Crime task force hopes to take more direct approach
Recorder/Mike Phillips Orange police raid the home of an alleged heroin dealer last year.
Drug charges in Franklin County in recent years have less often been preceded by a battering ram at the door than by flashing blue lights in the rear-view mirror.
Local police say they have not had the numbers or the time for lengthy investigations recently, a situation the district attorney and state and local law enforcement hope to reverse with a new regional task force aggregating what time and resources are available.
Currently, the majority of drug charges are incidental, often transforming a traffic stop for a defective taillight or expired registration into a felony when drugs are found during booking or vehicle searches.
A stop for loud exhaust in November, for instance, ended in a foot chase, fight and the arrest of passenger William Darmanchev, then 19, of 36 East Cleveland St. Darmanchev faces charges in Greenfield District Court on assault and possession with intent charges related to 47 wax paper bags of heroin and nine hydrocodone pills found in a pill bottle he allegedly dropped.
Anti-Crime Task Force
The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office this winter formed a 47-town anti-crime task force to serve Franklin and Hampshire counties, financed by an $81,288 state grant.
Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Bucci, chief trial counsel and in charge of drug prosecution, said drug dealers will be among the task force’s first targets.
At the moment, narcotics appear more often as an underlying cause than the principal crime, with tight resources keeping local departments occupied with patrols and reacting to emergencies than long-term investigations.
“Heroin addiction appears to be motivating many of the major crimes in the area including bank robberies, robberies of convenience stores and what has been a crushing rash of breaking-and-enterings in the area,” Bucci said.
“One of the earliest agendas of the task force will be to combat the proliferation of opiates in the area.”
The Northwestern Anti-Crime Task Force succeeds the Hampshire-Franklin Narcotics Task Force, an earlier pooling of state and local resources. That task force dissolved about two years ago, leaving investigations up to local departments, often without the resources to take on the time-consuming and expensive projects.
Acting Detective Lt. Daniel McCarthy of the Greenfield Police Department describes the drug problem as tidal, with specific substances ebbing and flowing as one becomes cheaper or more available than the others, and the area is particularly susceptible to these ebbs and flows due to its location on I-91.
In the late 1990s crack cocaine became enough of a problem locally that Greenfield police sought federal assistance. “We did a huge sweep, raids, we did a number of raids on houses ... lengthy investigations, but only having to do with crack cocaine,” McCarthy said.
Later, the multi-department Hampshire-Franklin Narcotics Task Force performed a function similar to the variety of federal agencies involved in the earlier sweep, with local departments cooperating to address another uptick in drug use and related crime.
That task force fell victim to shrinking budgets and the loss of the Greenfield officer who spearheaded the program.
McCarthy said he began to notice more and more interaction with heroin around 2009.
“Now it’s 2013, the (new task force) ... is just our next response to the problem that is going on out there,” he said.
No perfect solution
Bucci said he suspects the county has some mid-level dealers, but there is no perfect in-county solution to the problem.
With the flowers grown overseas and across borders, local police won’t be burning any poppy fields.
And local law enforcement says there is little sign of a real gang presence locally.
Most arrests seem to be of individuals, couples or small groups of friends traveling back from Holyoke, Springfield, Hartford or Brattleboro, Vt., with defective taillights, missing license plates, expired registrations or other relatively minor causes for a traffic stop.
Montague narcotics detective Leon Laster, a member of the former narcotics task force and the current anti crime task force, said he has seen dealers from 14-year-olds through middle-aged holdovers from heroin’s heyday in the 1970s.
“The ’70s was when that really rocketed, heroin became really, really huge, then it kind of died off because cocaine became popular .. Now, cocaine is still out there, so is crack, but you don’t see it as much as you see heroin,” he said.
Fighting the problem at a local level can be frustrating for police because the problem has its roots far outside their local jurisdiction, because they lack manpower and because dealers have learned from past mistakes.
Laster said there is an impression that the last round of investigations and raids by the two-county task force and the state police solved the-then crack problem.
“Let’s not be jaded — we didn’t stop the drugs, we forced them inside,” Laster said. “That made it harder. People think we don’t care or we aren’t doing anything ... in order to kick that door in I have to have probable cause.”
Funding is always an issue, Laster said. An oftentimes lengthy, and therefore costly, investigation is necessary to obtain a search warrant, and executing the warrant also requires extra officers.
Much of the problem is numbers.
McCarthy uses the analogy of a kettle of boiling water, in which the water is crime.
A sufficient number of hands on the lid can keep the water in, but there are not a sufficient number. In April, McCarthy said the Greenfield Police Department’s narcotics detective was temporarily back on patrol duty due to an injury that had further strained the schedule, and a typical shift consisted of a watch commander and two officers on patrol.
The Greenfield department has recently been given permission to hire, but training new officers will still take time.
This is the problem the task force is designed to address, aggregating hours and expertise from the many small departments to focus on investigations no department might be able to afford alone.
Optimistic about task force
Jarret Mousseau, narcotics officer for the Athol Police Department and a member of the new task force, describes the difficulty of fighting the drug trade in a secondary or tertiary market.
“Now and again if we whack somebody good with a search warrant and they’re like a main player in the area, the price will jack up for a couple weeks until somebody else starts really taking over,” he said.
“We’ll hit the main supplier for the area, specific to heroin, and I swear to God it takes a day and somebody just takes over,” Mousseau said. Local prices might spike briefly, but that void is quickly filled and business resumes.
Mousseau is optimistic about the new task force, though.
“I think we’ll be able to make a dent around here. It’s been a long time since there’s been a specific, dedicated force,” Mousseau said. “State police have their own narcotics unit but they’ve been hit with manpower issues as well.”
Speaking in March, Bucci said he expected to see the anti-crime task force make some arrests by June, providing the information needed to fully understand the scope of the problem.
In April, the DA’s office announced the arraignment of Gary Lefebvre, 32, of Granby, in Eastern Hampshire District Court.
Lefebvre faces charges of trafficking in heroin over 18 grams, possession of a class B substance and possession of a class E substance.
Lefebvre was arrested on April 25 by members of the Northwestern District Anti-Crime Task Force, after police executed three search warrants and discovered the defendant to be in possession of what they allege was at least 800 bags of heroin packaged for distribution, according to a release from the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, which put the street value at $8,000.
Lefebvre was also reportedly found in possession of at least 30 prescription pills and about $430 in cash. Police allege he admitted to selling drugs to six to nine people and said the cash found on him was the proceeds of drug distribution.
“With the continued commitment of the many contributing law enforcement agencies I hope that jurisdictional manpower concerns soon become a thing of the past,” Bucci is quoted as saying in the release. “I expect that this will be one of many investigations focusing on thwarting the access to illegal opiates that continue to hurt our community.”
The following week, the DA’s office announced the task force’s second arrest. Kenneth Dennis, 46, of 18 Mechanic Street, Apt. 2, in Orange was arrested at his residence May 3, charged with heroin possession and distribution and firearms charges.
Prescription drug fight
Fighting prescription drug abuse presents its own unique challenges and solutions.
The majority of prescription drugs, Bucci suspects, come from prescriptions at least nominally legitimate. Mousseau said doctor-shopping is common, and a solution might be a strong, interstate and inter-pharmacy reporting system to track prescriptions.
A common practice is to obtain a legitimate prescription — whether or not it is for a legitimate problem — then sell a portion of that insurance-subsidized prescription to buy more pills at another pharmacy at full price, side-stepping insurance tracking.
At the local level, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office promotes periodic drug take-back days as part of a national program.
According to the office, the take-back campaigns have provided education and outreach to schools, health care providers, elders, youth and families to eliminate access to and prevent abuse of prescription drugs.
“More drugs were collected through this campaign in the Northwestern District than in the entire states of Rhode Island and Vermont,” reads a release highlighting District Attorney David E. Sullivan’s 2011 annual report.
The old advice that unwanted prescription medication be mixed with cat litter or similar materials to make it unappealing when disposing of it has changed in recent years, thanks to concern over what these pills are doing to the groundwater once they land in landfills.
With the dual goal of reducing the potential for abuse and keeping the medications out of the environment, the DA’s office this year backed installation of 15 permanent drop-off boxes in Franklin and Hampshire county police stations, specifically those with regular hours. In the area, the big green lock-boxes sit inside the Athol, Deerfield, Erving, Greenfield, Montague, Orange and Sunderland police stations.
Friday: Rocky road of recovery