Former Spice user hopes federal case will raise awareness
Jessica Burch says she knows Philip Drake Kneeland now realizes his Spice sales hurt people in the Kenai Peninsula community. She was in federal court when Kneeland was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for trafficking the designer drug Spice.
"His statement was actually very heartfelt," she said. "He shed tears. He apologized to the community. He apologized to me directly. He said he didn't know that it affected us like this. He said when he first went to jail for the first few months, he would blame everybody else but himself."
According to Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder's office, Kneeland, 34, received a 70-month prison term on Friday for distributing the designer drug, Spice, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of the drug trafficking. He pleaded guilty on March 6. Authorities found the Spice Kneeland distributed contained "cannabimimetic agents," including compounds in violation of the federal controlled substances law.
Federal prosecutors issued a statement saying Kneeland was also ordered to "forfeit to the United States approximately $75,400.00, a 2014 GMC truck and four firearms."
Burch, who lives in Sterling, said her addiction to Spice, for nearly three years, almost killed her. A former customer of Kneeland's, she was one of the people who protested at Tobacco Distress in Soldotna in 2015, holding signs saying "SPICE KILLS." According to federal prosecutors, Kneeland and a co-defendant, William Donald Vincent Dooley, both sold Spice between July 2014 until December 2015.
"It hit me financially, my health definitely," Burch said. "[I was] in the hospital with breathing problems for a long time."
Burch said she dealt with sweating late at night, having to wake up every two hours to use the drug just so she could go back to sleep. She said her addiction wasn't because she wanted to feel a high, but rather to keep from being sick and trying to function during the day.
"You hear a lot about people going through withdrawals of heroin and things like that," she said. "It's almost that same kind of experience."
Federal authorities said in a statement, "the Court heard testimony from a local resident and local law enforcement that the Spice epidemic on the Kenai Peninsula has essentially disappeared since Kneeland's arrest."
Burch said she hasn't heard many stories of overdoses since his arrest and she herself, has stopped using the drug. She now puts her energy into educating others about the dangers of Spice.
"People can message me," she said. "They can track me down and send me messages. They can talk about anything they have questions about. I actually helped a girl who was 14 at the time she got addicted to Spice down here. She was going to the local high school. She was 17 when she reached out to me and at this point she was suicidal."
Burch said she's also taking college classes so she can soon qualify to be a volunteer counselor in her community. She occasionally speaks at the library about the dangers of designer drugs as well.
"When the community comes together, we can accomplish great things," she said about the case.
In court, Burch said Kneeland testified about how he met former customers of his in jail.
"One man had told him he was addicted to Spice and he was homeless, but he would spend his money on Spice before he would buy food," she said. "When he actually had people telling him that they were homeless but they would prefer to buy the Spice, it really hit him hard to where he realized what he was doing wrong."
She says while she forgives Kneeland for his actions, she knows others are still grappling with the tragedies from his actions.
"The people that have to suffer, like the mother that was at the protest holding a picture of her daughter on the sign because her daughter committed suicide -- they have to live with that grief forever," she said.
Kneeland will have to perform 200 hours of community service after serving his prison sentence, per the judge's orders. Dooley was given five years of probation.
Chris Klint contributed to this story.