NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- More than 100 law enforcement officers descended on Bennington and surrounding towns Wednesday with an overwhelming display of force looking to nab 63 suspected drug dealers and a handful of purported gang members.
Through a steady snowfall, police teams methodically went from site to site, working from intelligence gathered during a six-month investigation by a multi-agency task force. The suspects range in age from 17 to 61.
"Operation County Strike," said to be the largest counter-drug operation ever in Vermont, was planned and executed to have an immediate impact on the local community, police said. A total of 48 suspects were arrested Wednesday and police were continuing efforts to take additional suspects into custody. Some of those sought by police were already in custody on other charges, according to police.
"There was a long, drawn-out investigation with the goal to take out as many people dealing drugs here in Bennington and Bennington County as possible," Vermont State Police Director Col. Thomas L'Esperance said during an afternoon press conference. "This is the largest operation I've ever been involved in."
Teams of law enforcement officers from several agencies, including the Bennington, Manchester and Winhall Police departments, the Bennington County Sheriff's Department and the state police, fanned out Wednesday morning in teams to round up suspects.
A state police tactical team executed a search warrant at 210 West Main Street around 8 a.m. That search resulted in the seizure of 83 bags of heroin, 12.5 grams of crack cocaine, and 47 30mg pills of OxyContin, police said. The state police team, in full tactical gear, entered the residence using a stun grenade.
Arrest teams continued to seek suspects throughout the day. Those arrested were transported to either the state police barracks in Shaftsbury, the Bennington Police Department or the Bennington County Sheriff's Office for processing. The suspects were then taken directly to Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division for arraignment.
Word of the operation spread among area residents as the day progressed. Crowds of onlookers began to gather wherever the heavily-armed tactical teams showed up.
State Police Spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro said Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage sought bail for each defendant. Defendants who could not make bail were to be transported later Wednesday to the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland.
Each of the suspects arrested Wednesday is facing five to 20 years in prison for selling drugs, including marijuana, crack, heroin, cocaine and prescription pills. Marthage said most are repeat offenders and some could face life in prison as habitual offenders.
Arraignments were expected to continue into the evening. Additional charges were on hand to expedite the process.
"My office today has filed over 300 counts. Most of those are felonies. The overwhelming majority of those are felonies," she said. "It's going to be a little like night court, I think. We only have so many defense attorneys, frankly, and this is something that nobody knew about until today except for individuals in law enforcement."
Officials said no single suspect was more important to arrest. "Personally, big or small, we'll take them all," L'Esperance said. "If you're selling crack on the street or selling heroin out of an apartment building or selling pills at your place of work, you're a concern to us because you affect quality of life. I don't think there's any one person that we can say is more important than the next."
The day concluded "event free," L'Esperance said, noting there were no injuries to police or any suspects, and no shots were fired.
A tense moment occurred on Pleasant Street, however, around 12:30 p.m. Two suspects were barricaded inside a residence and police believed they were armed. It was unclear Wednesday evening if any weapons were inside the residence.
The situation was defused, without further incident. The state police tactical team and its armored vehicles, as well as the Bennington Police Special Response Team, surrounded the residence. A helicopter from U.S. Border Patrol assisted and hovered overhead. The display of force worked, police said.
"There are times when an overwhelming show of force will cause people to surrender, L'Esperance said. "I think today was certainly not overkill by any stretch of the imagination when taking that many people into custody. Having that many officers in Bennington for today was not only necessary, it was the right thing to do and we saw that with the end of the day where one of our targets was holed up in a home and was having trouble deciding whether or not they wanted to leave the home. The collective show of force, which was well organized and well-planned, paid off and nobody was hurt."
Local government and law enforcement officials have been decrying a growing drug and gang problem in Bennington for some time. The community, L'Esperance said, "has been starving for a police presence from a drug task force standpoint for a number of years."
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said the operation conducted by the multi-agency drug task force on Wednesday was a continuation of efforts launched by local police since he became chief in 2010. "I realized that we had a significant drug problem and we were starting to see gang activity in our community. I pledged to the Select Board and the town manager that we would see what we could do to help clean that up," he said.
The problem has been escalating and becoming more dangerous for the community, according to Doucette. "We have seen some drugs being traded for guns. This has been going on for quite some time where people will come over and purchase firearms and then trade them for illicit drugs," he said.
But, the municipal department has limited resources. "We didn't have the funding sources, we didn't have the manpower, to be as effective as we have been over the last six months (with the task force)," Doucette said.
Legislation sponsored last year by state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, secured $150,000 for the task force, which combats drugs and gangs. That money helped Bennington on Wednedsay, Sears said.
"I think it's important that we got this done in Bennington. It proves what we said about a gang problem," Sears said.
Police said some of those arrested Wednesday are suspected gang members. "We think at least half a dozen of the suspects were gang affiliated and affiliated with the Bloods street gang out of New York. Some of the other people involved are certainly affiliated, but may not necessarily be gang members," L'Esperance said.
Although the largest sweep in state history, L'Esperance and other officials said the drug problem is not more significant in the area than other parts of the state. The entire state is seeing an increase in the sale of illicit drugs as more residents become addicted, he said.
"I don't think it's a reflection that Bennington County is much different than other parts of the state," L'Esperance. "The drug problem is here in Vermont. It's strong in Vermont. It's our problem. Saying the out-of-state drug dealers coming into Vermont, sometimes I'm bothered by that statement, because there's an appetite in Vermont to bring people to Vermont to sell drugs because of the money that can be made. We have a problem with drug abuse."
Wednesday's operation was a first step in stomping out the sale of illicit drugs. Police said a show of force and arrests alone will not end the problem. A focus on treatment for those addicted to drugs must continue for the problem to abate.
Still, taking dozens of alleged drug dealers off of local streets will have an immediate, positive impact, L'Esperance said.
"This will impact the community for quite some time. We're very confident of that. There's a lot of work to be done moving forward from today," he said. "We are very hopeful that the change that will come to the community will be positive. There are a number of people that clearly will go to jail. There are a number of people that will end up in treatment and the community will be a better place as a result of this as long as we continue to be vigilant and focus our attention on quality-of-life crimes and the activities that come with drug distribution, consumption and abuse."
Additional arrests and raids are likely to take place in the coming days and weeks. Police had a clear message for anyone who continues to sell drugs in Bennington County.
"This is just the beginning. There's more to come. We've got our act together as law enforcement partners here. If you're selling drugs in our community we're going to find you and we're going to arrest you, plain and simple," said Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt.
"Our goal is to make sure that the Bennington Community is safe. We want a safe community. We want people to come enjoy our community. But, we have noticed over the last couple of years with of our drug problem, and we're starting to see a gang problem, we've had some less-than-desirable people moving into our community. At this point I will tell you that we are going to push back. Today the book is not done. It's just the end of the chapter," Doucette said. "We are not done in Bennington. We will continue to work hard to make sure that we are pushing back and keeping the less-than-desirables out of our community, curbing the drug problem, getting people help, getting them the treatment that they need and making our community safe."