Spotlight: Bobby Dorton

Bobby Dorton points to the General Education Development diploma he earned this year shortly after being released from jail for dealing heroin. Dorton is also now a certified behavioral health counselor. May 30, 2019. Robin Wood for the News-Miner.

When Robert “Bobby” Dorton was last arrested in fall 2013, he was a major seller of methamphetamine and heroin in Fairbanks. Since getting out of jail in July, he’s been training to become a drug counselor.

It’s a job he wants to do to help people he hurt as a drug dealer and because his life experience makes him especially well qualified. But first he has to convince the state government to overlook his serious felony criminal record in order to give him the variance he needs to work in the field.

Dorton, 41, arrived at the Daily News-Miner to be interviewed for this story on Thursday afternoon looking like had come for a job interview. He wore a blue dress shirt and tie. He carried an envelope of graduation certificates for five education programs he’s recently completed.

Dorton said people who knew him before his recent transformation in prison don’t recognize him today.

“People today say I don’t even look the same or talk the same or act the same,” he said. “(they say) ‘your heart has definitely changed.’”

However, even as someone who’s had a particularly successful time in his first year out of a jail, Dorton has much ahead and continues to face a difficult path.

For one thing, he’s had to adjust to being broke. Since getting out of jail, he’s paid for rent, groceries and the expense of his ankle monitor through a combination of dishwashing jobs and a personal loan. It’s a world away from his finances at the height of his drug dealing, although that’s something he said he has no interest returning to.

Drug dealer for Eastern Interior

Dorton got started as a drug dealer when he was 13 or 14. He was on a hockey team trip to Tok, where he saw older kids buying and smoking pot, he said.

“A light bulb went off in my head: I should be the guy giving that to them, and then I could make money,” he said.

He was inspired by the movie “Scarface,” and liked the idea of being a drug dealer, he said.

Dorton grew up in Northway, an Eastern Interior town, near the Canada border and reached by a 7-mile spur road from the Alaska Highway. He’s the only child of a white father and an Alaska Native mother. He was raised by his grandfather Harry Sam, who was also a drug counselor.

When Dorton was growing up, he said, he loved playing hockey, cross country skiing, hunting and fishing. The Northway school then had about 90 students. Some of his classmates were happy to have a new pot supplier when Dorton started selling, as were some of the adults in town, he said. But some older people, including his grandfather, were disappointed.

“The guys that put time into teaching me traditional values, they were heartbroken, and I could see it on their faces,” he said. “They didn’t want me to go down that route.”

His grandfather’s way of showing it was by giving him his truck and telling him to leave the village. Dorton said he told his grandfather he’d come back and return the truck, but his grandfather didn’t want it.

“He said, ‘Nah, I signed the title over. It’s in the glovebox. Get it out of my name so I don’t get in trouble,’” Dorton said.

Spotlight: Bobby Dorton

Bobby Dorton displays various diplomas and certificates during an interview at the Daily News-Miner on Wednesday. Dorton spent roughly four years in prison for dealing heroin, but he is working to change his life, and has since earned his General Education Development diploma and become certified as a behavioral health counselor. May 30, 2019. Robin Wood for the News-Miner.

Money addict to drug addict

Dorton got into methamphetamine first as a dealer and then as a user. He started selling it to villages in the Eastern Interior because it had a higher profit margin than marijuana.

“I barely used at that time. I would maybe do a little tiny bit here and there, but I was more after the money. I was totally addicted to the money,” he said.

In the decade after he left Northway, Dorton moved between Eastern Interior villages, first to Tetlin and then Dot Lake. He never finished high school and needed to avoid law enforcement because he was both a truant and a drug dealer. In 2004, when he was in his mid 20s, Dorton moved to Fairbanks, drawn here by his then-girlfriend and larger drugs market.

The scale of the business exploded in 2011, the year in which his mother died and girlfriend dumped him, and he became an IV user of both meth and heroin. That year he made a drug supplier connection in California that grew his business to a scale that made all his previous drug dealing look like “child’s play,” he said.

“I thought it was a blessing at the time, I met some out-of-state connections,” Dorton said. “Because I was single, I was a hothead, somebody that you didn’t want to rip off; I was the checklist that the cartels go through (for choosing who to work with). I was that guy.”

At the peak of his business, Dorton had about 12 people selling drugs for him, he said.

Dorton’s business grew at a time when heroin use started to spike in Fairbanks, something that Dorton said he contributed to significantly. At the time, he made a 90% profit margin on heroin, buying a gram for $100 and selling it for $1,000, he said.

“I made it really take off. My dealers were more about meth, but I was telling them ‘I want those car tires.’ That meant heroin,” he said.

Dorton was arrested numerous times in his career. Usually it resulted in short jail sentences.

The most consequential arrest came on Sept. 17, 2013, when he was taken in at the Bentley Car Wash by what he described as a large tactical police unit. Dorton later pleaded guilty to the second-degrees of drugs misconduct. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

“Battlefield of the Mind”

Being locked up alone wasn’t enough to keep Dorton away from drugs. There was plenty of access to drugs at all four Alaska correctional centers where he’s been incarcerated. Instead, Dorton said he stopped using after his 2013 arrest because something changed in his mind that made him want to get substance abuse treatment. One influence was Joyce Meyer’s Christian self-help book “Battlefield of the Mind,” which Dorton found at the Fairbanks Correctional Center library.

It was the first book he’d ever read. 

“I never read a book until I went to prison and taught myself to read,” Dorton wrote in a speech he gave this spring when graduating with his GED through the Literacy Council of Alaska program.

“It took me almost a week to read a book in the beginning. But a few books later I was reading one book daily.”

Dorton had considered himself a Christian when he was a heroin and meth dealer. The way he expressed his faith was by going to the Mountain Movers Church at the Westmark Hotel and putting an envelope of cash in the collection box.

“As long as I made it by on Sunday and put money in the offering box, then I was covered. Jesus was going to forgive me for selling the drugs and doing all the bad things I was doing. That was my idea of Christianity,” he said.

His thoughts on faith and morality changed while he was in prison. He said he became particularly aware of how his drug-dealing life hurt his three children. He missed the high school graduation of his two oldest while he was in jail and wants to make sure he doesn’t miss the graduation of his youngest.

Spotlight: Bobby Dorton

Bobby Dorton smiles during an interview at the Daily News-Miner on Wednesday. Dorton was arrested in 2012 for dealing heroin, but while in prison and since being released earlier this year he’s worked to change his life. Dorton has earned his General Education Development diploma, completed the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition’s program and become certified as a behavioral health counselor. May 30, 2019. Robin Wood for the News-Miner.

Thoughts on reentering society

Dorton said he’s tried to surround himself with sober and supportive friends since getting out of jail. He counts among them Mike Sanders, the homeless coordinator at Fairbanks City Hall.

According to Sanders, Dorton came out of jail at a good time in Fairbanks because of the recent launch of several support services for former inmates. Sanders described Dorton’s success story as notable because of how rapidly Dorton has completed so many programs.

Among the five certificates Dorton has received in the past year, four are from programs that didn’t exist when he entered prison. The first, and most important, Dorton said, was the reentry program, offered by the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition, an organization that recently opened an office at Fourth Avenue and Cushman Street.

Next, Dorton got his GED certificate — similar to a high school diploma — through the Literacy Council of Alaska. It was the second year the Literacy Council has offered the General Educational Development program.

Dorton went on to be trained as a counselor technician through the Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Training Program. He also attended an Anchorage conference about reducing recidivism and got trained as a forensic peer specialist. The later training is a type of counselor training based on the idea that counselors will be more effective if they have had similar experiences as their clients, such as being incarcerated. Dorton wants to work with Fairbanks Correctional Center inmates to show he hasn’t forgotten them since his release.

“The prison populations know me. They know the bad me and the good me. I want to be able to show them that there’s a good life out here in recovery,” Dorton said.

Although he’s done the training, Dorton won’t be able to do counseling work unless Alaska’s Department of Health and Human Services approves his application for a variance. Dorton’s felony conviction is considered a “barrier crime” that — absent a variance — would bar him from working in the field for 10 years.

Dorton sent in his application earlier this spring and is eagerly awaiting the results. In the meantime, he’s working on a Rural Human Service program certificate through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

If he gets the variance, Dorton wants to work as a counselor in Fairbanks. But eventually, he wants to make it back to Northway, a town he hasn’t returned to since his grandfather gave him his truck nearly 30 years ago.

“I want to go back to my tradition, speaking my language, potlatches, the traditional lifestyle,” he said.

His long-term goal is to establish a drug counseling clinic in the Eastern Interior.

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.