After the Roundup: A year later, Clairton assesses effects of major drug bust
First of a three-day series
January 1, 2012 10:00 AM
Clairton Coke Works along the Monongahela River in Clairton.
Clairton Police Chief Robert Hoffman was involved in a roundup of accused cocaine dealers, which focused on the Mon Valley but stretched to Georgia and Texas. The operation was orchestrated by the FBI and resulted in 11 arrests in Clairton.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In America's 40-year-old drug war, the descent of some 200 law enforcement officers on the little city of Clairton a year ago was barely a skirmish. For that town of 6,800, though, it was a big deal.
Part of a 42-person roundup of accused cocaine dealers, focused on the Mon Valley but stretching to Georgia and Texas, the Dec. 14, 2010, raid resulted in 11 arrests in Clairton. "This case, for the first time ever in this community, allowed us to remove the people who were bringing large amounts of drugs in," said Clairton Police Sgt. Joe Giles, whose efforts brought in the FBI and other agencies.
For U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, the arrests were a model of what he calls community-impact prosecutions, in which entire criminal organizations are taken down. For Clairton Police Chief Robert Hoffman, it was an important step in his years-long campaign that he predicted would lead to "a significant decrease in violence" in a town that had more than its fair share of gunplay.
As with so many aspects of the drug war, though, things didn't turn out exactly as planned. A year after the roundup, the Post-Gazette explored its impact on Clairton.
The city went on to have, in 2011, what Chief Hoffman described as "a horrible year" in terms of violent crime. Its civic leaders are struggling, with limited resources, to take the next steps to build on progress made in the roundup.
And while some career criminals were taken off the streets, so were some people who had worked legal jobs and were well-liked in their community. As with many criminal cases, incarceration has yanked pillars of support from some families.
The local drug market, meanwhile, endures.
"It's always a plus to get that negativity out of the neighborhoods," Clairton Councilman Richard Ford said, "but in reality, it seems as though, well, you ever seen that game where they take a hammer and hit a head and another one pops up?"
At a crossroads
With U.S. Steel's mighty coke works at the bottom of the hill, and the home field of its recently unbeatable high school football team near the top, Clairton is a proud little Mon Valley town.
"Clairton residents here, they're strong people," Chief Hoffman said. "There are a lot of great things about this community that have survived everything that's happened due to narcotics."
Some things and people, though, have not survived, and the chief blames crack cocaine.
Crack reached Clairton in the early 1990s, around the same time Chief Hoffman joined what was then a fledgling city police force that took over for the state troopers that had patrolled there for years. The chief remembers driving into one since-demolished housing complex, being surrounded by dealers asking him what he needed, and thinking, "Aren't you guy supposed to be running from me?"
"The economic issues here are a challenge," Chief Hoffman said. "There's a lot of people at the poverty level. ... With that comes the drugs and the crime."
Easily reachable via several state highways, Clairton has also been a drug hub for southern Allegheny County, and Washington and Westmoreland counties, he said. "What people don't understand is [buyers are] coming from [Jefferson Hills]," other suburbs and even rural towns, Chief Hoffman said. "They're coming from the more affluent towns to buy drugs here. If I didn't have [buyers] coming in, I wouldn't have drug dealers."
In the 1990s, it was easy to bust the low-level dealers, Sgt. Giles said, because they stood on street corners, hailing customers, with crack in their pockets. Today, however, hook-ups are arranged by cell phone, and exchanges of drugs for money happen behind the walls of houses.
Police tactics changed, too. Clairton police started sending informants into drug houses to make purchases. Their confidential reports would then be used to support applications for search warrants.
Searching drug houses became the narcotics investigator's "bread and butter," Sgt. Giles said. "You get guns, you get drugs."
State courts, though, often release dealers on bond. Confidential informants frequently refuse to testify in court. By 2009, Clairton's drug war had hit a wall.
Sgt. Giles didn't give up. He spent months putting together an inches-thick binder describing every shooting, report of shots fired, robbery, drug complaint and drug-related arrest the city had seen in years. He provided it all to the FBI.
"Next thing you know," he said, "we're on a wiretap case."
'Kizzle' for 'area codes'
Sgt. Giles, the FBI, and a growing number of other law enforcement agencies including the Allegheny County Police and McKeesport Police began identifying suspects and getting warrants to tap their cell phones. Eventually, they were up on 10 phones, capturing thousands of conversations conducted mostly in drug world code.
On mumbled call after mumbled call, suspects discussed whether it was "snowing" (meaning cocaine was available) and share prices of a "bird" (kilogram) or an "area code" (41/2 ounces). They'd ask whether it was "soft" or "girl" (meaning powder cocaine) or "hard" or "boy" (crack). Money was "paper" or "cake" or "cream" or "kizzle." A gun was "a broom."
They backed up the wiretaps with surveillance and "controlled buys" in which law enforcement watched as informants bought drugs.
The investigation moved up Clairton's drug distribution ladder to Dwayne L. Jackson, 48, who has admitted in court to buying "area codes" of cocaine for $4,250 and turning them into crack for sale at $40 for a 0.4 gram dose, tripling his money. It went down the Mon to his supplier, Dewayne J. Joseph, 28, of Duquesne, who pleaded guilty to bringing 5 to 15 kilograms of powder into the region. Then it shifted into the eastern suburbs to Mr. Joseph's supplier, Damel M. Gaines, 33, of Penn Hills, who sold half kilos for $18,500 each. It went south to Dominique Jackson, 24, of Texas, who has maintained his innocence, and Arthur D. Gilbert, 42, of Georgia, whom prosecutors described at his sentencing -- to 11 years in prison -- as "the very top of that organizational chart."
Investigators charged young men of 21 who served as street-level dealers, mules who carried kilos across country by car or Greyhound bus, street soldiers with more than 20 prior arrests and a McKeesport bar owner with no prior record who allowed cocaine to be stored in the ceiling of his establishment. Besides the 11 Clairton arrests, the investigation led to indictments of six people from Pittsburgh, five each from Duquesne and McKeesport, three from West Mifflin, others from Mount Oliver, Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg, Verona, Munhall, Monroeville and Wilmerding, and the suppliers from Texas and Georgia.
Into the void
The remaining Clairton dealers who weren't locked up were paralyzed with paranoia that their phones, too, might be tapped.
"First few months after it happened, everything [in the local drug market] just shut down," Sgt. Giles said. "I had informants tell me you couldn't even get cocaine around here."
The dealers, though, weren't about to seek regular jobs, he said. A scramble for drugs began.
"You got a very little bit of cocaine coming to a big void here, and everybody wants it," he said. "You start getting violent crime," including dealers robbing dealers. "We've had more burglaries this summer than we've had in 10 years past."
Police said the ripple effects of the bust can't be blamed for the city's subsequent woes. But indisputably, the roundup did not bring peace.
In the first hour of 2011, two men burst into a party and one fatally shot Tauvea Hurt, 19, apparently in retaliation for a shooting the prior October.
"Tauvea was one of my students who had so much potential, very well liked," said the Rev. Sheldon Stoudemire, a street preacher who has been working in Clairton for six years. "I was shocked."
Justin J. Charles, 27, was fatally shot on Clairton's Bataan Drive in October, in what authorities concluded was a drug buy gone wrong.
An accidental shooting took 17-year-old Karrie Linnen's life in July.
Perhaps the most staggering blow to Clairton came in April, with the shooting of Police Officer James Kuzak, 39, after he responded to a home invasion. His rehabilitation from multiple gunshot wounds continues, Chief Hoffman said.
Sgt. Giles said the home invasion to which Officer Kuzak responded was one of a rash of similar crimes in the early part of the year. The invaders, he said, "went up there because they knew there were drugs there.
"A lot of these younger [dealers] are competing to see who'll be the next man."
So far, 31 of the 42 people indicted in the roundup have pleaded guilty. Seven have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 11 years. Another is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday. One defendant, Frank M. Cobb, 30, a former Duquesne constable, was acquitted at trial. One defendant had charges dropped.
Mr. Hickton said such "community-impact prosecutions" are more efficient and effective than picking off offenders one by one. "We also have to make sure [crime] is not cool for kids, who are looking at these leaders of criminal organizations as role models," he said.
Chief Hoffman said forfeited assets of dealers have brought a sorely needed $50,000 to his little department of 18 full- and part-time officers.
The mass arrest, he said, "sends out a message to drug dealers that have a conscience." And to those without a conscience? "You sometimes see them just waiting for you to take somebody out so they can take their place."
Clairton's narcotics police are trying to make it as risky as possible for the next aspiring kingpin to step into the breach, Sgt. Giles said. "We keep hustling every day."
However, the city soldiers on without the wire taps, without the manpower to do extended surveillance or increase patrols, and without the cash to make the major buys that build a big case. When there's $100 available, Sgt. Giles distributes $20 bills to informants and sends them out to buy crack and report back.
"There's a drug war going on, definitely," he said. It's a war in which cash-strapped Clairton is, once again, outgunned. "You've got these Colombian cartels making trillions of dollars moving cocaine into the country," he said. "We're at the bottom of that chain."