It will make you teach your 3-year-old how to steal from God.
Few stories told the tale of inner-city heroin addiction more glaringly than the case of Mario Cioli and Christy Roper, the New Britain couple charged in a string of church burglaries.
For more than a year the pair continuously broke into New Britain churches of all denominations to feed their heroin addiction. On at least one occasion witnesses reported they brought their 3-year-old son with them to ransack St. Ann Church.
“I got one!” the 3-year-old reportedly called out as he had managed to wiggle a dollar bill out of a locked drawer.
Both of his parents required immediate detox after they were arrested. They are now serving prison time.
“I was definitely seeing an increase in arraignments where people would need immediate detox from heroin even if they weren’t charged with drug possession,” said Superior Court Judge Joan K. Alexander, who just ended a two-year stint as the presiding criminal judge in New Britain. “It’s also the people who are being charged with larcenies, burglaries and robberies.”
For New Britain police Sgt. Jerry Chrostowski, stemming the flow of drugs into the city has become a full-time job. As the head of the Special Services Unit investigating vice complaints, Chrostowski said heroin is taking up about 70 percent of the unit’s time.
“I have never seen stats like that,” said Chrostowski, who has been involved in the seizure of close to $1 million worth of heroin since April. “And we’re still tracking large deliveries. We’re trying to get larger dealers rather than the $10 junkies but we are getting more complaints about the $10 users than the guy who is bringing in two kilos. It then becomes a matter of prioritizing.”
The disquieting fact, said Alexander who also presided over cases from Wethersfield, Berlin, Newington, Rocky Hill and sometimes Bristol, Southington and Plainville, is that heroin has taken hold in suburbs throughout the state.
“It’s affecting everywhere — Wethersfield, Berlin — it’s a universal drug now,” Alexander said. “It’s unusual because it’s a hard-core level drug. But it’s clearly universal now, it’s not limited to any kind of area or age group.”
Southington resident Mary Marcuccio knows the impact heroin has on suburban communities. Two years ago she started a campaign to make Southington residents more knowledgeable about heroin and opiate use. At the time, some educators and politicians down played the existence of heroin use in town. Marcuccio had to fight to be included in roundtable discussions on promoting healthy behaviors among school children. Within months however, town officials embraced keep heroin out of town. Police were already on board, creating a four-man narcotics unit by pulling officers from other duties.
Marcuccio’s group, Parents 4 A Change, has since been featured on national television including “Good Morning America.” The group meets monthly to hear speakers on various topics related to opiate use. During one meeting, a Yale researcher taught the group how to use Narcan, a drug usually administered by emergency crews when someone had overdosed on heroin.
Many Parents 4 A Change members have lost a child to an overdose or are struggling with family members who are addicted. They come from all over the area. “Most people don’t know that this drug — heroin — has snuck into suburbia like a thief in the night and that our children are paying the price for our ignorance,” Marcuccio said last year after the overdose death of a Wethersfield teen. “Every parent who reads this needs to know that there is no imaginary ‘protective bubble’ around your town, your family, your child.”
Wethersfield, Farmington, Glastonbury and the Naugatuck Valley have all had spats of heroin overdoses and the crime associated with heroin use. The problem is considered so acute in the New Haven area that Yale University received a several hundred-thousand dollar grant to interview heroin addicts on what services they need to get sober.
“Heroin is much more potent, much stronger than it used to be,” Alexander said. “Now you can literally die by using one bag that’s too strong. It’s now matching the other drugs that are out there. It used to be that, five or six years ago, you’d see one or two cases a month. Now it’s always on the docket.”
Court officials are trying constructive ways to address the problem statewide through programs like “drug court” now held in New Haven, Bridgeport and Danielson in eastern Connecticut.
The highly structured program offers offenders who are facing serious jail time a chance to commit to a one-year to 18-month intervention that includes strict monitoring by a team of judicial officials and treatment providers including a judge, a bail commissioner, a prosecutor and a public defender. Lapses are immediately addressed with sanctions and the team assesses each client’s progress on a weekly basis. A client can have no more than three sanctions or they face completing the lengthy jail sentence hanging over their head.
So far 974 offenders have entered the program since its inception in 2004, with 619 successfully completing, said Kimberly Joyner, a case flow manager with the Judicial Department.
“I see firsthand how much these dockets are impacting the lives of clients,” Joyner said. “With the multi-disciplined team, they are both being held accountable and getting clean. It’s been great to be a part of that.”
Alexander said that whenever possible judges will refer defendants to the drug court program if they have multi-jurisdictional cases that overlap with a court that runs the program.
But she also acknowledges that due to fiscal constraints, drug court serves only a small portion of the defendants in the judicial system with substance abuse issues and that long-term treatment beds aren’t always available.
“There may not be as many options for those who commit violent crimes like burglaries or robberies to feed their addiction,” Alexander said. “Sometimes the only way to address the addiction is with a jail sentence. It allows for community safety when a long-term bed isn’t available.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Salafia prosecutes many of the drug cases that flow through the New Britain court. The impact of drugs in a city New Britain’s size is palpable, he said, and the court always has to consider the danger to the community when dealing with substance abusers who are stealing and robbing to feed their habit.
“It has a huge impact on the quality of life here. This city is filled with hardworking people who are making the city a better place who deserve a good place to live,” Salafia said. “There is a link between guns and drugs and violence. There are places where parents feel that their kids can’t play outside. This office tends to look at the facts of any given case and try to determine, are these isolated incidents or what’s the impact to the community? There is a difference between someone stealing baby formula to sell to get high and someone stealing from area churches, that’s an offense to the entire community. It’s about keeping these neighborhoods safe where people will want to raise their children, work and open businesses.”
Chrostowski and his six-man unit depend heavily on tips from the public and confidential informants who are willing to set up controlled buys with dealers for either consideration on their own criminal cases or for cash. One of Chrostowski’s unit members is also assigned to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Statewide Narcotics Task Force.
The unit investigates drug activity ranging from “street” sales — hand to hand transactions that take place on Arch and North Streets, the two biggest pockets of heroin use in the city — to high-level operations where the participants pick up and receive large shipments from New York City.
The group charged a city man who was using his Black Rock Avenue home as a packaging “assembly” line in July. They followed his vehicle to New York City and back. When he missed an exit on I-91 and looked like he was headed directly to Hartford, they called the Mid-State Narcotics Task Force operating out of the Wethersfield Police Department to pull the car over.
Mid-State officers found $500,000 worth of raw heroin tucked in a trap door in a seat. Chrostowski’s team estimated that the drugs would make 49,000 packets of heroin for sale when mixed with a cutting agent. The suspect was released after posting $750,000 bond that day.
The Mid-State Task Force made up of officers from Wethersfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, Berlin and Cromwell in April charged a couple with dealing heroin out of a Newington apartment. They were found with $200,000 worth of pure, uncut heroin. Both were released after posting bond. Within weeks they had set up shop in the woman’s New Britain apartment. They were arrested again in July when Chrostowski’s unit staged a raid on her home and found another $20,000 worth of heroin.
“At this level of dealer, these guys are money producers, they have financial backing,” he said. “They can call up or get a shipment delivered anytime they want.”
The unit takes all complaints and tips by citizens seriously and often investigates through surveillance, giving them time to build a case to arrest a street-level dealer who is plaguing a particular neighborhood.
“It’s a quality of life issue for residents,” he said. “People will often call up and want results immediately but we have to investigate, we need search warrants, surveillance, credible information. It takes time but we do address it. The other frustration we see is that we make an arrest and then residents see those people back on the streets and they don’t understand why. We arrest them but we didn’t release them, that happens at court. The other factor is, the dent we made is in jail and then a new dent comes up. There’s always a new customer or a new dealer.”
The unit also deals with serving warrants, investigating illegal gun activity, and alcohol complaints such as underage drinking. Chrostowski attributes the group’s increase in heroin investigations to the type of informants who are willing to work with police.
In recent years the cost of heroin has plummeted, while the cost of cocaine has more than doubled, Chrostowski said. “You can now go to Hartford and get a stack — 100 bags — for $250,” he said. “You can come back here, and if you sell it for $8 a bag, that’s not a bad profit for a 10-minute ride.”
By LISA BACKUS
September 12, 2009