Baghdad West

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

In 1999, after retiring from the Army and taking a job as a Miami-Dade Schools detective, he and his wife purchased a home and moved to Opa-locka with their three children. Every other night, Hadley says, he can hear gunfire from his front porch.

Six months ago he purchased the S & D Wash House. He allows no drinking, no loitering, no dope smoking. He keeps watch over the place from his laptop computer, which is networked to nine closed circuit security cameras on the premises.

When Rojas mentions a trip up the block to the water tower, Hadley taps his pistol beneath his shirt, almost mechanically. "I'll come and back you up."

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

Rojas arrives at the torn chainlink fence marking the entrance to the tower a few minutes after Hadley, whom he hears shouting from inside the tower:"Stop, police!" Rojas darts in to find Hadley counseling a ragged veteran on where he might spend the night.

The three-story concrete mass looms behind him like the setting for a film noir shoot-out finale. It connects to a series of industrial substations by a precarious iron catwalk. To the north an entire section of fence has been torn out, providing access to the railroad tracks, which, on this particular afternoon, lay littered with sacrificial chickens and a trash bag full of goat bones.

"Too many damned veterans out here," Hadley says as the tattered man disappears along the tracks. Hadley looks around in disgust at the patchy grass. He is surrounded by piles of stolen luggage, rags, bottles, needles, crack pipes, and a carpet of empty dime bags — Batman bags, ganja leaf bags, yellow ones, red ones — a moldering plastic log of every hit taken in the crumbling degenerate haven.

Inside the tower, a thick, festering layer of human waste coats the second floor. The stench is indescribable. "Careful where you step," Hadley says, pointing to hypodermic needles jutting up through the muck.

"I've seen as many as 50 people living in here," Rojas says, surveying a burned-out box spring. "A lot of them are dope boys just out of jail. They spend all day slinging crack on the streets and come back here at night."

Hadley and Rojas continue up the stairs, away from the stench. They navigate the sloping tar paper and brittle iron rebar that make up the roof, tiptoeing toward the building's concrete edges. Rojas shoots a disparaging gaze toward the spires of city hall. Officials fled the palatial government center this past March, citing a leaky roof and a relentless rat infestation.

"Look at this," Hadley says, pointing to the near distance, beyond the tower's eastern boundary. "That's an elementary school. We've got 500 registered sex offenders living in this four-mile town. I feel like no one's going to do anything about this until one of those guys drags a kid in here and rapes them."

Just then, as if on cue, Rojas hears a stirring from a small room to his right. "Police!" he barks, stepping onto a forklift pallet that provides a shaky bridge to the closed metal door. After a tense minute, a bleary-eyed 25-year-old named Dre shuffles reluctantly into the daylight, sporting a gold grill and baggy black clothing. "I'm homeless," he grumbles. "I'm a runaway. I can't find no work."

Rojas brushes him aside. Standing behind him, in high heels and tangerine "going out" clothes, is a pretty fourteen-year-old girl. While Rojas and Hadley question the girl, Dre bolts.

"I'm gonna get you help whether you like it or not," Hadley says. On the way back to the station, she smiles and jokes with Rojas about nightclubs and his fly car. "Please don't call my mother," she begs. Hadley spends his day off looking up her school records and contacting crisis counselors. Rojas buys her McDonald's and begins a mountain of paperwork.

Hours later her mother arrives at the station from work, wearing her Miami-Dade County bus driver's uniform. They live just a block away from the police station; she is familiar with the water tower. "All kinds of things go in and out of there every night," she says. Around 10:30 p.m. the girl drops her guard and begins to cry.

She says she snuck out on Friday night to see a boy in Miami and spent the night dancing. A friend had given her a lift back to her house. She was afraid to come in, she says, having skipped her afternoon classes, and instead roamed the streets alone. She met Dre in front of the Kwik Stop on Aswan Road, just north of the Back Blues. She was tired and needed a place to sleep. He knew one.

When they lay down on the filthy mattress in the tiny dark room, he pulled her clothes off and raped her. Rojas called some people he knew in the street and, within a few hours, Dre was in custody.


It is the second Tuesday in March: Chief's Night Out, a day some rank and file cops dread. Chief Wright has called in the entire force to canvas the town, asking residents if they have any complaints or concerns about policing in the area. Most people shake their heads and smile shyly (spooked, it seems, by the odd manifestation of cops), but every now and then someone asks how they plan to put a stop to the nightly gunfire.

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