Homegrown: Anatomy of a heroin investigation

(Stock photo)

Much of Milton Police Department’s combatting of the opioid epidemic occurs behind the  scenes.

Last month, that wasn’t the case.

MPD had a big bust in one Jeffrey Drown, 36, arrested September 30 after an extensive investigation. Police found nearly 23 grams of heroin in Drown’s possession.

They seized 890 blue, unmarked glassine bags from Drown’s car and arrested him for possessing, selling, transporting and trafficking heroin – four felony counts with the combined potential for 70 years in prison and more than $2.3 million in fines.

Informants told police Drown, who lives in Milton with his wife and three children, is unemployed and sells heroin as his primary source of income, court documents show. He regularly trips to Connecticut and Massachusetts to make bulk buys, the sources said, typically 1,000 or 2,000 bags to sell at a much higher price back home.

Police contend that’s exactly what Drown was doing September 30, the day they tracked down his Chevy Cruze at a car rental agency in South Burlington. That came as no surprise, as informants also told detectives Drown typically rented cars for his out-of-state pickups.

This time, he was in a Nissan Altima with New York plates, driving north on Interstate 89 toward Milton, court records show. He got off the highway at Exit 16 in Colchester, just 13 miles short of completing his latest mission – his fourth trip in two months.

Drown’s routine is a relatively common one in Vermont, caught in the death grip of a raging opioid epidemic like so much of the rest of the nation. What’s uncommon, though, is that it all happened here in town, under one police department’s jurisdiction.

“This dealer in this case – consistent, very consistent,” Detective Cpl. Frank Scalise said. “And he lived in town. Perfect.”

Scalise and his partner, Detective Nick Hendry, are used to yielding cases to the feds – or at least partnering with other agencies, which also means splitting any seizures (and profits) a case generates.

With Drown, though, “we knew what was going on,” Scalise said. “We wanted to put some good work into it, and we wanted to do it ourselves.”

Now chugging through the judicial process, Drown’s case offers a glimpse into law enforcement’s tack against the drug epidemic – locally, from start to finish.

‘People are dying on the side of the street’

Police began investigating Drown this summer after a confidential informant told them Drown was selling fentanyl, a synthetic opiate 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

“[The informant is] very concerned for the welfare of the people using the heroin,” Scalise wrote in his affidavit.

Intel from informants and officers plus markings on bags tied Drown to a string of near-fatal overdoses in town, Scalise said.

On August 6, police seized a heroin bag stamped with a grim reaper figure. Its user required two doses of Narcan, the opioid reversal drug, to survive the overdose it provoked, which occurred 1.2 miles from Drown’s home.

“The stuff [Drown] is giving out to people is killing people,” Hendry said. “That’s why he was a good target, because he was affecting the community directly. People are dying on the side of the street.”

That’s true in Vermont and nationwide, where more Americans than ever before – 600,000 – died by overdose last year. In Vermont, opioid-related fatalities numbered 106 in 2016, up from 75 the year before, Health Department data shows.

Milton police officer Ed Larente holds an injectable dose of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

“These people that are overdosing are dead – without Narcan, they’re dead,” Scalise said. “Most of them out there either don’t care or don’t realize it.”

Narcan, the trademarked name for naloxone, is hailed as a miracle drug for its antagonist properties. Easily administered through the nose, the antidote blocks opiates’ effects and restores normal breathing to a user on the precipice of death.

Emergency personnel have carried Narcan for years, but police say its increased availability – including over-the-counter – makes it a near ubiquitous presence at overdose scenes, often administered before first responders even arrive.

The volume of overdose calls depends on what product is circulating. Some bags end up all cutting agent, no high; others, like what set off alarm bells for Drown, are “straight up fentanyl,” Scalise said, “and that’s when they overdose.”

Then, “we figure out who [is responsible],” Scalise said. “We directly target them – boom, wipe them out.”

Harbor town

Police watched Drown for the rest of the summer, clued in by informants when he left Vermont. A series of controlled buys – a standard tool for establishing probable cause – revealed the product he pushed.

Geographically, Milton is in an advantageous spot for the drug trade – close to the Canadian border and nearly smack dab between St. Albans and Burlington.

Jeffrey Drown (MPD photo)

“People come through here all the time,” Hendry said. “It’s an easy spot for people to meet up or stay for a little while.”

That’s more in line with what police here are used to. Milton’s reputation as a bedroom community, plus its high population density, makes it an easy draw for out-of-state dealers looking to roll in and out of town without catching heat.

Often, targeting those who harbor drug dealers is the closest police can get to the source. They did just that in their last investigation, which ended in two arrests in July: 21-year-old Syer Stevenson of Brooklyn, accused of possessing and selling heroin, and 51-year-old Jodi Landry of Milton, accused of letting Stevenson work out of her home. Police found “bulk amounts of heroin and cash” at Landry’s Route 7 apartment, they said.

Dealers rely on people like Landry, knowing “the person that owns the house gets screwed in the end,” Scalise said, and police know local accountability is lacking.

That’s why, when detectives confirmed a known trafficker actually lived in town and wasn’t simply passing through, they moved on it.

“We don’t see that very frequently … homegrown,” Scalise said.

Finite resources

On September 30, Scalise trailed Drown’s rental as it sped nearly 30 mph over the speed limit up I-89. He eventually took off down Route 7, the affidavit says.

Scalise lost sight of the car and sent Officer Noi Jones to the intersection nearest Drown’s home to wait. A traffic stop led to the arrest, and a search of the car with help from Milton K9 Hatchi led to the seizure.

Police found bags of dope concealed throughout the car – in the gas cap, submerged in a Burger King cup and 880 more packed in the interior liner of a small compartment above the center console.

Drown’s wife told police the man “had a bad drug habit” and visited the methadone clinic every day, court records show. Further background checks revealed an interstate criminal history, including a 2003 conviction for selling heroin in Massachusetts. U.S. marshals from Burlington arrested Drown then.

Police found 890 bags of suspected heroin on Drown upon his Sept. 30 arrest. (MPD photo)

He was sentenced to 30 months in jail and three years of supervised release, court records show, and was later arrested again on more drug charges.

What’s more frustrating to detectives is after pleading not guilty in Chittenden County Superior Court last Monday, Drown made bail. To their knowledge, he’s home again in Milton.

Less than a week after Drown’s release, officers said they’ve received a number of concerned calls about him.

“‘Wait, so this guy’s just allowed to be back out and around town?’ And it’s like, well, yeah,” Hendry said. “That’s the court system.”

In that regard, police feel there’s only so much they can do. Law enforcement is but one tine on a multi-pronged approach to curbing the state’s crisis, but at least arresting offenders gets them off the street and into a courtroom where treatment can be facilitated or even mandated, they said.

But repeat offenders shown leniency or released back into the community they harmed leaves detectives scratching their heads.

“That’s a waste of our resources,” Scalise said.

Those resources are finite and highly tapped. Scalise estimates 80 percent of crime in Milton is fueled in part by drugs, be it break-ins, retail thefts or other offenses committed by users looking – needing – to score.

Officers say they need more help, and Scalise is hopeful the department’s next chief – Brett Van Noordt retired last Friday after nearly two decades at the helm – will provide it.

Milton PD could pursue Drown’s case solo due to teamwork: For years, Scalise was the squad’s sole detective until Hendry was reassigned in June.

That’s a message the duo wants the whole town to hear, too: With only two detectives to work a case, police rely on community involvement.

“‘I knew something was wrong, but I never wanted to call’ – hearing that, it breaks my heart,” Scalise said. “I want to know what you’re seeing … just tell me. I don’t care who you are.”

Officers stressed a seemingly inconsequential tip could be the detail they’re waiting on to break a case.

“People are pretty intuitive,” Hendry said. If you think something’s off, “there’s a good chance it might be off.”

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