Where's beef? Dealt for drugs, maybe Users, grocers, others say meat is currency in narcotics trade

September 17, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

A raw scene: On a dark summer night in Curtis Bay, a 1994 Nissan pickup truck with a large cooler in back moves slowly down Pennington Avenue and turns left onto Cypress Street. A line of a half-dozen drug users -- women and men -- forms.

One by one, they deposit their packages in the cooler. A man in the front seat hands out the drugs. The deal is done.

But no money has changed hands. What gives? Where's the beef?

In the cooler, of course.

All-American ground beef, steak and other meat products -- red-blooded staples of backyard barbecues -- have a new use in some parts of the city: currency in the drug trade.

Drug users say they typically shoplift the meat from area supermarkets, then give it to low-level dealers in exchange for drugs. The fact that meat goes bad quickly does not seem to be a deterrent. Police say the growing use of the perishable item is another sign of the speed of the drug trade and its reach into all manner of businesses.

"Meat is more expensive than most groceries, and so you can move it pretty quickly if you're a user," says Southern District Lt. Barry Baker. "Meat is becoming another kind of cash."

Law enforcement officials offer no statistics on how much meat is grinding through the drug trade. But users, community activists and grocers have noticed the trend, particularly in South and Southwest Baltimore. In Curtis Bay, Rylow Williams, a sheet metal worker, has even captured the pickup truck's visit and other meat-for-drugs swaps on videotape.

"It's a substitute for money, and a good deal for the dealers," Williams says. "I have gotten to know a lot of dealers who will take $50 worth of steak, and give you a $10 rock."

Bartering is hardly a new phenomenon in the drug trade. Dealers have long accepted everything from food stamps to cigarettes to electronics. Still, the use of meat to buy drugs is relatively new, and unknown in many city neighborhoods. "They'll swap their cars, their TVs," says Maj. Bert Shirey of the Northeastern District. "But I've never heard of anybody trading meat."

In the Southwestern and Southern districts, though, the increasing flow of meat has raised eyebrows of police. Southwestern officers report exchanges of drugs for shrimp, as well as beef. "It's like that here -- the dealers will take anything that is going to be easy to turn over," says Southwestern District Police Officer Kenny Parks. "Seafood, meat, anything."

Several drug users, many of them women, say they have been stealing beef for as long as they remember, then re-selling it to people in poor neighborhoods who say they can't afford to pay store prices. The difference now is that some dealers are accepting the meat directly, a convenience many users appreciate because it eliminates the need to hawk the meat themselves.

Lynn, who asked that her last name not be used, is a heroin addict who has worked as a prostitute in the Pigtown and Morrell Park areas. She says she and other women focus their shoplifting efforts on the meat sections of stores like the Giant on Wilkens Avenue near the county line, because it is among the most expensive items.

"The neighbors would buy it from me," says Lynn, "even though they knew what I was gonna use the money for."

Particularly hard-hit have been supermarkets that sell large packages of ground beef, steak or roast, retailing for $25 and more. While declining to give specific figures, Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food Inc., says the theft of meat is on the rise in stores in both urban and suburban areas.

Scher says: "We think a lot of it is drug-related. We have increased -- our surveillance methods."

Police say they have not been able to track what the dealers do with the meat after receiving it, though officers believe they are re-selling it to smaller grocery stores and neighborhood residents.

In Curtis Bay, the pickup truck with a cooler -- the one that Williams and other residents had observed -- was traced by The Sun to the Millersville branch of a nationwide seafood and meat ** delivery company.

State vehicle records show the company, Anchors Away Seafood and Meat, leases the pickup and other similar trucks from a leasing service. Anchors Away, in turn, rents the trucks to private salesmen for a small fee. These salesman buy seafood and meat from Anchors Away, and then use the trucks to sell the food wherever they can, says Jerry Pehrson, manager of the Millersville branch.

The salesman who had signed for the pickup truck seen in Curtis Bay in August no longer has a contract with the company, according to Pehrson and Gerard Haft, a company vice president reached at Anchors Away's New Jersey headquarters. Pehrson says the company ended its relationship with the ZTC salesman, whom he declined to identify, a few weeks ago after a money dispute.

"These are independent contractors. I'm not responsible for their actions, nor is the company," says Haft. "We rent them the trucks and extend them a week's credit. What they do with the food and truck is their business."

Industry experts say the company's reputation is good, and federal officials say Anchors Away has consistently passed USDA and FDA inspections of its meat and seafood.

Haft says the company checks prospective salesmen for credit and job history, but says it would be too difficult to do drug screenings on contractors with a high turnover rate. He acknowledges that "in this day and age," the company has had isolated problems with salesmen.

"We've lost vehicles or had them stolen," says Haft. "And we've had some cases before where we've found vehicles in drug areas. It's happened."

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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