Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Police seek a suspect in Pownal as part of a Bennington County drug roundup Wednesday. No one was home.
BENNINGTON — Police arrested 47 people Wednesday in a Bennington County drug sweep that targeted more than 60 people alleged to be involved in selling or distributing crack cocaine, heroin, pharmaceuticals and other drugs.
Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, called it the largest number of arrests in a single day in the state during his 25-year career.
More than 100 law enforcement officers were involved in making the arrests. Police said the effort is expected to continue until all 63 suspects are taken into custody. No one was injured during the arrests, police said.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage said her office had filed more than 300 charges against the subjects of “Operation County Strike.” Most of the charges were felonies, and most involved people who had faced criminal drug charges in the past, she said.
Suspects who were arrested Wednesday were taken to the headquarters of the Bennington police, the Bennington County sheriff and the local Vermont State Police barracks. All were arraigned before the end of the day in Bennington criminal court.
Marthage said those who had at least three felony convictions would be charged as habitual offenders. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to life in prison, she said.
Most of the charges filed Wednesday involved drug possession and sale, but there were also charges of possessing a weapon while committing a felony and selling drugs on school grounds.
During a news conference, L’Esperance said the arrests were part of a six-month investigation by the Vermont Drug Task Force’s mobile enforcement team, funded through a bill written by Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington. Officers from the Vermont State Police, the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department and police departments in Bennington and Manchester participated in the investigation.
At the news conference, law enforcement officials declined to specify the amount of drugs or money seized during the day’s arrests. But a news release issued later said a search of a Main Street home in Bennington yielded more than 80 bags of heroin, 12.5 grams of crack cocaine and almost 50 prescription painkiller pills.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said the drug sweep Wednesday was tied to ongoing efforts by his department to stem the flow of drugs into southern Vermont. He referred to “gang-related activity” and the actions of “less than desirable people” moving into Bennington.
“Our goal is to make sure that the Bennington community is safe,” he said.
The command post for the drug sweep was set up at the Bennington fire facility. L’Esperance said that many of the officers who were involved in the sweep Wednesday arrived in Bennington on Tuesday to begin the staging process.
The first raid started about 8 a.m. at a home on Main Street. At least two people were removed from the home in handcuffs. From there, teams of police traveled through the county, primarily in Bennington, taking one person or a few people into custody at a time.
L’Esperance called the arrests “event-free.” He said one suspect would not surrender immediately but that he surrendered without incident after a “collective show of force” that involved a helicopter flying over the Pleasant Street home.
Though the large operation took place in Bennington County, L’Esperance said he didn’t believe that indicated the area had a larger drug problem than other Vermont counties.
“The drug problem is here in Vermont,” he said. “It’s strong in Vermont. It’s our problem. … We have a problem with drug abuse. … This problem is not unique to Bennington.”
In addition to the 47 people arrested as part of Operation County Strike, several people were arrested during the sweep for unrelated crimes.
Like other members of the law enforcement community at Wednesday’s press conference, Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt emphasized the drug investigations were not finished despite the large number of arrests.
“If you’re selling drugs in our community, we’re going to find you and we’re going to arrest you,” he said.
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