WILLIMANTIC —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.
- Day 1: Small town, big-time heroin use.
- Day 2: Death at the Hotel Hooker
- Day 3: Rich, poor middle-class - no one is immune
- Day 4: Recovery, the flip side of addiction
- Day 5:Can't somebody do something?
- Shooting Up In The Gazebo
- Window Shoot
- Dancing In The Streets
- Charitable Visitors
- Running From Police
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- Willimantic (Windham, Connecticut)
- Hartford (Hartford, Connecticut)
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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.