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.

At the height of his powers, Hicks was immensely popular among the poor and disenfranchised of northern Dade County, just as Brownlee is today. "When I was in high school, Ike was the biggest thing since sliced bread," says Brian Dennis, who remembers seeing boxes of clothes set out in front of Hicks's palatial home on NW 105th Street for kids to try on. "Nice clothes, too," Dennis says. "He was paying people's rent and mortgages. A drug dealer has a heart too, you know."

Although Brownlee and Hicks were competitors, the two "respected and avoided each other," Reddington says, with the exception of a little taunting from Brownlee. "Rickey knew Ike was going down and Rickey would tell him, 'When you're gone and in jail, all this will be mine.'" After Hicks's conviction in 1988, Reddington flew out to Kansas to meet the fallen drug lord. "I spoke with Isaac in Leavenworth. Even then, he admitted that Rickey Brownlee would be his successor. But he didn't like Brownlee. He thought he was extremely violent." It's no coincidence, Reddington says, that 1988 was one of the bloodiest years to date in the Triangle. "Everybody competed for Ike's throne; anybody with a gun was out there."

According to a DEA agent who worked the Brownlee case and spoke only on condition of anonymity, Brownlee's organization was a classic hierarchy. He was the top man. His three lieutenants (and co-defendants), Roger "Black Pete" Thompson, Sandford "Rush" Bradshaw, and Willie "Punchy" Young, reported directly to him. And a network of up to 40 "managers" and streetside sellers reported to the lieutenants. Helping him handle cash flow were one or two "strategic planners -- like [the Mafia's] consiglieri," the agent says. Brownlee never directly handled drugs, leaving that to his lieutenants and managers, who kept the street-level sellers supplied.

Brownlee has never been charged with a violent crime. Police Chief Collins notes a murder from several years ago, however, in which informants claimed Brownlee was the last person seen talking to the victim before an unidentified gunman shot him. So far there have been no arrests in the case, which is still under investigation.

Metro-Dade's Reddington remembers Ike Hicks telling him about a midlevel dealer, Sherman Nealy, having a falling out with Brownlee in the late Eighties. Hicks said that Brownlee directed his men to put Nealy in the trunk of his car at gunpoint. Then Brownlee and his men allegedly drove around for a while before letting him out. "At one point I talked with Sherman when he was in prison in Tallahassee," Reddington says. "He didn't deny he was kidnapped, but he wouldn't expound on it and tell us why."

The allegations that Brownlee is guilty of committing or orchestrating violent acts are problematic, though; the only evidence law enforcement agencies can offer at this point is hearsay.

To Brownlee's friends, such as Keith Toledo, it's a matter of character assassination, pure and simple. "If they can't convict someone, they just smear his name in print," Toledo scoffs.

With Hicks in prison and his organization dismantled, there was abundant evidence that Brownlee hoped to corner the market. "We in law enforcement knew it was going to be Rickey Brownlee, but the fools out there didn't know that. Rickey had the family, the strong men, and the gun power," Reddington says. "Our idea was to take him down as soon as he was established." In May 1989 Metro-Dade and DEA officers raided numerous houses linked to Brownlee. The agents ended up seizing a fish market on NW 22nd Avenue in the Triangle, as well as a posh home Brownlee was building in Miami Lakes. "That place was huge," Reddington recalls. "There was a pool in the bedroom."

Brownlee was charged with fifteen counts of racketeering and cocaine trafficking. Using information gathered from undercover agents and informants, authorities noted that his operation was bringing in an annual profit of $26 million. Brownlee pleaded guilty and served five years in prison, from 1989 to 1993.

In the state prison in Quincy, Brownlee was disciplined and focused, according to a friend who served time with him. He exercised diligently and read voraciously. "We'd read USA Today, the Miami Herald, GQ, Vanity Fair, Esquire," the friend says. They also read books by Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and listened to National Public Radio. Brownlee frowned on the pornographic magazines that were circulated and often chastised fellow inmates for being interested only in sports. "We'd have the paper and 30 guys would come over all asking for the sports section, and he'd make 'em read the news sections before he'd give them the sports."

It was after this stretch in prison that Brownlee's complex, contradictory street reputation emerged. "Anybody who has been away, they got the time to think about what they want to do," says childhood friend Lynette Johnson. "That's what Rick did."

After getting out of prison, Brownlee concentrated his energy on launching businesses in the very neighborhood that most needed an economic jolt -- the Triangle. He took out a mortgage on a building at NW 151st Street, which he turned into a grocery store, now leased and run by Keith Toledo. There is an adjoining take-out restaurant that does a bustling business, run by Brownlee's sister Janice. In 1995 he opened the Home Style Restaurant on NW 122nd Avenue.

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