Our Hero the Drug Dealer

The feds call Rickey Brownlee one of South Florida's biggest narco-traffickers. His friends and neighbors in Opa-locka call him a valiant victim.

The press conference was a classic Drug Enforcement Administration production. Its goal: to trumpet the arrest of Rickey Brownlee, the alleged cocaine kingpin of Opa-locka. On display outside the slit-windowed DEA headquarters on NW 53rd Street were blown-up photos of homes and buildings the government seized the day agents arrested 41-year-old Brownlee and three alleged confederates on charges of trafficking in cocaine and heroin.

The last photo in the series, jarringly, was a bloody murder scene, a body slouched in the front seat of a car, the head a red bloom of blood and brain matter. Brownlee wasn't charged with any murders, the agents present noted, but his organization was linked to several street killings.

As the assembled reporters were duly informed, Brownlee's ring had moved a whopping 80 to 100 kilos of cocaine per week, which in its powder form alone would be worth more than two million dollars. Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram, looking dapper in a suit and African kofi hat, praised the DEA's two-year undercover investigation. "No longer will our citizens be held hostage in their own homes," he intoned. DEA Special Agent in Charge William Mitchell, in turn, thanked U.S. Attorney Tom Scott for pursuing the case.

Finally Brownlee himself was led into the late afternoon sunlight. A tall, well-groomed man in a white open-neck shirt and dark pants, he walked with his head high, staring directly at the bank of television cameras tracking him. He was apparently unaware that his role called for him to appear cowed and humble.

Just a few miles north of the orderly corporate park where the DEA showed off its prize captive, on the cracked pavement of a section of Opa-locka known as the Triangle, the perception of Brownlee is quite different. "He just like a Robin Hood, giving money, food, clothing to the poor," offers Maggie Carswell, a Triangle resident whose gaunt and nearly toothless face appears a decade older than her given age of 53. "I've asked him for money and he give it to me. He's a nice person, still is. He was a lot of the poor's bread and butter around here."

In this community of roughly eight blocks bordered by train tracks and warehouses, where unemployment and poverty reign, Brownlee stands as a symbol of success against formidable odds. The legality of his endeavors doesn't much matter to his neighbors. What matters

is that he opened businesses in the Triangle, gave out free turkeys on Thanksgiving, coached community basketball teams, and helped folks pay their rent.

Brownlee's future will rely on which of these two portraits -- violent drug dealer or philanthropic local hero -- emerges more forcefully at his trial, tentatively scheduled for September. (Brownlee, through his attorney Milton Hirsch, declined to be interviewed. The U.S. Attorney's Office, citing the upcoming trial, also declined to elaborate on the case.)

Unfortunately for the DEA, the carefully staged press conference failed to elicit much media coverage. The Miami Herald ran a brief story with a photo inside the local section. In an era of declining crime rates, it seems, an inner-city drug dealer doesn't resonate with the general public.

But in Brownlee's hometown, where he was known in some circles as the "unofficial mayor" of Opa-locka, the story was greeted as the biggest news in months. People raided newspaper racks, buying papers two and three at a time.

"Every holiday they set up a tent right over there and give out a free meal." Herman "Bunker" Brownlee, Rickey's older brother, is pointing across the street to the parking lot of the Home Style Restaurant, which his brother started about three years ago. "At Christmas he gives all the kids a free gift. His restaurant is always open after hours if you need food. If you was dead hungry and looked the part, he'd make up a little plate for you."

Bunker is a solidly built Vietnam veteran, a former helicopter repairman who has been in and out of jail on drug possession charges since the late Eighties. Most days he can be found scooting around the Triangle on a Huffy bicycle in a baseball cap and T-shirt, sipping beer out of a can sheathed in a paper bag. He does odd construction jobs, he says, but at age 47 feels too old to seek a full-time job. He relies on his military pension. A month before Bunker was released from his latest prison stint in February (a seven-month hitch for cocaine possession), Rickey was nabbed by the feds and hauled off to jail.

Eager to redeem his brother's name from the "lies" that were printed in the paper, Bunker retires to a weedy lot, where he seats himself on a milk crate. "They saying he was a killer and people were scared to come out of their houses," Bunker scoffs. "You ask anybody around here if they're scared of Rick. Go ahead, ask 'em."

Michael Blansford, a childhood friend of Brownlee, pulls up a crate and gives his testimony. "He isn't a stingy man. He isn't a mean man," says Blansford, a tall, lanky 40-year-old. "Once my mother's sewing machine broke down, and she needed that for work. She was short $20 to repair it, so Rick said, 'What's wrong, Mrs. Blansford?' and she told him. He said 'Now, don't worry, Mrs. Blansford, I'll take care of that.' My mom told him she'd pay him back. But he says to her, 'Mrs. Blansford, don't you worry about it. You looked out for me when I was little. I guess I can look out for you now.'

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