Fight against crack has been long, sometimes violent

Monday, November 12, 2001

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Sikeston is attractive to drug dealers for the same reason trucking companies like to locate there: Easy access.

The same highways that trucks travel to haul consumer goods are also the roads used by traffickers to carry cocaine base to the West End of Sikeston.

And the roads that connect Sikeston to Kansas City and Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis assure drug dealers a variety of sources. "If one gets taken out, they've got backups," said Kevin Glaser, head of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force.

When it comes to crack, Sikeston serves as the central hub between Poplar Bluff, Cairo, Ill., and Cape Girardeau, he said.

And in Sikeston's West End, a welcoming neighborhood within easy reach of U.S. 61, drug traffickers can find sanctuary from the law.

Or at least they used to.

Sikeston's Department of Public Safety has taken "some very aggressive action" in trying to take back the neighborhood, Glaser said.

Aided by the task force, the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the federal Weed and Seed Program, Sikeston officers have been methodically rooting out crack dealers in Sikeston's West End.

It's been a long, sometimes violent path.

According to court testimony, by 1990, Felker Street and the corner of Luther and Osage were considered "open air drug markets." There was no area in Southeast Missouri that had a higher concentration of daily drug dealings.

By 1994, the government had seized the abandoned High Chaparral nightclub on Felker Street because of drug trafficking. When residents discovered it was being used to conduct drug surveillance, the building was burned down.

DPS officers who attempted to combat the flames were pelted with bottles and stones by a crowd of about 350 and were forced to turn the hoses on a crowd that reportedly chanted, "Burn, baby, burn."

In 1995, at the city's request, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency deployed a mobile enforcement team to Sikeston to help tackle a problem that then-DPS chief Jim Leist described as out of control.

Criminal activity in the area had escalated to the point where officers were often attacked with rocks and bottles and, on at least one occasion, an officer who had been chasing a suspect in the West End was forced to hide behind his car when someone within a crowd of onlookers opened fire on him.

Another time, an officer was knocked unconscious by a bottle.

And through the federal Weed and Seed program, federal, state and local law enforcement managed to put a significant dent in the city's crack trade, Glaser said.

The Weed and Seed program is a U.S. Department of Justice initiative designed to weed out violent crime, drug use and gang activity in targeted neighborhoods.

The program hopes to prevent crime from reoccurring by seeding those sites with a wide variety of resources.

Family tradition

The next six years resulted in 40 convictions of drug dealers and violent felons, all from Sikeston's West End.

Assistant U.S. Prosecuting Attorney Larry Ferrell has been prosecuting drug traffickers and violent criminals in Southeast Missouri since 1991 and helped start the regional Weed and Seed effort.

His work brought him on opposite sides of the legal aisle of more than a dozen members of Sikeston's Sumlin-Yarber family, who are considered to be a fundamental part of the cocaine trafficking business in the city's West End.

At one point, Ferrell's office created a family tree, illustrating how many arrests and convictions had been in just the one family.

Ferrell's most recent prosecution was Martin Taliferro Sumlin, 30, who pleaded guilty Nov. 5 to three felony counts of aiding and abetting the distribution of five or more grams of cocaine base. At his Feb. 4 sentencing, he faces a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine on each count.

And a recent federal court ruling orders the forfeiture of nearly the entire 200 block of Felker Street, owned by his grandparents, Ella and Rufus Sumlin Sr.

In September 1997, Operation Weed and Seed took aim at Ella's Package Store and Club Scottie, two of the Felker Street businesses.

Testifying against them in a civil trial a year ago was the Sumlins' nephew, who had been caught ferrying nearly a pound of unprocessed crack cocaine.

Entrenched in drugs

Sikeston's trouble is rooted in the fact that a "core group" of individuals entrenched in the drug trade have managed to intimidate their neighbors into silence, said Glaser.

Sikeston DARE officer Shirley Porter agrees. There's not a whole lot of the troublemakers she describes as "young bucks who do their dirt, then run and hide."

They prey on the young and old, stealing, vandalizing and threatening anybody who stands up to them, she said.

"Once you can contain that handful, things will improve," Porter said.

And as the word gets around that city is "tired of playing," things can only improve, she said.

With the Sumlin-Yarber arrests, officers were able to break the back of one of the biggest drug influences in the city, Glaser said.

But even with the West End becoming more treacherous for drug dealers, Glaser said many are still lured by what seems like easy money.

Especially when given the choice between earning $5.15 per hour at a part-time minimum wage job and the money available in the drug industry.

An investment of $300 in an ounce of unprocessed cocaine base can yield 2 or 3 ounces of crack cocaine. Each ounce can then be sold for $900 to $1,500.

With 28 grams to an ounce, crack is usually sold in gram and half-gram packages. Each gram of crack can sell for $100.

An "8-ball," or an eight-gram package, sells for $200 to $250. A "four-pack," or four ounces, can sell for $3,500 to $5,000.

"It's a multibillion-dollar industry nationwide," Glaser said.

Glaser said the fancy cars, expensive clothes "and no apparent legitimate source of income," are usually a good indication that drug activity is involved.

"The greed factor is how we catch them," Glaser said. "So many that we've busted say 'I should have quit a year ago.'"

Tamara Zellars Buck contributed to this report.

335-6611, extension 160

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