On Thanksgiving Day retired Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety Terry Vrabec posted a family picture. It was similar to holiday pictures posted by millions of people. The Vrabec family photo is different because for many years no one in that family thought Brandi Vrabec, on the far left, would ever be part of a happy family photo again. Brandi’s drug addiction separated her from her family, her values, her confidence, and almost separated her from her life multiple times. Now Brandi has two years and one month in recovery from substance abuse, making the picture you see with this post possible.
The Juneau Police Department’s November Reentry Hero is Brandi Vrabec. Brandi is someone you might see around Juneau as she manages a division of a local business or just goes about her errands. It is very difficult for Brandi to do those things. Brandi has had to overcome crippling social anxiety that makes it hard for her to leave the house some days. The former standout young athlete, in soccer and karate, is affected with anxiety that comes from overwhelming guilt. She is haunted by all the damage she did to others during her drug addiction. Facing all that guilt while sober has been a challenge but one Brandi is meeting with the help of her housemates at a transitional home, one for women leaving prison, called Haven House.
Brandi came to Juneau as a teenager, when her father became one of the state’s top law enforcement officials. Terry Vrabec talked to JPD about his initial disbelief that a child of his could become a drug addict, after so many opportunities and so much structure. His journey went from disbelief, to trying to help, to refusing to have his only daughter in his home. Terry Vrabec found, to avoid enabling, he even had to refuse to buy groceries for Brandi because she would trade anything for drugs or give resources to her fellow drug users.
Brandi was always an intelligent girl, and graduated high school even while using alcohol and other drugs regularly. A rare instinct for self- preservation told her to avoid the prescription painkillers that were readily available when she was in high school. At that time, those pills had no anti-crush chemicals in them and could easily be turned into powder and snorted. Brandi estimated that on leaving Juneau for Washington she knew 40 people using and addicted to prescription painkillers.
Brandi did well in Washington for a while. She was in sales and advancing professionally on a fast track. Then she and her boyfriend let a friend from Juneau come and stay with them. That friend was using and dealing prescription painkillers. Brandi developed a habit of using four to five pills a day at $50 per pill. At first, her sales numbers at work went up. She felt confident and capable. Brandi thought no one knew what was going on but she admits now she was fooling herself. Once she started stealing from her employer it did not take long for her to become unemployed and homeless.
Brandi and her boyfriend were taken in by her aunt. Brandi stole property from her aunt, items like jewelry purchased by her aunt’s deceased husband. Brandi had moved back to Fairbanks by the time her aunt discovered the level of betrayal. Her aunt was hospitalized over her distress. Brandi’s mother scrambled to find and buy back items but the level of damage done could not be undone.
When Brandi got back to Fairbanks she turned 21. She got deep into the party scene and did not stay away from opiates for very long.
About the time she first used heroin, she was in a serious car accident. The accident was the other driver’s fault so the incident not only led to long and robust access to prescription painkillers, she also received a settlement of $132,000 dollars.
Brandi and her then boyfriend went through the first $50,000 installment in about a month. She had collected her settlement in all cash. About two months after the first check, Brandi received another $82,000 and she had a plan for that money. She had been listening to music that glorified drug dealing and watching shows that did the same. Brandi decided to use the money to set herself up in what she thought was the glamorous life of a drug dealer. Brandi got a purse she thought fit the image, she suspects it might have been fur- trimmed with a gold-chain shoulder strap, and put all of her cash into it. She moved to Anchorage and started her business.
Brandi soon discovered that the life she envisioned in Anchorage wasn’t happening. The drug-dealing world was not glamorous. It was ugly, violent, and there were no rules. When Brandi would use drugs, her ‘friends’ would rob her once she nodded off. She would call her father and complain someone stole thousands of dollars from her.
Terry Vrabec had nearly convinced Brandi to let him put the money in a trust for her and she refused at the last minute. He was not sympathetic to her complaints about how unethical people were being toward her.
When Brandi got to the end of her money she went back to Fairbanks. That was when the felony charges started. Her father, like most law enforcement officers, dreads the middle of the night calls to tell him about a public safety emergency. He learned to dread, even more, calls from or about Brandi. One event that caused an Alaska State Trooper Commander to call Terry Vrabec involved Brandi being high and struggling with a store employee over a jacket she was stealing. The people responsible for the store locked her in. The Troopers, most of whom knew her as a child through her father, responded with a K-9. The dog did not find Brandi because she had crawled into the ceiling. When she fell out of the ceiling she was taken into custody.
Terry Vrabec got a call one night to tell him Brandi, who had felony warrants out for her arrest by then, was over-dosing at a home. The person was afraid Brandi was going to die. He persuaded the person to provide the address and sent Troopers to that home. Brandi remembers that when the Troopers arrived her ‘friends’, other drug addicts, shoved her out of the house as fast as they could to get the Troopers to leave. Brandi remembers how mad she was at her Dad then, but now realizes that night, plus over a year in jail, ultimately saved her life and put her on another path.
After a 14 month stretch in jail, Brandi was sober, had found faith- based treatment, and was afraid to leave prison. She had become institutionalized. Brandi was comfortable in prison, knew she could remain sober there, there were enforced rules, and she felt safe for the first time in a long while. Brandi’s brother and mother had heard about Haven House and spent hours talking to Director Kara Nelson. Nelson flew to Anchorage to meet with Brandi and convinced her to give Haven House a chance. Brandi’s brother, Tommy Vrabec, lives in Juneau and goes to ‘family’ gatherings at Haven House. He is a big supporter and cheerleader for his sister. While Brandi jokes about never living anywhere but Haven House, she is starting to think about her future.
Brandi wants to spend the rest of her life in service to others. She is considering something along the lines of Peace Corp or missionary work. Brandi now wants to see the world and help others. She is particularly interested in helping children, possibly teaching. JPD believes Brandi will achieve just that.