Kids Who Sell Crack

  • Share
  • Read Later
The homeboys call him Frog. But as he swaggers through the Rancho San Pedro Housing Project in East Los Angeles, Frog is a cocky prince of the barrio. His mane of lustrous jeri curls, his freckled nose and innocent brown eyes belie his prodigious street smarts. Frog is happy to tell you that he rakes in $200 a week selling crack, known as rock in Los Angeles. He proudly advertises his fledgling membership in an ultra-violent street gang, the Crips. And he brags that he has used his drug money to rent a Nissan Z on weekends. He has not yet learned how to use a stick shift, however, and at 4 ft. 10 in., he sometimes has trouble seeing over the dashboard. Frog is 13 years old.

One night Frog was teaching the tricks of his trade to a couple of eager apprentices, ages 10 and 11. Just as he was selling a $20 packet of crack to a customer, a squad car pulled up. With 15 rocks on his person, Frog was promptly busted. He was also thrilled. "The cop made me put my hands behind my head," he boasts, "and pulled me by my thumbs."

After a few days in the Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center, Frog is not so exultant. He sits glumly in his 9-ft. by 9-ft. cell, his locks shorn, one eye swollen, two front teeth missing. Twice he has been beaten bloody by older inmates. "They were big," says the 85-lb. Frog. He seems harder, more wary. Then a visitor mentions that cocaine comes from a plant grown in South America. Frog's eyes grow wide, and he suddenly looks like the confused little boy he is. "You think it is a plant?" he asks in astonishment. "That's silly. Everybody knows cocaine comes from Compton ((a town just south of Los Angeles)). The gangsters make it there."

LIKE MOST YOUNG AMERICAN people, they are material girls and boys. They crave the glamorous clothes, cars and jewelry they see advertised on TV, the beautiful things that only big money can buy. But many have grown up in fatherless homes, watching their mothers labor at low-paying jobs or struggle to stretch a welfare check. With the unemployment rate for black teenagers at 37%, little work is available to unskilled, poorly educated youths. The handful of jobs that are open -- flipping burgers, packing groceries -- pay only minimum wages or "chump change," in the street vernacular. So these youngsters turn to the most lucrative option they can find. In rapidly growing numbers, they are becoming the new criminal recruits of the inner city, the children who deal crack.

) In Los Angeles last week, Frog was ordered to a foster home, where he will be closely monitored by probation authorities. Meanwhile, in Dallas, prosecutors were faced with the case of a 15-year-old from New York City who was caught carrying 50 bags of crack. In Detroit, Police Officer Paul Dunbar was buried after being fatally shot outside a suspected crack house by a 16- year-old. In Washington, elected officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia met to discuss the record number of drug-related killings and arrests in their region and propose stiffer penalties for selling drugs near schools. Said Washington Mayor Marion Barry: "No young person in this region is not at risk."

In the five years since crack first appeared in the U.S., this cheap, powerful cocaine derivative has virtually shredded what was left of the tattered social fabric of the ghetto. The driving force behind the drug epidemic is not just the highly addictive nature of crack; many young hustlers never touch the stuff. They are drawn by the more enticing lure of fast money. "They can make $1,000 a week dealing," says Blair Miller of the Adolescent Dual Diagnosis Unit in Detroit's Samaritan Health Center. "These kids have no other skills. It's very hard to resist." In some cities, the crack trade may be one of the bigger job programs for youngsters.

Teenagers have come to dominate all aspects of the crack business. "They are being used to process, package, cut and distribute, to sell and even to enforce discipline in the ranks," says Roy Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Michigan. Those familiar with the inner-city drug trade have never seen anything like it. "I grew up here," says Sergeant Tom Hughes of the Wayne County probate court, which includes Detroit. "There were drugs in our neighborhood. But they were heroin dealers. They didn't mess with children. That was the difference."

With the advent of crack, juvenile arrests in New York City tripled, from 386 in 1983 to 1,052 last year. Detroit-area police busted 647 youths last year, almost twice as many as in 1986. A staggering increase in juvenile drug arrests has occurred in Washington, jumping from 483 in 1983 to 1,894 in 1987. Four years ago, the number of drug arrests among Washington children under the age of twelve was zero. In 1987, it was 35.

The thugs who founded the crack trade recognized early on that young teens do not run the risk of mandatory jail sentences that courts hand out to older dealers. Because juveniles are rarely imprisoned for any great length of time, they provide a uniquely recyclable labor pool. "We have created a revolving door," says George Robinson, assistant district attorney for Fulton County, Ga., which covers Atlanta. "There is no provision under our law to mandate restrictive custody for these youths. They're selling drugs, and we're just spanking them on the hands."

Lookout is the entry-level position for nine- and ten-year-olds. They can make $100 a day warning dealers when police are in the area. Sometimes the pint-size apprentice is rewarded with the most fashionable sneakers, bomber jacket or bicycle. The next step up the ladder is runner, a job that can pay more than $300 a day. This is the youngster who transports the drugs to the dealers on the street from the makeshift factories where cocaine powder is cooked into rock-hard crack. Finally, an enterprising young man graduates to the status of dealer, king of the street. In a hot market like New York City, an aggressive teenage dealer can make up to $3,000 a day.

"My role models used to be people that made a lot of money," says Jeff Woodberry, 20, of Queens, N.Y. "They were driving nice cars and wearing gold chains. I could see that drug dealing was the quickest way of making money." Woodberry started selling marijuana and cocaine at 14.

Woodberry proved to be a natural entrepreneur: he outsold other dealers by offering their clients free samples and running Sunday two-for-one sales on vials of crack. Says Woodberry: "I always believed in serving the customer good." With success came new risks. He began toting automatic pistols and a sawed-off shotgun for protection. At his peak, Woodberry estimates, he made $200,000 a year, until one day he dipped into his supply. Before long, he was smoking up all his profits. He began to deteriorate physically, losing 25 lbs. in six weeks.

Today Woodberry is a member of J-CAP, a rigorous two-year rehabilitation program. He sounds down to earth when he talks about earning his graduate- equivalency diploma and getting a job as a computer technician. But it soon becomes clear that Woodberry is still far removed from the mainstream, workaday world. When asked his minimum salary requirement, he replies, "At least $100,000." He shrugs. "Hey, that's comfortable."

THE BULK OF THE CRACK earnings goes to conspicuous consumption. Some dealers show up at school solely to flaunt their wealth. "Every day you can go to a high school and see new Mercedes and Jeeps and Cadillacs and Volvos," says Detroit Narcotics Officer Robert Jones. "These cars belong to the kids, not the parents." Dealers who are too young to get behind the wheel legally sometimes hire drivers; others -- like Frog -- take their chances. "Whenever they get in an accident, they have to get out and run away," says Los Angeles Juvenile Probation Officer John Copley. "They paid cash for the cars, but they don't have driver's licenses or insurance. Look in the police tow yards in central Los Angeles. They are full of new Trans Ams, Blazers and Cadillacs that have been in minor accidents and the drivers just got out and ran."

Clothing and jewelry are other signs of status. Designer sports coats, Rolex watches and $150 Bally shoes are popularized by dealers, then taken up by any other youngster who can afford to match them. Says Elena Anderson, a guidance counselor at Pershing High School in Detroit: "Students wear outfits on any given day that may be worth $2,000." Christina Louria, a health and physical- education teacher at Detroit's Cooley High, is struck by the fashion plates who show up at basketball games. "You see a lot of young people in fur coats and the thick gold chains," she says.

Gold, in fact, is a widespread obsession with inner-city youngsters. Heavy gold cables that cost up to $20,000 are all the rage, as well as chunky three- fingered rings resembling brass knuckles. Even gold dental caps are considered chic. These styles are so widely associated with drug trafficking that school principals are banning them. In New York City, the principals of three high schools have forbidden the wearing of gold jewelry. Detroit's Mumford High School next year will ban fur coats, designer gym shoes and gold accessories. In Baltimore, elementary-school principals have had to outlaw the fake beepers that youngsters wear to imitate the local drug lords.

Many young dealers also use crack profits to help their struggling families -- and the extra cash that appears on the kitchen table can persuade parents to look the other way while their children are heading into trouble. Denise Robinson, founder of the Detroit community-action group Saving Our Kids, even recalls a mother who dissuaded her son from returning to high school. "He had been a good student. He had good grades," says Robinson. "((But)) he was making $600 a week dealing crack. So his mother wanted him to keep dealing." The incentive is powerful: "The kids say, 'We don't have any food. Why should I watch my mother suffer?' " says Robinson. "They feel like they have to be the breadwinners. It is a manhood thing because there is no father in the house."

Parents who are not bought off can be intimidated. A Washington-area woman called her minister for help when she discovered $40,000 and two semiautomatic weapons under her son's bed. In New York City, a recovering drug addict intervened when his mother found 400 crack vials in her younger son's coat pockets: "I told her if she throwed it away, she'd find her son dead."

In some instances, the youngsters simply disappear, slipping into the drug underworld for months at a time. Says Michael Sinnott, a Wayne County, Mich., juvenile-probation officer: "People have been walking in saying their kids ran away. But the kids are in the community. In effect, the parents are being told by the children, 'I can't tell you what I'm doing or where I am because if I do, your life may be in jeopardy.' These are eleven-and twelve- and 13- year-olds."

Youngsters are sometimes physically unable to return home. Detroit police frequently find juveniles locked in crack houses by older dealers. The teen dealers sit inside, selling drugs through slots in a wall. "There were bars on the windows, bars on the doors, and they had McDonald's food delivered in," says an Arkansas police chief about a group of local teens recruited to Detroit. "They were virtually held captive."

In perhaps the worst situations, crack dealing becomes a family operation. New York Crack Dealer Woodberry hired several relatives. The family members learned, however, that Jeff was a scrupulous bookkeeper and hard taskmaster. When one held back on a debt, Woodberry attacked him with a baseball bat. "This drug game," he says, "is nothing to play with."

It is hardly surprising that much of the violence in the inner city is crack fueled. Dealers too young to boast a driver's license have ready access to state-of-the-art firearms: Uzi submachine guns, .357 Magnums and MAC 10s. "You don't see Saturday-night specials anymore," says New York Deputy Police Chief Raymond Kelly. "It's a thing of the past." Adolescent gunmen have itchier trigger fingers. Gang shootouts caused 387 deaths in Los Angeles last year; more than half the victims were innocent bystanders. "You put a gun in kids' hands, and they are more dangerous than adults," says Janice Warder of the district attorney's office in Dallas County, Texas. "They just don't realize the value of life or how easy it is to kill somebody." Says Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Augustus Hutting: "Crack cocaine, guns and youth are an extremely lethal mixture."

Authorities have been stunned by the increasingly grotesque nature of the crimes. In Detroit, boys as young as 14 have been locked up for torturing their rivals. "They've ((electrically)) shocked people's arms or poured alcohol on open wounds," says Probation Officer Michael Sinnott. Teenage crack-house denizens have started videotaping their own X-rated shows. "A lot of it is group sex," says Sergeant Elmer Harris, a Detroit homicide officer, "or inducing girls to have sex with each other or with dogs."

Most of the adolescent crack dealers' clients are children. "A sophisticated marketing analysis couldn't have come up with a more perfect drug for kids," says Robert Stutman, special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York. "Five years ago, a kid had to spend $80 for cocaine. Now a kid can get a vial of crack for $3 to $5. The high is instantaneous, the addiction complete." Some of the latest abusers are barely out of babyhood. Renaissance West, a Detroit drug program, is preparing to treat children as young as six.

With so much drug-related horror in the inner cities, it is easy to assume that crack is an exclusively underclass problem. Not so. "I see Key Club members and honor-society members destroyed by crack," says Jeanne Howard of the state attorney's office in Palm Beach County, Fla. There is a terrible symbiosis between the wealthy addicts and the inner-city dealers. Privileged kids who venture into the ghetto to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on crack are largely responsible for the booming drug business.

Eric grew up in Los Angeles' posh Brentwood section, and by tenth grade was an honor student, a varsity baseball player and an accomplished cellist. He was also becoming a crack addict. With friends who were similarly hooked, Eric would hop into the white Volkswagen camper his dad had bought him and drive into the seedy Venice Beach area. There he would purchase rocks from Los Angeles gang members. Sometimes he made three trips a day.

Eric, now 18, estimates that in two years he spent $40,000 on crack. At first he supported his habit with $200 a week earned from an after-school job delivering pizzas to big tippers in Westwood. As his habit became more expensive, he began forging checks and filching money from the wallets of his divorced parents. In eleventh grade, he flunked all his classes but still continued his trips to Venice. "It was scary all the time now," Eric recalls. "I would sit in the van needing a hit, but couldn't stop looking out the window for the police or a shadow."

The situation came to a head when a menacing dealer forced his way into Eric's mother's home and demanded that she pay him the $200 her son owed him. Shortly thereafter, Eric entered a rehabilitation program called Pride. After four months, he emerged shaken but sober. He has dropped all his crack-smoking friends but worries about temptation. "Coke is still all around me," he says.

It certainly seems so. Afraid that his younger son would get involved in the drug scene, Eric's father joined a group of parents determined to plumb the depth of the drug problem at the local high school. "One of the other fathers hauled out the school yearbook and demanded that the kids show us who was doing drugs," says Eric's dad. "They told us it would be easier to show who wasn't. My God, there are 2,000 students at that school, and their fast-track, two-income parents don't have any idea what their kids are doing."

WHILE THE MOST SUCCESSFUL young dealers may be venal and vicious, at least some of them have first-rate intellects that in a better environment could have been put to healthier use. "What is really frightening," says Al Schuman, director of Washington's probation program, "is that the kids who are selling these drugs are the bright youngsters, the articulate ones. They understand how to work the system. They can keep track of money, and they know how to run a business. It's almost a corporate mentality."

But these are youngsters who, by the time they reach puberty, have given up on the dream of leading normal lives free from crime and brutality. "The youth say, 'I'm going to live as good as I can today,' " says Bernard Parker, executive director of Operation Getdown, a Detroit community-service group. "They don't see their life continuing. They don't have any hope." They are unfazed by the notion that drug dealing could send them to prison or the grave.

Crack's corruption of children is becoming, in the Bible's phrase, a millstone around the neck of American society. Never before has public awareness of the crack crisis been so widespread. But most of the sweeping solutions being offered seem specious, if not unworkable.

At a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington last week, city executives drafted a resolution condemning the Reagan Administration's antidrug efforts as ill conceived and poorly executed. When Attorney General Edwin Meese appeared before the group to defend the Administration's record, the mayors were not impressed. "All you're doing is putting a lot of fingers in the dike that is about to collapse and drown us in the trenches," fumed Mayor Joseph Daddona of Allentown, Pa.

Police crackdowns throughout the country have had negligible impact. In a highly touted weekend-long raid of drug-dealing gangs in Los Angeles last month, police arrested 1,453 people, including 315 juveniles. Half had to be released for lack of evidence. The frequent raids in Los Angeles have provoked a backlash among civil libertarians, who accuse the police of busting any young man who happens to be black or Hispanic.

Moreover, greater numbers of arrests will make no difference if the jails are too crowded to contain new inmates. The Los Angeles County prison system, designed to hold 12,800, now houses 22,600. The county's juvenile system, designed for 1,317, is bursting at the seams with 2,006 youngsters. Prisons and juvenile facilities in New York, Detroit and other major cities are overflowing.

Some authorities consider their efforts futile. "In law enforcement, I don't think we're having an effect," says Ken Walton, a former Detroit FBI agent. "I don't see anything positive on the horizon. I see no good news." Says DEA Agent Stutman: "Essentially, law enforcement can only provide holding action until treatment and prevention make a difference."

Treating crack addicts can be as Sisyphean a task as busting crack dealers. There are thousands of excellent treatment centers across the country, but like the nation's prisons they are filled beyond capacity. Administrators at J-CAP, the Queens program that treats Jeff Woodberry, interview 20 prospective clients for every one they have room to take in. Only the most seriously addicted are admitted. Even the graduates of the best programs have a 50% chance of relapse. Says Ray Diaz, director of youth treatment at the Promesa center in the Bronx: "They need out-programs, often for the rest of their lives."

School officials say they are suffering from a glut, not a lack, of educational programs aimed at crack. "We almost have programs running out of our ears," says Emeral Crosby, principal of Detroit's Pershing High. "We've got churches, youth foundations and charity organizations working with us. Everybody is just pounding the kids all day long." Yet the older drug dealers are winning the war for the hearts and minds of too many children. When impoverished youngsters see $100 bills waved under their noses, it is hard for them to turn away. Says Dr. Robert Millman, director of drug-and-alcohol-ab use services at New York Hospital: "Just saying no doesn't cut it. The poor ask, 'What can we just say yes to?' "

Right now, not much. Not jobs: while manufacturing employment has declined in the past seven years, the Reagan Administration has gutted the budget for training and employment programs, which provided crucial assistance to disadvantaged young people. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest level since 1955; in cities like New York and Los Angeles, minimum- wage service jobs will hardly pay for food and clothing, let alone an apartment and a car. Between 1979 and 1987, the number of hourly workers toiling at less than poverty-level wages ($9,464 for a family of three) jumped from 2.8 million to 15 million.

Not education: total spending on public schools in California has declined from 4.9% of personal income in 1978 to 3.4% today, while enrollment has climbed rapidly. Reading scores among high school seniors in California have declined annually since 1975, particularly in the inner-city schools that supply recruits for gangs like Los Angeles' Crips. In higher education, federal aid to college students -- grants, work-study jobs, student loans -- dropped 16% from 1980 to 1987, while the cost of college has nearly doubled. The number of blacks in college declined by 26,000 between 1980 and 1986, reversing a steady increase.

With the federal deficit at $150 billion a year, it is unlikely that shrunken programs can be beefed up significantly over the next several years, regardless of who moves into the White House in January. But there is little dispute over what a President Bush or a President Dukakis should do: launch viable, cost-effective initiatives to renew the Government's commitment to jobs and education. If nothing further is done, more children will be seduced by the lucrative drug business. More young crack dealers will become crack addicts and burn out before they turn 20. More will wind up as fatalities of the drug war.

The real heroes of the fight against drugs are the teenagers who resist the ghetto's fast track -- who live at home, persevere in school and juggle their studies with a low-paying job. The wonder is that there are so many of them. "Most of our youngsters are not involved in crack," says Frances Pitts, chief judge of the juvenile courts in Wayne County, Mich. "Most aren't running around with guns. Most aren't killing people. Most are doing very well -- against great odds." These are the youngsters who fit Jesse Jackson's words: "You were born in the slum, but the slum wasn't born in you."

Meanwhile, the lonely work of saving one life at a time goes on. If there is a glimmer of hope in the inner city today, it comes from the social workers, community activists and Samaritans who are reaching out to children, one by one, trying to give them the affection and guidance that may keep them from surrendering their lives to crack.

Dolores Bennett calls them her children. There are more than a thousand of them by now, young people who grew up on Detroit's mean streets but flourished inside her tidy yellow frame house on King Street. It was in 1964 that Bennett, now 55, began her work. "I started seeing a need for something in our community to keep my children busy," she explains. "I started with a small group of kids and asked people in the neighborhood if we could mow their lawns or pick up their garbage or go to the store for senior citizens." Her fee for these services: "A pie or a cake" for the kids, she says. "Some people just gave us Kool-Aid."

Over the years, Bennett's activities led to the creation of neighborhood sports teams, regular fairs and picnics and an informal job-referral service for her growing brood of local children. But most important were the casual get-togethers at Bennett's home. There the youngsters could talk openly about their hopes and fears, knowing that someone would listen to them and understand. "I found that being a volunteer was priceless," says Bennett in her quiet, matter-of-fact way. "We have no paid staff or anything. It's like an organization of club members." On her mantel are scores of photographs of the youngsters she has known. "Most of these children don't have someone in their house who takes care of them and shows them they love them. Most of the children are taking care of themselves."

Today Dolores Bennett is a Detroit institution. The mayor, the top police % officials and juvenile-court judges know her personally. So do the crack dealers whom she fights for the lives of her children. "Crack has made my job harder," she says. "We lose some of the young people who come here. But our track record has been very successful."

On a spring afternoon, a few of Bennett's young friends settle down for their regular freewheeling discussion. "She is a hell of a lady," says Leo, 15. "She kept my brothers out of trouble. My sisters, my friends." She has just helped Leo get a job for the summer as a supervisor for a neighborhood cleanup crew. This afternoon Bennett wants to talk about crack. Have any of the children been talking to the dealers lately? Have any of them been smoking? "We're not accusing anybody here. We're going to help people here," she says warmly. "Let's get honest. You know Mrs. Bennett knows more than you think she does. But she isn't going to get on you. I love you."

CHART: TEXT NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: TIME CHART BY CYNTHIA DAVIS

CAPTION: DRUG-RELATED JUVENILE ARRESTS

DESCRIPTION: Drug-related juvenile arrests in Detroit, 1981-87; New York, Washington, Los Angeles, 1980-1987.