While I watched tourists pose by the fountain and skateboarders kick and skitter along the concrete paths at Town Square Park on Thursday evening, I couldn't get the story about the rape that happened there out of my head. Everywhere I went, it seemed, people were talking about it.
Earlier in the week, a police officer interrupted a sexual assault in the northeast corner of the park, behind the Kobuk Coffee Co. building. It was around dinnertime and plenty of people were nearby. The accused rapist, Earl Vrooman, 42, is in custody now. The victim was just 18.
When police got to her, the teenager's eyes were open but she couldn't move or talk, according to the charging document. She was incapacitated after smoking synthetic marijuana, or Spice, police said. It's a drug that functions more like PCP than pot. It's made from herbs sprayed with psychotropic chemicals. Smoking it has caused deaths across the country.
Alaska lawmakers, like those in other states, have tried to ban the drug, but for a number of reasons it is still available, marketed as "incense" in tobacco shops across the city.
I spent a couple hours downtown Thursday evening with Anchorage police officers Will Cameron and Nate Mitchell. They work as plainclothes officers and have become experts on the population of street characters -- most of them homeless or quasi-homeless teens and 20-somethings -- who tend to orbit Town Square. They're looking for those involved in drug-dealing, stealing, violence and other criminal activity. In that crowd, Spice is everywhere, the officers said.
We started the evening at the police station, where Cameron showed me a garbage bag full of Spice-related litter the officers have collected downtown. The containers carried brand names like "Zombie Matter," "Bloody Eyes," "Crippler Potpourri," "Baby J" and "Bloody Mary." I opened one of the jars. It smelled similar to marijuana, but with a corrosive edge. It looked like oregano. He showed me a pipe that had been used to smoke it. Rancid tar coated the bowl.
"This is what it does to your lungs," he said.
On the way downtown, Cameron and Mitchell stopped at Tudor Smoke Shop to give me an idea of how Spice is sold. Cameron asked about cigars, and Mitchell nodded to a row of small jars in a glass case on the counter. Spice. We got back in the car.
Spice costs between $5 to $30 for a gram container the size of a tub of lip-gloss. The cheapest stuff costs less, pound for pound, than marijuana. Anti-Spice laws ban a list of chemicals commonly used in making it but makers of the products tweak the recipe so their chemicals don't fall on the list. Assured the product isn't illegal, sellers stock it.
Until recently, there has been no way for police to test what chemicals are in suspected Spice samples, according to Police Chief Mark Mew. Even if a store is selling illegal product, there was no way to prove it, he said. The new state crime lab, which just opened, has the ability to test samples for the banned chemicals, he said. There is still no completely reliable way for officers to test what they suspect to be Spice in the field.
Cameron, Mitchell and I parked and strolled down Sixth Avenue past the Transit Center. Cameron and Mitchell were wearing casual clothes, but they still gave off a cop vibe. They look like brothers, with stocky linebacker builds and matching shaved heads. We loitered for a while in Town Square. A TV crew was there, shooting a story about the rape. A group of street kids lolled on the grass. Somebody whistled, a signal that cops were nearby. The group scattered, eyeing us.
We strolled around the north side of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, down 5th Avenue. I caught the smell of marijuana. A circle of kids in ball caps and oversized hoodies were tucked into a doorway, passing a pipe. Cameron and Mitchell pulled badges out from around their necks and stood a few yards away, waiting for the kids to notice them.
The officers routinely catch people smoking Spice, they said. When they ask the downtown smokers where it came from, the most common answer is The Black Market, a downtown head shop. (When I called the Black Market later, the employee who answered said only the owner could answer questions and that he was out of town.)
People call Spice "synthetic marijuana," but aside from the appearance, it isn't the same kind of drug. It can cause delusional behavior, blood pressure problems, agitation, heart palpitations, vomiting, extreme fevers, seizures and other unexpected problems, according to a variety of reports. Over the last few weeks, the officers said, there have been at least a dozen people sent to local hospitals after smoking it. The Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence confirmed that they have been seeing patients in the ERs suffering ill effects of Spice. The Internet is full of stories about Spice-related deaths.
And then there was its role in Tuesday's rape. Both attacker and victim had been smoking.
It took a couple minutes for the kids to see us. Mitchell told them they shouldn't be smoking. They moved off, but one girl hung back. She wanted to talk, she said.
I reported on teenagers at the Transit Center downtown a few years ago. The girls haunted me afterward. They were runaways and dropouts. They talked about drinking, smoking pot, and hanging out with older guys at the Inlet Inn. Some grew up in villages. Some already had children. Their vulnerability was palpable. I wondered if the rape victim had been one of them.
The girl who wanted to talk motioned for us to come over. She had a topaz-colored stud in her face and a boy's sweatshirt on. Black eyeliner smudged her lower lashes. Her group had been smoking Spice, she said. That's all everybody smoked, she said. She told them she'd been homeless for nine months. She was 18, she said, but she looked younger.
She was pretty high, she told the officers. Spice made her productive, she said. It cleared her head. The officers asked her if she'd ever had a bad trip. She said no. They told her Spice had been sending people to the hospital. She said she'd heard that.
Mitchell asked if she'd heard about the rape. That victim was just her age. She couldn't even move or talk, she was so high on Spice, the officer told the girl. Spice could make it easy for someone to hurt her, he warned. The girl nodded at him, but her gaze was elsewhere.
He and Cameron turned to go.
"Take care of yourself," Mitchell told her.
The girl jaywalked across Sixth Avenue toward the Transit Center.