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.

Always an avid exerciser, Brownlee bought and converted a little Washington Street bungalow into a private gym for himself and his friends. Brownlee, co-defendant Roger Thompson, Toledo, and others would work out on the weight machines and exercise bikes while listening to Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Master P. Afterward they would kick back in a lounge area, watching TV or reading GQ and Sports Illustrated.

Brownlee could often be found tending to business at his properties, invariably dressed in pressed chinos, loafers, and polo shirts, his hair neatly trimmed. He didn't wear gaudy jewelry or drive extravagant cars. Even the DEA agents who arrested Brownlee described him as fit, with a low-key, even gentle, demeanor.

On the past two Thanksgivings Brownlee gave away free turkeys from the Home Style Restaurant. Every Memorial Day he threw a community barbecue in the parking lot, with ten grills going at a time. There were also barbecues for the Super Bowl. "As a businessman," Toledo says, "it's always good to give back to the community."

Brownlee has fathered four sons by two different women. And though he has not married either one, he is described by his mother, sister, and several friends as a devoted father, one who spends time with his kids and provides for them. Last year Brownlee bought uniforms for the Palm Springs North Optimist Club basketball team on which one of his sons played. He even helped coach the team several times a week, earning a Lucite plaque that reads, "1997 Rockets, Coach Brownlee, in recognition for a job well done."

Authorities maintain, however, that Brownlee's shining civic persona was a front for his real business interest: a drug ring that used banks of microwave ovens, bought a half-dozen at a time, to mass-produce crack for sale on the street, then shipped the powder north.

While Brownlee's investments were evidence to his friends of an ex-con hoping to go straight, law enforcement officials contend that Brownlee was using drug money to open the businesses, which, in turn, were being used to launder the proceeds from his drug sales.

Former Opa-locka police chief Arlington Sands says he wanted to investigate Brownlee several years ago but was unable to have his department launch an undercover investigation because local residents knew all his officers. (Rumors of leaks from inside the department also abounded, though that charge has never been substantiated.) In 1995 Sands and Mayor Ingram went to the DEA and asked for help. It didn't come right away.

Sands used to see DEA agents at various police functions. His approach was polite but persistent: "I remember at the police chiefs' dinner, I'd turn to this guy and say, 'Hi, how are you? Are you working on the case yet?'"

By 1996 the DEA had opened a full investigation, complete with video surveillance. The DEA agents' general practice was to pose as midlevel buyers who were dealing outside North Dade, Brownlee's alleged territory. At the trial the prosecution is expected to contend that Brownlee approved several of the purchases, although it's not clear they can put him in the same room with any drugs.

The Home Style is a large restaurant near the corner of Ali Baba Avenue on the southern edge of the Triangle. Pictures of black heroes cover the white walls. It's 1:00 p.m. and there are only two tables occupied. "We used to have super business until the police came in with their pistols out and scared everybody away," laments manager Gary Watson. "We used to make, like, $6000 or $7000 in profit a week here. This was a good restaurant."

At about 11:00 a.m. this past January 22, while several patrons were finishing up a late breakfast, a dozen DEA agents and Opa-locka police burst into the restaurant. At least one agent provided cover with a shotgun, while others ordered everyone to lie on the floor -- customers and employees alike. The customers were frisked, then allowed to leave. The employees, like Watson, then sat around while police rifled through receipts and invoices. No property was seized from the restaurant.

The same scenario was being played out at Brownlee's other properties. At Keith Toledo's grocery store agents took two handguns, at least one of them licensed (the status of the other gun couldn't be determined). At Brownlee's parents' home, a ranch-style house on NW 155th Street, agents seized "two glass measuring beakers, an electronic scale, and a leather briefcase containing miscellaneous papers and miscellaneous Polaroid photos," according to court records. The most damning evidence was found at 2000 Service Rd., which was believed to be the stash house where drugs and money were kept. Among other things, agents seized a garbage container filled with drug paraphernalia, a money counter, three address books, numerous small, empty baggies, and one cigar box containing a trace amount of cocaine.

In Davie, at the house where Brownlee was living with one of his girlfriends, agents swarmed in, roused him from bed, and once again arrested him. After searching the house, they took an IBM computer hard drive and thirteen watches. From the garage they took an Acura and a silver Lexus. Inside the Lexus was a handbook on hiding money in offshore accounts.

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