By Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First
A version of this news story was first published in the Caledonian-Record newspaper in St. Johnsbury.
One of two brothers that operated a major drug trafficking ring that provided more than $10,000 in business daily along the so-called “Heroin Highway” in rural Stannard has been sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison.
Gage Colson, 23, got a break from the prosecution and the sentencing judge on Friday because he accepted responsibility and there were questions about his cognitive and emotional disabilities, background and psychiatric diagnoses.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss ruled the 35-month federal term would be concurrent to any sentence imposed on Colson in a pending domestic assault case in state court in Caledonia County.
The lawyers were unable to say during the federal sentencing the status of the state prosecution, but Reiss noted Colson had apparently asked to be treated as a Youthful Offender in the state assault case. Defense lawyer John-Claude Charbonneau noted state courts had slowed during COVID and things are still “dragging on and on.”
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.
Reiss also told Colson he would be on federal supervised release for four years once he is discharged from prison.
Colson had 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.
Charbonneau of Rutland had maintained his client had a minor role in the long-running trafficking conspiracy. He urged a time-served sentence, which would have equated to nearly six months in custody.
Charbonneau said he believed his client performed mostly menial tasks directed by his older brother, Eric Colson III, 25, of Stannard, who was a kingpin and is still awaiting sentencing.
Reiss questioned whether Gage Colson had a minor role in the conspiracy if he was the one assigned to use a blender to add fentanyl to the deadly drugs, and he was allowed to count the large amount of money flowing into the house. She said a slip with the fentanyl might have caused some fatal overdoses.
Charbonneau, a former federal prosecutor, said allowing Colson to count the money was based on a position of trust within the family. In the end, Reiss gave Colson credit for being a minor participant.
Charbonneau said tests showed the younger Colson has an intellectual and emotional age closer to 14 or 15 years old.
The defense lawyer also noted that Colson’s mother reports getting phone calls from the Price Chopper store where he worked, wondering how soon he could return to work.
The older Colson pleaded guilty in federal court in March to three felony charges, including the same conspiracy charge his brother admitted.
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 and is facing up to life in prison for that charge.
The two brothers also have agreed to forfeit eight pistols, five rifles and three shotguns, along with 2,663 rounds of various calibers of ammunition seized from their home. They also will forfeit $17,384 in cash.
Federal, state and local law enforcement seized the items during a joint raid on September 10, 2021.
Investigators said they also confiscated body armor, a money counter, various drugs, including morphine sulfate, hydrocodone, buprenorphine and suboxone. Also seized were various containers of marijuana, including glass jars, baggies, a grocery bag, and at least a pair of 5-gallon pails, records show.
The federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, had suggested a possible penalty of 108 to 135 months in prison, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Nate Burris had proposed 45 months and three years of supervised release.
Reiss said she was concerned about mental health challenges for Colson in reducing the proposed sentence. Colson had a one-month emergency psychiatric hospitalization at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center from Oct. 6, 2022, to Nov. 8, 2022, Charbonneau said in court papers.
The older Colson could receive up to 40 years in prison for the drug conspiracy count, between 5 years and up to life in prison for using the gun while trafficking drugs and up to 20 years for running the drug house. He also faces $5.75 million in fines.
His defense lawyer, Richard R. Goldsborough of South Burlington, was sitting in the back of the fifth-floor courtroom, monitoring the sentencing hearing. Eric Colson was due for sentencing on July 27, but Goldsborough has won a delay. He is attempting to get Colson’s criminal record from age 18 adjusted so it won’t have an impact on the federal sentence. The motion is pending in state court in St. Johnsbury.
Reiss, Burris and Charbonneau all acknowledged the Colson conspiracy was considered one of the biggest illegal drug businesses in recent memory in the Northeast Kingdom section of Vermont.
Neighbors in the community of 200 posted signs for “Heroin Highway” because of the extensive traffic to the Colson house on Stannard Mountain, the Vermont Drug Task Force said. The site became so notorious that locals dubbed the mountain as “Dope Hill.”
One informant 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.
One informant reported he or she never needed to call ahead to buy drugs: customers knew the brothers had regular business hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day at the Stannard home, court records show.
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.