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Four people have been killed in the past four months in Washington County, and though details about some of the cases have yet to be released, the county’s severe drug problem is largely being blamed for the violence.
Ten people have been shot — six of them fatally — in the county in the past five years, and drugs have been cited by police as a factor in at least four of those shootings. In two of the four most recent shooting deaths, alleged drug dealers from out of state have been charged by police.
Maine had more overdose deaths in 2021 than any other year, surpassing 600 for the first time. Washington County accounted for 21 of those deaths — 7 percent of the state’s total. As the county with the third smallest population in Maine, accounting for about 2.3 percent of the state’s total, Washington County is seeing an outsized portion of the problem. Moreover, the recent shootings and killings — and the degree to which the illegal drug trade factors into them — stand out in a county with one of the smallest populations and one of the highest poverty rates in the state.
“The drug trade is violent. There’s nothing rosy about it at all,” said Roy McKinney, director of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “There is an issue in Washington County. It does have challenges that are unique.”
Matthew Foster, district attorney for Washington County, said he did not have statistics for cases his office has prosecuted, but said illegal drugs are a significant factor in many of them.
“There definitely is more violent crime recently [in Washington County],” Foster said. “I would guess that 70 to 75 percent of our violent cases are drug related or mental health related in some way.”
Washington County’s violent crime rate was the second highest in Maine in 2020, with nearly 1.5 violent offenses for every 1,000 residents, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety. Androscoggin County, which has a population 3.5 times bigger than Washington County, has the highest rate in 2020 with roughly 1.8 violent offenses for every 1,000 residents. State crime statistics for 2021 are not yet available.
Neighboring Hancock County, which has 75 percent more people and is part of the same prosecution district, had less than half the violent crime rate in 2020 of Washington County. In terms of all crimes, both violent and non-violent, Washington County’s rate of 9.3 crimes per 1,000 residents is higher than Hancock County’s crime rate of 8.1 crimes per 1,000 residents.
The intersection of violence and illegal drugs in Washington County has become more apparent in recent years. In July 2017, a New York man selling drugs in Washington County shot and killed New Gloucester resident Sally Shaw along the side of Route 193 in Cherryfield after they got in an argument.
A few months later, six people were charged with attempted murder after gunfire erupted at the Calais Motor Inn. Police later found 110 bags of crack cocaine in the intestines of one of the arrested men, Baileyville resident Stephen Perkins.
In May 2019, the FBI conducted a sweep throughout Washington County and part of Hancock County and charged more than two dozen people with drug trafficking crimes. None of the people arrested, which included 12 people from New York, were charged with committing violent acts, however.
Robert Fitzsimmons, Baileyville’s police chief, said his town has not experienced some of the violence or wholesale drug dealing that has surfaced elsewhere in the county, but still he sees local impacts from the illegal drug trade.
He said he can drive down the street in central Baileyville and point out the houses, one after the other, of people who have loved ones who have struggled with addiction. He’s said during his career he has seen “over and over again” children suffer from neglect because their parents get hooked on drugs and are pulled into criminal behavior.
“I’ve seen a substantial portion of two generations lost to drugs, and I’ll be damned if I want to lose another one,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’re kind of seeing the tip of the iceberg now.”
Of the recent violent shootings in Washington County, one that occurred last fall on a quiet residential street in Machias may be the most stark example of the county’s drug woes.
On that night, an alleged drug dealer from New York was targeted by rival drug dealers from Massachusetts, according to police. Brandin Guerrero, 17 of Massapequa, New York, had been sent to Machias to sell drugs but was ambushed and gunned down as he walked past a local cemetery on High Street.
Five men — three from Massachusetts, one from New Hampshire and one from East Machias — are facing charges of murder for Guererro’s death.
“That was eye-opening,” Keith Mercier, the town’s police chief, said of the gangland killing.
Mercier started his job in Machias only two days before Guererro was shot dead. He took over a department that, because of personnel turnover and difficulties with filling vacancies, effectively had no active roster. The Washington County Sheriff’s Department had been handling police calls in Machias for more than three months prior to Mercier’s arrival.
Mercier, who has been a police officer in Maine for more than 30 years, knows illegal drugs can aggravate violent crime, but said he’s learned a lot the past few months about the particulars of the Washington County drug trade. The rural area is attractive to drug dealers from out of state, he said, because they can command higher prices here than in more urban or heavily populated areas, where drugs are easier to come by.
“It’s a matter of economics,” Mercier said. “It’s a pretty substantial problem.”
Virtually all the drugs being sold in Washington County these days are being brought in illegally from out of state, according to McKinney. Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is 100 times more potent than heroin, makes up most of the trade along with cocaine and crystal meth, he said, while demand for heroin and illegally obtained prescription drugs have gone down.
McKinney said difficulties in staffing small-town police departments, and market forces that allow drug dealers to charge two to three times what they might charge in Boston or New York aggravate the situation in Washington County. Drug dealers often set up shop with the help of one or more local residents, he said, and it takes considerable police resources to disrupt a dealer’s criminal organization.
MDEA has eight officers based in Washington and Hancock counties, McKinney said. One officer might be able to investigate a simple assault, theft or burglary, but it takes a minimum of two and often three or four to break up a drug den, he said — and even when they do, witnesses often don’t want to talk to police for fear of reprisal.
For example, Adam Knowlton, who was shot Feb. 6 at a house on South Street in Calais — directly across the street from the hotel where shots were fired in December 2017 — has refused to cooperate with investigators, police have said.
Police say an argument over drugs was also a factor in the Dec. 26 death of Jason Aubuchon, who allegedly was shot by Danielle Wheeler in Perry.
“Ten years ago, we just didn’t see the same number of people from out of state for drug trafficking that we’re seeing now,” McKinney said.
A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors…. More by Bill Trotter