• ‘Operation Precision Valley’ nets 33 on drug trafficking charges
     | June 20,2013

    SPRINGFIELD — More than 100 police officers and federal agents arrested close to three dozen alleged heroin and cocaine dealers and accomplices Wednesday in a sweep to counter the escalating drug problem in the Springfield area.

    Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance said 33 people were arrested during “Operation Precision Valley” and that arrest warrants were being sought for an additional three people, all suspected drug dealers originally from New Jersey.

    Of the 33 people arrested, 22 were residents of Springfield, six were residents of New Jersey, and one resident each came from Chester, Weathersfield, Hartford, Clarendon and Mount Holly.

    Those arrested ranged in age from 18 to 47. The charges included selling heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, manufacturing drugs and aiding in drug-related crimes.

    In some cases, different generations of the same family were arrested, according to court records.

    Two homes — one in Ludlow and another on Mount Vernon Street in Springfield — were searched by police.

    At an afternoon press conference at the Springfield Fire Department, L’Esperance and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn outlined the goals and accomplishments of the massive sweep, the second such effort by the Vermont Drug Task Force this year.

    A similar but larger sweep was held in Bennington earlier this year, resulting in the arrest of 47 people.

    Flynn said stopping the flow of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine into the Springfield area wasn’t enough; the community has to work at defeating the demand for such drugs.

    And L’Esperance said this was the perfect time for Springfield parents to have a hard talk with their children about drug use.

    “Use this to have a conversation with your kids,” he said. “Parents have to have courage and this has to start at home. Shut the news off and look your child in the eye.”

    Springfield should think about hosting a methadone clinic or other drug-treatment options for residents who have a drug problem, Flynn said.

    After Wednesday’s arrests, he said, local medical facilities should be ready to deal with people who are suddenly without the illicit drug of their choice.

    The arrests came after a six-month investigation, said state police Lt. Matthew Birmingham, head of the sweep effort. He said there was no firm evidence to show organized gang activity, though some defendants may claim to be members of the “Jersey Boys” gang to intimidate people.

    But he said there was no doubt that Vermont was on the receiving end of organized, illicit drug activity.

    Springfield got a rude and violent awakening to the infiltration of drugs into its community last July, when an argument over a drug debt resulted in a shooting in downtown Springfield in broad daylight. No one was seriously hurt in the shooting and the main perpetrator, Terrick Craft, is still in jail, awaiting resolution of his case.

    For the Springfield Fire Department, whose station and vast parking lot were taken over by the massive law enforcement effort, one of their own was the first person arrested and arraigned: Matthew Neathawk, 25, of Springfield, a firefighter and a full-time employee with the town’s Public Works Department.

    Fire Chief Russell Thompson said he immediately suspended Neathawk from the fire department, and that he had no inkling that Neathawk was involved with illegal drugs.

    According to court records, Neathawk and his girlfriend, Amber White, sold heroin to a confidential informant many times this spring in the parking lot at the McDonald’s restaurant in Springfield and in the parking lot of Jasinski’s Market on Park Street in Springfield.

    Springfield Town Manager Robert Forguites, who attended the police press conference, said the town needs more information about Neathawk’s charges before deciding his status with the highway department.

    Neathawk was jailed at Springfield prison for lack of $5,000 bail.

    A large group of people attended the afternoon press conference: The town had been inundated with police cruisers since early in the morning, and a helicopter from the U.S. Border Patrol hovered overhead.

    Officers from law enforcement agencies across southern Vermont helped to make the dozens of arrests, process the suspects, and take them to White River Junction court for arraignment.

    Earlier in the day, one team of police, accompanied by a reporter and photographer from the Rutland Herald, was sent out to arrest a Springfield woman on Lockwood Avenue, but while en route, the team learned the woman had just turned herself in at the Springfield Police Department.

    Armed with another folder and another arrest warrant, the team, led by state police Detective Lt. Todd Illingworth and Trooper Jake Bloom, went looking for a woman who was an alleged “associate” of a group of suspected drug dealers arrested on Easter Sunday in downtown Springfield.

    The officers, dressed in dark green fatigues, joined by a Homeland Security officer from Derby Line, first went to an apartment building on Wall Street in downtown Springfield, then out to a house on Chester Road in Chester.

    Peering in the windows and knocking on the doors, the officers were stymied. A “For Sale by Owner” sign was out front and there were no vehicles in the driveway.

    The officers then headed off to North Springfield for another address, and again no one was home. The officers fanned out, talking to neighbors, but didn’t get any clues.

    So the officers headed back to the Chester Road house and started talking to neighbors. One neighbor gave the officers a tip to talk to a woman who worked at an automotive store in Springfield who might know the woman.

    The two police cars — one a marked cruiser and another the detective’s unmarked car — pulled into the automotive store and the woman told them the wanted woman might now work at a convenience store in North Springfield. The officers again headed back north.

    Their tenacity paid off, and they came out of the store with Marie Townes, wanted for being an accessory to drug trafficking. They drove her to the Springfield Police Department for booking, and eventual transport to the criminal court in White River Junction.

    The town has been coping with the issue of drugs and violence ever since last summer, said Kristi Morris, chairman of the Springfield Select Board. There has been some progress, he said, but obviously not enough.

    Morris said Springfield, a generation ago a booming manufacturing center in Vermont, had fallen on tough economic times, a fact that may be contributing to the drug problem.

    People clustered around the posters of accused drug dealers and accomplices who had been arrested earlier in the day, trying to decipher the faces and the facts.

    Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston praised the collaborative effort between the local police departments, state agencies and federal agencies to arrest the alleged criminals. In addition to the Vermont Drug Task Force and Springfield Police, the Windsor, Windham and Rutland County Sheriff Departments; the Vermont attorney general’s office; and Ludlow, Chester, Hartford and Bellows Falls officers helped in the sweep. Federal agencies included the Drug Enforcement Agency, Homeland Security Agency, Homeland Security Investigations, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals.

    Forguites said the town had changed its zoning laws to prohibit a medical marijuana dispensary, but had not acted against a methadone clinic.

    Interim School Superintendent Zach McLaughlin said the community — both town and school officials, along with service agencies — had been struggling with the issue for the past year.

    But so far, he said, a unified voice and approach has been elusive.

    (Correspondent Eric Francis contributed to this report.)


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