NORTH READING — A group of public works employees met early last Friday at Elm Street Cemetery. But they were not there to clean the grounds.
Instead, police say the North Reading DPW workers came to meet accused drug dealer John McNeil, pooling their money to order oxycodone and other narcotics for the weekend.
After observing the exchange, police and a federal drug agent followed McNeil as he drove to North Andover, where he met a man in his driveway, then returned to his home in North Reading.
In just over 90 minutes, four people, including two public works employees, went inside McNeil’s house, stayed for a few minutes, then quickly left, authorities said.
One of the public works employees, Scott McDonough, 42, was arrested 10 minutes after he bought two oxycodone pills for $35 each from McNeil, according to court records.
His arrest was the culmination of a lengthy local and federal investigation into the use of prescription painkillers by department employees, a wide-ranging criminal investigation that has spurred three resignations in recent days, including the longtime head of the department.
Seven other employees have been placed on paid leave in the widespread scandal, which has startled and angered residents in this bedroom community north of Boston. Authorities said many of the drug deals occurred while town employees were on the job, sometimes while operating equipment.
“I’m glad they caught them,” said resident Janet MacLean, 54. “If that kind of behavior filters down to the kids in town, then we’ve got more problems.”
In all, 10 of 25 department employees are off the job, raising concerns that daily operations will be compromised. Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto said he understands residents’ frustrations, and pledged to maintain normal services.
“People rightly expect to be able to have a functional Public Works Department that they can trust,” he said Thursday from his office at Town Hall. “We are working to ensure that.”
The Public Works Department, which oversees road repairs, trash and recycling pickup, and the maintenance of town buildings, will be temporarily overseen by the town engineer, Gilleberto said.
He said it was not clear whether the town would have to hire outside contractors to help with street sweeping, striping lines, and other spring jobs.
“We have had offers of help from surrounding towns,” Gilleberto said. “We’re very grateful for that. We will get the work done.”
Gilleberto said Richard Carnevale, who has served as the public works director for nearly seven years, had not been implicated in the criminal investigation but resigned in light of the drug scandal. He accepted the resignation Sunday, Gilleberto said.
Carnevale, the former head of public services in Peabody, could not be reached for comment.
Police Chief Michael Murphy said police began investigating in December after learning of suspected drug use in the department “through various sources and our own observations.”
An unidentified person told police that “John McNeil was supplying drugs to various employees of the DPW,” according to a police report.
So far, investigators have witnessed more than 20 interactions between McNeil and public works employees, police said.
The drug deals are “occurring while the employees are at work and operating town vehicles and equipment,” the report states.
The Middlesex district attorney’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration are assisting in the investigation.
Gilleberto said the town is launching its own inquiry, separate from the Police Department, to determine the scope of the problem and “aid the town in taking swift and decisive actions going forward.” The town will bring in a consultant to lead the investigation, he said.
McNeil, 56, was arrested at his home last Friday after police knocked on his door. Believing they were customers, he invited them inside, the police report stated. He was charged with 11 counts of conspiracy to violate drug laws after police found marijuana, oxycodone, and drug paraphernalia at his home, along with nearly $3,000 in cash in his pants pockets, police said.
McNeil, a private dump truck and snow plow operator who authorities say conducted business with several town departments, pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Monday.
McDonough, the public works employee, has also pleaded not guilty to drug charges. Neither McDonough, nor his attorney, Patrick McGonagle of Reading, returned calls seeking comment.
Across town, many residents shook their heads over the accusations, and wondered whether the town would suffer as a result.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Lisa Martini, 52, a resident for 16 years, said during lunchtime at McDonald’s on Main Street. “We live down a dirt road, and there are always tons of potholes all over the place. They always do a good job filling them.”
Others said they weren’t particularly fazed by the scandal. Given the state’s growing opioid epidemic, it was a sign of the times, they said.
“It’s everywhere,” one man said outside Town Hall. “That’s life today.”Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.