MOIRA — Sandra and James Helm Sr. assumed their fate when kidnappers decided not to cover their own faces, unaware that one abductor would later break into tears and apologize as he laid flat on the ground with SWAT rifles trained on his head.
It’s been just over a year since Mr. and Mrs. Helm were kidnapped from their Moira home in Franklin County, smuggled across the border and held in a basement cellar in Canada. They were held as ransom for nearly two days, all because co-conspirators thought the couple’s grandson had stolen $3.5 million worth of cocaine from Canadian drug traffickers.
To Mrs. Helm and her family, the horror of being a hostage is one thing; how she feels about how it happened is another. She’s upset and believes it was a misunderstanding that could have been prevented.
Mrs. Helm and her husband were collateral damage and innocent people subjected to nearly 48 hours of captivity followed by nationwide attention, investigations, hearings and a cancer diagnosis that gave Mr. Helm six months to live.
Before she testifies at the end of the month, Mrs. Helm is telling her family’s side of the story, from the moment they were told the “mafia” was waiting outside their house, to when she stood in a cottage against her will and watched joggers pass, police drive by and a drone fly overhead, wondering if they were looking for her and her husband.
She detailed a kidnapping devoid of theater, and she and her husband had a front row seat to its collapse.
The Helms are in their 70s now and still live in Moira after 50 years in their house on County Route 95. They’ve had no interest in ever leaving the town, which has a population of maybe 3,000. Some might say it’s a drive-through town on the way to Potsdam, Malone, Canada or the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. There’s a sign at the town limit that reads “Welcome to Moira — Nice Town, Friendly People.” The small population seems prideful of where they live.
The Helms fall into the category of friendly, according to roughly a dozen neighbors interviewed by the Times. Mr. Helm has been Moira’s highway superintendent for the last 13 years, and he’s known to be a man of his word. Neighbors say the married couple of 54 years are kind-hearted people who mind their business unless someone needs a helping hand.
On Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, Mrs. Helm said she and her husband were having a normal day, spending much of it playing around the house with one of their grandsons. They dropped him off at his parents’ house later and had dinner at Cafe 56 in Norwood. They likely ate hamburgers before heading home for the evening. They locked their front door, put up the pet gate so their dogs couldn’t get into the living room and got into bed. Mr. Helm fell asleep, his wife next to him watching TV. It was probably “Law and Order” because Mrs. Helm loves that show, but she isn’t sure.
At about 10 p.m., Mrs. Helm heard a noise. Maybe the cat knocked over the gate, she thought. But then she heard footsteps in the living room. She thought it was her grandson, who stops by often late at night.
“I didn’t think anything of it until the door opened,” she said.
Their bedroom door opened and two men were standing at the entrance — their faces covered. Police reports later alleged that they were armed with two firearms, which could be true, but Mrs. Helm said she never saw a gun. The two men said their grandson, Macenzie Helm, had stolen $3.5 million worth of cocaine and that the couple had to come with them.
“They said ‘The mafia is waiting outside for you guys,’” Mrs. Helm said. “It wasn’t the mafia.”
Mr. Helm started resisting at first, but Mrs. Helm asked him to go along with their demands. The two men escorted them to the living room, where the front door was open and its lock busted from their forced entry with a screwdriver. They brought a mask to cover Mr. Helm’s face but didn’t have one for Mrs. Helm, so they told her to use a pillow case she had on the couch. They didn’t allow the Helms to pack a bag before leaving. Men waiting to hold them in Canada later asked the kidnappers why they didn’t allow the Helms to grab some necessities.
She said they then walked together outside where a pickup truck was waiting with two people inside, a man and a woman. The driver was allegedly Graigory Brown, of Plattsburgh, described as a lowly petty criminal, not the mafia. Sitting alongside him in the front seat was his girlfriend, Melissa McClain. They didn’t drag them outside — it was more of an escort, but Mrs. Helm said she saw the zip ties in case they resisted.
Mr. Helm got in the back seat first and slid all the way over. One of the men who broke in sat in the middle, and Mrs. Helm was last. She had trouble getting in because of a bad knee, so they pushed her. The second man who broke in then got in the front seat with the two who were waiting outside, and the truck drove away. The Helms’ front door was left open.
As they drove toward the reservation, Mrs. Helm said she kept asking her husband if he was OK. After a few tries with no answer, the kidnapper between them said he was OK.
“I said ‘I didn’t ask you if he was OK, I want to hear him tell me he is OK,’” Mrs. Helm said. “And then Jim answered me.”
It hadn’t been 15 minutes since the kidnapping and Mrs. Helm had already stood up to them.
The men didn’t bust in and hit them over the head with the butt of a gun. They didn’t yell at them to “shut up” whenever the Helms spoke, and conversely, the Helms felt like they knew when, and when not to speak.
“It’s my big mouth,” Mrs. Helm said. “There was a sense that I was going to say what I wanted to say. When they finally got us on the boat, I remember saying ‘So, what, we’re going to be fish food now?’”
The pickup truck drove for a few hours before stopping. Mr. Helm still had his phone at that point, which was critical later as investigators pinged its location along their route to Canada.
Mrs. Helm said the group left the truck and walked down a small pathway through the woods before getting to the water where a boat was waiting. It was big enough to be able to sit in a cabin below. It appears this is when the driver, Mr. Brown, and Ms. McClain’s jobs were over, as they did not get on the boat.
Before they pushed off, Mrs. Helm told them that she needed something for her health. She had colon cancer and uses a catheter, so they decided to send one of the kidnappers to go find catheters for her. It was a hitch in their plan, and the first instance of the group being in over their heads took hold while they waited on the boat for catheters.
“The one guy who stayed behind said ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. I was only going to be making a thousand dollars. I knew this was going to be screwed up,’” Mrs. Helm said. “He was the nicer one because he allowed my husband to take his mask off and go on the boat to have a cigarette.”
The men returned with a catheter, though what they got was suited for men. Mrs. Helm is still confused as to how they found a catheter when she has to have a prescription.
The boat pushed off and they headed for Canada. At that point, no one was covering their face.
“Once they showed us who they were,” Mrs. Helm said, “they weren’t going to let us go.”
Mrs. Helm said they were on the water for several hours before they crossed the border. Waiting on land were the Canadians allegedly behind it all. Mrs. Helm, looking back, finds some humor because she said her husband recognized where they were when they got to Canada as he used to haul iron in the area.
“Jim spoke up and said, ‘I know where we are,’” Mrs. Helm said. “And they said ‘What do you mean you know where we are?’”
Mr. Helm continued the banter. She remembers him joking with the kidnappers, saying he would be set for life if he could work for them for just a few weeks, considering how much money can be made trafficking cocaine.
The route the kidnappers took from Moira to Canada is somewhat unclear, but it appears they left the Helms’ home and took a right onto County Route 95. They then drove nearly 10 miles before taking a left on State Route 37, passing the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and Resort before taking a quick right on Cook Road, a back road heading straight for the St. Lawrence River. It appears they got on the boat in that area, crossed the border and got into vehicle waiting for them.
The Helms were then driven through Montreal to a cottage in a small eastern township of Quebec called Magog. They arrived at about 7 a.m. Monday, traveling well over 200 miles overnight.
Mrs. Helm said she remembers it being a nice area. It was mostly wooded but there were neighbors spread out along the road. They walked in and mattresses were set up in the unfinished basement, which was all sheetrock, with a washer, dryer and bathroom. Mrs. Helm said they slept down there and were frequently told to rush to the basement out of nowhere.
Mr. and Mrs. Helm hardly had time to speak to each other while they were held hostage as there was always someone supervising them. When they weren’t told to go to the basement, Mrs. Helm said they would stay in the living room. They got to know their captors, somewhat. They talked about their families. One of the Canadians had two kids and another baby on the way.
“I thought he might get thinking about things,” Mrs. Helm said.
She remembers three people holding them in the cottage at that point.
There was a 75-year-old man, George Dritsas, of Quebec, with whom the Helms spent most of their time. Mrs. Helm said Mr. Dristas was the textbook grandfather type who told them he was on vacation. She suspects that was not true. There was another man who went by the name Mike, but he was actually Kosmas Dritsas, Mr. Dritsas’ 49-year-old son. Mrs. Helm said Mike often left his dad alone with them and said, “You’re not going to try anything are you?”
There was a third man, but she’s not sure who he was.
Mrs. Helm said there was really no use in devising an escape plan or signaling for help. They were in a foreign country with presumably armed men. They let the Helms go outside into the front yard, but the risk-reward of catching a passerby’s attention wasn’t worth it.
Meanwhile, the Helms’ son, Michael, was communicating with the kidnappers, who all along claimed they never wanted his parents. They made ransom demands for their apparently missing cocaine. Michael even asked for a proof of life photograph, which was provided.
By Monday, Mrs. Helm said it became clear to the kidnappers that the couple’s grandson did not have the cocaine. It had actually already been seized by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Mrs. Helm said she saw more realizations in the kidnappers that their plan wasn’t working. It got to the point where Mr. Dritsas’ son, “Mike,” broke down.
“Mike cried like a baby the day before we left,” Mrs. Helm said. “He thought someone bigger was coming to kill him because they didn’t have the product. He said they made a mistake.”
Mrs. Helm said they still hadn’t eaten a meal. They remember being offered a candy bar and water, but that was it. Suddenly on Tuesday, the kidnappers brought them a supreme pizza and Mountain Dew, Mrs. Helms’ favorite drink.
“It was the best pizza I’ve ever had,” Mrs. Helm said. “It was made different than ours. You know how ours have the pepperoni on top? Everything was on the bottom and the cheese was on top.”
Also on Tuesday, investigators were closing in on the Helms’ location and the kidnappers were seemingly worried. Mr. Helm was allowed to go out to the backyard — no longer allowed to be in the front yard — to smoke a cigarette. Mrs. Helm remembers watching him walk around the backyard and admire the flowers and the lake.
The next time Mr. Helm asked to go outside, they told him to stay close by and not move around the yard. He went outside again, and less than 30 minutes later, the kidnappers decided it was time to move them to another location.
The Helms were being searched for by several federal agencies and known to millions across the country as missing.
The kidnappers settled on a plan to move them, so they placed a hat on Mr. Helm and told Mrs. Helm to lie on his lap in a car.
At about 5 p.m., they exited the cottage and began walking toward the car, marking a critical point for the Helms. If they entered the car and made it to another location, the odds of them being found safely would have diminished significantly. Mike and another unidentified co-conspirator led the way as they walked outside with Mr. and Mrs. Helm following behind. Mr. Dritsas, the grandfather type, stayed behind on the porch.
Mrs. Helm said she remembers getting about halfway to the car when police converged on the front yard. Canadian SWAT members had been outside the cottage for three hours, waiting for the Helms to come out.
One of the kidnappers told Mrs. Helm to run, she remembers, but police already had a gun trained on Mike. As they yelled at Mike to lie flat on the ground, Mrs. Helm remembers the kidnapper saying one last thing to her.
“You know what he said to me?” Mrs. Helm said. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry about this.’”
She didn’t much care about his apology. She was still feeling the emotion of what was happening to her and her husband. The fear doesn’t just vanish after being rescued. Her heart rate was measured at 220 beats per minute. She remembers being taken by police to a nearby wooded area as they worked the scene, before they were both moved to a hospital.
She said FBI agents took them from Canada to a station in Malone. She remembers the interviews taking a long time before they were able to go home and figure out what happened. Their door was still broken open, but they were surprised to find all their pets had stayed inside.
They decided to stay in a hotel that night before going back to the station in the morning to look at photographs and identify the suspects.
Mrs. Helm said she is upset that her grandson Macenzie, 28 at the time, is at the center of the kidnapping. She believes he was not responsible for their captivity.
Macenzie’s involvement with the Canadian drug traffickers was to transport marijuana for them, he said. Macenzie and his father, James Helm Jr., both said he had nothing to do with transporting cocaine.
When a Canadian trafficker contacted Macenzie just a week before the kidnapping, asking if he wanted to make some “quick cash,” he assumed it was a normal transport job, he said.
On Sept. 21, 2020, six days before the kidnapping, Macenzie and his mother, Michelle, drove a van to Vermont to retrieve the drugs. They stopped at Kohl’s in South Burlington shortly before noon and purchased three pieces of luggage, according to a DEA affidavit.
Macenzie then drove the van to a grocery store parking lot to meet with those who had the marijuana. According to the DEA, Macenzie exited the van and entered a nearby SUV. A man in the SUV, who turned out to be a DEA agent, allegedly said “So I am going to pass you the 10 first, and then the 40. Do you have room for all 50 pieces, are you sure? OK you’re going to take all 50 now?”
According to the DEA, the terms 10, 40 and 50 “pieces” refer to the number of kilograms or other units of drugs that can be transferred. Whether the agent asked if Macenzie wanted cocaine is not in the affidavit, and Macenzie’s dad said cocaine was never offered.
The DEA agent then passed a 20-pound duffel bag over to Macenzie, which allegedly had the cocaine inside, and then he was arrested. His mother, too, was arrested, according to court documents.
According to Macenzie, the cocaine he took in the parking lot was almost entirely fake. He said there were trace amounts inside so it would test positive for cocaine. And according to the DEA’s language of what was inside, the bag contained at least 500 grams of a “mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine.” That’s noteworthy to Macenzie as he said the cocaine that he allegedly stole — leading to the kidnapping — was seized sometime before the Sept. 21 bust involving him and his mom.
After the bust, Macenzie said he spent a night in jail and was picked up in the morning by DEA agents. He said it was about noon and they went to Subway.
Then Macenzie offered to be a DEA informant.
‘The truth on my side’
DEA agents told Macenzie to call the traffickers in Canada and tell them the cocaine delivery was still on schedule, Macenzie said. He said he made the call while the agents tapped his phone and recorded it.
Macenzie said the agents kept his phone and they parted ways. The agents told him that if the traffickers made contact with him, that he should tell them that three SUVs pulled up and stole the cocaine.
Macenzie went home and waited for a few days. Thinking he was going to help the DEA, he called the agents using his sister’s phone, assuming he would soon deliver the cocaine to the Canadians.
But four days went by and Macenzie said he couldn’t reach the DEA. It was becoming clear that the plan had fallen through. The Canadians assumed Macenzie had stolen the cocaine, and the kidnapping of his grandparents occurred.
“I was released of all charges,” Macenzie said, “and then the kidnapping happened, and they brought them back up.”
According to a presentence investigation report, prepared by a probation officer for Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford in U.S. District Court, Macenzie was arrested on the day of the bust, released by the DEA, then “rearrested” on Sept. 29 — the day the Helms were rescued in Canada.
Macenzie’s father said they were never going to have him plead guilty to distributing cocaine as they’ve maintained he never took part in that side of the trafficking. It took roughly a year to reach a deal.
About a month ago, Macenzie pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 kilograms of marijuana. He was sentenced to three years in prison, while his mother pleaded guilty to the same charge and was sentenced to probation. He and his attorney filed an appeal on Sept. 14, but for now, Macenzie is soon going to be reporting to prison.
“The biggest thing for me,” Mrs. Helm said, “is that they are saying Macenzie had something to do with the kidnapping when he had nothing to do with it.”
At least seven people have been arrested in connection to the kidnapping, which Mrs. Helm does appreciate.
Mr. Dritsas, who claimed to be on vacation at the Canadian cottage and has multiple drug arrests, and his son, “Mike,” who has ties to an outlaw Canadian motorcycle club called Rock Machine, were charged with several offenses, including kidnapping, forcible confinement, extortion and conspiracy. Also facing the same charges are Franco D’Onofrio, 55, Gary Arnold, 54, of Hinchinbrooke, and Taylor Lawrence Martin, 36, of Akwesasne.
Mr. Brown and his girlfriend, Ms. McClain — the “mafia” waiting outside the Helms’ home — each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping earlier this year. They have not yet been sentenced.
Now, the Helms are waiting to testify against the kidnapers. They were scheduled to testify in September, but Mr. Helm was diagnosed with brain cancer in late August. Mrs. Helm said his prognosis gave him six months to live, piling on to the last year they’ve had. That meant Mr. Helm couldn’t testify, and neither could Mrs. Helm as she is his caretaker.
Her testimony has been postponed to the end of October. She could be questioned by nearly a half-dozen attorneys representing her abductors.
“They caught them with us — how could they not be guilty?” Mrs. Helm said. “I have the truth on my side. I could say ‘Oh my gosh, they had two or three guns that I could see.’ But why would I lie?”
Before then, Mr. and Mrs. Helm are still living in their home, which they’ve modified in some ways. Mr. Helm built two door jams for the front and back entries. They didn’t have firearms in the house before Sept. 27, 2020.
“We do now,” Mrs. Helm said.
People still approach them while they’re around town and ask about the kidnapping. They don’t delve into much detail, only saying it was horrifying before moving on with their day. There isn’t a night that goes by that Mrs. Helm doesn’t think about her bedroom door opening and seeing two masked men. Their lives will never be the same, and even though Mr. Helm was told he had six months to live, Mrs. Helm takes comfort in knowing they have lived a wonderful life together, she said. And it’s not over yet.
As for the people who kidnapped them, Mrs. Helm believes they belong in jail for their decisions, even if they didn’t have the most elaborate plan.
“They certainly were terrible at kidnapping,” she said. “It must have been their first time.”