Heroin Town

A Drug War In A Small Town

This is a story about a small town in New England that has a problem you’d never expect.

Heroin. It’s a problem that has existed for decades.

It’s been so bad for so long that some people call the place “Heroin Town.”

Spend some time there, and you’ll begin to understand why the war on drugs has been such a failure. Dan Rather reports.

If you drive through the streets, you might think you’re in almost any state in the country.

If life’s been good to you, you might even think about buying an elegant Victorian houses and raising a family, far from the troubles and trauma of a big city.

Well, think again.

Jessica Canwell was a heroin user who became an addict. Like the town she lived in, the drug seemed to promise her peace.

“It looks like it’s going to be a nice walk in the park. And it’s not. It’s the most miserable thing you could ever do. It destroys lives and it takes lives,” says Canwell.

A lot of people think that heroin is a big city, urban drug. But Canwell disagrees:

“It’s not. It’s in Willimantic. And it’s infesting Willimantic. And it’s a small town.”

Willimantic is a drug-infested small town, with a population of 15,000-16,000 people, in the middle of Connecticut. It’s in the middle, some say, of nowhere – unless you want to buy or sell drugs.

The little town of Willimantic has been big on the drug dealer’s map for more than 30 years. Drugs have plagued this town, located halfway between Boston and New York, in the middle of what’s called the New England drug transportation pipeline.

Paul Slyman, a man in the middle, used to be a police officer here. His friend Duke, who doesn’t want us to use his last name, was a federal drug agent.

“We found out there was lots and lots of heroin coming into the town,” says Slyman, who was surprised when he found out. “It’s a small, quaint, cute little town. And to have that kind of a nasty problem, it appeared to be a hub rather than just a local problem.”

Drugs flowed into Willimantic when workers immigrated to work in a factory. When it shut down in the 1980s, drugs became an even bigger problem. The small police force was overwhelmed, and the town became known as an easy place to buy drugs. As a result, many addicts ended up settling here.

“In the hotel alone, there’s at least 80 people that are addicted to drugs. The majority of the people that live in the hotel alone are addicted,” says Canwell.

The hotel is the Hooker Hotel – named after Seth Hooker, who built it in the 19th century. These days, as you will see, the name Hooker has an entirely different meaning. This hotel used to be expensive and chic. Now it’s shabby and neglected. And outsiders are not welcome.

60 Minutes II sent a cameraman with a hidden camera into the Hooker.

Our cameraman managed to get past the front desk of this dreary, dimly lit hotel. The wallpaper is peeling, the linoleum cracked. Dozens of lost souls call this home.

A young man named Rob lives on the first floor. He says he’s been there for the past four years: “I never used drugs until I moved in here and now I am a drug addict.”

Our undercover man was in the hotel for just a few minutes when Rob’s friend John, sitting in a dark corner of the hotel corridor, offered to find him some drugs.

“You want a bag of dope? I can get you some as long as you get some for me,” says John. “I can get decent stuff right here in the building.”

Reporter Tracy Gordon Fox spent months investigating the drug problem in Willimantic and wrote a series called “Heroin Town” for the Hartford Courant. She also acted as a consultant to 60 Minutes II.

“You could just go to many, many places and buy drugs 24/7. It’s like a supermarket,” says Fox. “It’s [the supply of heroin] is greater than it’s ever been and it’s purer.”

The high-purity heroin that Canwell used to shoot up in Willimantic at the old Hooker Hotel is so easy to get that the price hasn’t changed in years. Just $10 for a fix - a dime bag.

And because the drinking age in Willimantic is 21, as it is in so many areas of the country, it’s easier for a kid to buy a dime bag of heroin than a six-pack of beer.

“Heroin came here 30 years ago, took hold and it is safe here,” says Fox. “It’s safe in terms of there’s not a lot of violent crime. It’s safe for the prostitutes as opposed to a city where they might get, you know, murdered or raped.”

Prostitution is openly practiced day and night in Willimantic. In fact, our man with the hidden camera was parked on a side street for only a few minutes before he was propositioned.

People at the Hooker are so desperate to get money for drugs that men don’t seem to mind when their wives and girlfriends work the streets in Willimantic. John introduced us to a man named Joe, whose girlfriend Michele was out turning a trick.

“She does what she has to do to support her habit,” says John. “Right, Joe?”

Canwell says the town just doesn’t care about this problem: “They’ve had blindfolds on for so many years.”

Police headquarters are right next door to the Hooker Hotel, and police drive by all the time. However, after 60 Minutes II started working on this story, police raided the hotel and arrested approximately 40 people in town, including Jessica’s sister, Amy.

The police chief then said things are going to change in Willimantic: “Our message is we are watching you – small time street dealers, major players this week, this month, this year, you will be arrested.”

Why hasn’t more been done? “This is a problem that the community’s getting behind 100 percent,” says the town’s top elected official, First Selectman Michael Paulhus. “No longer in denial. This is a problem that we’ve got to deal with head-on.”

“I believe that we were to some extent, just like any other community. Refused to believe that we had a problem or the magnitude of the problem was bigger than we thought.”

Once again, federal agents are now helping the town’s police investigate the drug problem. But these two law enforcement veterans say they’ve seen it all before.

“This heroin has gone from generation to generation,” says Slyman. “Some of the people I arrested 20 years ago were bringing their sons and daughters for the same charges.”

“I was born to an alcoholic mother and drug addict,” says Canwell. “My stepfather started to sexually abuse me. I don’t remember the exact age. But young. Six, I would say.”

When she was 10, Canwell’s mother threw her out of the house: “I bounced, streets. I was bounced like a ping-pong ball. And I would do what I wanted when I wanted because nobody was my parents.”

Eventually, she moved into the Hooker Hotel with a man named John, who was 20 years older. Canwell knew he was a heroin addict, and soon she started shooting up, too.

“It was fun, I can’t lie. But there were times I hated it,” says Canwell.

And things got worse after John died of a drug-related infection. She ran out of money, and she still had an ugly heroin habit to feed.

“My world fell apart before my eyes. When you are hooked on heroin, you become dope sick if you don’t have it, to where your bones feel so brittle they’ll break if you stand up,” says Canwell.

“You feel very old. Many times, you can’t outta bed. Can’t sleep. It’s a miserable, miserable feeling. It’s something I probably would never wish on anybody because it’s awful. I hated feeling it.”

So Jessica did what lots of female drug addicts in Willimantic do. She started working the street. She said she felt disgusted, ashamed, dirty all the time: “I hated myself.”

She wanted to die, and she would have died if Fox hadn’t dropped in on her one night at the Hooker.

“She was lethargic, her breathing was labored,” remembers Fox. “And I said, ‘Jessica, you need to go to the hospital now.’ And she said, ‘No, just let me lay here and die.’”

Fox says the doctor told her that Canwell would have died in 24 to 48 hours.

Only addicts like Canwell know how powerful and destructive heroin is. They don’t feel it can be beaten by politics or police. But Canwell managed to do what most addicts in Willimantic never do – leave town and enter a drug therapy program an hour away in a different city.

She has her own drug war to fight, and she knows she can’t win in Willimantic. “Too many temptations. And I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I know where everything is,” says Canwell. “I know how to get everything. I don’t want to be there any more. I want a whole new life. I want everything to be different.”

“I’m determined to get it, determined,” adds Canwell. “They say when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I’m there. I don’t want that life any more.”

  • Rebecca Leung

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