Turn north off Cusseta Road and watch the power lines, said the Rev. Willie Phillips of Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs.
A drug dealer marks his spot by tying the shoe strings of sneakers together and hanging them over a line, he said: Look for those shoes. Near them is an alleged drug house his group is targeting.
Following Phillips’ directions, a reporter and photographer drive up 25th Avenue with a video camera aimed out the passenger’s side window.
Sure enough, shoes hang there on a line. Beyond them, men stand in a front yard. Noticing the camera, one yells, “What the f--k is goin’ on!”
That’s the kind of confrontation drug fighters like Phillips face regularly, in their marches, night watches and camp-outs, as they try to drive the dealers out.
It’s a risky business. The windows on Phillips’ van have been smashed and his tires slashed. His children, now grown, once had to leave a neighborhood school because other kids conveyed threats against their father.
It’s because of his children, and others in his neighborhood, that he joined this crusade, the minister said. “They’ve got to see somebody standing up for right,” he said. “If we don’t do nothing else, we’ve got to stand up for our children.”
His son now is 21, his daughter 23. When they were kids, the neighborhood around Phillips’ Lumpkin Court home was so dangerous they weren’t safe outside: “The children couldn’t play in the street,” Phillips said.
Disrupting the enemy
To fight back, Winterfield formed a drug-fighting group, the leaders getting training from David Lockett of Carver Heights Against Drugs.
Lockett is a veteran not only of Columbus’ neighborhood drug wars, but of Vietnam. He did two tours of combat duty, working in a six-man team on search-and-destroy missions to disrupt enemy operations. Later he served as a Ranger instructor, he said.
The Army brought him to Columbus, and here he stayed, buying his Schaul Street home in 1968. Carver Heights Against Drugs grew out of a neighborhood watch group formed in 1990. Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs followed in 1996. After all Lockett went through in combat, he doesn’t fear staring down a pusher. “It’s not a challenge,” he said. “They’re destroying our young people.”
One way authorities help residents drive dealers out of a neighborhood is by backing them with concentrated law-enforcement operations. Police roadblocks are among the first moves — license and registration checks. That’s what officers did in Winterfield.
Where drugs are dealt regularly, those engaged in the business get careless. Phillips said drivers were caught with crack lying out on the seat beside them. Some had wads of cash. Some had guns. Some were wanted.
With repeated operations like this, the neighborhood cleaned up, Phillips said, for about 10 years. But then the city fell almost 50 officers short of a full police force of 388, and the official pressure came off. Later Phillips was sidelined by a shoulder injury.
The dealers came back and found shelter. “When they came back in this time, every corner was a crackhouse,” Phlllips said. “They don’t stand on the street corner.”
Much work to be done
Today, the dealers draw traffic from outside the area — strangers driving fancy cars like BMWs and Cadillac Escalades. “Ninety percent of the cars that come in this community come to buy drugs, all day long,” Phillips said. “White, black, they all come over here. I know these people don’t live in the neighborhood.”
Now that Columbus has fresh sales tax revenue to pay for boosting its police force from 388 to 488, and for hiring additional sheriff’s deputies, Phillips hopes to get law enforcement again tracking the dealers around Winterfield. He intends to ensure that the children there — including those attending Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, just blocks from where those sneakers hang on a wire — are spared the dangers of crime.
Lockett shares that goal. His organization has been successful in cleaning up parts of Carver Heights and East Wynnton, the areas that ring Carver High School. In East Wynnton the intersection of Ninth Street and Benner Avenue — folks call it “Ninth and Benner” for short — once was considered the most drug-infested in Columbus, according to veteran police officers. Today it is hardly recognizable as that infamous intersection of vice and avarice. The old buildings are gone. New houses have drawn homeowners to invest in the neighborhood.
Where people root, with growing families, they maintain their property, watch out for their neighbors, and fight for safety, said Cathy Williams of NeighborWorks Columbus, the nonprofit housing initiative that built some of those new houses. Still much work is yet to be done.
“East Carver Heights is the worst area,” Lockett said. “If you go down on Illges Road there, all those apartment complexes through there, that’s part of Carver Heights.... That’s one of the worst areas, I would say, in a complete unit, that needs to be revised.”
Property put up for rent by owners who live elsewhere may go neglected for years. “They rent those places out, and they could care less, except for one thing: receiving the dollar,” Lockett said.
Retired Carver High Coach Wallace Davis grew up in the area. Riding those streets over in East Carver Heights, he can point out houses that belonged to teachers who’ve since died, leaving empty homes behind. Some are boarded up. One sign of neighborhood decline is a sudden abundance of cheap rental property with absentee owners, Williams said. Another, more obvious characteristic, is blight — vacant buildings, broken windows, junk and garbage strewn about.
Williams pointed these out during a drive through a section of East Highland she calls “The Front,” rundown buildings along 16th Avenue south of 28th Street. Just a block west of more well-kept homes flanking 17th Avenue, it’s like a “war zone,” she said, the front line in a battle against crime and poverty. The city plans to improve the area from 16th Avenue on west, but that will take time. Some places take a decade or more — a slow, gradual process of buying land, clearing dilapidated buildings, constructing new homes and finding homeowners to buy them. No new homeowner’s going to invest in The Front right now, Williams said. A major cleanup lies ahead.
Good folks, bad folks
Winterfield, East Carver Heights, East Highland: These are among the places Columbus police might call “known drug areas,” if the police department officially called places that anymore. It does not.
“We’ve got some real good folks that live in these areas, and some can’t afford to get out of these areas,” said Police Chief Ricky Boren. To say their neighborhoods are plagued by drugs stigmatizes all the residents, he said. “I don’t want to burden them with something like that.”
He and other officers stress that drugs are everywhere, including upper-class neighborhoods. A rich guy privately selling powdered cocaine to his buddies is committing a crime just like a poor kid selling crack on the corner. The wealthier dealer’s not attracting as much attention, but he’s still conducting business in a major drug trade that at its highest levels involves foreign cartels.
When investigators catch the bigger fish in that enterprise, they don’t net them at neighborhood “cop and stops” where addicts buy crack through car windows.
One of Columbus’ major cocaine busts took officers not to the poorer areas of East Highland, East Carver Heights or Winterfield, but to a pricey house in Beaver Run. The day they raided it, a neighbor wanted to know why all the police cars were there. Sgt. Rick Stinson, special agent in charge of the Metro Narcotics Task Force, told the man authorities were busting the people renting the house. No way, the neighbor said: “No one lives there.”
The rented home had a garage the guys handling the cocaine could drive into, closing the door behind them. The neighbor never saw them.
In the house investigators found kilos of coke and about $300,000 in cash, Stinson said.
He said the task force found a quarter-kilo of coke and more than $200,000 in a tidy condominium on 17th Avenue, just west of Lakebottom Park. It found about $21 million worth of cocaine in a rented storage unit on Miller Road. It got about $16,000 worth of high-grade methamphetamine called “ice” in an office on Second Avenue and in a hotel room on Macon Road near I-185.
On Oct. 8, police caught three Atlanta-area residents with a pound of methamphetamine worth $46,000 at 1219 Forest Ave., right by Wynnton elementary school, authorities reported.
Investigators say the big shots in the drug biz don’t leave their shipments near street dealers in bad neighborhoods, nor in their own homes. They don’t want it on property that’s in their names. They don’t want it in a high-crime area frequented by police. They want a quiet neighborhood where they won’t be noticed.
Mistaken identity Wallace Davis, the Carver High coach, grew up in East Wynnton, but his mother’s family was from East Highland. As a child he visited there often. He still does.
He agreed with Chief Boren’s policy against tagging entire neighborhoods as drug havens. East Highland deserves better, he said.
On East Highland’s south side, Davis stopped recently to talk to longtime resident Clarence Biggers, 77, who said his has always been “a real quiet street.”
Residents like Biggers shouldn’t be branded criminals for what others do blocks away, Davis said. “They’re not drug dealers.” But Davis doesn’t deny the north side of East Highlands is in trouble. He knows there’s street dealing. He was falsely arrested for it during a police sting.
He was driving west on 26th Street toward 15th Avenue on Sept. 19, 2008, when he got stuck behind a green Toyota, one of several cars lining the street in a traffic jam caused by an undercover police operation. Officers were selling fake drugs and busting the customers as they drove off.
When the Toyota pulled away, Davis drove up to 14th Avenue and headed south. On 23rd Street, marked police cars swarmed him. He was handcuffed and accused of trying to make a drug buy. Eventually investigators realized they had the wrong guy. They should have got the one in the green Toyota. Davis was released, but never forgot.
People urged him to sue the police. He refused. He didn’t want to sue people who were trying to protect the neighborhood, and he didn’t want money for nothing.
But he didn’t want the police to forget, either. He filed a complaint, and went to Columbus Council to get an apology. The mistake had made him out to be a criminal, as if just being in the wrong place was a crime.
Places aren’t bad. People are, and bad people don’t all stay in one place. “You’ve got some bad folk in every neighborhood,” Davis said.
Though police officially don’t name known drug areas anymore, undercover officers unofficially do.
On a recent drive around the city, one said these were spots where investigators got complaints of drug activity: Wade Street off Cusseta Road; a hangout on Veterans Parkway near Fifth Street, across from the Booker T. Washington housing complex; and the Beallwood area, north of the Manchester Expressway and west of Veterans Parkway — a neighborhood that, like East Wynnton, is cleaning up. NeighborWorks is working there, too, and so is Habitat for Humanity.
Unlike the police chief, neighborhood drug fighters are not at all hesitant to point out the spots they regularly target.
“The block between 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue on 31st Street — we know there’s a lot of drug activity there. There’s some prostitution in that area, too,” said Robert Grambley of Operation Restoration Against Drugs, which operates in Columbus’ Rosehill area around Hamilton Road.
Also serving in Operation Restoration is Melvin Steed, who described the property. “There are some houses up in front of it, and the apartment’s on the back side,” he said. “The prostitution’s been there for a while. In fact, we’ve eyeballed who the prostitute is.”
This does not seem to have caused a rash of other crime in the neighborhood, Steed said: “Other than drug trafficking and prostitution, I haven’t heard heard anything of break-ins or stuff like that.”
Back in Winterfield, the residents have not been so fortunate, said Rev. Phillips: Burglaries and other types of theft are common, and so are robberies and assaults.
It is not enough to win one battle against crime, and then retreat, he said: “You’ve got to continue to fight it.”