This is the fourth in a five-part series about sentencing reform in Georgia. A special state commission has found that drug courts are less expensive and work better than prison terms for many offenders. Today’s article focuses on the struggle of a Dawson County man who is in the last phase of the program.
Seven mornings a week, Gordon Pirkle Jr. arrives at the Pool Room just off the Dawsonville square to run the NASCAR-themed restaurant founded by his father 45 years ago.
That would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
Two years ago – and for years and years before that -- Pirkle was a hard-core methamphetamine addict. He took the drug so often it broke up his family, landed him in federal prison and cost him most of his teeth.
During a recent interview, Pirkle recalled when his “meth mouth” tooth decay got so bad he resorted to applying Super Glue to his bottom front teeth to keep them from falling out. (It actually seemed to work for a while, but when he later went to prison, a dentist pulled them anyway.)
In those days, he’d start thinking about getting high as soon as he woke up, although he often never went to sleep. He’d sneak off whenever he could to get high, and he’d stay up for five to six days straight before finally crashing.
“Back then, my daddy couldn’t depend on me, nobody could,” Pirkle, 45, said recently at the restaurant beneath framed photos of local racing legend Bill Elliott. “My word wasn’t worth nothing.”
That’s changed. Pirkle, drug free since April 2010, is now in the final phase of Dawson County’s accountability court program.
Pirkle started drinking and using drugs as a teenager, so much so he had dropped out of high school, been arrested for DUI and lost his driver’s license by the time he was 18.
A mechanic, Pirkle let drug dealers fix their cars at his garage in exchange for dope. Along the way, he met his wife on a blind date and they had two sons and two daughters.
In 1999, Pirkle was arrested on federal charges of aiding and abetting the distribution of meth. He pleaded guilty and spent two years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.
Because Pirkle’s probation officer would drop by the first of every month, he’d get high for two weeks, then stay clean until the next visit.
But one day, he fell off his roof and broke his wrist. He was prescribed painkillers for six months and during that time, his probation officer stayed away, knowing Pirkle would could not pass a drug test. Pirkle got his prescriptions, but did not take them; he saved them for another day and got high on meth instead.
His scheme worked for a while until he had 10 months left on probation, when he repeatedly tested positive for meth and was required to wear an ankle bracelet.
Without being required to take substance abuse programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Pirkle said, “it was like they just threw me back to the wolves.”
In November 2009, Pirkle was arrested again with a longtime friend who was charged with selling meth and later sentenced to 30 years. Police found meth in Pirkle’s pocket during the search and charged him with possession.
He pleaded guilty in April 2010 before Superior Court Judge Jason Deal. “It sounds like you had a decade of using methamphetamine,” Deal told Pirkle at sentencing. “We got to do something about that. I assume you’ve tried to set it down before. Sometimes it is not that easy.”
Deal sentenced Pirkle to 90 days’ work release, letting him work at the Pool Room during the day and spending his nights at the jail. That was to be followed by nine months in a residential substance abuse treatment center used for state prisoners.
But Pirkle did not want to be away from his father, who was still working long hours at the Pool Room, and he was determined to break his addiction once and for all. Instead, Pirkle chose Dawson County’s two-year drug court program.
He’s been clean ever since. In February, Pirkle moved into the fifth and final phase and, if all continues to go well, he’ll graduate in August.
“I’m proud of myself,” Pirkle said. “I ain’t never been before, until now. I’m now getting by like a regular human being. It feels good.”
He added, “All I’ve ever wanted to do was to get the trust and love of my daddy.”
When told a few hours later what his son had said about him, Gordon Pirkle Sr. paused a good while before speaking. Tears formed in his eyes as he sat at a table in the Georgia Racing Museum Hall of Fame museum, which he oversees in the morning before heading back up the street to the Pool Room in the afternoon.
“I wouldn’t want nobody to have their son go through what mine has,” he finally said. “I thought that federal case had taught him a lesson. But then you started seeing the same behavior again and again and again. He was in such denial. This last time, I thought he was ruined.”
Pirkle said he’s proud of his son and glad to give him the responsibility of overseeing the Pool Room. “It didn’t work before, but it’s working this time,” he said. “And I think it’s because he wants it. I also know they’re real strict in drug court. That’s what makes it work.”
His son has not only gotten his dignity back, he’s gotten a full set of teeth as well, thanks to help from Friends of Recovery, a Dawsonville nonprofit that collects donations for drug court functions and services. It helps participants pay for dental work for meth-mouth decay.
Just a few weeks ago, Pirkle had only 13 teeth left. He now has a full set of teeth.
In early February, he stood before the congregation of New Life Church, where members had donated money to the recovery program. Some church members wept when he told them this was the first time his youngest son, 18-year-old Glen, had seen him with all his teeth.
Pirkle said he has succeeded at drug court because it required him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and attend group counseling sessions.
“It’s given my life structure and made me accountable,” he said. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that drug court saved my life.”
Pirkle said when he graduates from drug court, he won’t be finished with it.
“I want to go to all the graduations, to help the ones behind me,” he said. “I want to give back whatever I can, to help others as much as it helped me. This program gave me more back than I could ever ask for.”
A few weeks ago, Pirkle was at the hospital when his youngest daughter gave birth to his grandson – the first time he had not been on drugs when one of his children or grandchildren had been born. The next weekend, he took care of his granddaughter. He got help from Glen, who lives at Pirkle’s house and works alongside his dad at the Pool Room.
“It’s the biggest high I’ve ever had,” Pirkle said. “It’s something to stay clean for.”
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