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USR 23 Drug Pipeline

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Columbus' crack trade takes root in Portsmouth


PORTSMOUTH, Ohio - It was a bar where everybody knew his name. Columbus Police Officer Pat Brooks scanned the crowd inside the Silver Moon a Portsmouth dive a few blocks from a gritty, drug-infested neighborhood known locally as the Ville. It was one familiar face after another. Brooks, who gets paid to keep tabs on the hard-core gangbangers and the worst criminals in Columbus, quickly realized that night in 2004 that the word on the streets was true. It was open season in Portsmouth for Columbus crack dealers. "It was like old home week," recalled Brooks. "It was ridiculous. We had some of our worst going down there."

Although the Silver Moon is long gone shuttered after Portsmouth police raided it in March and later got it declared a public nuisance the rampant drug dealing by Columbus crack-cocaine dealers is alive and well two hours south. Columbus dealers have fanned out along Rt. 23 all the way to the Ohio River, lured by higher profits and relatively untapped markets.

Heading for the hinterlands isn't new for Columbus crack dealers, but their incursion into Portsmouth shows the depth of the problems facing rural Ohio police departments and sheriff's offices. "I think this is just the natural progression of Columbus gangs," Brooks said. "They are getting older now, and they are looking for newer markets. We're really seeing them spreading throughout the state, especially south." The main pipeline is Rt. 23, the site of stepped-up interdiction efforts by the State Highway Patrol in Scioto County. During the past 18 months, a trio of four-day sweeps by state troopers netted 119 drug cases, 97 felony arrests, 31 pounds of marijuana, nearly 5 pounds of cocaine and more than a pound of crack.

Even for veteran troopers, the raw numbers of drugs and dealers were eye-popping. "The first time we turned our guys loose, we had three people who were wanted on the berm in seven minutes," said Lt. Paul Pride, commander of the Jackson post. "In the first 30 minutes, we had a traffic stop involving one of the key players in the drug-trafficking trade who had 7 ounces of crack and $7,000 cash on him." Recognizing the route's importance to the region's drug trade, eight southern Ohio counties formed a Rt. 23 Drug Pipeline task force several years ago. "I've had calls from police departments as small as four officers," Brooks said. "(Rt.) 23 is just an easy shot."

Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, Portsmouth lies where Rt. 23 crosses the Ohio line, at roughly the midpoint between Columbus and Charleston, W.Va. Columbus dealers arrived in the early '90s, but the number of Franklin County residents arrested for felony drug offenses in Portsmouth increased sharply in recent years. The city's two-man narcotics unit went from arresting a handful of Columbus-area dealers in 2003 to 55 felony arrests of Franklin County residents for possession or drug trafficking in 2004. The number dipped to 31 last year, but the figure doesn't reflect arrests made by the town's patrol units. While local dealers dabble in methamphetamine or marijuana, cocaine users dial 614. "We're primarily talking about Columbus dealers when we're talking about the powdered cocaine and crack-cocaine trade in this county," said Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn.

The reason is simple economics: Low supply meets high demand. A $20 Columbus rock fetches $40 in Portsmouth. The easy money has created an unusual truce among Columbus drug dealers affiliated with rival gangs, including the Crips, Bloods and Folks. "We've been told that Portsmouth is like the United Nations for gang members," said narcotics-squad investigator Todd Bryant. "Down here, they don't fight over the deals. There is so much money to be made that it's open territory." And it's territory where local law-enforcement officers acknowledge they are swamped. "Probably 85 percent of all of the crime we see in this town is in some way related to drug trafficking," said Portsmouth Police Chief Charles Horner.

While turf wars haven't erupted, several murders in the town in recent years have Columbus connections. In July 2004, 21-year-old Sharod Bowers shot another Columbus man, 19-year-old Jamar Hammons, outside a Portsmouth bar in a fight that Kuhn said was "somewhat drug- and woman-related." In October 2003, a former Mr. Basketball from Cleveland, 23-year-old Emmanuel Smith, was killed in front of a doughnut shop. Police fingered a Columbus man, but he was acquitted. Until local officials shut it down, the Silver Moon was the epicenter of the Columbus crack-cocaine connection, Portsmouth and Columbus police said.

Throughout 2003 and 2004, the corner near the bar was a virtual crack bazaar, with dozens of dealers vying for business. Later, the dealing moved indoors. "Little" Ronnie Harrington, a Columbus dealer, was caught with $30,000 worth of crack and a handgun in the CD changer inside the Silver Moon's DJ booth. He was sentenced in October to 18 years in prison. "I don't think I've seen anywhere that was worse or more wide open," Brooks said. Former Silver Moon owner James Hairston acknowledged that drugs were being dealt out of his bar "toward the end." But, he said, he got no help from local police in trying to stop the dealing. "We did everything we could to stop it," Hairston said. "Once criminals proliferate, they are very resourceful. They can intimidate people and be very tricky."

The end of the Silver Moon didn't stop Portsmouth's crack trade. "It drastically moved directly into the neighborhoods," said one longtime resident of the Ville, the neighborhood dominated by the Farley Square public-housing project. Portsmouth police say the crack business largely has moved into homes scattered across the county. The woman, who asked not to be named because she feared retribution, said she blames neighbors for the drug problems as much as the out-oftown dealers.

"Our people have become so complacent in getting a few dollars and letting them use them," she said. "That's probably as irritating to me as the fact that these other people come in here dealing drugs."

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Village of South Bloomfield
Division of Police
5023 S. Union St.

South Bloomfield, Ohio 43103
Voice - 740-983-9482
Fax - 740-983-4531
P.C.S.O. (Dispatch) - 740-474-2176