by Sheila Polk, County Attorney, Yavapai County

It was a quiet Sunday morning in 2001. A widow, who lived alone in a quiet Cottonwood neighborhood, answered a knock at her front door. There stood a young man who asked if he could use her telephone, and she let him in. What happened next was a blur of chokeholds, blackouts and repeated violent sexual acts that left her, two hours later, prone on her bedroom floor. The widow crawled to her phone and called 911. The rapist was caught a month later and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault.

I personally tried this case in 2003. The jury found the accused guilty on all counts, and the judge sentenced him to the rest of his life in prison. The case was over, but the apparent lack of motive haunted me. Why did a 30-year-old man rape a 60-year-old widow on a quiet Sunday morning?

The answer arrived in November 2005 when a letter appeared in my inbox. “Department of Corrections” was the return address. It was a letter from the rapist, and here is what he wrote:

“I was all messed up on meth when I did this horrible thing. I can tell you with all honesty that I would of (sic) never done what I did while straight.  I made the choice to use the drugs and as a result a total innocent lady was badly hurt and I’m so sorry.”

It hit me then. The work of a prosecutor was not enough. Our job is reactive. We file charges and seek justice for victims of crime, but nothing we do — neither the conviction nor the lengthy prison sentence — can ever undo the harm to our victims. At that moment, for me, the idea for MATFORCE began to take root.

I reached out to other criminal justice and behavioral health leaders in our community. Passionate conversations ensued in which we all shared the devastation that methamphetamine was wreaking everywhere. These conversations grew into community meetings, and over time, into a countywide substance abuse coalition that we named the Methamphetamine Advisory Task Force, or MATFORCE.

So much has happened in the 12 years since. We expanded our focus to all substances of abuse and underage drinking. We hired our fabulous executive director, Merilee Fowler, and invited everyone to the table to help seek solutions to our county’s drug problems.

Today, we have over 300 active volunteers who serve on various committees, are on our speaker’s bureau, or attend our monthly Lunch N’ Learns. We do regular Dump the Drugs events, and all area law enforcement agencies now have drop boxes in their lobbies for unwanted medications.

We were the first county in the state to implement strategies to combat the opioid crisis with programs such as Sign Up To Save Lives and our “Pills+Alcohol It’s a Deadly Mix” campaign.

The mission of MATFORCE is to work in partnership to build healthier communities by eliminating substance abuse and its effects. We primarily focus on prevention and intervention. In 2011, MATFORCE launched our highly successful Yavapai Reentry Project to match community mentors with former prison inmates to help them lead successful, productive lives here in Yavapai County.

MATFORCE is the primary provider of drug education in schools throughout Yavapai County with curricula that is appropriate for every age group. Our annual youth poster and video contests are everyone’s favorite.

Healthy communities are drug-free. Everyone can be part of our mission of prevention. In the words of 5-year old Paige, who won one of our poster contests, “Say no to drugs, say yes to puppies.”