Drug sweep was an ‘overwhelming show of force’
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | January 17,2013
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Police walk down a snowy street in Pownal as they execute a heroin and crack roundup in Bennington County on Wednesday.
BENNINGTON — A series of drug arrests in Bennington County literally started with a bang Wednesday morning on Main Street.
In the parking lot of the Hemmings Motor News Sunoco service station, a large, black panel truck marked “Vermont State Police Tactical Services Unit” pulled up quickly and quietly; a group of armed and armored police officers stepped out. A large white house next to the station was quickly surrounded, attracting curious stares from the people nearby.
What appeared to be a flashbang device, used to disorient but not physically harm suspects, was deployed and the town of Bennington knew: A serious drug sweep was under way.
“It’s exciting,” said John Kasper, who owns J&J Auto Polish nearby. “Honestly. I’ve been around a long time and that was pretty neat. ... (They executed it) very well. I was in the service, I was military police, and they did a great job,”
Wednesday’s operation involved more than 100 police officers from departments across Vermont. The parking lot at the Bennington fire facility, the headquarters of the operation, was filled with police cars from different towns, a formidable black Humvee, a mobile headquarters in a bus and, as the day went on, satellite trucks that allowed television stations to send out live updates.
With about 65 people to arrest, police could have been tense and harried. Instead, most officers seemed calm and purposeful. They knew their goals Wednesday and how they were going to meet them.
Shortly after a closed briefing, one team — including Sgt. Michael Plusch of the Bennington Police Department and Trooper Owen Ballinger and Sgt. Tom Williams of the Vermont State Police — drove off to look for Michael Gates, a man they were charged with finding and placing under arrest.
Probation and parole officers from the state Department of Corrections knocked on Gates’ door but got no response.
Police considered Gates an important target, however, so they didn’t give up. They moved their search to places that Gates was known to frequent, often walking his chihuahua.
Snow that fell through the day made driving tricky, but the search continued from a local store to a Pleasant Street apartment house. While at the house, word came in that Gates was now at his School Street home.
In a second-floor apartment, decorated with a poster of John Wayne, Gates was placed under arrest while the chihuahua ran around the floor, nervously approaching each law enforcement officer but never barking.
Not all of the arrests were as smooth. In Pownal, a group of Bennington officers prepared for a tactical response found no one at two different homes. Family members were contacted at a third home in hopes of convincing the suspect to turn himself in.
At another home in Pleasant Street, police began to amass when one of the subjects of the sweep refused to leave the house. Despite the cold weather, neighbors watched from open windows and stood outside on snowy sidewalks — especially after a helicopter, provided by federal Customs and Border Patrol agents, buzzed the building.
Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, said the suspect eventually surrendered and nobody was hurt.
“There are times when an overwhelming show of force will cause people to surrender,” he said. “… Having this number of officers in Bennington for today was not only necessary, it was the right thing to do.”