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.

Ingram, who favors collarless jackets and gold necklaces, grew up poor in Miami, dropped out of high school, worked on the back of a garbage truck, and earned a GED and a Ph.D. "From a chump to a chief," he says, sitting in his office at Florida Memorial College, where he chairs the continuing education program. But because Ingram is a politician, a member of the least-trusted group in poor black communities outside of law enforcement, his perspective has limited cachet in locales like the Triangle.

In essence, Brownlee's arrest has exposed a clash of cultures between the rigid moral code of officialdom and the hand-to-mouth survivalism of the inner city. Opa-locka Police Chief Craig Collins understands this. "Poor people don't necessarily trust the system," he says. "They feel like they get the wrath of the system. Obviously an organization like [Brownlee's] functions in that kind of environment."

Collins might be the one man in Opa-locka who wanted Brownlee behind bars worse than the mayor, because many assumed the only way Brownlee could thrive for so long was if the police were on his payroll. "It was very important for us that when [Brownlee's arrest] went down, it happen in our tenure," he notes.

Collins says residents in the Triangle are unlikely to publicly denounce Brownlee for another reason: They are intimidated. "He held the entire area hostage," the chief claims. "Everybody was afraid of him, not necessarily because of what he did, but because of what he could do."

For U.S. Attorney Tom Scott, Brownlee's arrest was an important community relations coup. "I wanted to do more cases using federal forces where we had more of a community impact," Scott says. "My hope is that these cases could affect the lives of people right here, right in our own back yard. I think in the past there was maybe not as much of an emphasis on this."

Amid these larger agendas, it is easy to lose sight of the one man who stands to lose, or gain, the most from Brownlee's upcoming trial: Brownlee himself, who faces the possibility of life in prison.

Rickey Brownlee was born on October 15, 1956, to a truck-driving father and a mother whose family would eventually grow to ten children -- six boys and four girls. John and Lillie Mae Brownlee rented a series of modest houses in and around Opa-locka. In some of the houses, seven children would sleep in one room. Lillie Brownlee would sew clothes for the older children and the younger ones would get hand-me-downs. Rickey, a smart, sensitive boy, was number seven in the lineup.

"What can I say? We grew up poor," Bunker Brownlee says. He remembers how, as a child, Rickey would wake up crying from nightmares that roaches were crawling all over him. "I'm like eleven, he's like five. Mom would come in and tell him there weren't no roaches on him, but he'd still be crying. I'd get him in my arms and stay up with him. I'd rock him."

The kids would spill into the street, playing kickball and hide-and-seek. On the Fourth of July, rival bands of neighborhood boys would shoot firecrackers at each other across the canals that cut through town.

Even as a young boy Brownlee showed entrepreneurial drive. When he was around eleven, he set up Kool-Aid popsicle stands in the neighborhood. "But Rick wasn't going to stand there and sell the frozen cups," recalls Lynette Johnson, a childhood friend. "He'd rather let you sell the cups. He'll just put it together. That's how Rick was. He was a business person. In business somebody's got to do the work and somebody's got to do the thinking. He could always get one of the neighborhood kids to work that stand."

At age twelve Brownlee got a paper route. John Brownlee, a wiry man with a gray mustache and sad brown eyes who is now 75 years old, remembers waking up before dawn to help his son with the route, then headed to his own job hauling sod. "Yeah, I used to help him with that route," the senior Brownlee says. "He was always a good boy. I cried when I heard all the lies people were saying about him."

Brownlee attended Carol City Senior High School, where he played football, basketball, and was on the swim team. "He never really got into no trouble as he growed up," says his mother. "He didn't have to go to juvie home or go to special classes. Whatever he put out to do, he did."

During his senior year, Brownlee abruptly joined the army. He was doing well enough in school that he would have graduated, friends say. It just didn't seem that important. "He wasn't in trouble, he just wanted to get out," says Lynette Johnson, who spent eleven years in the military herself. "But once he was in the military, that was not Rick. He couldn't wait to get out. Someone telling him what to do and when to do it -- that wasn't Rick's thing."

After two years Brownlee was honorably discharged and he returned to Opa-locka. Shortly thereafter he had his first run-in with the law. In 1976 Brownlee was charged with sixteen different felony counts of firearms, cocaine, and opium possession, but was found not guilty in a jury trial.

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