Friday February 1, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A local business owner who has been held without bail for the past two weeks after being accused of trading drugs for sex should have a decision issued on whether or not he can be free while the case is pending by Friday.

Preston Foster, 50, of Dudley Place, pleaded not guilty on Jan. 17 to felony cocaine sale, prohibited acts - procure, and misdemeanor cocaine possession. He was charged as a habitual offender and has a pending felony-level possession of stolen property charge pending against him which stemmed from a search police conducted at his recycling business in February 2012 where they were looking for stolen goods. Police say Foster is accused of being in possession of a large amount of stolen jewelry, which they claim he knew to be stolen and did not report it to police. He had pleaded not guilty to that charge and was free on conditions until his recent arrest.

Foster was more recently arrested along with more than 48 others in "Operation County Strike," a sweep conducted by the Vermont Drug Task Force that targeted 63 people suspected of being involved in the drug trade. According to an affidavit by a detective assigned to the Vermont Drug Task Force, in September of last year he had a conversation with a Bennington Police detective who said he had spoken to a 16-year-old girl who told him she and others were involved with trading sex for drugs. The 16-year-old referenced another female who was also willing to talk to police. Police did not identify either female in the affidavit, saying they are being considered victims.

According to the police affidavit, they were led to believe the girls were involved with a "web site for escorts" based out of Troy, N.Y., and that a male by the name of Jason Balsh was running the operation.

Police said they spoke to one of the females who told them she was introduced to the escort business through another female in Bennington. She said the woman who got her involved took pictures of her and sent them to Balsh, who she claimed to have only interacted with via text messages and Facebook. She said she was assigned areas of Bennington to walk around and wait for a message describing a vehicle. If said vehicle drove by her three times she was to take that a signal it was her client. She said she negotiated prices for sex with these clients and never sent Balsh money.

The female told police she was introduced to Foster through one of the women in the escort service, and she and Foster had sex twice in exchange for cocaine. She said this happened in a white van with the Foster’s Cannery logo on it, however police determined there is no white van owned by Foster’s, but there is a red one with the cannery logo.

The van’s color was an issued brought up by Foster’s attorney, Joyce Brenner, at the weight of the evidence hearing held Thursday. She argued that almost all of the affidavit was not admissible for the purposes of a bail hearing as it is "replete with hearsay."

She said the female in the affidavit has credibility issues. According to Brenner, the female did not specify when she had sex with Foster, or where, and gave the wrong color of the van. "This is a relatively weak case for the state," she said.

Brenner argued that her client has had no issues coming to court when he is supposed to and added there were no problems when he knew he was under police scrutiny after the February 2012 search of the cannery. She said Foster and his wife, Mary Foster, are concerned for the well-being of their business should Preston Foster remain incarcerated, and added that Foster does not have to leave the state to operate it. Brenner said the court should use its discretion in releasing Foster, and that he could be released under bail or a check-in condition at the local police department.

Mary Foster testified that the business is stable and her husband is welcome to stay with her where they leave.

Deputy State’s Attorney Robert Plunkett submitted the recorded interview police had with the female in question, which Judge Cortland Corsones said he would review before his written decision was made. Plunkett said the female describes Foster being involved in prostitution as more than a client. Plunkett would not elaborate on the interview and the Banner was not able to obtain a copy of it Thursday. Plunkett argued that Foster be held because these alleged actions took place while he was under investigation by police for the stolen property matter.

A habitual offender enhancement means that if convicted on a new felony, the state can argue for Foster to serve up to a life term in prison.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @keithwhitcombjr