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Small-town cops face a big problem

The coast of Maine is a long way from Mexico, but to drug cartels it's an emerging market for heroin and cocaine. Just ask the band of detectives on the front lines.

July 10, 2009|Scott Kraft

YORK, MAINE — The obituary in the York Weekly was heartbreaking.

Just 17, Bethany Fritz was a high school senior hoping to study art at the University of Maine. She lived in an affluent coastal community of tidal pools, winding roads and thick stands of maple and oak. She loved her family and friends, her two cats and her dog, Farleigh.

Unmentioned was her cause of death: an overdose of heroin.

"We were completely flabbergasted that someone could get heroin here," said Sarah Lachance, one of Bethany's older sisters. "We thought heroin was something only junkies in the city did."

New England may be thousands of miles from the producers and brutal drug enterprises of Mexico and Colombia. But a busy pipeline from Mexico resolutely moves heroin and cocaine to emerging markets as far away as coastal Maine, where more and more addicts fill courtrooms, jail cells, treatment facilities and morgues.

"It's just unbelievable what we've seen here," said Edward Strong, police chief in nearby Kittery. "I can remember when people around here didn't know what the word 'heroin' meant. Now, it's everywhere -- cheaper, more available and demand is high."

When Bethany died in 2004, York's small police department didn't have a full-time narcotics investigator. Tom Cryan, the detective assigned to the case, acknowledged, "I wasn't getting anywhere."

Then he got an offer of help from Steve Hamel, the full-time narcotics detective in Kittery, another tiny coastal community one exit south on Interstate 95. Hamel already was working closely with a narcotics officer in the next town down the coast, Portsmouth, N.H.

Detectives from the three departments banded together to trace the source of the heroin and, eventually, helped send Bethany's boyfriend and his supplier to prison.

Now, the detectives have created an unofficial partnership, impishly dubbing themselves the Seacoast Narcotics Interdiction Force, or SNIF. Although their home cities have a combined population of only 40,000, they've shut down several local heroin and cocaine rings and racked up dozens of arrests in three states.

But, Hamel said, "you could have 30 guys at every police department doing drug enforcement and you still couldn't keep up."

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Most days, southern Maine's preeminent narcotics officer looks like a suburban father on his way to the hardware store: bluejeans, work boots and a New England Patriots cap shading a sunburned face.

The son of a New Hampshire state trooper, Hamel has spent most of his 21-year career working undercover, investigating biker gangs and drugs. At 47, he actually is a suburban father who coaches and referees high school and college basketball and runs a landscaping business on the side.

Hamel's counterpart across the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire is Stephen Arnold, a stocky 45-year-old father of four with a round, bearded face, a thick brogue and a fondness for baseball hats and Marlboro Lights.

Rounding out SNIF are two detectives from York, the Beverly Hills of the coastal burgs. Cryan, 44, father of a teenage boy, has been investigating crimes in York for two decades. His colleague Mark Clifford, 40, is a former golf pro who came out of a patrolman's uniform several years ago as York's first full-time narcotics detective.

The members of SNIF all answer to their own chiefs, but they function as an independent unit on the ground. Keeping in contact by cellphone, text message and two-way radio, they share information and informants and take turns making undercover buys and running surveillance.

They also work with the Drug Enforcement Administration and follow cases where they lead, roaming three states and towns as far south as Lawrence, Mass., the source for most of the narcotics in New Hampshire and Maine. In Lawrence, the drug trade is run by Dominican dealers with ties to Mexican cartels.

SNIF's efforts have resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in confiscated homes, cars and cash, which is divvied up among the departments to help fund drug enforcement efforts.

Along the way, Hamel and Arnold have been teaching their York colleagues the dangerous art of undercover drug work.

"No one teaches you to be a street narc in the academy," Hamel said. "And most guys look at the work and say, 'Not for me, dude.' "

As they waited for an informant to arrange an undercover buy recently, the veterans teased Clifford about a York heroin addict he had turned into an informant a few months earlier -- an informant who was robbing banks to feed his habit even as he helped the police.

Both York detectives have picked up valuable lessons along the way, including the importance of a plausible cover identity.

"If you're 130 pounds soaking wet and have smooth hands, like Cliff here, you can't pretend to be a bricklayer," Hamel said. "You have to look the part."

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One reason the overdose death of Bethany Fritz was such a shock was the setting: York is a family resort town with a rich, 350-year-old history, located just over an hour's drive north of Boston.

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