When out-of-state drug dealers travel to rural Maine, they are often looking for customers and guns, police say.
Sometimes the dealers buy firearms off their clientele. Other times they trade drugs for them. Often the guns are stolen. The firearms are considered a necessity in their violent line of work, and are taken back to other Northeast states where many dealers live.
A few years ago, much of the drug trade in rural Maine involved pharmaceutical pills or small meth labs, which either were already in Maine legally or were made in Maine, according to police. But as more illegal drugs have been brought into the state by gangs based elsewhere, the role of guns has increased in Washington County and other parts of Maine, where drug overdoses have hit record highs and drug-related violence has been on the rise.
Dealers have found they can charge more for their drugs in rural Maine than in more populated areas where opioids and other substances are easier to get — and that it often is easier to obtain guns here than in other states with stricter laws.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Maine ranks 29th out of 50 states for gun control laws, which indicates its among the least restrictive in the Northeast and relatively easier for Mainers — including some who might use drugs — to buy guns. The group ranks Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island all in the top 10.
“A side trade is obtaining firearms up here,” Roy McKinney, head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said.
MDEA seized 74 handguns statewide last year as part of its efforts to inhibit drug trafficking, McKinney said. The prevalence of guns in the illegal drug trade makes it more difficult to get witnesses to talk to police and to testify in court, he said.
“It’s all about protecting that money,” McKinney said. “People are afraid to come forward.”
On at least two occasions in recent years, alleged drug dealers have been charged with shooting and killing people in Washington County, though where the specific guns were obtained is not clear.
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. Last fall, on Nov. 4, accused drug dealer Brandin Guerrero, 17, of Massapequa, New York, allegedly was ambushed and gunned down by rival drug dealers from Massachusetts on a quiet residential street in central Machias.
Police are still investigating a theft of three handguns last fall from a hardware store in Machias, which they believe is related to the county’s illegal drug trade. A $5,000 reward has been offered for information in that burglary, in which someone forced their way into Pineo’s True Value in the early morning hours of Oct. 15 and took them from a display case.
Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis said his office knows there’s an increase in drug trafficking in the county. Since he became sheriff in 2015, he said, the department has doubled in size, from 8 deputies to 17, not including himself and Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree, to try to keep up with the increase in crime.
“It has changed a lot,” Curtis said. “A lot of it is coming up out of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Gunplay in the streets is something we’re not used to.”
The threat posed by the increasing involvement of guns has prompted the sheriff’s department to more often send more than one officer to respond to complaints or to have officers from other agencies to provide backup, Crabtree said. And there could be incidents that are never being reported to police out of fear of reprisal, he said.
“We’re definitely in a mess,” Crabtree said. “We’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
The rise in drugs being brought into Maine by gangs, and the flow of guns back south, has attracted the attention of the FBI in recent years. Last year, federal investigators noted the link between the two illicit trades when they charged a Massachusetts man with obtaining guns in Maine as part of a conspiracy to import cocaine, fentanyl and crystal meth to Hancock County.
The percentage of guns recovered by police in Massachusetts, either in connection with alleged drug trafficking or other investigations, that once had been legally obtained in Maine has been increasing the past few years, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In 2018, 7.5 percent of guns seized in Massachusetts were traced back to Maine, while the following year it was 8.9 percent and in 2020, the most recent for which ATF statistics are available, it was 9.5 percent.
Maine guns seized by New York police also increased slightly from 2018 through 2020, from 50 to 69, though the percentage has hovered at around only 1 percent. More detailed information about whether the Maine guns recovered in those states had been involved in drug trafficking was not available.
There have been recent shootings and burglaries in Machias but the town’s new police chief says his department has taken steps to disrupt the flow of drugs.
Mercier, who started his job two days before Guererro was killed, has been rebuilding a department that last fall effectively had no active roster because of turnover and difficulty in filling positions. He said he has hired two more patrol officers since the shooting, and that he meets regularly with other law enforcement officials in Washington County, including the sheriff’s department, state police and Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, to share information.
The efforts are paying off, he said. In January, Machias police arrested five people, including three Massachusetts residents, for breaking into and selling drugs out of a vacant house on Beal Street, just down the street from where Guerrero was killed four months ago. Last month, a local resident was arrested during a traffic stop for having 14 grams of heroin in the car — an amount that is associated with trafficking, not personal use.
“It’s a pretty substantial problem, but we’re definitely making progress,” Mercier said.