By Tim Elfrink
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By S. Pajot
By Tim Elfrink
By Tim Elfrink
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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.
"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.
Though there has been a relative dip in the city crime in recent years, there were eleven homicides in 2006, compared with a record fourteen in 1988. As of the 2000 census the city's per capita income was less than $10,000 a year, and more than a third of its 15,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Seventeen percent of the population was unemployed, and 72 percent had incomes below $35,000.
City Clerk Deborah Sheffield Irby says Opa-locka's unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, compared to a regional average of 3.1 percent; the U.S. Labor Department, which tracks unemployment nationally, does not keep data at the level of small cities like Opa-locka. (Asked where Opa-locka ranks among Florida cities in terms of citizens living below the poverty line, Irby is flabbergasted. "Who says we're living in poverty?" she asked. "I don't know anyone in poverty here.")
When quitting time rolls around for the city's employed, the streets flood with ATVs, dirt bikes, and go-carts. They're illegal, but the police can't do a thing about them. The likelihood of instigating a deadly accident, in pursuit, is simply too high. Rojas nearly wrecked his cruiser in 1999 when a pack of ten ATVs swarmed him at high speed.
"This is Iraq in America," he mutters as he makes his way into "the Triangle": nine infamous blocks that make up the town's northwest corner.
It's a neighborhood where piles of rotting furniture and garbage are left to mount; where apartments are rented with shot-out windows; where the only tenable form of commerce appears to be trade in drugs, cheap alcohol, and fried food. Aside from four bunkerlike convenience stores and four restaurants, the Triangle is little more than vacant lots, churches, and sub-standard housing.
All of Opa-locka's high-crime areas have the look and feel of occupied zones, but the Triangle looks more like a blast site. Two clusters of multi-unit public housing have been shut down entirely bricked up, only to be burrowed into by crack heads.
"I always get nervous right here," says Rojas, turning up Duval Street and into the bullet-pocked intersection known as 21 Jump Street. "You never know when you'll come up on a shooting. I'm telling you it's Baghdad."
Since 1986, low wood and metal barricades (similar to guardrails situated along freeways) have restricted traffic into the Triangle. Last year three entrances along 22nd Avenue were opened up. The barricades limited escapes, but they also trapped crime inside the neighborhood. Like bandages applied to a dirty wound, drugs and violence seem merely to have festered behind the low metal structures. And the busts keep coming.
In February Opa-locka teamed up with the DEA to haul a drug-trafficking ring of 45 people out of the Triangle. Fourteen of them face ten-to-fifteen-year sentences on federal drug charges, if convicted. If released, they will likely wage war on those who have taken up business in their absence.
The commerce along the Triangle's exposed western edge offers the last vestige of the economy wrought by Rickey Brownlee's notorious narcotics operation. The kingpin attained a kind of Robin Hood status, opening a pair of restaurants and a grocery store, paying rents and comping food for the needy. In 1989 the DEA noted his operation was worth about $26 million annually, shortly before they sent him to prison. He is now serving a life sentence.
But Brownlee's incarceration seems to be something of a dubious achievement, like the toppling of Saddam. There is no longer a central authority in the Triangle; instead, warring factions vie for control.
Seven Cent Hole (the nickname for a bar and motel functioning as a known heroin and prostitution locale) forms the filthy southwestern tip of the Triangle. On his way out of the neighborhood, Rojas notices a weathered, middle-age man whose teeth are missing along one side of his mouth. He wears a blue baseball cap, a plaid shirt, and pants flecked with paint. In his right hand he holds a bag of chips; tucked under his other arm is a copy of the New York Times.
"Cornbread!" hollers Rojas.
The man looks up and wanders over to the window of his cruiser, bashfully. It's Ronnie Brownlee, the only one of the six Brownlee brothers not currently serving time. (Most recently DeLeon Brownlee, 33, a felon on probation, was charged with murder in last month's shooting of nineteen-year-old Leonard Mells.) Ronnie did his time for drugs and racketeering in the late Nineties, but now makes a living painting houses.
He's straightened himself out, Rojas whispers. "I got kids to feed," Ronnie explains dutifully. Though pleasant and soft-spoken, Ronnie loses his cool at the mention of his brother's name.
"Rick showed love," he says. "He did everything he could. Rick looked out for this place for real. He helped people from inside prison; he'd bury your mamma and your daddy. Our father and mother passed away they didn't even let him come to the funeral."
Things have gotten safer, he says, but worse.
"It's going crazy," he says. "When I grew up they want a real fight; they ain't even fight no more, they just grab a gun. It's safer in a sense, but it gets bad. One day it's good, one day it's bad; the next day, it's really, really bad."
Police pressure on the Triangle has pushed drug commerce into a HUD apartment complex known as "the Back Blues," one of several such buildings staked out by rival drug gangs in neighborhoods southwest of the Triangle. The buildings have all been slapped with fresh coats of dull brown paint, but they continue to be known by their original colors: "the Pinks," "the Browns," "the Front Blues."
The "Back Blues," officially the Alexandria Garden Apartments, achieved notoriety this past October when a shootout erupted between local dealers and police. Opa-locka's only narcotics detective, Miguel Galvez, and Miami-Dade Det. Raymond Robertson had received a tip that a vacant apartment there had been stockpiled with guns and drugs. One of the dealers approached their cop car holding a pistol. All hell broke loose. Robertson was shot seven times by three different suspects. He returned fire with gunshot wounds in both arms. The pair took refuge in a Kwik Stop one block north the same place where Opa-locka Police officer Ephraim Brown was gunned down in 1986.
Since then County Tactical Narcotics teams have been hopping out of pickup trucks in bulletproof vests, tackling suspects in broad daylight, searching cars, and setting up radio lookouts throughout the besieged projects.
But pressure on the Blues will inevitably push activity back into the Triangle. "It's like rats and roaches," said one officer, wishing to remain anonymous. "You burn out one nest and they just scurry into another."
Kevin, a 33-year-old drug dealer working the Back Blues, regards Rickey Brownlee's incarceration without sentimentality. "More spots opened up," he says, "and prices went down."
He doubts that the local police will ever be able to root their operations out of the federally funded apartments. "We never go to jail," he said, while a trio of visiting Opa-locka cops conducted interviews just out of earshot. "To put us away they'd need informants and stuff. And that's never gonna happen." Kevin and his colleagues provide every child in the building with subsidies of up to $7000 per year, he said, a strong incentive in a town where 42 percent of children under 18 live in poverty.
n his thirteen years as a cop, Pete Rojas has been everything from a dispatcher to a domestic violence detective. He's received 25 commendations (including six so far this year), primarily for drug arrests. An ex-partner nicknamed him "K-9."
He is, by all accounts, a good cop who enjoys a kind of celebrity status in town. Last year he was featured in the lyrics and video for "Get Yo Money," a thug ode sung by up-and-coming Opa-locka rappers Brisco and Henessi:
Rojas got me calculatin' every move
Ask about the Bris they'll say that boy is hella smooth
In the video, the camera quickly cuts to Rojas leaning against his cruiser, arms folded sternly over his expansive chest, his eyes shielded by a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.
He appears to be having the time of his life.
Well-known around town, Rojas leaves his body armor in the trunk most days. You get the feeling he doesn't need it.
He is swarthy and oversexed, cool and clever. After a few hours on patrol with him, he seems the only kind of person who could possibly stomach the Herculean task of being an Opa-locka cop.
In 1968, the year before he was born, Rojas's father took a job as a patrolman in Opa-locka. (He left in 1972 to work for the Broward County Sheriff's Office.)
Rojas Jr. didn't know much about the town as a child. When he enrolled at Hialeah/Miami Lakes Senior High, he came to know Opa-locka as the place people went to buy weed.
Since joining the department in 1994, he has witnessed the comings and goings of nine Opa-locka Police chiefs. He has been fired three times: once for taking a weekend in Cancun without leave; once without nominal cause (Rojas cites his testimony on behalf of two fellow officers during an arbitration); and again during a layoff.
He managed to get rehired every time, thanks to his impressive record and shrewd politicking. But like most cops in Opa-locka, Rojas seems more at ease amid the constant automatic weapon fire of the city's mean streets than within the police station walls.
In 2002 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nearly shut the ailing department down for being noncompliant in 80 percent of FDLE's professional standards. State investigators found the department lacking in (among other things) basic equipment, manpower, and fundamental organization.
Most cops were working without body armor, sirens, or vehicle radios, according to the report. While per capita crime rates were nearing the highest in the United States, officers took home the lowest pay in the county.
Commendations and criminal investigations were equally scarce. Many cops nominally in charge of subdepartments (i.e. traffic) were not aware of their titles to say nothing of their responsibilities.
A former indoor shooting range had been turned into the evidence depot and piled, willy-nilly, with aging drugs, guns, and weapons with no ostensible order or system for keeping track. In 2003 two senior cops were prosecuted for selling the stuff back to criminals.
At times, according to the report, as many as eight calls for service were put on hold due to a lack of officers: 34 patrolled a city of more than 15,000 people, down from 54 in 1996. The report cited one particularly troubling evening, May 18, 2002, when one cop and his supervisor were left to handle "a homicide and barricaded hostage situation" alone.
A 2004 followup found little improvement. A pair of grant-funded detectives struggled to tackle 60 cases a week; they had almost no investigative training. Officers were burning out. The five reserve cops Opa-locka hired failed to pass their probationary period. "The recruitment function is still nonexistent," the report stated.
In 2005 James Wright, an ambitious lieutenant from the Miami-Dade Police department, took over as Opa-locka's Police chief. Wright's was the first police chief contract to promise such a high degree of job security: a five-year guaranteed payout (whether the town dumps him or not). Detractors outraged by his juicy contract photocopied and distributed it throughout the city as a kind of effigy: his $98,500-a-year salary, take-home SUV, and Blackberry did not go over well with entrenched officers, many of whom regard him as an occupying force.
In a sense, he is. Wright is the first chief in the city's history to be brought in from outside the department.
Since his arrival he has tackled the department from the top down. After Wright took over, three administrative officers retired and a former chief, one lieutenant, and five officers resigned. He has demoted four lieutenants to beat cops and is openly waging war with the city manager, Jannie Beverly, who hired him.
He regards his mission of professionalizing OLPD with a humorless severity.
"I envision Opa-locka as a jewel in the crown of Miami-Dade County," he said, dressed in an immaculately pressed uniform and patent leather shoes. To the chagrin of Opa-locka's veteran cops, that vision did not include many of them. He has staffed vacant positions with people from outside the agency. His most recent officer hire, a female lieutenant, was brought down from Connecticut.
"I'm still not done," Wright said of his housecleaning, as he sat behind the desk in his white-carpeted office. A matching white Greek Revival couch sits against the far wall. Flanked by busts of Roman soldiers, copies of The 48 Laws of Powerand Sun Tzu's Art of Warare at arm's length.
t the geographical heart of Opa-locka not one block away from city hall a concrete monstrosity known as "the water tower" juts out of the skyline as a glaring symbol of the town's central dysfunction.
The derelict industrial facility is Rojas's white whale. He has railed about it being a city-owned haven for junkies and fugitives for the duration of his career, he says. Nothing has ever been done about it.
The tower was abandoned in 1985. Since then Opa-locka has paid Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer roughly $2 million a year for services. The 38,000-square-foot treatment facility sits empty, with vague plans to get it up and running. In the meantime the structure has filled with all kinds of biohazardous slime.
Last fall an exhaustive feasibility study by Florida International University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering brought the tower's sad state to the attention of city commissioners.
"Due to twenty years of idling, the water treatment plant had been trespassed by homeless people," wrote Dr. Walter Tang. "It became a major hazard for the city due to illegal dumping, illegal residence, and drug trafficking."
It could be saved, Tang explained. The state had already offered $5 million to turn it into a miraculous plant capable of turning out ten million gallons of reclaimed water a day. But the county is holding tight to the $6 million in matching funds needed to go ahead with the project.
"This is environmental injustice," Tang said by phone. "The county thinks the safety of those people is the city's problem. It is all of our problem. They need to re-invest in Opa-locka and they won't. Could it be because the town is 80 percent African-American? I can't think of any other reason."
(New Times attempted to contact City Manager Jannie Beverly,who was presented with the study in October. She has not returned multiple phone calls and was unavailable for comment at city hall on three separate occasions.)
On his way to the tower, Rojas swings by the S & D Wash House, a coin laundry at 621 Opa-locka Blvd.
"Hey, Hadley!" Rojas calls from the driver's seat. A man emerges from behind the counter, dressed like a television detective: blue-checked button-down shirt, tan pants, Timberland boots. His hair is maintained in a microscopic fade. His eyes dart to the corner across the street, where a pair of fat, scantily clad women are negotiating with a hairy drunk.
"Hey!" Hadley barks, yanking a thumb over his shoulder. The three drop their eyes in shame and scatter. Hadley sneers, turns to Rojas, and shakes his hand vigorously.
"I live here; I have a vested interest here," he says, scanning the street for challengers. "I'm gonna be here until it's gone."
He was born in Overtown and moved to the outskirts of Opa-locka in the sixth grade. He can remember walking past the Brownlee house on his way to middle school.
Hadley enlisted in ROTC during his senior year of high school and left for the Army soon after graduation. "Opa-locka was always my reason for staying in the service," he said. "Every time I came back, I'd hear someone died, or went to jail, or caught AIDS."
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."
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.
Wright snaps his fingers and has an officer take down every name, address, and complaint. He then hands out a flyer (in English, Spanish, and Kreyol) featuring his smiling glamour shot and personal cell number, urging them to call about trouble. The flyers are supplemented by a sheet informing residents that anonymous phone tips may lead to $1000 rewards.
Wright calls it "regaining the trust of the community." But it looks more like grassroots campaigning as though he and the dope boys are competing for the same office.
Opa-locka needs Wright's political savvy. Nimbly wielding his political influence, so far he has enlisted eight county and federal agencies to supplement the force, at no expense to the town. He's trying to install cameras and an acoustic gunshot tracking system that's been battle-tested in Iraq. The half-million dollars in various grants he's seeking have yet to come through, but Wright will travel to Tallahassee in May to implore everyone from the governor to the state drug czar for the necessary funds.
He has raised officers' starting salary twice, from $27,000 to more than $34,000, and has waged something of an aesthetic campaign, redesigning the force's patch and badge and purchasing a brand-new fleet of take-home black and white Dodge Chargers.
Wright's aim is to build the department back up to more than 50 officers. Thirteen people have left the department since he became chief; only three have been hired.
One Wednesday morning in March, after thirteen years in Opa-locka, Rojas didn't show up to work. By midafternoon word got around that he had quit.
A week later he handed in a letter to the city manager demanding the water tower be razed. A fire erupted there early this month. The city installed a new chainlink fence, but it was hack-sawed down hours later.
Bidding has begun to consider proposals for the tower's rehabilitation or demolition. "We just voted to revitalize it," said Vice Mayor Dottie Johnson. "I hope we don't tear it down."
With Rojas gone the number of police officers in the city has dropped to 26, including the chief and his deputy: fewer than half the number policing the city when Rojas started in 1994.
Rojas now patrols South Miami, where the murder rate is one every ten years, and the pay is better. But he still hasn't gotten used to it. "It's weird," he said by phone, "patrolling a place without so much violence."
Shortly after Rojas left, Pee Wee was arrested and released, twice. According to one arresting officer, the boy admitted to being in the Grand Prix during the murder of Major Johnson, but denied pulling the trigger. Today he can be found wandering the Triangle.
Johnson's murder is still under investigation, one of more than a dozen open murder cases in Opa-locka. Dre remains in police custody, charged with lewd and lascivious assault on a minor.
In the week following Rojas's departure, three people were shot in Opa-locka; one incident took place in an apartment building less than two blocks west of the police station. Late on the evening of April 5, Guy Shapiro, a prominent North Miami Beach chiropractor, was found in the Triangle, shot to death in his Escalade. This past Sunday night, two men were shot to death outside an apartment in the 1300 block of Ali Baba Avenue. No arrests have been made.
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