BRISTOL — Bristol police on Friday morning arrested four people on drug charges during a bust that also netted more than $4,000 in cash and thousands of bags of heroin.
Bristol Police Department Chief Kevin Gibbs said he believes the operation dealt a “significant hit” to a large, out-of-state drug operation. He added that in recent years he has seen a pattern of out-of-state dealers come to Bristol to operate.
The department said the arrests last week were the result of a weeks-long investigation into the trafficking of heroin and other controlled substances in the Bristol area.
According to court papers, around 9:20 the morning of Aug. 29, Bristol officers Joshua Otey and Randy Crowe, while driving on Route 116, believed they saw town resident Cathy Fleming, 40, engage in a drug sale at a vehicle in a driveway across from the Maple Ridge Trailer Park.
The officers approached Fleming and arrested her on suspicion of selling heroin. Police also detained the driver, 29-year-old Jonathan Bouffard of Vergennes, and cordoned off the vehicle, in the hopes of obtaining a warrant to search it.
Police said Cathy Fleming told them she sold four bags of heroin to Bouffard for $80.
Police said that further investigation led them to a home in the Maple Ridge Trailer Park rented by Bristol resident David Fleming, husband of Cathy Fleming. David Fleming consented to a search, during which police found 60 grams, or about 2,000 bags, of heroin, and a small amount of ecstasy. Based on this evidence, police said they arrested David Fleming, 39, and identified two other suspects. Police also secured the home, and applied for a search warrant to conduct a more thorough search.
Police said that in an interview David Fleming said the drugs were not his, and said that two New York residents were staying with the couple and selling the drugs from their home. Fleming said the pair, Dameon Williams, 41, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and 28-year-old Oleitha Turner of nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y., fled from the trailer into the woods when they learned Cathy Fleming had been arrested.
Later that day, police stopped a vehicle on East Street, after receiving a tip that the driver had picked up Williams and Turner. Inside the vehicle were four passengers, two of whom matched the description of Williams and Turner. Police brought Cathy Fleming to the scene, where she identified the pair.
Police then arrested the pair on suspicion of selling heroin. During a search of Williams’ person, police found more than $4,000 in cash and two grams of what was later determined to be crack cocaine.
During separate interviews with police at the Bristol Police Department, Turner admitted to possessing ecstasy, but denied being involved in the sale of heroin, while Williams admitted to selling narcotics out of the Flemings’ home.
According to court papers, Williams said the drugs he sold were trafficked from other states, including New York and Pennsylvania. He said he travels back and forth to Vermont to sell drugs, in what to this point has been a lucrative venture.
“Williams said he profits approximately $1,200 on a good week for his involvement in the sale of heroin in Vermont,” Otey wrote in the affidavit.
Williams’ description of his business model fits that of other drug operations police have encountered around the state. In exchange for a place to stay, Williams said he provided Cathy and David Fleming with a portion of his supply to support their own drug use habits. By his own admission, Williams was not a street-level dealer, but rather a middleman between Vermont dealers and out-of-state suppliers.
“Williams described his position as being the keeper of the drugs and does not complete sales on his own to addicts,” the affidavit reads.
Police obtained a warrant to search the Maple Ridge Trailer Park home, during which police said they located more heroin. Police also secured a warrant for Bouffard’s truck, in which they discovered four bags of heroin, sufficient to cite Bouffard on a possession charge.
All four suspects were jailed at the Chittenden County Correctional Center. Bail was set for Cathy Fleming at $25,000, and for the other three suspects at $50,000. All are due to be arraigned next Tuesday.
TREND IN BRISTOL AND BEYOND
This isn’t the first drug bust involving out-of-state residents operating in Bristol in recent months. Last September, Bristol police arrested a Connecticut man on suspicion of selling marijuana, cocaine and heroin. That sting netted small quantities of all three drugs, and also $1,100 in cash.
Bristol Police Department Chief Kevin Gibbs told the Independent in recent years he has noticed an increase in drug dealers coming from out of state.
“What we’re seeing is that larger dope dealers from out of state are sending people here, sort of runners or whatnot, who move in with known drug dealers, pay rent with drugs, and sell out of homes,” Gibbs said.
The chief said that because out-of-state dealers are often only in town for a few days, they are difficult to track.
“We have to figure out who they are,” Gibbs said. “If we don’t move fast enough on them, if we don’t ID them, we wind up back at square one.”
Gibbs said that one of the dealers in this case was operating out of several homes in Bristol and one in Vergennes. Because of this, and the small size of his department, Gibbs said coordination with other law enforcement agencies in the county is essential.
“There’s only three of us here full time, so we rely on the state police, the county sheriff’s department and other agencies,” Gibbs said.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel echoed his Bristol counterpart's experience with out-of-state dealers basing their operations in local homes. Often, Merkel said, dealers will seek to use the residences of known addicts.
"When they set up in one place, they'll look for someone who is in addiction," Merkel said. "We've had instances where we'll serve a warrant on a house, and then within the next couple months hit the same place."
Merkel said that because dealers from out of town aren't known to police, tips from residents about suspicious activity are essential. Without this help, Merkel said his job would be much harder.
"It's extremely important," Merkel said. "If we're going to beat the drug problem, it has to be a community effort."
Gibbs said the success his department has had the past two years has kept dealers out of Bristol’s downtown. But as a consequence, many drug transactions now take place in private homes, where they are harder to track. Out-of-town dealers, Gibbs said, know that they are conspicuous in a small community.
“They’re smart enough to realize they can’t set up shop on a street corner; we’re going to notice that,” Gibbs said. “They keep a low profile.”
To combat drug trafficking from private homes, Gibbs said police are pressuring landlords to watch for illegal activity in their units.
“While there aren’t any criminal sanctions, there could be some civil ones,” Gibbs said of landlords’ liability when their properties are used for drug sales.
The chief added that officers also rely on tips from residents to further investigations and make arrests. Residents should be suspicious, Gibbs said, if a neighbor takes in new roommates, and traffic in and out of a home significantly increases.
In this case, it was a tip from a resident that led police to keep an eye on the Maple Ridge Trailer Park. Last Friday, that tip paid off when officers witnessed the drug transaction between Cathy Fleming and Bouffard.
“In this incident, officers got really lucky,” Gibbs said. “They happened to drive by while a sale was being made.”