In January 1998, Darlene Burgess Lorenz landed on the cover of the Local section of the Tulsa World for having one of the harshest sentences known in the state for manufacturing methamphetamine.
She and Jerry Dean Hill were handed two life sentences, 600 years, and fines of more than $120,000 each for manufacturing methamphetamine and carrying firearms at a motel in Rogers County.
“I was obnoxious in court,” she said.
The couple was arrested July 2, 1997, at a Claremore motel. Officers were executing a Tulsa County arrest warrant for Lorenz for not appearing in court on a drug charge, according to a police affidavit.
When they arrived, officers smelled an odor. They found a bathroom filled with meth-making materials and syringes, and their car had a 5-gallon can of a key meth ingredient and other clear liquids. Two firearms, a revolver and semi-automatic pistol, and several knives were also confiscated.
Prosecutor Patrick Abitbol said Lorenz hesitated at the officers’ demands to remove her hand from under a pillow.
“The officers were physically ill and sickened by the amount of chemical odors coming out of the motel room,” Abitbol said. “She was refusing to cooperate. It was a bad deal and slowly getting worse.”
A plea of 15 years was offered, but Lorenz turned it down, believing it was too harsh.
A jury of 11 women and one man took less than two hours to render a guilty verdict and sentence.
“When you see extreme sentences like that, most of the time those are from juries,” Abitbol said. “I remember the jurors in this case were very concerned that this operation was going on in a motel with other people around. They were pretty flagrant about it.
“All the jurors were unanimous in believing that one step further, something could have happened. It could have exploded or other people staying could have been hurt. I think juries look very strongly at the threat to the community.”
Lorenz unsuccessfully appealed for a modified sentence, arguing it was disproportionate to the crime.
The parole board voted to commute her sentence, but Gov. Brad Henry did not give approval. The following year, the board revised its recommendation to a 30-year parole and completion of a specific life-skills course.
Henry gave his approval, but Lorenz remained in prison for months waiting on a class opening. She was eventually released in 2007.
“I don’t know if she should have spent the rest of her life in prison for what she did,” said Abitbol. “But I don’t think 10 years was sufficient for the risk they set out.”
LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD
Lorenz said she slid fast into drugs after the deaths of her daughters—one in a car accident and another in an apartment fire out of state—in the early ’80s.
“Everyone said I needed counseling, but I didn’t feel I needed that,” said Lorenz, 62. “I won’t go to counseling because I can’t bear to talk about my daughters.”
After a failed suicide attempt about 1989, Lorenz said she went to a friend who gave her drugs.
“After awhile I thought, ‘This is costing me a lot of money. I should learn how to make it myself,’” she said. “Pretty soon, people were asking me to sell it to them. Selling it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”
Lorenz said she would go to a person’s home or other neutral place to cook the methamphetamine then split the drugs.
A string of drug-related arrests and convictions began in 1990, when she was 42, and included manufacturing and possession.
Also, in 1980, she was found not guilty in the shooting death of her neighbor, James Montgomery, claiming self-defense. Betsy Montgomery, wife of the victim, was also found not guilty.
In looking back on what she considers her former life, she doesn’t deny the seriousness of the drug crimes she committed. She said at that time, she viewed drug laws as being unfair. She also had rocky relationships with men.
“I was angry and bitter because I did not think I was doing anything wrong, until I got to prison and realized I was a bad guy,” she said. “I looked around and saw what drugs were doing to the other women.”
A cellmate told her about Exodus House in Tulsa, which is a United Methodist Church mission to help people coming out of prison transition into the community. It is voluntary and comes with a strict set of rules.
“I realized I had no family and no place to go,” Lorenz said. “I was scared.”
The changes occurring outside prison during her decade behind bars were overwhelming, particularly technology.
While at Exodus House, Lorenz found work at a telecommunications company and is paying $50 a month on court fines.
“I have to give them all the credit,” she said. “Everyone has been understanding, and no one judges you. They accepted me back in society when I didn’t think I had anything.”
Lorenz is now working as the facilities manager at Exodus House and wants only one man in her life—a four-legged cat named “Little Guy.”
“It was a pitiful part of my life,” Lorenz said. “It’s hard to believe I did some of the things I did. I had to go to prison to get my life back. I did it, it’s a fact, and it’s one I never feel like going back to. I never was a good addict. I have to go on with my life and learn from the experience.”