State raid, federal convictions don’t end Brattleboro drug house woes
BRATTLEBORO — Neighbors of the seemingly stately apartment house at 33 Oak St. can recount the Christmas 2018 report of a drug dealer holding two women inside at gunpoint, the February 2019 raid and seizure of narcotics, firearms and ammunition, and the April 2019 follow-up press conference where Vermont’s U.S. attorney and 20 top federal, state and local authorities promised “we will be relentless.”
But a year later, residents instead point to the recent night when they saw four police cruisers respond to yet another call about disorderly conduct and, the next day, tenants of the eight-unit building piling bedbug-infested mattresses onto the sidewalk as stranger upon stranger drove in and out of the parking lot.
“Someone runs in for a few minutes to do I don’t know what,” says one of many neighbors who ask not to be identified out of concern for their safety. “It has become a culture of the place.”
The house’s location seems stranger than fiction — tucked between a special needs school and a residence for single mothers, and two doors down from a set of buildings owned by former Gov. Peter Shumlin, who made national news by devoting his 2014 State of the State address to opioid abuse.
Federal authorities this month announced a nine-year prison sentence for Chyquan “Cash” Cupe, the 22-year-old Hartford, Connecticut, leader of a trafficking ring that sold cocaine, heroin and fentanyl out of a back apartment at 33 Oak St. in 2018 and 2019.
“Mr. Cupe is a dangerous individual,” Thomas Relford, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s field office in Albany, New York, said in a press release. “This sentencing should prove the FBI, along with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners, is focused on stopping the movement and sale of drugs on our streets and ensuring our neighborhoods are free from illegal firearms.”
But neighbors tell another story. They continue to find used injection-drug needles tossed in their trash cans as they’ve called police with complaints about 150 times — for everything from fights to thefts to overdoses — since the raid a year and a half ago.
“We still get reports,” confirms Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan, who won’t elaborate on what’s happening at 33 Oak St. “The behavior that people see — a lot of traffic, short-term visitors, out-of-state places — can be indicative of drug dealing, but until we collect enough evidence, we can’t say.”
Local health officers, for their part, recently issued a $700 fine to the building’s landlord, Robert Remy-Powers, for allowing bedbug-infested upholstery from three apartments to remain on the sidewalk for nearly two weeks before removal. Town government also has cited the building for electrical hazards, improper smoke detectors and falsification of lead-based paint inspection records.
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In response, Remy-Powers acknowledges continued drug dealing at the property, but says he can’t evict the household in question because of a state moratorium sparked by the pandemic.
“I’ve talked to the current tenant point-blank and said, ‘You’ve got to stop this,’ but the court shut down and they’re not doing anything for landlords,” he said.
Remy-Powers faults health officers for issuing the bedbug fine without a warning and “disgruntled” apartment dwellers for seeking inspections and not properly applying the pesticides he gave them.
“It’s all blown out of proportion,” he says of the entire situation. “And with this particular tenant, they keep saying they’re not doing anything, and it’s not like they have guns and stuff.”
That said, Remy-Powers asked that neither his name nor address of the property be reported, even though both are included in government press releases and public records.
“The landlord could become a target,” he says of himself, “and you can make everyone in the neighborhood more scared, and stigmatize the building.”
Although 33 Oak St. is widely labeled a “drug house,” most people living there aren’t dealing. Traffickers have targeted individual tenants, court records show, offering narcotics in exchange for selling out of their spaces. That has tainted many innocent occupants without other options.
“We have bedbugs, the heat doesn’t work, the bathroom sink is held together with duct tape, the caulk around the tub is eroded and covered in black mold …” one posted this month on a public social media group. “Other tenants aren’t paying rent, and the landlord can’t evict them, so he’s going to shift the burden onto those of us who pay regularly. It’s ridiculous. He’s lucky we can’t afford to move right away.”
Neighbors are asking why the legal system can’t do more.
“It seems somebody,” one says, “ought to be able to do something.”
‘Reasonable suspicion’ just the start
The problem, those seeking solutions say, begins with geography.
Brattleboro, the state’s seventh most populous locality with about 11,000 residents, promotes its southern gateway location to tourists seeking an easy escape. But that same access is attractive to dealers who know the town as the first exit off Interstate 91 and the nearest Vermont community to the New England drug-route hubs of greater Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut.
“You can sell drugs up here for more money than you can further south,” Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald says. “We’re right here in a tri-state area, right off the interstate. Why would you take a chance being stopped by law enforcement by going any further north?”
Brattleboro’s opioid overdoses have skyrocketed from 20 in 2010 to more than 100 (with 10 resulting deaths) this past year. Add the bedroom towns of Windham County and one finds an area with less than 7% of Vermont’s population reporting nearly a quarter of the state’s opioid problem.
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Neighbors of 33 Oak St. called police some 80 times in the spring, summer and fall of 2018 and winter of 2019 to report everything from the sound of gunfire to the spray-painted words “we sell drugs” scrawled on the clapboards of the house built at the start of the American Civil War.
Authorities raided the building twice — first on Dec. 28, 2018, when they seized a safe full of drugs and weapons but no suspects, and again on Feb. 28, 2019, when they took multiple people into custody.
As neighbors watched a steady stream of strangers knock on the door in vain (someone would pin up a sign that read, “They all got arrested — your drugs are at the police station”), the Vermont U.S. attorney’s office publicized the raids in a press release that was the top story in a U.S. Justice Department national newsletter.
“If you are on Interstate 91 north headed for Brattleboro or St. Johnsbury or anywhere else in the state with drugs, turn around and go home,” U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan warned at a subsequent press conference.
But a few months later, neighbors saw new dealers working at the house. To prove it, they invited police to a meeting where, by chance, a man at 33 Oak St. was seen quickly getting in and out of someone else’s vehicle. An officer confirmed the man had a history of selling heroin but noted his past activity didn’t match the 50 customers a day the building was seeing at its height before the raids.
Neighbors have witnessed others do the same thing repeatedly in the past year, with people often parking on side streets and walking to the house to minimize traffic.
Authorities won’t discuss whether or how they’re working to curb such activity. They will say that although neighbors are reporting “reasonable suspicion,” police can’t receive a search warrant until they show probable cause. Even if someone records an exchange of envelopes, for example, law enforcement can’t prosecute unless they have the actual drugs sold so they can be tested for authenticity.
Compounding the challenge, most dealers charged are released on conditions unless they have enough of a record to make the matter a felony.
‘Pandemic has had very little effect’
Take the case of Cupe. Before he took over an apartment at 33 Oak St., he had been arrested at least four times in the previous two years but kept fleeing after being charged and released.
When Cupe faced his first Vermont case in 2018, his lawyer asked a judge to lower the accused’s $25,000 bail bond for alleged assault and burglary, arguing the defendant had just moved to Oak Street, a middle-class address then not associated with criminal conduct.
The lawyer didn’t say Cupe already had a $250,000 bond against him in his home state of Connecticut after police found him during a 2017 Hartford drug raid with a loaded .40 caliber pistol.
Cupe was released in both instances to await trial, only to be stopped by Brattleboro police in October 2018 for new charges of possession of cocaine, resisting arrest and attempting to escape — the latter while handcuffed.
Yet Cupe was free again by Christmas 2018, when he allegedly held two women at gunpoint and forced them to brawl over a $200 drug debt, then reportedly pulled one by the hair two days later to announce “I’m going to beat and kill you right here.”
Cupe avoided police during the first of two raids at 33 Oak St. and wasn’t arrested for another six weeks. At a federal detention hearing, his public defender argued Cupe shouldn’t be held because he lacked prior convictions — neglecting to explain his client hadn’t stayed anywhere long enough to stand trial.
Cupe was sentenced this month at U.S. District Court in Burlington after agreeing to a plea bargain for transporting drugs from Connecticut to Brattleboro with the help of such recruits as a 17-year-old drug user.
Cupe’s case was one of six to result from the raids. Co-conspirators Desiree Wells-Cooper, 36, is part of a new federal drug court program, while Francis Macie, 46, was sentenced to prison for eight months, Juan Sanchez Jr., 21, for 13 months, Linda Wainwright, 43, for four years and Pedro Ocasio, 21, for eight years.
“This case highlights the violence that follows drug trafficking and the dangers to the most vulnerable Vermonters,” U.S. Attorney Nolan said in a press release.
Added Vermont State Police Maj. Daniel Trudeau: “The Brattleboro community is now a safer place with this group off the streets.”
A Facebook post reporting those statements was shared almost 200 times, with a majority of interest coming from social media followers in Hartford, Connecticut.
“Brattleboro is hotttttt,” commented one, using slang for a place frequented by police.
But neighbors at 33 Oak St. know winter is coming. They’re continuing to ask why the government can’t take the problematic property through civil forfeiture, noting the seizure of three Rutland drug houses in 2016.
“Our office does do the process,” U.S. attorney’s office spokesperson Kraig LaPorte replies, “but I can’t speak specifically on any case.”
Local police know the larger answer remains elusive.
“The model of folks coming up from urban areas and taking advantage of people here is still in full swing,” Carignan says. “It’s an issue the pandemic has had very little effect on.”
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