by Mike Donoghue
BURLINGTON — A Caledonia County man that operated a well-publicized drug trafficking ring that provided more than $10,000 a day in illegal sales on the so-called “Heroin Highway” in rural Stannard has been sentenced to nearly six years in federal prison.
Eric Colson III, 25, was told he will be under federal supervision for four years once he is freed from the 68-month prison term imposed in the high-profile trafficking case.
Colson was the main leader of a long-running drug conspiracy which led to the distribution of extraordinary quantities of heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nate Burris said in his sentencing memo.
The Colson drug distribution operation, which included his younger brother, became so notorious that local residents referred to Stannard Mountain as “Dope Hill” and even posted signs reading “Heroin Highway” on the road to the Colson residence, Burris noted.
One informant reported he or she never needed to call ahead to buy drugs at the Colson home: customers knew the two brothers had regular business hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day at the Stannard home, court records show.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss agreed on Friday to recommend the prison term be served at the federal prison in Devens, Mass. in the lowest possible security setting available to allow for family visitation. She also assessed $300 in court costs, but waived any fine. He was eligible for up to $5.75 million in fines.
Colson began as a small-time dealer selling drugs in 2018 to support his own addiction, court records show. His operation soon grew to a $10,000 a day trafficking business for fentanyl and crack cocaine, the government said. He used several techniques to try to avoid law enforcement detection, but in the end his greed sank him, officials said.
He drew in his younger brother, Gage Colson, 23, who was sentenced in July to 35 months in federal prison, followed by four years of federal supervised release.
After several controlled drug buys on behalf of police, a federal search warrant was executed at the home in September 2021.
The two brothers agreed to forfeit eight pistols, five rifles and three shotguns, along with 2,663 rounds of various calibers of ammunition seized from their home, court records show. They also forfeited $17,384 in cash that police confiscated.
Burris said the seized ammunition was “enough to arm a small army.”
Also seized during the raid were an AR-15-style rifle, body armor, a money counting machine and a home surveillance system located by investigators.
Federal, state and local law enforcement confiscated the items during a joint raid on September 10, 2021. Among the other drugs found were morphine sulfate, hydrocodone, buprenorphine and suboxone, court records show.
Eric Colson pleaded guilty in federal court in March to three felony charges, including the same conspiracy charge his brother admitted. It was for conspiring to distribute heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine between late 2018 and the high-profile drug raid at the family home in September 2021.
The older brother also admitted to knowingly maintaining the family homestead at 191 Hutchins Farm Road between late 2018 and September 10, 2021, for the purpose of distributing and using both heroin and fentanyl along with the manufacturing, distributing and using of crack cocaine at the residence.
The older Colson also pleaded guilty to carrying a firearm while involved in drug trafficking in September 2021.
He could have received a sentence of life in prison for that final charge, officials said.
The federal sentencing guidelines had recommended a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence for the gun charge. The other two counts would have concurrent penalties of 168 to 210 months, which would have to be consecutive to the gun count, court records show.
Burris and South Burlington defense lawyer Richard R. Goldsborough had both maintained substantially less should be imposed in part because of Colson’s immediate acceptance of responsibility and his personal efforts to turn his life around in the past two years.
Burris argued for a 72-month prison term.
Goldsborough had argued a sentence as low as 58 months with credit for time served would be sufficient for Eric Colson.
Goldsborough told the court that he petitioned the state court in St. Johnsbury to expunge a theft conviction in an effort to reduce the impact on the potential sentence Colson would face under the calculations used for the federal guidelines. He had been due for sentencing on July 27, but the motion was still pending.
The defense lawyer said his client has been a model prisoner at the Essex County (N.Y.) Jail while in pre-trial detention. Colson has been active in the St. Joseph’s Addiction and Treatment program offered at the jail, he said.
Colson also had several letters of support from his mother, Melanie Colson, and friends, Holly Newman of East Hardwick, Abigail Lanphear of Belvidere, and from a worker at a mentoring program known as DREAM.
Reiss still admitted she had concerns about Colson’s future.
“I’m worried he will head back into the environment,” the judge said in court.
Colson gave his word to the judge. “Nothing like this will happen again,” Colson said. He said he plans to go to church and have a better life when he gets out.
Reiss asked how he got into the trouble.
“I have trouble saying no,” Colson explained. “I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to help people.”
Reiss said she was amazed that some members of the family still indicate they were oblivious to what was happening in the community of 200.
She said the drug signs posted by neighbors along the road and the continuous daily short-term visits to the Colson home were some big clues.
“Everybody knew what’s going on,” Reiss said.
The younger brother, Gage Colson, also got a break from the prosecution and Judge Reiss when sentenced. He had accepted responsibility for his crimes and there were questions about his cognitive and emotional disabilities, background and psychiatric diagnoses, lawyers said.
Judge Reiss also ruled the younger brother’s federal term would be concurrent to any sentence imposed on him for a domestic assault case that was pending in Caledonia County at the time of the federal sentencing. Reiss noted Gage Colson was trying to be treated under the Youthful Offender Law in the domestic assault case in state court to avoid any jail time for that crime. Vermont has no facilities to hold juvenile criminals.
The Vermont legislature has been trying to raise the age of young adult offenders to 23 years old, so they are called Youthful Offenders, and their court hearings can be held behind closed doors. Their confidential records also will later be expunged so the public or law enforcement will never know about past criminal conduct, even if they get arrested again for the same offense or new crimes.
Gage Colson pleaded guilty plea in May 2022 to a single felony charge for conspiracy to distribute heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine between late 2018 and a high-profile drug raid at the family home on Sept. 10, 2021.
One informant in the sweeping investigation reported counting money for Eric Colson and estimated he was peddling $10,000 to $20,000 a day in controlled substances, while a second source of information estimated it closer to $125,000 every few days, court records show.
The second source said he or she accompanied Eric Colson when he would get new drugs, but was asked to leave the vehicle just before he met his drug supplier, court records note.
Investigators said two other sources of information reported they were involved in the theft of about $75,000 worth of heroin and cocaine from Eric Colson on the property in August 2020. They said they were regular customers buying large qualities of prepackaged heroin and crack cocaine from Eric Colson several times a week, court records show.
Their parents also live on the property and Eric Colson III and a girlfriend lived above the garage in an apartment, court records show.