WATERBURY — Unconventional. That’s how you could describe Maj. John Merrigan and his 22-year career with the Vermont State Police.
Merrigan, who describes himself as the least police-like police officer, is retiring from the State Police, serving his last day Friday.
When Merrigan’s retirement was announced earlier this month, Public Safety Commissioner Thomas D. Anderson said, “John Merrigan represents the very best of what it means to serve the people of Vermont. Having worked closely with John when I was a federal prosecutor and now as commissioner, I have seen firsthand that he embodies all that it means to be a Vermont State Trooper: courage, honor and integrity. He has always led by example. Vermont is a better, safer place thanks to his exemplary career. We will miss John and wish him nothing but the best in retirement.”
But for Merrigan, it was never about trying to be the best. It just sort of came naturally for him.
The Brattleboro native went to Norwich University because he thought he needed discipline to make him focus on school work.
“But it ended up being just the exact opposite. I focused on the military aspect that I was good at and I didn’t go to too many classes,” he said.
Merrigan then joined the U.S. Marine Corps., where he served for four years. He was serving as a military police officer when he met his wife in California. Merrigan said he wanted to come home and be close to his family, and he decided to join the state police. But even as his career there is about to end, he still doesn’t know exactly why he chose law enforcement.
“I have no burning desire. Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, I want to serve the public.’ I don’t think that was it. I was looking for an adventure. … I wanted something that was going to be challenging in multiple different ways,” Merrigan said.
And he found that with the State Police. He spent a couple years as a road trooper before joining the Narcotics Investigation Unit in 1999. Merrigan would spend his next 17 years working in the drug unit in some capacity. He also served on the state police’s scuba team and tactical team, and retires as the head of the Field Force Division.
But the bulk of his job focused on undercover police work. The clean-shaven man in a suit and tie you see today is more comfortable in his undercover uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and a big beard.
“I’ve had the best ride, the best career of anyone I’ve ever heard of. I stayed operational, on the ground doing street ops until 2014,” he said.
Merrigan said drug investigations are unconventional and constantly evolving, which appealed to him. He said the work has a very narrow focus and, if done right, someone could become really good at it.
“I’m not worried about traffic tickets. I’m not worried about dead bodies. I’m worried about disrupting drug flow,” he said.
When he started, he said the people selling drugs, usually cocaine and crack cocaine, would be gangs from out of state. He said they would move in with their whole operation where residents would act as drug runners, but that’s about it. Merrigan and members of his unit would infiltrate these gangs and take them all down, including the locals helping them out, in one big sweep.
That changed with the opioid epidemic.
Merrigan said he doesn’t think the state was slower than others picking up the problem, but the response was slow. It started with people overdosing and dying at home because they took too much of a certain opioid.
“At the time, it was hard to equate doing pill cases as important as doing a half-kilo-of-coke case,” he said.
And then he said the heroin problem in the state “exploded.” He said prescription drug makers started making their pills harder to break up so people couldn’t snort or inject them. Prices for pills also went up and the price of a bag of heroin went down. He said illegal drug makers in Central America switched from producing cocaine to heroin so the supply increased greatly.
“When we first started, you would pay $40 a bag. Now you can get (heroin) for $6 or $7,” he said.
Merrigan said it’s now easier for an 18-year-old to get a bag of heroin than a six-pack of beer. He said an adult needs to buy the beer, but the teenager can go out on the street and get heroin.
“I can’t say that we’ve really gotten on top of anything,” Merrigan said. “Over the years I’ve said, ‘It was really bad six months ago, it’s worse today. There’s no reason to think it won’t continue to get worse six months from now.’”
He said the state has done a good job of attacking the epidemic comprehensively, with education and treatment being part of the equation along with law enforcement.
“But there’s only a few cops and there’s only a few educators. Treatment is hard to find, and it’s hard to pay for and there’s a lot of demand for it,” he said.
Merrigan said he understands resources are limited and he’s not complaining when it comes to funding, but in a perfect world, his solution to ending drug problems in the state is to mandate treatment for anyone charged with drug crimes.
As for what’s next for him, Merrigan said he wants to take a few months off and travel with his wife.
“We’ve raised three kids, this is really going to be our time for a little while,” he said.
He does want to work again, but he’s not sure what that looks like yet. One thing’s for sure though, he said it will be challenging and interesting.