Jim Kenyon: Sleepy Bethel gets a dose of the war on drugs

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/12/2021 11:36:40 AM
Modified: 12/12/2021 11:36:04 AM

A sign on the front door of James Bannister’s ramshackle 19th-century colonial in Bethel asks that packages not be left on the stoop. He prefers all deliveries get dropped off at his home’s side entrance.

In the end, however, it didn’t matter where the goods landed. Federal law enforcement agents still caught on.

A late June raid of Bannister’s home netted nearly 15,000 pills (14,449 to be exact), containing the opioids tapentadol and tramadol, as well as carisoprodol, a prescription muscle relaxant.

On Monday, Bannister pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances.” He faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1 million. Sentencing is scheduled for March.

In a news release last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burlington said Bannister was involved in an “international drug trafficking operation,” where he received illicit prescription drug shipments via the U.S. mail and other delivery services at his home on the outskirts of town.

“After receiving the controlled substances, Bannister and others unlawfully redistributed them, typically by U.S. mail, to customers across the United States,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

On Thursday, I knocked on Bannister’s door — the one where he requested deliveries be made. After I announced who I was, Bannister opened the door.

I’ve watched enough Breaking Bad to know that not all drug traffickers look like El Chapo. But with his near shoulder-length hair and hipster eyeglasses, Bannister more closely resembled John Lennon than a drug kingpin.

From what I could gather, Bannister doesn’t have a lengthy criminal history, if any at all. At the town offices, I was told his only interaction with the town constable had been complaints involving his golden retrievers.

The 57-year-old Bannister is a longtime physical therapist in the Upper Valley. For a while, he ran his business, Active Balance Rehab, out of his home, which he bought in 2001.

Apparently, he stopped practicing a few years ago. His state physical therapy license, first issued in 1998, expired in 2018.

During his 20 years of living on Poplar Manor Road in the only house on a dead-end stretch of dirt sandwiched between Route 107 and the White River, Bannister seems to have kept a low profile.

State Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat, lives just down the road from Bannister. McCormack, a Bethel resident since 1970, has probably shaken more hands than anyone in town during his 32-year legislative career, but he couldn’t recall ever crossing paths with Bannister.

A clerk at the convenience store that’s a short walk from Bannister’s house told me that Bannister is a “quiet guy” who only comes in occasionally.

News of Bannister’s legal troubles became known around town on Thursday when the weekly White River Valley Herald came out with a front-page story under the headline, “Bethel Man Takes Plea for Narcotics Trafficking.”

During our brief conversation, Bannister politely declined to talk about his case.

It’s often hard to tell in cases like Bannister’s whether law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have put a dent in the drug trade or they’re just playing to the camera. They’re pros at making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill to keep taxpayers dollars flowing their way.

“Bannister peddled opioids and other dangerous substances, bringing them across borders and into New England and the rest of the United States,” Matthew Millhollin, a special agent with Homeland Security’s investigative arm, said in the feds’ news release.

Granted, 15,000 pills is quite a stash.

“Obviously, he’s got a lot of customers,” said McCormack, who was just hearing about Bannister’s case when we talked Thursday. “But that’s no surprise. We know we have a drug problem in this country.”

In November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that for the first time in a 12-month period (April 2020 to April 2021) more than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses. Vermont’s 69.9% increase — going from 123 deaths to 209 — was the highest in the country.

I don’t mean to make light of Bannister’s crime, but in his case, we’re not talking heroin laced with fentanyl.

Still, tapentadol and tramadol, which is often prescribed to people coming home after surgery, can become “habit-forming,” if used for a long time, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Carisoprodol is marketed as a muscle relaxant, but “many abusers take it in combination with other drugs to enhance the effects of those drugs,” the National Drug Intelligence Center stated on its website.

Bannister was getting the drugs mailed to him from India and other far-flung countries. Along with having pills shipped to his home, Bannister had a post office box in Rutland and a box at a UPS store in a Rutland shopping plaza.

The yearlong investigation, which involved four federal agencies and Rutland police, found Bannister received foreign shipments of “controlled substances and misbranded pharmaceutical drugs” from about 2019 to his arrest in June.

“The importation and sale of diverted and counterfeit pharmaceuticals feeds the opiate crises with pills cloaked in fraudulent legitimacy,” Jonathan Ophardt, Vermont’s acting U.S. Attorney, said in the news release.

Before Bannister is sentenced in a few months, I hope the public will be shown a clearer picture — without the feds’ hyperbole — of what happened. (Assistant U.S. Attorney John Boscia, who is prosecuting the case, didn’t respond to an email. David McColgin, a federal public defender who is representing Bannister declined my interview request.)

With the evidence presented so far, I don’t see how a lengthy prison sentence is called for.

Outside the war-on-drugs crowd, it would be a tough pill to swallow.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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