BANGOR, Maine — The man who put on a ski mask and robbed the Big Apple on State Street last July told police he had used “monkey dust,” the street name for the synthetic drug bath salts, and needed the money to pay off his drug dealer in order to keep his fingers.
The 29-year-old Brewer man threatened the clerk, was charged with felony robbery and now faces up to 10 years in prison. He is just one example of the hundreds of drug-related crimes the Bangor Police Department dealt with in 2011, Police Chief Ron Gastia said recently.
“In 2010, we had 154 drug-related crimes we responded to,” the police chief said. “Last year, we jumped to 237. Why? Bath salts.
“With that increasing, we started to see increases in thefts and property crimes,” Gastia said.
Bangor and 133 other municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies in Maine — along with others around the country — provide data each year for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The information is categorized by region, type of crime, population and other criteria and gives percentages of increases and decreases, but does not list drugs as a crime category, Gastia explained.
“But they are crimes,” the veteran law enforcement officer said.
With the effects of the economic recession still in full swing last year, Gastia said, he expected an increase in theft and property crimes, and the addition of bath salts only contributed to the problem.
Thefts and property crimes, which include robberies, “went up all over the country,” the police chief said. “People need money. Whether it’s for food, gas or illegal drugs.” Crime is up because “you have to find a way to get the money,” Gastia said.
Bath salts began to surface on the streets of Bangor in February 2011, and by the following July — when its ingredients were banned in Maine — it had grown into a regional problem in parts of the state.
The drug has caused users in the Bangor area to gnaw at their own skin trying to get at invisible bugs, to arm themselves with weapons, and climb into ceilings fearing people are after them, according to police reports.
The powdery substance, which looks like cocaine, can be snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed. It has caused users to hallucinate, convulse, have psychotic episodes and thoughts of suicide, Gastia has said.
The overall number of felony crimes declined in Bangor from 1,781 for 2010 to 1,742 for 2011, according to data compiled by the police department.
“However, when you look at the total number [of violent crimes in Bangor], we were higher,” Gastia said.
Violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault — increased by 35 percent, with 51 reported in 2010 and 69 in 2011, the data show.
One of the biggest increases in recent years has been robberies, which differ from thefts because they involve violence or threats of violence, Sgt. Paul Edwards noted. Robbery is defined as “the felonious and forcible taking of property of another against his will by violence or by putting him in fear,” according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.
The number of robberies in Bangor between 1991 and 2008 averaged 19 a year and never exceeded 25 in those 18 years, but in 2009 jumped dramatically to 35 and has stayed above 30 for the last three years.
The data also show that since 2009, at least half of the violent crimes in Bangor have been robberies, with 35 of the 69 violent crimes in 2011 falling into that category.
“I believe that there are two primary reasons for the increase,” Gastia said. “First, … property crime typically increases in a bad economy. The second reason, in my opinion, is related to drug activity. In some cases, robberies occur as people attempt to steal drugs from those who have them, and in some other cases, money is sought to obtain drugs.”
Before the city became home to three methadone clinics — the first established 11 years ago — and to Hollywood Slots in 1996, opponents predicted crime in the city would increase as a result.
“We don’t see an increase or decrease based on those coming into town,” Gastia said. “The stats are pretty stable. They’re pretty consistent. Now, absolutely, there have been some crimes probably indirectly related to the methadone clinics and the casino, but we have not seen an increase” in crimes that can be directly connected to them.
Theft is, by far, the biggest crime in the Queen City, the police chief said.
“Probably better than half, possibly two-thirds [of calls] have to deal with thefts,” said Gastia, calling it “the primary preventable crime that happens in Bangor.”
People should lock up any items of value as a way to prevent losing them, he said.
When it comes to tallying the yearly data, classifying drug-related incidents is not as easy as people might think, Gastia said.
“Let’s say we go to a burglary to [a] motor vehicle and we catch the person and they say to us, ‘I’m doing this because I need money for drugs’ — that does not go down as a drug offense,” the police chief said. “What it was was a car burglary.”
For this reason, it is difficult for police to extract the total number of drug-related crimes, he said.
“I can tell you, without any hard evidence, that 80 to 85 percent of the crimes this agency [responds] to are due to mental illness [and/or] substance abuse,” Gastia said. “They go hand in hand.”
Bath salts is just one of several drugs that Bangor police typically deal with. Diverted prescription pills, especially oxycodone, are another major problem, as are street drugs such as cocaine, the police chief said.
Most states, including Maine, have passed legislation outlawing bath salts over the last year, and a federal ban put into place in October places it in the same category as heroin.
With the new laws, Bangor police got a tool to bust people using the synthetic drug. As a result, bath salts rings have seen a decrease in the availability of the drug, and there has been a drop in bath salts-related crimes, Gastia said.
But that in no way is an indicator that the problem is over, he stressed.
“While we have seen the rate of abuse plateau, there are still bath salts in Bangor,” Gastia said. “Any bath salts in Bangor is an issue. We have been successful in disrupting and shutting down several sources of supply. However, they are not going to go away.”
Even with the increase in drug-related and violent crimes, the Bangor metropolitan area is near the top of the list of safe places to live, Gastia said.
“Historically, Bangor has been in the area of the top 10 safest communities of metro areas of its size,” the police chief said.
Based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program data for 2011, CQ Press, a Washington, D.C.-based policy organization, ranked the Queen City as the 13th safest community of its size out of 368 others across the United States.