BRATTLEBORO — JoAnne Rodriguez Heckman had already contacted The Commons to talk about what it has been like for her and her husband, Benjamin Heckman, to live at Great River Terrace, in one of the small apartments that replaced the old Lamplighter Motel on Putney Road.
They originally talked off the record about the drugs, prostitution, and crime that they witnessed, because they were afraid of retaliation from neighbors in the complex, owned, and operated by the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
The Heckmans said they were especially concerned about the way in which dealers from out of town moved in on residents who struggled with addiction and took advantage of them by feeding them drugs in exchange for the use of their living space.
JoAnne and Ben grow sunflowers outside their apartment, and the flowers are tall and beautiful this time of year. Each of them shares custody of children from past marriages, and their girls, ages 7 and 13, often come to visit.
The Heckmans are both disabled. JoAnne worked as a nurse for more than two decades before a chronic autoimmune disorder left her unable to do so. Ben was a commercial truck driver but suffered a stroke that has left him unable to work.
Neither of them use illegal substances, and both are concerned that the small home they have created will be a safe place for the children. They are also concerned that by identifying themselves on the record they might be placed in danger.
“There are some very bad people here,” JoAnne said in an early interview, explaining why she initially did not want to be identified.
The Heckmans changed their minds a few days later, when, at 1 a.m. on Aug. 28, police and emergency personnel responded to a call for an overdose at Great River Terrace. Joe Saraceni, a neighbor whom they knew and cared about, was rushed from his apartment nearby and wound up on life support at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he eventually succumbed to COVID-19.
Joe had been Ben's intake worker at a homeless shelter and worked in social services. Joanne said that she and Ben had been worried about him because he was using drugs and some people had moved in on his apartment.
The next morning, after the police cleared the scene and Joe had been taken to the hospital, JoAnne took sidewalk chalk and wrote on the steps of the apartment where Joe had lived, “you killed joe.” Then a few steps down the walkway, she wrote in equally large letters, “enough.”
After all this happened, JoAnne and her husband Ben decided that they would go on the record and tell the story in their own identities.
The next morning, “I was very upset, sitting outside, and I felt powerless,” JoAnne said. “And I grabbed that chalk and I wrote that down, and I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me, because I had a voice.”
“I needed a way to let everyone know how unhappy and sad and tragic this is,” she continued. “And everyone who walks by that apartment who is up to no good has got to look down at that, and maybe for one moment, maybe the only moment in the day, they have to think about how they may be affecting someone else.”
“I'm not going to be a victim anymore,” JoAnne said. “I'm not going to hide.”
“I was hiding here, and you know what? Maybe the Holy Spirit is telling us that our job is that you can't hide,” she added. “Your job is to speak for people who can't now.”
Apartments in use
Three weeks after the death of Joe Saraceni, JoAnne texted an update.
“I am out of options,” she wrote. “We had to call the police this morning twice. We watched a major dealer with his girlfriend walk into Joe Saraceni's apartment with a key.”
“He's been dead for three weeks and [people] are still living out of his apartment, dealing,” she wrote.
Then, she added, she witnessed them walking into another residence apartment - again, with a key.
JoAnne worries that “there's a skeleton key around and possibly they have a key to my apartment.”
“The police came and had a conversation with these individuals and left and they're still here,” she said. “Only in Vermont can you break and enter into a dead guy's apartment and not be arrested.”
'Well, we'll all be back'
Earlier, when they were still hiding, JoAnne and Ben talked about the kinds of scenes that they witness daily in the part of the complex that was designed to be used by people with families.
They talked about how dealers would move in on vulnerable residents and take over their dwellings.
They talked about how obvious it was where drugs were available, how obvious it was to identify the apartments where young women would come on weekends with suitcases, ready for a weekend of work in the sex trade.
They talked about how they often felt harassed and threatened, and how the complex, barely three years old, had become a place where they felt concerned about bringing their children because of what they might see.
Ben said that after one incident, they called the police, who did not respond to their report. The police are significantly short-staffed right now. Reports of sketchy and terrifying people and surroundings fall down on the list below crimes in progress.
“After the police did not come, we decided to go visit them,” Ben said. JoAnne scheduled a meeting at the station with Norma Hardy, the new police chief.
After they met, Hardy went to the Great Valley Terrace for a community outreach walk-around.
“The chief came there with a uniformed officer and knocked on doors and said hi to people,” JoAnne said. “But of course, no one opens their door and, as she's walking out, she says, 'I'm starting to get a complex! No one wants to come out and meet me.'”
“Then she says, 'Well, we'll all be back' in her big loud voice,” she said.
JoAnne added that after her meeting with Hardy, the chief decided to come out on her own, and that it was encouraging to her that attention was being paid to the situation.
“It makes a difference,” Joanne said. “One thing she did say is that there have to be more law-abiding citizens out there than you who want to make a difference.”
'If you don't stand up, you're part of the problem'
JoAnne and Ben's decision to stop hiding wasn't simple. They live in a housing complex where they feel threatened by people who deal drugs and have guns. When this story comes out, they will be easy to identify. The sunflowers give them away.
“I appreciate you giving us a voice,” Joanne said, “because you know what - our children, unfortunately, have been in this situation.”
Her 13-year-old daughter “knows exactly what's going on here - she's seen it, right?”
“And she's like, how are you guys not afraid? Aren't you afraid of being shot? Aren't you afraid someone's going to hurt you?” said JoAnne.
“I tell her, 'Not only can you not be afraid of everything, sometimes you just have to do it, even if you are afraid,” she continued. “Because if you don't stand up, you're part of the problem, and my conscience won't allow that.”
JoAnne told a story that might help put a lens on the human trafficking that is so interwoven with the drug trade in Brattleboro.
She and Ben were having coffee outside - as they do every morning. “There was this girl sitting under the picnic table who I thought was one of my friends,” JoAnne said. “She had her head covered with a hoodie, and so I went up to her and I said, 'Hey, Wendy.'”
“When she realized that I was not a threat and just thought she was someone else,” said Joanne, “she pulled her hoodie back and said, 'I'm not Wendy. But I'm glad Wendy has good friends.'”