Michelle Leo at Chainlink Gallery Place. She came back from meth addiction.
Michelle Leo at Chainlink Gallery Place, where she works on weekends. It's one of three jobs she holds. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

This story contains references to sexual abuse, self-harm and drug use. 

When 24-year-old Michelle Leo tells her story it does not have a beginning, a middle and an end.  It does come with a trigger warning: Leo wants you to know it’s going to be dark and maybe you won’t want to hear it. 

Stories like this are rarely told but contain hidden truth: addicts can recover — most do, in fact. But that’s not well understood because fear of stigma keeps most people silent. 

The story Leo unwinds is a collection of hazy memories, stark images of horror, and finally, serene observations from lessons learned growing up amid generational rage and trauma, sexual assault as a child, meth addiction, mental health hospitalization and finally recovery. 

There’s a dog in the story, too. Skagit, the dog, is the hero, if there is one.

“My dog passed away this past summer, and if you asked me how I got clean, I’d say it was him,” Leo says. Then she corrects herself. “But I know that Skagit really only did so much, and I am the magic at the end of the day.”

But before she tells you how she got clean, she will explain why and how she started to use.

That’s a story about an uncle. “It’s always an f–ing uncle, isn’t it?” she says. The uncle was a family hero until his secret was discovered and he went to jail. 

But to set up her story, Leo goes back generations, describing her family as colonizers who benefited from generational wealth before losing it. She believes that perhaps the bad karma comes from that.  

She shares a familial tale of a grandmother who would cut her thighs with a kitchen knife, purposely in front of her children, then later at the hospital claim she’d been cleaning her samurai sword and had an accident. She says such experiences with a mentally ill grandmother begat rage-fueled tendencies in her own family, often self-directed but not always. “Everybody was beating everybody,” she says without offering specifics. 

Her dad is a truck driver and her mother works for a hearing aid center. Originally high school sweethearts, her parents are still together, and Leo is effusive when she says she loves them both. Despite everyone’s flaws and failings, and the things they didn’t always protect her from.

Rage, she says, is her “generational curse.” She’s had episodes of explosive rage in the past, throwing and breaking things, sometimes cutting herself. “Definitely I have gotten a huge control on it, but the nightmarish outbursts I used to experience, they never leave you. You never forget the feeling of being so outside of yourself.” 

When you feel such intense emotions, “and then you do drugs, it is really a form of self-harm that silences the mind.” This might be where someone might start asking questions about how, where and why. The answers do not come easily because memories associated with traumas are often obscured. 

This is the story as pieced together from Leo’s memories and corroborated by court records. 

Sexually exploited by a trusted family member

When she was in the fourth grade, Michelle Leo and her mother left their home in a trailer park in Washington state to move near family. Wichita offered a lower cost of living and a respite from her father’s rage, she says.

“My mother and my aunt were trying their best to pay the bills in a nice suburb neighborhood called Golden Hills. They were both single moms,” says Leo. She attended nearby Peterson Elementary, and later Wilbur Middle School and Northwest High School.

Leo’s mother was one of three sisters now living in Wichita. Two lived with Leo; a third sister was married to her uncle, a man with a good job who paid for extras her family couldn’t afford. 

The uncle bought her new clothes for school at the end of every summer, paid for her to go on school field trips and movies on the weekend. He even paid for a trip to Disney World — a trip later documented in court proceedings.

He also provided after-school care, picking her up and taking her to his house while her mother worked at Dillons grocery store. Once there, she would have a snack and take a nap.

“In my older age, I can only speak from what I have perception of now, because I had zero perception of it while it was happening,” she recalls. “He must have been drugging me after school and taking pornographic pictures of me when I would nap …  there’s pictures that are really only explainable by that scenario.”

Pornographic pictures taken as she slept — showing her uncle sexually aroused over her while she slept — were not discovered until she was in the seventh grade. “I guess he never accounted for the fact that I would be entering sex ed,” Leo says.

She didn’t put it together until seventh grade and that trip to Disney World.

“I was in the bathtub and he had walked into the bathroom …  and I look down and there is a digital camera facing me in his hand.” Video recovered later would include images of Leo sinking down below the ledge of the bathtub to hide.

After flying home from Disney World, Leo remembers going to her uncle’s basement to sleep in a bedroom set up for her and her cousin until her mom got off work. “It had a fake grocery store and all these toys, it was everything a kid could ask for … and I was usually very happy to be there, but I opened my eyes and he was standing above the bed, as has happened many times before, it was just all of a sudden completely different.”

Later that day she finally told her mother: “Uncle Hoyt was really creeping me out.” Leo saw a flash of understanding cross her mother’s face. “I will never forget the relief that came over me,’ she says. “I felt like I didn’t have to explain it …  I was scared of having to explain it.”

What happened immediately after is something Leo only knows based on what she’s been told. Her mother and the aunt she lived with recovered from the uncle’s home multiple flash drives featuring illicit images of Leo and other young girls. The two sisters agonized over calling the police on their sister’s husband, but they eventually did.

Leo’s next memory is of being told she is going to get ice cream. Instead she found herself walking up the stairs of a large building: “So we walk into a courthouse, and I don’t know that it’s a courthouse because I am a child.

“And we are going up levels… And then I remember reading a sign, ‘Exploited and Missing Children.’ … I didn’t know what ‘exploited’ meant. 

“And the next thing I know I have the most comforting man and kind of cold-feeling woman, pulling me into a room, with a table and a camera, and a wall and a diagram of two naked people male and female, and they were asking me, ‘What do you call these parts?’”

What Leo described to the detectives in the Exploited and Missing Children’s Unit along with the recovered flash drives became the basis for six charges brought against her uncle, Hoyt Hutcheson

Court records show Hutcheson was charged based on the testimony of Exploited and Missing Children Unit Detective William Riddle with two counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child — involving lewd fondling of a child under the age of 14 — one count of attempted aggravated indecent liberties with a child and three counts of sexual exploitation of a child. 

Hutcheson accepted a plea agreement, pleading guilty to the three counts of sexual exploitation. The lewd fondling charges were dropped. Initially charged in March 2012, he would not enter prison until October 2013 and was released in March 2018. “He ended up getting five years – not enough, but something.” Leo says. 

His imprisonment did not bring Leo peace.

High school partying turns into meth addiction  

“My freshman year, once he went to prison, I stopped writing and I started partying,” Leo recalls. 

She had always been a good student, particularly in English. Writing was a source of comfort. But partying provided a pathway to social acceptance. 

Leo found popularity by organizing and attending parties, eventually migrating from gatherings with her high school friends to parties with older people. “All of a sudden I was very very cool because I could get into places they couldn’t, I could get into parties they couldn’t get into.”

There was a dark side to this. “The first time I did meth I was 17 years old.” She was a junior in high school. Her partying escalated to using a variety of drugs and even selling them, she says. 

Leo didn’t recognize how bad her drug use had become until a classmate remarked that they didn’t want to see her dead on the news one day. “And this was in my honors English class after I had just gotten one of the best scores in my class on my test. I was thinking I was doing so fine,” she recalls, scoffing.

”I was a smart kid but … I was on drugs, and it was because my uncle had just been sent to prison for molesting me, and it was almost like I didn’t know how to stop holding my breath.”

Her next four years of meth addiction are a haze, full of fractured memories of dropping out of high school, partying, dealing, living on the streets in “trap houses” and motels on Broadway Avenue, narrowly escaping gang rape and falling deeper and deeper into self-destructive behavior.

It happens because using meth feels better than a haunted mind, Leo says. “Even if you have been up for nine days with no sleep, no food and no water and the house is getting raided and you’re seeing shadow people coming from the floor.”

It’s a wonder she never got arrested or went to jail, she says. Kansas Bureau of Investigation and Kansas Department of Corrections searches turn up no criminal record. And her mother saw that she got her GED, she says. 

But she did get institutionalized three times, she says — something The Beacon cannot verify because of the privacy of medical records. Leo remembers very little about the experience  beyond some hazy images, being heavily sedated and feeling dehumanized. She’s not even sure where she was. 

“It was a hospital, there was a hallway with lots of rooms and we had to go to these different sections of this big building. It was for … more extreme cases. I was in there with a kid who had attempted to murder his family. 

“I would go to the mental ward every time because I would get in such fights with my dad that the police would be called and they would take me away because I was slit up at the wrists and on drugs,” she says.

How the dog led to meth addiction recovery

It was after one of these hospitalizations that her family acquiesced to her request for a dog. “I looked at my dad and said, ‘Dad, I need him, please, please, I need him.’” They drove to Oklahoma to get the dog, who she named Skagit, after Skagit Valley in Washington state.  

“Everybody was just holding their breath to see if the dog would work,” she says, wryly.

Not immediately. Leo says for a year and a half she remained on drugs, disappearing days at a time — but the dog provided a valuable incentive pulling her toward healthy behavior.

“That was the only thing that got me back home. I would be gone for a few days. Maybe a week. The longest I had ever gone without seeing my dog …  If it was a week I knew I had to get sobered up so I could get home and see my dog.” 

When she did see the dog, they would go on walks together, enjoying the outdoors. Or she would stay with him at home and pick up a book or write in a journal. 

“I was starting to do more wholesome things … I was coming to the park, a little patch of grass by the river and the trees over there and I would lay down the blanket — and I would have gotten high before — but (now) I would sit and have paints and my journal and like tarot cards, a singing bowl.” It started to feel wrong to use drugs, she says. 

This led to holding down a job at a call center and making new friends, friends her own age. “They were artists and they were loving people and not broken people that I had told myself I had to hang around because nobody else would understand,” Leo says.

A life-saving epiphany

But Leo admits she still dabbled in drug use – until it almost killed her. She recalls a time of being aware she had overdosed and was about to die and a feeling of calm coming over her. And when she didn’t die, she had an epiphany that flipped her entire outlook:

“I had survived so many overdoses, survived so many car wrecks, survived almost being shot and trafficked and a multitude of things … how could you not know how much the universe has done to keep you here?”

Michelle Leo has now been clean for four years: “My clean date is New Year’s Day 2019.” 

She sustains her meth addiction recovery by surrounding herself with the kind of people she wants to be. This includes her partner of three-plus years, Benjamin Walther, and recovering addicts at The Phoenix, a nonprofit gym in downtown Wichita,  dedicated to providing a supportive space to people in recovery. 

It also led to volunteering, then working part-time for Chainlink Gallery Place, a gathering space for artists in downtown Wichita. Leo also works full time for Allure Marketing and part time for The Beacon’s Community Engagement Bureau. All three jobs capitalize on what others describe as an effervescent personality and a gift for making people feel a sense of belonging.

She now feels the universe has placed her where she belongs. At the end of her harrowing tale, she exudes peace and calm. 

“I believe I am in constant communication with spirit and therefore divinely protected because I have overcome. And I believe that is why we are all here. And I see it in everybody’s story, what they have overcome, and what they still have to overcome.”

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...