Rachel Thompson/News-Register##David Karnes speaks in the offices of Provoking Hope, a place where he’ll return after the McMinnville resident completes his federal prison sentence. Provoking Hope is a local addiction and recovery nonprofit organization.
Rachel Thompson/News-Register##David Karnes speaks in the offices of Provoking Hope, a place where he’ll return after the McMinnville resident completes his federal prison sentence. Provoking Hope is a local addiction and recovery nonprofit organization.
By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Years wasted during a life of criminality

David Karnes was 13 years old … just a kid, hanging out with acquaintances and friends in the basement of a Southeast Portland home.

“Wanna try this?” someone asked him.

What he remembers seeing were “lines” of an illegal narcotic spread out on a flat piece of glass.

Karnes ingested the drug and “boom,” as he recalls, the downward spiral of his life began at that moment. “I went haywire.”

Fast forward almost 40 years to the morning of Friday, Oct. 13, and Karnes is sitting in United States District Court in downtown Portland waiting to be sentenced on a federal charge of conspiracy to possess with Intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances and to maintain drug-involved premises.

Judge Karin J. Immergut sentenced the 52-year-old Karnes to five years and 10 months in prison, followed by 36 months on post-prison supervision.

“It is what it is,” Karnes told the News-Register, following the sentence. He said his plan now is to get involved in as many prison treatment programs as possible and be a good prisoner, in hopes of shaving as much time as possible off his sentence.

He was given until 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 4, to report, and it was recommended that he serve his time at the Federal Correctional Institution/Sheridan. The Bureau of Prisons makes the final decision regarding his placement.

FCI-Sheridan is where Karnes is hoping to be lodged, as the facility would be easily accessible for his wife, Ranae, who lives in McMinnville, and many local family members and friends.

Meanwhile, not being required to report to prison for another two-and-a-half months gives Karnes time to spend with loved ones.

“I love my wife and my dog (Queen), and any amount of precious time I have with them when I’m not working (at Provoking Hope in McMinnville) is a blessing,” he said.

Before learning he’ll soon be incarcerated for an extended period of time, Karnes wanted to tell his story — the past, present and future — to the News-Register. By doing so, he hopes to convince just one individual, if not more, not to make the choices he’s made.

In March 2020, DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agents and supportive law enforcement agencies were investigating a “multi-national drug trafficking organization” that was operating in the Portland metropolitan area, according to court records.

Edmundo Gonzalez Barrera, Casey James Bowen, Christopher Joshua Ruggles and Tyler Timothy Whitzel, in addition to Karnes, were defendants in the resulting federal case.

Electronic communication involving the defendants and others revealed they were conducting drug transactions involving heroin and other substances. It was clear that Ruggles was in regular contact with individuals in Nayarit, Mexico, for the purpose of sourcing and purchasing controlled substances.

Nayarit is a small state in western Mexico. The CJNG is the most dominant criminal group in the state of Jalisco, but the cartel also dominates criminal and drug operations in Nayarit and Colima, with the latter being an important area for shipments of South American cocaine and chemical precursors from Asia.

Video surveillance made it clear to agents that Ruggles was an active dealer in McMinnville. As a result, investigators identified a number of individuals with whom he had been dealing. They were Barrera, Bowen and Whitzel.

Electronic surveillance, including wiretap evidence, established that Ruggles agreed to purchase 10 pounds of methamphetamine from Mexico suppliers. Karnes, Ruggles and Whitzel agreed to coordinate the purchase and subsequent sale of meth, including recruiting others to fund the purchase, and identifying others to whom sales could be made.

During the ensuing week, wiretap conversations among Karnes, Ruggles and Whitzel solidified plans to ensure that the meth purchase was completed. During this time, law enforcement was able to maintain visual surveillance to corroborate discussions overheard with electronic surveillance.

On Oct. 5, 2020, law enforcement established visual surveillance of Ruggles as he traveled northbound on Interstate 5, following what law enforcement believed to be a purchase of meth.

Investigators then located Ruggles and others in his car on a logging road in Yoncalla, located just off the interstate between Roseburg and Eugene. They stopped the vehicle, detained the occupants and searched the vehicle.

No drugs were found. A search of the nearby forest, however, turned up about 10 pounds of meth in a duffel bag, which was hidden under a bucket near the logging road.

On Nov. 4, 2020, a search warrant was served on Ruggles’ home. He was located in the garage, along with Karnes, who was arrested after fleeing out the back door of the house.

That search warrant turned up the following:

A bag containing counterfeit “M-30” oxycodone pills, meth, suspected Xanax, heroin and Alprazolam (used to treat anxiety and panic disorders).

Karnes entered a guilty plea to his charge last May. He could have received a sentence that ranged between 10 years and life. Despite an extensive criminal history, the sentence imposed was on the low end of the scale.

Accompanying him at the proceeding were his wife of four-and-a-half years, a few other family members and colleagues at Provoking Hope in McMinnville, an addiction and recovery nonprofit program where Karnes is an outreach worker and intake assister.

The other defendants have either been sentenced or are awaiting their fates.

Karnes admits to living a life of what he describes as alcohol, criminality, gambling and drugs. As a result, incarceration has been a way of life for Karnes. He’s spent time in seven Oregon Department of Corrections facilities. He can rattle off their names faster than you might imagine. Every one of them, from west — Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem — to east — Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, just west of Boise, Idaho. Karnes was a DOC inmate as an 18-year-old. He spent his 19th birthday behind bars.

His criminal history began in 1989 and convictions have ranged from drug-related charges, possession of a stolen vehicle and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, to putting a substance or an explosive in a waterway to destroy fish.

“All I’ve experienced was meant to happen in a way,” Karnes said. “Everyone deserves hope and a chance. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. No matter what your background is, there is always hope to change. Anyone can do it. You can be a productive member of society.”

Karnes said there’s a perceived “glass ceiling” over the life of a drug addict. With hard work, it’s possible to “bust through” and lead a worthwhile life.

It’s the life he wants for himself when he completes his sentence. He’s very much ready to serve the prison time that awaits him for the federal crime he committed.

“I made some horrible choices,” Karnes said. “I don’t get to pick the consequences.”

He said he’s feeling blessed, even in light of serving a pending prison sentence.

“Life is as perfect as it can be at this time. I have a good foundation for when I get out. My head’s on straight. I’m focusing on the now. I’m just grateful.”

Karnes was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about 44 miles west of Detroit, and home to the University of Michigan. As a baby, however, he moved with his mother, Virgie Karnes, and his father, John Karnes, to Oregon in a Volkswagen bus.

His parents now live in Fayetteville, West Virginia, located about 60 miles southwest of Charleston, one of the largest cities in the state.

Just a week before Karnes was sentenced, he spent a week with his parents, knowing they probably won’t have an opportunity to see each other again for quite some time.

“It was awesome,” he said of the visit. “It was the first time I had seen my dad in 13 years.” His health is compromised, so that made the visit all the more important for Karnes. “They were proud of the changes I’m making. They see the changes.”

He said his dad’s been hopeful that his son would get his life together.

Karnes was an only child. While growing up, his parents were drug addicts.

He was barely a teenager when he started smoking pot because it seemed like an okay thing to do at the time and in the environment in which he was growing up.

Karnes started high school in Estacada. School was simply not his thing. He “took a shot” at his freshman year twice. His schooling ended as a sophomore.

“It just didn’t work out,” he said. “I latched onto the wrong kids. I started skipping school, riding TriMet all over Portland, running around. It just didn’t work out.”

Karnes doesn’t blame his mother and father for any of his failings at such a young age. He owns his behavior.

“They weren’t bad parents,” he said. “I was a spoiled, ungrateful, rotten kid.”

Karnes was quite young when he visited Disneyland in southern California. His grandfather fell ill while he was gone, and then died shortly after his grandson returned home. It was a traumatic time in his life.

“I resented everyone — God, my parents,” Karnes said. “I started acting up, running the streets of southeast Portland at night. Hanging out with the wrong crowd. Being mad at everyone. Before I knew it, I was in prison when I was 18.”

Karnes said he enjoyed getting high. And why not? There appeared to be no purpose to his life.

Today, all that seemingly has changed.

Karnes’ exposure to Provoking Hope and relationships with staff members he has formed have largely been responsible for enriching his life since relocating back home to McMinnville after participating in various treatment programs following his November 2020 arrest.

“I chose to go to sober living in Portland before I came back to McMinnville,” Karnes said. “I wanted to be part of the solution (as part of the Provoking Hope staff) rather than the problem in McMinnville. I wanted to show peers that no matter where we come from, there’s always hope to change. It’s a lot of work, but it can happen.”

Karnes holds Provoking Hope in high regard not only for what it has done for him but also for the opportunity to have an impact on others through his work at the agency.

As an outreach worker/intake assister, when an individual seeks services, Karnes does the initial intake on that individual. What are their needs? That’s what he tries to determine.

“I try to make them feel comfortable, make them feel like they are in the right place,” he said.

Karnes’ outreach work has placed him in churches and the Yamhill County Courthouse, too. He told the story of Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Easterday recognizing him and noting the effort he’s made to turn his life in a positive direction.

He knows Easterday well, as a judge who has sent him to prison in the past.

“I’ve always wanted to work in the recovery field,” Karnes said. “But I could never get myself clean long enough. Then an opportunity arose at Provoking Hope. I like to interact with people, and I’m super grateful for Bob and Diane Reynolds.” Diane is the Provoking Hope CEO.

When he completes his prison sentence, there might be no one more than Karnes who Provoking Hope would welcome back to its staff. The executive team of Diane Reynolds, Director Debra Cross and Financial Officer Belinda Russell will open their arms to him.

The trio have approved his return upon completion of his sentence.

“He is very good,” Cross said. “He does a few things here. He connects with peers. Takes them to detox. He has a connection. We could see it. He does a very good job here.”

Karnes’ easygoing attitude is much appreciated.

“He’s funny,” Cross said. “We laugh a lot. He makes jokes. But he’s compassionate, too, for this line of work.”

One of the things that Cross and her Provoking Hope colleagues respect about Karnes is his honesty regarding his past, and his refusal to ever blame anyone else for the way he has lived his life at times.

“He’s been very honest about what he has done,” Cross said. “That’s important. At intake, during a first peer encounter, he can show people they need to be honest.”

He has no problem today leveling with himself at any time.

“I’ve wasted so many years of my life,” he said.


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