
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan