Mono Park in Modesto's airport neighborhood has earned some dirty nicknames. Needle Park, for the used hypodermic syringes on the ground, in the nearby alleys and stuck into trees. Or Heroin Park.
Now, the park has given its name to the "Mono Park Two" — Kristy Tribuzio, 36, and Brian Robinson, 37 — arrested for handing out clean needles to drug addicts who shoot up methamphetamine and heroin there.
They face up to a year in jail for doing what they believe is a public health service: preventing people from sharing needles and curbing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
"Our community is in crisis," said Tribuzio, an aspiring high school teacher. "Our intention was never to defy authority. It's hard not to be passionate about the root cause of so many bad things that happen in our community."
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Robinson puts it this way.
"It's like safe sex," he said. "If they're going to engage in this, have them be safe."
Needle exchange programs have long been controversial, pitting those who want to reduce a public health threat against those who fear encouraging drug use by supplying the tools.
Local critics, including Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Sheriff Adam Christianson, said a needle exchange program in Modesto would enable drug users to continue their addiction.
Last September, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors nixed a proposal for a needle exchange despite recommendations from a civil grand jury and county health professionals.
The grand jury's report said the county was on pace to record 620 new hepatitis C cases in 2008, up from 519 in 2007.
"The Central Valley is fighting a cultural war about (syringe exchange) while most other people have accepted it as a health intervention," said Hilary McQuie, the California director of the Harm Reduction Coalition.
In California, there are more than 40 needle exchange programs, but the Central Valley has only three, according to the state Department of Public Health.
McQuie said arrests or citations for people who ran unauthorized needle exchanges were common in the late 1980s and '90s. But she said police often looked the other way, because officers were at risk for needle stick injuries when arresting people carrying dirty syringes in hidden places. Fresno ran an unauthorized program for more than a decade, McQuie said.
"It's a shame that the individuals get traumatized when they're trying to volunteer their time to do good public health intervention," McQuie said. "They have to deal with being treated like a drug dealer or criminal."
Tribuzio and Robinson said they were the targets of a sting operation — with surveillance and wiretapped deputies — on April 11, as they collected dirty syringes and handed out clean needles and drug treatment pamphlets in Mono Park.
In the days leading up to their court hearing last week, the two collected 35 letters of recommendation from people throughout the country and the world, including a Yale professor, a county civil grand juror and a former police officer.
They hoped to strike a deal, pledging not to continue a needle exchange program in Modesto until it was legal, in exchange for dropping the misdemeanor charges.
So far, a prosecutor has declined, they said.
Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said the Sheriff's Department began investigating the needle exchange after getting complaints from neighbors about the program, as well as drug use and sales in the park.
"It's illegal, and our board (of supervisors) has supported law enforcement in not legalizing it," Shipley said. "We believe it does in fact contribute to ... drug sales and drug usage."
The "Mono Park Two" have learned a hard lesson about the personal consequences of being revolutionaries, even unwitting ones.
Since her arrest, Tribuzio has lost her job. Her pending criminal case means she can't get her teaching credential, despite working toward a master's degree in education, she said.
"I was doing the exact same thing a teacher was doing in San Francisco, and she can go back and teach on Monday morning," Tribuzio said. "Drug addiction and the spread of disease don't know county boundaries."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.