Baghdad West

In Opa-locka, gang warfare, drug dealing, and decay are a way of life

Eleven 40-caliber shell casings lay just beyond the front lawn of the little white house on Service Road. Blood ran like latticework from the street, up the driveway, and pooled in the doorway, where 23-year-old Major Johnson lay dying. His aunt stood back in the darkness of her house, her hands clasped over her mouth. Major's girlfriend wandered the front yard with eyes that seemed to see through everything — the sprig of dry black hair that dangled over her face, the shouting police officers, the growing mass of sad and angry people — as if the world had become suddenly transparent.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue arrived. Eight burly firemen began snipping away at Johnson's clothes. Three Opa-locka cops struggled to clear the crowd of about 40 neighbors, passersby, and friends. The scene had cut off traffic entirely on Service Road, a poor residential loop sandwiched between a dirty canal and a set of Tri-Rail tracks.

Ofcr. Pete Rojas arrived at the scene with a swagger, his hair slicked back in a kind of lothario pompadour. Waving his short, thick arms, the Cuban-American cop sliced through the horror with terms of familiar endearment.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue at the scene of Major Johnson's shooting
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue at the scene of Major Johnson's shooting
Tony Lacks of the Opa-locka police department was the first to arrive at the scene of Johnson's shooting
Tony Lacks of the Opa-locka police department was the first to arrive at the scene of Johnson's shooting

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"Pumpkin, I'm gonna need you to step back."

"Mama, you need to get back inside the house. How's that other girl? Still crazy?"

"Lemme see that baby good, she doesn't look like me."

Behind him paramedics strapped Johnson to a backboard. A single gunshot had severed the bone in his left arm and made small holes in his chest and neck. Blood trickled from his wounds. His eyes had become glazed slits, as though he were watching a movie he didn't quite care for.

Rojas got into his cruiser and reversed up the street to clear a path for the ambulance. He stopped next to a heavily tattooed girl holding an infant.

"Mama," he called, waving her over. She smiled gold. "Did you hear the shots?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Was he in the dirty business?"

She shook her head no.

"Who's the best, baby?"

"Rojas," she answered, smiling.

Arriving at the hospital with the ambulance, Rojas followed the gurney into the trauma ward and watched as a team of frenetic, green-scrubbed doctors set upon Johnson's naked body. Machines bleated with the beating of his heart while the doctors took him apart piece by piece, removing dead organs to a nearby tray.

Rojas walked back to the waiting room. He took a seat near Major's girlfriend. (She declined to provide her name to New Times.) She kept her eyes fixed on the linoleum floor and answered each of his questions in a low, flat voice.

The shooting had been the work of a short fifteen-year-old known as Pee Wee, she said, who had eyed her and Johnson at the grocery store from the back seat of a Grand Prix. The car had stopped, reversed, and followed closely, boxing them in a few blocks later.

Pee Wee emptied a black boxy pistol into Johnson as he tried to make a dash for his aunt's front door, she recalled. While her boyfriend slumped against a gold Pontiac parked in the driveway, she pursued the shooters — through the neighborhood streets and back alleys — to get a tag number. She remembered just the first three letters: TAA.

Rojas returned to the operating room just in time to see Major die, the digital squawk silenced like a felled bird. The doctors snapped off their gloves and tossed them onto the bloody sheets, sterile wrappers, and tubing that surrounded Major's corpse. His toes had turned a jaundiced yellow.

"6:32," a voice rang out. "6:32!" several voices echoed.

Two orderlies set to work filling a trash can with the gory detritus while a surgeon began stuffing Major's remains back into his demolished torso, sewing it up for the medical examiner.

Rojas entered the family room flanked by a Miami-Dade detective. A few women chatted; a handful of men muttered, through clenched teeth, about revenge. Major's father, a tall man with long, ropy dreads and a natty beard, paced outside, distractedly snapping a short white towel he held in his hand.

The hospital's grief counselor led him in, by the arm. "The man needs to talk to you," he said softly.

"My son dead?" Major's father muttered, making a wobbly advance toward Rojas. The homicide detective's knee twitched slightly with the weight of his task. "My son dead?" he cried and collapsed — first onto his knees, then his face — into a crescent formed by friends and family.

"My baby," he wailed, pounding the floor with his fists.

Rojas turned and left the room.

Major Johnson was the first homicide victim in Opa-locka this year. Two more would follow the next week. By the end of April there were six. "You've got to build up a shield," Rojas said flatly in the hallway of the emergency room. "The things we see every day you just can't take them home."


alking down the street after sundown in Opa-locka is widely regarded as either foolish or deviant; there are places in town where the same is true even in daylight.

Amid the decaying liquor stores in Middle Eastern-style buildings, illicit auto body joints, and cinder-block ant-farm apartments, a preponderance of idlers can make Opa-locka appear as though it's trapped in a kind of morbid summer vacation. People can be found, at all hours, hanging out in every nook and cranny, bored by the passage of each car and person.

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