Five years ago, townspeople thought they knew how to stop the heroin trade.
They closed a public health program that gave away 50,000 sterile needles a year to reduce the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases among some 300 client-addicts.
The program had become a lightning rod for public anger about drugs after a 2-year-old girl was pricked in her yard by a discarded syringe. Critics said free needles attracted addicts and addicts attracted dealers. When the program shut down in March 1997, it became the only state-sponsored exchange ever closed in America.
But heroin continued flowing into town, as it has for more than 30 years.
``Our needle exchange went away, but not our heroin problem,'' town AIDS outreach worker Kathey Fowler said recently as she inspected an addict's shooting gallery a block from Main Street. She plucked five used syringes from the ground and carefully put them into an old coffee can she found.
``All of the problems blamed on the exchange still remain,'' said Robert Broadhead, a University of Connecticut sociology professor who studied the exchange's rise, fall and aftermath. ``Including a large and active illicit drug scene.''
That's why bloody syringes still end up in town parks, on the banks of the Willimantic River, by the pay phone behind the Cumberland Farms and in dozens of other spots favored by the town's 200 to 300 junkies.
It's why cops can break down the door of an apartment and find a dealer with 7,000 bags of heroin and $15,000 in cash in his bedside table.
It's why longtime residents have nicknamed the drug-plagued sections off Milk Street ``Sodom.''
And it's why ``Willimantic is the heroin capital of Connecticut,'' according to Clifford Thornton, a retired telephone company executive from Windsor whose nationally known group, Efficacy, seeks the legalization of drugs and the elimination of mandatory minimum jail terms.
But is legalization the answer? What about a massive police crackdown or better treatment services?
Can heroin ever be uprooted here? Or have illegal drugs become as permanent as the granite bedrock under the town?
Interviews with police, social workers, longtime residents and community leaders show no consensus on a plan of attack. In fact, a feeling of weary resignation seems to weave through their comments.
``At a certain point, you do become hardened by it,'' said Roger Adams, chairman of the Windham Chamber of Commerce. ``It's there and is a part of life.''
Funding And Priorities
Local police insist they could make an impact if they weren't hampered by lack of resources and funding.
State Sen. Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Killingly, says Willimantic may need outside help to combat its drug problem, including bringing in the state police.
``I think it's fairly well-known there has been a drug-trafficking problem in and around Willimantic,'' Williams said. ``We have to step up our resources and put people in jail who are bringing the drugs in.''
State Police Sgt. Jeff Hotsky, a supervisor at the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, said that with enough police officers ``you could saturate the area. ... You could drive them from one part of the city to the next. It does make it a lot more difficult for them.''
State police succeeded in at least submerging dealers in the once drug-ridden Windham Heights housing complex two years ago, when they assigned seven troopers there in a community-policing program.
``There is no more open dealing,'' said Sgt. Stephen Ostroski, who supervises the nationally recognized program. ``If there are, either we would see them or someone in the community does and tells us.''
Willimantic Police Chief Milton King insists his local community-policing program has made inroads in the Hispanic neighborhoods, where residents are starting to turn in dealers.
But budget constraints and questionable manpower decisions have made it impossible for the department to put a dent in the heroin trade.
The 39-member department, four officers short because of disabilities and retirement, didn't have the staffing this year to spare an officer for the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, a combination of state and local police. Instead, the department lent its best drug detective to an FBI task force a couple of times a week in exchange for some federal funds.
King acknowledged that the Statewide Narcotics Task Force ``has been a blessing to this community for the past 15 years.'' But he added: ``We're under budget constraints. I could not pull away an officer. If I sent someone to Statewide, he or she is gone.''
``That's an issue that has to be dealt with,'' said Windham First Selectman Michael T. Paulhus. He vowed that town officials would look into putting an officer back on the task force. He also said the town would look into restoring walking and bicycle beats, which were cut this year to save money.
Meanwhile, without police on the ground, junkies shoot up in the parks, knowing that officers who pass by frequently in cruisers can't see them from the vehicles.
Although heroin use and trafficking is a critical problem in Willimantic, it's not the most pressing issue for the state's attorney's office in Danielson, which handles criminal cases from Willimantic and the rest of Windham County.
Windham State's Attorney Patricia Froelich says her top priority is child abuse. Windham County has the highest percentage of sexual assault against children of any judicial district in the state.
``My issue is we certainly have a narcotics problem, but the numbers aren't as staggering as the child abuse problems,'' she said.
Staffing is also an obstacle for her.
``In 15 or 16 months, it's become obvious we need more than four assistants, but I am just not going to get that,'' Froelich said. ``The state's fiscal situation is a problem for us.''
Froelich said she takes a harsh stance with the heroin cases, particularly dealers. She makes sure that, whenever possible, dealers are charged with selling drugs within 1,500 feet of a school, day-care center or housing project. That charge carries an additional three-year penalty.
``Several defense lawyers have complained to me about it, saying everywhere in Willimantic is within 1,500 feet. My response is, `Good,''' Froelich said.
But even when dealers are prosecuted, they often have enough money to post bail.
``We can argue for high bonds and the judges can impose high bonds, but people are posting them,'' she said.
``If they eliminate one [dealer] today, to me, that's making progress,'' Froelich said. ``We do what we can do. There are days when we are just shoveling sand against the tide.''
The Treatment Debate
King, one of the leading opponents of the doomed needle-exchange program, speaks for many when he says the answer lies in more police work and fewer of the social services he believes draw addicts here like ants to sugar.
``There are more outreach programs in 4 square miles than there are in most cities,'' King said recently. ``Every agency in this community provides for people who are unfortunate and can't provide for themselves. They gravitate to ... the soup kitchen, the methadone clinic, AIDS outreach.''
But other community leaders disagree. They say Willimantic needs more and better addiction treatment services.
``It's the chicken-and-egg kind of question,'' said Williams, the state legislator. ``The issue of ongoing concern is the lack of resources for drug treatment. We need to get people who are addicted back on their feet to a path that leads them away from addiction.''
Leanne Dillian, executive director of Windham-based Community Prevention and Addiction Services Inc., said treatment, not prison, is the way to help almost all drug users.
``Addicts as a whole are targets. They do end up in prison, often serving stiff sentences for nonviolent crimes like possession,'' she said. ``We need more treatment slots. Our clients aren't good at waiting for treatment. More than a half hour in a waiting room and they're out the door.''
Less money for prisons and more on medicines to quell relapses and cravings also would go a long way to help sick and suffering addicts, she said.
Just this month, she noted, the federal government approved buprenorphine to treat people addicted to heroin and other opiates. The drug, approved after years of clinical trials, can be administered in a doctor's office instead of a special clinic. It opens the door for physicians to treat addicts.
Paulhus said town officials are open to any suggestion that might help diminish the drug trade here.
``Enforcement is but one aspect. Recovery works. Some people need four or five tries, others a dozen or more. But there are people out there in recovery who are living proof that you can stop using and go on to be a productive member of society,'' he said. ``We are acutely aware of recovery. We advocate for more treatment.''
Thornton, the Windsor man whose group, Efficacy, is one of several nationwide that believe this nation's drug laws perpetuate drug use and sales, said the focus must shift away from the criminal model.
``Are people ever going to stop using illegal drugs? No,'' said Thornton, whose mother died of a heroin overdose. ``So you have to look at a policy that would cause the least amount of harm to people who use and to society as a whole. The current system is not doing that. When we eliminate a drug dealer through arrest, all we're doing is creating a job vacancy, which people line up to fill.''
Many in the community don't think heroin will ever go away, no matter how it is attacked. It's been around for so long, and its legacy now runs so deep, they've grown weary of the fight.
``I think there is an element that people are resigned to it. They'll say, `They're there again, it's time for another sweep,''' Adams of the Chamber of Commerce said.
Paul Slyman, the retired Willimantic police officer who first flagged the heroin problem to federal authorities in 1970, said there seems to be no stopping the flow of heroin into Willimantic.
``I have no idea what you can do to stop it. Even the government can't figure it out and they have millions of dollars and all kinds of equipment,'' Slyman said. ``Wherever you concentrate a show of force, they will find another place.''
John Kilburn, a sociology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, believes the answer may lie in better job opportunities, but the perception of Willimantic as a heroin town has impeded its progress in adjusting from a manufacturing town to a service economy.
``The morale of the town is low and many longtime residents blame it on heroin. And because of that, it inhibits the level of confidence to adjust to the new economy,'' he says.
Eastern, he says, is caught in a ``double bind.'' Students are encouraged to support the Main Street businesses, but then are warned to be careful of the drug addicts there.
While the town complains of budget woes, Eastern claims it brings in $39 million in direct and indirect spending to the community. But campus life goes on away from the most troubled drug sections.
There is a movement in town to enhance the image of the Jillson Square and Main Street area by transforming it into a regional arts center. This spring, town leaders started Third Thursday, a street-and-arts celebration that draws hundreds of families to Main Street once a month.
``The problem with Main Street is the only people you see much of the time are the people hanging out,'' said Jean de Smet, one of the street festival's organizers. ``You bring more people out and you don't notice these people.''
But Paulhus acknowledges, ``There is no magic bullet, no simple solution to this problem.''
Meanwhile, heroin remains so common and so entrenched that Paulhus receives monthly collection reports on the number of needles picked up by the police or public works employees.
Since March, town workers have collected 203 discarded syringes. Town police collected 145 needles. Public works crews found 58.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times