Federal authorities say they arrested a New York man and his mother as a reported 110-pound cocaine deal was going down outside a South Burlington hotel.
And the South Burlington drug bust apparently sparked the abduction of an elderly New York couple and the subsequent extortion attempt to try to recover the illegal drugs or be paid $3.5 million, officials and court records indicate.
At least eight people were arrested in Vermont, New York and Canada in what reads like a made-for-TV movie script. A Greek-based organized crime group in Canada is believed behind the abduction and extortion attempt, according to reports from authorities in Canadian media.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration apprehended Mackenzie Helm, 28, and his mother, Michelle Helm, 44, both of Moira, N.Y., outside the Doubletree Hotel on Williston Road on Sept. 21, federal court records indicate.
Mackenzie Helm’s grandparents, James Helm Sr., 76, and his wife, Sandra Helm, 70, were kidnapped about 10:30 p.m. Sept. 27 from their Moira, N.Y., home – about 60 miles west of Plattsburgh, officials said.
They were secretly transported by boat across the international border into Canada, officials said. They were held at a remote home in Quebec’s eastern townships, the FBI said.
The elderly couple was reported missing Sept. 28 when Mr. Helm, the longtime town highway superintendent in Moira, N.Y., failed to appear for work that morning, police said.
One of his sons checked the residence on State Route 95 and found signs of a forced entry and a struggle, court records show.
Several demands by the abductors were made to at least one family member during a series of phone calls, which authorities said they were later able to pinpoint the locations.
“Co-conspirator A demanded the return of 50 kilograms of cocaine or in the alternative, $3.5 million,” FBI Special Agent Tamara S. Deming said in a court affidavit. The caller made reference to the organization and believed that a specific person had stolen its 50 kilos of coke, she said.
The conspirators were willing to trade the elderly couple for the unnamed man who was believed to have the 50 kilos. The safe return of the elderly couple was promised, Deming said.
The only problem was the DEA in Vermont had the cocaine as evidence.
The conspirators also were concerned for the health of the elderly Mrs. Helm. At one point a “proof of life” photograph of the victims showing Mrs. Helm seated and her husband standing beside her was sent by the abductors to a family member, records show.
Another text was sent to the son about 8:43 p.m. Sept. 28 that “Parents are sleeping. 12 PM tomorrow trade for (name is redacted in court papers.)”
Canadian authorities tracked the phones and surrounded a house near Snye, Quebec where they found one co-conspirator the morning of Sept. 29. Police later identified two other phones involved in the case and traced them to Magog, Quebec., where they safely rescued the couple. The house is about 25 miles north of Newport, Vt. on Lake Memphremagog.
About an hour before they were nabbed by the DEA, Mrs. Helm and her son had made two purchases at Kohl’s Department store in the University Mall about 20 minutes apart that included at least three suitcases, records show. They drove in their van to the Best Western Hotel on Williston Road east of Interstate 89 but moved about a half mile west to the Doubletree Hotel for the drug deal, the DEA said.
The suitcases, which still had their price tags on them, were apparently going to be used to transfer the cocaine from duffel bags to them so they could continue their distribution route, the DEA said.
It is unclear where the Helms were between being nabbed by the DEA on Sept. 21 and appearing in federal court the afternoon of Sept. 30.
The gallery in the federal courtroom in Burlington was empty except for one newspaper reporter and a court officer when the case for the Helms was first called on Sept. 30. The government asked for a continuance until Monday to determine if they should be detained. The prosecutor, the two defense lawyers, and the Helms, who were in Vermont jails, phoned into the courtroom to speak briefly with Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy.
The following day a federal grand jury in Vermont subsequently indicted them on a single felony conspiracy charge. During the Monday hearing, Mackenzie Helm and his mother entered not guilty pleas to the indictment for conspiring with others — known and unknown to the grand jury — to distribute cocaine.
Conroy agreed with a defense request to allow 90 days to investigate the criminal case and to file pre-trial motions. Conroy said they are due by Jan. 4.
Conroy agreed to release Mrs. Helm and her son on the strict conditions recommended by the Pre-Trial Services Office. He noted they had strong and longtime ties to the community.
He also noted both admitted to be daily marijuana users.
“That is going to have to stop,” said Conroy if they were to be released on conditions from federal court.
Veteran defense lawyer Rick Bothfeld of Burlington noted Mrs. Helm and her husband have three children, including an 18-year-old daughter with an infant child that are residing at the family home. Her husband is a lineman and was returning from Ohio to help his wife with her legal problems in Vermont, Bothfeld said.
The DEA reported Mrs. Helm said she came along with her son to Vermont to make sure he did not get arrested. She was aware that he often did marijuana pickups. Her job was to rent the van and she expected to get paid, the DEA said in court papers.
Prosecutor Michael Drescher asked the court to order the Helms not to discuss the criminal case with each other, or with other witnesses.
Michelle Helm had been held at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, while her son had been held at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town.
Conroy also ruled Mackenzie Helm had too much wealth to have a lawyer appointed at taxpayer expense. He told the court during the Sept. 30 hearing that he owns property in Moira and Lyon Mountain, N.Y.
Conroy gave him 10 days to hire a defense lawyer and asked the Assistant Federal Defender, who was sitting in, to offer names of top defense lawyers.
Under questioning by Conroy, Michelle Helm acknowledged she had received about $60,000 in two insurance settlements several years ago, but had used the money on the family residence.
“I don’t have it anymore,” she said in reference to the settlement money. She also acknowledged she has an unspecified felony conviction on her record from the 1990s.
Conroy said the case would be assigned to Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey Crawford, who often presides in Rutland.
The FBI arrested Graigory Brown, 50, of Plattsburgh, N.Y. last Thursday on a charge of conspiracy to kidnap the elderly couple from their New York home and helping to get them transported into Canada, records show.
At least four co-conspirators are facing kidnapping and extortion-related charges in Canada, federal officials said.
Brown appeared in U.S. District Court in Plattsburgh, N.Y. last Friday and was ordered jailed until at least a detention hearing this week. During a hearing for Tuesday the defense asked for a one week continuance based on a new background report by the Pre-Trial Services Office filed with the court about Brown, records show. U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary L. Favro continued the hearing until Oct. 13 and agreed to alaso hold a probable cause hearing on Oct. 15.
Favro did explain last week during the initial 8-minute hearing the defendant’s legal rights and his entitlement to a probable cause hearing.
Brown’s truck was seen near the abduction site about the time of the kidnapping, the FBI said. A screwdriver recovered from his Dodge Ram truck appeared to match the device used to force entry into the Helm residence.
After the FBI arrested Brown, he told investigators that the elderly couple was abducted after a determination was made that one of their sons could not be done successfully, court records show.
If convicted, Brown faces up to a maximum sentence of life in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and a 5-year term of supervised release, if and when released from prison.
Provincial Police in Quebec eventually arrested five of Brown’s co-conspirators, officials said. One was released pending further investigation.
WPTZ-TV identified the other four arrested as: George Dritsas, 75, of Magog, Que.; Kosnas Dritsas, 49, of Mont-Royal, Que.; Taylor Martin, 31, of Akwesasne, Que.; Franco D’Onofrio, 55, of Magog, Que.
They are due back in court in Canada this week.
Acting U. S. Attorney Antoinette T. Bacon in New York said, “Brown and his co-conspirators put an elderly couple through a terrifying ordeal.”