Users Drive To The City, Where They Find Easy Access, Light Penalties
On a chilly weekend night, the brown Pontiac 6000 raised little suspicion as
it sat outside an abandoned house on Detroit's east side-- until the police
officers saw two heads inside.
Hunched down in the front seat, a 17-year-old woman from Rochester Hills and
her 37-year-old boyfriend from Utica passed a crack pipe back and forth.
The couple didn't notice the black police sedan rolling up beside them. But
the look of post-hit euphoria on their faces quickly dissolved into one of
fear when the officers jumped out, knocked on the window and yelled, "Get
your hands up! Now!"
To help stem Detroit's drug trade, city narcotics officers and Wayne County
prosecutors are focusing on areas where buyers drive from the suburbs into
some of the city's roughest neighborhoods, braving robbers, police and even
death to get their fix.
Drug users flock from nearly every sizable community in metro Detroit,
including Bloomfield Hills, the Grosse Pointes and Livonia. Police say their
cash helps fuel a drug trade that contributes to violence and decay in many
Last year, police seized 1,423 vehicles in Detroit drug arrests. Nearly 60
percent of those vehicles, or 842, belonged to people from outside Detroit. The numbers were similar in 2001, with 62 percent of the 2,160 seized cars
belonging to non-Detroiters.
Maurice Morton, chief of special operations in the Wayne County Prosecutor's
Office, said fewer than half of the 6,500 people charged with simple drug
possession in 2000 and 2001 were from Detroit. The majority -- about 60
percent -- lived outside the city, he said.
Detroit Police Cmdr. Gerard Simon, who heads the organized crime and gangs
division, said of the Detroit drug trade: "In no way would I say that
Detroit has crime because of the suburbanites, but we can prove that there
is a significant number of people who come into our city and provide the
customer base for criminal activity. Why? Because they'd rather do it here
than in their own neighborhoods."
Detroit Police Inspector James Moore, who is in charge of the narcotics
northwest section, says suburbanites come to the city because they know the
chances of going to jail for buying drugs are slim.
In fact, some of those arrested never set foot in a courtroom except to pay
the misdemeanor fine. Their penalty is often a brief jail stay after being
arrested, and loss of their vehicle, $900 and the time it takes to retrieve
Though drug arrests are up in recent years, Detroit police officers often
write misdemeanor tickets -- similar to traffic tickets -- for offenders
because the amount of drugs confiscated is usually small.
During the height of the 1980s crack epidemic, police were making more than
5,000 drug arrests per year, and virtually clogging the court system, Moore
said. The city then passed an ordinance that made certain drug offenses
misdemeanors, yet the same offenses remained felonies outside the city.
Outside of Detroit, the possession of small amounts of cocaine or heroin is
a state felony punishable by up to four years in prison. And possession of
marijuana, a misdemeanor, can net up to a year in jail.
"It's a double-edged sword for us because it creates an environment that
welcomes people to come buy drugs in Detroit," Moore said. "The penalties
are less harsh. The charges are less harsh. In Ferndale or Warren, it would
be a felony to be caught with narcotics."
The city controlled-substance code is still used by police when they make
small drug busts.
Morton said 99 percent of those facing state charges of possession avoid
going to trial by pleading guilty. Those convicted are typically sentenced
to probation and forced to participate in a drug-treatment program, he said.
Drugs in Detroit
Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan said the wide-open drug trade in some
Detroit neighborhoods is attractive to buyers.
"They're coming into Detroit because that's where the dealers are selling
openly. You cannot find drug houses in the suburbs where guys are standing
out on the porch selling while cars drive up."
Day and night, drug dealers in Detroit brazenly loiter on street corners and
in front of abandoned houses, waving and shouting to passing cars. Some hang
T-shirts in trees as a signal to buyers. Others simply call out, "You need?"
or "I got it."
If a buyer wants crack, he or she will ask for "rocks." Heroin buyers ask
for blow, which used to be slang for cocaine.
But marijuana is the top-selling drug in metro Detroit and statewide,
followed by crack and heroin, according to the Michigan Department of
Community Health, which releases an annual drug abuse trend report for
Detroit and Wayne County.
There has been a spike in the use of opiates and stimulants, such as
methamphetamine. The use of drugs found mostly at parties and nightclubs,
such as ecstasy, also has increased, according to the report.
Many drug dealers set up shop -- not coincidentally -- near the entry points
into the city. Police and prosecutors say the heaviest drug traffic is in
the 6th ( Plymouth ), 8th ( Northwest ) and 11th ( Davison ) precincts because the
areas have easy access to I-96, Woodward Avenue and I-75.
The Brightmoor neighborhood, roughly bordered by Puritan, Evergreen,
Schoolcraft and Telegraph on the city's west side, is one area where dealers
are setting up shop like corner stores, Duggan said.
Longtime Brightmoor resident Edward DeCorcey calls his neighborhood of more
than 40 years the drug gateway to the suburbs, much to his chagrin.
"I've been in the middle of this thing since crack hit real heavy in 1982,"
said DeCorcey, 67,who lives on Dolphin near Fenkell and Chalfonte. "Since
then, things have gone steadily downhill.
"You name it, you see all kinds of cars -- Mercedes, Ford 350 trucks with
the extended cabs, BMWs -- and the drivers are well-dressed folks," he said.
City versus suburbs
Simon, the commander in charge of the organized crime and gang unit, said
some dealers flag down conspicuous drivers, those in SUVs and luxury cars.
Because the hot drug areas are in predominantly black neighborhoods, some
dealers won't sell to strangers unless they are white, Simon said.
"The dealers assume that if you're coming to buy as a minority, then you
must be a police officer," he said.
Though police say they are careful about making assumptions based solely on
race, some undercover officers -- black and white -- acknowledge that their
suspicions are heightened when they spot situations such as white people
driving pickup trucks with Red Wings decals cruising the streets late at
night in a mostly black area.
Carl Taylor, a Michigan State University criminologist who studies crime and
poverty in Detroit, said the act of suburbanites coming into a nearly
all-black city to buy drugs represents a race and class issue.
"We know that this society is not going to tolerate open drug markets in
Livonia, Troy, West Bloomfield or other suburbs, and there was a time when
we didn't tolerate them in Detroit," said Taylor, who grew up in Detroit. "Detroit, like most big cities, has become the center for sin and vice for
the suburbs. It's part of the hypocrisy and one of the major points of
dishonesty in American culture.
"Those who will purchase their drugs or come to the city for sex are the
same ones who will go home and eat dinner with their family," he said. "While watching the news, they'll shake their head at all the problem people
and problems of Detroit. But they contribute to it."
Police call it the red zone. The Woodward corridor in the 11th ( Davison )
Precinct-- bound on the north by 8 Mile, on the west by Woodward, on the
south by McNichols and by John R to the east -- is a drug hot spot.
On a recent Thursday night, a 30-year-old Clinton Township man left a known
drug house in the red zone and was quickly pulled over by police. Officers
frisked him and searched his white Ford truck. They didn't find any drugs,
but they did find the foil in which they believe the man had heroin.
Officers asked the man what he was doing in Detroit. The man, who already
had a conviction for conspiracy with intent to deliver, told police he was
driving up and down streets, looking for a friend.
"I know he lives around here somewhere," he said. "I was hoping I would
recognize his car."
Officers asked the man his friend's last name. He didn't know it. Officers
asked his friend's phone number. He didn't know.
But because they did not find any drugs, they let him go with a warning. "Don't let me catch you in Detroit again," an officer said.
With the drug trade comes other crime.
Herbert Rapson, a 56-year-old Milford man, was found shot to death in his
car on Feb. 19 in the 11th Precinct in northeast Detroit. Police say his
death may have been linked to the drug trade.
The killing is still unsolved, but the man's family told investigators that
he had a crack cocaine problem and may have been buying drugs.
"There's no question that a large number -- if not most -- of the homicides
are relating to drugs," Duggan said. "I think a huge amount of violence we
have in the city is related to the drug trade."
Rapson was found at 6 a.m. on the 100 block of Longwood with a single
gunshot wound to the head. There are some indications that robbery could
have been a motive, said Detroit Police Homicide Inspector Craig Schwartz. "Might he have been down there buying narcotics and that's why he was in the
position to be robbed? Certainly." Schwartz said.
A Car For Crack
Inspector Billy McFarley said he estimates that at least 50 percent of the
stolen cars reported in his precinct are the result of so-called crack
rentals-- in which a drug user trades his or her car for drugs. The east end
of the 11th Precinct, the area bounded by VanDyke, 7 Mile and Mound roads,
has seen an increase in its concentration of drug activity, and with it, a
rise in the number of reported stolen cars. Crime statistics show there was
a monthly average of nearly 250 cars reported stolen in the precinct so far
"Once they come down off their high, they say, 'Oh shoot. I don't have a
vehicle anymore.' What's the easy answer? Somebody stole it," McFarley said.
Darrin Marshall's life ended as a result of a crack rental.
Darrin was an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Nolan Middle School in Detroit.
On a warm day last October, Darrin was playing with neighbors and bouncing a
basketball on a sidewalk near his home in the 11th Precinct.
He didn't see the speeding Ford Taurus as it jumped a curb and plowed into
him. He died shortly afterward at Children's Hospital of Michigan in
The driver, Rontae Hill, 21 of Detroit, was speeding at more than 70 m.p.h. when he wrecked the car at the intersection of Andover and Remington, police
said. He had been driving the Taurus for a few hours after making a
crack-for-car trade, police said.
Hill got the car from Sean Sims, 30, of Mt. Clemens. Sims told police he was
in Detroit looking for crack cocaine and lent his girlfriend's car to Hill
in exchange for the drugs, according to court testimony during a preliminary
examination. Sims said he passed out in a crack house while Hill cruised in
Sims pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a legal act in an illegal
manner, for furnishing the car to Hill. Sims faced a possible 5-year prison
term for the charge, a felony, but was sentenced to 2 years' probation and
ordered to live in a halfway house.
Hill eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a motor vehicle and was
sentenced on Feb. 7 to 3 to 15 years in prison.
A Night Out
With undercover officers posted nearby, the 37-year-old Utica man paid $15
for a few rocks of crack, then parked his Pontiac 6000 in front of an
abandoned house on Grinnell near VanDyke in the small hours of a recent
Saturday morning. It was around 1 a.m., and the block was eerily dark with
just three occupied homes, a bunch of vacant lots and the dilapidated house.
Suddenly the police swept in on the man and his 17-year-old girlfriend. The
man said he loves his girlfriend and drives her from her Rochester Hills
home to Detroit so she can get crack. He even pays for it. "We were going to
go back home, but she said to park here," he explained. "She said it was
He told officers he had tried crack twice, both times at the urging of his
girlfriend. When police pulled the couple from the car, he had the crack
pipe and a rock of cocaine. He was later charged with violating the city's
controlled substance code and possession of narcotics paraphernalia, both
misdemeanors. His car was impounded.
"I never wanted to get involved in this, and I told her that a thousand
times," he said as police were putting him in handcuffs. "I'm telling the
truth about everything, so help me God."
As for the Rochester Hills teen, she said her mother knows that she smokes
"She knows it, but she doesn't like it," the teen told officers. She said
her mother has been urging her to get help.
"I come from a loving family," said the petite teen with long blond hair. Police gave her a $50 loitering ticket and sent her walking down the dark
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