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Crackdown Stems Crisis in Hume Springs

News ArticleThe Washington Post

Today, the Hume Springs section of northern Alexandria is a neighborhood of middle-income people who live in red-brick rowhouses, send their children to the local school and enjoy the relative quiet of the streets.

But on a recent winter afternoon, the neighborhood was transformed in the minds of prosecutors and police, back to the days when gunshots rang out in the night and drug dealers sold crack on street corners and near schools where children played outside at recess.

"We'd see drug paraphernalia on the street all the time," Alexandria Police Detective Tom Kennedy said, standing beneath a blue "Drug Free School Zone" sign once spray-painted with gang slogans . "You'd see baggies, vials, old crack pipes. People would get their crack rocks, rip the bag open, take the rock out and throw the baggie away."

"We locked up a guy in that house. We got a guy who lived in that house and that house," Detective Dave Cutting recalled, pointing to a series of homes along Dale Street in a section of the neighborhood known among dealers as "the Hole."

A few blocks away, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Rossi grew animated as he surveyed a ramshackle white building that used to be a barber shop. Apparently, haircuts were not the only products of choice.

"This was a hopping place, basically their supply depot, their clubhouse'' Rossi said. "They would put the crack in the bathroom right next to the barber's chair. You'd go in, get your crack and leave the money behind the toilet."

The barber shop is now home to a tenants association, and one of the former barbers is in jail. There is still litter on the streets of Hume Springs, but it's mostly fast-food wrappers. The drug dealers are gone, in prison, locked up as part of a federal and state crackdown on drug activity formerly so common that it literally went on 24 hours a day.

It was called Operation Dirty Dozen after the classic movie "The Dirty Dozen" and is a tale of how a band of outraged residents pressured police to get involved and then ultimately joined forces with authorities to help take back their neighborhood. Three years after the operation was launched, 36 people have been convicted of drug offenses, and 34 of them pleaded guilty. Their sentences range from 30 months to life in prison, with many locked away for 30 years under strict federal sentencing guidelines.

The operation is considered complete, though its tentacles are still extending nationwide as authorities continue to trace the source of the drugs that once flooded the community. On Feb. 26, that effort led to the arrest in Denver of two brothers charged in federal court in Alexandria with being two of the major suppliers of the ring. Other sources of drugs have been arrested as far away as Florida.

"The community deserves a lot of credit for caring about their quality of life, for caring enough to stick their neck out and say, 'We need help,' " said Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, who hailed the operation as a model of local-state coordination that is being replicated in crackdowns on drug activity throughout Northern Virginia.

The modern-day problems of crack epidemics and concerned citizens were probably far from the mind of Frank Hume, a prosperous Virginia businessman who served in the Confederate Army. In 1879, according to longtime residents and the local historical society, Hume purchased a country estate on high ground overlooking the Potomac River, where he held grand gatherings and collected cannons that he displayed on the front lawn.

His 600-acre farm, accented by a water resort he built called Hume Springs, became today's Hume Springs, just south of the boundary with Arlington County.

Most of the current homes were built in the mid-1940s, according to Glenda Davis, a former Hume Springs Citizens Association president who has researched the area's history.

By the early 1980s, police were becoming aware of drug sales in the neighborhood, mostly marijuana. When the national crack epidemic hit in the late 1980s, things quickly spiraled downward.

"As soon as crack hit, it really inundated that area," Kennedy said. "You'd have people selling drugs all during the day," he said, adding that sales took place right down the street from Cora Kelly School, which backs up to Dale Street, and on a playground within 100 yards of the school.

Ellen Guldan, current president of the citizens association, recalls seeing drug sales in an alley right outside her kitchen window. "You'd hear gunshots in the night," she said. "One home had gunshots go through the front door where children were living. Huge crowds would gather on the street late at night. I'm talking midnight, 2 a.m., 4 a.m. They'd be starting fights, yelling at each other. It was tremendously noisy."

Drug dealers would gather in the parking lot behind the former barber shop, along Mount Vernon Avenue, authorities said. Less than 50 feet away, separated by only a fence, children would be playing in the parking lot of St. Rita School, a Catholic school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Sometimes, children would kick the ball over the fence.

The drug dealers would throw it back.

"We certainly were conscious of the activity back there in the parking lot, and I would never let the children go retrieve a ball," Principal Mary Schlickenmaier said, adding that her students were never injured or harassed.

The police narcotics unit would try to spot sales and make arrests but was undermanned and occasionally outsmarted by dealers who monitored police scanners and set up lookouts throughout the neighborhood. "It was like stepping on a bubble in the carpet," Kennedy recalled. "You stop it here, it pops up someplace else. We just didn't have a massive occupying force to go out there."

Frustration began building among Hume Springs residents, more of whom owned their homes than in the past and therefore had a bigger stake in the neighborhood. The citizens association took action.

In 1993, residents formed a Neighborhood Walk group. Members strolled through the streets at a designated time each evening.

"We thought one reason they felt so comfortable hanging out was because no one else was out there," Davis said. "People would come home from work and stay in the house. So we decided to be more visible. We would stand at one street corner, and they would have the other and they would move on."

The residents bought a television set and an air conditioner for a police satellite station that was in the neighborhood but only sporadically staffed. Alarmed at seeing people drive to the area to buy drugs, they got the city to change the street signs in an alley riddled with drug trafficking. Before, the street was marked for two-way traffic. Now, it's one way and can be entered only from inside the neighborhood.

Other steps included a "telephone tree" in which association members on different blocks would call each other if noise became too loud outside late at night. Then all would bombard police with phone calls. Neighborhood association meetings, always attended by an officer, grew tense.

"It was incessant," Guldan said. "At every meeting, someone lost their temper at some point and said what more can be done. It has to be better than this."

The pressure increased, and police responded. As officers investigated more intensively in 1998, they learned that the drug sales were controlled by a loosely knit organization of about 20 dealers and suppliers, all of whom knew each other and many of whom grew up in the neighborhood. The suppliers were distributing drugs, mostly crack, to a core of five to 10 "mid-level dealers," who would pool their money, buy large amounts and divide it like a pizza before selling it to customers.

Faced with such an organized and efficient ring, Alexandria police and local prosecutors decided to seek federal intervention. Federal sentences are much tougher, they reasoned, and federal laws give prosecutors more flexibility in bringing cases. Federal prosecutors, for example, can bring what is known as "historical conspiracy" cases targeting narcotics rings based on information and testimony about past drug activity. State prosecutors, by contrast, must have actual narcotics in hand to make a case.

"This is a textbook case of where the tools available to the federal government are much more powerful and more suited to really solving the root-level cause of the problem,'' said Randolph Sengel, commonwealth's attorney for Alexandria.

Police and local prosecutors approached a DEA-led task force that combines federal, state and local resources to target drug activity throughout Northern Virginia. Federal prosecutors jumped on the case. The operation was called Dirty Dozen because there were 12 initial targets.

A federal grand jury started taking testimony in 1999, and the dominos soon began falling. Helped by cooperation from the neighborhood and a series of key early cooperators among the dealers themselves, prosecutors -- led by Rossi and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonya Sacks -- secured their first guilty plea in July 1999. Nearly three dozen pleas and two trials later, the drug ring has been eviscerated, authorities said.

"This case was unique,'' said one federal official, who asked not to be named. "The drug activity was so concentrated in such a small area, so close to schools and playgrounds, such high activity 24-7. You had a permanent infrastructure of dealers. You don't see many cases like that."

Today, the streets of Hume Springs are quieter. Residents occasionally sit on their lawns. On a recent winter afternoon, the playground down the street from Cora Kelly School was empty; and the streets themselves were empty save for a mail carrier.

A garbage can along Dale Street, where drug paraphernalia used to lie, is decorated in blue and white with red stripes. It says: "God bless Cora Kelly.''

"It's much better," Guldan said. "Nobody would dispute that. It's peaceful. You can sleep through the night. You don't have to get up and call the police anymore. You feel safe in your own neighborhood."

Dale Street, minus a few residents who have been locked up, is no longer a haven for open drug dealing and noisy street sounds 24 hours a day within sight of Cora Kelly School.A parked car on Dale Street in Hume Springs intercepted a bullet. Willie Bailey, who has lived on Dale Street for 36 years, says things are much better since the drug dealers have been driven out of the neighborhood. He can wash his car in peace.