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Jim Kenyon: ‘All I need is a chance” — a story from Hartford Dismas House

  • 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: 4/27/2019 10:06:54 PM
Modified: 4/27/2019 10:07:30 PM

In December 2016, Jonathan Alvarez, of New Haven, Conn., made his first ever visit to Vermont. It was a business trip, facilitated by an acquaintance who assured him they could “make a lot of money in Vermont.”

Alvarez, who was 27 at the time, and Ryan Mohr, then 32, took a Greyhound bus from Connecticut to White River Junction on a Friday morning. A friend of Mohr’s picked them up at the bus station in her 2007 silver BMW. Alvarez placed a black luggage bag in the trunk.

With Alvarez riding in the backseat, they headed for Burlington on Interstate 89.

They didn’t get far.

In Sharon, they were stopped by a Vermont state trooper in an unmarked cruiser. Sgt. John Helfant later wrote in a court affidavit that he had observed the woman driving 70 mph in a 65 mph zone. (Another trooper said she was going 75 mph a bit earlier.)

Helfant asked the woman to walk back to his cruiser so he could write her a warning for speeding. But that was a ruse. What Helfant really wanted was the woman to sign a consent form to allow her car to be searched without a warrant.

Another trooper, who had also been following the BMW, pulled up with a drug-sniffing dog. The search turned up 320 small packets containing heroin in the travel bag belonging to Alvarez, according to Helfant’s affidavit.

Helfant said he was acting on a tip that Mohr was carrying heroin and cocaine on his bus trip to Vermont. State police then staked out the bus station.

I guess it could be considered good police work. But the traffic stop and warrantless search that led to the drug bust is still troubling. Why is a driver who is barely exceeding the speed limit getting pulled over? Could the passengers, both men of color, have anything to do with it?

The possibility of racial profiling wasn’t lost on Alvarez, who is Puerto Rican. “Once they see the color of your skin, they get out the (drug) sniffing dogs,” he said. (A 2017 report by University of Vermont researchers found significant disparities in how often black and Hispanic people are stopped, searched and arrested, as compared with white and Asian people in the state.)

In April 2017, Alvarez pleaded guilty to heroin trafficking. He received a prison sentence of six months to four years. (Mohr also got prison time for the same offense.)

In a strange way, the two years that Alvarez spent incarcerated in Vermont was something of a blessing. Before getting out in January, Alvarez applied to Hartford Dismas House, which provides affordable housing and meals in a supportive group setting to people just released from Vermont’s prisons.

Jeff Backus, who spent nine years as a corrections officer in Montana and Vermont before joining Dismas, interviewed Alvarez while he was still at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

“I go through a lot of interviews, and I know when people are just telling me what they think I want to hear,” said Backus, Dismas’ house director. “Jonathan was genuine. He owned his mistakes. He talked about very realistic goals.”

In late January, four days after this 30th birthday, Alvarez moved into Dismas in Hartford Village. He got a job at Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, working behind the deli counter. On weekends, when Advance Transit isn’t running, he often rides a bike home 5 miles from the general store after it closes at 9 p.m.

Alvarez is also doing his part to pay back Dismas for giving him a chance to get on with his life. (If Dismas hadn’t offered him a room, I suspect the Department of Corrections wouldn’t have released him.)

Earlier this month, Backus asked Alvarez to tell his story to the 250 people attending Dismas’ annual fundraising dinner at the Hilton Garden Inn in Lebanon.

Alvarez talked about being raised by his father and grandmother in Bridgeport, Conn. “They did the best they could,” he said. “We always had food on the table.” Nevertheless, he became a teenage gang member who sold and used drugs. At 19, he went to prison for armed robbery. After getting out, he stayed clean for three years before reverting back to his old ways.

“That’s when I heard about Vermont,” Alvarez said. “All I was told was that it had a lot of addicts and people in the state would pay more.”

A small packet of heroin that sold for $5 to $10 in New Haven, Conn., where he’d moved, could fetch $20 in Vermont, he said. Although 320 packets sounds like a lot, it’s really not. A severely addicted person can go through 10 or more packets a day.

Alvarez’ story is a reminder that Vermont can’t arrest its way out of its opioid epidemic. Cops can use traffic stops to make drug busts all day long, but as long as the demand for heroin and other hardcore substances remains high, the war on drugs is a losing battle.

Drug dealers from urban areas are practically being recruited to the state by heavy users these days. For every dealer (who often is addicted, too) who gets thrown in prison, there’s another eager to take over.

Until we alleviate the social ills — lack of good-paying jobs and unequal educational opportunities, for starters — that can lead people down the path to drug addiction, not much will change.

But individuals can. Alvarez is a case in point. He’s still on furlough until next year, which means he can’t leave the state. At the Dismas fundraising dinner, he told the audience that he wants to stay in Vermont to open a barber shop.

“I’ve grown up,” he said. “All I need is a chance.”

In last Sunday’s column about John Caswell, I wrote that his father died by suicide. That was my mistake. James Caswell survived his self-inflicted gunshot and died years later of natural causes. I should have also mentioned that John Caswell’s family held a private burial ceremony for him following his death in 2017.

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




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