Meth Makes Winter Deadly for Young Couple
Midwestern Drug Scourge, Bad Weather Lead to Horrible Fate
Mar. 4, 2005 - On Jan. 4, 2005 , Janelle Hornickel and her boyfriend, Michael Wamsley, both 20, were heading home to their apartment in Omaha , Neb. , when they got caught in a snowstorm.
Over the course of the evening, the couple made a series of bizarre, frantic phone calls to 911, asking for help in finding their way home.
At one point, Wamsley said they had come across hundreds of bystanders who didn't speak English. Hornickel said others were taking cars apart and putting them in the trees.
The couple also left their truck, which still had a half-tank of gas, warm clothes and Wamsley's cell phone. It was minus 10 degrees with the wind chill.
Wamsley's body was found the next day. Six days later, authorities found Hornickel's body. Both had frozen to death.
The 911 dispatchers receiving the couple's phone calls that night had no idea what was happening. But authorities now know the young couple was high on crystal meth. A super-concentrated form of methamphetamine, a drug that has become a scourge of Middle America .
A small amount of crystal meth, 90 percent pure, was found in the couple's truck, and both tested positive for meth at levels that indicate they had taken the drug some two to three days before they called 911.
The Star Student and the Boy of Her Dreams
Hornickel, a college junior at Creighton University in Omaha , seemed to have it all. She was a member of a sorority, she was in a business fraternity and she had a job.
Her family in rural Ord , Neb. , said she was a star student and athlete. She was in the drama club, sang in the choir and was a cheerleader.
She also had a devoted boyfriend, Wamsley, whom she had known since the 7th grade.
"He was great. They were always together. Janelle would get up at 5 in the morning, every morning, to talk to him on the phone before he went to work," said Danielle Schuitz, one of Hornickel's former college roommates.
But Wamsley was different. He had dropped out of high school, and his older brother Chris says he suspected his brother was using drugs and even confronted him about using crystal meth.
"Honestly, I'm pretty sure he's tried it before," Chris Wamsley said. "He's made comments to me about trying different drugs."
Chris Wamsley says he gave his brother a warning around Thanksgiving. "I told him, 'Whatever you're on Michael, think about it in the long run,' " he said.
The Trees Above the Mandalay
When Wamsley and Hornickel first sought the help of authorities on the night they died, they were not immediately suspected to be drug users.
They were pulled over in the small town of Geneva at 7:30 in the evening for failing to signal. They told the officer they were lost, and received a warning ticket and directions to the highway.
They were 120 miles from their apartment in Omaha . Five hours later, at 12:30 a.m. , and 23 miles from home, their truck spun off the road. Hornickel called 911 and painted a bizarre picture for the dispatcher.
"There's a lot of Mexicans and African-Americans and they're all dressed up in, like, these cult outfits, and they're moving all the vehicles," she said.
She said people were taking the cars apart and putting them in the trees. She gave their location as "Trees above the Mandalay " -- the Mandalay apartments in Omaha .
But authorities were confused. Her cell phone signal was coming from Sarpy County , Neb. , not Omaha. Nevertheless, they sent police to the Mandalay and found nothing.
If they had been lost in almost any other state Hornickel and Wamsley might have been found. But Nebraska is one of just nine states that does not have the most up-to-date 911 GPS tracking system for cell phones, so operators could not pinpoint their location.
At 1:05 a.m. , Wamsley called 911. He said he and Hornickel had left the truck, but he still insisted they were near the Mandalay apartments. Dispatcher Patty Viberg told them a police unit had been sent and could not find them.
"They need to come further south. Further south, open the gates," Wamsley responded. There are no gates in the area, but still another police unit was sent to the area around the apartment complex.
By this time, several operators in three counties were talking to each other trying to figure out where the couple might actually be. They suspected drugs were involved.
Escaping a Shack in Winter
At 1:45 a.m. , Wamsley called again. Knowing how cold it was outside, Viberg urged him to return to his vehicle. He said it was "rolled over on its top," and Viberg feared it could be leaking gasoline. But the truck was actually upright, just off the road.
Wamsley also said they had encountered people, but he didn't think they spoke English. "We've tried, we've asked for help, we've begged," he said.
Around 2 a.m. , they called again to say they had stumbled on a small, unheated shack. Worried about their safety in the sub-zero temperatures, Viberg asked him to stay there. She also asked Wamsley if he had done any drugs that night. He said no.
At 3 a.m. , Wamsley called back and said he was going to walk some more, and left the shelter of the shack.
The last call came at 4:20 a.m. The couple had been out in below-freezing temperatures now at least four hours. Wamsley's last call was short, less than two minutes.
"Hey, this is Mike Wamsley," he told Viberg. "I have just escaped. Please come get me."
Tragedy on the First Time?
Hornickel's mother, Twilla, said she had no idea about Wamsley's alleged drug use: "She always said that Mike didn't drink and Mike didn't use drugs," Twilla said.
Twilla Hornickel says she can't imagine what could have happened. She saw her daughter in the early part of the evening on New Year's Eve, and says she didn't notice anything strange.
"They had normal sleep patterns, they played games with the kids," she said.
But Capt. Rolly Yost of Sarpy County , who led the investigation into the couple's disappearance, suspects something went wrong later that night.
"We know where they were. We know parties they were at. We know there were drugs at those party locations," he told "Primetime." He said Hornickel might have tried meth for the very first time at one of those parties.
He also has a theory about the "people" that Wamsley mentioned in his phone call to 911.
"It's quite possible he sees the cattle, hears the breathing of the cattle, and thinks these are people. These 'people' aren't helping him. He's calling out for help and they are not responding," Yost said, adding that his theory was speculation.
Back to New Year's Eve
Twilla Hornickel doesn't blame Wamsley for her daughter's death. "He respected her. He was always kind to her. I don't know what happened," she said.
Meanwhile, investigators trying to find the source of the methamphetamine have arrested a mother and son who live in Kearny , Neb. , and charged them with possession of methamphetamine.
Hornickel and Wamsley attended a party at the house of Judith Morel, 48, and Mica Morel, 19, on New Year's Eve.
Authorities have not said whether they believe the Morels supplied Wamsley and Hornickel with methamphetamine. The Morels refused to talk to "Primetime."
Copyright © 2005 ABC News Internet Ventures
The New Meth of Choice
“Ice” bumps homemade from the top slot
by Andrew Sigler
There’s a new meth taking over the streets.
For years, stories of meth labs abandoned in rural areas or found in car trunks brought attention to the easy production of the potent drug. The meth produced by those labs was less pure, and thus less intense in small doses, than the new meth of choice.
Lately, the highly potent, crystallized form of meth known as “ice” passed the synthetic, homemade variety in popularity. Law enforcement officers found a small amount of the drug in the truck owned by Janelle Hornickel, a 20-year-old Creighton student from Ord , Neb. She and her boyfriend, Michael Wamsley, died of hypothermia near 234th and Capehart Road on the night of Jan. 5. They called 911 operators numerous times asking for someone to find and rescue them. The recordings of the couple’s rambling, almost indecipherable descriptions of where they were and what they saw seemed too outrageous to believe.
Yet the scenario makes sense in light of the differences between powdered “street meth” and ice. Ice is a more refined version with fewer impurities than the type manufactured in a makeshift lab from over-the-counter cold medicine. According to Sarpy County Sheriff’s Captain Rolly Yost, the ice available in the Omaha area is imported from labs in California , Arizona and Mexico .
“Ice is very common in Omaha at the moment,” Yost said. “It’s not a boom. It’s been steadily increasing and right now it’s the drug of choice on the street.”
A gram of the ice, like the one found in Hornickel’s truck, costs about $100 on the street — twice the amount of homemade meth. Yost also said that the surge in use of ice stems partly from law enforcement crackdowns on meth labs, and partly from increased demand for the better stuff. Although ice can be snorted or swallowed like powdered meth, smoking it induces a more rapid onset of the high. According to Yost, evidence indicated that’s how Hornickel and Wamsley ingested the drug.
In a study of ice, the Australian Drug Foundation, a drug problem prevention organization, identified several intense effects of smoking ice. According to the study, ice causes abrupt shifts in thought and speech that result in the user becoming difficult to comprehend. The drug dramatically increases body temperature and causes paranoia and panic attacks associated with hallucinations. In his article “Ice Ain’t Nice: A Cautionary Drug Tale,” author Peter Gorman quoted ice users who reported experiencing those effects for 10 to 18 hours after smoking the glassy, rock form of the drug.
Omaha police spokesperson Sgt. Teresa Negron said that Omaha police have encountered ice on the street more often in recent years. However, she said that the department addresses all narcotics with equal attention and doesn’t distinguish the number of arrests for ice from other forms of meth when reporting those statistics to federal law enforcement officials.
Federal punishments for meth, on the other hand, draw clear distinctions between different potencies of meth. Federal laws approved three years ago for dealing highly potent meth reflected Congress’ concern over its effects. A dealer would have to be caught selling 10 times the amount of low-grade meth to receive the same punishment as a dealer selling ice.
Recordings of the lost couple's calls to 911 emergency dispatchers weave a heartbreaking trail through fear, delusion, agony, frustration and desperation.
The trail that ultimately failed to bring help to the two as they struggled to survive in the snow and the dark began in the first call, when Janelle Hornickel asserted that the two were near their central Omaha apartment.
That was at 12:28 a.m. Jan. 5.
Over the next four hours, she and Michael Wamsley never gave up telling 911 dispatchers they were near the Mandalay Apartments, 75th Street and Poppleton Avenue , regardless of how illogical that was shown to be.
And dispatchers never could pin down the couple's precise location, despite promising threads of conversation that suggested Platte River sites maddeningly close to where Wamsley and Hornickel actually were.
A deputy acting on those prompts actually found footprints in the quarry near where their bodies were eventually found. But the officer was called off when the search focused elsewhere.
The couple cried for help in the calls. Dispatchers worked them for any shred of information - mostly pushing calmly for details, occasionally barking for clarity and sometimes making emotional appeals to keep the couple going.
The tapes reveal moments of lucidity, sandwiched between tales so incredible that they must have been hallucinations.
Wamsley gave clues that proved true. He saw a gravel pit. A sand pile. A crane. A window-wrapped shack containing a blue book.
He also reported seeing 200 people on a pond. He called out to them for help but told a dispatcher they wouldn't help because they didn't speak English.
And Hornickel told Douglas County 911 that she was above her apartment in the trees, "and there's a lot of Mexicans and African-Americans and they're all dressed up in like these cult outfits, and they're moving all the vehicles."
They were, she said, taking cars apart and putting the parts in trees.
In the end, the conversations, like a person lost in a blizzard, wandered only in circles, and led nowhere.
"Hi, um, I'm here to report, um, I feel very threatened . . . hello, hello, can you hear me?" Hornickel said in her first call to 911. "I'm at the Mandalay apartment complexes."
"Are you in Omaha ?" the Sarpy County dispatcher asked.
"OK," the dispatcher said. "Let me transfer you. Stay on the line."
About a half-hour later, Wamsley called back, reaching Sarpy County 911 again.
"My girlfriend placed a call earlier, out by an old sandpit," he said. "Out by a sandpit, oh, probably around 75th and Poppleton."
He said somebody had taken his truck, and the couple went out to look for it and became lost. Another time, he told a dispatcher they were following people to a party along some winding trails.
The one constant was they were near their apartment. The couple told dispatchers that no fewer than 22 times. They continued to insist so despite all evidence to the contrary.
"Did you get off a highway to get into the sandpit?" a Sarpy dispatcher asked.
"No, it's just off of 75th, far as I understand," Wamsley said.
Dispatcher : " 75th Street ?"
Wamsley : "Yes, it's like you take 75th straight back here far as I understand."
Dispatcher : "You understand, the only thing we do know, is that you're hitting off a cell tower at 216th Street . So can you do the math? 216th minus 75 is. . ."
Wamsley : "I understand the math, ma'am, but . . ."
Dispatcher : "So, let's try to forget the 75th Street , because that just doesn't kind of make sense. OK? So let's try to rethink it here, OK?"
Wamsley : "OK, my apartment number is 7524 Poppleton Plaza , Apartment 2 . You can call Kristi and tell her that Mike Wamsley and Janelle Hornickel and that we need to be assisted. . . ."
Dispatcher : "Does she know where you're at?"
Wamsley (crying): "No, I doubt it . . ."
Wamsley went on in that call or others to say they were near a pond or a lake. He described the site as an old pit where gravel was pumped from the ground. He described a toll-booth-like shack the couple had taken shelter in, and what they could see from it.
The threads were strong and specific enough that a Sarpy dispatcher placed them near the Platte River in western Sarpy County .
"Are you near Iske, or are you near the river?" the dispatcher asked.
"I'm guessing it's . . . um, probably it's . . . (crying) oh, I don't know for sure . . .," Wamsley replied.
Dispatcher : "OK, well, I can't trace where you're at, do you understand where I'm coming from?"
Wamsley : "I, I understand where you're coming from."
Dispatcher: "OK, are you near the Platte River ? Are you near Gretna , Bellevue ?"
Wamsley : "Are we near Gretna or Bellevue ? Gretna ."
Dispatcher : "OK, good, that's a help . . . Did you pass Linoma Beach on Highway 6?"
Wamsley : "Ma'am, I don't think so."
He hadn't seen the Linoma Beach lighthouse, he told her. So it went with nearly all of the dispatchers' delving for landmarks. No street signs. No businesses. No road name anywhere near where they were.
The one business the couple referred to by name was Dr. John's - which is within blocks of their Omaha apartment.
Always confused, the couple occasionally reported seeing outlandish things.
There was a shack, they said, but they couldn't get to it because it was surrounded by dogs.
Wamsley and Hornickel later took shelter in the shack. Wamsley accurately described it and its contents.
As the night wore on and the frustration mounted, the couple's directions grew increasingly garbled and desperate.
In an early call to Douglas County 911, Hornickel sounded plaintive as she tried to give directions.
In the background, she asked Wamsley if they were "east or west of the apartments, would you say?" Then she tells the dispatcher, "Straight south. Go down 75th, go straight into them. Yeah, I think I'm just going to have to start running and get out of here. I don't know who else to call. OK, thank you."
Dispatcher : All right.
Hornickel : OK, bye.
Dispatcher : You going to stay on the phone with me?
Hornickel : I don't know what else to do . . . I can.
Dispatcher : Up to you.
Hornickel : I just don't know what else to do. I hope we have enough gas to keep moving around until we find a way out.
Dispatcher : OK. Help's on the way, OK?
Hornickel : OK. How long do you think it will be?
Dispatcher : It takes time to get out there because of the snowy conditions.
Hornickel : Can the helicopter go over the trees?
Dispatcher : The helicopter cannot fly in this kind of weather.
Hornickel began crying.
Throughout the calls, the couple could be heard breathing hard as they walked through the blowing snow or huddled for shelter. Wamsley on several occasions encouraged Hornickel.
Dispatchers tried to encourage both of them.
At one point, a Sarpy dispatcher butted in when Wamsley suggested sending rescuers to 75th Street and West Center Road .
"Mike, Mike?" she said.
"That's the best I can give you," he said. "That's all I've got.
Dispatcher : "OK, do you want to give it up then, because that doesn't make sense."
Wamsley : "I don't know, I don't know."
Dispatcher : "You don't want to give it up, do you?"
Wamsley : "No, I don't."
Dispatcher : "Yeah, I don't either."
Wamsley : "But I'm freezing, and my girlfriend is freezing, and . . ."
Dispatcher : "That's why we want to help you, Mike."
Wamsley : "Help then, please."
Dispatcher : "That's why I'm saying, please, please, please Mike, I need you to think about it, OK?"
As the night went on and help could not find them, the couple's calls became increasingly frantic and decreasingly lucid. Wamsley could barely be understood in a call to Saunders County 911 at 4:20 a.m. But he could be heard saying he was at a horseshoe-shaped gate.
"It's OK," he said.
Dispatchers and operators continued talking to each other. Twilla Hornickel, Janelle's mother, called Saunders County 911.
But the call from the gate was the couple's last.
Body failing, confused... this is just heartbreaking to me. It's like the worst of bad dreams, where nothing works or makes sense. :(