Special Report: Vermont's heroin: Cheaper, deadlier

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BENNINGTON, VT. — Vermont's largest drug sweep took place in Bennington County in January 2013, when scores of police from multiple agencies arrested 48 men and women on drug charges in a single day.

"Operation County Strike" targeted those individuals in a six-month long investigation by the Vermont Drug Task Force. The task force monitored "cooperating individuals," or "CIs," as they bought heroin and other drugs from dealers in town.

Law enforcement gave the CIs cash to buy bags of heroin. At the time, those CIs spent $30 or $35 per bag, according to affidavits by task force members.

Since that sweep, there is more heroin in Bennington and in Vermont than ever, and the street price of the drug has gone down by at least 50 percent, according to local and state police. New statistics from the Vermont Health Department also show the number of deaths statewide from heroin and fentanyl (which is sometimes mixed with heroin) more than quadrupled in 2015 to 53 compared to 2012, when there were 15 deaths.

Not only is heroin cheaper and more plentiful since Vermont's biggest drug bust in 2013, it's also deadlier.

Fatal overdose

On Feb. 3, police seized 690 bags of heroin — the department's largest drug seizure to date valued at between $6,900 and $10,350 — from a South Street hotel room. That same day, police responded to a Garbrooke Drive residence where they found Clark Salmon, 31, dead from a heroin overdose. Police say Salmon bought the heroin that killed him from Trevor T. Shepard, 36, who was arraigned on a second-degree murder charge on Feb. 8.

Police began their investigation into Shepard on Jan. 31 when they responded to Valentine Street where a 27-year-old woman had overdosed on heroin. After being revived by Narcan, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, she told police she bought the heroin from Shepard, paying $100 for 10 bags. The heroin bore the label "Bugatti." A bag of heroin found at Clark's home had the same label.

On Feb. 4, police found the woman — overdosed again — on Pleasant Street. She later told police Shepard had sold her four bags for $60. She also told them that she had questioned Shepard about the Bugatti heroin, and that he admitted it was laced with Fentanyl.

As the woman was being treated by medics and with police at her side, her cellphone rang. The caller ID showed it was Trevor Shepard calling, according to Bennington Police Officer Roscoe Harrington's affidavit, which detailed the incident.

Bennington Police Detective Larry Cole answered the phone. Cole asked the caller: Is this Trevor Shepard? The reply was yes.

Cole told Shepard: "Stop selling heroin because it was killing people and that he could held responsible for their deaths," Harrington wrote in his report.

The next day, police arrested Shepard, his brother and another man — all for allegedly trafficking in heroin — upon responding to Trevor Shepard's apartment on Emma Street for the reported overdose of a 33-year-old man.

Laced heroin

Why is the heroin deadlier now than it ever has been?

It's being laced with Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, said Dr. Harry Chen, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health.

According to the department's website, of the 41 opioid-related deaths in 2010, five involved Fentanyl. In 2015, of the 76 opioid-related deaths, 29 were related to Fentanyl — a 26 percent increase over five years.

"We're seeing much more Fentanyl," said Chen. "More people are dying from heroin than ever."

Opioids slow a person's breathing, he said. If it slows too much, they stop breathing altogether, which is how one dies from an overdose.

Narcan, the drug widely carried by emergency responders — which also is being given out for free at the Bennington Turning Point Center and other places — can bring a person out of an overdose state, said Chen. According to the department's data, Narcan revives a person 68 percent of the time. Chen said this doesn't take into account the people who use Narcan without medics present.

Why so cheap?

The reason for the drop in the price of heroin is one of simple economics.

Demand is high and the supply is plentiful, according to Lt. John Merrigan, the special investigations unit commander with the Vermont State Police who oversees the Vermont Drug Task Force.

"I would not be surprised to see it get a little cheaper," he said.

A single dose of heroin is equal to a bag, or about .31 milligrams. Imagine a thin layer of brownish powder on top of a pencil eraser. Bags often come into the state in bundles of 10.

If bought in bulk in a city with a large heroin market like Troy or Albany, N.Y., a person would be looking to pay $5 to $6 per bag, which they could then sell in Bennington for $10 to $15 per bag — doubling or tripling their money.

Within Vermont, the price of heroin doesn't vary much from one area to the next, Merrigan said. Price does depend on connections.

"It's all about who you know and how much you're buying," he said.

Some area people are paying as little as $8.

"It's so dependant on the individual situation," he said.

The path here

The heroin consumed in the Northeast is produced in South America, Merrigan said. But first it stops in Brooklyn, N.Y., where it's packaged for wholesale.

Vermont is a receiver state for heroin, meaning others, many of them Vermonters, bring it in, Merrigan said.

"There are a lot of day trips here in Bennington," he said.

Heroin typically arrives here in one of two fashions. People living here who know people in Troy or Albany, or sometimes Holyoke, Mass., will travel and bring back bundles. Some of these people keep a portion of the heroin for their own use and sell the rest.

"You are either in it for the money, or are you are supporting an addiction," Merrigan said.

Out-of-staters looking to sell in Vermont will sometimes stay with a local resident, paying them in heroin or cash to use their home or apartment as a distribution hub, Merrigan said.

"The dealers are careful, but they also have to sell as much heroin as they can, so they're not that careful," Merrigan said.

The amount of heroin being moved into Vermont seemed to increase about two years ago, he said. It has far outstripped the resources of law enforcement and the health care system.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said that when he was a detective in 2005, people were buying bags of heroin for $35.

"People are buying it now for about $10 to $15 per bag," he said.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567, ext. 115.


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