- James Buck
For months, Burlington mother Erin Scott worried about suspicious activity in front of her rented duplex on Spruce Street: Drivers would park, seemingly exchange money for drugs with people in another vehicle and then dump used needles on the grassy strip next to the curb.
When the snow melted last spring, Scott found the syringes scattered on the grass in front of the house. She warned her children not to touch them and explained, "If you ever see anything like this, you need to tell an adult."
Scott's tolerance ran out on July 3, when Scott and her two children, ages 5 and 7, set up a lemonade stand across the street with a neighbor and her daughter. As the children sold their wares, Scott watched what appeared to be multiple drug buys happening in front of her house, near the intersection with St. Paul Street in Burlington's lower Hill Section.
"That is when the mama bear in me snapped," Scott said. "I shouldn't have to worry that my children are in an unsafe area while they are outside selling lemonade."
She called the police. An officer came by but saw no drug activity and said there was little he could do. Frustrated, Scott took matters into her hands — literally. With her children's help, Scott hand-lettered a sign that read: "Conduct Business Elsewhere."
Scott attached the cardboard sign to a tree and waited. She watched a couple of people pull up, read the sign and drive off with "panic-stricken" faces, as she described them.
Five weeks later, that sign is still up, and Scott says the cars have mostly stopped coming. When the sign fell off the tree, one of her neighbors reinforced it and put it back up.
Scott's landlord, Sarah Howe, lives with her husband in the other half of the Spruce Street duplex. She's lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years and said she feels safe there. But she has also seen the needles and drug activity — and supports what her tenant did.
"I think it's brilliant," Howe said. "That is Erin. She's not judgmental, but she's very straightforward and communicative. I like that it's not lecturing ... It's talking about what she wants in front of her house."
Scott's story highlights the quandary that citizens face when drug deals — and the potential accompanying violence — take root in residential neighborhoods. Heroin arrests in Burlington are running about 30 percent ahead of last year's rate, and "We are seeing no indications that the supply of heroin is coming down in the city," said Deputy Chief of Operations Bruce Bovat of the city police. "We are working as diligently as we can to address the issue."
Burlington is front and center in what state leaders have called a crisis of heroin use in Vermont. While prescription drug overdose deaths actually declined in 2014, fatalities from heroin, once uncommon, spiked from two to 31 between 2010 and 2014, according to the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Medical Examiner's Office. Deaths related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid prescription drug commonly sold as heroin, increased from zero to 17.
On June 12, brothers Dennis and Sean Thibault were found dead from fentanyl overdoses at their Ward Street home in Burlington's Old North End. At the time, city police warned of an alarming increase in the number of reported year-to-date overdose calls — 30, as opposed to 37 for all of 2014. Rescue workers were able to save many of those lives.
Drugs have sparked violence in Burlington, too. Still unsolved is the murder of 23-year-old former University of Vermont student Kevin DeOliveira, who was shot in the head at his Greene Street apartment. Police say his January death was connected to drug dealing.
The unsolved July 27 shooting of a Burlington man outside JR's Corner Store on North Street has also raised fears. It took place across the street from one of the city's public elementary schools, the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes. The victim, a convicted cocaine dealer, was wanted by law enforcement for violating the conditions of his parole.
Bovat said that because the investigation is active, he could not comment on whether the crime was drug-related. City Council President Jane Knodell (P-Central District) said she strongly suspects that it was. In the wake of the incident, she and Councilor Sara Giannoni (P-Ward 3) spoke up. "We went to the police commission just to say that we have noticed an escalation of activity on a couple of blocks of North Street, where it's quite clear that there's open drug trafficking going on there," Knodell said. She urged a more consistent police presence on North Street, with cops walking the beat.
Knodell said she understands that police don't want to jeopardize an open investigation by commenting publicly, but she said, "That means that the average resident has the impression that the police aren't doing anything."
What should Burlingtonians do when they suspect drug dealing in their neighborhoods? Last week, police hand-distributed leaflets on Lakeview Terrace and other city streets urging citizens to call police with any leads on drug crime. Bovat stressed that police want to hear about any questionable activity. "No tip is too small," he said.
But some residents question the effectiveness of city police when it comes to drug enforcement. They say their tips to police don't stop the dealing.
A resident of Ward Street — the quiet, leafy road on which the two brothers overdosed — said he has reported license plates of at least 50 cars over the last few years and has worked with two or three police detectives. "I've had people shooting up directly in front of my house. I've had people snorting in front of my house," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. Many times he has observed dealers getting into cars with customers. When he calls police, officers don't usually get to the scene in time to observe the dealing, and so they rarely make arrests, he said. There was at least one heroin bust on the street last year, at the same residence where the Thibault brothers died.
When Scott called police the day her kids were selling lemonade, it was July 3, and thousands of people were streaming toward Waterfront Park for the city's annual fireworks show. Officer Frank Spaulding responded at 5:26 p.m., about an hour after she called. By then, the suspicious cars had moved on.
The officer was polite, Scott said, but she was frustrated when he "explained that unless they see an actual interaction happening, there's not much they can do."
Spaulding told Scott to call again if she suspected drug activity and to record license plate numbers and makes and models of cars. With these details, police can sometimes identify drivers through car registrations, check their criminal records and start building a case. If the same plate numbers are coming up in other apparent drug deals around the city, they can obtain warrants to search a potential dealer's property, do surveillance or use undercover cops to try to catch a dealer in the act. It can take months to gather enough evidence to make a bust.
Scott, 31, grew up in Burlington and started her family in rural Bridport. After brain cancer took her husband's life in 2014, she moved back to the city with her children. She was thrilled to find the bright, clean duplex on Spruce. With a spacious porch, fenced-in yard, hardwood floors, and proximity to both downtown and the funky Pine Street corridor, the unit was a find in Burlington's competitive rental market.
"I just knew, instantly, we were home," Scott said.
Houses on Spruce sell from upwards of $600,000 at the top of the street to around $250,000 closer to St. Paul. Most residents interviewed for this story said they feel the neighborhood is safe. Police records support that assertion: In a city with 40,000 police calls last year, those from Spruce Street indicate relatively few problems, Bovat said. Traffic violations were at the top of the list.
Scott doesn't believe the drug activity she and Howe witnessed was based in a home on their street. Sometimes a person would get out of a car and walk around the corner onto St. Paul, only to return in five or 10 minutes and drive away. Other times, they saw items exchanged from one vehicle to another.
It's plausible that dealers would set up a mobile drop spot on a given street, even if they don't live there, Bovat said. Dealers use varying ways to make sales — from houses, cars or on foot in public spaces, he added.
Scott said she is heartened that the drug activity appears to have moved away — but doesn't wish it on any other Burlington street. She hopes her small effort signals to other residents that they don't have to "just sit around and stand for this type of stuff."
It was a blow to her two kids when they lost their father to cancer. "They had issues for a while ... because Daddy's the protector," Scott said. Now she's determined to make sure nothing else threatens their sense of security.
"I am willing to put up a fight to give them a safe home."