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James Brandalik, 44

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BENNINGTON — The Vermont Drug Task Force arrested a man on drug trafficking charges after he was caught hanging out with a drug dealer who was targeted by the FBI’s SWAT team.

James Brandalik, 44, was arraigned Monday for the charge of fentanyl trafficking. If convicted, he will face up to 30 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1 million.

Brandalik who is homeless, was driving through Bennington with John W. Pena-Baez in his passenger seat. Pena-Baez is a “known drug dealer,” according to court documents, and was the target of an FBI operation for federal drug distribution charges. Pena-Baez, of Holyoke, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Burlington recently to felony charges of distribution of fentanyl and heroin in the Bennington area. Pena Baez, 18, is being held at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland pending the outcome of his case. The judge in that case noted Pena Baez was out on bail from 12 felony heroin and gun charges in Franklin County (Mass.) Superior Court from Sept. 18 when he later reportedly sold the drugs in the Bennington area.

According to court documents, Brandalik pulled into the parking lot of Stewart’s on Main Street on April 6 and entered the store. While Pena-Baez was alone in the car, the FBI arrested him. Then, as Brandalik walked back to his car, the FBI cornered him too.

When asked, Brandalik volunteered to come back to the state police barracks to talk to detectives. Before heading to the station, he agreed to a search of his person. He then warned the sergeant performing the search that there were needles in his pocket, and the caps might have come off.

For safety reasons, the sergeant asked Brandalik to empty his pockets and drop everything on the ground. Among the items in his pockets were three capped needles, a lighter, a glass pipe, and 54 wax bags containing a substance officers suspected to be a mix of heroin and fentanyl. The officers also found a loaded handgun on the passenger’s side of the car. Pena-Baez admitted he knew the gun was there.

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According to court documents, the way the wax bags were packaged was “consistent with how heroin and/or fentanyl is packaged for distribution.”

Brandalik was then officially placed under arrest. On the way to the state police barracks, he admitted that he has been a “drug addict” for about 20 years, and that he needs about five bags a day to stay “un-sick.”

When asked why Pena-Baez was in his car, Brandalik said that he gave people rides for gas money.

One of the wax bags on Brandalik’s person tested positive for fentanyl after a field test. He allegedly was in possession of 1,107 milligrams of fentanyl.

Brandalik was charged with fentanyl trafficking, but pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Bennington Superior Court. He was released on several conditions that include staying away from Pena-Baez, no drugs and no deadly weapons or firearms.


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