BRISTOL — It’s been almost five months since two men with baseball bats barged into Bristol’s Living Well assisted care home, stealing roughly 270 doses of narcotics. But the incident still haunts 20-year-old Stepfanie Williams, who was on staff as a caregiver that September night.
Earlier this month, Williams met with Living Well staff, Bristol police and other concerned parties in Bristol’s Holley Hall to discuss the incident and to explore what authorities call a growing drug problem in Addison County.
Vermont Department of Corrections official Chris Dinnan organized the focus group of 20. The only people missing, he said, were the perpetrators, who still haven’t been lawfully identified.
Dinnan, community corrections program supervisor for Addison and Rutland counties, kicked off the meeting by handing the floor over to Williams. Sitting on the edge of her seat, the five-foot-four-inch-tall young woman told the story as she still vividly remembers it.
THE VICTIM’S STORY
On Sept. 28, Williams arrived at Living Well at 10:45 p.m. Her coworker left at 11 p.m., leaving Williams to her evening routine of organizing the care home and tending to residents. The door was left unlocked as usual, so the building would meet fire code — a practice that has since changed.
Midnight rolled around and Williams was in the kitchen talking with a resident, when the front door opened.
“It’s a very distinct sound of vinyl running along the floor,” said Williams, who said she still shudders when she hears a door open at night.
“I remember thinking in my head for that split second that all of the residents were inside,” she said.
So she leaned back to look through the kitchen doorway and saw two men walk through the door wielding metal baseball bats and wearing beige masks, blue sweatshirts, blue jeans and sneakers.
At that point, Williams ended the conversation with the resident, who returned to her room. Williams then walked out to confront the intruders. One of the men grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her into a nearby room, demanding the care home’s stash of narcotics. She was surprised that they addressed her by the name “Big Mama,” her high school nickname, which only close friends know.
As the man clenched her neck, she kept her head down. The blue Nike swoosh on one man’s sneaker is still imprinted in her mind, Williams said, and the stains on his sweatshirt are just beginning to fade from her memory.
They wanted the drugs fast, telling her to hurry. They told her to cooperate and that they had backup outside. She took them to the medicine cabinet, unlocked it and gave them a milder narcotic.
“The kids knew what they were after because they didn’t want this,” she said. Scared that they might hurt her, she gave them what they wanted.
“When they left, they told me to stand still for five minutes before I moved, and that they were watching me.”
As the two men walked out the door, she hurled insults at them, and then she called the police.
“I stood in one spot the entire time I was on with dispatch,” said Williams, whose voice wavered as she recalled the incident. “Then I saw (Bristol police officer) Randy Crowe come up the stairs, and I have never been so happy to see a police officer in my entire life.”
Crowe, a long-time Bristol officer, arrived on the scene 11 minutes after Williams called 911. Soon thereafter, a Vermont State Police trooper and the Vergennes police K-9 unit arrived. The K-9 tracked the burglars’ scent for several blocks, but then lost it. By that time, the police think, the thieves were long gone
After the burglary, Williams said she was told by Living Well management to keep quiet about the incident as a safety precaution. With the events of that night bottled up inside, she experienced nightmares for several weeks. She also began to blame herself.
“I felt like I could’ve stopped it,” she said. “I felt like I could’ve made them go away. But in reality I did everything right. They could’ve hit me. They could’ve beaten me up. And I was in charge of every single one of those people in the beds there.”
Throughout the incident, she said, the safety of the residents was at the top of her mind.
“It was not about my safety, it was about theirs,” she said referring to the residents. “But I can say I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life. There was really nothing I could do.”
Williams believes she knows who robbed the care home — they were former friends of hers. But neither she nor the police have sufficient evidence to prove that. She feels betrayed, abused and victimized. To make matters worse, Williams said that many of the tenants’ families accused her of an “inside job,” and then, later, Living Well laid her off due to what Williams said was budget cuts.
Williams wasn’t physically injured, and over the last five months, a counselor has helped her ease the tensions brought about by the incidents of that dreadful night. Now she says she’s moving beyond the incident. But for many residents of Bristol and surrounding communities, the armed burglary and a string of recent drug-related incidents are just beginning to hit home.
“We have a really big drug problem in our community, and we seem to be unwilling to say we are less than the idyllic community,” said Kate McGowan, co-executive director of the United Way of Addison County, at the Holley Hall meeting. Drugs are “deeply rooted in our communities: in our youth, in our household systems, in our hospitals — (they are) everywhere. For some reason there isn’t a sense of urgency in our communities saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’ I don’t know what’s missing to get people to say, ‘We have a crisis.’”
Jeffrey Wallin, director of the Vermont Criminal Information Center, explained that quantifying such a “crisis” is difficult because calculating drug-related crimes is a near-impossible task. There are too many variables and too much subjectivity surrounding potentially drug-related crimes to get an accurate numerical read on the situation. Additionally, 2011 Vermont crime statistics won’t be released for several months. But Wallin did say that local police agencies have a better grasp on drug issues than the state’s criminal statistics center does.
According to VSP Lt. Gary Genova, commander of the New Haven barracks, McGowan’s comment is on point. But he said this growing drug problem isn’t limited to Bristol, or even Addison County. It’s a growing problem across Vermont.
So, what can be done?
Overwhelmingly, those in attendance at the Holley Hall meeting agreed that the first step in dealing with Addison County’s drug problem is to discuss the issue in the open.
“How do you tell a kid not to use drugs when everything you see on television is all about pharmaceuticals?” asked Michael Morera, whose mother resides at Living Well. “There’s just a hypocrisy there that as a community I think we need to have a dialogue about.”
Darla Senecal, director of the Bristol Recreation Department, said that she and her department would spearhead public meetings in the near future to address this growing problem.
“There are two police officers and there are 4,000 of us in Bristol,” Senecal said after the meeting. “We need to come together as a community. We need to stand up as a community for what we don’t want. That’s what I love about Bristol. We rally for things.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.