Crime and Justice

Violent crimes in Springfield have raised fears. But residents find hope and solace in community.

Will Hunter, left, helps one of his tenants to a seat on the porch of his house in Springfield on Thursday, June 9. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Will Hunter, who rents properties to people in Springfield struggling to find housing, knows many folks dealing with substance abuse.

One of those renters was Justin Gilliam. 

Since meeting Gilliam early last year, Hunter watched what he called a “spiral.” 

Last month, driving around Springfield, Hunter spotted Gilliam and stopped to chat. The former renter said he was trying hard to stay clean. Hunter tried to be supportive.

On Monday, Gilliam, 37, was found dead on the side of Greeley Road, a bullet through his head. 

A state police spokesperson said on Thursday that the investigation is active and ongoing, and did not share more information. 

Gilliam’s murder is one of seven gunfire incidents reported this year in Springfield, which have outnumbered the prior six years’ incidents combined. Residents, scared and frustrated, say that despite the violence, offenders seem to pass through a revolving judicial door back onto the streets.

Gilliam was one of them. Last summer, former Springfield resident Justin Butchino was pulled over while driving through western Massachusetts. His car had a hand-drawn license plate, attracting the attention of authorities. In the passenger seat sat Gilliam.

After searching the car, Massachusetts State Police discovered 3,100 bags of heroin inside a Frosted Flakes box. Gilliam was charged with multiple counts of drug trafficking. 

Despite the mound of drugs, Gilliam eventually pleaded down to a charge of possession of crystal meth. He was released on time served. 

According to Hunter, Gilliam returned to Springfield and began crashing in a home on Valley Street — the road at the center of the recent gunfire. 

‘Life’s going about as normal’

Follow Valley Street down a gentle hill to Main Street, and you hit the Black River Coffee Bar. 

The cafe, opened earlier this year, has floor-length windows with views of historic downtown Springfield: big brick buildings and quaint New England charm. 

The coffee bar’s owner, Mike Schmitt, has been unfazed by the gunfire just up the road. 

“Life’s going about as normal,” he said. 

Although people like to speculate about the crimes, Schmitt said he doesn’t know anyone who has been personally affected. Springfield, to him, is about knowing your neighbors, chatting with them as they stop by for a hot latte. 

That’s how they pitch the town at the chamber of commerce. 

According to Taylor Drinker, membership and events director at the chamber, families move to Springfield for the charm.

“We see a lot of people coming for the small-town community feel,” she said. 

It’s a lot of young families moving to town, Drinker said, who want to spend time outdoors and know their neighbors. They don’t tend to worry about crime.

“It’s people that have been here their whole lives that make a bigger deal of it,” she said.

Drinker, 22, grew up in Springfield, and relishes the opportunity to directly support her hometown. 

Lately, that has meant turning Main Street into a place where people want to shop and stay. The Springfield Food Co-op moved into downtown last summer, expanding its selections and creating outdoor seating. Drinker also pointed to Black River Coffee Bar and its owner, Mike Schmitt, as creating a space for locals to meet, mingle, and stay a while.

‘This is not unique to Springfield’

But despite the optimism at the chamber, people in Springfield are worried about increased drug crime and violence.

On Tuesday, the Springfield Police Department, in conjunction with the state police Westminster barracks, hosted a community forum to address questions and concerns about the recent gunshots. (VTDigger counted seven gunfire incidents in 2022, which included attempted shootings and other instances where a gun was discharged in town. They included three shootings, in which a person was struck with a bullet.)

While in several instances, bullets hit buildings rather than bodies, May saw two Springfield residents shot: one in the leg early in the month, another in the hand at the end. Although multiple people were initially detained following the first incident, neither shooting led to charges. Three of the seven gunfire reports have occured on Valley Street.

Chief Mark Fountain, Lt. Patrick Call and Lt. Anthony French — station commander at the Westminster barracks — addressed residents in person and virtually in a Zoom meeting that maxed out at 100 participants. 

Main Street in Springfield on Thursday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

At the meeting, many fearful residents — well aware of the police staffing shortages — threw up their hands, asking how townspeople can help stop crime.

The local department employs five patrol officers, despite having funding for 12.

While the police encouraged people to call dispatch about suspected crimes, they admitted that innocent bystanders can’t always help.

“We need good witnesses. We need good victims,” Call said. “We have to have those people involved willing to cooperate.”

Fountain, the police chief, expressed exasperation with finding qualified recruits for his depleted force.

“We’re trying everything; we’re not having very good luck,” he said. 

According to Fountain, Springfield’s police department and state police are having “weekly, ongoing discussions” about the recent shootings.

Some residents, not finding help in the usual places, are taking matters into their own hands.

Cindy Adams, who lives on Hoover Street not far from the gunfire incidents, told VTDigger that she has stopped leaving her house at night.

Around 4:30 one morning, she saw two young men waving a gun in the street. She called the police, who she said suggested the men could be turkey hunting. 

“So instead, I stayed up with my gun on my porch and waited. (I did) what I felt I needed to do to protect myself and my neighbor,” Adams said. 

‘Reach out to your neighbor’

With almost 9,000 members, the popular Facebook group “Happenings in and around Springfield, Vermont” is almost as large as the town itself. 

Since this spring’s shootings, members began discussing the possibility of establishing a neighborhood watch.

June Brink, 58, who founded the Facebook group, has watched her forum ferment in response to recent crime. Neighbors alert each other of gunshots, and speculation can unravel out of control.

In town, several narratives attempt to explain the drug crime, even without much persuasive evidence. One is the presence of the prison, Southern State Correctional Facility.

Another, supported by leaders in the recovery community, is the proximity of Interstate 91, which passes through narcotic-rich towns like Holyoke and Springfield in Massachusetts, and Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut. 

That idea lends itself to a popular local cliché: While locals might abuse drugs, it’s the outsiders — often labeled “the Jersey Boys” — who commit the violent crime.

On Facebook, Brink is quick to delete any rumors and excessive negativity. She would rather use the page as a network for community support.

“Not too long ago, there were people talking about becoming vigilantes and taking matters into their own hands,” Brink said, concerned. “The community needs to come together and support each other any way we can, in a positive way.”

Online, people can be quick to judge, quick to place blame for the latest incident, Brink said. But they can also be quick to help.

When several families struggling with food insecurity reached out to Brink, she used the group to collect donations. With its help, the group fed 15 families. 

“The community wants to do things like that. They just don't know how,” Brink said. 

“I want to bring that back to the community, I want people to feel comfortable to do things like that, to help out, reach out to your neighbor, help your neighbor.”

‘We forget the desperation’

Ask Michael Johnson about life after substance abuse, and he points to the necessity of community.

“Recovery is about connection,” said Johnson, executive director of the Turning Point Recovery Center in Springfield. 

At Turning Point, Johnson works with people battling such substance disorders daily. In the current drug market, where fentanyl can appear in everything from heroin to fake pills and powdered cocaine, every interaction can feel life-or-death.

“For the younger generation, it’s roulette every day,” he said. “I mean, I'm glad I went through my drug phase in the ’70s and ’80s.”

In the recovery world, people talk often about stigma, Johnson said. The stigma around drug use, the stigma around asking for help. That stigma masks the progress people make toward overcoming substance use, and the good people fighting a disease.

“Sometimes, I feel like we just keep doing this and it doesn't get better. But we are saving people's lives. And people do change,” Johnson said.

But for more change to occur, more resources are needed. Turning Point runs a recovery house, but its seven beds are nearly always full, Johnson said. When treatment centers in Vermont fill up, Johnson can’t send clients across the Connecticut River to New Hampshire because most places there don’t accept Vermont Medicaid.

Will Hunter reflects on the challenges facing Springfield. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Will Hunter, the community advocate who knew the recently killed Springfield resident, pointed to the dual failures of Vermont’s judicial and substance abuse treatment systems as fueling the town’s crime.

“Vermont pats itself on the back and talks about the hub-and-spoke model that everybody in the world thinks is so great. It isn't working,” Hunter said. 

“We've chosen to use private, for-profit enterprises to dispense suboxone and methadone. And we haven't done it with the consumers in mind, because if we had, we would have a methadone clinic in Springfield.”

Instead, people in Springfield who use methadone often take buses to clinics in Brattleboro and Lebanon, New Hampshire — both over half an hour away.

Hunter, a former lawyer, believes even programs like diversion don’t do enough to get  long-term support for people struggling with substance use disorder.

“The public defender is going to feel that her job or his job is to get the least restrictive set of conditions imposed on the client that they can,” he said. “It's not about that. It's about, you know, we ought to be trying to figure out how we help these people have decent lives.”

According to Hunter, most drug-related crime arises to serve a person’s dependency. Even dealing drugs, except at the highest levels, is not about getting rich, he said.

“We forget the desperation of the people who are caught up in this, the hopelessness, the way that their thought process has been hijacked.”

Correction: Vermont State Police earlier provided an incorrect age for Gilliam.

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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