Valley News – Jim Kenyon: Sleepy Bethel gets a dose of the war on drugs

A sign on the front door of James Bannister’s dilapidated 19th-century settlement in Bethel calls for packages not to be left on the front steps. He prefers that all deliveries be left at the side entrance of his house.

Ultimately, however, it didn’t matter where the goods landed. Federal law enforcement officials are always caught off guard.

A raid on Bannister’s home in late June yielded nearly 15,000 pills (14,449 to be exact), containing the opioids tapentadol and tramadol, as well as carisoprodol, a prescription muscle relaxant.

On Monday, Bannister pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances.” He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $ 1 million. Sentencing is scheduled for March.

In a press release last week, the US Attorney’s Office in Burlington said Bannister was involved in an “international drug trafficking operation,” in which he received illicit shipments of prescription drugs through the mail. American and other delivery services to his home on the outskirts of town.

“After receiving the controlled substances, Bannister and others illegally redistributed them, usually by US mail, to customers across the United States,” the US attorney’s office said.

On Thursday I knocked on Bannister’s door – the one where he asked for deliveries to be made. After announcing who I was, Bannister opened the door.

I have watched enough breaking Bad know that not all drug dealers look like El Chapo. But with his shoulder-length hair and hipster glasses, Bannister looked more like John Lennon than a drug lord.

From what I could understand, Bannister does not have a long criminal history, if any. At the town offices, I was told that his only interaction with the town police officer had been complaints about his golden retrievers.

Bannister, 57, is a long-time physiotherapist in the Haute Vallée. For a time, he ran his business, Active Balance Rehab, from his home, which he bought in 2001.

Apparently he stopped practicing a few years ago. His state physiotherapy license, first issued in 1998, expired in 2018.

In his 20 years of living on Poplar Manor Road in the only house on a dead end sandwiched between Route 107 and the White River, Bannister seems to have kept a low profile.

State Senator Dick McCormack, a Democrat from Windsor County, lives just down the road from Bannister. McCormack, a Bethel resident since 1970, probably shook hands more than anyone in town during his 32-year legislative career, but he had no recollection of ever crossing Bannister’s path.

An employee at the convenience store just steps from Bannister’s house told me that Bannister is a “quiet guy” who only comes by occasionally.

News of Bannister’s legal problems became known in the town on Thursday when the weekly White River Valley Herald came out with a front page story titled “Bethel Man Takes Plea for Narcotics Trafficking”.

During our brief conversation, Bannister politely declined to discuss his case.

It is often difficult to tell in cases like Bannister’s whether law enforcement and prosecutors have put a stop to the drug trade or whether they are just playing on camera. They are pros at turning the proverbial mountain into a molehill to keep tax dollars flowing.

“Bannister peddled opioids and other dangerous substances, bringing them across borders and into New England and the rest of the United States,” said Matthew Millhollin, a special agent with the Homeland Security investigative arm. , in a federal government press release.

Of course, 15,000 pills is a hell of a hiding place.

“Obviously he has a lot of clients,” said McCormack, who had just heard about the Bannister case when we spoke on Thursday. “But that’s no surprise. We know we have a drug problem in this country.

In November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that for the first time in a 12-month period (April 2020 to April 2021), more than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses. Vermont’s 69.9% increase – from 123 deaths to 209 – was the highest in the country.

I don’t want to shed light on Bannister’s crime, but in his case we’re not talking about heroin mixed with fentanyl.

Still, tapentadol and tramadol, which are often prescribed to people returning home after surgery, can become “addictive,” if used for a long time, according to the Mayo Clinic website. .

Carisoprodol is marketed as a muscle relaxant, but “many drug addicts take it in combination with other drugs to enhance the effects of these drugs,” the National Drug Intelligence Center said on its website.

Bannister sent him the drugs from India and other distant lands. In addition to having pills shipped to his home, Bannister had a PO box in Rutland and a box in a UPS store in a shopping center in Rutland.

The year-long investigation, which involved four federal agencies and Rutland Police, found that Bannister had received foreign shipments of “controlled substances and mislabeled pharmaceutical drugs” from around 2019 upon his arrest in June.

“The import and sale of diverted and counterfeit pharmaceuticals fuel the opioid crisis with pills masked by fraudulent legitimacy,” Jonathan Ophardt, acting US attorney for Vermont, said in the statement.

Before Bannister is sentenced in a few months, I hope the public will have a clearer picture – without the hyperbole of the federal government – of what happened. (Assistant US Attorney John Boscia, who is pursuing the case, did not respond to an email. David McColgin, a federal public defender who represents Bannister declined my request for an interview.)

With the evidence presented so far, I fail to see why a long prison sentence is warranted.

Outside of the War on Drugs mob, that would be a tough pill to swallow.

Jim Kenyon can be contacted at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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