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Powder Trail: Tracing Vermont's Heroin Epidemic to Its Sources 

Local Matters

click to enlarge Bulk heroin known as "fingers" of seized by Burlington police in an  unidentified drug arrest - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Bulk heroin known as "fingers" of seized by Burlington police in an unidentified drug arrest

Vermont police report that a staggering amount of heroin is flowing into the state right now. But where are the drugs coming from?

The cops say they’re from urban areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Lowell and Holyoke, Mass., Albany, and even Chicago and Detroit. Rutland Police Chief James Baker says a bag of heroin that sells for $5 in a big city can fetch as much as $30 on the streets of his city.

On the evening of December 8, 2012, one suspected dealer allegedly led authorities right to his source. Using a warrant, Burlington police and federal drug enforcement agents traced the movements of Videsh Raghoonanan by tracking his cellphone in real time. For six hours, they watched the signal travel from Burlington down interstates 89, 91 and 95 to New York City.

The signal stopped at 1 a.m. near Ozone Park, Queens, a middle-class neighborhood best known for its horseracing track. Sixteen hours later, the cellphone started moving north again — tracing the same route back — until it arrived in Burlington shortly before midnight.

When Raghoonanan exited the highway onto Shelburne Road, police were waiting in a surveillance car. He drove to an apartment on South Union Street, where authorities say the dealer had set up shop. As they got out of the vehicle, Raghoonanan and a companion were taken into custody and searched.

According to court records, the cops found a 30-gram bag of cocaine concealed in Raghoonanan’s buttocks and 90 bags of heroin in the pants pocket of his cohort.

Raghoonanan was apparently identified by a customer who cooperated with federal authorities in the hope of reducing his own sentence on drug charges. And Raghoonanan, in turn, allegedly identified his supplier as a New York City man known as “Black.”

“You can’t just keep arresting people coming in as runners. That won’t stop the problem,” says State Police Lt. Matthew Birmingham, commander of the Vermont Drug Task Force. “You have to dismantle the organization.”

U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin has prosecuted dozens of individuals for heroin trafficking in the past 18 months, mostly using secretive grand jury proceedings. His office is building complex cases — many of which rely on confidential informants with ties to suspected drug suppliers.

Brooklyn has emerged as an epicenter of Vermont-bound heroin, and one neighborhood in particular appears to be a source point. In February, federal prosecutors in New York unsealed an indictment charging six defendants in a drug ring from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn with trafficking narcotics. One of them was arrested in Vermont. Court records accused the suspects of making daily runs with large quantities of narcotics to upstate New York and Vermont.

In March, state police stopped a Cadillac on I-89 in Williamstown that was allegedly returning from Brooklyn with 2600 bags of heroin in the trunk. Authorities have also seized large quantities of heroin in recent months from out-of-state passengers traveling on the Megabus and in taxicabs.

“There are supply networks familiar with Vermont down there,” Coffin acknowledges. But heroin is arriving from Chicago, Boston and other big cities, too.

In fact, some of the most potent — and deadly — heroin in Vermont appears to have originated in the Windy City. Beginning in the fall of 2011, the Burlington police narcotics unit began investigating a group of individuals from Chicago allegedly trafficking heroin in Chittenden County. The heroin — known as “Chi town” or “Chi town dope” — was blamed for several overdoses, including at least one that resulted in death.

Turns out, Chi town dope also had ties to drug suppliers in Lowell, Mass. On April 10, law enforcement officers in Lowell staked out the home of a person suspected of trafficking the potent heroin to Vermont. Police allegedly watched Chandara “Po” Sam leave his apartment and drive away in a gray Honda, and then trailed him to the Vermont border, where Vermont police took over the surveillance.

According to police, investigators followed Sam to a McDonald’s in White River Junction, where they had prearranged a controlled buy with an undercover informant who allegedly gave Sam $5000 for a large package of heroin. Police arrested Sam after the handoff. When the cops back in Lowell executed a search warrant on the building where Sam had been spotted, they allegedly found 30 grams of heroin, digital scales, more than $40,000 in cash and a handgun.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling says Chi town is just one of several heroin varieties available on the streets. Each batch comes with its own “stamp” on the packaging, the chief explains, and different groups bring in different supplies.

So far, gangs don’t appear to be battling for turf in Vermont, according to Birmingham, the drug task force commander, who notes that there’s no sign of organized gangs such as Bloods or Crips. But he admits he can’t be sure because “people don’t wear gang numbers.” Sometimes, he notes, people will pretend they’re in a gang to build their “intimidation factor.”

“People will come into a smaller community in Vermont and want to portray themselves as tough,” Birmingham says.

Schirling has a different view on gangs. He says Burlington police have arrested suspects that have affiliations with inner-city gangs. Asked to elaborate, the chief says, “Can’t talk about that.”

At least one alleged trafficker appeared to be worried about a rival’s heroin cutting into his market. Burlington police arrested Michael Vasquez, aka “Macho,” last fall for allegedly selling heroin to an undercover police informant, and he is alleged to be the head of an organization that trafficked two ounces per week from New York into the Burlington area.

In his affidavit of probable cause, Burlington Detective Sgt. Matthew Sullivan wrote that when he asked Vasquez about a competing distribution group infringing on his franchise, Vasquez replied, “Maybe they’re making it hard for me to eat or me to make money if I was selling drugs or maybe like you said they getting in the way or whatever...”

Baker of Rutland cautions that it’s simplistic to blame the heroin surge solely on outsiders. One of the biggest busts in his area implicated a Vermonter. On April 24, federal prosecutors charged Alan H. Willis II of Tinmouth with heroin trafficking, alleging he had been purchasing and selling 1200 bags a week since last June — or as much as 38,400 bags of heroin over the past 10 months.

Similarly, federal agents arrested Addison County native Justin Billings last summer as he allegedly attempted to sell 399 bags of heroin in Hampton, N.Y. When agents later searched his residence, they allegedly seized 6073 bags of heroin, $90,000 in cash, 10 firearms, ammunition and a 2003 Ford Explorer with an electronically controlled hiding compartment.

Dispelling the urban legend that Amtrak is the conduit for Rutland’s heroin supply, Baker says he’s unaware of a single shipment that has arrived via passenger train since he took over as police chief in January 2012.

“It would be easy to blame New York City,” Baker says, “but it’s much more complicated than that.”

Switchin' Addictions?

For more than a decade, the number of Vermonters treated for heroin addiction held steady at around 600 or 700 individuals a year, even as the number treated for synthetic opiates such as oxycodone skyrocketed.

But new figures from the Vermont Department of Health show the heroin trend line inching up — from 654 people treated in 2011 to 914 treated in 2012. Treatment for prescription opiates continued to climb in 2012, which is to be expected, health officials say, because treatment usually lags behind drug-use changes on the streets.

Barbara Cimaglio, VDH’s deputy commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse programs, says opiate addiction in Vermont has been cyclical — it was heroin a decade ago, then oxycodone and now heroin again. That’s partly because several years ago, pharmaceutical companies reformulated oxycodone to make it harder to abuse. Many opiate addicts switched to heroin, which is a fraction of the price.

“It’s like Whac-A-Mole,” she says. “We address one thing and then something else crops up.”

Dr. John Brooklyn cofounded the state’s first methadone clinic in Burlington more than a decade ago and is now medical director of the HowardCenter Chittenden Clinic and methadone clinics in Berlin, St. Johnsbury and Newport. He says Vermont has taken steps to help more opiate addicts but laments that more than 750 people are still on a waiting list for treatment. He blames that, in part, on misconceptions about opiate addicts.

“We think it’s some gangsta in a hoodie sticking up a convenience store,” Brooklyn says, “not the person serving your coffee, pumping your gas or taking care of your kids at a daycare center. Because all those jobs are done by people I know who have a history of heroin.”

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Bio:
Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.

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