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POLICE SHIFT FOCUS, CRACK BIG RINGS

Undercover drug buys and raids on city crack houses are nothing new for police officers on the streets of Niagara Falls.

Residents like to see such arrests because they respond to quality of life issues, but Capt. Morris Shamrock, chief of the Niagara Falls Police Department's Narcotics and Intelligence Division, said they do little to cure the overall problem.

"We tend to focus on the guy who drives up to 13th and Pierce (Avenue) and says, 'Give me a $10 rock, give me a $20 rock,' " Shamrock said.

"I can hit crack houses all day, but I'm not accomplishing anything." he said. "You get one good dealer, you might knock out three crack houses."

Drug enforcement officers across Niagara County have taken that simple principle to heart during the last two years. It has paid off. State and local officers, at times working with federal agents, have cracked three major drug operations, two in Niagara Falls and the most recent one, two weekends ago, in Lockport.

Their police work has shown a new effectiveness in the local war on drugs but also has underlined the scope of the drug problem in Niagara County.

The numbers are striking:

During the past two years, 94 people have been arrested in the three major drug sweeps.

Dozens more have been charged with selling or possessing cocaine. Those arrests have come mostly one at a time, on streets and in police raids on homes.

As of late March, 111 people -- nonviolent drug users with no history of selling drugs -- were involved in drug court in Niagara Falls alone, hoping to get treatment instead of jail time. Lockport has about 100 drug court defendants; North Tonawanda, about 40.

Police agencies sometimes feel like they're rolling a rock uphill that rolls back down again as soon as they turn their backs.

Asked how much of the local cocaine supply was shut down by the latest drug sweep, the head of the county's eight-member Drug Task Force couldn't even guess.

"I don't know how you would quantify that," Mark Driess said. "I know it put a dent in our local distribution up here."

Still, Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein lamented, "I think there will be somebody there to replace them in a very short period of time."

Beilein said he believes cocaine is a problem that has grown worse. "I would say that by the arrests we have."

The problem is most striking in Niagara Falls.

"For a city our size and for a stagnant economy and lack of jobs, we have a lot of money being spent on drugs," Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Chella said. He said much of the money spent by the drug users is the "fruits of crime" -- the take from burglaries and robberies.

But the recent drug bust in Lockport shows that the problem spills far beyond the Falls.

The case took five years to build, drug officers said, and the raids conducted the weekend of March 18 netted 25 criminal suspects, 7 kilograms of cocaine, 2 pounds of methamphetamine and $250,000 in cash.

It was the kind of case law enforcement has become more adept at building. Police officials interviewed by The Buffalo News said much of the local drug enforcement effort these days is centered on trying to knock out large drug operations.

"Both the Drug Task Force and the Niagara Falls narcotics unit are able to put together longer and more thorough investigations than we've had in the past," the sheriff said. "We can get up the ladder higher and bring stronger charges."

A nationwide problem

Those involved in targeting the drug trade across the county point out that it's part of a larger war that spreads across the country.

"I don't think it's any worse than anywhere else," said Michael W. McNelis, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes the majority of the county's drug felonies. "My family is from Rochester, and they talk to me about the problem in Monroe County. I don't think we're unique."

Still, the problem is real and persistent and impacts many lives every day -- especially in Niagara Falls.

"I see no evidence that it's getting better in Niagara Falls," said Maria Russo, addictions program director at Horizon Health Services in the city. Horizon is one of several local agencies that treat drug users caught by police and assigned to drug court. Russo said her five counselors in Niagara Falls have 30 to 50 cases each.

Shamrock said thank-you letters from residents after drug arrests in a neighborhood make the days brighter for him and his nine-officer narcotics unit.

"You can sense the relief in the tone of the letters," he said.

Still, there's much work to be done.

Police said the drug trade is steadily becoming more organized. Chella said much of the violence in Niagara Falls' toughest neighborhoods stems from turf fights between gangs over drug-dealing territory. He said it seems the small-scale, freelance dope dealers of old are being squeezed out.

Besides street gangs like the Bloods which have moved into the area, Niagara Falls has seen a couple of large cocaine rings composed mostly of white adults busted recently.

In January 2003, 21 people were rounded up in a sweep that took down a cocaine operation headed by Ronald K. Graci at his Grand Inn, a bar on Grand Avenue in Niagara Falls. Twenty defendants pleaded guilty. Graci was among them and was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison.

Last November, police struck again, arresting 48 people in another drug operation they say was headquartered at Mister Sepe's Pizza on Main Street in Niagara Falls. Five have already pleaded guilty, including one of the brothers who co-owned the pizzeria, Christopher J. Sepe, 32. He faces a prison term of up to 15 years.

Meanwhile, the pizzeria has a new owner with no connection to the drug arrests.

Shamrock said some of the cocaine allegedly distributed by the Sepe ring apparently entered the U.S. from Canada.

The Lockport operation

Cocaine used in the Lockport drug ring came from points south, drug agents said.

On March 19, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police rounded up 25 people, mainly in the Lockport area, in connection with what they said was a multimillion-dollar cocaine and methamphetamine operation headed by Mexican nationals.

Mark T. Peterson, resident agent in charge of the DEA's Buffalo office, said the Lockport area seemed to have been chosen by the Mexicans, not necessarily because Lockport is a large cocaine market itself, but because of the area's population of migrant farm workers who work on the fruit farms in the region.

"They viewed the Lockport area as a geographical area where they could blend in, as far as law enforcement was concerned, with the migrant workers," Peterson said. "If they had chosen the Southern Tier, they would have stuck out more."

Some farm workers and some Niagara County natives became involved, but the top three suspects were all Mexican nationals. One is believed to have left for Mexico before the roundup, and a warrant is out for him.

Peterson said the big wheels were in the area for no reason other than to deal cocaine.

Jose "Carlos" Borja Toribio, 23, and Rogelio "Roy" Baltazar-Campos, 27, accused ringleaders, were among those arrested in Lockport.

A state corrections officer at Albion Correctional Facility, Robert Greiner, 36, of Lockport, also was accused of being part of the drug ring. Agents said Greiner -- among seven people charged with possession with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 500 grams of methamphetamine and conspiracy -- was a key distributor.

Large quantities of powdered cocaine was smuggled from Mexico to Georgia and the Carolinas, then driven to Lockport, where it was cut into smaller portions to be sold by local dealers all over Western New York.

"These guys were bringing in multiple kilo loads of cocaine that was going to be distributed from Lockport to Niagara Falls, Buffalo and the outlying areas," said Driess, chief of the county Drug Task Force. "These guys weren't into the $20 bags. They were moving heavyweight loads. . . . Ten to 20 kilos (a month) weren't out of the question."

Peterson said a kilogram of cocaine, 2.2 pounds, cost the ring $20,000 to $25,000. After sales to local affiliates, hundreds of thousands of dollars were generated. Much of it was driven back South in the same vehicles that brought the cocaine here, concealed in secret compartments in doors and trunks.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick J. Platek, who will prosecute the 25 Lockport defendants, said a house on Slayton Settlement Road was used as a factory to cut and repackage the cocaine. Another house, on Olcott Street, was a warehouse for cocaine, Platek said.

Undercover and surveillance work, along with wiretaps, cracked the case.

"We started looking at these guys five years ago. You can imagine the millions of dollars they handled," Driess said.

"I think the startling thing about this was the weight, and when four kilos was brought in, how quickly it was dispersed," Beilein said.

The sheriff said officers seized several cars leaving the area with money concealed inside. "We knew it was in there, but they didn't know we knew it," he said. "There was no inquiry about, 'How do I get my car back?' If you had $170,000 in the door panel of your car, wouldn't you be concerned?"

On another occasion, police stopped a car with $200,000 hidden inside. Beilein said, "That's what is startling and disturbing at the same time. Are they just considering that the cost of doing business?"

Cocaine versus crack

While crack -- the potent, smokable cocaine distillate -- is favored by impoverished addicts, powdered cocaine snorted up the nose hasn't gone away.

"If you were to profile the user of powdered cocaine, it would be a more affluent person," McNelis said.

Russo said powdered cocaine users, unlike crackheads, are likely to call agencies like Horizon before they run into trouble with law enforcement.

"That's one thing I find interesting about (powdered) cocaine users. They call on their own," she said. "They're starting to have trouble at work, they're spending a lot of money, there's trouble at home. . . . But more often than not, they don't stay."

Users nabbed by the police and assigned to drug court are more likely to persist in a treatment program, Russo said. "They're forced to stay," she said. "The drug court is a wonderful thing."

Said Chella, "A lot of the people we arrest need medical treatment, not incarceration."

If drug court defendants fail in treatment, they face a date in regular criminal court.

Russo, a licensed master social worker who has been at Horizon for almost five years, said it takes six months to a year for a treatment program to show the possibility of results. There is no magic potion.

"We don't have any secrets to make people change their lives," Russo said. "We can guide them and direct them -- information is powerful -- but they have to connect with something inside themselves. . . . It's only as effective as the person wants it to be."

Once police make the arrests, they rely on the courts to do their job. Beilein said officers are frustrated by light sentences often doled out in Niagara County Court, where many drug felons are placed on probation.

"That gets out on the street," Beilein said. "That's why I'm glad this (Lockport roundup) is in federal court."

McNelis said, "I'm not so naive as to think what's done in these (county) courts doesn't get back on the street and influence (criminals') decisions. It certainly is frustrating to see the same people over and over, but that's what I signed up for."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com