BURLINGTON — A Connecticut man and a Vermont woman arrested Monday in Winooski are being charged in federal court with conspiring to sell heroin.
Nigin Gunter, 25, of Hartford, Connecticut, who goes by the street name “Solo,” and Chelsea Brown, 25, are being held pending their Aug. 22 arraignment on felony conspiracy charges.
The case is emblematic of how drugs are trafficked in Vermont, bearing all the hallmarks of disturbing trends highlighted in recent years by law enforcement, including allegations that Gunter traded drugs for sex and guns while relying on drug-addicted local residents to bolster his operation.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police arrested the pair after working with a confidential informant to make a controlled purchase of suspected heroin, according to an affidavit written by DEA Special Agent Timothy Hoffman.
Gunter was arrested after security footage showed him ditching a bag filled with a large amount of cash and drugs, while Brown was arrested after the informant purchased suspected drugs from her, the affidavit says.
Police did not field test what they believed to be heroin due to “officer safety concerns.” The rise of fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids in the street heroin supply is driving fatal overdoses and forcing officers to take greater precaution in testing suspected opiates.
The informant arranged to purchase two bundles, or 20 bags, of heroin from Brown, police said. A single bag is typically 1 gram. Officers say they watched Brown and Gunter walk from an Allen Street apartment toward Barlow Street where Brown had agreed to meet the informant.
The Allen Street apartment is known to law enforcement because the tenant is a drug user whom investigators believe to be involved in dealing, according to Hoffman’s affidavit. The tenant was not arrested.
In July 2016, the U.S. attorney for Vermont brought federal charges against a handful of Winooski residents for allegedly allowing their homes to be used by dealers for packaging and distributing drugs.
Former U.S. Attorney Eric Miller said at the time that those residents were “absolutely crucial to the success of the illegal drug trade in Vermont,” because they function as conduits between addicts and out-of-state traffickers, providing the dealers with housing, transportation and customers.
Gunter and Brown split as they walked down Barlow Street, according to Hoffman, with Gunter walking east along the railroad tracks and Brown entering the informant’s car. Officers moved in and say they discovered 40 bags of suspected heroin in Brown’s purse.
Brown told police she met Gunter in December and was originally trading sex for drugs with him but later started selling his drugs, with Gunter collecting the proceeds.
Prosecutors state in a detention motion that Brown should not be released because her drug addiction means she can’t be relied upon to show up for court. She’s currently being held at the women’s prison in South Burlington.
In 2015 the U.S. attorney’s office launched a media campaign called “U Can Stop Trafficking” that sought to raise awareness about how drug dealers pressure young drug-addicted women into having sex for drugs or money, which in many cases amounts to human trafficking.
At the time, the U.S attorney’s office said that a review of large drug cases brought in Vermont found that 75 percent of the people who support drug dealers are women. Sixty percent were under 30, some as young as teenagers, and almost all of them had addictions, mostly to heroin.
Officers caught up with Gunter a short time later in the parking lot of an East Spring Street apartment complex. Police detained him while they reviewed security footage that showed him discarding a bag from inside a duffel he was carrying, according to Hoffman’s affidavit.
Officers recovered the bag, which contained $12,000 in cash, 300 grams of powder cocaine, 53 grams of cocaine base — both of which were field tested — 34 grams of suspected bulk heroin and 300 individual bags of suspected heroin.
Gunter told police he began coming to Vermont with drugs in the fall of 2016. He started out selling ounces of cocaine base and grams of heroin but later graduated to selling as much as 15 ounces of cocaine and 60 grams of heroin in a single trip, according to Hoffman’s affidavit.
Gunter said he’d made 20 trips to Vermont with drugs. He also acknowledged fronting drugs to Brown for her to sell and collecting the proceeds, police say. He also said he has purchased guns from customers or exchanged heroin for guns, according to the affidavit.
A study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that in 2013, adjusting for population, Vermont has the highest rate of guns traced and recovered in other states after being used for criminal activity.
Prosecutors’ detention motion for Gunter cites active warrants in Connecticut and Massachusetts. A December report in the Greenfield Recorder says Gunter was arrested and charged with drug trafficking in Bernardston, Massachusetts, with two Winooski residents after police pulled them over for traffic violations.
Officers in that incident said they discovered 1,000 bags of suspected heroin as well as an additional 60 grams of suspected heroin.