When Thomas Kohl presides over Drug Court, he remembers his daughter, an addict, killed at 21

Portland Tribune, June 10, 2014

Drug Court Judge Tom Kohl wrote a book about grief and faith, after his daughter, Megan, a drug addict, was murdered in July 2006.

Drug Court Judge Tom Kohl wrote a book about grief and faith, after his daughter, Megan, a drug addict, was murdered in July 2006.

Every Christmas, Washington County Drug Court Judge Thomas Kohl and his wife, Julie, hold a big holiday party at their home.

The tall and fit former football player welcomes family and associates from the legal and justice communities, as well as longtime drug addicts and property felons in various stages of recovery.

It’s an unusual, arms-open approach that makes drug court participants, such as recent graduate Tiare Mathews, feel like a member of the judge’s family. In many ways, they are.

When Kohl was studying the concept of alternative drug courts in 2003 and 2004, his only daughter, Megan, was hooked on methamphetamines. Kohl and Megan’s mother had divorced in 2000 and by then, their 15-year-old daughter was already drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and distancing herself from family.

Kohl knows from personal experience and his years on the bench that “addiction afflicts all ages, all ethnicities, all social classes.”

A 30-day recovery program appeared to work for Megan, but she relapsed. Kohl and his second wife, Julie, prayed for Megan to be arrested so she could get away from drugs.

Kohl started Washington County’s first drug court in March 2005, with his daughter’s struggles in mind.

“It’s an upside-down court,” he says. “One of the interesting things about drug court is people expect to get hammered, sanctioned. But we want them to succeed.”

For those facing lengthy sentences with multiple drug arrests and felony property crimes (no violent crimes), choosing drug court is an opportunity to stay out of prison, become clean and sober, find housing, work and form a solid support network of former addicts and community services.

“Our drug court was so successful,” says Kohl. “One of the main reasons people come is for the authority figures. The judge and the program hold them accountable.”

Drug-fueled spiral

Tom Kohl prays with an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana in October 2013.

Tom Kohl prays with an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana in October 2013.

In 2006, Megan was arrested for drug possession and delivery and Kohl thought his prayers were answered. She was offered a plea bargain. But before she had time to accept it, Megan, just 21 at the time, was stabbed to death in July 2006 in a Gladstone apartment by a 35-year-old hired killer named Robert Bettelyoun. The stabbing was so brutal that her body was pinned to the apartment floor by the knife.

Bettelyoun would not say who hired him, but one of his former roommates told prosecutors that it could have been people worried about her drug connection and her upcoming trial.

Thomas Kohl and his former wife both testified during the trial, recounting their love for their daughter and how they feared for her life as she tumbled into a drug-fueled spiral.

Kohl, devastated by his daughter’s death, delved further into his strong Christian faith, wrote the book “Losing Megan” (WestBowPress, November 2012), and — incredibly — offered face-to-face forgiveness to the man who killed his daughter. Kohl’s book details in its slim 160 pages not only the sorrow and pain of his daughter’s murder, but also his transformation through faith while dealing with the tragedy.

Bettelyoun was sentenced in Clackamas County Circuit Court to life in prison without possibility of parole for the murder.

Kohl returned to drug court with a new sense of purpose and a fresh understanding of what’s at stake for those in his program.

Hugged by a cop

On Monday, May 19, Judge Kohl called to order the weekly session of drug court in the stately Washington County Courthouse.

The courtroom had been switched for the day, but was notable for its regular bursts of clapping and cheering. During this session, Kohl called each participant forward to speak about their progress — or regression — in the multi-step drug court program.

“Did you work this week? How many hours?” asked Kohl, in a voice both stern and supportive.

“You missed a UA (urine analysis). What happened?”

“You were pulled over three times in your car. What was that about?”

To the last question, a dark-haired man faces the judge and explained. Each time, he said, a sheriff’s deputy approached his admittedly sketchy-looking car, with matte gray primer that made it “look like the Batmobile.”

Each time, the encounter started out with serious questions about car registration, a driver’s license and insurance coverage. The deputies knew the driver as a troublemaker, but were pleased to find out he was enrolled in drug court.

All ended their interactions with congratulatory hugs.

“When’s the last time you were hugged by a cop?” said Judge Kohl, raising his eyebrow in amusement.

A public defender and D.A. offered hugs, then Kohl himself, leaning over the bench to a fresh round of appreciative laughter from the gallery.

Creative solutions

Judge Tom Kohl says his Drug Court work helps addicts recover and rebuild their lives while saving the county money.

Judge Tom Kohl says his Drug Court work helps addicts recover and rebuild their lives while saving the county money.

To those who question the wisdom of an apparently “soft on crime” approach, the majority of participants and officials say it works — and it saves public tax dollars.

“These are people who’ve generally been unsuccessful their whole lives,” he says. “We try to give them incentives, such as applause for the number of clean days, getting a job, or finally getting a diploma.

“There are five phases to drug court and as they move from one phase to the next,” said Kohl, “We acknowledge them, and it may be the only award they’ve won in their lives.”

Phases of the program include living cleaning and sober, in supportive housing if needed; attending drug court; participating in three or more Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week; passing random urine tests; staying out of legal trouble; getting a job; paying restitution; and performing community service.

“Our mission statement is to change people’s lives, break the cycle of addiction, reunite families and promote community safety,” says Kohl.

Sometimes, he says his “upside-down” court requires creative — even playful — solutions. One young addict who had attended beauty school and started drug court needed a spark to get her going, said Kohl.

“I said I’d let her dye my hair when she graduated. It was in the court record, so I had to do it. On graduation day she brought all her materials and she dyed my hair and soul patch blue. I had to be in regular court later and the defendant said, ‘I’m having a hard time taking you seriously, judge.’ ”

Chuckling at the memory, Kohl says, “I get great joy out of seeing people change from hopeless and helpless to clear-eyed and hopeful. I love to see them come in as caterpillars and go out as butterflies.”