An Illinois woman who struggled with methamphetamine addiction and whose face was featured on a poster worldwide has died of cancer at the age of 55.
Penny Wood-Rusterholz, of Pekin, Illinois, was in a dark place when she was arrested in 1998. Four years later, she was arrested again, at a time in her life when she was addicted to meth.
Wood-Rusterholz’s 2002 mugshot struck Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz so much that he asked her if she would let her mugshots appear side by side on posters to show the dangers of drugs like meth.
Wood-Rusterholz agreed but later regretted her decision. Eventually, she came to understand that it was the decision that helped her regain control of her life.
The Peoria Journal Star explored Wood-Rusterholz’s change in mindset about being the face of meth.
After Wood-Rusterholz granted Umholtz’s request, the composite photo of her face was to be displayed on anti-meth posters in probation offices, drug clinics and schools -- but it ended up getting attention internationally.
The pressures she felt locally, being “the butt of jokes” and unable to find work, overwhelmed Wood-Rusterholz.
“At 42, I have to face up to the fact that being a poster girl has not improved my life at all. Some days, I think prison would have been a lot easier,” she said of her thoughts in 2004.
Her daughter, Amy Mallery, responded: “I said, ’Mom, you’re helping (your grandchildren). You’re showing how terrible (meth) is.’”
Not long after, the family said a spiritual experience at a crossroads occurred.
A desperate, rock-bottom Wood-Rusterholz was at a clinic begging for a cigarette and asked God for a sign.
“She said she grabbed a cigarette, went outside to the (clinic’s) smoking area and said, ‘God, you better give me a sign. If you don’t, I’m leaving. Please give me one,’” Mallery told The Peoria Journal Star.
Wood-Rusterholz then saw a billboard that said, “If you’re looking for a sign from God, here it is.”
Wood-Rusterholz finished treatment, got an associate’s degree in drug counseling and sociology, got a job as an in-home health care worker and was surrounded for more than a decade by the love of her family, co-workers and the residents she met along the way at work.
She ultimately became a mother of five, grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother to nine.
State’s Attorney Umholtz said that he didn’t know those mugshots would spread around the world, but he was aware that Wood-Rusterholz credited them for turning her life around and enabling her to enjoy family life.
“I had no idea those photos would be displayed around the world. I thought they would give her a great legacy in helping to save lives,” he said. “She said they were the best thing that ever happened to her, not only for her own life, but so she could enjoy the lives of her children and grandchildren.”
Wood-Rusterholz died July 18 at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois.
Read more at The Peoria Journal Star.