Wheelchair Posse puts new spin on Miami vice

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

August 17, 1992|By Christine Evans | Christine Evans,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- In the criminal world, where sophisticated white-collar crooks plunder banks and launder billions, Miami's Wheelchair Posse is a dirty-collar gang in a class by itself.

At Singer Plaza, a public housing development in the heart of the downtown hospital district, the gang intimidates the frail, the infirm, the elderly.

Of course, the Wheelchair Posse looks pretty feeble itself. Sophisticates, these guys aren't. Two-bit drug peddlers, they are.

The lineup:

* Harmon Raines, alias "Greyhound," a 69-year-old World War II veteran. Doctors amputated his right leg a few years ago. Now, he gets around in a wheelchair, a can of Old Milwaukee wobbling on the armrest.

* Warren Lockhart Jr., 41, a quadriplegic who says he contracted the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus after a blood transfusion. He needs help washing, dressing and picking up the Bible he keeps in the living room.

* William Amones, alias "Tab," 70, an ex-pool hall owner with muscular dystrophy. "I racked ball out of the wheelchair, but now I can barely move my hands."

* Fay McCall, 52, Singer Plaza's unofficial housemother. She stocks her kitchen cabinet with prescription pills -- for sick friends, she told police.

* Billy Journey, alias Billy Stirrup, 42, an outsider who does not live at Singer. He visits often, though, and once stole a wheelchair from the Veterans Affairs hospital across the street.

Not long ago, police handcuffed the culprits and took them to the county jail, where incredulous inmates gave them their nickname.

"I know it looks like I'm the big bad ogre," says Joseph Fields, the public housing detective who conducted a three-month surveillance.

"Arresting old guys with no legs in wheelchairs isn't popular. But the old guys with no legs in wheelchairs were terrifying the other residents."

Singer Plaza was designed as a haven for elderly and disabled tenants of meager means. But, like many of Dade County's 135 public projects, Singer succumbed to drugs -- sale, trade and possession.

In the bad old days, before tightened security, disabled tenant-dealers, lying on gurneys in the lobby, sold drugs from under bedsheets.

Things are better now. Video monitors capture the images of visitors, and security guards enforce a rigid sign-in policy. The lobby no longer resembles a drug den.

These days, the action takes place under trees that dot the parking lots surrounding Singer. It is a fine place for the drug trade -- accessible from highways and side streets and near the county jail. Addicts drop by after bailing out.

Although police watched the place for a couple of years, they could not make a dent in the drug dealing. Finally, in February, the housing police got a break. A tipster told Detective Fields that some guys in wheelchairs had tried to kill her boyfriend by selling him drugs laced with something nasty.

On May 21, 1992, the police swooped in and wheeled the posse out. In court a few weeks ago, the gang members pleaded no contest and made out like bandits.

Harmon Raines: Sold five Valium tablets, three Percocets and a .38-caliber pearl-handled handgun. Two days, time served.

Warren Lockhart: Gave four cocaine rocks to a co-defendant, who sold them to an undercover officer. Two days.

William Amones: Sold 64 Valium tablets and marijuana, "for grocery money," he said later. He neglected to mention the wad of cash police spied next to the semiautomatic weapon tucked under the pink blanket on his lap. Probation and a drug program.

Fay McCall, the housemother: Sold 10 Valiums to a co-defendant. Police found hundreds more in her apartment. "Just like a drugstore," Sergeant Resko said. One day, time served.

Billy Journey: Sold Valium and cocaine and swiped the VA wheelchair. Probation and an order to pay for the chair.

Justice done, the Wheelchair Posse said. The housemother planted a kiss on the bailiff's cheek.

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