Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 5/10/2021 – Shining a bright crystal blue light on the life and crimes of Lori Arnold, Queen of Meth (Actor Tom Arnold’s sister) takes viewers on a deeply personal journey unveiling how one of America’s most infamous – and unexpected – drug lords turned addiction into an enterprise. The former drug maven takes viewers back to the scene of the crime in her hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa where for six years, she ran a sprawling multi-state meth empire and played a key role in the start of the Midwest’s methamphetamine epidemic. A major dealer, user, and even supplier, money poured in and good times rolled for Lori and those close to her, while their lifestyles helped revitalize the economically depressed factory town. At the height of Lori’s reign, she was producing between 10-20 pounds of meth in her lab and raking in at least $200,000 each week…until the darker side of addiction and dealing caught up with her. Grappling with a broken world she helped create and the stream of relationships shattered from her time at the top, the explosive three-hour docuseries Queen of Meth is streaming on discovery+.
We spoke with the director, Julian P. Hobbs, and Lori Arnold.
Julian. When did you first discover Lori Arnold’s story?
Five years ago while our production company, Talos Films, was making a documentary about America’s war on drugs, Lori popped up as the unexpected ‘Queenpin’ behind the Midwest 1980s meth epidemic. She was completely unexpected: a savvy, blue-collar woman who triumphed in the male-dominated world of illegal drug trafficking. This was the origins of Queen of Meth, a deep-dive documentary into what made Lori tick: why and how did she do it?
What did you notice first about her?
(Lori laughed) She was self-effacing and was a captivating storyteller. She had deep insight into her own strange alchemic autobiography that forged her rise to one of America’s most powerful drug lords.
Why did you feel compelled to tell her story?
This is an all-American story – but not one of the white picket fences and happy families. Rather, it’s the story of a family coming to grips with addiction, economic and psychological damage, and suppressed trauma. It is a story of people in exile. Tom Arnold in Hollywood. Lori was in jail, and then once released, banished from her hometown. So the film is a homecoming, and like all homecomings, it is an invocation of ghosts that rise up and speak – the past haunts the present.
Queen of Meth Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iRMseV1avE
Take us through Queen of Meth. What challenges did you face when filming?
We filmed in October of last year at the peak of COVID – so it is a film about exteriors, you never see two people inside, and even outside people had to be socially distanced. But that became an asset – a spatial metaphor for the distance between siblings, parents, and friends. And the town – Ottumwa, Iowa – became a character, with its abandoned factories, and the places that Lori and Tom grew up in.
What do you want people to know about the Queen of Meth?
Lori stands out as a homegrown American entrepreneur in a period of economic crisis: deindustrialization and the farm crises devastated Iowa in the 1980s. In the new ‘rust belt’ economy, drugs were one of the few means for economic advancement. This does not justify dealing meth – but hopefully, the film unpacks the factors that lead one person to take a path into the dark side.
In Queen of Meth, Lori confronts her past by visiting old haunts and rehashing memories with friends and family, including her famous brother, Tom Arnold. Lori and Tom’s vivid recollections of their formative years reveal hidden family secrets and trauma, poignantly piecing together how Lori’s disturbing childhood and wild adolescence led her down a drug-riddled path. More than a trip down memory lane, Queen of Meth showcases just how this highly successful and unlikely entrepreneur oversaw a multi-million-dollar meth empire, and how even within the ravages of addiction, she was able to flip poverty to prosperity. As she reconnects with friends from her hometown and her estranged son, Josh, she is faced with the repercussions of her actions and the destruction left in her wake, which continues to have devastating consequences in the community and beyond.
Lori, when did the world of drugs begin in your life?
When I was younger, I lived with my dad and stepmom, and they raised us right. But in junior high, around 7th grade is when I started rebelling. My brother, Tom, lived with my mom, and she didn’t have the rules that we had in our house. So, I started acting out, hanging out in bars and quit church, and moved in with my mom, too. It seemed like freedom, I guess to a kid. When I was 14, my mom gave me speed. I didn’t really think of it like drugs at the time. It kept me up, kept me skinny, and felt good.
You dropped out of school in the 9th grade and have turbulent years to follow. Take us back.
I met my first husband when I was 14 and he was 23. I wasn’t ready to be married. I didn’t even know what marriage was at the time, I just knew it was an adult thing. But, when my parents found out how old he really was, they said he could either break up with me, go to jail for statutory rape, or marry me. Well, I was 14, and I didn’t really want to get dumped, and I didn’t want him to go to jail because I loved him. So, when the opportunity came to get married, I didn’t really have a say so. I thought we’d get our own place and live happily ever after. It was an adventure to me at the time, but in the end, yeah, it was a bad deal. Now looking back, I realize how wrong that was and that he was a predator, and abusive. It was a short-lived marriage, but I never got to return to life as a “normal” teenager after that, and that was pretty much the end of my childhood.
You met your second husband Floyd. What was attractive about him?
First time I saw Floyd was when he was with the Grim Reapers, a biker gang. It was just such a powerful sight to see all these choppers come in, and all these bikers walk in. He was very well-respected. And usually, when you have a lot of respect, you’ve earned it. We just kind of hit it off because I wasn’t afraid of him. And he wasn’t used to people coming up and just challenging him in a way because everyone was afraid of Floyd. Floyd looked mean. He had that mean look. He had that unapproachable look and that’s the kind of people I approach. Because I like a challenge, and I wasn’t afraid of him. I didn’t even know that he was interested in me, but then he kept pursuing me. So we started dating, and it took me a while to love him. I mean it was like…he was older than me and he was super possessive. But, he exhumed power. I liked it. And finally, I got married in 1980 to Floyd.
Floyd’s brother brings meth over to your house. You are instantly interested in selling. Why was this so attractive to you?
Floyd’s brother introduced me to meth around 1985. It was a seductive, utopian feeling that completely rocked my world. Boredom, loneliness, low self-esteem, and all other problems seemed to just disappear. And I loved it and thought I just needed to share that feeling with my friends. I wasn’t even looking to be a dealer, to make money from it, I just wanted to share something that made me feel good with my friends. Once I started making money, I thought it would be nice to bring my friends into the fold, help them make some extra cash, too. From there, it all just spiraled.
You were selling meth alongside opening a bar, the Wild Side. You find customers for your product. Tell us about this time.
I was just tired of living poor. I could sell a little here, make some extra money there. I never wanted to be a drug dealer. I just wanted something more for me and my family. Soon extra money to heat my house or buy cigarettes just turned into a way to get a better car, house, then the toys came. I really didn’t think I’d make money off it, it wasn’t my plan to become a big drug dealer. But, the second the drug hit the town, the people liked it, and it spread like wildfire. Now with the bar, I just liked running shit. And that was a place we could go, drink beers, and have fun. I always wanted to have a legitimate business, so the bar, the ranch, the car shop, was just outlets for me to spend my money, give back to the town a bit, and have places for people to go. I wanted to invest what money I was making into businesses that I had so I didn’t have to deal drugs. I wanted to be a businesswoman. I didn’t want to sell drugs all my life. But, there weren’t a lot of high-paying jobs in Ottumwa for someone with a GED, and drugs just came so easy to me.
You then sell meth alongside your real estate business renting homes by government housing program. You were doing well, buying planes, guns, and diamonds. Who were you at this time? Did you feel any guilt at this time?
For a while, we were ringing in a couple hundred thousand a week, and we just had so much money. But with the car shop, the bar, the ranch, and the horses – they’re so expensive to upkeep – I had all this stuff that I had to keep paying for. But it cost a lot of money to keep my legitimate businesses afloat, and the only way I could do that was with the drug money, so it was just a vicious cycle. I put a lot of money back into the community in Ottumwa. I spent money buying houses for my friends to live in and fix them up and flip them. I gave a lot to the local charities and police funds – I mean, I gave back so much. But looking back now, it was all drug money, so I guess it wasn’t the right way to do it, but it was the only way I knew how to at that time.
When did it all crash down for you?
I didn’t really think much about being caught at the time because I knew everyone, and things were just so different back then – loyalty meant something, and you could count on your friends not to snitch or whatever. And I guess ego builds up and you get a little cocky and everything else. My friends were there with me through thick and thin, I knew they weren’t gonna tell me on me, or get me on selling to someone. But, I never knew anyone that had been arrested federally, and I didn’t realize the extent of a federal investigation and what they could do. You get cocky and you think you’re better than they are. I realized when they got me that I wasn’t even close to being right. In this instance, it was the guy I was buying the drugs from. It was crazy how it went down and how a federal indictment works.
We were all sleeping – we’d been up for what seemed like a month partying. All I heard was the big crash, and I was so tired, but I didn’t really move. Next thing I know, someone was on top of me with the gun barrel to my forehead – it was a Fed sitting on top of me, “You know goddamn right what we want” I said, “just take it, take it all.” They told me to get up and get dressed. Then I saw my husband handcuffed on the floor and the feds on him, and I knew it was up. It was crazy, but it was kind of a relief in some weird way because I knew I couldn’t stop it from continuing on, and things had just gotten so out of control, and I just had so much stuff. But the stuff didn’t really matter when it was yanked away from me, it was just stuff. The only thing that mattered was my son, and from there on that’s what I focused on.
Was it the drugs or your arrogance that was your downfall?
Selling came easy to me – I like running shit. I was the brains, and Floyd was the muscle. But I would say that I’m more addicted to power. That fed my ego. I want people to look up to me, respect me. If anything, I felt empowered, respected, feared, and you feed into that kind of stuff. I was always a badass, I like being a badass. But yeah, I was cocky. I was a showoff, and everyone in town knew what I was up to. I liked that respect, for sure.
You decided to tell your story in the upcoming docuseries, Queen of Meth. Why? What do you want people to know?
I just thought it was time. Feelings of guilt and remorse, regret, things like that. After the years have gone by, I just wanted to explain, tell people, the how, what, when, why, that sort of thing, just kind of tell my story to maybe get a little understanding on how it happened. I didn’t even realize how it all happened myself, so it was honestly a journey of self-discovery for me – to take some time and really reflect. I’m getting old, and even though I’m out of prison, I’m still serving a life sentence for selling drugs. I just thought it was time to tell my story, the truth of how it all went down. The process of filming this really helped me understand myself more, really put my upbringing and teen years into perspective. And they told it like it really was, which is what I’m most happy about.
If you could go back in time when was a pivotal moment in your life that you wish you could change?
I definitely wouldn’t sell drugs again. I’m too old for that life now, anyway. I wish I had saved more, that’s for sure!
I don’t know, I went from book smart to street smart. School tended to get boring for me, I was looking for something more exciting, and drugs just happened to be the thing that I found. The street smart part of me was like freedom. If I had something people wanted, they looked up to me, respected me. If it wasn’t drugs, I honestly don’t know what it would have been. I’d still want to be a badass, and I just like running shit. It wasn’t so much the drugs as it was the power, the way people look up to you more. That’s what I was going for. I needed a niche, I needed something, and I happened to fall into the wrong thing. I really don’t know what I would have chosen, but I think that staying in school would have helped.
I’m an empathetic person and I’ve always wanted to do good and help people – I always protect the underdog. But it’s a weird contradiction, but I was doing that all and giving to charities with drug money then. Now looking back, probably wasn’t the best way to do that, but I did the best with what I had. I guess I wish I was just able to do that all again, just with a legitimate business or career.
Queen of Meth is available exclusively on discovery+, the definitive non-fiction, real-life subscription streaming service now available from Discovery Communications. You can follow discovery+ on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Queen of Meth is produced for discovery+ by Talos Films with Julian P. Hobbs as director and producer and Elli Hakami as executive producer. Liz Massie is senior executive producer for discovery+.