Cover Story: Atlanta's drug war

Cops say gangs are driving the city's crime surge

The "International Robbing Crew" was the gang that shot straight — or, at least, often.

Prosecutors on Nov. 2 charged nine young desperados from the gang, at least three of them from New Orleans, with seven murders. But cops say they may have killed as many as 30 people over the last two years in a brutal gambit to dominate the Atlanta crime scene.

Some of the murder victims apparently were random – among them an Iraq war vet who was gunned down on Spring Street in what prosecutors speculate was target practice by the gangsters.

Another victim allegedly was killed because of what he knew. When the International Robbing Crew attempted to rob Randy Griffin, prosecutors say he shot and identified one of the leaders, Carlos Drenon. That landed Drenon in jail – where police taped him allegedly ordering Griffin's murder. The recording helped law enforcement smash the gang – but didn't help them save Griffin.

"That gang alone accounts for much of the increase in the murder rate in Atlanta," says Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. "It's the most dangerous crew we've encountered."

In a year that's seen Atlanta crime rates rise after years of steady decline, the International Robbing Crew isn't the only gang capturing the attention of law enforcement. Until they were busted, Cuban gangs based in Miami operated scores of marijuana "grow houses" in middle-class Atlanta neighborhoods. Asian gangs peddled Ecstasy pills in the suburbs.

Dwarfing those outfits are Mexican cartels trucking methamphetamine, cocaine and weed into North Georgia. Last Friday, 300 local and federal agents broke up a major shipment from Mexico. Indictments and charges were filed against 113 people allegedly using Atlanta as a shipment center. Cash and drugs valued at $27 million were seized, as well as 32 weapons.

"We're talking about industrial-sized loads coming in on our interstate highway network," says Jack Killorin, a veteran federal agent who now heads Atlanta's High Intensity Drug Traffic Area task force, a coalition of federal, state and local drug cops.

It's difficult to say how large a role drugs are playing in the crime rise, but Howard says about 45 percent of indictments handled by his office involve drugs. And a number of National Institute of Justice studies over the last decade of arrestees who test positive for drugs rank Atlanta at or near the top among similar-size cities.

"To the extent that drugs fuel crime, what's happening in Atlanta is not only fueling crime here but across the entire eastern half of the United States," Killorin says. "What I heard from other cities is that they see Atlanta as the focal point of their problems."

The home invasion and shooting death by three corrupt narcotics detectives of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston just more than a year ago didn't help things. Aside from victimizing an innocent woman and tarnishing the police department's reputation, Johnston's killing forced Chief Richard Pennington temporarily to disband his 16-officer narcotics unit – precisely as narco kingpins were moving into the city.

In the year before Johnston's death, police served more than 800 narcotics warrants, according to District Attorney Howard. In the last year, they've served fewer than 200.

Cops are quick to argue that both law-abiding residents and criminals get it wrong to think the city abandoned the drug fight when the narcotics unit was disrupted. Other APD units focus on drugs, as well as federal cops and interagency task forces.

And APD's reconstituted drug squad now has 30 officers. Its new leader, Lt. William Trivelpiece, says the unit's absence for several months hurt, but enforcement didn't stop. "How many of the almost 1,700 officers in the police department fight drugs?" he asks. "Sixteen? Thirty? Two hundred?" He pauses, raises his eyebrows in expectation of an answer, smiles and then gives the correct response: 1,700.

But the rising crime rate still is the subject of nervous chatter throughout the city. And what the numbers mean – who is getting swamped by the crime wave, who is causing it, and what neighborhoods are inundated – often is a matter of confusion, misperception and hyperbole.

As Howard says, "In Buckhead, a crime wave may be illegal parking, while in other parts of the city, it may be illegal drugs." Or, as Atlanta police union president Sgt. Scott Kreher says, "If you've been a victim of a crime, it's a crime wave. If you haven't, you're worried."

Law-enforcement officials insist criminals committing crimes against other criminals in the drug turf war have caused much of the uptick. Many crimes are isolated to specific areas – particularly the blighted landscapes around Atlanta's housing projects. And by some measures, compared with other cities and even Atlanta of a few decades ago, things aren't so bleak.

Pennington points out that crime dropped dramatically in Atlanta during the first part of the decade. From 2001, the year before he was hired, to 2005, when there were 1,675 violent crimes per 100,000 people, Atlanta's crime rate dropped by 34 percent, according FBI reports.

"The increase this year concerns me," he says, "but doesn't surprise me because we operated without a narcotics unit for 10 months, something that was necessary, but did affect our crime numbers."

Georgia State University criminologist Robert Friedmann says those numbers reflect national trends: "For 10 or 12 years, crime has been down in Atlanta and the nation. For the last three, crime leveled off, and now it's increasing."

The increases seem to be more dramatic in Atlanta. Nationally, violent crimes crept up about 2 percent in 2006 from the previous year. In Atlanta, crime leapt across the board during the first nine months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006. According to APD statistics:

• The number of robberies is up 25 percent.

• Burglaries are up 19 percent.

• Auto thefts are up 21 percent.

• All larcenies, from purse snatchings to looting vending machines, have risen 5 percent.

• And the scariest number: Murders are running 28 percent above last year's levels.

Through November, there had been 121 murders in the city, compared with a three-decade low of 90 in 2005 and 110 last year. On the other hand, Killorin notes, murders are running "only half of what we saw in 1989," when the city's murder tally peaked at 246. "We're still at the early 1960s level of crime."

Take this year's number, reduce it by the seven murders already charged to the International Robbing Crew, adjust for Atlanta's population growth, and on a per capita basis, the murder rate is about where it was last year. Adjust for the 30 killings police say are tied to the crew, and we're back down to 2005's level.

Killorin says his analysis of federal crime statistics shows that Atlanta actually has moved from the third most dangerous city in the nation to No. 17 on the list. "Most people would consider that progress," he says.

Last month, Congressional Quarterly examined FBI statistics released Sept. 24 and concluded Detroit was America's crime leader, followed by St. Louis. Mission Viejo, Calif., was cited as the nation's safest city. Atlanta rated a bad-but-not-horrible 22nd worst among 378 cities measured.

GSU's Friedmann thinks Atlanta should rank even lower. Unlike CQ, he crunches the FBI numbers through calculations that include poverty, race and the number of female-headed households. The raw FBI data would place Atlanta at No. 11 in homicides per capita out of 65 cities Friedmann measured. But his model moves Atlanta down the list to No. 51.

It's difficult to pin a figure on how many crimes have connections – direct or indirect – to the drug trade. Fingers also point at the queasy economy and Atlanta's large poverty pockets. In Westview Village, for example, more than a quarter of the 85 bungalows on one cul-de-sac are vacant, the flotsam of foreclosures and predatory lending. The empty homes are a magnet for drug hustlers, hookers, vandals and vagrants.

"One of the things that has saved us is the Atlanta Housing Authority tearing down projects," Howard says. But he and Pennington – often rivals for acclaim when the crime-busting news is good – are united in complaining that the remaining projects produce much of the city's street crime.

Bowen Homes, in northwest Atlanta, presents a façade of neat maintenance that hides one of the most crime-infested neighborhoods in the city. A check of records since August reveals a mountain crimes there, including: a drive-by shooting Aug. 28, a woman stabbed Sept. 22, another woman stabbed Sept. 29, a young man shot to death Oct. 19, an apartment shot up Oct. 26, a man murdered Nov. 13, a makeshift grave dug outside an apartment Nov. 14, another man shot to death Nov. 16, a nonfatal shooting Nov. 27, a man standing in front of his apartment shot by a juvenile on Dec. 1. Cops relate stories that residents tell about "the assassin," a young man who supposedly empties his pistol into unsuspecting residents.

Other factors contributing to the crime rise include the blowback from harsh sentencing laws. Friedmann points to "the release of all of those people who've been in prison over the last few decades. They're coming out now in great numbers, and they have few skills beyond crime."

Whatever the causes, police Lt. Bruce Hedley, who runs the elite Red Dog unit (which stands for "running every drug dealer out of Georgia"), says "When you see numbers going up, you have to worry. So we work harder."

It's 34 degrees on a Friday evening in November. In the third-floor Red Dog squad room at APD's City Hall East headquarters, 16 officers, a couple of sergeants and Hedley are getting organized for the night's work.

"We're going to do our usual good job tonight," the lieutenant tells his SWAT-uniform-clad troops. "That means shutting down Atlanta's open-air drug market."

The Red Dogs break into teams, four officers to a cruiser, and head for southeast Atlanta. Within 15 minutes of leaving the station, one team has its first alleged perp. Corey Miller is standing on New Town Circle outside the scruffy Four Seasons Apartments. "Now what do you think a citizen is doing standing on the street on a cold night like this?" muses Sgt. Scott Walker as he wheels his command car in behind one of the unit's cruisers, which quickly disgorges four officers. Miller makes a dash for the interior of the apartment complex, throwing down 22 bags of suspected marijuana.

He isn't quick enough. In less than five minutes from when the police spied him, Miller is tackled, frisked, cuffed and seated in the back of a cruiser.

Residents of housing units emerge to watch the show. Most are children, with an average age of mid-teens. "It tears me up sometimes, knowing that's what they grow up living with," Walker says.

The arrests keep going down every 20 minutes or so. A man named Derrick McCord is spotted on Ormand Street, drinking a beer in a black Oldsmobile. He's arrested under the open-container law, and the police unleash Bolo, their gregarious, drug-sniffing German shepherd, who quickly locates a bag of suspected grass in the center console of the car.

A little later, Officer Mike Dixon is on Decatur Street when he spots a Hyundai that had been carjacked a few days earlier. Police give chase and four men bail out of the stolen car. The driver, Kendrius Matthews, is collared after a 300-yard sprint. They also nab one of the passengers, a juvenile.

At Henry Thomas and McDonough boulevards, the Red Dogs spot two men in a black Chevrolet not wearing seat belts. "That may sound small, but there are other things that alert us, like the way these guys are cruising the neighborhood," Walker says as he arrives to back up his officers.

An officer stops the car for the seat-belt violation – but the real purpose is to search for drugs. She finds a blunt, a cigar hollowed out and stuffed with weed. "While inspecting the vehicle, I found a loaded 9 mm Ruger" semi-automatic pistol, the officer reports.

Other than the blunt, no drugs are found. At this point, officers have determined from a computer ID check that at least one of the men in the car is a convicted felon.

"Face five," says one officer. "Face five," "face five," several others nod. "Face five" means the two men likely will be turned over to federal prosecutors on firearms charges. The sentence for a felon possessing a gun is five years. "And in the federal system, five years means five years," Hedley says.

Asked about his predicament, one of the suspects angrily barks one word: "Bull-SHIT."

As the arrests mount, the police face a new problem. One cop remarks, "We better call for the wagon. I only have two sets of handcuffs left." The wagon soon arrives, and like Charon ferrying souls to Hades, it's off with another load for jail, court and maybe prison.

"For cocaine possession, unless they've caused someone a lot of trouble because of previous crimes, they'll be out soon," Hedley says. "We'll see most of them again."

Year to date, the Red Dog unit has arrested 1,340 people, charging them with more than 2,000 crimes. The officers have seized about 70 guns. Are they fighting a war that can't be won? "We don't think so," Hedley says. "We're targeting the street-level perpetrators. We take their stash away. We disrupt their business. They move on. If we do that, we're making it hard for the whole distribution network to function."

The next Thursday morning, he'll report his week's work to the top brass at the weekly COBRA – Command Operations Briefing to Revitalize Atlanta – meeting at APD headquarters. Killorin, the HIDTA chief, says it's probably the most important weekly event in Atlanta crime-fighting.

Supervisors make reports on crime in their jurisdictions, and Pennington and his aides weigh the information and adjust the department's strategies and tactics.

The police union has accused Pennington of using COBRA to enforce quotas. He's unapologetic. "If an officer says he has had three robberies and two burglaries on his beat, I ask, 'Why haven't you made an arrest?'" the chief says. "If there's crime on an officer's beat, he should arrest someone. If he isn't arresting someone, he should be preventing crime. These officers have never had that sort of pressure on them before."

When he goes to the COBRA meetings, Pennington says his message is: "I don't come here today for everyone to like me."

Jack Killorin's HIDTA task force operates out of a nondescript Midtown building – he doesn't publicize the exact address. Cops – ranging from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents to all flavors of state and local officers – hustle around the building. In some rooms, they analyze data, while teams plot raids in other offices.

"We go after the big players," says the DEA's Chuvalo Truesdell. "A lot of people complain nothing is being done to the big players, but they're not aware of what we're doing."

In recent weeks, HIDTA has cracked a largely Laotian-run Ecstasy ring. Thirty-three people, including a Marietta police officer, were busted. About 65,000 pills were seized – with a street value of $30 apiece, representing roughly $25 profit for each pill.

Then there was the band of Cubans from Miami who purchased about 70 homes in the Atlanta area and, at the time of the bust, were operating marijuana farms in half of the "grow houses." Police say each house had 300-350 plants, and each of those would yield about a pound of pot four times a year.Each pound is worth as much as $5,000 on the street – the cops estimate the bust, which saw 65 people indicted, was worth $55 million.

"In the past few years, we've been seizing $25 million to $30 million a year on average, with an annual investment in HIDTA of about $5 million," Killorin says. "We like for people to know their investment in us pays off."

The most recent victory for law enforcement came last month when the district attorney's office indicted the International Robbing Crew members. Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Brett Pinion says Atlanta's celebrity status as a drug capital is attracting the wrong type of newcomer.

"We know that after Hurricane Katrina, they came here from New Orleans, where they were not held accountable for their violent behavior," Pinion says. "Now they're our problem."

Howard's proud of breaking up the hyperviolent gang – and that his major-crimes unit boasts a 90 percent trial-conviction rate.

"We believe that when the district attorney's office is effective, we'll see a decrease in crime," Howard says. Then, pointing to other agencies – the new APD narcotics unit, HIDTA, the Red Dogs, he adds:

"There's no need to raise an alarm. We've identified the problems, and we're taking action. If the trends continue, then yes, concern is appropriate. But my belief is that crime will return to the 2006 level."

Visit these links for more information on Atlanta crime statistics:

The FBI's annual crime reports: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm

Atlanta Police statistics: http://www.atlantapd.org/index.asp?nav=Stats

An interactive map of crime in Atlanta: http://www.atlantapd.org/index.asp?nav=map

GSU Professor Robert Friedmann's analysis of crime statistics: http://www.cjgsu.net/initiatives/sab.htm