BRATTLEBORO -- Using tightly controlled drug buys -- complete with a confidential informant, covert phone calls, secret recorders and close-proximity surveillance -- investigators say they built a case against a Massachusetts man accused of supplying heroin to a dealer in the Brattleboro area.

The trial of 33-year-old Julio Davila, which began Tuesday in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, is based on evidence collected during four police-supervised heroin deals in late 2012 and early 2013 in Brattleboro and Dummerston.

The trial opened six days after Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his "state of the state" address to a growing opiate "crisis" in Vermont. The timing was noted by David Gartenstein, Windham County deputy state's attorney, in his opening argument Tuesday morning.

Julio Davila(Submitted photo)
Julio Davila (Submitted photo)

"You're going to hear about the impact that this type of drug use has on people's lives," Gartenstein told jurors.

But Kevin Rambold, Davila's defense attorney, said the state's case is no "slam dunk" and relies partly on statements from admitted drug dealers and users.

"Keep an open mind, I ask. There's two sides to a story," Rambold said. "And let's get to the bottom of this."

State Police in February 2013 arrested Davila, of Springfield, Mass., and Joshua Hartwell, 26, of Brattleboro, after the pair were implicated in drug deals totaling 240 bags of heroin and $2,400 in cash.

Each deal involved a confidential informant cooperating with authorities, and each transaction happened under surveillance from several state troopers. The first three buys happened off Western Avenue in Brattleboro, while the final -- and largest -- transaction happened outside a gas station off Exit 4 of Interstate 91 in Dummerston.

It was minutes after that transaction that police stopped a Jeep Grand Cherokee with occupants including Davila and Hartwell. Police say Davila had $1,100 in cash that had been marked by the Southeastern Vermont Drug Task Force, while Hartwell had 40 bags of heroin and a $100 marked bill.

Hartwell eventually pleaded guilty to drug charges. According to court documents, he admitted at the time of his arrest that he had been selling drugs since he was 16 and "does not have a real job."

"Hartwell admitted that Julio Davila was one of his drug suppliers," a police affidavit says.

Davila, who originally had been charged with 10 felonies, now faces four charges -- dispensing heroin, selling or dispensing heroin (more than 200 milligrams), possessing heroin (more than 200 milligrams) and aiding in the commission of selling or dispensing heroin.

The first day of Davila's trial was dominated by testimony from state Trooper Megan Sheridan, a drug task force member.

Over the course of several years in that job, "I learned that you need to pay very close attention to detail," Sheridan said.

That was clear in her description of the task force's use of controlled drug buys through confidential informants. Sheridan's testimony took jurors through the details of selecting those informants, who cooperate because they are trying to "work off" -- or get a favorable deal for -- criminal charges they face.

After an initial screening, police have a face-to-face meeting with potential informants to discuss which drug suspects might be arrested with their help.

"We go into more detail about which targets they can do, why they feel that they can do them," Sheridan said, adding that "we are working multiple confidential informants at the same time."

Once an informant is selected, Sheridan said she insists on daily phone contact with that person. At the same time, though, she is extremely cautious to not divulge an informant's identity during an investigation -- so much so that she uses the pronoun "it," rather than "he" or "she."

Setting up a drug buy requires planning of the most-minute details: Sheridan said she determines what the informant should say, where a deal should happen and even where a "target" suspect should sit in an informant's vehicle.

Before a deal happens, police search an informant for contraband and seize any cash he or she is carrying. The informant receives cash from the police, and "I take photographs of the serial numbers to record the exact serial number of each bill," Sheridan said.

At any point, informants "can pull out of a deal whenever they don't feel comfortable," Sheridan said. Also, she testified that "I always give them a phrase to say if their life is in danger. That is our cue to go in and rescue them."

Transactions are monitored via audio-transmitting devices and cameras. Also, police officers position themselves so at least one officer can always see what's happening.

At times, Sheridan said, "I will actually call the confidential informant in the middle of the deal."

That sometimes happened in the Hartwell/Davila probe, as informant Daniel Degasta -- a Norwich resident who was charged with heroin possession in July 2012 in Brattleboro -- was used to set up controlled buys at an apartment where Hartwell was living in the 900 block of Western Avenue.

The first such purchase happened Dec. 12, 2012, when Degasta bought 10 bags of heroin from Hartwell for $100, authorities said. The informant also returned with a description of Hartwell's drug source, whom he knew as "E" or "Ernie."

Police say they later identified that person as Davila. In fact, investigators say they spotted Davila during the next controlled heroin buy on Jan. 3, 2013 -- a 40-bag deal consummated outside a Western Avenue business.

A third Brattleboro buy, also for 40 bags of heroin, happened on Jan. 17, 2013.

The final purchase -- $1,350 for 150 bags of heroin -- initially was set up for a park-and-ride lot in Springfield, Vt.

"Ultimately, this deal occurred in the town of Dummerston right off the (I-91) Putney exit," Sheridan testified.

Court documents say that was because Davila did not want to travel as far north as Springfield.

Davila and Hartwell were arrested following that deal. Police have said Davila "denied possessing drugs, selling drugs or being a part of what Hartwell was doing."

In his opening arguments, Gartenstein said jurors will hear and see much evidence to the contrary -- including audio and video clips of the suspected deals -- during a trial scheduled to continue on Wednesday and Thursday.

But Rambold said the state's case against Hartwell -- the dealer -- was much stronger than the case against Davila, the alleged supplier.

"The seller is Mr. Hartwell. It's not my client, Mr. Davila. There's no recordings of him selling any drugs to this informant," Rambold said.

"They may have a case," he added. "But it was a case against Mr. Hartwell. Mr. Hartwell pled to those charges."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.