Our Hero the Drug Dealer
The press conference was a classic Drug Enforcement Administration production. Its goal: to trumpet the arrest of Rickey Brownlee, the alleged cocaine kingpin of Opa-locka. On display outside the slit-windowed DEA headquarters on NW 53rd Street were blown-up photos of homes and buildings the government seized the day agents arrested 41-year-old Brownlee and three alleged confederates on charges of trafficking in cocaine and heroin.
The last photo in the series, jarringly, was a bloody murder scene, a body slouched in the front seat of a car, the head a red bloom of blood and brain matter. Brownlee wasn't charged with any murders, the agents present noted, but his organization was linked to several street killings.
As the assembled reporters were duly informed, Brownlee's ring had moved a whopping 80 to 100 kilos of cocaine per week, which in its powder form alone would be worth more than two million dollars. Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram, looking dapper in a suit and African kofi hat, praised the DEA's two-year undercover investigation. "No longer will our citizens be held hostage in their own homes," he intoned. DEA Special Agent in Charge William Mitchell, in turn, thanked U.S. Attorney Tom Scott for pursuing the case.
Finally Brownlee himself was led into the late afternoon sunlight. A tall, well-groomed man in a white open-neck shirt and dark pants, he walked with his head high, staring directly at the bank of television cameras tracking him. He was apparently unaware that his role called for him to appear cowed and humble.
Just a few miles north of the orderly corporate park where the DEA showed off its prize captive, on the cracked pavement of a section of Opa-locka known as the Triangle, the perception of Brownlee is quite different. "He just like a Robin Hood, giving money, food, clothing to the poor," offers Maggie Carswell, a Triangle resident whose gaunt and nearly toothless face appears a decade older than her given age of 53. "I've asked him for money and he give it to me. He's a nice person, still is. He was a lot of the poor's bread and butter around here."
In this community of roughly eight blocks bordered by train tracks and warehouses, where unemployment and poverty reign, Brownlee stands as a symbol of success against formidable odds. The legality of his endeavors doesn't much matter to his neighbors. What matters
is that he opened businesses in the Triangle, gave out free turkeys on Thanksgiving, coached community basketball teams, and helped folks pay their rent.
Brownlee's future will rely on which of these two portraits -- violent drug dealer or philanthropic local hero -- emerges more forcefully at his trial, tentatively scheduled for September. (Brownlee, through his attorney Milton Hirsch, declined to be interviewed. The U.S. Attorney's Office, citing the upcoming trial, also declined to elaborate on the case.)
Unfortunately for the DEA, the carefully staged press conference failed to elicit much media coverage. The Miami Herald ran a brief story with a photo inside the local section. In an era of declining crime rates, it seems, an inner-city drug dealer doesn't resonate with the general public.
But in Brownlee's hometown, where he was known in some circles as the "unofficial mayor" of Opa-locka, the story was greeted as the biggest news in months. People raided newspaper racks, buying papers two and three at a time.
"Every holiday they set up a tent right over there and give out a free meal." Herman "Bunker" Brownlee, Rickey's older brother, is pointing across the street to the parking lot of the Home Style Restaurant, which his brother started about three years ago. "At Christmas he gives all the kids a free gift. His restaurant is always open after hours if you need food. If you was dead hungry and looked the part, he'd make up a little plate for you."
Bunker is a solidly built Vietnam veteran, a former helicopter repairman who has been in and out of jail on drug possession charges since the late Eighties. Most days he can be found scooting around the Triangle on a Huffy bicycle in a baseball cap and T-shirt, sipping beer out of a can sheathed in a paper bag. He does odd construction jobs, he says, but at age 47 feels too old to seek a full-time job. He relies on his military pension. A month before Bunker was released from his latest prison stint in February (a seven-month hitch for cocaine possession), Rickey was nabbed by the feds and hauled off to jail.
Eager to redeem his brother's name from the "lies" that were printed in the paper, Bunker retires to a weedy lot, where he seats himself on a milk crate. "They saying he was a killer and people were scared to come out of their houses," Bunker scoffs. "You ask anybody around here if they're scared of Rick. Go ahead, ask 'em."
Michael Blansford, a childhood friend of Brownlee, pulls up a crate and gives his testimony. "He isn't a stingy man. He isn't a mean man," says Blansford, a tall, lanky 40-year-old. "Once my mother's sewing machine broke down, and she needed that for work. She was short $20 to repair it, so Rick said, 'What's wrong, Mrs. Blansford?' and she told him. He said 'Now, don't worry, Mrs. Blansford, I'll take care of that.' My mom told him she'd pay him back. But he says to her, 'Mrs. Blansford, don't you worry about it. You looked out for me when I was little. I guess I can look out for you now.'
"The guy is damn all right. If everybody had the heart, the concern, the respect like he had, this place would be better. I tell you what, Rick was the kind of guy who would open little kids' eyes and minds up to have respect, to stay in school, to keep their hygiene up. He always kept himself neat and his hair cut."
A woman wanders over. She doesn't want to give her name but does want to offer her two cents on Brownlee: "He helped my baby when she fell on the railroad tracks and had to get pins put in her hip," she says. "He helped pay the hospital bills."
Bunker, rising red-eyed from a brief catnap, rejoins the conversation. "They saying people were scared to come out of their homes because of Rick. Is that true?"
"Hell no," the woman answers.
A young man in a metallic blue car with chrome wheels pulls up to the curb near the empty lot. He has heard that Brownlee's reputation is being questioned and offers yet another unsolicited endorsement. "That man did a lot for this neighborhood. A lot!" he shouts before rolling off.
The more time you spend in the Triangle, the more anecdotes you hear. How Brownlee gave a high school friend $5000 when her father needed emergency surgery. How he paid for the funeral of a boy whose mother couldn't afford it. How, for Brownlee's bond hearing, his sister Janice collected 700 signatures on a petition asking the judge to release him on bond. (The judge denied the request.)
Praise for Brownlee isn't limited to the sidewalks of the Triangle. Two weeks after Brownlee's arrest, at the February 11 Opa-locka City Commission meeting, inside the city's ornate, arabesque town hall, Brian Dennis stands up to address the row of commissioners seated on the dais before him. Dennis, a 31-year-old with a scruffy beard, has a reputation around town as a political gadfly. Tonight he adds another concern to his list.
"I am Rickey Brownlee," the ex-navy man tells the commissioners. "I didn't know him personally, but [based on] my past history of what I used to do, I am Rickey Brownlee. It seems to me that a lot of people think that Rickey Brownlee has done a disservice to the community. I didn't know Mr. Brownlee, but I know for a fact there are no jobs out there. So to sit there and act like he was a monster when this is the only opportunity there is, I think you all should really apologize to Mr. Brownlee's family."
The commissioners dismiss Dennis stonily and proceed with the evening's business. Within the staid environs of city hall, Dennis's suggestion of an apology may sound eccentric. But his sentiments echo what people in the Triangle have been saying for years. "If you can't find a job nowhere else, you can turn to this," Dennis says. "It's a way of keeping your lights on, your water on; it's a means of survival. When you have major companies laying people off, and you have this thing to resort to, wouldn't you take a gamble and make money this way?"
Dennis did. When he lost his $375-a-week job as a truck driver, he turned to Street Survival 101. "I took my very last paycheck and bought a half-ounce of cocaine. I bought it from someone I knew. Then I cooked it down." He sifted the powder, added two grams of baking powder, then boiled it in a beaker with water. When it formed a solid mass, called a "cookie," he took the cocaine -- now in its smokable crack form -- and put it on a paper towel to cool. He cut, bagged it, and hit the streets. Then he bought some more. "I made about $1200 a week off two ounces," he says.
Dennis has spent a total of thirteen months in jail for charges ranging from unlawful possession of marijuana to aggravated battery. Never for drug dealing. He says he no longer deals and now runs his grandfather's mobile car wash business in north Dade. "If you're a drug dealer in the black community, we don't look at it the way the outside world looks at it," he explains. "This is a job. It's no different than somebody going down to Miami International Airport. If you blame Rickey Brownlee, that's wrong. These people who are buying, everybody has their own free will. I tell you, when the trial starts, I'm going to be rooting for Mr. Brownlee 100 percent."
The same cannot be said of Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram. To him Brownlee's popularity ranks as a personal affront. Ingram recalls feeling "devastated almost to tears" after hearing Dennis's brazen speech before the commission. "I just thought that was the height of insanity," the mayor says. "The impact of [drugs] is so severe -- the number of homicides, the number of AIDS-related deaths, the corrosiveness of such a devastating drug."
A former Miami police officer who has occupied the mayor's office for an unprecedented twelve years, Ingram knows plenty about the lack of economic opportunities facing Dade's poor, black communities. "We live in a racist society," he asserts. But drugs are not the economic answer, he stresses, and drug dealers are not role models, even if they're charming, generous, and charismatic. "Money without morality is nothing."
Ingram, who favors collarless jackets and gold necklaces, grew up poor in Miami, dropped out of high school, worked on the back of a garbage truck, and earned a GED and a Ph.D. "From a chump to a chief," he says, sitting in his office at Florida Memorial College, where he chairs the continuing education program. But because Ingram is a politician, a member of the least-trusted group in poor black communities outside of law enforcement, his perspective has limited cachet in locales like the Triangle.
In essence, Brownlee's arrest has exposed a clash of cultures between the rigid moral code of officialdom and the hand-to-mouth survivalism of the inner city. Opa-locka Police Chief Craig Collins understands this. "Poor people don't necessarily trust the system," he says. "They feel like they get the wrath of the system. Obviously an organization like [Brownlee's] functions in that kind of environment."
Collins might be the one man in Opa-locka who wanted Brownlee behind bars worse than the mayor, because many assumed the only way Brownlee could thrive for so long was if the police were on his payroll. "It was very important for us that when [Brownlee's arrest] went down, it happen in our tenure," he notes.
Collins says residents in the Triangle are unlikely to publicly denounce Brownlee for another reason: They are intimidated. "He held the entire area hostage," the chief claims. "Everybody was afraid of him, not necessarily because of what he did, but because of what he could do."
For U.S. Attorney Tom Scott, Brownlee's arrest was an important community relations coup. "I wanted to do more cases using federal forces where we had more of a community impact," Scott says. "My hope is that these cases could affect the lives of people right here, right in our own back yard. I think in the past there was maybe not as much of an emphasis on this."
Amid these larger agendas, it is easy to lose sight of the one man who stands to lose, or gain, the most from Brownlee's upcoming trial: Brownlee himself, who faces the possibility of life in prison.
Rickey Brownlee was born on October 15, 1956, to a truck-driving father and a mother whose family would eventually grow to ten children -- six boys and four girls. John and Lillie Mae Brownlee rented a series of modest houses in and around Opa-locka. In some of the houses, seven children would sleep in one room. Lillie Brownlee would sew clothes for the older children and the younger ones would get hand-me-downs. Rickey, a smart, sensitive boy, was number seven in the lineup.
"What can I say? We grew up poor," Bunker Brownlee says. He remembers how, as a child, Rickey would wake up crying from nightmares that roaches were crawling all over him. "I'm like eleven, he's like five. Mom would come in and tell him there weren't no roaches on him, but he'd still be crying. I'd get him in my arms and stay up with him. I'd rock him."
The kids would spill into the street, playing kickball and hide-and-seek. On the Fourth of July, rival bands of neighborhood boys would shoot firecrackers at each other across the canals that cut through town.
Even as a young boy Brownlee showed entrepreneurial drive. When he was around eleven, he set up Kool-Aid popsicle stands in the neighborhood. "But Rick wasn't going to stand there and sell the frozen cups," recalls Lynette Johnson, a childhood friend. "He'd rather let you sell the cups. He'll just put it together. That's how Rick was. He was a business person. In business somebody's got to do the work and somebody's got to do the thinking. He could always get one of the neighborhood kids to work that stand."
At age twelve Brownlee got a paper route. John Brownlee, a wiry man with a gray mustache and sad brown eyes who is now 75 years old, remembers waking up before dawn to help his son with the route, then headed to his own job hauling sod. "Yeah, I used to help him with that route," the senior Brownlee says. "He was always a good boy. I cried when I heard all the lies people were saying about him."
Brownlee attended Carol City Senior High School, where he played football, basketball, and was on the swim team. "He never really got into no trouble as he growed up," says his mother. "He didn't have to go to juvie home or go to special classes. Whatever he put out to do, he did."
During his senior year, Brownlee abruptly joined the army. He was doing well enough in school that he would have graduated, friends say. It just didn't seem that important. "He wasn't in trouble, he just wanted to get out," says Lynette Johnson, who spent eleven years in the military herself. "But once he was in the military, that was not Rick. He couldn't wait to get out. Someone telling him what to do and when to do it -- that wasn't Rick's thing."
After two years Brownlee was honorably discharged and he returned to Opa-locka. Shortly thereafter he had his first run-in with the law. In 1976 Brownlee was charged with sixteen different felony counts of firearms, cocaine, and opium possession, but was found not guilty in a jury trial.
Relatives and friends are reluctant to dredge up Brownlee's criminal past. "Whatever Rick did in the past he paid for," says Johnson, who dated Rick when they were teenagers. When pressed to explain how Brownlee apparently got involved in the drug trade, Johnson says, "Miami happened to him. His environment happened to him, the way the job market is down here."
It's entirely possible to see, in the young man Johnson describes, Brownlee's desire to achieve financial security in a world short on legitimate options. Most of Opa-locka's predominantly black labor pool worked long hours for little pay, like Brownlee's father. Others faced a darker fate. Bunker, for example, went off to the Vietnam War, where he was missing in action for a period, and returned a diminished man. ("He was lost over there," John Brownlee laments. "He hasn't been right since he's been back.")
Rickey Brownlee not only saw beyond these bleak possibilities but possessed a head for business and an ambitious streak he wasn't afraid to act on. "He always grew up like he knew what he wanted, and he wanted a good life for himself," Lillie Brownlee says. "He didn't sit around and wait for no handout." Even if that meant breaking the law.
In 1983 Brownlee was caught selling a kilo of coke to an undercover DEA agent and served three years in prison. When he got out in 1986, America had entered the era of crack cocaine, and inner-city neighborhoods like Opa-locka's Triangle would be changed forever.
In its modern history, Opa-locka has consistently been one of Dade's poorest cities. One-third of its residents -- 70 percent of whom are black -- live below the poverty level. The Opa-locka of 1986, the Opa-locka to which Rickey Brownlee returned from prison, had a population of about 16,000 and an annual homicide count of fourteen. That was only two fewer than all of Miami Beach, which had more than 95,000 residents. In 1988 the count was again fourteen, with ten of the murders occurring inside the Triangle, where only about 550 people lived. This little urban pocket became known as the bloodiest swath of real estate in America.
The Opa-locka Police Department summary reports from that year are a litany of inner-city trauma: "201 Sharazad, apt. 93 ... gunfight possible drug related; 2000 Ali Baba ... drug-related shooting between rival dealers; 1890 Ali Baba ... victim shot while in a drug deal, victim also armed with handgun." Newsweek and the Washington Post cited the Triangle as a prime example of urban violence in America.
In an effort to limit the movements of those buying and selling crack, the city in 1986 erected barricades to all access roads into and out of the Triangle, save for the edge along NW 22nd Avenue. Between the homicides and the barricades, the Triangle became one of the nation's most visible combat zones in the war on drugs, reminiscent of Belfast or Beirut.
Coupled with intense police patrols, the barricades met with some success. Murders in the Triangle were gradually cut by more than a third. Still, the Triangle's decline into an environment of drugs and violence wasn't about to change overnight. "If you plot high school dropout levels, high unemployment, high infant mortality, high numbers of people on social programs, you've plotted the Triangle," says Chief Collins. "You have these kind of problems [drugs and murders] where you have all these other factors."
In this environment, Collins adds, there have always been drug barons. Indeed, before Rickey Brownlee there was an equally legendary prince of the streets named Isaac Hicks.
In 1986 49-year-old Ike Hicks was at the height of his powers and, unknowingly, coming up on the end of a twenty-year run in organized crime. Hicks and his crew, according to Lee Stapleton Milford, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the drug dealer in 1987, "were outlaw pioneers in the Miami community. They began as truck hijackers in the Seventies and dabbled in other criminal activities before focusing their efforts on the drug trade."
According to Milford, now director of the Executive Office for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces in Washington, D.C., Hicks earned huge profits by carefully monitoring sales records and controlling distribution. "I'm not saying there wasn't a drug business there before," he recalls, "but I doubt very much it was as well organized."
The case against Hicks was put together by a brash Metro-Dade detective named Dennis Reddington, who made a reputation for himself during the Eighties by taking down drug dealers. Reddington's strategy for Hicks was to conduct continuous searches of the dealer's 32 properties scattered throughout northwest Dade -- confiscating money and some drugs but never making any arrests. This allowed Reddington and his colleagues to compile a detailed log of Hicks's criminal enterprise. Hicks apparently dismissed Reddington as a crooked cop who was robbing him. "The key was not to get greedy and make arrests too soon," Reddington explains.
In April 1987 Metro-Dade police and the DEA finally raided Hicks's properties and arrested Hicks and his wife Janet. Among the incriminating evidence police found were spiral notebooks filled with cocaine sales records that used a color-coded system to track inventory. In one house, police found 24 pounds of cocaine sitting on the kitchen floor. Although he kept a low profile around town, Hicks's extravagant tastes were suddenly on display. Police seized $400,000 in jewelry, including a $14,000 gold eagle studded with 186 diamonds, and a $51,000 jewel-studded gold breastplate with "IKE" written across it in white gold. Hicks was sentenced to 137 years in prison, where he died of AIDS-related symptoms in 1993.
At the height of his powers, Hicks was immensely popular among the poor and disenfranchised of northern Dade County, just as Brownlee is today. "When I was in high school, Ike was the biggest thing since sliced bread," says Brian Dennis, who remembers seeing boxes of clothes set out in front of Hicks's palatial home on NW 105th Street for kids to try on. "Nice clothes, too," Dennis says. "He was paying people's rent and mortgages. A drug dealer has a heart too, you know."
Although Brownlee and Hicks were competitors, the two "respected and avoided each other," Reddington says, with the exception of a little taunting from Brownlee. "Rickey knew Ike was going down and Rickey would tell him, 'When you're gone and in jail, all this will be mine.'" After Hicks's conviction in 1988, Reddington flew out to Kansas to meet the fallen drug lord. "I spoke with Isaac in Leavenworth. Even then, he admitted that Rickey Brownlee would be his successor. But he didn't like Brownlee. He thought he was extremely violent." It's no coincidence, Reddington says, that 1988 was one of the bloodiest years to date in the Triangle. "Everybody competed for Ike's throne; anybody with a gun was out there."
According to a DEA agent who worked the Brownlee case and spoke only on condition of anonymity, Brownlee's organization was a classic hierarchy. He was the top man. His three lieutenants (and co-defendants), Roger "Black Pete" Thompson, Sandford "Rush" Bradshaw, and Willie "Punchy" Young, reported directly to him. And a network of up to 40 "managers" and streetside sellers reported to the lieutenants. Helping him handle cash flow were one or two "strategic planners -- like [the Mafia's] consiglieri," the agent says. Brownlee never directly handled drugs, leaving that to his lieutenants and managers, who kept the street-level sellers supplied.
Brownlee has never been charged with a violent crime. Police Chief Collins notes a murder from several years ago, however, in which informants claimed Brownlee was the last person seen talking to the victim before an unidentified gunman shot him. So far there have been no arrests in the case, which is still under investigation.
Metro-Dade's Reddington remembers Ike Hicks telling him about a midlevel dealer, Sherman Nealy, having a falling out with Brownlee in the late Eighties. Hicks said that Brownlee directed his men to put Nealy in the trunk of his car at gunpoint. Then Brownlee and his men allegedly drove around for a while before letting him out. "At one point I talked with Sherman when he was in prison in Tallahassee," Reddington says. "He didn't deny he was kidnapped, but he wouldn't expound on it and tell us why."
The allegations that Brownlee is guilty of committing or orchestrating violent acts are problematic, though; the only evidence law enforcement agencies can offer at this point is hearsay.
To Brownlee's friends, such as Keith Toledo, it's a matter of character assassination, pure and simple. "If they can't convict someone, they just smear his name in print," Toledo scoffs.
With Hicks in prison and his organization dismantled, there was abundant evidence that Brownlee hoped to corner the market. "We in law enforcement knew it was going to be Rickey Brownlee, but the fools out there didn't know that. Rickey had the family, the strong men, and the gun power," Reddington says. "Our idea was to take him down as soon as he was established." In May 1989 Metro-Dade and DEA officers raided numerous houses linked to Brownlee. The agents ended up seizing a fish market on NW 22nd Avenue in the Triangle, as well as a posh home Brownlee was building in Miami Lakes. "That place was huge," Reddington recalls. "There was a pool in the bedroom."
Brownlee was charged with fifteen counts of racketeering and cocaine trafficking. Using information gathered from undercover agents and informants, authorities noted that his operation was bringing in an annual profit of $26 million. Brownlee pleaded guilty and served five years in prison, from 1989 to 1993.
In the state prison in Quincy, Brownlee was disciplined and focused, according to a friend who served time with him. He exercised diligently and read voraciously. "We'd read USA Today, the Miami Herald, GQ, Vanity Fair, Esquire," the friend says. They also read books by Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and listened to National Public Radio. Brownlee frowned on the pornographic magazines that were circulated and often chastised fellow inmates for being interested only in sports. "We'd have the paper and 30 guys would come over all asking for the sports section, and he'd make 'em read the news sections before he'd give them the sports."
It was after this stretch in prison that Brownlee's complex, contradictory street reputation emerged. "Anybody who has been away, they got the time to think about what they want to do," says childhood friend Lynette Johnson. "That's what Rick did."
After getting out of prison, Brownlee concentrated his energy on launching businesses in the very neighborhood that most needed an economic jolt -- the Triangle. He took out a mortgage on a building at NW 151st Street, which he turned into a grocery store, now leased and run by Keith Toledo. There is an adjoining take-out restaurant that does a bustling business, run by Brownlee's sister Janice. In 1995 he opened the Home Style Restaurant on NW 122nd Avenue.
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.
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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