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Besieged in Salem, couple sounds alarm on drug trade just outside

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Shawn Meenan has started using a long piece of lumber to brace his front door so intruders cannot enter his Salem condominium.Matthew J. Lee

SALEM — Every night, Shawn Meenan places a 12-foot piece of lumber against the main door of his third-floor condo, bracing it tight against intruders.

His girlfriend, Rachel Shellabarger, places a second board against another door. In a cubbyhole, a video monitor for a $1,700 surveillance system shows all activity outside the building — every car that pulls up, every three-minute visit, every mysterious packet that flutters from neighboring windows to people waiting below.

The couple bought the two-bedroom condo in January 2015 for its water views and affordable price. But instead of a fresh start, they say they feel under siege in a place where drugs are sold openly.


The pair consider themselves overlooked collateral damage in the Massachusetts opioid epidemic. While the toll of the crisis on addicts and their families has been a central focus, the dangers and fear faced by others living amid the drug trade have received much less attention.

"I have never felt so out-of-control helpless," said Shellabarger, who manages the sleep center and neurodiagnostic labs at North Shore Medical Center. "I don't know how much longer I can go on."

Meenan, a former Pennsylvania state trooper, said that he has seen at least 50 suspected drug deals since March and that he has video of most of them.

Meenan and Shellabarger say they have not been physically threatened, but their car has been vandalized twice and they feel unsafe.

Salem police insist that the neighborhood — called the Point — is no more dangerous than others and that they have responded by adding special surveillance in the area. But the couple say their repeated complaints to police, and to the other owners and condo trustees, have gone unheeded.

"We feel abandoned, absolutely," Meenan said.

Added Shellabarger: "We're at a point of no return here. Our lives revolve around which door we're going to go out and who we have to go past."


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Across the city, Salem recorded 123 overdoses and 15 related fatalities in 2015, police said, and the pace this year is roughly the same. In the Point, there were 26 overdoses in 2015, and five of them this year. Authorities last week did not break down the number of drug fatalities in the neighborhood.

Although police downplayed safety concerns, a 27-year-old man was shot dead in March within blocks of Meenan's and Shellabarger's condo. In April, another gunman fired at police nearby. Both shootings were drug-related, according to Salem police Captain Conrad Prosniewski.

Meenan drives Shellabarger to and from work. She never leaves the condo alone. And the pair check the video monitor before they go out, looking for activity near either of the ground-level entrances.

"It's nerve-racking. You never know what you're walking into," he said in a recent interview at the condo.

The couple — Meenan is 52; Shellabarger, 47 — live in the city's densest neighborhood, which is where waves of earlier immigrants settled. Much of the housing, which includes many multifamily units, has seen better days, but Mayor Kim Driscoll said she is working closely with residents to revitalize the Point.

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Meenan and Shellabarger, who are each divorced and have a total of three adult children who live elsewhere, said they do not have the financial means to leave at this time. So, they take each day as it comes, managing the stresses.


To chronicle that life, the pair have created a website where they post videos of suspicious activity.

In one posting, from 4 p.m. on March 12, the camera shows a small boy chasing an errant football that has been thrown into the building's parking lot.

As the boy picks up the football, a man walks into the field of view. The boy looks up, and a small white packet — which appears to resemble the kind used for heroin — floats down to the asphalt. The child scurries away, and the man retrieves the package.

Salem police have been given that video, Meenan said. "This was gift-wrapped evidence," he added with a shrug of his shoulders.

"For them not to get the resources to make this happen, to make us safe, is mind-boggling," Shellabarger said.

Rachel Shellabarger says she and her boyfriend feel under siege in their neighborhood because drugs are sold openly.Matthew J. Lee

As a result, the couple said, they have stopped calling police. Instead, they rely on their instincts and defenses such as the surveillance system.

Prosniewski, the Salem police captain, rejected the couple's complaints that police have ignored their calls for action, which have included videos of suspected drug deals, times and dates of suspicious transactions, and lists of names and license plate numbers.

"What they're giving us is good information, but it's not enough to arrest someone," he said. "Believe me when I tell you our detectives are extremely aggressive."


Between April 9 and May 7, Prosniewski said, police watched the building on nine occasions in four-hour shifts each time. Nothing came of that surveillance, he said.

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The captain said he believes that the couple's concerns have merit, but he stressed that police cannot watch the building 24 hours a day. Salem, like nearly everywhere else in Massachusetts, is grappling with an opioid problem that does not confine itself to individual neighborhoods.

"We have given that area an awful lot of attention," Prosniewski said. "Ninety-five percent of the people there are very, very nice people and want to see the area cleaned up."

He was adamant that the Point does not have an outsize share of drug dealing in this historic city of 43,000 people.

"Drug activity? Yeah, there's drug activity," he said. "Is it a dangerous place? No."

Prosniewski said police will continue to investigate crime in the Point, just as the department does everywhere else in the city.

In the meantime, Meenan and Shellabarger said they will remain vigilant and keep to guarded routines. An important reason for staying put, at least temporarily, is that Shellabarger enjoys her work.

Still, she worries that unrelenting anxiety will exacerbate the effects of her multiple sclerosis.

"I can't live like this for another year,'' Shellabarger said. "We either have to get some relief or get out."

On the wall off their kitchen is a 1996 letter of commendation from the Pennsylvania State Police. Meenan's curiosity during a routine traffic stop led to the discovery of a kidnapped man, bleeding and badly beaten, in the vehicle's trunk.


Twenty years later, he wonders where to turn.

"I was going to hang an American flag upside-down out the window," Meenan said of an official signal of distress. "I figured that would get some attention."

Related coverage:

Special Report: A life unraveling

Evan Horowitz: It's not an opiate crisis, it's a heroin crisis

Maura Healey: Cutting off the opioid epidemic at the root

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at