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.

In all, agents took some 4000 documents they hope will lead to Brownlee's booty. The two bank accounts they seized, under the name of Brownlee's corporation, A&T Traders, had only about $38,000 in them; restaurant employees say the money was for the payroll. Despite a search of nine properties, no drugs were seized, aside from the inconsequential amount of cocaine in the cigar box.

In the absence of substantial amounts of cocaine or money, it appears the case against Brownlee will rely heavily on the testimony of undercover agents and informants. "We really weren't expecting to find any smoking guns," notes Wilfredo Fernandez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Brownlee is a very sophisticated drug dealer." The feds believe Brownlee hid his profits, possibly in offshore bank accounts.

The government has begun forfeiture proceedings against Brownlee's restaurants and other properties. The businesses are allowed to operate and buy the supplies needed to stay open, but none of their assets can be sold. About a week after Brownlee's arrest, the agents returned to the restaurant "with the same intensity," says Toledo. A caravan of twelve cars pulled up outside the Home Style, and an agent with a shotgun stood guard as a dozen more rummaged through receipts and order forms. "I felt it was a scare tactic," says Toledo over a lunch of oxtail stew, turnip greens, chitlins, and fried conch. "They said, 'We can do this any time.' Okay, I understand that. All I'm saying is lower the intensity. We're trying to run a business here."

A long-time friend of Brownlee named Sam, who is eating with Toledo, remembers the numerous mornings he met Brownlee here for breakfast. "Sometimes we'd see kids walking by who should have been in school and Rick would yell out to them: 'I didn't buy you those clothes so you could stand on a street corner. Get to school!'" Sam takes a bite of chitlins. "They been watching Rick day and night for two years and they can't catch him dirty?" he asks incredulously. "I tell you, there is no justice. It's just us. The black man is an endangered species in America right now. A vocal black man might as well go and turn himself in."

Brownlee's friends say that his two incarcerations -- 1983 to 1986 and 1989 to 1993 -- would have made it impossible for him to become a drug lord of the magnitude he is accused of being, one capable of overseeing an operation that shipped dozens of kilos per week and sold dozens more locally. Counters Fernandez of the U.S. Attorney's Office: "It wouldn't be the first time a criminal has run an organization from prison."

For Mayor Ingram, Brownlee's arrest offers a chance to tarnish the gloss of the big-time drug dealer's life. "This is a crusade for the minds of our young people," he says.

But until city hall starts opening businesses, unloading free turkeys at Thanksgiving, paying the hospital bills for injured kids, or fixing sewing machines, the notion that Rickey Brownlee was a scourge of his community is going to be a tough sell in the Triangle.

On a recent, sticky, hot afternoon on Ali Baba Avenue, just down the street from where three-foot-high metal barricades divide the street, Chocolate, a 24-year-old woman in a brilliant crimson T-shirt and white shorts, is recounting how Brownlee would provide free meals during the holiday season. "Nobody else comes here and gives away anything," she grumbles. "The mayor don't give us shit. Fuck the mayor. Fuck the feds. Fuck the DEA."

As she discusses Brownlee's arrest, her rage builds, and her long braids flap as she shakes her head. A few men, sitting nearby on aluminum folding chairs sipping beer, shake their heads in accord.

Eventually Chocolate runs out of steam. Her eyes fade from rage to resignation, and her voice lowers to a hush. "You tell Rick I said, 'Keep your head up,'" she says, staring straight ahead. "They can't keep him down.

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