Law enforcement authorities to drug dealers: 'We are coming after you'

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BRATTLEBORO — The message Tuesday from Thomas Anderson, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, to addicts who deal drugs to sustain their habits was clear: Get help or go to jail.

"We have treatment basically on demand right now," said Anderson, during a press conference in Brattleboro hosted by U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan. "So the excuse that 'I am simply dealing this drug to support my own habit because I can't get into treatment or have to wait to get into treatment and I simply need to sell this drug so I don't get sick ...' is not a valid excuse. It never was a valid excuse."

Nolan held the press conference at the Brattleboro Police Department to announce the arrests of 16 people following a multi-jurisdictional investigation into the dealing of cocaine and heroin in Brattleboro.

Anderson said the message to drug dealers is "Whether you're the kingpin or the low-level street dealer, we are coming after you. We are going to be uncompromising in making arrests and stopping people from distributing this poison on the streets of Brattleboro ... Simply because you are selling to support your own habit is not OK. It's not an excuse. Get yourself into treatment."

"Vermont lost 110 lives to drug overdose death last year and the county with the most of those deaths was Windham County," said Nolan. "This is an unacceptable tragedy. There is suffering from the drug crisis in every corner of Vermont, not least of all Brattleboro, in light of its geographic proximity to dealers based in the Springfield, Mass., area."

During the three-day operation conducted last week by federal, state, local, and county officers, and federal and state prosecutors, said Nolan, law enforcement arrested or charged 16 individuals, searched three residences and one hotel room, and seized approximately 1,000 bags of heroin and 70 grams of cocaine base. Twelve of those arrested have been charged in federal court, two in local court and two — Corey Archer, 38, and Lee Griffin, 36, both of Brattleboro, are not yet in custody. The others taken into custody included Curtis Bunkley, 29, Sarah Cassell, 32, Arthur Fisk, 28, Rachael Gauthier, 49, Holly Magnuson, 25, Robert Newton, 49, Jocelyn Pond, 29, Justine Pond, 29 and Jaylen Pryor, 18, all of Brattleboro.

Out-of-state suspects taken into custody included Daniel DeThomas, 37, of Hartford, Conn., Luis Duprey, 24, of Holyoke Mass., and Rory Jackson, 35, of Queens, N.Y.

Two other suspects were not named during the press conference. Kraig LaPorte, spokesman for the US Attorney's Office, told the Reformer after the meeting that those two names are being withheld "due to investigative sensitivities."

Nolan described the local operation as "a surge" involving officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Brattleboro Police Department, the Vermont Drug Task Force, the Vermont State Police, CBP Air/Marine Unit, and the New Hampshire Drug Task Force.

"This coordinated operation exemplifies the teamwork of Vermont law enforcement and our collective determination to deter and bring consequences to local and out-of-state drug dealers who ravage our communities," she said.

Nolan also noted that her office "will continue to surge" law enforcement resources "to bring justice to those who profit from death and immense suffering."

"For us to be successful," said Brattleboro Police Chief Michael "Gunny" Fitzgerald, "we need to work together and take advantage of each others' unique set of skills."

During a question and answer period following the remarks made by representatives of a number of federal and state agencies, Nolan also addressed the problem of "absentee landlords," or people who own rental properties in Brattleboro and Vermont who either turn a blind eye or are unaware of drug dealing in their buildings.

"If a landlord is involved in dealing or is knowingly facilitating that dealing, we can potentially indict and put a notice of forfeiture in the indictment that we intend to take the premises that are being used to facilitate the drug dealing," said Nolan.

She said her office has to take into account a number of factors when considering the forfeiture of a property, including whether the landlord has knowledge of or is involved in the activity and how prevalent or persistent the activity is. Her office also has to consider whether there are certain residents in a building who are not involved in the drug dealing and how any forfeiture might affect them.

"We don't want to evict innocent people and leave them without homes," said Nolan. "We also have to take into account whether a landlord is making efforts to remediate the situation."

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Nolan would not comment on whether her office has been in contact with any of the absentee landlords who own property in Brattleboro where drug dealing might be occurring.

Generally speaking, she said, "We do communicate with landlords. We have, in the past sent letters, which is part of what you can do; put them on notice ... if you send them a letter and nothing changes that is one of the avenues you can pursue to address the property being used for criminal purposes."

And it's not only absentee landlords who can come under scrutiny, she said, but also property managers who have knowledge of or are involved in drug dealing in properties they oversee.

Nolan also addressed the concern that the people who were arrested last week are just "small-time drug dealers" and not the "kingpins."

"If you sell fentanyl, you are not small, that's all there is to it," she said. "If you sell fentanyl, you can potentially kill someone ...Frankly, the same is true of meth, crack, powder, heroin ...We don't see this as small-time behavior. These are the people who are making it possible for [out-of-state] dealers to operate here."

As far as this being only a temporary Band-Aid on a long-festering wound, she said, the US Attorney and affiliated agencies are keeping their sites set on drug dealing in Brattleboro and throughout the state.

"These kinds of sustained surges of law enforcement resources send a message to a community," said Nolan. "That message will reverberate to many different places."

She also noted that 16 people who were selling drugs in Brattleboro Wednesday and now in jail. "And those 16 people are connected to other people. Word gets out pretty quickly. Yes. We do believe we are making a difference."

She said while law enforcement "won't telegraph" where enforcement activities are ongoing, Nolan said her office will continue the most affected communities with "surge" policing. "We are going to be everywhere," said Nolan. "There is suffering in every community."

Anderson, when asked if the arrests on Wednesday had anything to do with a double homicide in Hinsdale, N.H., on Thursday, April 11, said there is no evidence they were connected.

"But I want to caution that the case is still under investigation by the New Hampshire State Police," he said.

On Friday, Derrick Shippee, 28, who was accused of killing Neal Bolster, 29, and Aaliyah Jacobs, 19, in Bolster's Hinsdale home, was found dead in Vernon. The cause of Shippee's death has not yet been released to the public.

"At this point there is no evidence of a connection," said Anderson.

Nolan, adding to Anderson's comment that there is help available to people who want it, said she has been impressed by the level of service those hoping to address substance abuse disorder can receive in Vermont.

"The treatment offered in Vermont is the best in the country," she said. "And since becoming U.S. Attorney, I have learned about all the wonderful prevention coalitions we have across the state. We need to get to young people before the drug dealers do [and tell them] it's not worth it. Your whole life could become derailed. Help is available. We want you with us."

To learn about treatment options in Vermont visit the Department of Health's website at http://www.healthvermont.gov/alcohol-drug-abuse/how-get-help/find-treatment.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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