1 of 7
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Leighann Marsh is hugged by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams after speaking during a press conference regarding arrests in Operation Rio Grande and the initiative for the new specialty court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. Marsh, who was addicted to methamphetamines several years ago, is a peer mentor for the new court.

SALT LAKE CITY — It started with a car accident.

Shackled and dressed in a red jail uniform, the 33-year-old woman told a judge how she went from being a loving wife and mother with high career goals to a police car near Salt Lake's downtown homeless shelter, the hub of drug activity and crime in the state.

The woman had worked as a dental hygienist, gone on to earn her MBA and was a financial manager at a car dealership for nearly four years. But after the car accident, she got hooked on pain pills.

Then she turned to stronger drugs.

The woman turned to heroin, using for almost two years, she explained. She'd also tried cocaine for a while, she said, though she hadn't used any since last October.

She was arrested Aug. 15, the second day of Operation Rio Grande, a massive, collaborative push meant to clear the neighborhood around the shelter of drugs and crime.

Out of more than 1,000 arrests made since Operation Rio Grande began, the woman was one of 35 people who have been identified to kickoff the new drug court, the fourth such therapeutic program in Salt Lake County's lineup.

Meanwhile, officials announced Wednesday that four police agencies participating in Operation Rio Grande had raided a home in Ogden that they believed had been supplying drugs to the area.

State, county and city leaders say the initiative that began with a large and sustained law enforcement effort in the neighborhood is now moving into its second phase, which focuses on treatment.

A third phase incorporating job training and placement is in the works.

One by one during an orientation hearing Tuesday and a review on Wednesday, the candidates — most of whom remain in custody in Salt Lake Count Jail — shared stories of their addictions and the circumstances in their lives that led them there. The Deseret News has chosen not to name Wednesday's participants.

For one man, it was a diagnosis of lung disease. For another, it was pain from previously undiagnosed scoliosis. A third said it was a development of alcoholism. One woman said she gave up hope after losing custody of her kids.

Several spoke of tragedies in their families. A 39-year-old mother of two told the judge about how her own mother's suicide, followed by her father's onset of Alzheimer's disease, overwhelmed her.

"Dealing with all of that, I just wasn't strong enough. I broke, your honor," she said.

Third District Judge Dennis Fuchs chatted comfortably with each candidate Wednesday, asking them about their trials and praising their desires to change. As each one reported the number of days they have been clean, the judge and all in the room applauded.

"This is not to punish you for doing the wrong thing, it is to commend you for doing the right things," Fuchs told the group.

Through the program, participants are promised help rather than punishment, so long as they participate in treatment, come to court weekly and undergo regular drug testing. They will begin the program in 37 slots being made available this week in residential treatment programs through Operation Rio Grande funding.

As they spoke during Wednesday's hearing, several participants asked eagerly about when they will be moved into treatment facilities, thanking the people who made the placement possible.

"I want to tell you how grateful I am to each and every one of you for this," said one woman, who is looking forward to spending Thursday, her 26th birthday, sober for the first time in years.

Ultimately, the woman said she hopes the program will allow her to someday be reunited with her two children.

"I'm excited to start, but I'm scared," she admitted.

In two weeks, participants in the drug court will plead guilty to their individual charges, and that plea will be held in abeyance while they go through the program. At graduation, the charges will be dismissed.

The 35 candidates were told during Tuesday's orientation that while mistakes are common, even expected, on the road to recovery, they must honestly disclose them in court in order to receive help. Attempts to lie about violations or dilute drug tests will be discovered, they were warned, leading to compounding consequences.

Only one candidate said he wasn't interested in proceeding, but wanted to face the charges from his arrest in a traditional courtroom. Additionally, a warrant was issued for a 19-year-old woman who had been released the day before and then didn't show up for court Wednesday.

Prior to the hearing, a joint press conference about the program was held in the courthouse rotunda by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who serves as the state's "point person" on homelessness and Rio Grande; Salt County Mayor Ben McAdams; and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

The trio emphasized Operation Rio Grade's treatment priorities, reaffirming promises that no one is trying to solve the embattled neighborhood's problems through arrests.

"It's happening, we're making a tremendous difference," said Cox, who took time prior to the press conference walking the Rio Grande area and talking to people there.

"But we can't just warehouse people," Cox added. "If we're just arresting people, we know it's not going to work. We've tried that before."

While all 37 new treatment beds will be filled by the end of the week, more than 240 beds will be added by the end of 2017 under Operation Rio Grande's $67 million price tag and about $6 million anticipated from Medicaid waivers that state officials say are expected to be approved by the end of the year.

Cox assured that a representative from the governor's office was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday continuing the state's efforts to secure the Medicaid waivers.

Gill affirmed that while help is being made available to people whose criminal behavior is fueled by addiction and mental illness, harming themselves and their loved ones, participation in the court will also hold them accountable to do their part in their recovery.

While Gill explained that he could fill any number of jail beds made available to him, yielding high costs and no change, he insisted that therapeutic justice is "our way out of this situation."

Currently, the newly created drug court has 125 slots. While McAdams voiced his hope that those spaces combined with the new treatment beds will meet the county's needs, Gill said afterward he believes this could be just the beginning.