September 9 story in The Province,by Ethan Baron
Cigarettes. Marijuana. Ecstasy. Cocaine. Crystal meth. Heroin.
It was not an unusual progression, but what sets Roberta Watt’s drug career apart is the age at which she started, and the velocity of her fall.
Outwardly, Roberta appeared to be on track to a successful life. She had a loving, devoted father. They lived in Kerrisdale, one of Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Like many children in the area, she grew up taking horseback lessons. Once a week, a music teacher came to give her flute lessons in the living room.
But behind that idyllic picture lay a darker story. Her father, Rob Watt, now 66, was a former cannabis trafficker who had built a new life around his beloved daughter. Roberta’s mother was a crack addict who kept her seesawing from elated attachment to crushing disappointment.
The trouble started before Roberta can remember, even before she was born, with her mother smoking crack during the pregnancy.
She knew by age seven that her mom was an addict, but that awareness didn’t diminish what she felt for the woman who bore her, and who visited irregularly.
“Whenever she was there, it was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s here. She’s actually in front of me,'” Roberta says by phone from Montreal.
“I idolized her, the way she looked, the way she laughed, her hands, the way she picked me up. I just cherished every moment I had, because I never knew when the next one would come.”
She remembers the painful conversation in which a family member let slip that Roberta’s mom was actually on drugs during the times she visited her daughter.
“It was a big eye-opener,” Roberta says.
Particularly hurtful were the family discussions of her mother’s life, in which people she loved said terrible things.
“The second I saw her, I would be so happy that she was there that I would forget about it all,” Roberta says. “I really loved her.”
Roberta was a clean-living, active girl. But her home was frequently full of extended family, marijuana smoke clouding the air.
“Everybody was just waiting for me to smoke pot so I could be part of the family,” Roberta recalls. Instead, she would criticize the smokers, telling them, “You guys are all stupid for smoking pot,” she says. “Everyone was all like, ‘When is she just going to chill out and smoke a joint?’ “
When she finally began smoking, at age 13, her home became a gathering place for her friends.
“You could come over and smoke pot,” she says. “Everyone loved that . . . I always had the best pot, and it was free. My dad gave it to me.”
Her father believes cigarettes and drinking posed a far bigger threat to Roberta than marijuana, and sees no connection between her early pot use and the hard drugs that followed.
Three months into high school, at age 14, Roberta decided to take ecstasy. “I tried it once, and for about five months I did it every single weekend,” she says.
After she took the drug three out of five days during spring break, friends warned her to slow down. As would occur again and again, when even hardened addicts would worry about her extreme drug abuse, Roberta didn’t listen.
She was hanging around with much older people, and started snorting cocaine. Coke had an added fascination. It was the drug that had hooked her mother.
“I really wanted to see what all the fuss is about . . . what my mom was finding so attractive in this drug, that could be more important than me and [her] four other kids,” Roberta says.
She loved the cocaine high, and kept chasing it. She knew hard-drug use would upset her father, who had pulled his life together while serving house arrest when she was three for driving a truck carrying six tonnes of hashish.
Her father, she says, put an “intense amount of love and effort and investment” into raising her.
“Me to my dad, I was like his saviour, I was the thing that was just going to make him whole,” she says. “We were like a team — it was us against the world.”
As Roberta began to hurtle down the slippery slope of addiction, her father remained unaware.
“He thinks I’m just smoking a bunch of pot. He’s giving me money, and freedom, and everything else a rebelling teenager wants.”
Former Vancouver policeman Al Arsenault encountered countless addicts in nearly 15 years patrolling the Downtown Eastside beat. He met Roberta while working on a documentary film about crystal meth, produced by the Odd Squad, a group of cops and retired officers.
Roberta, by that time mainlining meth via needles, provided textbook-perfect material to illustrate the horrors of drug addiction. To Arsenault, she looked like a terminal case.
“When you’re mainlining, it’s as far as you can go,” Arsenault says. “That’s hardcore. I just thought, ‘Crystal meth, young girl, mainlining: you’re done.'”
The company she kept drew her deep into the drug underworld. Buster, a meth dealer, counterfeiter and stolen-property “fence” in his late 30s, became her boyfriend when she was 14, and was a “major influence,” says Vancouver Det. Rob Jaberg, who first came across Roberta while he was on the beat in the downtown core.
“He generally likes the young girls,” Jaberg says. “He’s a real piece of work.”
Hoping to loosen the charismatic Buster’s hold on Roberta, Jaberg pointed the department’s identity-theft task force — a group focused on meth-driven fraud — in Buster’s direction.
Roberta, meanwhile, began trolling the alleys and bedbug-infested rooms of the Downtown Eastside, selling meth and pot. “I had a lot of dope, and I had a lot of money, and I was a good businesswoman,” she says.
In the Downtown Eastside, and among the street kids in the city core, Roberta found an increasing sense of self, and easy gratification.
“I was having sex with people in alleys and in parked cars and in stairwells, anywhere,” she says. “I didn’t refuse anybody sexually.”
In June 2005, police responded to a reported break-and-enter in an office and apartment building near Cambie Street and Broadway, where Roberta and Buster were shacked up. Buster hid in a room across the hall.
“When police went in one end, Roberta went out the back,” says Jaberg, currently a member of the identity-theft team. “There were police out back, too. She was carrying her boyfriend’s stash of drugs.”
Roberta was charged with possessing 77 grams of meth, for trafficking purposes. Jaberg, who works in the department’s identity-theft task force, kept in contact with Roberta.
“I saw some hope in her,” he says. “Ultimately, she’s a good kid.”
Though he felt the bust was a “wake-up call” for Roberta, he watched as she continued down the path to ruin. She started injecting heroin along with meth, and her room at home was strewn with needles, Jaberg recalls. She was becoming unkempt, and had lost the brightness of demeanour he’d seen before.
“She deteriorated faster because of the heroin,” Jaberg says.
The opiate drug became a refuge for Roberta within the frantic world of meth.
“It felt like I was just in heaven. From being so jittery and so up and going crazy all the time, picking at myself,” Roberta says, “I became totally calm.”
Through her addiction, Roberta had stayed in school. She dropped out of Point Grey Secondary midway through Grade 10, but continued in alternative programs, shooting up before class, during breaks, even in the back of the bus on her way home.
She became obsessed with needles, sometimes drawing out her own blood just to inject it back in.
“It was this total love affair with this way of mutilating myself,” Roberta recalls. “I was not this young girl, I was just this total old haggard lady that was wanting to die, and I was trying to get as high as I could before that happened.”
Even now, drug-free after rehab and poised to begin college in Montreal, Roberta struggles to explain why she left the posh comfort and love of her family home for the chaotic drug underworld.
“It would be really easy to say, ‘Oh, because my mom was an addict,’ or it would be really easy to say, ‘Oh, it was my dad who enabled it,'” she says.
She remembers being ostracized as a schoolgirl when another female student turned friends against her. She remembers the sense of betrayal she felt when she learned her mother was on drugs during visits. But most of all, she remembers feeling what so many youngsters feel as they enter the teenage years, the sense that nobody understands them, or sees the world the way they do.
The persona of an extreme drug abuser was alluring.
“Being that crazy, f—ed up hardcore chick was very important to me,” she says. “It’s a really loud identity.”
Her new life, she discovered, brought a sense of self-hatred that felt good. And it turned the focus of those she loved toward her.
“The feeling was so appealing to me, of pain, of self-loathing, of pushing the people that cared about me away, making them feel the pain with me,” she says. “I liked the reaction when people would be worried about me.”
She took pride in the status she’d gained as a girl swimming successfully with the piranhas of the underworld, and impressing the bottom-feeders.
Nobody, she says, could stop her from pursuing the mind-bending highs.
“I just wanted to feel this over and over and over again,” she says. “I’m 15, and I have my dad by the balls. He’s not going to get in my way. I would go to school in Grade 9, not having slept for three days.”
She was taken one day by a biker nicknamed “Angel” to a room in the Downtown Eastside’s Stanley Hotel. The man used her for sex for three days, refusing to let her leave.
“I needed to go to school,” Roberta says. “I said, ‘I promise to come back, just let me go to school.'”
Finally, on a trip to the washroom, she bolted.
In March 2006, a friend of Roberta’s suffered a near-fatal overdose in the home where Roberta and her father lived, and two years later, armed men committed a home invasion at their house.
Roberta brought trouble and pain to her father’s life. He gave back unconditional love. The man who had provided marijuana to his daughter had watched her fall victim to much harder drugs, and he fought with all he had to keep her safe.
There were many friends, even in the drug scene, urging her to clean up. There was her father’s lawyer, who argued in court that Roberta was a good candidate for rehabilitation, and directed her to the program that has, so far, saved her life. There were police, including Arsenault and fellow Odd Squad producer Sgt. Toby Hinton, and meth-scene expert Jaberg, who wrote a letter to the court after Roberta’s meth arrest.
“Roberta appeared to be very intelligent, quick-witted, and pleasant to talk to,” Jaberg wrote in the May 2007 letter. “In my opinion, Roberta was victimized by a predator who manipulates and preys on young women in order to get them to do his bidding.”
Jaberg set up a meeting to talk with Roberta and her father about ways to get her out of addiction. The officer has mixed feelings about Rob Watt’s decision to fund his daughter’s addiction.
“While he enabled it, he strived to keep her safe,” Jaberg says. “Other parents, they would lose control, then who knows where their daughter is, or their son?”
Roberta reached a deal with the Crown that her drug charge would be dropped if she went to rehab. While waiting to get into the program, she continued her heavy drug use.
Her turning point came when her despairing father sat her down, and made her see, for a moment, outside her own world.
“I just want to ask you if I should prepare myself to live like this for the rest of my life,” he asked her.
The sincerity of her dad’s plea overwhelmed her.
“I felt for the first time the amount of pain that I actually caused somebody else,” she says.
She agreed to go to detox, believing she would fail, but found herself inspired by the stories, and healthy lives, of recovering addicts who spoke in the facility.
For her rehabilitation, she was sent to the Portage residential treatment centre in Montreal, in a pilot program of Vancouver Coastal Health. Her 11 months in Portage solidified her new, drug-free life.
She finished high school during treatment and afterward.
Roberta started college in Montreal on Aug. 24.