HANNIBAL, Mo. – Joshua Foust was a hometown success story: a Hannibal High School graduate who returned to the small Missouri city as an elementary school principal 11 years later, with a promising career ahead of him.
But the married father cashed it all in, authorities say, to deal a few thousand dollars-worth of heroin with his younger brother and another man.
People in this quiet Mississippi River city, the hometown of Mark Twain, are trying to understand why a young man with so much potential would throw it away. But they’re also grappling with a changing landscape in Marion County: a record 44 methamphetamine lab seizures were recorded here in 2013 – among the highest in the state – and cheap, dangerously pure heroin has become so common that the local school district hosted a parents meeting on the issue in December.
“This proves what I’ve always said: Drugs don’t discriminate,” said Patti Talbert, director of the Northeast Missouri Drug Task Force.
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Foust appeared for his first court appearance Friday through a video feed, politely answering the judge’s questions befor telling him, “You have a good morning.”
The 33-year-old is charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. His 31-year-old brother, Samuel Foust, and a third man, Ryan Thompson, 32, also face drug charges as part of the investigation.
Talbert said there’s no indication Joshua Foust dealt drugs on school grounds or to students or staff. His wife, a teacher, is not a suspect; the couple has a young son and a baby on the way.
The judge scheduled another hearing for Feb. 27.
Parents at Stowell Elementary School, where Foust was principal until resigning a few days before he was charged, expressed a mix of shock and anger.
Brent Riley, 47, admits that he initially thought Foust was too “young and immature” for the job “but he proved me wrong.”
“I thought he did a good job,” Riley, whose daughter is a third-grader at Stowell, said in a phone interview. “He always seemed to have the kids’ best interest at heart.”
Still, Riley said he has no compassion for drug dealers. “To me, a criminal is a criminal,” Riley said.
Foust grew up in Hannibal. He graduated college and worked as a grade school teacher before earning a master’s degree in education leadership from the University of Northern Colorado in 2009. He married in 2010, and the job at Stowell opened in 2011.
In some ways, Hannibal is still the idyllic place of Samuel Clemens’ youth, before he chose the pen name Mark Twain. Riverboats blast a lonely horn as they meander past the brick buildings on Main Street. Children, like Twain’s fictional Tom and Huck, fish along the riverbanks and roam the town’s many hills.
But increasingly, drugs are moving in.
Heroin is cheap – a capsule sells for as little as $5 – and readily available, Talbert said. The drug has also become more pure, which can make it easier to overdose. Hundreds of deaths each year are blamed on heroin in Missouri.
The purity also means it can be ingested rather than injected, which experts say makes a drug once seen as a big-city problem more acceptable to rural and suburban users.
“It used to have this stigma attached to it that users were junkies, but it doesn’t have that stigma now,” Talbert said.
Foust earned about $65,000 annually before he resigned effective Feb. 2, telling administrators he was leaving for another job. It’s unclear if he knew he was under investigation; he doesn’t have a publicly listed phone number, and no one answered the door at his home Friday.
Talbert said a tip prompted an investigation that began late last year. On Feb. 11, investigators searched Samuel Foust’s home and allegedly found heroin and meth. They then went to Joshua Foust’s home, a few blocks from the school.
A probable cause statement said a baggie inside one of Foust’s coats contained 12.5 grams of a substance that field-tested positive for heroin. Investigators also found empty capsules, a piece of straw and Dormin, a sleep aid commonly used to dilute heroin, according to the statement.
Talbert said the heroin seized from both homes could’ve produced around 800 capsules with a street value of between $8,000 and $12,000.
Charges were filed when Foust was in Texas, apparently for something related to his new job, Talbert said. Nearly a week later, Foust told authorities he was returning to Hannibal, where he was arrested early Wednesday.
The arrest, Talbert said, reflects the area’s growing heroin problem.
“Gosh darn, it’s scary,” she said.