A major drug sweep in southwestern Vermont resulted in 21 arrests Tuesday, federal, state and local law enforcement partners announced Wednesday.
Nineteen of the drug suspects arrested Tuesday in Rutland and Bennington Counties will be prosecuted in state courts, and two will be prosecuted federally, law enforcement officials said.
Police and prosecutors said most of the suspects were arrested for heroin, but there were other drugs involved, including prescription pills, crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The drugs are often brought to Vermont from larger cities then distributed locally through a drug infrastructure in Vermont, investigators said.
"We know that there are still substantial amounts of heroin and other illegal narcotics coming into this state," Eric Miller, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, said at a press conference in Rutland flanked by partners in the investigation. "What I can tell you is that as a result of the coordinated effort of the folks up here today and many others, we are gaining traction on that problem."
In addition to Tuesday's arrests, eight other suspects were arrested in southern Vermont in recent weeks and indicted on federal drug charges, Miller said.
Miller and Rose Kennedy, the Rutland County State's Attorney, said some of the suspects will be considered for referral to court-authorized programs that aim to get them treatment for their addictions instead of just prison time.
"This sweep is not the end of a process. It is a continuation of a process," said Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety. "You will see further attempts, and further operations like this throughout the state, as long as we continue to see the prevalence of this problem."
Mayor Chris Louras of Rutland reiterated what has become the modern understanding of Vermont's struggle with addiction: that it is not purely a law enforcement issue or purely a drug treatment issue, but also requires cities and towns to step up and change the culture of what will not be tolerated in their neighborhoods.
Several years ago, Rutland launched an effort known as Project Vision, which aimed to provide tools, partnerships, and commitment to strengthen neighborhoods in the face of the drug addiction crisis.
Louras said over the past few years, since Rutland prioritized making a dent in its drug problem, the city has documented a reduction in crimes such as burglaries and shoplifting.
"We're not taking our foot off the gas," Louras said in response to an necn question about his city's ongoing prioritization of combating heroin. "We have to maintain a very robust law enforcement effort as we provide the services and supports to those individuals who are struggling and desperately not only need but deserve the support of the community."
One additional suspect, Richard Winnie, 42, of Bennington, is still wanted, Vermont State Police said.
The suspects from Bennington County are scheduled to be arraigned at Bennington County Superior Court, Criminal Division on February 29, according to a Vermont State Police spokesman. Those from Rutland County will be arraigned at Rutland County Superior Court, Criminal Division on March 7, with the exception of two, who are scheduled for arraignment Feb. 19.