16 arrests

U.S. Attorney Christina E. Nolan speaks during a news conference in April at the Brattleboro Police Station. During the conference, Nolan announced a three-day drug-enforcement “surge” resulted in charges against 16 people and the seizure of significant amounts of heroin and crack cocaine.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Five people have been sentenced in federal court for their roles in a drug-distribution operation active in the Brattleboro area between late 2014 and early 2016.

The Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont announced the sentences in a news release Friday.

Two Springfield, Mass., residents, Joaquin “J.J.” Diaz-Alicea and Andrew “Tone” Cruz, were each sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Another Springfield resident, Jonthony “Little Tone” Maldonado, was sentenced to 2½ years.

All three pleaded guilty in 2017 or 2018, but the final sentencing hearing was not until June 19, when Diaz-Alicea was sentenced.

Two Vermont residents also pleaded guilty in the case, in late 2016, and were sentenced months later. Steven Miller of Vernon was sentenced to one year in prison, and Laura Frankiewicz of Brattleboro received a sentence of time served.

A sixth person, Anthony Serrano, was charged in the case before dying in a shooting in Springfield, according to the news release. Police said at the time that the shooting appeared to be gang-related, according to a report in The Springfield Republican.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Serrano and Cruz led the operation, which sold heroin and cocaine base, and Diaz-Alicea was “immediately subordinate to Cruz.” The news release calls Maldonado “the drug trafficking organization’s ‘apprentice’ ” but does not further describe his role.

Miller and Frankiewicz sold heroin and cocaine base and also provided the three Springfield residents with housing in exchange for drugs, according to the news release.

Source cities, local towns

It’s not uncommon for drug dealers from an out-of-state “source city” like Springfield, Mass., to set up shop in Vermont, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Doyle said.

“They can make more by selling it in areas with less supply generally,” Doyle said. It’s a particular problem in southern Vermont, he said, because the area is not far from Springfield and connected via Interstate 91.

Out-of-state dealers often rope in local drug users, who make sales or give the dealers a place to crash, according to law enforcement officials. “They’ll stay with the locals because it’s less liability on their end,” said Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Christopher Lora, who oversees the state’s drug task force. “There’s nothing tying them to an apartment or to a hotel room.”

In exchange, local residents typically receive quantities of the drugs they’re addicted to, according to Doyle and Lora.

Other times, the drug distributors are based locally but have an out-of-state supplier. “We also have locals who realize that there’s money to be made,” Lora said. “And most of the locals that we have are users themselves, so they’re buying enough quantity to support their own habit. They’ll sell what they need to support their own habit, and then they’re making money off it as well.”

Recent federal drug cases focused on the Brattleboro area have involved charges against people with ties to New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as numerous Vermont residents.

In one 2016 case, prosecutors alleged a Brattleboro woman with a drug addiction allowed a group to use her Western Avenue apartment for its drug-selling business in 2014 and 2015.

It’s not clear from publicly available court documents whether the group had previous ties to the area — one member had a Vermont ID, another’s was from New York. Their suppliers included sources in Springfield, Mass., and Connecticut, according to one of the government’s filings in the case.

At some point in 2016, the group shifted its operations from Brattleboro to a house in Putney, according to prosecutors. “They met drug customers at this location and allowed local addicts to stay in the basement in exchange for doing household chores and other tasks associated with the drug business,” a prosecutor wrote in the filing.

In August 2016, according to prosecutors, two “Vermont addicts” picked up one of the dealers in Connecticut and drove him to the Putney house, expecting to receive $30 worth of crack cocaine in exchange.

An argument over the expected payment devolved into a shootout, which left no one injured but led to multiple arrests.

More recently, a former Hartford, Conn., resident living in Brattleboro was arrested in February and faces federal drug distribution charges as well as assault and other state charges.

And at an April news conference in Brattleboro — framed as a warning to drug dealers and their collaborators — authorities announced more than a dozen arrests in several separate investigations.

They included a New York man and a Connecticut man arrested in Vermont; a man arrested in Holyoke, Mass., who was alleged to be supplying large quantities of heroin to someone in Vermont; and multiple Brattleboro residents facing various drug-related charges.

Vermont is lucrative for drug traffickers in part because it’s at the end of an international supply chain, raising prices, said Lora.

“There’s so much money to be made off the drugs, that you’ll see gangs from out of state that typically won’t get along,” he said. “… But in the state of Vermont, the profits are so lucrative that they actually kind of have an agreement where — ‘You take this town or you take this part of town, and we’re good, and everybody’s making money.’ ”

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS