METHUEN — Police officer Jeff Torrisi, on patrol with his canine partner Dunkin, spotted a vehicle with out-of-state plates parked at a liquor store on Lawrence Street at about 4:30 p.m. on July 9. It drew Torrisi’s attention because of the three people standing around it, like they were waiting for someone.
Torrisi watched the group, and soon enough, a man and a woman walked toward the car and got in. Police believe there was a transaction inside that car, and the man and woman got out again and walked toward Camden Street. The man made a phone call, and both were picked up by a black sedan. The sedan drove around the block and let the couple out on Phillips Street.
The man and the woman walked back to the car parked at the liquor store and got in. The five all left together.
Torrisi pulled the car over on Route 213 and arrested everyone inside on charges ranging from distribution of a class A substance, a classification that includes heroin and other opiates, possession of a class A substance or knowingly being present where heroin is kept. Police said they retrieved 4.2 grams of heroin in a single plastic bag from the back seat of the car.
The man walking back and forth to the cars on Lawrence Street was a middleman between a dealer in this area and the others in the car, Methuen police Sgt. James Gunther said. All five arrested are from Manchester, N.H.
Torrisi made the arrest with training and experience, that is, knowing how to spot an active or developing drug sale, and by trying to be in the right place at the right time by focusing patrols on areas where transactions are most likely to happen.
Area police said that disrupting these sales, and the flow of heroin from New York and Boston into Northern New England through Massachusetts’ border communities, is tricky because sales happen in a few minutes, are conducted out of view in cars and, obviously, are not announced with times and locations beforehand.
Detective Lt. James Jajuga, Jr., said that areas near highways tend to see more sales activity because people drive from New Hampshire and Maine into Massachusetts, where heroin is cheaper than farther north.
“The majority of drug transactions are done vehicle to vehicle on the road, whether in a parking lot or on the side of a street, they’re hand-to-hand and done in vehicles,” he said. “You have to monitor certain areas. It’s just hard work and diligence and being in the right place at the right time.”
As use and sales have increased in recent years, Methuen has bolstered its narcotics unit, and assigned specific patrols targeting certain areas in the city, such as off the highways, for increased surveillance. Jajuga said public reporting of suspicious activity is critical as well.
In the last three years, arrests in Methuen for class A substances have skyrocketed, from 31 in 2010, to 90 in 2011 to 98 for 2013 as of July 23, according to police data provided by Chief Joseph Solomon and collected by Officer Daniel O’Connell.
Police and addiction experts attribute a recent spike in heroin use to the popularity of prescription opiate painkillers, such as oxycodone – OxyContin – and hydrocodone – Vicodin. People who become addicted to opiates using prescriptions find that habit either too expensive or too difficult to maintain, and often turn to heroin as a cheaper, easier alternative.
Local, state and federal drug enforcement officers said heroin that finds its way here originates in South America and comes into the United States through Mexico. New York City is a major regional hub, where it is distributed into larger New England cities, and from there into smaller cities.
Heroin can frequently go through Lawrence and other border communities on its way into Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Jajuga said heroin purchased in Massachusetts can be sold at double or triple the local price further north.
Haverhill Deputy Police Chief Donald Thompson said areas off Interstate 495 are popular for sales, and police focus patrols on those spots. The popularity of a given exit off the Interstate changes depending on police presence. “If it’s hot at (exit) 49, they go to exit 52,” he said. “If we get calls form people at 52 and we show a presence, then we get calls from Bradford.”
In Lawrence, Police Chief John Romero said the restoration of his drug task force has made a big difference, notching hundreds or more than a thousand arrests since last year.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the drug arrests we make in Lawrence are heroin-related,” he said. “We know there are people coming here to buy in quantity to distribute somewhere else.”
On the other side of the border, Nashua Police work with their municipal counterparts in other New England states, along with regional border task forces and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, to share information.
Nashua Police Lt. David Bailey, of the Narcotics Intelligence Division, said his department has officers assigned to federal task forces. When his detectives are investigating a certain individual or group of people in Nashua, they sometimes will follow them, outside of Nashua and even out of New Hampshire, to collect evidence and build a case.
But communication with other police departments is important.
“I think everybody for years has been in tune to the fact that drug dealers, and users, they don’t recognize boundaries, city or state,” he said. “We have to have things in place to overcome that.”
Nashua is part of a task force called the Cross-Border Initiative that includes the Lowell Police Department, several New Hampshire departments, the Massachusetts State Police, the FBI, the DEA, the IRS. The group’s goal is to identify major drug trafficking organizations based along the northern border of Massachusetts that move drugs into the Northern New England states.
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