By Chuck Strouse
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Relatives and friends are reluctant to dredge up Brownlee's criminal past. "Whatever Rick did in the past he paid for," says Johnson, who dated Rick when they were teenagers. When pressed to explain how Brownlee apparently got involved in the drug trade, Johnson says, "Miami happened to him. His environment happened to him, the way the job market is down here."
It's entirely possible to see, in the young man Johnson describes, Brownlee's desire to achieve financial security in a world short on legitimate options. Most of Opa-locka's predominantly black labor pool worked long hours for little pay, like Brownlee's father. Others faced a darker fate. Bunker, for example, went off to the Vietnam War, where he was missing in action for a period, and returned a diminished man. ("He was lost over there," John Brownlee laments. "He hasn't been right since he's been back.")
Rickey Brownlee not only saw beyond these bleak possibilities but possessed a head for business and an ambitious streak he wasn't afraid to act on. "He always grew up like he knew what he wanted, and he wanted a good life for himself," Lillie Brownlee says. "He didn't sit around and wait for no handout." Even if that meant breaking the law.
In 1983 Brownlee was caught selling a kilo of coke to an undercover DEA agent and served three years in prison. When he got out in 1986, America had entered the era of crack cocaine, and inner-city neighborhoods like Opa-locka's Triangle would be changed forever.
In its modern history, Opa-locka has consistently been one of Dade's poorest cities. One-third of its residents -- 70 percent of whom are black -- live below the poverty level. The Opa-locka of 1986, the Opa-locka to which Rickey Brownlee returned from prison, had a population of about 16,000 and an annual homicide count of fourteen. That was only two fewer than all of Miami Beach, which had more than 95,000 residents. In 1988 the count was again fourteen, with ten of the murders occurring inside the Triangle, where only about 550 people lived. This little urban pocket became known as the bloodiest swath of real estate in America.
The Opa-locka Police Department summary reports from that year are a litany of inner-city trauma: "201 Sharazad, apt. 93 ... gunfight possible drug related; 2000 Ali Baba ... drug-related shooting between rival dealers; 1890 Ali Baba ... victim shot while in a drug deal, victim also armed with handgun." Newsweek and the Washington Post cited the Triangle as a prime example of urban violence in America.
In an effort to limit the movements of those buying and selling crack, the city in 1986 erected barricades to all access roads into and out of the Triangle, save for the edge along NW 22nd Avenue. Between the homicides and the barricades, the Triangle became one of the nation's most visible combat zones in the war on drugs, reminiscent of Belfast or Beirut.
Coupled with intense police patrols, the barricades met with some success. Murders in the Triangle were gradually cut by more than a third. Still, the Triangle's decline into an environment of drugs and violence wasn't about to change overnight. "If you plot high school dropout levels, high unemployment, high infant mortality, high numbers of people on social programs, you've plotted the Triangle," says Chief Collins. "You have these kind of problems [drugs and murders] where you have all these other factors."
In this environment, Collins adds, there have always been drug barons. Indeed, before Rickey Brownlee there was an equally legendary prince of the streets named Isaac Hicks.
In 1986 49-year-old Ike Hicks was at the height of his powers and, unknowingly, coming up on the end of a twenty-year run in organized crime. Hicks and his crew, according to Lee Stapleton Milford, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the drug dealer in 1987, "were outlaw pioneers in the Miami community. They began as truck hijackers in the Seventies and dabbled in other criminal activities before focusing their efforts on the drug trade."
According to Milford, now director of the Executive Office for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces in Washington, D.C., Hicks earned huge profits by carefully monitoring sales records and controlling distribution. "I'm not saying there wasn't a drug business there before," he recalls, "but I doubt very much it was as well organized."
The case against Hicks was put together by a brash Metro-Dade detective named Dennis Reddington, who made a reputation for himself during the Eighties by taking down drug dealers. Reddington's strategy for Hicks was to conduct continuous searches of the dealer's 32 properties scattered throughout northwest Dade -- confiscating money and some drugs but never making any arrests. This allowed Reddington and his colleagues to compile a detailed log of Hicks's criminal enterprise. Hicks apparently dismissed Reddington as a crooked cop who was robbing him. "The key was not to get greedy and make arrests too soon," Reddington explains.
In April 1987 Metro-Dade police and the DEA finally raided Hicks's properties and arrested Hicks and his wife Janet. Among the incriminating evidence police found were spiral notebooks filled with cocaine sales records that used a color-coded system to track inventory. In one house, police found 24 pounds of cocaine sitting on the kitchen floor. Although he kept a low profile around town, Hicks's extravagant tastes were suddenly on display. Police seized $400,000 in jewelry, including a $14,000 gold eagle studded with 186 diamonds, and a $51,000 jewel-studded gold breastplate with "IKE" written across it in white gold. Hicks was sentenced to 137 years in prison, where he died of AIDS-related symptoms in 1993.