BRATTLEBORO -- For the U.S. Attorney's Office, It was a day of building a foundation to the case against Frank Caraballo.

Jurors heard from a mobile phone salesman, three hotel operators, a forensic chemist, a Vermont State Police detective and a gun shop manager, as Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Van De Graaf and Joe Perella attempted to outline the scale of the drug operation Caraballo directed in and around Brattleboro for the two years leading up to the death of Melissa Barratt, who Caraballo is accused of murdering.

In addition, the prosecution played profanity-laced jailhouse recordings between Caraballo, his brother Michael Caraballo, his mother and the mother of his child.

Frank Caraballo of Brattleboro
Frank Caraballo of Brattleboro

But jurors also got a view on what drugs can do to a person when they heard from two witnesses who have pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy to distribute drugs for Caraballo.

Caraballo, 31, of Holyoke, Mass., stands accused of shooting Barratt on July 29, 2011, in the woods off of East West Road in Dummerston. According to court documents, Caraballo suspected Barratt, who was allegedly distributing cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin for him, of stealing a safe from him containing thousands of dollars of drugs.

Caraballo is currently serving a 16-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs.

Though early testimony on Thursday was dry and technical, when Toni Lynn Fontaine took the stand to describe her dealings with Caraballo, the testimony changed to the up close and personal.

"I'm an addict," she told the jury, and had been one since she was sexually assaulted when she was 16 years old.

Since then, Fontaine told the court, she has struggled with drugs. In 2011, she said, she began to purchase drugs from Caraballo and eventually received cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin to sell for him.

Though no cash was exchanged up front, said Fontaine, she was expected to make a payment when she had sold everything he had given her and before she got more to sell. Eventually she ended up owing Caraballo money, said Fontaine, because she was using more of the drugs than she was selling.

"He was a little bit upset. Like a father when you're in trouble."

As a way of evening up her debts with Caraballo, she told him her boyfriend had stolen a gun he might be interested in. Caraballo agreed to accept it in lieu of payment for the drugs she had consumed, said Fontaine.

"My debt was clear. He wasn't angry."

Under cross examination, Fontaine admitted that as part of her plea agreement with the federal government, she agreed to cooperate in its prosecution of Caraballo.

"Do you hope you will receive a lower sentence?" asked Natasha Sen, who with Mark Kaplan, is defending Caraballo in district court in Rutland.

"I don't know what will happen, but obviously I hope to get less time," responded Fontaine. She said it was her understanding that cooperating meant staying sober and being honest in court.

The charges against Fontaine could result in up to 20 years in prison. While the prosecutor can ask that U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss take Fontaine's cooperation into account, it's up to the judge to levy the sentence.

Fontaine, 26, told the court she had complied with a rehabilitation program and was currently on methadone to help her stay sober.

After lunch, the prosecution called Douglas Radcliffe to the stand.

Radcliffe, who has been incarcerated since January, also reached a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office in return for agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution of Caraballo. He said he agreed to "tell the truth" in accepting the plea deal.

He also could be sentenced to up to 20 years for helping Caraballo to distribute cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin.

Radcliffe, 31, said he had started using drugs when he was 14, but has been clean since March of this year.

He met Melissa Barratt at the Phoenix House in Brattleboro in 2006, where they were both receiving treatment for drug addiction. Though Radcliffe was able to stay sober for a short time after he was released from the program, he admitted he relapsed before reentering a treatment program in 2008. He relapsed again in 2010, mostly using cocaine and crack cocaine before progressing to heroin.

In March of 2011, he was put in touch with Caraballo and agreed to distribute drugs under a similar deal offered to Fontaine. Radcliffe said he received drugs from Caraballo at several locations in Brattleboro: At the corner of Canal Street and Clark Street, in the parking lot of Gouger's Market on the corner of Canal Street and Elm Street, and in what he called a "crack house" next door to Gouger's Market.

Eventually, as with Fontaine, Radcliffe began using more of the drugs than he was selling.

"The business relationship got real rocky," said Radcliffe, and he tried to avoid Caraballo.

In July of 2011, Radcliffe said he owed Caraballo about $1,800 and about that same time Caraballo told him he was "having a beef with somebody" and his brother was "going to bring a gun up to burn."

Caraballo's brother, Michael, is currently serving a 12-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Michael Caraballo was also accused of engaging in a drive-by shooting in Brattleboro in March 2011 in which no one was injured. Those charges were dropped when he agreed to plead guilty to drug conspiracy charges.

In other conversations with Caraballo, Radcliffe concluded only one of two people could have stolen the safe from him in July 2011, and one of those was Barratt.

Radcliffe told the court that he had worked as a confidential informant off and on for the Vermont Drug Task Force and also admitted that he had drugs smuggled to him in prison shortly after he was incarcerated in January.

Recently he was transferred to the Cheshire County House of Corrections in New Hampshire and has been sober ever since, said Radcliffe.

During cross examination, Kaplan attempted to impeach Radcliffe's testimony by pointing to the plea agreement, the fact that he used drugs while in prison and that he was willing to be "a professional cooperator or snitch" in return for favoritism from the legal system.

Kaplan said Radcliffe had a history of "shifting the blame" to avoid getting in trouble for his own behavior.

"You had police arrest two other people who did your time," said Kaplan.

Radcliffe insisted that while he was a confidential informant, he didn't use drugs, but Kaplan pointed out that while he might not have been using drugs during the two buys he conducted for the task force, he did use drugs while still under official contract with the state.

The court was adjourned and will be out today but will reconvene on Monday.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.