Three blond women hurry past a kids' soccer game to the quaint gazebo in Jillson Square, a traditional New England green framed by a white-steepled church and historic stone house.
Michelle Missino, Jessica Canwell and her sister, Amy-Lee, are itching to shoot up the $10 bags of heroin two of them just bought with cash from a few quick tricks. They escape the late August sun and plunk down cross-legged on the cool wood floor. Missino wraps her arm tightly with a cloth tourniquet to raise a vein, tapping her feet in anticipation.
Almost in unison, the women plunge their needles into the good veins they find between rows of purple-red track marks. They loll in the powerful high of the unusually strong dope, then head for the public water fountain. They pass an old man taking a break from his bicycle ride on a nearby bench, and wash the blood from their syringes as casually as if they were doing dishes.
This is a heroin town. Small, rural, open, friendly -- and hooked.
Willimantic's Main Street has all the trappings of a modern-day Mayberry: planters of petunias outside the barbershop, retirees walking their dogs, kids on skateboards, stately Victorian homes high on a nearby hill.
A new $14 million bridge spans the Willimantic River across from Jillson Square, decorated by four huge bronze frog sculptures in honor of a local folk tale. Nearby, the town and state are spending $32 million to make an industrial park out of the long-vacant granite textile mills.
But heroin flows through this place as constantly as water under the frog bridge. Everywhere in the community of 15,823 in the middle of eastern Connecticut are signs of a decades-long reputation that has festered in a political atmosphere of ambivalence and denial, where officialdom often seems resigned to even the most flagrant dealing and use.
Heroin is in every Connecticut town, police say, its abuse accelerated by stronger forms that can be snorted rather than injected. What makes Willimantic an anomaly is the high visibility and volume of the trade in a 4-square-mile area of ostensibly small-town charm.
On any given day, social workers estimate, 200 to 300 addicts live here. That doesn't include the 250 people who come to the methadone clinic every day.
``It's an amazing percentage of users for a city this size,'' says Leanne Dillian, executive director of Community Prevention and Addiction Service Inc.
``Willimantic acts like the regional supermarket for drugs,'' says Robert Brex, executive director of a regional substance abuse prevention council based in the nearby Dayville section of Killingly. ``A lot of people from rural towns come in here to buy.''
Heroin is embedded in the daily hubbub of life.
The Willimantic River, which once powered the textile mills that made the city prosperous, now draws junkies to its muddy banks to shoot up. Discarded needles and empty glassine heroin packets litter the river's edge.
Drug dealers step from porches of ratty homes on a dozen side streets to ask passing motorists, ``What do you need?''
Social workers come to Jillson Square to pass out mint- and berry-flavored condoms from a wicker basket to heroin-addicted prostitutes.
Every Wednesday, the Bikers for Christ roar up on their motorcycles to distribute soda and doughnuts and offer counsel to the junkies. ``We've seen successes and we've seen people break our hearts,'' says John Gilmartin, one of the bikers.
Every Thursday, men and women from the First Baptist Church wheel a Radio Flyer wagon laden with homemade soup and sandwiches to feed the addicted and the homeless.
When the carnival comes to town, as it does three times each summer, the prostitutes make extra money from the carnies who buy their services late at night after the rides are closed. Hookers climb into customers' cars as parents return to minivans parked beside the church, kids in tow licking ice cream cones.
The local cable-access channel features a recovering addicts' roundtable.
Heroin is a constant worry at the police station, where overwhelmed detectives and street cops face an endless tide of heroin trafficking and drug-fueled prostitution.
But violent crime is rare here, police say. What's common are petty thefts and burglaries, often committed by addicts seeking quick money for drugs.
Without heroin, ``I'd be a crossing guard,'' says Officer Mike Cancellaro, a 14-year veteran of the Willimantic Police Department. ``There would be barking dogs and that's about it.''
A Town Gets Hooked
No one put an ad in the paper the first day heroin arrived in Willimantic, but from the accounts of former police officers, old-time junkies and historians, the drug arrived in 1965 on Union Street.
It most likely came with some of the workers recruited from Puerto Rico by the American Thread Co., then the area's major employer. It was cheap, and its customers eager.
``It cost $5. Pretty soon, people were lining up at the dealers' apartments. The police didn't know what was going on at first,'' says a resident who claimed that his older brothers helped establish the heroin trade in town. ``The product was coming in along the New York-Providence-Boston pipeline.''
Heroin trafficking and addiction quickly took root, though no one in the Willimantic Police Department recognized the magnitude of the problem.
Then, one day in 1970, the head of the Hartford office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration received a startling telephone call. Perplexed, he summoned his newest agent to his office.
``There's this guy on the phone. Says he's a cop out in Willie-mantic,'' the DEA supervisor said, botching the pronunciation. ``Claims they have a drug problem.'' He looked at a map but couldn't find the place -- never even heard of it.
``Go out there and check it out,'' he told his rookie agent, a guy nicknamed Duke.
Duke figured he would take a ride and come back with nothing. Heroin was pervasive in Hartford and New Haven. But it seemed far-fetched that it would be trouble in a place as small as Willimantic.
The call to the DEA had come from Paul Slyman, a street-smart New York City transplant in his second year on the 11-member Willimantic police force. He was making frequent burglary arrests and starting to see a pattern. The burglars were telling him they were stealing to support their heroin habits. And they were buying their dope in town.
The Willimantic police weren't prepared for a drug crisis. A few years earlier, in 1964-65, 23 officers resigned from the department because of low wages and interference by town officials, according to news accounts. In 1971, police were preoccupied with a scandal in which five officers were accused of carrying on with college girls who lived in the Hotel Hooker, which at the time was leased as a dormitory by Eastern Connecticut State University.
``Cops didn't know anything about heroin,'' says Slyman, who joined the department in 1968.
Slyman vividly recalls his first meeting with Duke, who is also retired now and agreed to talk about his early work in Willimantic on the condition that he not be identified further.
Together, the two set up a surveillance operation on the second floor of a furniture store at the intersection of Union, Temple and Broad streets. Sitting on easy chairs in front of the second-floor picture window, Slyman and Duke sipped coffee from a thermos, ate tuna sandwiches, watched and waited.
``What we found was we had people coming into Willimantic to score, and not small amounts. There were major couriers from Boston, Providence and Worcester,'' Duke recalls. ``We realized we not only had a street problem, we had a hub. It was like a wagon wheel and it all spiraled around Willimantic.''
He went back to the Hartford office and told his superior: ``You don't have a problem in Willimantic. In my opinion, you have an epidemic.''
So police and the DEA began to attack the heroin trade.
The market was lucrative enough that one dealer decided Slyman had to go. He hired two men from New York City to kill Slyman for a $10,000 fee.
``The state police had to follow my kids to school and home from school,'' Slyman says. ``We were interfering with a lot of money every day.''
Despite the efforts of Slyman and Duke, and many other state, federal and local efforts to stanch the heroin flow over the years, nothing seems to have worked. For more than three decades now, the forces of economics, geography and community dynamics have nurtured Willimantic's role as a heroin hub.
`Easy Money, Good Demand'
When the American Thread Co. factory closed in 1985 and moved to North Carolina, where land and labor were cheaper, ``the heart of Willimantic was ripped out,'' says Thomas R. Beardsley, the town historian. ``I just think heroin came on the back of unemployment.''
``Heroin was the silent epidemic in the 1960s in America,'' says Paul McLaughlin, executive director of Hartford Dispensary, which treats heroin addicts in eight clinics across the state, including one in Willimantic. ``Now the market has expanded into small towns and suburbs.'' Coventry police find needles discarded on the town's quiet country roads. Chaplin families have seen heroin hook teenagers since the 1980s.
But in none of those surrounding towns is the heroin problem so entrenched in a community's identity.
``Towns and regions get reputations,'' says John Kilburn, a sociology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. ``People know where they can go to get certain items. This town for many years has been known as a place where they can get a heroin connection. Willimantic is a heroin town.''
Kilburn believes Willimantic's heroin problem is rooted in what he calls ``the theory of functionalism.''
``Everybody believes there needs to be a place where deviance goes on,'' he says. ``You have to let it happen somewhere.''
Today, Willimantic is a busy stop in the Northeast drug trade. Suppliers in New York City sell heroin to wholesalers in Hartford, authorities say. The Hartford dealers sell to mid- and low-level dealers in Willimantic, who then peddle it to the concentration of users there and in surrounding communities, police say.
The heroin market grew stronger in the 1990s with the increased availability of high-purity heroin, which can be snorted. The form attracts a new, younger user who shuns needles, according to the DEA.
Most of the heroin coming into Willimantic originates in South America, a supply line that has increased dramatically since 1993, particularly in the Northeast, DEA officials say. It is smuggled into New York City and sold by Dominican syndicates fronting for Colombians.
Growers have found that the climate in the Andes mountains is so favorable that two poppy crops can be grown each season, unlike the single harvests in Afghanistan and other, older, poppy-farming regions. The added supply has created a flood of high-quality heroin being sold for less, the result of a price war among suppliers. Dealers can buy the drug in Hartford for as little as $5 a bag now and double the price in Willimantic, state and local police say.
``It is easy money and there is a good demand for it,'' says Det. Stan Gervais, one of the two officers in Willimantic's drug unit.
As a result, there are many more heroin arrests in Willimantic than expected for a community its size.
Raids sometimes reap large quantities, as in February 2001, when local, state and federal officers seized 7,000 bags of heroin, one of the largest hauls in eastern Connecticut. Police found $15,000 hidden in a drawer of the dealer's night table.
Figures from the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, a combination of state and local officers, show that the group makes more heroin arrests in Willimantic than in municipalities of equal or larger size. For example, in 2000, the task force made 45 heroin arrests in Willimantic compared with one in Bristol (population 60,137); 10 in New Britain (population 71,653); and two in Norwich (population 36,141). In 2001, there were 25 heroin arrests in Willimantic, compared with one in Norwich and six in New London (population 25,692).
In 2002, the task force made only eight arrests in Willimantic through September, but police say that number does not reflect a drop in heroin use or sales. State police believe one reason the number of arrests decreased is that Willimantic police chose not to assign an officer to the statewide narcotics group.
``There have been manpower problems this year,'' says state police Sgt. Jeff Hotsky, a supervisor with the task force's eastern division. ``Willimantic in the last year hasn't given a man to statewide.''
Meanwhile, most of Willimantic's dealers don't sell enough heroin to trigger the DEA's involvement anymore, because of new guidelines for prosecution. Thomas Pasquarello, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's New England field division, says federal agents ``tend to work where the majority of drugs and traffickers are.'' Investigations by the agency must meet certain thresholds, mainly to ensure that the cases can be prosecuted at the federal level. In Connecticut, that means most DEA agents work in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. Only rarely will one of those investigations lead them to Willimantic.
Willimantic Police Chief Milton King, during a recent interview, at first said he thought cocaine was the local drug of choice, citing a recent cocaine arrest and the success of ``Operation Bambi'' in 1987, when state and local officials targeted mid- and upper-level cocaine dealers.
But later, after checking with the head of his detective division, he acknowledged that the majority of drug arrests -- 205 in the past year -- have been for heroin. ``It goes on everywhere in town,'' King says.
His 39-member department can handle the heroin problem, King says, but concedes it's not easy. ``Of course it's frustrating. We're arresting some [dealers] three and four times. We just keep going out and banging them,'' he says.
He also points to the low rate of violent crime, particularly around Main Street.
King says he wasn't able to put an officer on the Statewide Narcotics Task Force this year because of budget constraints. That's also why the department recently suspended its community policing bicycle and foot patrols.
Funding A Habit
With heroin addiction comes prostitution. And in Willimantic, hookers troll Main Street and Jillson Square around the clock. Most of the women are emaciated addicts, sick with AIDS or hepatitis. And yet some of them can make up to $600 a day turning tricks.
Michelle Missino, 30, a bleached blonde with thick blue eyeliner, skimpy outfits and a $300-a-day heroin appetite, lives in the Hotel Hooker, named after a 19th-century businessman, Seth Hooker. Her story is a familiar one here.
Missino ran away from her Norwich home at age 14. She says she was raped her first week on the street. Over the years, she has had four children, now ranging in age from 17 months to 9 years, all by different men. She lost custody of them all. Her mother has custody of three; the other has been adopted.
In her tidy room at the hotel, she keeps photographs of her children in a red notebook. After smoking crack and shooting heroin one night in late August, she looks wistfully at the smiling images of her kids. She hasn't talked to any of them in more than a month.
``Look at her face,'' Missino says, holding a picture of her 4-year-old daughter. ``Her birthday was Aug. 6, and I haven't called. Isn't that awful?''
Missino is well-groomed and smells of light perfume. She showers between tricks and washes her clothes at the laundromat. She is careful to store the black bag with her crack pipe in the drop ceiling. At night, she paces the sidewalks near Jillson Square, flagging down cars. ``Forty dollars will make you holler,'' she cries.
In January, Missino nearly died of a heroin overdose. She shot up two bags just after being released from prison and stopped breathing. As the paramedics shot her up with Narcan to reverse the overdose, Missino says, she had an out-of-body experience.
``I seen myself laying there and I was saying to myself, `Get up Michelle,''' she recalls.
Rosa, 23, who returned to Willimantic in June to see friends, is probably more typical of the girls on Main Street. Most wear filthy clothes, bathe in the silty Willimantic River between dates and have track marks up and down their arms.
The day Rosa surfaces in Jillson Square, she is dope sick and shivering under a sweater. She carries a backpack and clutches a black cat she named Melissa after a friend who committed suicide. Her gray sweat pants are dirty with blood and grass stains. The black polish on her fingernails is peeling. A dark bruise she can't explain mars one eye. Her cat curls against her chest and naps.
``I love her. She's all I got,'' Rosa says, snuggling her face against the cat.
The day before, she tried to sell the cat to someone for a fix. She has been shooting up for eight years, sometimes as many as 20 bags a day.
``When I come back to the streets, it's because I'm sick of living a life with nobody,'' she says.
Once she dreamed of being a day-care teacher. But she couldn't keep her own baby, a boy who is now 7 and living with Rosa's mother. Rosa doesn't remember the last time she saw him.
A friend got her hooked when she was 16. When she first used, it felt good. Now all she feels is sick.
``Every day, you wake up sick. Then you steal and sell your ass out here. You sell your soul out here,'' Rosa says. ``I'm left with nothing. That's not cool. There's nothing cool about it.''
As in most small towns, traditions cycle down from one generation to the next. In Willimantic, the sons of former policemen arrest the same dealers their fathers nabbed, sometimes on the same streets, sometimes in the same houses. Generations of families here have been destroyed by drug use, countless young people lost to overdoses or prison.
``In most towns, parents pass down property to their children. Here, parents pass down their addictions,'' says Nancy Clark, a resident.
Even the police who spent years fighting the heroin scourge sound fatalistic.
``The only thing I think about is, we did what we had to do, to the best of our ability, and there was just no stopping it,'' says Slyman, the former Willimantic cop who first alerted the DEA.
``I thought I had the answer back in the late '60s and '70s. We hit them hard with undercover operations, and that wasn't the answer. We've tried everything. It just didn't work.''
Now his son, Larry Slyman, a state trooper assigned to the nearby Windham Heights housing complex, and his nephew Carl Caler, a Willimantic police sergeant, are fighting the same battle. They have arrested some of the same suspects Paul Slyman did.
``A guy drives over the bridge and gets stopped by Larry,'' the elder Slyman says. ``He says, `I know your father. He stopped me the same place 20 years ago on the same charge.' ''
Caler has had the same experience. ``People arrested by him 20, 30 years ago, say, `Hey are you related to Slyman? He arrested me before and now I'm straight,''' Caler says. Caler holds the record in Willimantic for the most cocaine and heroin seized at one time -- 4 1/2 pounds of cocaine and 2,400 bags of heroin.
``We try, but it just isn't getting any better,'' he says.
Larry Slyman, a high school basketball star at Windham Regional Technical School, became a trooper when he was 20. He says he was shocked at how many people used heroin.
``There are professionals to basically homeless and everyone in between,'' Larry Slyman says. ``The drugs have always been here, and they still are.''