Before Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters submerged New Orleans, Poppa and his homeboys dominated a small corner of Central City, protecting their street-level drug trade through intimidation. When intimidation wasn’t enough, they brandished assault rifles.
Business was brisk. The group – including Pie, Tron, Boochie, Juice, Fat and Skinny – bagged and sold retail packets of crack, heroin and marijuana from several drug houses near Dryades and Second streets, according to federal court documents in a 31-count indictment for drug conspiracy.
Ronnell “Poppa” Vallery and Michael “Pie” Randolph, both 26, acted as ringleaders but power within the gang ebbed and flowed depending on who was locked up, who was getting heat from probation officers and who was holding stash. There was even friction within the group, court documents reveal, such as the time Pie fired at Tony “Boochie” Jones with a Keltec assault rifle, only to have the gun jam.
The Central City group was typical of a New Orleans-style “gang,” authorities say, thrust together by neighborhood, forged into a tight-knit crew by drug profits and blood-bound by a willingness to use violence. Like so many other New Orleans gangs, Vallery’s group also featured family ties. There were two sets of brothers: Jeremiah “Fat” and Jereme “Skinny” Thomas, along with Travis and Michael Randolph.
Also typical of Vallery’s group was the maddening inability of the local criminal justice system to keep them in check. Each of the nine defendants has multiple arrests, mostly for street-level drug sales, court records show. By 2004, Vallery had three convictions for possession of marijuana and one conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. None of those was enough to keep him behind bars, the records show – that is, until Katrina forced the group to evacuate to Houston.
Now, Vallery is facing a minimum of 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in March to narcotics conspiracy and running a crack house. Travis Randolph faces the same sentence after pleading guilty to 10 drug and gun counts within the 31-count indictment. The others have either pleaded guilty or are awaiting rearraignment, a court hearing that’s almost always scheduled to accommodate a guilty plea.
The gravy train ended two months after Katrina, when Vallery, Jones and co-defendant Eddie Chaney were stopped in Lake Charles with wholesale quantities of cocaine and marijuana while driving from Houston to their Central City base. Federal authorities says Katrina’s evacuation pushed this relatively small-time gang up the drug ladder by moving them closer to the city’s longtime narcotics supply hub in Houston. Since the vast majority of illegal drugs enter the U.S. across the Mexican border into Texas, Katrina’s mass exodus put many New Orleans drug slingers at the taproot of the country’s biggest drug pipeline.
“In the past, these local gangs never really moved very far from their home turf,” local FBI chief James Bernazzani says. “The storm changed all that. They were forced to evacuate. A lot of our local drug dealers went to Houston and established new relationships that provided them with new contacts and new opportunities.”
It only took weeks for the area’s narcotics scene to be reestablished after the storm, federal and local authorities say. Not surprisingly, the return of drug users was followed immediately by the return of drugs, New Orleans police Sgt. Joe Narcisse says.
“It may be an illegal business, but it’s still a business that follows the rules of supply and demand,” Narcisse says.
The post-Katrina drug mix also is about the same as before, authorities say. Cocaine and marijuana remain the dominant street drugs, with heroin seen in some of the poorer areas of the city and ecstasy surfacing in clubs, campuses and the suburbs. The only new addition to the menu, according to Narcisse, is a steady presence of methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth.
“We never saw crystal meth in any large quantities in the past,” Narcisse says. “Now we’re seeing it more regularly.”
The biggest post-Katrina change in illegal narcotics came not in the drugs, but in the distribution patterns, according Bernazzani and others law enforcement officials.
The end result, they say: more drugs from a wider variety of sources at cheaper prices.
“The major difference I see is that pre-Katrina we had a finite number of suppliers outside of New Orleans,” says federal prosecutor Maurice Landrieu Jr., chief of the drug enforcement unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Now we have multiple suppliers outside the city. Some of the dealers have established better connections in Houston, more direct connections.”
Landrieu offers an analogy to explain the market shift. In the past, he says, local drug dealers were like small-time subcontractors who were dependent on out-of-town contractors for their supplies. Given the diaspora following Katrina, the local subcontractors “suddenly had direct access to wholesale suppliers and they realized they can become general contractors and cut out the middle man,” he says.
The best gauge for this phenomenon is the downward drift in prices, says federal prosecutor Tracey Knight, deputy chief of the drug unit. She says the price for a kilogram of cocaine in New Orleans ranged from $17,000 to $23,000 before the storm. Today, the average is $15,000 a kilo.
Overall, the volume of drugs in the New Orleans area is probably smaller because of the smaller post-storm population, says William Renton Jr., chief of the local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. But that doesn’t mean police have a more manageable problem on their hands. Renton says the per capita narcotics volume is probably higher than before Katrina because drugs have come back faster than people. Also, the trafficking patterns have changed to match the new contours carved out by the hurricane, he says.
“New Orleans has generally been an end-user market with plenty of customers,” Renton says. “Distribution has always been ruled by neighborhood groups and that’s still the case. But with the storm and so many neighborhoods flooded out, you’re seeing a shift to the populated areas of the city and to Jefferson Parish. Especially West Jeff, which has seen a spike in drug activity.”
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says that, generally, the area’s hard-core drug dealers, as well as other violent criminal offenders, returned to the area much faster than law-abiding citizens. He says there are several reasons for the quick return of the street thugs. First, many career criminals who evacuated found themselves in hostile territory, unable to resume illegal activities in new cities with established drug markets. Second, those who tried to get into the game in other cities were confronted by much more efficient police and court systems than what they left in New Orleans. Finally, as homegrown drug dealers began to filter back to New Orleans, they took advantage of a badly crippled justice system. Police were overwhelmed and understaffed, courts were closed, dockets were frozen in pre-Katrina time, evidence in old cases was flooded and, in many cases, lost forever.
“Many of the known players came back very quickly,” Letten says. “They found that setting up a small drug operation in Houston, Atlanta or Memphis was extremely difficult. They found themselves facing organized competition. They found themselves facing very efficient law enforcement. So when a drug market returned to the city, it was like an opportunity for their gold rush. Once they returned, they realized they were returning to a very heavily challenged justice system right after the storm.”
Partly because of the speedy return of the area’s established drug dealers, the feared influx of outside drug gangs never materialized, officials say. In other words, the vacuum created by Katrina was quickly filled from the inside.
Mindful of the more than 25,000 migrant workers who flocked to the area for construction jobs, the FBI was especially vigilant about any sightings of highly organized Latino gangs such as MS-13 or Latin Kings, both of which are known for mixing drug trafficking and cutthroat violence. But the law enforcement radar for outside drug gangs remained quiet.
“We’ve seen a few individual Latin gang members, but we have not seen any organized effort to establish a market,” Bernazzini says.
Far more typical are cases in which local criminal entrepreneurs have tried to elevate their status after the hurricane reshuffled the deck of the local drug scene.
For example, the biggest local drug bust since Katrina involved six suspects whom DEA agents accused of moving 50 kilos of cocaine from Houston to Slidell in May 2006. The two main suspects – Marlo Thomas, 30, and Joseph Degreat, 32 – are New Orleanians who were listed in arrest records as “Katrina victims currently residing in Houston.” The case, built primarily through confidential sources, led to simultaneous arrests and searches in Houston and Slidell, according to an affidavit from a case agent. The case is awaiting trial.
Another recent case shows how some suburban drug traffickers tried to fill the void left by their New Orleans counterparts. In September, the DEA nabbed six men responsible for “distributing 10 to15 kilograms of cocaine per week in the New Orleans area.” Some agents refer to the bust as the “floating cocaine case,” because in taking down some of the suspects at a River Ridge apartment complex, a kilogram brick of cocaine was found floating in the apartment’s swimming pool. The six defendants – from River Ridge, Harvey, Jefferson, Kenner, Belle Chasse and New Orleans – have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentences ranging from 10 years to life.
Most of the successful narcotics busts have been made by the feds. While the local law enforcement system was hobbling – and still is – in Katrina’s wake, the resource-rich federal system has been operating on overdrive. In fact, the FBI, DEA and BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), along with the U.S. Attorney’s office, have dramatically expanded their focus on street-level drug and gun crimes. The partnerships the agencies have forged with New Orleans police are unprecedented.
It took the country’s worst-ever natural disaster to do it, but local police and federal agencies in New Orleans now boast the closest working relationships of any city in the country outside of Washington, DC. In addition to federal-local task forces to combat gangs and violent crime, federal agents are embedded in the NOPD’s 2nd and 6th district precincts, the Special Operations Division and the newly formed Crime Abatement Team.
Because of the links between drugs and violence, the initiative was deemed vital to the region’s recovery, Renton says. “The [U.S.] Attorney General says it is imperative for federal law enforcement to help combat local crime,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that a full-court press on drug trafficking is going to quickly curtail the city’s stubbornly high murder rate, Renton and others warn. Despite the broad characterization of many killings as “drug-related,” the truth is that most murders don’t stem directly from bad drug deals but from pedestrian disputes between people who just happen to be in the drug game.
“Most shootings are about someone disrespecting someone, an insult, a fight over a woman [or] some type of revenge,” Renton says. “They’re not about drug turf or competing gangs.”
But in one small pocket of Central City, where Poppa, Pie, Tron, Boochie, Juice, Fat and Skinny used to rule the streets, residents and business owners say the neighborhood is much quieter without the flourishing open-air drug trade. Instead, marked police cruisers pass regularly. Cops walk the beat on foot patrols. Undercover agents and local police drive by in SUVs, instantly identified – but welcomed – by virtually everyone in the community.
Kim, co-owner of Two Chicks and Mom take-out eatery on Danneel Street, says, “Things have been improving, definitely. All those guys [who were arrested] used to be our customers. They weren’t no big guys, but I guess they thought they were coming up after they went to Houston. Now the police ran ‘em off for good.”