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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo

Kate O’Connor’s family has lived several doors down from a notoriously visible drug house. “I think it’s like the ‘until-it-happens-to-you syndrome,’” said O’Connor. “We’re on this, we’re going to bust this up, whatever we can do.”

Special Focus

Urban drug culture brings a host of ‘isolated incidents’

A steady stream of drugs comes from Hartford and New York to users along the I-91 corridor, thanks to the opioid crisis. A community was unprepared for the violence that moved in.

BRATTLEBORO—On Jan. 29, at about 5 p.m., a 19-year-old woman was accosted by two men in ski masks on Clark Street and beaten with pistols so badly that she had to be rushed to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and then taken to another hospital where she could get reconstructive surgery.

The image of the battered young woman was posted, on “Windham County No Ranting No Raving,” a closed Facebook group, with her permission. The police report called the beating an “isolated incident” and reassured the general public that there was no need for alarm.

In an interview with The Commons, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said the phrase “isolated incident” is often used in police reports to signify that the nature of a crime is specific to individuals who know one another.

In certain parts of town, that one recurring turn of phrase in the police reports almost certainly means that something new and bad has happened — again — within the dark underside of drugs and crime that afflict the first major town over the state border.

Overdoses, stings, and violent crime

Like many New England cities and towns, Brattleboro has been hit by the opioid crisis that has swept across the United States. The past year has seen a great deal of sorrow in the town.

On July 4, 2017, 11 overdoses were reported, prompting a surge of drug-related arrests. In local Facebook groups, people constantly post stories about finding syringes or seeing drug deals on the streets.

Anyone who walks around certain parts of downtown can see drug deals being made in a handshake pass-by. The residences where one can buy drugs in town are common knowledge.

In 2018, 110 people in Vermont died from drug overdoses, 26 of them in Windham and Windsor counties. In mid-December, in a police response to another upsurge in overdoses, 15 people in those same two counties were arrested for dealing drugs.

Last fall, a man who had recently been discharged from the Brattleboro Retreat tried to hold up the Hotel Pharmacy on Elliot Street, claiming he had a pipe bomb in order to steal prescription opiates. Quick action by the employee at the counter brought police in quickly. (There was no bomb.)

In December, a warrant was issued for the arrest of a man who had held two young women at gunpoint in an apartment at 33 Oak St. The warrant charged Chy’quan M. Cupe — identified as being from Hartford, Conn., in an arrest several months before — with simple assault, aggravated assault with a weapon, and unlawful restraint, in addition to other charges.

According to the warrant, Cupe, whose street name is “Kash,” had forced two women to fight each other in relation to drug debts. When the police went into the apartment they found a sawed-off shotgun and handgun, as well as a substantial cache of cocaine.

Police implored the public to report information to help apprehend a person they described on social media as “armed and dangerous.” Eventually, the suspect made his way into the criminal justice system, where he is scheduled to appear in Windham District Court several times this month.

In January, during a drive-by shooting at 149 Canal St., assailants opened fire on an apartment that is widely reputed — and named as such in court transcripts — to be a place where people can buy drugs. In the crime report, the police said it was an isolated incident.

And just as this story was about to go to press, on the night of Feb. 19, an Oak Street resident told The Commons that a neighbor saw a car drive up to the driveway at 33 Oak St., the same house where Cupe had done business.

Two men emerged from the car and fired guns at the apartment where the drugs were sold, the source reported.

According to the source’s account, the neighbor witnessed shots returned. The men got back in the car and drove away.

The eyewitness reported that the interaction lasted only about 10 seconds.

According to neighbor Kate O’Connor, who lives close by, police responded with multiple cruisers and had closed a portion of the street. She reported that a police officer told her and her brother that they swept the scene but found nothing.

By 10:30 p.m., the police were gone, and the street showed little signs that a shootout had just taken place.

A town police dispatcher confirmed that an incident occurred but otherwise declined to comment.

For O’Connor, chair of the Selectboard and executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, this type of altercation — perhaps one destined to be called another “isolated incident” — has become part of life in a neighborhood that has been changed by the drug activity at 33 Oak St.

“I think it’s like the ‘until-it-happens-to-you syndrome,’” said O’Connor, who has stepped up efforts to address a chronic — and, to many, unsolvable — problem that has come almost literally to her own backyard.

“Until it happens to you, you don’t really realize what is happening,” she said. “Then you realize it’s real.”

An entry point for Vermont

Brattleboro is about 32 square miles, with a population that has held steady at about 12,000 over the past decades. Its tight downtown is compressed into an area about the size of a small college campus.

Brattleboro is an entry point for Vermont, with three exits on Interstate 91 just over the Massachusetts border. The town is just 90 minutes from Hartford and less than four hours from New York City.

In the opinion of many, the town’s economic well-being depends partly on tourist traffic, which often passes through town as people from cities and suburbs to the south make their way to ski areas and second homes.

Brattleboro’s downtown shops and restaurants, along with local attractions in Windham County, provide a significant appeal for visitors. For many residents, it is a good place to live, a place they came to in order to lead a more peaceful lifestyle.

Last year, the town passed an ordinance that declared it is a “compassionate town.” A common theme among people who hold signs and ask for money on the street is that the town has a good reputation as a place to come if one is dislocated and lives a homeless life.

But it is also a place with plenty of hardship and rural poverty, a town where approximately 80 percent of the elementary-age children in the town’s public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — a rate that is more than twice as high as the surrounding towns in the regional supervisory union, where 38 percent qualify.

These demographics play a role in the drug trade. For a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, poverty makes it substantially easier for dealers from out of the region to infiltrate the lives of vulnerable people, and in so doing transforming homes into drug houses and economically marginalized people into drug runners.

The town’s location at the crossroads of three states also makes it an almost ideal hub for drug trafficking, both to buyers in the town itself and as a hub to points north in Vermont along Interstate 91.

Because Vermont’s gun laws are relatively liberal, it is also a good place for drug traffickers to purchase weapons.

It is an easy place from which drug dealers can traffic girls and women down south when they have fallen behind in their drug debts.

For debts amounting to as little as $400, one source said, dealers have prostituted female customers in activity that, thanks to the internet, takes place invisibly behind the closed doors of hotels and motels along the Interstate.

‘We’re on this’

The locations in town where one can buy drugs are well-known. For a couple of years, drugs were actively sold to a steady stream of customers from a house on Western Avenue.

In addition to the drug place at 33 Oak St., other active drug places operate on Elliot Street and at two sites on Canal Street.

Multiple sources on the street have told The Commons that Brattleboro has a reputation for cocaine, while nearby Keene, N.H. has more of a reputation for heroin. According to some sources, cocaine is transformed into crack, cooked at a place near the intersection of Clark Street and Canal Street.

Kate O’Connor described what it was like to live two doors down from the drug place only recently dislocated from 33 Oak St. in a building that housed six other tenants.

“I grew up in that neighborhood,” she said. “It’s a beautiful neighborhood.” And now, it’s also a neighborhood where O’Connor’s mother’s car was stolen on that very street, later found littered with syringes and other byproducts of the drug culture.

Seeing the drug house in that neighborhood brought the problem home. O’Connor “feel[s] bad” that it took that incursion to shake her to attention.

But now, she said, “we’re on this, we’re going to bust this up, whatever we can do.”

O’Connor described efforts that she made with neighbors to engage public-safety officials, and also the way in which she hoped that their collective efforts might have an impact in other neighborhoods similarly affected.

“It’s not just our problem, because we all now have this,” she said.

“Part of it is getting people aware of it,” O’Connor said. People might not think it’s happening in their neighborhood — “but it is happening.”

What you can see is not what you can prove in court

One question many residents have is why police can’t just shut down drug houses if they know where they are — and they do know.

“It may be [on this] street or [at] this address today,” Fitzgerald said, “and then six months later it’s over there, and then it’s over here. So it’s not like we all know 123 Main St. [a hypothetical address] is the drug house and everyone who wants to come to Brattleboro goes to 123 Main St. because it’s the drug house. It may be that [location] for a short period of time, and then it’s moved to Pine or Maple.”

Fitzgerald explained the complications of obtaining a search warrant and how hard it can be to raid a drug house — even one whose dealings are well-known within the community.

“I am not disagreeing with anyone who calls this police department and says there’s drug dealing going on,” Fitzgerald said. “However, what you see and what you perceive for what is your opinion is quite a bit distant from what I can prove in a court of law.”

Field testing for drugs can be done within minutes at the police station on Black Mountain Road, and the procedure is legally acceptable to establish probable cause for a search warrant, according to Capt. Mark Carignan.

But if that search results in an arrest for possession and then a trial, the same test that established the legal basis to get through the door of the drug house is not admissible as evidence.

If the prosecutor wants to follow up, the drugs have to get sent to the Vermont Forensic Laboratory in Waterbury, a facility that is used by law enforcement throughout the state.

This more rigorous testing process can take four to six months.

Chief Fitzgerald also emphasized how important it is to acknowledge and observe civil liberties.

“Let’s think about it,” he said. “We’re putting them in a cage. We’re taking away their civil liberties, their civil rights. You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that what they were selling was an illegal substance — not what someone’s opinion was, not what Fitzgerald thought.”

“You have to prove it,” the police chief said.

Up the Interstate

According to Fitzgerald, the drug network in Brattleboro depends on people from places like New York City, Hartford, Conn., or Springfield, Mass. preying on vulnerable people to gain a foothold in the town in order to sell drugs.

Locations are selected by dealers from southern cities, and these dealers then get to work, transforming them into hubs for dealing drugs. Heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl are moved up the I-91 corridor, and then transferred to the quieter and less-traveled cities and towns along the way, including Brattleboro.

Once there, the drugs are distributed from various apartments or houses that have essentially been occupied by dealers based on the dependent relationships they have formed (see infographic).

The I-91 corridor and the entry point of Brattleboro provide easy access to other small towns. Small incidents of drug-related activity are being noticed in other parts of the region, according to Stan Wasilewski, a dispatcher with the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.

There were drug arrests in Bellows Falls and Newfane last summer. Wasilewski, pointing out the permeability of the region as an easy exit off the highway, said that “Bellows Falls recovers the most amount of illegal drugs in the state of Vermont practically every year because it’s right off I-91.” The registrations of vehicles in traffic stops are consistent with the story: drivers linked with drug activity come from Holyoke and Springfield, Mass., from Hartford, Conn, and from other points south.

Wasilewski has years of experience as a former detective and police officer who has worked in law enforcement since the mid-1970s, focusing on drugs and gangs in Hartford in 1992 and 1993.

Another factor in the drug trade in the region is connected to the price of heroin, which is both substantially less expensive than it used to be and enormously profitable.

Several weeks ago, Wasilewski said, a former high-ranking colleague in Hartford, Conn., confirmed what law enforcement was noticing here: that for dealers there, the current rate for a bag of heroin in Hartford is about $1.50.

That same product would have cost $25 to $30 in the early 1990s, he said. That translates to almost $45 to $54 in today’s dollars.

They bring that bag to Vermont and sell it for $10 to $15 here — a profit of between 667 percent to 1,000 percent.

From a friendly encounter to strangers in your house

According to Fitzgerald, the dealers — who come with a great deal of money and drugs — “look for the vulnerable population.”

“It really starts off as a friendly encounter,” he said — assuming, for purposes of education, the role of the dealer. “‘You know, I’m your friend. I have what you need. We share.’”

I ask to stay at your place for a couple days. You’re more than happy to oblige. I go buy groceries for you, bring them back. We sit around, we have a good time, we eat, we do all this.”

And, of course, there are the drugs.

Once the dealers get their foot in the door, the relationship changes, Fitzgerald said: The vulnerable person becomes “fearful for their own safety.”

“And these individuals will now say, ‘You owe us money’ — you know, for whatever we have given you, whether that be the substance that you desire, the food, they may even have helped with rent,” the police chief said.

“They’ve actually groomed these persons to fear for their own safety and have a sense of indebtedness,” Fitzgerald explained.

“And in order to pay off the debt, either I am going to stay here, or some of my friends are going to come up and stay here,” he said, again slipping into the role of the dealer who has just moved in.

“So I now leave and go wherever I go. But now you have strangers in your house,” Fitzgerald said.

In the end, the drug dealer at the top of the local chain is well-armed and rarely leaves the dwelling. What once was a local person’s home becomes one of the hubs through which drugs are distributed from their origins, in New York City and then the principal cities on the I-91 corridor.

‘Brattleboro people are not going to do that to each other’

“Trisk,” who has lived in Brattleboro for almost two decades, is familiar with the system and described to The Commons how it works. The newspaper is withholding his identity out of concerns for his privacy and safety.

The current situation in town makes him angry.

“The one thing I can’t tolerate is hearing about all the young people that may have an issue with addiction that are getting beat on by these people bringing things in or stationed here [who] definitely are not from here,” he said.

Trisk is street-smart, and he had some run-ins — for physical altercations, not drugs — with the police when he was younger. He has had some trouble with the law, but has never spent some time in prison.

He now works full-time in town and helps to support his children.

“I’m not violent anymore,” Trisk said, acknowledging his past mistakes.

If you know what you’re looking for, Trisk said, it is easy to tell who is carrying a weapon or to witness pass-by drug purchases in an area like Elliott Street near the Brattleboro Transportation Center.

“Let’s see the slide of the hands. The car pulls up and drives off. Everybody knows the lean-in,” he said. “Like, you gotta know the pass-over [of money]. You got to know the pass-off [of drugs].”

Referring to the recent drive-by shooting and the assault on Clark Street, “I have been in Brattleboro long enough to know the Brattleboro people are not going to do that to each other,” Trisk said. “Like, no matter how angry they get. So clearly, it’s people coming in thinking that they can do something different because there’s a market here for it.”

“That’s the part that scares me, because everyone sees them,” he said. “Everyone sees who they are.”

Trisk said that to anyone who knows the streets, it is obvious that drug-dealing in Brattleboro is amateurish compared to similar enterprises in Hartford or New York. He described the brazen way in which dealers ply their trade out in the open as “sloppy.”

“I’m saying people who grew up on farms, like what does that drug deal look like,” he said.

Trisk described how the system works at the ground level. Once, as Chief Fitzgerald described, a dealer is ensconced in a dwelling — an apartment, a house, a motel room, usually rented by a local who has fallen victim to grooming — he sets up a system of runners.

Runners — who usually suffer from addiction disorders themselves — move drugs onto the streets or to other places. To the dealers, runners are disposable, but they are also essential to the movement of opiates into the general population.

Runners are the public face of the drug operation, the ultimate link in the chain in the end user’s procurement of drugs. They interact and network with one another about the products that they are moving.

According to a number of sources for this story, dealers will sometimes emerge from the shadows to settle scores — usually conflicts that arise from payments owed or product stolen. Such situations have resulted in two of Windham County’s most high-profile homicides in the past few years.

If the dealer does well, he might be promoted to a more profitable market. Dealers who don’t do well or become too visible may be “eliminated from the equation,” Trisk said.

And for the locals who get caught up in drugs and violence, who make up the last links in the chain, the reasons for their participation can be varied.

“If it’s about money, it’s money,” said “Lori,” a working mother who lives in town. “If it’s about use for free, it’s about drugs.”

“And this is the dangerous magic of this industry because temporarily you will get everything you ask for,” she said. “And some people don’t know what is good for them, and it shows.”

“If I could put it all in one word, it’s security,” said Lori. “It’s about having your bills paid.”

“Of course, you are making a deal with the devil, and of course there is no contract so you don’t know what’s involved,” she observed. “It is not we-come-over-at-this-time-etc.-etc. No. This is all surrendered, and you are just a pawn.”

Measuring the problem

Any crime statistic should be taken with a grain of salt, because Brattleboro’s small population means even a few incidents have a large impact on percentages.

“The numbers are there,” said Fitzgerald, “but you can skew numbers any way you want.”

Fitzgerald noted that the small population of a town can make even a handful of crimes seem like an outbreak, and that when Townshend had a double homicide in 1996, its murder rate would have been as high as some major cities because of the town’s population of approximately 1,200 residents.

Or, put another way, two murders in Townshend made the murder rate in that town for that year almost 48 times the 2017 murder rate in the Northeast of 3.5 people out of every 100,000, as reported by the FBI.

For many residents, a series of recent incidents have made the town seem less safe, but Captain Carignan of the Brattleboro Police Department cautioned that from a statistical standpoint, crime has not significantly increased over the past five to 10 years.

But, he said, the police also deal with issues different from those they addressed only a few years ago.

According to data compiled by the FBI, in Brattleboro, 26 violent crimes were reported in 2007, compared to 27 in 2017.

Property crimes, on the other hand, rose from 351 to 409 over that same 10-year period — a reflection of the scourge of the opioid epidemic and how people who battle drug dependency often resort to theft to subsidize their habits.

Because in Vermont the overall crime rate has declined over the past decade, the town’s crime rate is 72 percent higher than the state’s as a whole.

Though numbers can tell some of the story, the FBI warns that such data should not be used for comparing or contrasting the relative safety of towns or regions because of all the factors that crime rates cannot measure.

And, in many cases, likely because of fear of retaliation, a good deal of physical violence goes unreported. One local business owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that, on average, he’s talked to at least two individuals each week who have been the target of physical violence that goes unreported.

A new type of violence

According to multiple sources in law enforcement, the behaviors of the people coming across state borders have changed in past years. Retaliation in this new world of drugs is brutal and deadly.

For Lori, the mother in town, the shift took place in 2011, when Melissa Barratt was kidnapped and killed execution-style on East-West Road in Dummerston, approximately one quarter of a mile east of the Dummerston Covered Bridge.

Court records alleged that Frank Caraballo of Holyoke, Mass., with the aid of an associate, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, of Springfield, Mass., shot and killed Barratt over $10,000 of stolen drugs that — according to text-message testimony in Caraballo’s 2013 trial for her murder and related drug felonies — had a street value of $50,000.

Lori explained that the drug culture from southern cities like Hartford and New York has infiltrated southern Vermont.

“We didn’t expect for these people to not do business like the Vermont people do business,” she said. “Back in high school, you take someone’s bag of weed, you get your ass kicked. You didn’t get killed or wiped out.”

The discovery of Barratt’s body and the connection with the drug trade represented “the first installment of real fear,” Lori said, referencing subsequent incidents of drug-related violence.

Then, “[t]here was someone this whole community knew, Amanda Sanderson,” she said. “Her house was burned down.”

According to Vermont State Police, on Oct. 27, 2017, Sanderson and her male friend, Stephen Lovely, were shot and killed in a cabin at 163 Shirley Circle in Townshend by Justin Orwat of Springfield, Mass., who, according to the police, had become an “associate” of theirs, along with his wife Tami.

According to the report, the argument had been about drugs and whether Orwat was stealing from Lovely. Sanderson and Lovely were each shot three times.

Justin Orwat then set fire to the cabin and fled with Tami, who “implicated him in the shooting and the starting of the fire in the residence,” said Glenn Hall, a major with the Vermont State Police at a press conference discussing the fire and subsequent investigation.

Since his extradition from Massachusetts, where he was arrested and held for unrelated charges shortly after the killings, Orwat has been detained in Southern State Correctional Facility while he awaits trial for aggravated murder and first-degree arson.

Sanderson, according to her obituary, “grew up in Newfane and attended Newfane Elementary School and Leland & Gray Middle School. She graduated with high honors in 2000 from Brattleboro Union High School and [the Windham Regional] Career Center, where she was enrolled in the culinary arts and business programs.”

She was 35 years old when she died. She left a 12-year-old son.

Isolated incidents within an isolated community

The opioid distribution system starts in New York City and runs through smaller cities in Connecticut and Massachusetts before the drugs make their way to users in Brattleboro. The system depends on those who sit on the lowest rung of the ladder: those who consume the product.

Much of the crime in town, according to law enforcement, is committed by people who are addicted to drugs.

It is petty crime for the most part: things like stealing possessions from unlocked cars or writing fraudulent checks. Although the presence of violent crime in town is a cause for concern for many residents, the reality is that people with addiction problems are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Many people who post on various Brattleboro community Facebook pages write about the time when they might have left their doors unlocked and not worry about someone breaking into their car. That time seems long past to them now.

Trisk talked about how the concerns of residents may be misplaced when it comes to people struggling with addiction.

“Everybody’s talking about [how] it’s too dark in the parking garage and they’re scared to go out,” he said. “I think that their fear is misappropriated, like they’re afraid of the addicts hurting them. But it’s not the addict.”

“I know these addicts — they’re not going to hurt you when you leave,” he said. “They might rob your car ’cause you’ve gone, but the last thing they want to do is hurt you. They don’t want to do that.”

“The addicts, they are more afraid. They want to go steal your stuff in private and go fence it so they can get their drugs and do [them] in private.”

Trisk said that the crime tends to be confined within the community of people who struggle with drug dependency — a point that Chief Fitzgerald emphasized.

That characteristic shows up in the use of the phrase “isolated incident” in police reports.

“It’s cold here, and the dealers are all inside having their runners go run,” Trisk said. “The runners are not too stupid here to go be violent to someone.”

Rather, he said, “It’s the people that sit inside that lost out on some dough that are going to go be stupid.”

Pharmaceutical prescriptions linked to epidemic

Opioid addiction is a terrible scourge in the United States. In 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses across the nation, a number that exceeds deaths from car accidents (38,659 in 2017), suicide (47,173), or guns (39,773).

Kurt White has worked in the mental-health field for more than two decades. The director of ambulatory services at the Brattleboro Retreat who is responsible for programs that support clients after they’ve been released, White said the epidemic we face began with increasingly widespread prescription of opioid-based pain medications, mainly oxycodone — marketed under the brand name OxyContin — which began to be pushed hard to the medical community by Perdue Pharma in the 1990s as a highly effective and nonaddictive antidote to pain.

Prescription of opioid painkillers increased sharply during that decade, and drugs that were initially prescribed for pain related to cancer treatment and other grave and chronic sources of pain became commonly prescribed for more common and more temporary conditions.

Over time, reformulations of initial versions of opioid prescription painkillers made their effect milder and long-lasting, but no less addictive or prone to abuse.

White said that the initial problem manifested in addiction to prescription opioid medication, and that as the use of opioids became more common, the prescription drugs became a commodity and began to be circulated to patients who had now developed full-blown substance dependency and who created a new market for illicit second-hand sales.

In the 2000s, prescription drugs began to become more tightly regulated amid this great and increasing demand. The loss of supply drove up the price, creating an environment for heroin to begin a resurgence as a widely trafficked — and less expensive — illicit substance.

A number of people interviewed locally for this story described how their addiction began with legally prescribed painkillers and then shifted to heroin when their prescriptions ran out and buying prescription drugs illegally became too expensive.

The role of Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which owns the company, has been widely reported. In late January, the Massachusetts Attorney General released the details of a lawsuit against the family and the company; it alleges that they have played a central role in creating the opioid crisis and seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The damage done by the opioid addiction crisis is nearly incalculable. A surge in crime and homelessness in Brattleboro is one outcome, but for White, the greatest issue within the overall crisis is addiction and overdoses.

‘The reduction of human suffering should be the goal’

Numerous town officials and workers on the front lines of the crisis overwhelmingly agree that our local resources are stretched thin when it comes to dealing with the challenges that Brattleboro faces.

When Kurt White of the Retreat was asked what needed to happen to address the problem, he joked, “Well, $5 million more for Groundworks [the region’s anti-poverty nonprofit] would be good.”

More police, more social workers, more housing, more options for treatment — all seem like obvious parts of a solution.

Chief Fitzgerald cautioned that the challenge may not be a matter of resources so much as it is one of thinking in new ways and creating innovative approaches to problems that are now endemic [see sidebar].

“We have limited resources financially, but we do have incredible human resources to tap into, with all of the agencies surrounding us who can lend dedicated people to the cause,” Selectboard member Tim Wessel said, noting that as a community, “we need to work out how to best support our neighbors who are gripped by this menace.”

And, wrote Wessel, we need to do so “with compassion.”

“The reduction of human suffering should be the goal here,” he wrote. “I think this is the one thing that we can all agree on. What else, in the end, is there to guide us all together in our lives?”

In a long interview, Kate O’Connor talked about the problems that the town faces. She said that she does not want the town to be any less compassionate than it is. After a lifetime in Brattleboro and six years on the Selectboard, from which she will step down in March, she knows how challenging things are.

O’Connor spoke of her wish that somehow all the like-minded people in town could just get together in a room and really talk things out, to address the challenges while keeping in mind how much goodness is in this small town.

“I mean, yes, we have these problems, but we also have some good things,” she said. “I think that it’s important for all of us to remember to hold on to the idea that we are actually a really great town — and that’s part of the whole discussion, too.”

“It’s not turning a blind eye and say we’re not going to notice that this is happening, but it’s also putting into perspective of what’s happening in other communities,” said O’Connor. “We’re lucky to live here and we’re lucky that we are a compassionate place, you know?”

Fixing the damage

Trisk brought the same sentiment forward, from a different angle. He said that he loves living in Brattleboro and has made his home here — that despite its flaws, it is a welcoming town.

He talked about things that people can do to be more aware, like noticing when someone is carrying his hand as if he might be holding a weapon inside his jacket, or when someone has his fist balled around a clutch of drugs in his pocket.

“We need to be aware, pay attention,” Trisk said.

The thing about drug dealers, he explained, is that they can operate with impunity only if they stay in the darkness.

From his vantage point of having some connections with a life that he has left behind, Trisk pointed out that when everyone in the community makes potential predators aware that they know what is happening, it can add vulnerabilities and risk to the entire drug-dealing infrastructure.

Trisk said he intends to speak up in this manner because “I’m tired of watching people get their shit smashed in the town,” he said. “When that comes up to me, I’m not gonna stand for it.”

“I’m just aware, and I am from the streets, and I’m looking out for all these beautiful people that I know here,” Trisk added.

Lori talked about how difficult and entrenched the situation is, and how it shifts too rapidly to easily comprehend — or to address.

“We are never going to see the people at the top,” she said.

Instead, the community needs to try “to fix the damage that has been done to this community through compassion, respect, and treating people with dignity.”

And that comes with not accepting the unacceptable, she said.

Multiple people, including Lori and Trisk, made some of the same observations: the police can’t solve everything, but maybe people can take back their power by creating communities that are inhospitable to the conditions in which the drug trade thrives.

A stronger local economy. Residents who have options in their lives that let them resist the lure of fake friendships and money that is too good to be true. Housing security. Treatment for those swept up in a nationwide epidemic.

“I see anger and desensitization happening with the way we are handling it,” Lori said, urging residents to “be angry at the right thing.”

“We should still be rocked by some of the things happening — not just say, ‘Oh, well, that’s Brattleboro,’” Lori said.

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