WAITSFIELD - It was the heroin overdose death of a 21-year-old Warren man early this year that alerted the Mad River Valley to the immediacy of its drug problem.
A subsequent spree of break-ins at local businesses has further dramatized the changing character of an area once known mainly for its skiing. The valley is responding, in part, by launching a Neighborhood Watch program intended to "multiply the effectiveness" of state police efforts to stem drug-related crime, says local organizer Fred Messer.
Through funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security, residents and business owners are being trained in how to protect their own premises and safeguard their neighbors'. Messer and some other valley residents express confidence in the initiative, which also involves posting roadside Neighborhood Watch signs. "It's been proven in other areas to have made a difference," says Troy Kingsbury, owner of Village Deli and Grocery in Waitsfield, which is among the businesses burglarized in recent months.
Others raise concerns about what they characterize as a surveillance program, warning it could encourage vigilantism, not just vigilance. Messer, the chairman of the valley's emergency planning committee, views such concerns as baseless. "Neighborhood Watch isn't like it was years ago. Today, it's strictly about neighbors looking out for neighbors," he says.
State Police Lt. John Imburgio describes Neighborhood Watch as "a great idea." He adds, however, "I am concerned about its implementation. The volume of information coming to us will certainly increase, but the quality maybe won't be there."
Imburgio explains that Neighborhood Watch can inspire anonymous tips, "but the courts don't like anonymous tips. They can involve saying anything about anybody."
The importance of attributing allegations is one of the points Imburgio plans to stress at the valley's initial Neighborhood Watch training session, scheduled to take place Nov. 14 at Waitsfield Elementary School at 7 p.m.
Imburgio, who oversees state police patrols in the Mad River Valley, doesn't doubt the dimensions of the local heroin problem. In fact, he says, hard drugs and the crime that accompanies their use have become common in large parts of the state. Returning to the Middlesex barracks after an extended assignment in Bradford, "I was astonished by the amount of heroin in central Vermont," Imburgio says.
Wayne Whitelock, a Presbyterian minister in Calais who leads Neighborhood Watch training sessions, describes the upsurge in drug-related crime as central Vermont's "big untold story." In Waitsfield alone, he notes, a gardening center, a health clinic, a pharmacy and a couple of convenience stores have all recently been hit - some more than once.
"We don't know if it's our kids getting into trouble or outsiders passing through here," says deli owner Kingsbury. Arrests made so far reveal the perps to be Vermonters. One Waitsfield merchant whose store has been ransacked "a few times" says thieves from Burlington and Essex were nabbed in connection with two of those break-ins.
But bad-guy residents aren't entirely responsible for central Vermont's property-crime wave, Whitelock maintains. "Trafficking is flowing between Canada and New York," he says, "and Vermont is becoming a safe haven for dealers driven out of more urban areas."
Vermonters need to adjust their attitudes to reflect this new reality, Whitelock adds. "There's a lifestyle acceptance in Vermont that has been admirable but can become conducive to unwittingly tolerating behavior that's destructive to our communities," he declares.
Policing patterns may have to change as well if more crimes are to be prevented. None of the five towns in the Mad River Valley has its own police force. Says Lt. Imburgio, "I've only got two to five State Police officers to cover 18 towns in central Vermont." This thin gray line means "the idea of having a police officer at your doorstep in five minutes isn't something that's guaranteed," Whitelock points out.
For five hours a day - 2 to 7 a.m. - there are no state police patrols in central Vermont. "Officers do respond to emergencies once they're awakened," Imburgio says, "but no one's out there on a routine basis in the middle of the night."
"The criminals all know this," says Kingsbury, who notes that his deli/grocery was broken into at 2:38 a.m. He says he's learned a lesson and has improved his business' security systems. But, adds Kingsbury, a third-generation resident of the Mad River Valley, "this area is certainly losing a lot of its hometown charm."