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Heroin on the Hill

Rampant drug trade is biggest obstacle to neighborhood growth

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

A little more than a year ago, Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin invited Allegheny County's new district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., for a drive.

  Pittsburgh narcotics Detective Chris Sims checks drug suspect Wyatt Price, 45, to see if he is carrying heroin-filled balloons in his mouth. Price was one of about 70 people arrested in a yearlong undercover investigation of heroin selling in the Hill District.  (Peter Diana, Post- Gazette) More photos.

This was no joy ride Udin had planned.

Instead, he hoped the newly appointed DA would be as sickened as he was at the drug dealing in the Hill District, where there was literally an open-air market for heroin.

Udin wanted to show Zappala that in addition to taking a human toll, the drug dealing was threatening the success of a massive redevelopment plan begun in the early 1990s. Indeed, some of the new residential developments were now abutting corners where longstanding drug dealing flourished, and needed commercial developments likewise were planned for turf long ago overtaken by heroin sellers and addicts.

Something needed to be done, and Udin hoped Zappala would be the person to lend the needed help from law enforcement.

"I saw an opportunity to get a young, energetic, unspoiled DA to take an interest in drug trafficking," Udin said.

They drove through Crawford Square, the attractive, diverse and hugely successful development of townhouses and single-family homes populated by people of wide-ranging economic means.

But as they drove farther into the Hill, the light and hope emanating from Crawford Square and other new developments soon turned to darkness and despair.

  Related article:

Heroin holds him in its vicious thrall


Along Wylie and Centre avenues, Zappala saw the daily drug dance of sellers and addicts. He saw little subtlety, little pretense that what was occurring really wasn't occurring.

He saw more than enough.

"As soon as I got back to the office, I grabbed [Deputy District Attorney] Dickie Goldberg and said, 'This now becomes a priority,' " Zappala said. "I wanted us to do our part in helping the Hill become what it was in the past - one of the most beautiful places in the city."

Through Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., Zappala enlisted the help of veteran city narcotics Detectives Barry Fox, Raoul Rapneth and Claudia Salerno. They had worked with Goldberg three years earlier in a major Brighton Heights investigation that likewise was funded by the district attorney's office.

The yearlong Hill District investigation resulted in the arrest of about 70 people, each on multiple counts of selling "dope," the street name for heroin.

The detectives noted that while some of those arrested were significant dealers, most were street-level sellers who did so to keep themselves supplied with the drug. What the detectives hope to do in their continuing investigation is to climb the ladder to the dealers who try to insulate themselves by paying junkies to peddle their wares on the street.

"I want to snatch the assets of drug dealers to send a message to other people that dealing drugs doesn't get you anywhere," Zappala said.

But more needs to be done than just arresting criminals, police and politicians alike agree. Successful redevelopment of the Hill District can work only if addicts can rebuild their lives through drug rehabilitation programs and job opportunities, they said. Otherwise, the cycle of addiction-arrest-addiction will continue.

The stories told by some of those arrested indicated that they desperately long for such help. Their spirits may be willing to stop their slow deaths, to join their own rebirth to that of the Hill, but through word and deed it is apparent that their addictions make them too weak to do so alone.

Tide of addiction

Like an ocean tide, the waves of heroin addicts roll onto the Hill District "set," or drug-selling area, early in the morning, and then roll out again for another fix. Generally speaking, it is the same people, day after day, year after year.

They congregate on Centre and Wylie, between Erin and Kirkpatrick streets. Significantly, there are plans to rebuild the Hill's commercial district on Centre between those same two cross streets.

Centre at Kirkpatrick is perhaps the best-known area to buy drugs in the Hill, but which set is active at any moment is something that changes several times a day. It depends on where the cops are and, more important, where the dope is being delivered.

For example, the set at Centre and Kirkpatrick may be teeming with people one minute and vacant the next, as addicts move en masse to Wylie Avenue at Elmore Street, in constant search of their next fix. And then, in a hour, they move back to Centre. And, a short time later, they are on the move again to Wylie.

To the uninformed, the action seems peculiar and unexplained. For those in the know, for those in need of a fix, there's a language here that is understood yet unspoken.

Three who understand the silent language are Fox, Rapneth and Salerno, the undercover team that has been involved in Pittsburgh's highest-profile drug cases, including many in the Hill, during their combined 58 years in narcotics work.

Three years ago, their 15-month investigation of crack dealing in and around Brighton Heights resulted in the arrests of 65 suspects. But unlike that major case, they wouldn't be able to make the majority of the drug buys in the Hill because they are too well known there.

For more than two decades, they've arrested most of the addicts still chasing after fixes in the Hill. Indeed, when Rapneth gave a drug talk at Schenley High School late last year, one of the students said he knew who he was because he had seen him working undercover in the neighborhood.

In the Hill investigation, the detectives contacted one of their informants, a former heroin addict they had utilized numerous times over more than 15 years. He would make the buys. To make certain what he said occurred actually did occur, and to bolster eventual prosecution, the detectives had the informant drive a "super car" - one equipped with a hidden video camera to record the sales.

Month after month, the informant made buys in the Hill, usually about $100 worth of heroin at a time. It wasn't hard to do. If you have the money, the dope's there.

One addict told the detectives that at least 50 bundles of heroin - each with 15 packets, or individual doses - are sold daily in the Hill. But Rapneth said his guess is that the number is more likely in the hundreds of bundles, each costing $80 to $150.

Whatever the amount, there's no disputing the activity as evidenced one fall day when the detectives set up surveillance from inside a new townhouse development under construction near Wylie and Elmore.

It was an unusually beautiful day, sunny and 60 degrees. But for the addicts, it was like any other day of scoring and shooting dope. And then doing it again. And again.

Two men talked at the corner. And then seven men walked up Wylie toward them; five more did the same on Elmore. Now, in the blink of an eye, there were more than 25 men and one woman at the corner. One man grabbed the stop sign and bent over, gagging, as even more people arrived on the set.

"A lot of them are touters," Fox said, using the term for an intermediary in a drug deal who is paid in dope, "or they're just waiting for the best dope to come around."

There was a rhythm to the day that was unmistakable yet unusual in any other setting. Back and forth, to and fro they moved, sometimes in unison, sometimes alone.

Two men walked away from the group and down Wooster Street, one handing the other money, the other returning what appeared to be drugs.

A car pulled up to the corner and a number of the men stuck their heads in the open passenger window. The car pulled away. Another drug deal completed.

Then another car pulled up and did the same. Then another. A man walked up, made a hand exchange with another man and briskly strolled away from the set.

On and on and on.

Not far away, the side of an abandoned building had been spray painted with a message: "Street drugs are bad luck."

The detectives nodded in agreement. They recounted the numerous sad tales they had acquired over the years in their battle against heroin. Perhaps most appalling of the many appalling stories of what heroin addiction can do to a person's humanity was the one about the addict who fatally overdosed in a shooting gallery.

"He was on his hands and knees when he died and went into rigor mortis like that," Rapneth said. "The other junkies used him as a table for their drugs and syringes."

Such stories had for years impressed upon the detectives the devastating allure of heroin. They received a jolting reminder late last year: Their informant was found dead in his apartment.

An autopsy confirmed what the detectives had feared. He had died of a drug overdose, yet another victim of heroin on the Hill.

Change for the worse

The Hill District has a long, sad history of drug abuse and sales, particularly heroin. When Udin returned to the Hill in 1968 after spending time in the civil rights struggle in the South, he was shocked at how the drug trade had exploded.

"Before that, drugs had been limited to the usual suspects," he recalled. "But now we were seeing the vast availability of drugs and the open selling of drugs, which were very new."

Udin and others literally fought back, starting an "Off the Pusher" campaign in which the goal was to physically intimidate sellers to drive them out.

"We got our asses kicked is really what happened," Udin said. "We discovered after a year that this was not going to get it done.

"We realized it wasn't just a few pushers, but that they had a well-oiled system. We also learned they were particularly well armed and operated in an underground fashion that we knew nothing about."

Udin and the others decided to create a drug program that eventually became the House of the Crossroads, a nonprofit agency located in a former heroin "shooting gallery" next to the Hill District police station on Centre Avenue.

While the program helped some, still others became hooked and the drug trade continued to thrive. Udin believes a lack of a national drug policy allowed larger amounts of heroin and other drugs to be imported - lowering prices - and that a lack of commitment by the city to effectively fight drug dealing in the Hill allowed it to continue.

That created a potent mixture, he said - cheap drugs feeding despair in a neighborhood that had been in decline since urban renewal in the late 1950s wiped out the once vibrant Lower Hill. The riots in the Hill following the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 only made matters worse, he said.

"Urban blight and drug addiction symbiotically feed off each other and totally make up the mosaic of a neglected and depressed community," Udin said

And then he wondered aloud: "Is it the thinking that there have been drugs in the Hill so long that we might as well let it remain there? Homewood certainly has drug dealing, but not an open-air farmers' market of drug trafficking like the Hill. That does not happen in any other neighborhood.

"Everybody knows there's no way it would be allowed to happen [in Shadyside]."

Caught in the net

Dec. 8 is a gloomy gray day with temperatures in the low 40s. After looking one last time at pictures of suspects, the detectives set out.

They have opted to make arrests as low-key as possible because they feel a large-scale, media-covered roundup would hamper their chances of furthering the investigation.

Within a minute, Emory Fleming, 37, becomes the first to be arrested. In his pockets are syringes, known on the street as "fits," short for "outfits."

Others who had stood nearby now turn and move away, seemingly on cue, not running but moving at a good pace.

"I got a list, I'm checking it twice, going to find out who's naughty and nice" Fox begins to sing to the tune of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." As the men walk away, a few chuckle at Fox's song. Some of them will be arrested on subsequent days.

Kevin McCray is next on this day, and then, shortly before 1 p.m., it's William Hannaford, 46, of the North Side.

"Just before Christmas, too!" Hannaford says, in protest more of his bad luck than the actions of the police. "You got me for selling, didn't you, Barry? Mm-hmm."

In his pockets are nearly two dozen white-powdered doughnuts in a long container and, even more inexplicably, a 16-ounce glass with a bottle of Elmer's glue inside. Also, there are 15 mushrooms.

"We've arrested him before," Rapneth says for the first of many times during the operation. "He used to take mushrooms Downtown and sell them to white boys as peyote."

Several days later, there's bright sunshine and the air is crisp when the detectives stop at Elmore and Centre and engage in a friendly chat with the crowd there. Jerome Rudolph, 50, walks up, says he's a heroin addict and agrees to be interviewed by a reporter "if it will help keep someone off drugs."

As it turns out, he doesn't really have to say a word. He pulls up his pant leg to reveal skin missing from an area of his leg about 8 inches long by 4 inches wide

"I was shooting dope in it," he explains. "It ulcerated, but I kept shooting in it. I shoot in my arm, leg, anywhere."

Rudolph has been shooting heroin for 30 years, more than half his life. He says he would like to quit, but that the lure of the Hill makes it difficult.

"If I can stay off the set, I can stay off drugs. I'm trying, I'm trying. I shoot every day, other than being in jail for five months, but I'm trying to stay off it.

"It's tough being on the set. But when you don't have anywhere else to go," he says, his voice trailing off.

On Dec. 15, the detectives are again at the corner of Centre and Elmore. They've noticed one of their suspects, Tami Harris, 41, standing among a group of known addicts.

Harris complains to the detectives of the declining spiral she's on - she wants to get off drugs but can't because her drug problem keeps her from getting a job.

"I was in the military. I did my time. I paid my taxes. But when you become a convicted felon, you can't do anything," she says. "I can't even get a job at McDonald's.

"I have no incentive [to stay clean]. I want to get myself together so I can conduct myself."

Harris begins to cry as syringes are removed from her pockets and handcuffs are put on her wrists. The detectives are sympathetic to her plight, but as it is, all they can give her on this day are some words of hopeful comfort that perhaps soon she'll get the help she needs.

Business as usual

Udin is riding in a car at Centre and Kirkpatrick and just shakes his head.

"Look at all these people," he says, waving his hand at a throng on the street. Some of them have already been arrested by detectives for selling drugs but are out on bond, right back where police said their crimes had been committed.

"This is every day. And there's the school," he says disgustedly, pointing to Weil Technology Institute.

There's more of the same at Erin and Centre.

"All you see hanging out here are addicts, dealers or those looking. Look at the numbers. You don't see this anywhere else. You won't see this anywhere else," Udin says.

Indeed, it's that way every day in the Hill. In this business, there are no off days, no holidays.

In this trade, a market truly needs to be served.

Two-pronged attack

Fox, Rapneth and Salerno agree with Udin that any successful battle against drugs requires both law enforcement to attack suppliers and human services to help addicts.

"These are not strangers. The addicts are our brothers, sisters, cousins," Udin said. "They are criminals but they are also victims, our children, and we love them.

"I want addicts to be able to get treatment, training, jobs. If they refuse [treatment], then it's OK to send them to jail.

"I want jail for pushers, business opportunities for Centre Avenue and to have a law enforcement policy that will keep Centre Avenue clear. The city has to decide this is a priority."

A liaison center is planned for the Hill, a place where addicts, the homeless and the jobless can drop in to connect with agencies that can help them. For years, Fox, Rapneth and Salerno have bemoaned the frustrating red tape and difficulty addicts face in trying to get help.

In addition, the Police Bureau's Hill District station has since Jan. 1 been involved in a pilot program to study new techniques to fight crime and improve community relations. As part of the new program, officers are expected to identify neighborhood problems and then come up with innovative techniques to solve them.

Police Cmdr. William Valenta, who took over command of the Hill District station in January, has made a commitment to meet with Udin weekly to discuss ideas on what can be done to deal with the Hill District drug problem.

"Enforcement is only a piece of the puzzle," he said. "Enforcement is important, but we need to begin looking at the big picture and how to involve the community and clergy to begin to eradicate this problem.

"We need to figure out how to reach these people who need rehab."

Valenta said it is crucial that addicts who want help can get it as soon as possible, because a number of new blue-collar jobs will emerge with the city's numerous development projects.

"We need to find ways to make this happen," he said.

In addition, Udin said, the community needs to accept responsibility for turning a blind eye to the drug trade and letting it build to its current level.

"They now need to join with the police and say to the drug dealers, 'We are going to fight you for this space.' We have to be prepared to fight," he said.

Often a vocal critic of police, Udin conceded that his call for cooperation is a dramatic step.

"It's not easy for me to say we want a massive police dragnet up and down Centre Avenue. [But] we don't have any choice," he said. "Either we do that or we relinquish Centre Avenue. And Centre Avenue is our jugular."

Only by removing the needle from that vein will the Hill District's new lifeblood continue to flow.

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