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Heroin use draws in wide circle of victims

By Izaskun E. Larrañeta

Publication: The Day

Published May 04. 2014 4:00AM
Family members, employers, neighbors fall prey as one user tries to maintain supply of drug

A former Groton Utilities lineman is charged with stealing tools and copper wire from his employer. The next time he's arrested, he's charged with stealing guns from his father.

Two brothers burglarize their neighbor and then, with the help of their father, pawn the stolen equipment.

Two buddies steal copper tubing from a vacant home and then head off to a scrapyard to sell the materials.

The common thread among these crimes: They were all fueled by a need to feed a heroin addiction.

The effects of heroin addiction don't end there. Heroin use and the crimes committed to get the drug have other victims: family members who are betrayed by their loved ones; neighborhoods on edge when they hear of a home being burglarized; and society at large as handguns are sold to drug dealers.

Police say they have seen an increase in burglaries committed by people who will do just about anything to get the money to buy heroin.

"People are stealing from family even after they get caught, which shows you the strength of the addiction," Ledyard Lt. Michael Finkelstein said.

On Feb. 8, a vehicle driven by James C. Murphy, 38, was stopped by Groton town police and Murphy was charged with possession of narcotics. An officer noticed an empty Rock Island Armory pistol case and some ammunition in the vehicle. Murphy told the officer that the gun that belonged in the case had been stolen from his father, who lives in Ledyard.

Ledyard police were asked to verify the story. They spoke to Murphy's father, who told them three more guns were missing from his residence. According to the arrest warrant in the case, he also told police that his son had a heroin and prescription drug addiction. Murphy's father previously reported another three guns missing.

Ledyard police interviewed Murphy about the stolen weapons. He admitted that he was addicted to Percocet and heroin, and that he had sold or traded five of the six firearms to drug dealers in exchange for heroin and other narcotics. He denied stealing one of the handguns. The weapons were not recovered.

Ledyard police charged Murphy with stealing six firearms.

Finkelstein said it is important for people to report stolen weapons so that police immediately can begin working on recovering them.

"There is always a concern that the weapon ends up in the wrong hands," he said. "That's always the fear, that it could be used in a serious crime."

One year earlier, Groton City police had interviewed Murphy about some pawned items. He'd told them he had received treatment for addiction and was "currently rehabilitated."

At that time, Murphy admitted that he had stolen tools from his then-employer, Groton Utilities, where he worked as a lineman, to help buy drugs for his growing addiction to pain medication and heroin. He said his addiction began in the summer of 2012.

Police charged him with stealing more than $6,500 in equipment, of which $4,500 worth was recovered.

Despite his claim of being rehabilitated, court records show that Murphy and another man stole from Groton Utilities three more times during the first week of April 2013. The pair allegedly stole copper wire used by line crews and various tools.

Groton City police said that when they searched Murphy's truck, they found two crack pipes, one used syringe with residue, copper wire and an orange cover for a chain saw, the warrant said.

Murphy's criminal cases are pending. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Family feeds addiction

Finkelstein said the prevalence of heroin influences the way his department conducts its investigations of other crimes. When they go to a crime scene of a reported burglary, they assess what was stolen. Can it be pawned easily? Did the person recently have a visitor with a drug history? Does the victim live near any known drug users?

And while answers in the affirmative don't necessarily mean the crime was committed by a heroin user, he said, they can help narrow the field of suspects.

In July, Ledyard police were dispatched to investigate a burglary at a house on Avery Hill Road Extension. The victim told police that he noticed his shed doors were open and that a circular saw, miter saw, palm sander and drill were missing.

Police found a trail of footsteps leading from the shed through a wooded area to a familiar house on Whalehead Road. Police previously had arrested several residents, members of the Mitchell family, including the father, Patrick, and two sons, Preston and Anthony, in connection with several larcenies in the region, according to the warrant for the burglary on Avery Hill Road Extension.

"The entire family has admitted to their addiction to heroin and has explained that this was the reason for their criminal behavior," the warrant says.

Police interviewed Preston R. Mitchell, 21, and his brother Anthony W. Mitchell, 23, who admitted to stealing the items from Avery Hill Road Extension.

Anthony Mitchell told police that he had to steal to feed his heroin addiction.

"Anthony stated the reason they are stealing is because they get dope sick," the warrant says. "Anthony stated they can't get jobs because of their heroin habit, therefore cannot get money to buy heroin, therefore they steal."

According to the warrant, the brothers had loaded the tools into a van and immediately driven to a pawn shop. Their father pawned the items under his name and got $60 for them, police said.

The brothers then "immediately" drove to New London and bought 1½ bundles of heroin, then went back to their home and shot up, the warrant says.

The brothers were sentenced last year for this crime and other larcenies.

Preston Mitchell declined to comment publicly on his family's struggles but said the family is now sober. Anthony Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

Finkelstein said it is outside of the police department's purview to facilitate treatment for an addict, but he and his officers make a concerted effort to note in their reports when a crime is linked to heroin use, in the hopes that the criminal court system will provide help for the addict.

"We don't know what's going on inside of people's homes," he said, "so I can't say if more people are using. What I do know is that we have seen an increase in crime. It's hard to track down heroin because everyone is so mobile."

In the suburbs, too

Deputy Chief Peter Reichard said New London also has experienced a spike in burglaries. He said he can't say for sure that it's because of heroin, but "I'm not seeing marijuana users committing burglaries to maintain their addiction."

Reichard said that the addictive nature of the heroin plus the fact that it's relatively inexpensive makes it extremely dangerous.

He said heroin users are constantly thinking about their next hit and will steal from anyone, including "grandma," to get their next fix.

The city's vice and intelligence unit is working on numerous active investigations linked to heroin, he said. While he cannot disclose the details, he did note that heroin use is not just a New London problem, and that many users who purchase the drug are from the suburbs.

"I don't believe there is a typical heroin user like back in the '70s and '80s," he said. "We can't use that stereotype anymore. A guy with a shirt and tie could be a heroin user."

Reichard said that when police make a narcotics arrest, they try to get as much information as they can from the suspects and to see whether they can be connected to other crimes.

That's what happened on Dec. 20, 2012, when New London police arrested James Taylor of Westerly and Jeffrey Chapman of Ledyard for attempting to buy heroin.

During the arrest, New London police contacted Ledyard police for information about burglaries the men said they knew about.

Ledyard police traveled to New London and interviewed the men. According to Taylor's arrest warrant, he said the previous day that he and Chapman had been driving in the Highlands neighborhood looking at empty houses. He said Chapman entered a house and stole copper pipe. The pair then went to a scrapyard on Dec. 20, where they sold the copper for $312.

"They then took the money to New London and attempted to buy heroin, but were arrested by New London police," the warrant says.

Chapman confirmed Taylor's version, although he said Taylor also entered the Highland residence.

Chapman is serving prison time in connection with the burglary and narcotics case. Taylor could not be reached for comment.

"Some heroin users are spending $100 a day to feed their habit," Reichard said. "I don't know too many people who have an extra $100 a day to spend, and that's why they are stealing."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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