BENNINGTON, Vt. -- More than 100 law enforcement officers descended on Bennington and surrounding towns Wednesday with an overwhelming display of force looking to nab 63 suspected drug dealers and a handful of purported gang members.
Through a steady snowfall, police teams methodically went from site to site, working from intelligence gathered during a six-month investigation by a multi-agency task force. The suspects range in age from 17 to 61.
"Operation County Strike," said to be the largest counter-drug operation ever in Vermont, was planned and executed to have an immediate impact on the local community, police said. A total of 48 suspects were arrested Wednesday and police were continuing efforts to take additional suspects into custody. Some of those sought by police were already in custody on other charges, according to police.
"There was a long, drawn-out investigation with the goal to take out as many people dealing drugs here in Bennington and Bennington County as possible," Vermont State Police Director Col. Thomas L'Esperance said during an afternoon press conference. "This is the largest operation I've ever been involved in."
Teams of law enforcement officers from several agencies, including the Bennington, Manchester and Winhall Police departments, the Bennington County Sheriff's Department and the state police, fanned out Wednesday morning in teams to round up suspects. Federal agents with U.S Customs and Immigration Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also participated.
A state police tactical team executed a search warrant at 210 West Main St., around 8 a.m. That search resulted in the seizure of 83 bags of heroin, 12.5 grams of crack cocaine, and 47 30-mg pills of OxyContin, police said. The state police team, in full tactical gear, entered the residence using a stun grenade.
Arrest teams continued to seek suspects throughout the day. Those arrested were transported to either the state police barracks in Shaftsbury, the Bennington Police Department or the Bennington County Sheriff's Office for processing. The suspects were then taken directly to Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division for arraignment.
Word of the operation spread among area residents as the day progressed. Crowds of onlookers began to gather wherever the heavily-armed tactical teams showed up.
State Police Spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro said Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage sought bail for each defendant. Defendants who could not make bail were to be transported later Wednesday to the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland.
Each of the suspects arrested Wednesday is facing five to 20 years in prison for selling drugs, including marijuana, crack, heroin, cocaine and prescription pills. Marthage said most are repeat offenders and some could face life in prison as habitual offenders.
Arraignments were expected to continue into the evening. Additional charges were on hand to expedite the process.
"My office today has filed over 300 counts. Most of those are felonies. The overwhelming majority of those are felonies," Marthage said. "It's going to be a little like night court, I think. We only have so many defense attorneys, frankly, and this is something that nobody knew about until today except for individuals in law enforcement."
Officials said no single suspect was more important to arrest.
"Personally, big or small, we'll take them all," L'Esperance said. "If you're selling crack on the street or selling heroin out of an apartment building or selling pills at your place of work, you're a concern to us because you affect quality of life. I don't think there's any one person that we can say is more important than the next."
The day concluded "event free," L'Esperance said, noting there were no injuries to police or any suspects, and no shots were fired.
A tense moment occurred on Pleasant Street, however, around 12:30 p.m. Two suspects were barricaded inside a residence and police believed they were armed. It was unclear Wednesday evening if any weapons were inside the residence.
The situation was defused without further incident. The state police tactical team and its armored vehicles, as well as the Bennington Police Special Response Team, surrounded the residence. A helicopter from U.S. Border Patrol assisted and hovered overhead. The display of force worked, police said.
"There are times when an overwhelming show of force will cause people to surrender, L'Esperance said. "I think today was certainly not overkill by any stretch of the imagination when taking that many people into custody. Having that many officers in Bennington for today was not only necessary, it was the right thing to do and we saw that with the end of the day where one of our targets was holed up in a home and was having trouble deciding whether or not they wanted to leave the home. The collective show of force, which was well organized and well-planned, paid off and nobody was hurt."
Police had a clear message for anyone who continues to sell drugs in Bennington County.
"This is just the beginning. There's more to come. We've got our act together as law enforcement partners here. If you're selling drugs in our community we're going to find you and we're going to arrest you, plain and simple," said Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt.