A woman from Pekin, Illinois, whose struggles with methamphetamine addiction became a poster worldwide due to a probation condition and whose life would turn around because of it, has died of cancer at the age of 55.
Penny Wood-Rusterholz was in a dark place when she was arrested in 1998, but then, there is the mugshot she appeared in four years later on in a life with meth.
The arrest in 2002 so struck Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz 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 hated her decision for a while. Eventually, she came to understand that it was the decision that brought her back.
She would become a mother of five, grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother to nine.
The Peoria Journal Star explored Wood-Rusterholz’s change in mindset about being the face of meth.
Wood-Rusterholz’s face was to be displayed on anti-meth posters in probation offices, drug clinics and schools, but it ended up going global.
The pressures she felt locally, being “the butt of jokes” and unable to find work, made her think by 2004, “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.”
Her daughter Amy Mallery responded, “I said, ’Mom, you’re helping [her grandchildren], you’re showing how terrible [meth] is.’”
Not long after, the family says a spiritual experience at a crossroads occurred.
A desperate, rock-bottom Wood-Rusterholz was outside of a clinic for a cigarette and begged 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,’” the story goes.
The woman then saw a billboard that said, “If you’re looking for a sign from God, here it is.” To her, this was a sign from God on a sign from God.
Wood-Rusterholz finished treatment, got an associate degrees in drug counselling 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.
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 Tuesday, July 18, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.