City drug trade eludes measurement

CRIME BEAT

February 05, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The signs along Pennsylvania Avenue scream of hope.

"Progress ahead," reads one on a vacant lot where new townhouses are promised.

"Clean, fun, friendly, safe," reads another outside a youth community center.

The word "C H A N G E" - each letter separated for emphasis - is spelled out on a sign promoting the historic street. Underneath it recalls the words of Barack Obama, "Yes we can."

The street corners scream despair.

At Laurens Street, across from the Avenue Market, a police car sits at an awkward angle facing oncoming traffic. Three male plainclothes police officers stand guard over a woman, a female officer tossing open the woman's jacket and patting her down. The suspect's hands are behind her head, her fingers laced together.

Finding nothing, the cops are gone in seconds, leaving behind the woman's mock protests on a Monday at lunchtime, a scene barely noticed. "Everybody wants junk," a man on the corner says. "It's part of the game."

The game is played like this every day on hundreds of corners like Pennsylvania and Laurens. "I don't know if this is the spot," the man says when asked about drug sales. "But it's a spot. The whole city is a spot."

Pennsylvania Avenue has always been a hot drug corridor, notorious even.

Mayor Sheila Dixon singled out this avenue, which stretches northwest from Seton Hill through Upton and Druid Hill, when she spoke Saturday at a stop-the-killing rally. She pegged Pennsylvania Avenue's yearly drug take at $10 million.

I spent a day trying to figure out exactly what the mayor meant and how police came up with that figure.

Is it measured in drug sales alone? A gram of heroin, as much as fits into a sugar packet, goes for about $200. That would be 50,000 packets sold on one street in one year. Of course, most dealers dilute the drug for street sale, making it cheaper but also of lesser quality, and tens of thousands of sales in one year doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility.

Is it measured in terms of drug distribution networks? Two years ago, a man named Don Papa, then on trial, boasted to detectives that he made $180,000 in one night, selling drugs on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Pennsylvania Avenue is a freaking gold mine," he said, according to court transcripts. "This is the heroin capital of America, ain't no more dope sold nowhere than right there on Pennsylvania Avenue."

Or is it measured by extrapolating from one defendant? Raymond Stern supplied heroin to dealers working Pennsylvania Avenue and branded his product "Ray Charles." He pleaded guilty in January to distributing drugs and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Here's what he had in a tote when police arrested him outside his East Baltimore house: two submachine guns, loaded with a total of 72 bullets, and 4.8 pounds of heroin.

And here's what he had inside a garden-style apartment he rented in Glen Burnie: Cash totaling $114,885, more than 100,000 empty capsules used to package heroin, four Breitling watches and one Rolex, a 14-karat diamond necklace, a 14k gold-and-diamond ring and a 10k white-gold chain.

Most dealers aren't as flush with cash. The minions struggle for daily pay in a job fraught with peril, pressure and competition, where a misstep means jail or death.

Trying to quantify how much money passes through drug dealers' hands is nearly impossible. It's not like you can look at their tax returns for proceeds of laundered hundred-dollar bills.

It's intriguing because a real answer might help answer another nagging question: How much of Baltimore's economy is fueled by the illicit drug trade?

Dixon said she got the $10 million figure by asking cops at a weekly crime meeting. Everybody I asked balked at an explanation. Maryland's U.S. attorney referred me to Baltimore's Drug Enforcement Administration, which referred me to city police.

"We do not officially track black market drug activity," spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told me. He said the mayor asked and was given an answer based on anecdotal evidence, which she in turn recited to make a point in an anecdote about the city's insidious drug trade.

Fair enough.

She's probably not far off. The frightening thing is that she might have underestimated the problem.

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Talk with Peter Hermann about crime at baltimoresun.com/crime

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