By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: April 10, 2009
Forty miles outside Keene earlier this week, a 35-year-old man with a history of dealing drugs was gunned down during a home invasion.
The brazen murder unfolded in the middle of the afternoon in a seedy section of a city that supplies a large amount of the cocaine and heroin that ends up on local streets, according to Keene police.
While insulated from much of the drug violence that plagues larger cities such as Fitchburg, Mass., where the violent death is being investigated, the Elm City still has no shortage of buyers willing to shell out big bucks for hard drugs.
In recent weeks, city police, working with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office Drug Task Force, among other agencies, have arrested four alleged dealers trafficking cocaine into Keene from other Bay State cities, including Boston, Holyoke and Springfield.
The Keene police have noticed an alarming increase in cocaine and heroin arrests, along with dealers who are trading drugs for guns.
“Over the years I have seen cycles for everything, and it seems as if we are on the upswing for people trading drugs for weapons,” said Keene police Lt. Peter S. Thomas, who has 27 years of law enforcement experience.
“As most people involved in crimes have some sort of conviction, they are unable to lawfully purchase a weapon. If they desire a weapon they must purchase it illegally.”
The dealers who travel to Keene for business often set up shop in hotels, motels, apartments and houses for a few days at a time, selling their drugs as quickly as possible to a steady stream of customers.
The method is nothing new — dealers have been selling from rented or borrowed rooms in Keene for years — and it can be an effective way to avoid the police, especially if the dealer is unfamiliar with the city, Thomas said.
“On different occasions we have had heroin dealers, cocaine dealers and crack cocaine dealers stay at local hotels for a short period of time,” Thomas said. “It is a way for someone outside the area to have an established ‘safe base’ for operations.”
Hotel and motel employees frequently work with the police in drug investigations, Thomas said. Citing “investigative reasons,” he declined to discuss how the employees assist the police and how successful they are in spotting dealers.
‘You can only sit in a car for so long’
Because drug investigations are tedious and usually involve dozens if not hundreds of hours of surveillance and other forms of intelligence gathering, such as recruiting confidential informants, not all police officers are gung-ho about going after dealers.
The decision-makers at a police department may also be apprehensive about jumping into drug investigations because they can strain an already-thin budget.
“A drug investigation is a lot of time consumption and a lot of boredom followed by a very quick culmination, the actual arrest,” Thomas said. “You might spend 12 to 15 hours in a car doing surveillance. You can only sit in a car for so long before you start to go crazy.”
The Keene Police Department, though, has a small group of officers who excel at busting dealers and one officer in particular who has a knack for prying information from sources and turning criminals into informants, which has been one factor behind some of the recent arrests, Thomas said.
“I don’t want to make it sound like one officer is the driving force behind all these cases,” he said. “While we have an officer who has a strong interest in these types of cases and does a great job of following up on it, he’s not alone in the effort.”
During an undercover operation in late March, detective Charles I. Newton of the state drug task force and a confidential informant orchestrated a crack cocaine deal with a man from Holyoke known as “Black.” He was later identified as 21-year-old Dexter Thaxton, according to an affidavit Newton wrote.
The affidavit provides the following details about the surveillance operation that led to the arrest of Thaxton and his alleged accomplice, 22-year-old Springfield resident Orlando L. Rodriguez:
After several recorded cell phone conversations with the informant, Thaxton rented a room at the Holiday Inn Express in Keene, where he stashed a scale for weighing drugs behind a bed pillow. He had two to three ounces of crack.
When the police raided the hotel room, Thaxton and Rodriguez tried to flush crack down the toilet before they were handcuffed. They had been coming to Keene to sell drugs every week for “many months,” and only stayed for a day or two during each visit, Thomas said.
The crack deal with the informant took place in the hotel room, after Thaxton and the informant drove to a nearby gas station to buy cigarettes as drug agents followed in an unmarked car. The informant gave Thaxton $300 in cash, which the drug agents provided after documenting the serial numbers on each bill, then the two discussed trading drugs for guns during future meetings.
After the informant completed the deal and walked out of the hotel, drug agents gave him $50 for his help and secured the crack he bought as evidence.
The agents stuck around and witnessed three other apparent crack deals in less than four hours between Thaxton and a local woman who has yet to be charged with a crime.
The agents also watched their informant return to the hotel to see Thaxton again, this time without their authorization.
When he was later confronted by the agents, the informant admitted to setting up a crack deal between Thaxton and a Vermont man who is under investigation for drug sales. The informant had been working with the state since March 2008 — he was immediately released from the program.
‘We don’t necessarily choose informants’
Informants are rarely caught buying drugs from the dealers they’re helping the police bring down, Thomas said. Most of them have a good reason to stay in line, at least while they’re working with the police, he said.
“We don’t necessarily choose informants. They choose us. They’re either people who are in trouble and seeking to help themselves out, or people trying to help their communities,” Thomas said. “It’s usually the latter. We don’t often have people coming to us saying they’re fed up with their drug dealer.”
In exchange for their help, informants are typically given leniency come sentencing time on whatever criminal charges they face, or the charges are dismissed, in addition to a small cash payment. But mercy from the courts seems to be the biggest incentive.
“Certainly if you have a judge looking at someone who’s in trouble and they’ve put their own person at risk helping the community, a judge is hopefully going to take that into consideration when handing down the sentence,” Thomas said. “But that’s not the case every time.”
‘There is no drug haven here’
In Fitchburg, Police Chief Robert A. DeMoura is dealing with the city’s first murder of 2009, while he continues to wage war against drug-dealing locals. DeMoura called Fitchburg a “source city for narcotics,” but said he was unaware of its connection to Keene, though not surprised.
When DeMoura became police chief in Fitchburg a year ago, he immediately put his decade-long experience in street-level drug investigations as a narcotics officer in Lowell, Mass., to use. He said he sat down with state police and planned a covert operation aimed at dealers. The four-month operation netted 30 arrests.
“This sent a clear message to a large population of our city; I would assume that word travels fast and a percentage might have moved to parts unknown,” he said. “This may be one cause” of the upswing in drug arrests in Keene.
Identifying drug houses and having police officers go out and perform “knock and talks” at the residences to gather information; stopping suspicious vehicles; patrolling problem areas; and “following the money” trail from street-level dealers to their suppliers are techniques DeMoura said he relies on daily in his city’s war on drugs.
But in Keene, there are no drug corners or consistent hotspots of drug activity, according to Thomas, which makes life more difficult for the city police investigating dealers and drug crimes.
“We don’t have the same concentration like they have on street corners in larger cities,” he said. “Any place where there’s a congregation of people has a potential to be a drug area. There is no drug haven here. If we were aware of it, we would saturate it.”