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Greetings From Vermont: No Billboards, Plenty Cocaine

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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After several years of NYC go-go dancing and wacky radical fun (including a trip to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) Carola Von H. became a No Wave band leader and Mail Artist. Picking up change as a free lance writer. Her pen ranged (more...)
 

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