Lance Rice started his last day in Franklin County on a scarred, wooden bench in the Greenfield courthouse. He was waiting for his probation officer to call him in for his third drug screening of the week.
“At this point, I hate coming here. I’m here all the time,” said Rice. “But today will be the last time I’m here for a long time.”
A friend sitting nearby glared at him; Rice corrected himself.
“I plan to never be here again.”
Four months earlier, Rice, 23, was led down this hallway in handcuffs and shackles through a gauntlet of spectators from Turners Falls. The picturesque former milltown of 4,500 people, nestled in the Berkshire foothills, had been racked by a string of burglaries over the past year, and Rice was a prime suspect.
Rice is both a victim and perpetrator of what police are calling a heroin epidemic in rural Western Massachusetts. Narcotics investigators say that in the past three to five years they have watched the drug move from big cities to small towns, where their Main Streets have been hit by a wave of crime.
Rice had been caught on security camera breaking into a downtown bike shop. He was later caught breaking into a home, carrying an iPod Touch and prescription pills that were missing from another house.
He had been facing 10 years in jail, but he pleaded guilty in drug court and spent only 200 days behind bars. His sentence includes a nine-month drug rehab program and 18 months of probation.
On this day, his last before moving to New Bedford for rehab, Rice had a busy schedule. Get through the drug screening. Thank his probation officer. Say goodbye to friends and family. And go meet Nina Rossi.
Nina Rossi is an artist and shopowner in Turners Falls who had asked to meet Rice. It was her iPod and pills that he stole.
“She was one my victims, as you could call it,” said Rice, who was wearing in a white T-shirt, gold chain, faux-diamond earrings, and the same red baseball cap he’d worn the night he’d burglarized Rossi’s house. “I look forward to meeting her and apologizing, because I just wasn’t myself.”
Rice followed a path to addiction that police say is typical of the rural epidemic: He started with opiate pills. When he was 16, a friend offered him stolen tablets of the prescription painkiller Percocet. At the time, he said, his father was in prison, and his mother’s new boyfriend was abusive. His troubles, he said, “all go away when you’re high.”
As Rice’s tolerance increased, he could spend up to $300 a day on pills. By the time he graduated from high school, he said, “I wanted something cheaper, I wanted something to get me higher. And a friend of mine introduced me to a bag of heroin. After that, it was all downhill.”
Rice and his friends would drive 45 minutes to Holyoke and Springfield, where heroin is cheap – $5 to $10 a bag – and easy to find. They would bring the drug north via what many in law enforcement refer to as the I-91 “drug corridor.” Back in their small town, they could resell heroin for more money and fund their own habits.
Although exact numbers are hard to come by, Franklin County Sheriff Chris Donelan says rural heroin use has spiked since 2010 – so much so that in April 2013, the Northwest District Attorney’s Office launched a regional narcotics task force. In its first two months, police made 15 arrests. Donelan says police are focused on stemming heroin distribution, as well as the related theft that has stunned quiet towns like Turners Falls.
Rice said he began stealing after he got fired from his restaurant job. “I was with a friend and I think we must have been very desperate and very sick,” he said. “When you’re in that state of mind, you come up with the quickest way you can feel better. If we saw the opportunity, we would go for it.”
By last fall, almost every downtown business in Turners Falls had been hit, followed by a few homes. Community members worried the crime spree – perpetrated by Rice and several others — was threatening Turners Falls’ delicate reputation as an up-and-coming arts town. One upscale restaurant closed for good after a break-in.
In September 2012, Rice was arrested for three burglaries – including at Nina Rossi’s house. When he got out of jail in April — a month before his rehab program was to start — he resolved to stay sober with help from court-mandated AA meetings, a strict probation officer, and random drug screenings.
By then, Rice’s dazed mugshot was staple of the local paper, The Montague Reporter, and he sensed anger and suspicion from people who recognized him on the street. “I don’t blame people for reacting how they did,” he said. When the newspaper’s editor offered Rice a guest column to write his side of the story, he accepted.
Over two issues, Rice explained his transformation from “a talented, smart, young man” into a self-loathing addict he didn’t recognize, “caught up in a vicious cycle I could not stop.” He described nearly dying from a drug-overdose and the nightmarish cycles of “dope sickness” including cold sweats, nausea, and the feeling of bugs crawling under his skin. He admitted to stealing, but asked for the town’s compassion.
“Addiction is a disease,” he wrote. “We are people just as you, who need help. So I ask, before you jump to a conclusion, remember this could happen to you.’
When Nina Rossi picked up a copy of the paper, she related to Rice’s story.
Rossi began drinking heavily when she was 15, and like Rice, stole to maintain her habit. She would take vintage clothes from storage units and resell them. She hitchhiked at night so she could get invited into strangers’ homes and raid their medicine cabinets. “I was a mess,” she said. “Maybe it would’ve made a difference for me if someone had broken into my life and said ‘I care.’”
Rossi got sober in 1998. Now 53, she has a family and a job building wheelchairs for injured pets. She also owns a downtown Turners Falls shop – Nina’s Nook — where she sells her own and other’s art.
The day Rice burglarized her house, Rossi said, she felt violated, knowing he had rifled through her personal things. But a month after police returned her iPod, she discovered a photo that Rice had taken of himself.
“He was in this haze,” Rossi said, describing the quality of the picture, and the vacant look in Rice’s eyes. “It creeped me out, and then it just kind of grew on me. I had a sense there was something good there.”
Rossi began to follow Rice’s case with more empathy than anger. She sat quietly in the courthouse hallway the day he was led by in handcuffs. And after Rice’s story ran in the Montague Reporter, she asked the editor for his e-mail address and sent him a message.
“Although I was really pissed about all the damage you were doing it was obvious to me that you were not malicious or criminal, only addicted,” she wrote. “I looked at your face many times in the picture you took of yourself on my ipod . . . Honestly, I have wept for you since I sensed in your face you have a tender soul despite whatever you did.”
She asked him to visit her at her shop before he left for rehab. Come at 4 p.m., she wrote, before it gets crowded.
He immediately accepted, and made plans to meet her the day before he left for rehab in New Bedford.
Rice considers the move out of Turners Falls a chance to start over. “It is a small town and I kind of made a name for myself here,” he said. “I really don’t think after everything that happened that I have a real good chance out here to do the things I want to do.”
Eventually, he wants to move to Boston or Cape Cod to become a counselor for substance abusers.
But first things first.
At 4 p.m., Lance smoothed his hair, put on his red baseball cap, and ambled down the main street. Lighting a cigarette, he stopped just before he got to Nina’s Nook. He’d been passing the store for months, but never realized it belonged to the woman whose house he’d broken into to.
“You know, it’s a little nerve wracking,” he said. “But I’m facing everything now.”
He put out his cigarette on the sidewalk, and knocked on her door.
Afterward, Rice called their meeting “amazing” and supportive. Rossi said it eased her mind.
Rossi said they hugged several times. She wished him strength in his recovery and gave him a pebble from her shop with a heart painted on it. He took it with him the next morning to rehab, and promised to stay in touch.
Karen D. Brown can be reached at Karen@karenbrownreports.org.