March 22, 2010: In bumper sticker speak, I heart Vermont. I lived in the Green Mountain State for periods in the 1960's and 70's and still visit often. The border is fairly close to the part of upstate New York where I now live. Crossing it brings the eyeball impact of Vermont's no-billboard policy. Scenery? Every rapture ever written is true. I follow Vermont news via the Internet and buy its newspapers when possible. Most often the Bennington Banner, Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press. I'm moved by Christopher Kimball's odes to Vermont in Cook's Magazine. If only the socially cohesive, rural small town life he describes were the sole reality...
Another reality: Vermont consistently ranks upper echelon in studies that rate states for per-capita drug use. And it's not just old hippies sucking weed. A study released in 2008 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, ranked Vermont number two for per-capita use of all illicit drugs (excepting marijuana) by 18-to-25-year-olds. The state comes in fourth for cocaine use in the same age group. National Substance Abuse Index stats from 2007 on substance abuse treatment admissions in Vermont, show cocaine and crack as the most prevalent addiction for rehab participants aged 25-to-40. Heroin addiction looms large with people under 30. Marijuana rehab is crowded with 12-to-17-year-olds. Even assuming some kids get dropped into addiction programs after being caught with a joint, the numbers speak to level of use by the ultra young.
With Vermont's heavy drug use comes the violence and corruption that goes with heavy traffic.
Allegedly Torching The Hand That Allegedly Robs You
In February, twenty members of a large scale drug ring were indicted by a grand jury in Burlington, Vermont. The ring dealt cocaine and crack; they operated in and around Burlington in northeast Vermont. Burlington is the state's biggest city. Pop. 38,889. The greater Burlington area covers three counties and includes Bobo-chic Burlington, suburban swaths, blue collar towns, and rural hamlets. Residents numbers some 206,000, roughly a third of Vermont's population. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont, the drug ring was allegedly headed by Michael Olsen (35), owner of a South Burlington auto body shop named Rizzo Brothers. Rizzo's did little body work; instead it was Distribution Central for cocaine shipped in bulk from California and Arizona to recipients in greater Burlington. Runners picked it up, other ring members did deliveries and collections.
State incorporation records show Rizzo Bros. as first incorporated in 2003. Michael Olsen is listed as Director Number One. The corporation president, a 38-year-old woman with solid middle class cred, has been indicted for helping Olsen launder drug profits through Rizzo's. Olsen also laundered money (allegedly) through a bar-restaurant he owned briefly in downtown Burlington. The bar has changed hands, names, and cuisines often. A spokeswoman for the bar during a series of past reinventions, allegedly helped Olsen launder money when he was owner.
Bouncer David M. Dean (28) allegedly helped provide muscle; his duties included downing other dealers. In 2008, Dean allegedly got into a parking-lot gun battle when robbing a crack dealer in the tiny town of Bristol (home of the Lord's Prayer Rock) in central Vermont. At the time, Dean was on probation for taking part in a 2007 assault led by Michael Olsen. The attack involved home invasion, kidnapping, burglary, and multiple victims. The main target had stolen money and drugs from Rizzo's. A blowtorch was applied to his hand. Felony charges were filed against Olsen, Dean, and another man. Dean was picked up near Syracuse, New York. The felonies melted into misdemeanor pleas when the victim changed his story, saying he'd burnt his hand working on a car and Olsen only threw a sandwich at him. (Hot pastrami? Grilled cheese?) Prosecutors say Olson paid a mere $5000 for the recant.
Olsen allegedly kept his ear to the ground re witnesses via Amy Quesnale (28), an employee (now former) at a local Sprint-Nextel. Quesnel allegedly accessed phone records of DEA agents and supplied info that helped Olsen determine who was talking. Though the Feds claim Olsen and Dean discussed finding and killing a witness, Quesnel no doubt thought they were merely planning to deliver a sandwich.
While awaiting trial, Michael Olsen and David Dean are in federal custody. All other members of the alleged ring are out and about. Dean almost joined them when a federal magistrate in Burlington ordered him released because prosecutors hadn't proved Dean was “enough of a danger to the community or a risk to flee”*. Plus, a really nice lady (a venerable business owner to boot) stepped forward and said Dean could stay in her home 'cause he was a really nice guy she considered akin to family. Things looked good to go for Dean (albeit with an ankle bracelet) until the federal chief judge overturned the magistrate's order after prosecutors appealed. Furthermore, the nice lady rescinded her offer, saying she hadn't known about Dean's history. Yes, she and her son were co-owners of a car matching the description of one driven by Dean when he allegedly gun-battled the crack dealer in Bristol. And that car's rear window had been shot out. But she'd figured the smashed rear window on HER car was the work of vandals.
The Insufficiently Solved Murder of Carlos Vasquez
The city of Rutland (pop. 17, 292) in west central Vermont is the state's second largest city. Rutland County was once among the world's leading marble producers. The closing of quarries in the 1980's and 90's under the weight of cheap imports was an economic blow. But farming, tourist industries, and an extensive retail scene soldier on. As does the effort to recast Rutland City in the Bobo-chic model. The latter takes a hit from the city's 15.4% poverty rate (as of the 2000 census) and a relatively small, but influential core of resident drug abusers. Local landlords have nothing to do with that core. Rutland just draws druggies. And where druggies go, so go dealers. Ones from bigger drug cities in other states.
Carlos Vasquez (29) of Schenectady, New York and his friend Ramel Ramos (17) of Albany, New York were in Rutland on the night of February 4th, 2008, visiting the downtown apartment of Tammy Lynn Waite (38). Waite was letting Vasquez deal crack and marijuana from her apartment. (She'd also fronted him for an illegal gun purchase.) Vasquez wasn't the only one paying to deal from her digs. Waite was running a time-share. That night there seemed to be a scheduling screw up. Crack dealer Javon “Jay-Z” Shelton (27) from New Jersey also showed up. A gun battle erupted in Waite's kitchen. Just what went down is murky. But in the end Vasquez was dead, Shelton was wounded, and Ramos had high-tailed it over a backyard fence, tossing a gun in the process. He took refuge in a local motel and phoned his mother in NY to come get him. When she did, cops moved in. Ramos was charged with killing Vasquez, but after Tammy Waite rolled out two different versions of events leading up to the shooting (she was apparently hiding in her son's closet when the actual shots were fired) and tests proved the gun Ramos tossed wasn't the fatal weapon, Javon Shelton became the prime suspect. By then, Shelton was gone from Vermont and assorted addresses in Jersey and Massachusetts.
In mid 2009, news broke that Javon Shelton had been arrested for shooting (and partially paralyzing) a man on a basketball court in Mesa, Arizona. He was being held for trial in Maricopa County, in the jail run by none other than Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Though law enforcement officials in Rutland had received news of Shelton's arrest months earlier they hadn't informed Sylvia Morales, mother of Carlos Vasquez. (Mrs. Morales never believed that Ramel Ramos, a family friend, was the shooter.) Nor does there seem much interest in pursuing a case against Shelton. Just what went down is still murky. Potential witness Ramel Ramos is long gone. Possibly in Florida. Then there's the layers of law enforcement and the slow-as-molasses ballistic tests of the various guns found at the scene...
In January 2010, Javon Shelton was sentenced to 20 years in an Arizona prison. Possible parole after 17.
The shooting of Carlos Vasquez capped growing public alarm about drug crime in Rutland and was catalyst for a large scale sweep of the county by a coalition of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Operation Marble Valley, which took place over several months in Spring, 2008, resulted in 42 people being charged for low to mid level dealing (coke, heroin, crack) and gun violations. Confiscated firepower included handguns, sawed off shotguns, and Mac-11 machine pistols-- an ultra rapid fire weapon with a rep for poor accuracy when wielded by amateurs. The indicted included area residents and players from Albany and Brooklyn, NY, plus Bridgeport, Connecticut and Suffolk, Virginia. Mug shots show the perps ranging from inner city thug through white trash to tidy middle class. Several young women smile winsomely, as if posing for head shots for America's Next Top Model.
As well as touching off Operation Marble Valley, the Vasquez shooting brought national public officials to Rutland for a summit on “The Rise of Drug-Related Violent Crime in Rural America”. The summit took place under the aegis of the Committee On The Judiciary, United States Senate and was led by Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania was among the luminaries. Much speechifying took place, some eloquent. State and local officials testified. All levels of officialdom seemed to agree more federal money was needed. And not just for law enforcement. As Senator Leahy put it, “(enforcement) alone is not going to solve the problem”. More prevention, education, and rehab was required. Something called the “Byrne-Justice Assistance Grant” was referenced...
Blitzing the Jack
Around the time Operation Marble Valley was sweeping Rutland County, Operation Byrne Blitz, headed by the Vermont Drug Task Force, was sweeping the state. The “Blitz” took its name from the federally funded Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, aka the Edward Byrne Discretionary Grant program. The Byrne Grant funds state-run Drug Task Forces across the nation. The Task Forces allot the money to various combos of law enforcement, prevention, and treatment. Vermont's Drug Task Force receives much of its funding from Byrne. In 2008, Byrne faced heavy cuts, even elimination, by the Bush administration. Groups ranging from the ACLU to the National Taxpayers Union were urging Bush to drop Byrne. Complaints covered a wide spectrum and included racial profiling, corruption, and ineffectiveness. Operation Byrne Blitz was a national action meant to demonstrate the efficacy of drug task forces.
Though some people wax cynical over highly publicized law enforcement actions driven by the desire to protect discretionary funding, Operation Byrne Blitz swept up some notables in Vermont. Such as Ronald L. Saldi Jr., a big frog from tiny (pop. 3,200) white-spired Williamstown in central Vermont.
Middle aged Ronald “Chip” Saldi was no body shop operator or out-of-state thug. Public and commercial facilities in Williamstown bear the Saldi name. The Saldi family has long-standing development interests in the Williamstown area. Ron Saldi Jr. was owner of A&S Collection, a Williamstown-based (but Florida incorporated) debt recovery business. The Saldi clan has been in the collection business for several generations, as the earlier International Collection Service, Inc. and as variations on “A&S”. A&S has had corporate offices in Arizona as well as Vermont. A 2008 deal with a Florida-based import/export company with offices in Mexico City, had A&S set to collect on U.S. invoices owed to businesses in Mexico**. A&S is also a presence on certain Internet bulletin boards-- ones where consumers dish abusive collection practices such as inaccurate claims, threats to ruin credit, and incessant phone calls.
In 2005, Vermont filed a
consumer fraud lawsuit against A&S Collection Associates, Inc. for processing (as in, printing and banking) demand drafts while working in concert with two interrelated Canadian telemarketing firms, Callcom and CAS Professionals. Demand drafts, also known as remotely created checks or tele-checks, debit consumers' checking accounts but don't require their signatures or agreement in writing. Only verbal agreements and checking account numbers are needed. Though demand drafts are used in many legit transactions, they also have a major rep for fraud. In Vermont, demand drafts without written authorization are illegal. Vermont's lawsuit resulted in a settlement from A&S. Callcom and CAS paid penalties as well and were also banned from telemarketing in the U.S. by order of a federal judge. Both telemarketers had fraudulently promised to help consumers obtain government loans.
In 2006, Ron Saldi filed a license renewal for A&S in Massachusetts without revealing the Vermont suit. Mass eventually barred A&S from employing Ron Saldi Jr. as an agent in that state. In late 2008, A&S's license was lifted in Arizona due to false information being filed about the ownership transfer of A&S from Ron Saldi Jr. to his daughter. The transfer had taken place around the time of Saldi's drug bust.
Ron Saldi Jr. was one of the higher level dealers busted by Operation Byrne Blitz; he was supplying other dealers with cocaine and marijuana in bulk. Saldi's suppliers were based in the US. and Canada. According to authorities, Ron Saldi had been distributing for at least six years. After being arrested in March 2008, Saldi transferred $300,000 from his personal bank account into an account held by his father. He also immediately agreed to help bust other dealers. Saldi spent no time in jail; his case went into pending mode. For months, Saldi worked closely with an undercover State Police detective in a relationship that became akin to friendship. Or so it seemed.
Not only was Ron Saldi alerting dealers to Officer Undercover's existence, he was describing him in detail. (Valuable info since the officer was convincing in his role.) Thereby putting the detective in situations where murder was a possibility. Saldi didn't tip every dealer he knew; he favored some over others. He even helped send a few to jail. Meanwhile, Saldi continued dealing. He barely paused after being Byrne Blitzed. Saldi's two face was revealed when another dealer described working with him, saying he usually picked up product at Saldi's home or in a garage attached to his (Saldi's) daughter's house. He also described a conversation in which Saldi bragged about all the drugs the cops didn't find when they raided his home in 2008. The dealer agreed to wear a wire at future get-togethers with Saldi. In 2009, Ron Saldi was arrested again.
Saldi pleaded guilty to both sets of drug dealing charges and blamed his betrayal of Officer Undercover on Oxycontin addiction. Claiming he wanted to keep on the good side of dealers who supplied him. Prosecutors interpreted the betrayal differently. Saying it verged on “sociopathic”. The federal judge seemed to agree. Last December Ron Saldi Jr. got nine years. A rather stiff sentence for Vermont.
These are just a few Vermont drug stories. I could go on (and on) but space is limited. Those seeking further reading might want to start with the last two years of press releases from the U.S. Attorney's Office. As for the Byrne Grant, it didn't go away. In Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy saved the day. Securing $6 million (channeled from the economic stimulus package) for the Drug Task Force. Leahy's announcement in March 2009 re the enhanced funding coincided with a sweep of 16 drug peeps in St. Albans in northern Vermont. On March 19th of this year, the Task Force initiative Operation Connecticut Valley 2010 rounded up 24 street level dealers of crack/heroin/cocaine/oxy/marijuana in the southern counties of Windham and Windsor. On March 20th in Rutland, Kevin “Swerve” Ballard of Brooklyn was busted by the Task Force for selling crack and heroin from the home of a downtown resident. Neighbors are glad to see Swerve go. The address was a drug hot spot for years (allegedly) and they're tired of calling the cops.
One last bit of Saldi saga. In mid-2009, Ronald Saldi Sr. (father of Ron Jr.) was the target of a home invasion. The 67-year-old retiree described the unknown invader as a tall thin black man. Saldi Senior said he and his young Vietnamese fiancée were shoved around and threatened at gunpoint. The assailant supposedly robbed Saldi Sr. of roughly $1000. Saldi said he only had the cash on hand 'cause he was planning to buy his fiancée a present. Saldi also claimed the home invader referenced Ron Jr., saying he talked too much. Folks in Saldi's neighborhood were shocked by the attack. A fellow who'd just moved to “quiet Vermont” from New York told NBC affiliate WPTZ “I thought I kind of left a lot of that behind...”
Think again, friend. Vermont has multiple realities. It's not all maple syrup and town meetings.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Judge orders release of Vermont drug-ring suspect, Sam Hemingway, Burlington Free Press, 02/24/10
**"Contract Signed with A&S Collections in US – JAM, LLC." Press Release, 04/22/08
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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