January 24, 2019
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Washington County officials see drug-fueled spike in crime

Washington County officials are alarmed by what they say is a spike in violent, drug-fueled crime.

A streak of shootings, stabbings, armed robberies, home invasions and two homicides since July has strained local police, who say that organized, out-of-state drug outfits have tightened their grip on the rural county.

“These are people from away who see us as a vulnerable population and are literally attacking us,” said County Commissioner Chris Gardner, a former sheriff’s deputy who also serves as a part-time officer in Eastport. “These are wolves at the door.”

At the end of last month, five crack dealers opened fire in downtown Calais, shortly before two armed robberies in Machias and Harrington, police said. Their quick succession spurred county commissioners to publicly address the issue in an emergency meeting Jan. 8. The very next day, a Pembroke dollar store was robbed at gunpoint. The commissioners are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday.

Shootings and stabbings used to occur about once a year, and “now [they’re] months, sometimes weeks,” apart, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Crabtree.

The sheriff’s office is still in the early stages of compiling data to corroborate what police have reported anecdotally, Crabtree said. So far, the only numbers available are for robberies, which increased from zero in 2015 to 6 in 2016 to 8 last year. In most cases, the thieves had a knife or gun, police said.

Out-of-state drug dealers are increasingly “setting up shop,” in Maine’s more remote areas, said Scott Pelletier, southern commander for Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. And Washington County — which is the state’s poorest, according to the 2010 census — is an especially lucrative market for dealers. A gram of heroin that would sell for about $150 in Portland could go for $250 there, Pelletier said.

That has led dealers to fight violently for turf, and users have resorted to stealing to finance their habit, authorities said. The violence is a relatively recent symptom of networks that have slowly built over the last two years, Crabtree said.

Seven different drug trafficking organizations are gaining strength in the county, according to the sheriff’s department. Eliminating those networks is daunting for local police, who report feeling ill-equipped to fight the problem alone, and aren’t used to fighting what Crabtree referred to as “organized crime.”

“We’ve got 35,000 people that live here and the number of cops in Washington County wouldn’t even fill a school bus,” Crabtree said.

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