SUBSCRIBE NOW

Was Witzke's arrest a step to redemption or a Congressional race nonstarter?

Karl Baker Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

Three years ago, Delaware's now-Republican candidate for U.S. Senate sat unresponsive within a car parked in a busy Tennessee intersection. Inside the car was heroin, methamphetamines and a handgun, according to court documents.

Outside were police officers with their guns raised. 

Lauren Witzke's troubled past involved trafficking illegal drugs between Detroit and Tennessee at the orders of a Mexican criminal organization, she says.

It was a result of struggles with addiction, sometimes using drugs and sometimes selling them, she says. 

Sometimes, she would deal in drivers licenses and birth certificates as payments, she says – credentials that would be distributed by cartels to people living in the country illegally.  

But on a Friday morning in August 2017, Witzke's criminal life appears to have ended with an arrest and six subsequent criminal charges. 

More:Not all politicians are the same — just look at Delaware's U.S. Senate race

Lauren Witzke reacts to winning the Republican Senate primary at Fraizer's Restaurant in Dover on Tuesday, Sept. 15.

Today, the 32-year-old is a politician gaining national fame on the far-right after Delaware Republicans picked her last Tuesday as their candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Coons in November.  

In her primary last week, she defeated a party-endorsed candidate in Lewes attorney Jim DeMartino by turning her campaign, in part, into a crusade against opioids and the destruction they have had on her community, and others like it.   

Witzke's official platform calls for taxpayers dollars to go to faith-based drug treatment facilities, federal incentives to encourage young people to get married and have children, and a "net-zero," 10-year moratorium on immigration, which would allow newcomers into the country only when others leave.

She defends her anti-immigration positions with an assertion on her website that states, "our ancestors did not merely migrate to America, rather they founded America."

Many Republicans have cheered such statements even as they have drawn sharp rebukes from others who say they resemble coded racism.  

In previous interviews, Witzke has echoed President Donald Trump, calling hers an  "America First" platform. 

"I'm very staunch for border security and stand openly against open borders," Witzke told The News Journal in January. 

Like Trump, whom she supports, Witzke is active on social media.

At various times, she has "liked" tweets calling for federal reforms that go further to the right than her own. Last spring, she "liked" a post from a Twitter user who said, "how about a permanent ban on all 3rd world immigration? Demography is destiny."

On Friday, Witzke sparked her strongest condemnation to date when she posted a meme on Facebook that implied that Black children were cheering the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of her previous pro-choice legal decisions.

The meme showed an image of Black children wearing no shoes and only underwear.  Above it, Witzke wrote Ginsburg's "obsession with abortion overtly singled out blacks and minorities for extermination."

A wave of criticism came swiftly with Facebook commenters chiding Witzke as being "classless" and "an embarrassment" to Delaware. More than one commenter said they supported Witzke in the primary but the post made them think twice about November's general election.

Republican state Sen. Anthony Delcollo posted a statement on his Facebook page Saturday calling for the suspension of Witzke's campaign, citing Witzke as being "unfit to lead." He asked the Republican Party of Delaware to revoke its support of Witzke.

More:U.S. Sen. Chris Coons wins primary, faces loyal Trump supporter Lauren Witzke in November

State Republican Party Chair Jane Brady did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Following her primary victory, Brady said Witzke sits to the right of the "mainstream Republican view, but we've elected people that fell to the left of it," citing former Delaware governor and Congressman Mike Castle.  

She denied that Witzke's victory in the primary is a bellwether of a shifting Republican party. 

Jane Brady is chair of the Delaware Republican Party.

While Witzke's policies would make her among the most socially conservative in Congress, she veers to left of the Republican party platform with certain economic policies, particularly her support for workers collectively bargaining with employers.

Seeking to win votes from Delaware's Democratic voting – but often-socially conservative – union base, Witzke says "Delaware is blue, Democrat because of the labor." 

"We’re going to be targeting the voters who are just middle-class Americans who aren’t OK with the extreme left," she told Delaware Online/The News Journal in January. 

More:Delaware Senate candidate draws criticism for 'classless' RBG response

If successful, the campaign could represent a historic shakeup in the policies of the state's major parties.

But first Delaware voters inclined to vote for Witzke must decide whether her criminal backstory is one that renders her candidacy for U.S. Senate a nonstarter. 

In a statement, Witzke says she has been "open and honest" about her experience with opioid addiction since the beginning of her campaign. She noted also that all charges stemming from her 2017 arrest were dismissed. 

"My story is one that lets every parent in America know that their child does NOT have to die of opioid addiction," Witzke said. "The primary reason Delaware has the second most deaths per capita in the U.S. is because rather than working to solve this crisis and improve the lives of hard-working Delawareans, Chris Coons is marching hand-in-hand with violent rioters as they burn our cities to the ground.“

US Senator Chris Coons, seeking to once again be the Democratic Party nominee for reelection, speaks to campaign workers as the appears at Harlan Elementary School in Wilmington Tuesday.

Coons' office provided a statement in response that read, "Senator Coons supports peaceful protesters and their calls for long-overdue justice, while also supporting law enforcement and their efforts to keep us safe."

"He is committed to justice and denounces violence. He is focused on his work in the US Senate, including fighting for robust pandemic relief and assistance for all Delawareans," the statement said.

More:What the primary election winners and losers mean for the future of Delaware politics

Charges dismissed

Following her Aug. 4, 2017 arrest, Witzke was charged with possession of heroin, methamphetamines, and pills, as well as resisting arrest, driving under the influence and introducing illegal drugs into a penal facility. 

In December, a judge dismissed all charges. Public court documents leave blank a section that asks for the reason of the dismissal.

In an April interview with conservative talk radio host John Fredericks, Witzke said the charges being dropped were an "intervention of the Lord." 

"I'm so undeserving of the life I have now," Witzke said on the show.

The Bradley County, Tennessee district attorney did not respond to a request to comment for this story. 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency declined to comment on Witzke's case. 

An officer working in the DEA's Detroit field office provided a contextual statement about drug trafficking in that region, stating “Mexican cartels are directly involved with drug trafficking in Detroit and throughout the Midwest." 

"Using the I-75 corridor, Detroit has historically been a known source for heroin, cocaine, and controlled prescription drug trafficking organizations in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee,” DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Martin said in the statement.

Tennessee State Troopers seize nearly 600 pounds of marijuana in a 2008 drug bust on I-75. DEA officials say the interstate is a primary drug trafficking corridor between Detroit and Tennessee.

More:Court documents show how drugs, contraband get smuggled into Delaware prisons

The spiral

Witzke grew up in Laurel, a small town of about 4,000 people in southwest Sussex County, with parents Tammy and Scott and siblings Brooks, Mya and Christian.

A talented singer and athlete, she graduated from Delmar High School in 2006, where she earned all-state honors in softball and played volleyball. She went on to play both sports at Goldey-Beacom College in Pike Creek.

There, she earned an undergraduate degree in business administration.

In her January interview with The News Journal, Witzke said she was hired at a Wilmington pharmaceutical company after college, and in a single year of work there she developed an opioid addiction.

"I starting taking pain pills I was prescribed for a couple of things, injuries, surgeries, and it just steamrolled," she said. 

In interviews with several media outlets, Witzke described how relationships she built as a pharmaceutical representative allowed her to manipulate doctors to receive more medication, a practice she says is baked into the dangerous culture of large pharmaceutical companies.

Witzke has not named her former Wilmington employer.

Eventually, a friend introduced Witzke to heroin, she says. Six months later, she lost everything — her job, her car and her home, she has said.

"I was able to manage a life on pain medication to an extent," Witzke told the John Fredericks Show. "Heroin took me out so quick."

Court documents show Witzke in 2011 faced a legal dispute with the owner of her Wilmington apartment over $939.

A sign on I-75 near Chattanooga welcomes motorists to Tennessee.

Witzke left Delaware for Tennessee to try to rebuild after misusing drugs, she says, but the move to the South only spiraled her problems.

While there working as a waitress, she befriended a co-worker whose father was the head of a Mexican drug cartel, Witzke told the John Fredericks show.

That introduction apparently was her gateway to drug dealing. 

"It progressed from selling marijuana, to selling methamphetamines to heroin to me using again — hopelessly addicted all the way back to where I was," she said.

Witzke says she was a "low-end drug-runner" transporting drugs between Detroit and Tennessee for Mexican drug cartels, who saw her as "disposable."

"I would also, in exchange for drugs from addicts, I would exchange birth certificates, licenses and give them up to the cartel families for them to use," she told The News Journal. "That was in 2014."  

Witzke's spiral appeared to bottom out in 2017, with police yelling commands for her to get out of her car, which sat at the intersection of Randolph Samples and Waterlevel Highway in Cleveland, Tennessee.

An arrest document from a sergeant with the Bradley County (Tennessee) Sheriff's Department describes the harrowing scene just after midnight on a Friday.

When arriving at the intersection, the officer witnessed two deputies pointing their firearms at Witzke while inside her vehicle.

When initially approaching the vehicle, one deputy had seen "a silver handgun in the passenger seat," according to the arriving officer's official affidavit.

The deputy "advised me that she then reached towards the passenger seat where the gun was located,"  the officer wrote.

Despite the potential hazards, the officers helped Witzke out of the car. Described as extremely unsteady on her feet, Witzke then began to struggle, according to the officer, "and resist a further pat down for weapons." 

The officers did not conduct a field sobriety test because they were at the intersection of a "major thoroughfare" and because of Witzke's "combative nature," according to the affidavit.  

Instead, she was placed into the back of a police cruiser. In her car, police found heroin, a Xanax pill and two counterfeit $20 bills.

Later at the police station, officers found on Witzke another seven pills and 1.2 grams of a crystal substance "believed to be methamphetamine."

"It is common for narcotics dealers to have more than one type of narcotic," the officer wrote.   

The day after her arrest, Witzke paid bail set at $8,000. Her subsequent case featured six additional hearings before her charges were dropped.

More:Fentanyl: Deadly in Delaware, tops heroin for America's deadliest drug

[The story continues after the documents below.]

'Warfront on the Democrat agenda'

After her case adjudicated, Witzke was admitted for drug treatment at Shenandoah Valley Adult & Teen Challenge, a faith-based organization focusing on long-term recovery, located near Mt. Jackson, Virginia and the West Virginia state line.

Following treatment, Witzke says she became a program director at the facility. An official at the treatment center declined to comment when asked to confirm that she had worked there.

"I was able to walk others through the same process that I had been through myself," she told The News Journal in January. "The first few months of the program is really just immersing yourself in God's word."

Today, she calls on the federal government to fund the national Adult and Teen Challenge organization, and similar facilities.

By 2019, Wizke was in Iowa, working with other young social conservatives on the campaign to re-elect Trump. She also toured various parts of the country with an operation called the Trump 2020 tour. 

In classified ads placed last year in newspapers in Scranton and Wilkes Barre, Witzke announced that controversial conservatives Dylan Wheeler, Liz Crokin, among others, would speak at a hotel in the northern Pennsylvania area as part of "the warfront against the Democrat agenda!"

The tour was run by a company called Deplorables 4 Trump Inc. Registration documents show the company's president as Virginia resident Alexander Davis, who calls himself "America's number one deplorable."  

Lauren Witzke posted ads in Scranton area newspapers in 2019 for the Trump 2020 tour.

Witzke announced her candidacy for Delaware's U.S. Senate seat in early 2020. She first considered a run for the U.S. House of Representatives, but ultimately chose to challenge Coons because no other Republican was in the race at the time, she said 

Over the subsequent months, Witzke steadily gained attention as she campaigned vigorously across Delaware, from farmhouses downstate to protests in Wilmington.

She also has expressed signs of support for an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, called QAnon, invented by a Trump supporter on an internet forum. The baseless theory states that Trump was elected to root out a secret child-sex trafficking ring run by Satanic Democratic politicians and celebrities.

Following her primary victory, Witzke asserted in an interview with conservative radio host Dan Gaffney that supporters of the theory simply are "people who want elite pedophiles held accountable." 

More:Debunked QAnon conspiracy theories are seeping into mainstream social media. Don't be fooled.

Witzke has been compared with former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware Christine O'Donnell, who stated during her campaign in 2010 that she had "dabbled" in witchcraft.  

O'Donnell lost the race for Senate, which coincidentally also was against Coons, who then had been serving as New Castle County executive. 

Still, in the age of social media, Witzke appears to be attracting more acclaim than O'Donnell mustered.

She may also enjoy a boost in turnout among social conservatives drawn by the president, with whom she is ideologically aligned, running for re-election. Ultimately, Witzke credits her campaign to Trump.

After Trump was elected, "it meant to me that I just might be able to survive this (addiction), because I saw where the nation was going," she said in January. "I was able to realize that I did not have to compromise anymore."   

Reporter Sarah Gamard contributed to this story. 

Contact Karl Baker at kbaker@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6. Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @holveck_brandon.