Like a lot of people “from away” with a stake in Maine, I’ve been reading Down East magazine for several years now. It was a comfort read, something that connected me to the state.
It took awhile to notice that something seemed to have … changed about it.
Sure, it still had the beautiful photos of Maine that made summer people want to get on a plane to Portland, even though it was 10 below. It still had the monthly features like the reader-engagement “Where in Maine?” and the folksy small-town Down East Dispatches.
But it had something else I hadn’t noticed before. An edge. Some of the covers were cooler (like the one featuring a close-up black-and-white photo of the last members of a Maine Shaker community.) The problems in the state were sharing more space with “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” And the storytelling was adventurous (like this one about a restaurateur, told in the second person).
Nothing impressed me more, though, than a story called “The Belfast Operation,” by staff writer (now managing editor) Brian Kevin. Cinematic from the get-go, it proves yet again that regional magazines journalism can go head to head with narrative journalism in bigger outlets like the Los Angeles Times (where I worked) and the New Yorker.
Now I’m a full-time Maine resident, I spent some time with Brian, both online and in person, and asked him about the piece.
How did you find out about this drug gang from 30 years ago? And did you immediately know its potential for a great yarn?
I read Joshuah Bearman’s great Atavist story “Coronado High” one Sunday morning back in late 2013, I think. And it had a Maine connection, a sequence or two where the cartel in that story was offloading here. I wanted to read more on that, so I did some Googling and found, among other things, an old wire story from the late ’80s about the difficulty of policing Maine’s coastline. It referenced the incidents that Bearman had described, but then it also mentioned this vast rural cocaine operation on the midcoast, which is where I live and work. I’m not a native Mainer, so it didn’t surprise me that I’d never heard about it, but then I started asking friends and colleagues who’ve been here all their lives, and at best, they remembered it only vaguely. We were coming upon the 30th anniversary of the bust, and it just seemed like something worth revisiting (not least because it has elements of a cautionary tale, as Maine is experiencing another rural drug epidemic).
Talk a bit about conjuring a different Maine — one of trailers and living in Swanville and dogs named Yeller — from the postcard-perfect “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.”
Not having grown up here and — if I’m being honest — not sharing the same starry-eyed enchantment that a lot of (particularly urban) New Englanders seem to have for the Maine coast, there’s not so much tension for me between Maine the idyllic “Vacationland” and Maine as it’s lived and experienced by people in my income bracket and below. This is a very odd and very cool state, and I’m super fond of it, but I’m a Midwest/northern Rockies transplant. I’d never even seen a Maine postcard until I was suddenly living in one about six years ago, so I don’t feel any particular obligation to maintain that postcard illusion.
From a publishing standpoint, Down East is not an organ of the chamber of commerce or the tourism bureau. Our job isn’t to promote Maine; it’s to tell Maine’s stories. And there are great stories here — some of them have to do with that classic Vacationland vibe; others not so much. Maybe there was a time when you could run a magazine by only offering a magnified version of what a postcard offers? I don’t know. But any printed product in 2016 needs to offer more than just a fix. Playboy realized last year they couldn’t run a successful mag by filling its pages with beautiful naked women. We aren’t going to do it with lighthouses. And I say this as someone who likes lighthouses.
I feel like this might be useful insight into the kind of resources that small, regional publications are working with. I sometimes hear more accomplished writers chatting on this or that podcast about the time they’ll lavish on a marquee project for a big-budget mag, focusing on only that piece, and I just can’t even wrap my head around what that must be like.
This really does read like a movie. (Hollywood pitch: Coen Brothers meet Scarface in midcoast Maine). Do you consciously think or write cinematically?
Sure, in this instance I did, because the story lent itself to it. It unfolded in three acts. Or, I guess more likely, my brain has been trained by a lifetime of true-crime narratives and “Behind the Music” episodes to process it in three acts. But there are plenty of other assignments that just don’t lend themselves to that cinematic narrative style, and I’d get bored pretty quick if every piece I worked on was that sort.
One thing I loved about the story was the low-key humor running throughout, kind of my favorite combo: lunacy and sorrow. How hard was that to balance in a piece like this?
Ha, thanks. I started working on this at the start of 2014, when we’d all just come off five years of watching “Breaking Bad,” right? So maybe my brain was already steeped in that lunacy/sorrow binary. But honestly, I don’t feel like I made any conscious effort to weave in lunacy. I think the reader brings a lot of that from experience. If you’re somebody who hasn’t spent a lot of time in rural places — and you have an idea in your head about what a drug-runner is supposed to look like — then the idea of someone moving large quantities of blow at a small-town paper mill, or of a cop having to store evidence in his yard for lack of room at the station, or of putting a cooler of beer in the back seat of your car and drinking and driving as recreation — these things may well strike you as quirky and/or absurd. But they’re pretty prosaic to a lot of people in flyover country.
How long did this take to report, write and edit? Was the time commitment unusual for Down East?
The research and reporting stretched out over about 10 months. I was a freelancer and a contributing editor for the first half of that, and they sweet-talked me into a desk job partway through. I was mostly reading and digging through microform for the first several months — I don’t think I started the interviews until July, and we shipped this in November, for a January issue. And of course, I was balancing a bunch of other projects throughout; only for the last month or so did this become my number one priority, and the lion’s share of the writing was done in that time. I went through three drafts on my own in those weeks, but the somewhat embarrassing truth is that this hardly had an editor (and it probably shows). My EIC was on parental leave during the month that this shipped, which left exactly two editors putting out a 120ish-page monthly mag with 100,000 circ. My colleague Ginny Wright (Down East’s senior editor) gave it a hard read and made some good edits, but we were pretty strapped, and I don’t think 10 days passed from the time I showed this to her to the day we sent it to the printer.
I feel like this might be useful insight into the kind of resources that small, regional publications are working with. I sometimes hear more accomplished writers chatting on this or that podcast about the time they’ll lavish on a marquee project for a big-budget mag, focusing on only that piece, and I just can’t even wrap my head around what that must be like. As a freelancer, I have never had the luxury of working on any fewer than five or six projects at a time. I imagine few freelancers do. As a Down East editor, I have the day-to-day workings of a magazine to manage and any research/reporting/writing happens on top of that. I bet I have three other bylines in the issue where this story ran. I know I was running the front-of-book then, and I edited one of the other features in the well that month. I had a 4,000ish-word feature in each of the next two issues that followed this one, so each of those was in various stages of completion at the time I was wrapping up “The Belfast Operation.”
All of which is only to say that there’s a level of omni-multitasking at a mag like ours, where we’re perennially kind of punching above our weight, and it makes it tough in retrospect to hash out just how much time was devoted to any one project.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
By Brian Kevin
Originally published in Down East magazine in January 2015
Susan Pierce couldn’t pinpoint the moment she fell in love with Norman Grenier — poor Norman, serious and sensitive Norman — but it was the night she overdosed at her boyfriend Dickie’s place in 1982 that something inside of her first stirred. Norman had found her convulsing on the bathroom floor after shooting up cocaine. He had put a toothbrush in her mouth to keep her from biting off her tongue, then stayed with her on the floor until she came to. When she got herself right, the first thing she saw was his pale face and reddish hair and those somber dark eyes looking down at her. I think this is my favorite lede of the last year. It has so much going on, in a good way: the repetition in the “poor Norman” bit, the toothbrush to keep her from biting her tongue off, but especially the juxtaposition of her overdose and starting to fall in love. Was this always your lede? And how many versions did it go through to get it right? That’s very nice of you. Nope, this was the ultra-rare instance where I put this down on the first pass and stuck with it. I wanted to make it pretty unambiguous up front that we’re getting Susan’s POV, and that “poor Norman” phrase seemed like an intuitive way to do it. It was something she said a lot during our talks. I’m guess I’m kind of doing the Trump thing here too of just deciding how I want you to feel about a person, tacking that adjective in front of their name, and repeating it till it clicks. Trump learned that from me.
Susan was into bad boys then. At 23, she’d been into them at least since she dropped out of high school in Clinton — Maine’s dairy capital, population 2,500ish Ish! Takes a boring statistic that could distance a reader and makes it droll, invites them on your joy ride. Do you like adding a bit of humor even in serious stories? Certainly. I’ve always loved how every small town seems to have that mark of distinction that it clings to, that left-field reason that it’s exceptional, which inevitably just ends up emphasizing its humdrummedness. (I’m a proud son of “Wisconsin’s Sawdust Capital.”) — and set out for New York. She met her fair share of them while dealing cards in a private Manhattan gambling club, and as a sometimes-paramour to the club’s hedonistic patrons, she was introduced to champagne, caviar, and cocaine. She’d stumbled at dawn out of Studio 54 more times than she could remember. For a few years there, all Susan Pierce wanted from life were nice clothes, jewelry, and limousines, and she’d learned long ago how to use her looks to get what she wanted. She was blonde and shapely, with come-hither eyes she could turn on and off. Years later, when everything fell apart, the newspapers would describe her even in the throes of addiction as “an attractive, fashionable blonde.” Poor Norman, meanwhile, they called “shabby looking and overweight.” Can you talk about deciding to signpost in the top that it all ends in tears? Did you ever think of not letting readers know so explicitly? I see you did it with a parenthetical, almost throwaway, phrase. Right, and that’s the other idea behind “poor Norman,” and acknowledging here that everything eventually goes south. It never really struck me as an option to try and be cagey about how this ends, because come on, you know how this ends. You’ve seen this movie. The (anti-)heroes start out humble and relatable, they get ambitious, they fly high, and then it all comes crashing down. There’s nothing original about the story, just the setting and (maybe) the telling. And we never seem to get tired of it. There’s also an issue of audience for a magazine like ours, which is that our readers are 60/40ish people who don’t live in Maine / people who do. (Then we’ll have a few stories a year, like this one, that hit the web and end up garnering a bonus audience of people who don’t have any particular relationship to Maine.) So I’m also working around the fact that among that 40% is a not-small number of readers who may well remember this story from the papers and who know what’s coming — if not the specifics of Norman’s death, the fact that it ends with violence and a big police bust.
But Susan’s attraction to Norman never had to do with looks. At first, before the night of the overdose, it mostly had to do with his cocaine. Burned out on a life of big-city excess, Susan had come back to Maine intent on law school — she’d once been a straight-A student — but it turned out she was still into bad boys, and she should have known she’d end up on multi-day coke binges with a stupid thug like Dickie. The first time Norman had walked into Dickie’s place, Susan had thought that he radiated — what, exactly? Confidence, intelligence, subtlety. He wasn’t a roughneck lout like Dickie or a swaggering fink like the high rollers in Manhattan. Here, Susan thought, was a businessman, a quiet pro who’d moved up to Maine from Rhode Island and was giving away coke to guys like Dickie, recruiting them as his street-level dealers.
After the overdose, Norman stopped coming around for a while. He called Susan weeks later to apologize for his absence — he’d been banged up in a car accident, he said. Only then did she realize that Norman had been hanging around Dickie’s mostly to see her. She left Dickie for Norman and didn’t look back.
The two of them got a place together in Swanville, just north of Belfast, at the end of a forested cul-de-sac atop a small hill. Susan had a driver’s license, which Norman, after his accident, did not. So together they made periodic rounds to visit the network of coke dealers that Norman had assembled. They rented a car and put a cooler of Budweisers in the back. With the windows down and the radio up, they drank the Buds and held hands and drove the back roads of coastal Maine, carefree as any hell-raising pair of rural twenty-somethings. It was an all-American scene right out of a John Cougar Mellencamp anthem — all except for the drugs.
This has the feel of a line you said, joking, to someone as you talked about the story, and then you realized it was a great one. Was it? And even if it wasn’t, do you find that talking about a story focuses you? Like, if you’re having trouble doing a Hollywood pitch of a story – ie, reeling someone in with a few words –you don’t have it down in your head yet?
Ha, if that was a joke I made to someone, I don’t remember doing it. I remember we used this as a pull quote in print, and it worked well. To answer the second part of that, totally, yes. You answer that question — so, what are you working on? — over and over with friends and acquaintances, and I do feel like working out a satisfactory answer to that is an integral part of shaping a story in my head.
Here and there, they stopped to trade coke for cash and maybe get high with Norman’s associates. There was Linwood Jackson, who sold in large volume to coworkers at the Champion paper mill in Bucksport. There was Mike Massey, whose kids loved to play on the floor with Norman while their parents got high in the bedroom of their trailer. And there was Billy Christensen, an on-again, off-again woodcutter, kind of a wispy guy whose speech impediment sometimes made his Ls sound like Ws. Susan thought of Billy as a more or less likeable loser, but Norman considered him a friend.
Occasionally, Susan and Norman drove to Boston, then hopped a commercial flight to Miami, where Norman met his supplier. Jay Hart was a flashy loudmouth like the big shots back in Manhattan. He drove a Ferrari, wore his hair slicked back, and swaggered into the room when Susan and Norman met him at his home. Susan was never involved in the deals — Jay and Norman did business in another room while she and Jay’s pretty girlfriend chatted in front of a big-screen TV. Sometimes she stayed at the hotel. Norman never talked shop, and Susan never handled — never even saw — the money or drugs. Whatever changed hands at Jay’s went into a suitcase, and that was that.
But once the deals were made, she and Norman just lounged by the hotel pool, had dinner brought down, maybe did a few lines, and enjoyed some sunshine before heading home. Once a stewardess mistook them for honeymooners. On the whole, the Miami trips felt to Susan like little vacations, pleasantly pedestrian.
When they weren’t doing or distributing drugs, life in Swanville felt that way too. They got a dog, a yellow Lab they called Yeller, and Norman doted on him. Susan cut Norman’s hair on the porch and bought him clothes, sprucing him up the way that girlfriends do, which suited Norman just fine. I love this scene, the domesticity, the line “the way that girlfriends do.” How did you want Susan and Norman to be seen? What were you hoping the reader would feel? Ha, just wanted to get that word in there: “girlfriend.” It seems so teeny-bopper-ish and unequal to the kind of codependence and tacit business partnership that defined their relationship. And yet, here they were, doing all these things young lovers do in the middle stages of a relationship, right? She loved to cook, and Norman loved to eat the roast chickens that she basted in the way her French-Canadian mom had taught her. They had money, but they lived discreetly, splurging only on hotels in Miami, Susan’s wardrobe, and some nice furniture for the house. Leaving money or drugs sitting around was out of the question — even Susan didn’t know where Norman stashed coke or cash. For a few weeks one spring, they even hosted Norman’s preschool-aged son from a previous relationship, and Susan was touched by how tenderly Norman treated him. He snuck the boy his pacifier when Susan tried to wean him off of it, then took everybody out for ice cream when she was eventually successful.
They still used, of course. Because Norman was closer to the source than any of Susan’s previous boyfriends, his stuff was purer, and it took less to get high. Adhering to Jay’s advice, Norman never touched his own inventory; he and Susan consumed only what they’d purchased for themselves. Norman never injected the stuff, and Susan stopped shooting up after the overdose. She used more than he did, but it was fun when they did lines or freebased together, like their own private party out there in the woods. Sometimes they got paranoid — heard voices, saw people lurking in the bushes — but they never got angry or irritable with each other, and they never, ever fought. Curious: At what point in the narrative do you think readers realize Norman is dead? When did you want them to realize that? Yes, I wanted them to at least suspect it. I think part of the reason is that a) Norman’s death happened so abruptly, and b) I didn’t have so many details about it I was going to be able to render it all that finely. It’s going to go by pretty quickly on the page. So I wanted a feeling of inevitability around it. It was more important to me to work up to a place where Norman’s death feels mournful rather than to where it feels surprising, if that makes sense.
If Norman was dealing in larger quantities over time, Susan could only infer it from how they moved product around. Once, Jay and an associate came to Maine in an RV, which seemed to portend a larger deal. Another time, Susan and Norman landed in Boston to find Mike Massey waiting with a tow truck. He and Norman had talked about buying one, but she thought it was to provide the chronically underemployed Mike with some legitimate income — Norman sometimes worried about the Masseys’ kids. Instead, they stashed Norman’s suitcase in the trunk of the rental, then hitched the car up and towed it, lights flashing, back to Swanville. Old-fashioned Maine ingenuity. Who, after all, was going to make them in a working tow truck?
Later, she remembered sitting in the back of that truck, Norman turning around to grin at her from the passenger seat, and the two of them just giggling at the audacity of it all. By then, she was sure that she loved him.You’ve had a couple thousand words already, without any other voices, in fact nothing outside the world of Susan and Norman, as told by Susan. Tell me about that decision in your writing process. Sure, there was no question from the get-go that I’d be oscillating between Susan’s POV and Harry’s. He’s the hero of this story, in a sense. Practically speaking, we need to see what’s happening from the perspective of law enforcement, and Harry’s just this incredible character. He died about a week before I sat down to try and contact him, and everything I know about him here is pulled from interviews with his widow and a bunch of colleagues, plus some case files and interviews he gave in the wake of the bust. I really came away admiring the guy. In terms of how to arrange it all, you already know how the Susan segments have to break down: 1) origin and rise, 2) trouble in paradise/too close to the sun, 3) fall. So that part’s easy. And maybe that first segment is overly long before we pivot to Harry, but the details in there all seemed essential.
Sergeant Harry Bailey never wanted to be a cop. He grew up in Washington County, married a Washington County girl, and got a decent job as a machinist for the aerospace giant Pratt & Whitney, down in Connecticut. Hell, As an editor, I itch to take out “hell.” It feels like you’re there all of a sudden, when you’ve been in the background. Maybe you were trying to replicate his way of talking, but hmmm. Y ep, just trying to signal a shift in voice here from Susan’s to Harry’s, stay in that close third mode where we’re sort of hearing them. Certainly the “hell” is intended to be Harry’s affect and not mine. if it wasn’t for his size, he’d probably still be tinkering with turbines down in Hartford. But Harry was 6’3″ and 240 pounds, with giant mitts, a size 15 shoe, and a nose like a tiny fist in the middle of his face. What a great description. I can see it. Ha. Man, the guy looked every bit the burly cop. It’s very funny to me — and I think was to his friends at the time — that he ended up working undercover. Like it or not, he oozed the kind of beef-necked authority the Maine State Police were looking for, and for three years, a trooper buddy put an application in his hand every damn time he visited home. Missing Maine, he finally caved and joined the force in 1966 as a patrolman around Belfast.
But despite his intimidating stature, Trooper Bailey was no meathead. He was known to tell colleagues over the years that he thought of himself as a peace officer as much as a law enforcement officer. He had a mischievous sense of humor and a way with people. Harry made friends easily around Belfast — not to mention among other troopers, cops, and wardens, who called him “High Pockets” on account of his height. As Trooper Bailey graduated to Corporal Bailey, he gained a reputation in law enforcement circles for his compulsive work ethic, fearlessness, and close community ties. Once he ran alone into a burning house, looking for occupants, like something out of a movie. Other cops marveled to see him putting in 70- or 80-hour weeks, and he was known to take it hard when, say, he arrived on the scene of an accident to find an acquaintance injured or worse.
But to Harry, this was just the nature of the work. You weren’t punching a clock and playing cops and robbers, he figured. It was a 24-hour job, and the “bad guys” were more or less just like you, capable of turning things around if you treated them with some empathy and respect.
Still, by the time he made sergeant in 1977, Harry was getting a little burned out. So when the chief of the State Police asked whether he’d be interested in a change of direction, High Pockets Bailey was all ears.
The War on Drugs had come to Maine, the chief told Harry, and drugs were winning. In the late ’70s, marijuana smugglers were targeting Maine’s long and sparsely policed coastline. The Coast Guard could only do so much, the chief said, and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s presence in Maine was limited to two or three guys sharing an office building with a dentist in Portland. So the agencies were banding together, forming an ad-hoc unit comprised of officers from every level of government — from backwoods game wardens to clam cops at the Marine Patrol to a few hardened Feds fresh off the streets of New York and Boston. The State Police needed someone to ditch the uniform, embrace undercover work, and head up their end of the sundry coalition, working statewide with officers from the DEA and other agencies. Harry ran it by his wife, who thought it was too dangerous, so he told the chief he could only commit to a three-month detail. Talk a little more about the decision to use very few (any?) quotes. Because they can be distancing? Yeah, that’s about right. Again, I wanted the Susan segments in this tighter third person where, to a great degree, you’re in her head. Likewise with Harry. To weave in quotes every couple grafs would really puncture that, or so I thought. It’s just this constant reminder that you’re actually hearing from a guy who interviewed some people, not the people themselves. And practically speaking, I didn’t have any actual Harry quotes, because Harry passed away. So it’d have been one thing to lean on some Susan quotes, but quite another to strew them these law enforcement sections — I’d have been relying a patchwork of quotes from a half-dozen different non-Harry sources, and suddenly you don’t have characters anymore, just a mess of indistinguishable names.
Thus began nine years as a supervisor of Maine’s Federal-State Anti-Drug Smuggling Task Force. Harry traded his cruiser for a series of unmarked beaters, and at almost 40, he let his hair grow shaggy and sprouted sideburns and a mustache for undercover work. Folks around Belfast learned not to greet him unless he spoke up first, for fear of blowing his cover. Harry became a tireless student of Maine’s marijuana underworld, and his task force was, from the outset, a model of law enforcement cooperation across jurisdictions. In its first year alone, the outfit seized some 100,000 pounds of marijuana coming into East Boothbay, Seal Cove, Little Machias Bay, and elsewhere. In 1980, an elaborate sting operation in Stonington seized so much pot and evidence that Harry ordered a small boat loaded with product to be temporarily stored in his yard, just until some agency could process it. His wife and kids woke up to a uniformed cop at the kitchen table, a dooryard full of evidence, and a front lawn reeking of cannabis.
As the 1980s progressed, not a year went by without Harry and his partners spearheading some headline-making pot bust. He worked closely with Maine’s small DEA staff, rubbing shoulders with biker gangs, ganja-growing cultists, and plenty of Boston mafia types. By 1984, High Pockets Bailey thought he’d seen the worst and the weirdest of what Maine drug smuggling had to offer.
So he was stunned when Billy Christensen showed up, telling stories of a cocaine empire flourishing right under his nose.
Over time, the flights to Miami just kind of stopped. Susan didn’t ask why. All she knew was Norman had a new associate, a guy in Cape Cod named George Munson. Sometimes they’d fly to see him on commercial puddle jumpers from Bangor or Waterville, other times they’d drive or charter a two-seater flight from the Waterville airport. Like Norman, George was from Pawtucket, and he too struck Susan as a serious businessman — none of the strutting or veiled threats that there’d been with Jay. George seemed like the kind of guy who belonged to a country club. He lived with his wife and kids in a lovely home in Hyannis with a great wine cellar. She never saw him use drugs, and the few times he came up to Swanville, Susan thought he seemed out of place — too refined for the woodsy hills around Swan Lake.
Of course, she didn’t know until later that George’s Colombian connections put him about as close to the top of the cocaine supply chain as you could get without leaving the country. And it wasn’t until later that she heard his refined voice on a tape recorder, suggesting none-too-subtly that she be killed.
By the summer of 1984, things were changing back around Belfast. Norman and Susan were starting to realize that some of the people around them were honest-to-God Was this something she said? Has that feel! Pretty close paraphrase, if it isn’t. There are a lot of turns of phrase in here that came right out of a source’s mouth. junkies. When they went over to the Masseys’, Mike and his wife would bicker nastily, because she knew he’d been doing business with Norman, getting high without her while she was stuck with the kids. Norman and Susan would sit awkwardly on the couch, sometimes swapping a look that said, “Thank God we’re not like that.”
Things were even worse for Billy Christensen. The guy already seemed perpetually down on his luck, but now he came over to their place instead of the other way around, because he, his wife, and kids were living in a tent. He looked bad — wiry and haggard. His wife would freebase cocaine until she was flat-out immobilized, her eyes rolling back so you only saw the whites, like everything else had been erased. Norman worried about them and tried to “help” by fronting cocaine to Billy and Mike on credit — something he’d never do for anyone else — so they could cut it with talcum powder or baking soda and make extra cash. Billy seemed grateful, in a pathetic way. Sometimes he would hang around the Swanville house offering to pitch in, helping count money or volunteering to take their trash to the dump.
As the year went on, things changed for Norman and Susan too. It wasn’t just generosity with Billy and Mike — Norman was getting sloppy. Sometimes he’d let Billy or Linwood’s buyers skip the middleman and come by the house, small-time users who just wanted enough to get them through the weekend. Norman and Susan started breaking Jay’s old rule about pinching from their inventory. More and more, Norman traveled alone, and once he left instructions for Susan to sell a quarter-ounce to a friend of Billy’s — something she never did, for a guy they didn’t even know.
One day, Yeller went out and never came back, the yellow Lab that Norman loved, and Susan was stunned to see him truly angry, cursing and pacing in a state of paranoia. Someone had killed him, he insisted, someone had poisoned Yeller so they wouldn’t have a guard dog.
I guess from the moment we knew he was Yeller, we knew he was coming to a bad end… But this is the moment when the story shifts, gets darker. Talk about how you chose this moment for that.
Well, like I’ve said above, there’s nothing original about the structure here. I’m just following the template. And the template says that somewhere in this second section on Susan and Norman, we have to pivot to see that it’s no longer all ice creams and haircuts on the porch.
Slowly, the Ozzie and Harriet domesticity that had always set Susan and Norman apart just seemed to dissolve. They were using more, of course — Susan especially. She lost her interest in cooking and keeping house, and Norman stopped treating her with the china-doll adoration that he always had. One night, they were flopped on their sectional sofa, quite high, when Norman complained he was hungry.
“So go get something to eat,” Susan shot back.
There was a silence. “I don’t think I want to be with you anymore,” Norman said coldly. “You don’t make me anything to eat.”
He said it just to hurt her — nothing came of it. But in her increasingly rare moments of clarity, Susan had a feeling that things were tilting out of balance, going askew in some way that her charm couldn’t fix.
That was the feeling she woke up with on her birthday — November 20. She was 26 years old. The night before, she and Norman had tried to charter a flight to meet George in Hyannis, but the pilot was tired, and after arguing with him on the phone, they put it off until morning. They left for Waterville at dawn, a sliver of moon still hanging in the sky as they followed the forested highway out of Swanville, across Dead Brook and winding through the Georges Highlands.
The flight was uneventful and the visit to George’s quick, but Susan couldn’t shake her unease. When Norman stepped out of the room at George’s, she felt hyper-aware of the brown suitcase in his hand, noticing it in a way she never did. That night, at the airport in Hyannis, she started to cry. She told Norman she didn’t want to fly back to Maine.
“You’re just emotional because it’s your birthday,” Norman told her, some of that old concern back in his voice. “It’s going to be all right,” he said. “We’re going home.”
Norman slept on the plane ride back, but somehow, Susan thought, even that looked suspicious. When they got off the plane in Waterville, he touched her gently on the arm. “I’m going to go pay,” he said, and Susan, acting on autopilot, took the suitcase. She’d meet him at the car, she said.
It was well after dark, and Susan didn’t see the DEA cover team in place as she walked out into the parking lot. The two young men tailing her, however, weren’t as subtle. Susan registered their presence and quickened her pace without thinking, acting on instinct. By the time one of them called out, holding up some kind of plastic-coated ID card, she had already opened the back door. She set the suitcase inside, fixed her sweetest smile to her face, and turned around slowly. It was bitterly cold out.
“I’m a DEA special agent investigating a drug crime,” one of the plainclothes men announced. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”
Billy Christensen gave up Susan and Norman. What else could he do? He had been in trouble before, he told Harry, but never like this. He had never feared for his life, for his kids’ lives. He was beyond rock bottom. Billy needed help. And the only cop he trusted was Harry Bailey.
Harry was stunned by the stories Billy Christensen was telling. He’d known this kid since he was a teenager, knew his family over in Liberty. I like what you’ve done here, shown the small towns and how everyone (everyone not from away, that is) knows one another, how their histories go back generations. In your reporting since you’ve come to Maine, has that struck you? Has it made reporting easier, or harder? It’s a great question, and I don’t have a real satisfactory answer because I only have so much basis for comparison. I’ve never done any urban crime reporting, and during the brief stretch of my life when I lived in a city (Minneapolis), I wasn’t writing the kind of deep-dive feature stuff where the nature of sources’/subjects’ intergenerational relationships would have made a difference. So much of the other feature writing I get to do (especially outside of Down East) is of such a different nature — environmental and public lands reporting, arts and culture profiles — that it’s difficult to draw a meaningful comparison to scratching around at painful memories in tight-knit rural areas. I can say that, reporting in Maine, I end up talking to a lot of sources who can — from firsthand experience or lore — wax pretty elaborate about what life was like here 30 or 60 or 90 years ago, and that comes with all the perks and pitfalls you’d expect. I imagine that might not be the case if I was working for D Magazine or 5280 or something, but I guess I don’t really know. And I do get an awful lot of sources who suggest other sources: “You know who you oughtta talk to?” That sort of thing. Would that be drastically different if I were doing similar work in Houston or LA? I don’t know. I kind of doubt it. Billy had a bad track record, sure, but he wasn’t a hardened criminal. He was like a lot of midcoast and Down East guys — a part-time logger and full-time opportunist. He’d sold some grass here and there, a little LSD, and when he was real hard up, he and his brother would steal manhole covers to sell for scrap. Harry had busted Billy a few times over the years for some minor drug stuff, but he always treated him well. Here was a decent guy who made some real dumb decisions, Harry thought.
Now here was Billy, telling Harry he’d lost his house, hooked his wife on coke, and was in to some Colombian dealers for nearly $90,000. If he didn’t pay up on their next visit, they said they’d take one of his eyeballs instead. Billy looked like a damn skeleton, and he couldn’t sit still. The guy was a dead man walking, in more ways than one.
At first, Harry wasn’t even sure he believed him — hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars worth of coke being trafficked through the midcoast boonies? This was where Harry lived, for crying out loud. Now this use of his language really works. Call me inconsistent. People don’t use this phrase enough, IMO. Portland had some troubles with coke dealers coming and going, sure, but Harry had been on the drug beat for seven years, and the biggest product peddled north of Casco Bay had always been pot. Now Billy Christensen turns up, talking about five-digit coke deals at the Bucksport mill, Colombians crashing in Route 1 motor lodges, and cash piled up in doublewides like something out of Scarface. Some guy on a dead-end road in Swanville — Swanville, for God’s sake — was flying it in on chartered planes.
To Harry’s partners at the DEA, the sudden emergence of informant Billy Christensen came as the best kind of shock. It was like someone had gift-wrapped a drug dealer Rolodex for a cartel they never even knew existed. The Belfast Police Department, it turned out, had been looking into Norman Grenier, but Billy’s connections were broader. To hear him tell it, the coke-smuggling scene around Belfast was far from linear. He bought and sold for Norman, yeah, but he also sometimes bought directly from Colombians from Central Falls, Rhode Island. He’d bought straight from George Munson before too, as had Linwood Jackson. Linwood might buy a pound from Norman one week, then get it straight from the visiting Colombians the next. Billy had bought from the same people he’d sold to. It was a tangled web, all depending on who was holding. And Billy knew everybody.
The DEA agent assigned to the case was Wayne Steadman, a one-time science teacher who came to Maine as an agent in the mid-’70s and was one of the first to sound the alarm about Maine’s vulnerability to smugglers. Wayne and Harry debriefed Billy. As the summer of ’84 slid into fall, they hatched a plan: Accompanied by an undercover cop, Billy would keep making deals around Belfast, gathering evidence on as many dealers and users as possible, targeting “big fish” like Norman, Linwood, and the Colombians. Gradually, the task force would start to pick up the dealers, and with Billy’s accrued evidence, try to “flip” them, working their way up the supply chain while cleaning up the glut of small-time operators on the midcoast.
The task force rented a two-story house on Congress Street in Belfast and installed Billy and his family on the ground floor. To be believable as the Christensens’ coke den, it had to be a dump. The DEA had to put in a new furnace and reinstall a disconnected phone line, which they also bugged. They got a judge to approve the installation of microphones in the walls and a closed-circuit television system — something law enforcement in Maine had never done before. On the top floor, they set up a monitoring station with its own back entrance. In the kitchen, a ratty tapestry hid a hole in the wall through which the team upstairs watched and recorded via a small video camera. Nearby, a second rented home served as a command center.
Norman was a target from the get-go. Harry and Wayne coached Billy into gathering the kind of evidence that would help them build a conspiracy case. Billy brought them bags of trash from the Swanville house, and once, when Norman was away, he took an undercover state police officer to buy coke from Susan, so the cops would have something on her too. Of course, he filled in Harry and Wayne on Norman’s trips to Cape Cod.
Billy was still an addict, though, still using while he sat with dealers in his new apartment or a motel room somewhere. Wayne and Harry knew the guy was probably still managing to bring home coke, but they couldn’t monitor him 24/7. The family still had a right to privacy, and they only ran tape when a deal was going down. If there weren’t arrangements to bring a dealer to the house, they might not even have guys upstairs. That was the case the night Joel Fuller showed up.
On December 12, Billy opened his door to find Fuller and a few of the local good old boys standing outside. A small guy with a rough beard and a piercing stare, Fuller had cut wood with Billy here and there, and Billy knew he was trouble. A local poacher who ran with Linwood Jackson, Fuller had a reputation as an outlaw type, somebody who’d do anything for a buck. He asked Billy where he might find this guy Norman Grenier. OK, we have our real villain. How much did you want to flag that here’s a guy you want to pay attention to, without the scary strings playing to a crescendo. In the book-length version of this story, Fuller would get a lot more attention. But yeah, I hope it’s pretty clear from these couple of paragraphs that this guy is bad news. I don’t know what would be the written equivalent of those scary strings, but whatever it is, it’s also not really warranted here — the guy isn’t Skeletor, not some kind of evil mastermind. Just a kid from the sticks with zero moral compass. So introducing him fairly straightforwardly feels appropriate: Here’s a dude. He has a truck. He has a gun. He doesn’t give a shit about human life. Also, from Susan’s viewpoint, Joel Fuller had no backstory. He stepped into her life for a split second, out of the clear blue sky, then he changed it forever and immediately disappeared again.
Fuller had read in the papers that Norman and Susan had been busted in Waterville. He figured a hotshot coke dealer was bound to have some cash on hand — and unlikely to run to the cops if somebody shook him down for a few stacks. Billy tried to talk him out of it, warning that Norman was armed, but Fuller just laughed and flashed a sawed-off shotgun tucked into his pant leg.
When Fuller drove off with his buddies, heading for Swanville, Billy grabbed the phone and tried calling Norman to warn him. But when he dialed, all he heard was a shrill, empty tone. The line at the Swanville house was dead. Talk a little about your pacing in the story. The moving forward and backward, the dropping of a storyline and returning to it later, the building of narrative arc and tension. Yeah, again, I’m just following a straight-up three-act template with both Susan and Norman’s story and with Harry’s/law enforcement’s story, then alternating them. At this next page break, we do end up jumping backwards in time a bit, from the sting house on the night of Norman’s murder, back to the night of Norman and Susan’s airport bust a few weeks before. That gave me pause, and I tried some other ways of doing it, but in the end, I felt like tension was best served if the previous Susan and Norman section ended with the approach of the DEA fellows in the parking lot — that is, if you had to wait a bit before you learned the fallout. You know, the moment that cop meets criminal is so much more compelling than anything that happens immediately after — when suddenly you’re plunged into these legal and judicial weeds that are important to report, but not actually all that fun to read. I’d be interested to hear some actual experienced crime writers weigh in on that.
Norman’s brown suitcase contained $13,000 and 1½ pounds of high-grade Colombian cocaine, with a street value somewhere north of $50,000. Of course, Norman and Susan lied at first, but the DEA obtained a warrant to open the bag, and they spent a night in the Penobscot County Jail before going in front of a federal judge. When they were released on recognizance, Susan’s dad picked them up at the Bangor courthouse. He was a former Border Patrol agent and one-time deputy sheriff. Susan had hardly seen him in two years.
“So this is the mythical Norman,” was all he said, and he drove them back to Swanville. If her family had wanted to call and check up in the ensuing weeks, they couldn’t have, because Norman, out of caution or paranoia, had cut off the phone line months before.
They binged on coke right after the arrest, then made some attempts at getting clean. In early December, they were formally indicted and an arraignment date set. They met with lawyers and a probation officer. Unknown to Susan, Wayne Steadman took Norman aside at one meeting and tried to flip him. Think about cooperating, Wayne said, and we can make some recommendations about your charge. Norman said no.
In the days that followed, Norman seemed tired, defeated. They had him, and he knew it. There was no talk of beating the charge, no talk of running. Norman was going to prison, and he promised Susan that, somehow, he would be the only one to go. They were lying on the couch one night when Norman suddenly looked up at her, as if having a realization.
“I have to take care of you,” he said, his dark eyes more somber than ever. “I have to buy you a really great Rolex or something — something you can always sell one day if you need money.”
On the night of December 12, they were on the couch again, watching a movie on VHS. Susan was in a bathrobe that used to be her mom’s. The first thing they saw were the headlights coming through the big picture window behind the sofa, and both of them startled.
When Susan looked out, she saw a man in the passenger seat wearing sunglasses. But the car made a Y-turn in their cul-de-sac, and they watched as it drove, slowly, back down the hill towards the main road. Susan and Norman waited a while, hearts beating with junkie adrenaline, before exhaling and turning back to the movie.
The noise of the picture window shattering behind them was deafening. Susan screamed as she felt the glass raining down, leaving a barrage of tiny cuts, and she instinctively pulled a blanket over her head. As she curled into a crouch, she felt Norman leap up from the sofa. He kept a shotgun in the bedroom, she knew, and maybe he was going for it. Who knows? Norman never had a chance. Joel Fuller had an itchy trigger finger, and his shotgun went off within a split second of the window caving in. It almost seemed like an extension of the same sound.
A blast of buckshot to the back, from a sawed-off 12-gauge at point-blank range. Poor Norman As an editor, I’m not sure about the repetition of poor Norman here. Was that a point of contention/discussion in the edit at all? It wasn’t. I liked the repetition, the way it calls you back to the foreshadowing in the lede. It’s also the way I wanted Norman to go out. He’s been a lot of things since the lede — tender partner, slick dealer, blunt addict — but ultimately, I want him to be an object of some pity. So I’d for sure have been loath to use “poor Norman” anywhere between the opening and here. But in my mind, it’s been 4,700 words since the last time you heard this phrase — that’s plenty of space. was dead before he hit the floor.
Susan heard a voice yell, “Stop!” and then another saying, “Hold her!” Or maybe it was the same voice. She felt footfalls on the couch, heard them briefly on the hardwood floor, then felt them on the couch again. And then, silence. Not even the sound of a car peeling away. She stayed stock still underneath the blanket for a very, very long time.
The first thing Harry thought when he heard about the murder was, “My God, the Colombians are onto us.” They knew somebody was talking, Harry figured, and they’d come to snuff out a few hayseed Mainers who knew too much. He contacted Billy immediately, who told him about Fuller.
In the coming days, Harry, Wayne, and the rest of the task force decided it was time to bring in as many dealers and buyers as possible. They couldn’t be sure that Norman’s death had been a robbery gone wrong — it was several days before one of Fuller’s accomplices was arrested, and Fuller himself evaded capture in the woods for nearly a month. Regardless, the Belfast area was suddenly radioactive. They’d lost a major dealer who they’d hoped to flip. People would turn cautious. They needed to capitalize on the work they’d already done.
On January 10, 1985, Wayne sat upstairs on Congress Street, watching on a video screen as player after player in the Belfast cocaine underworld stopped in at Billy’s to make buys. Harry watched the comings and goings from a parked car. At nearby intersections, city and county police were stationed to tail buyers as they left, pulling them over far enough from the house to be inconspicuous. It was an elaborate sting with upwards of 30 officers involved, and it went off without a hitch. The task force nabbed 18 people by suppertime — some low-level dealers, a few mid-level guys, and two Colombian couriers from Central Falls. It was a Friday. Over the weekend, after pressing the first batch for names, they brought in seven more.
By Monday morning, Billy Christensen and his family had disappeared into the federal witness protection program. New names, new location, new lives. Of those he’d put in jail and otherwise left behind, only Susan Pierce ever heard from him again.
Susan woke up in Clinton on January 11 and heard about the bust from her dad. Her lawyer had called, he said, and she had to go to Bangor to turn herself in — in addition to Waterville, she was now being charged for having sold to Billy’s undercover “friend” months before.
It was weeks after the murder when she and her lawyer went back to the Swanville house. Norman’s blood was still dried up on the floor. Her parents had sent a moving van, but she collected a few stray things and refreshed her memory for future testimony. Inside the bedroom closet, she noticed a brown paper package stashed discreetly atop the door frame, something Norman had planted there.
It wasn’t a Rolex: It was $19,000 in cash. She gave the lawyer $9,000 and kept the rest. Perfect movie moment. Was this already known to authorities before she told you? I don’t think this was known to anyone but Susan and the lawyer (now deceased) until this story ran.
The week after the Congress Street sting, Maine’s U.S. Attorney called a press conference to announce that, from that moment on, investigating cocaine smuggling would become his office’s number-one priority. “Although the task force has foiled numerous drug deals in its history,” the Bangor Daily News wrote, “none have brought the dealings of the cocaine underworld home to Maine in the way that the Belfast operation has.”
In July of 1985, just before being sentenced, one of the dealers arrested at Congress Street was found dead of a 12-gauge shotgun blast. He had agreed to testify against Linwood Jackson. Joel Fuller was out on bail at the time, awaiting trial for Norman’s murder. He was later convicted of both killings. Jackson was convicted anyway and has since died of cancer. Fuller is currently serving life in Maine State Prison.
Harry Bailey retired from the Maine State Police in 1986. He served three terms as a state legislator and spent most of the next 30 years running a sporting camp in Grand Lake Stream. Last June, he passed away at age 73. In 2006, Harry was named a Legendary Trooper, although he was always quick to credit teamwork for the many accomplishments of his motley task force.
One of Harry’s final acts as a police sergeant was to visit Maine high schools, speaking about the dangers of drugs. His speaking partner on such trips was Susan Pierce, who got clean, stayed clean, and never served time. Thirty years later, she still gets choked up talking about Harry and the other cops and lawyers who helped her pull her life together.
One day, maybe a year after the Belfast bust, Susan was sitting in the office of an assistant U.S. attorney when his telephone rang. On the line was the man who used to be Billy Christensen, the man who had betrayed Norman. Did Susan want to speak with him?
When she took the receiver, she heard Billy’s voice on the other end — wavering and full of emotion, but recognizable.
“Hi, Susan,” he said quietly. Then he hesitated. He sounded scared.
“Billy,” Susan said. “I don’t blame you. I’m not mad at you, and I don’t blame you.”
On the other end of the line, she heard Billy break down. Thank you, he said through sobs, again and again. Thank you. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I know,” Susan said, and it felt good to say it. “I understand. You didn’t have any other choice.”
And then, for a while, the two of them just stayed silently on the line, neither one wanting to speak or hang up. Talk about your decision to end with this. I find it very moving, but something seems a bit off to me, to end with her and Billy, like instead it should have come back to her and Norman. That symmetry thing. Was this always your kicker? It wasn’t always the kicker, but I found that any direct references to Norman here felt saccharine. Ending on Susan was a must, obviously, and the goals were to go out on a note of moral ambiguity and to suggest that Susan’s next chapter was one of penitence. Ultimately, this anecdote became the closing moment partly by default — it was touching to me in the telling, I didn’t want to leave it out, and it’s tough for me to see where else it could live except at the tail end. Finally, to me, there’s a sense in which this is very much ending on Norman, insofar as Norman is the thing that’s not being said in this moment of telephone silence, the thing that neither Susan nor Billy can bring themselves to say.