Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Connecticut's Heroin Town


JESSICA CANWELL, right, watches for police officers as she shoots up with her sister, Amy-Lee Canwell, left, and Michelle Missino in the gazebo on Main Street, Willimantic, in late summer. As the women injected themselves with the heroin they had bought a few blocks away, teenagers played soccer on a field next the gazebo.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant


Small Town, Big-Time Heroin Use
Heroin came to Willimantic nearly 40 years ago and never left. Today, junkies openly shoot up on the town green. Generations have fallen prey to the poison.

October 20, 2002

WILLIMANTIC -- Three blond women hurry past a kids' soccer game to the quaint gazebo in Jillson Square, a traditional New England green framed by a white-steepled church and historic stone house.

Michelle Missino, Jessica Canwell and her sister, Amy-Lee, are itching to shoot up the $10 bags of heroin two of them just bought with cash from a few quick tricks. They escape the late August sun and plunk down cross-legged on the cool wood floor. Missino wraps her arm tightly with a cloth tourniquet to raise a vein, tapping her feet in anticipation.

Almost in unison, the women plunge their needles into the good veins they find between rows of purple-red track marks. They loll in the powerful high of the unusually strong dope, then head for the public water fountain. They pass an old man taking a break from his bicycle ride on a nearby bench, and wash the blood from their syringes as casually as if they were doing dishes.

This is a heroin town. Small, rural, open, friendly -- and hooked.

Willimantic's Main Street has all the trappings of a modern-day Mayberry: planters of petunias outside the barbershop, retirees walking their dogs, kids on skateboards, stately Victorian homes high on a nearby hill.

A new $14 million bridge spans the Willimantic River across from Jillson Square, decorated by four huge bronze frog sculptures in honor of a local folk tale. Nearby, the town and state are spending $32 million to make an industrial park out of the long-vacant granite textile mills.

But heroin flows through this place as constantly as water under the frog bridge. Everywhere in the community of 15,823 in the middle of eastern Connecticut are signs of a decades-long reputation that has festered in a political atmosphere of ambivalence and denial, where officialdom often seems resigned to even the most flagrant dealing and use.

Heroin is in every Connecticut town, police say, its abuse accelerated by stronger forms that can be snorted rather than injected. What makes Willimantic an anomaly is the high visibility and volume of the trade in a 4-square-mile area of ostensibly small-town charm.

On any given day, social workers estimate, 200 to 300 addicts live here. That doesn't include the 250 people who come to the methadone clinic every day.

``It's an amazing percentage of users for a city this size,'' says Leanne Dillian, executive director of Community Prevention and Addiction Service Inc.

``Willimantic acts like the regional supermarket for drugs,'' says Robert Brex, executive director of a regional substance abuse prevention council based in the nearby Dayville section of Killingly. ``A lot of people from rural towns come in here to buy.''

Heroin is embedded in the daily hubbub of life.

The Willimantic River, which once powered the textile mills that made the city prosperous, now draws junkies to its muddy banks to shoot up. Discarded needles and empty glassine heroin packets litter the river's edge.

Drug dealers step from porches of ratty homes on a dozen side streets to ask passing motorists, ``What do you need?''

Social workers come to Jillson Square to pass out mint- and berry-flavored condoms from a wicker basket to heroin-addicted prostitutes.

Every Wednesday, the Bikers for Christ roar up on their motorcycles to distribute soda and doughnuts and offer counsel to the junkies. ``We've seen successes and we've seen people break our hearts,'' says John Gilmartin, one of the bikers.

Every Thursday, men and women from the First Baptist Church wheel a Radio Flyer wagon laden with homemade soup and sandwiches to feed the addicted and the homeless.

When the carnival comes to town, as it does three times each summer, the prostitutes make extra money from the carnies who buy their services late at night after the rides are closed. Hookers climb into customers' cars as parents return to minivans parked beside the church, kids in tow licking ice cream cones.

The local cable-access channel features a recovering addicts' roundtable.

Heroin is a constant worry at the police station, where overwhelmed detectives and street cops face an endless tide of heroin trafficking and drug-fueled prostitution.

But violent crime is rare here, police say. What's common are petty thefts and burglaries, often committed by addicts seeking quick money for drugs.

Without heroin, ``I'd be a crossing guard,'' says Officer Mike Cancellaro, a 14-year veteran of the Willimantic Police Department. ``There would be barking dogs and that's about it.''

A Town Gets Hooked

No one put an ad in the paper the first day heroin arrived in Willimantic, but from the accounts of former police officers, old-time junkies and historians, the drug arrived in 1965 on Union Street.

It most likely came with some of the workers recruited from Puerto Rico by the American Thread Co., then the area's major employer. It was cheap, and its customers eager.

``It cost $5. Pretty soon, people were lining up at the dealers' apartments. The police didn't know what was going on at first,'' says a resident who claimed that his older brothers helped establish the heroin trade in town. ``The product was coming in along the New York-Providence-Boston pipeline.''

Heroin trafficking and addiction quickly took root, though no one in the Willimantic Police Department recognized the magnitude of the problem.

Then, one day in 1970, the head of the Hartford office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration received a startling telephone call. Perplexed, he summoned his newest agent to his office.

``There's this guy on the phone. Says he's a cop out in Willie-mantic,'' the DEA supervisor said, botching the pronunciation. ``Claims they have a drug problem.'' He looked at a map but couldn't find the place -- never even heard of it.

``Go out there and check it out,'' he told his rookie agent, a guy nicknamed Duke.

Duke figured he would take a ride and come back with nothing. Heroin was pervasive in Hartford and New Haven. But it seemed far-fetched that it would be trouble in a place as small as Willimantic.

The call to the DEA had come from Paul Slyman, a street-smart New York City transplant in his second year on the 11-member Willimantic police force. He was making frequent burglary arrests and starting to see a pattern. The burglars were telling him they were stealing to support their heroin habits. And they were buying their dope in town.

``People were coming from all over, from Norwich, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,'' says Slyman, who is now retired. ``I said, `I can't do this on my own. I've got to get help.'''

The Willimantic police weren't prepared for a drug crisis. A few years earlier, in 1964-65, 23 officers resigned from the department because of low wages and interference by town officials, according to news accounts. In 1971, police were preoccupied with a scandal in which five officers were accused of carrying on with college girls who lived in the Hotel Hooker, which at the time was leased as a dormitory by Eastern Connecticut State University.

``Cops didn't know anything about heroin,'' says Slyman, who joined the department in 1968.

Slyman vividly recalls his first meeting with Duke, who is also retired now and agreed to talk about his early work in Willimantic on the condition that he not be identified further.

Together, the two set up a surveillance operation on the second floor of a furniture store at the intersection of Union, Temple and Broad streets. Sitting on easy chairs in front of the second-floor picture window, Slyman and Duke sipped coffee from a thermos, ate tuna sandwiches, watched and waited.

``What we found was we had people coming into Willimantic to score, and not small amounts. There were major couriers from Boston, Providence and Worcester,'' Duke recalls. ``We realized we not only had a street problem, we had a hub. It was like a wagon wheel and it all spiraled around Willimantic.''

He went back to the Hartford office and told his superior: ``You don't have a problem in Willimantic. In my opinion, you have an epidemic.''

So police and the DEA began to attack the heroin trade.


Anonymous Ellie said...

Would you tell my what inspired you to copy and paste this into your blog, please?

Thursday, January 05, 2012 9:17:00 AM  

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