Delaware Towns Confront The Effects Of Crack

Posted: June 08, 1989

SUSSEX COUNTY, Del. — Crack cocaine rots this green farming region as surely as any weevil.

Addiction, crime, syphilis and family strife have blossomed among poor farm and factory workers since the highly addictive drug came to quiet agricultural towns here four years ago, police say.

And the decay is reaching deeper and becoming harder to root out as dealers sell more and purer crack than ever before, said Detective William West of the Delaware State Police.

"Seventy percent of all crimes that are being investigated are drug- related," said West, head of the state police's Narcotics Division in Sussex County. "Of that . . . 45 to 50 percent are crack-related."

Now, "from noon to 4 in the morning, you could probably buy crack somewhere in Sussex County," West said.

Tiny towns such as Seaford, Laurel, Milford and Selbyville - like rural areas throughout much of the country - find themselves fighting big-city problems with small-town resources.

Less than three weeks ago, Seaford alone reported six new cases of syphilis among women who traded sex for crack, said Maynard Mires, the county health officer. Since March, four babies addicted to crack and infected with syphilis have been born, he said.

Once Sussex County had to worry about a few people selling marijuana or methamphetamine out of a few houses. Now it has crack corners as notorious as Philadelphia's Eighth and Butler, West said.

Calm, idyllic Laurel has a population of 4,400, a seven-man police force and a thriving crack trade in the Little Creek Apartments, police say.

Lenora White lives next door.

"It's been so bad down there, there's urine at the bottom of the stairways," said White, who recently visited a friend at Little Creek. "The (users) are waiting around; they go back and forth, in and out to smoke in the apartment. Then they're walking and pacing all the time."

White spoke of a 20-year-old woman who first smoked crack four years ago in a marijuana joint her friends offered her that was laced with crack.

Now the woman is hooked, White said: She took to shoplifting and petty theft, and has since lost her apartment and custody of her young children. The woman, whom White declined to identify, is awaiting trial on charges that she stole someone's pocketbook during church-run anti-drug classes and forged a check from it for crack money, she said.

"It's hard to describe the agony you go through, when you look at members of your family (who) were once nice-looking, and you see their bodies deteriorate," she said.

Now White jots down license numbers of cars driving into Little Creek and reports them to police. The dealers call her "the cop," but they leave her alone, White said.

Out-of-towners borrow apartments at Little Creek and sell crack to people whose cars stream down the driveway, said Laurel Mayor Richard Small. Laurel police have stepped up patrols and plan to restrict parking there to stifle the crack-related traffic, Small said.

But Capt. James Harris, the acting police chief, called the situation ''frustrating" because regular duties keep Laurel police too busy for the undercover work needed to shut down Little Creek's crack trade.

"On top of that, we've got summer coming now, and we've got all these tourists and (migrant workers) coming into town," Harris said.

Laurel is home to the county's largest full-time fresh-produce auction. Two or three hundred migrant fruit pickers come every July and August to work the fields, Small said.

Throughout the county, migrant workers will flood the farming towns. "This summer, our dread is that we may see, with the influx of people . . . crack take a better foothold," said county prosecutor Jane Brady.

Crack first came to Sussex County with Haitian migrant workers in 1985, said Agent James Fitzgerald of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some Haitians brought ready-made crack up from Fort Pierce, Fla., selling pebble-size doses under the name "rock" and larger, butter-colored crack bars called "french fries," Fitzgerald said.

Haitian crack was as little as 17 percent pure cocaine, but it sold well to the mostly poor people working in the farms and poultry plants of Sussex County, according to West.

"It's their way of getting by," he said. "Hanging chickens all day long, cutting their throats - it seems like this is (the users') way of getting by in their work."

Then, two years ago, Americans here began cutting in: They bought the raw cocaine in Baltimore or Philadelphia, took it home to Sussex County, cooked it into crack of 75 to 92 percent purity and sold it under the name "fresh," West said.

Now nearly all the cocaine base comes down from Philadelphia by car and is cooked into crack and sold by local dealers who each have five to eight people working for them, West said.

"Sometimes they cook it on the way down with a hot plate in the car that they plug into the cigarette lighter, (and) sell it like fresh-baked bread," said Chief Charles R. Miller of the Seaford police.

Seaford, a quiet rural town not much larger than Laurel, has clamped down hard on crack.

Its most notorious crack neighborhood, around the corner of Third and North Streets, is quieter now that local police have beefed up patrols, Miller said. State police detectives have further cut crack traffic in Seaford with undercover buys and sting operations, West said.

Seaford was once "a very quiet place," said the Rev. Walter Dixon, pastor of Macedonia A.M.E. Church, a few blocks from Third and North Streets.

But from 1985 until this spring's increased police presence, people walking through the neighborhood were sometimes approached by dealers and mugged by users, Mr. Dixon said.

"I've seen them on (crack), standing around on the corner," Mr. Dixon said. "My greatest concern is for the young people. . . . They'll do anything to get the money. Some girls are selling their bodies."

Some Macedonia parishioners have told Mr. Dixon that their crack-addicted kin are stealing to buy more crack.

Addicts in Sussex County are writing bad checks, mugging people, breaking into houses and holding up stores for more money to buy more crack, West said.

One group of dealers was even accepting food stamps for crack before federal agents arrested them in August. A federal judge sentenced them to prison in January on charges of trafficking, conspiracy and illegal possession of food stamps.

"Some are weekend users who can go through $200, $300 a weekend; some go through $150 or $200 a day," said Paul Russell, program coordinator for Turnabout Counseling Center, the county's largest. "A lot of them are in debt up to their ears."

During the last four years, cocaine use among Turnabout clients has shot up more than 1,000 percent, Russell said.

Turnabout's drug treatment waiting list is one to two months long, Russell said. Two-thirds of those waiting are addicted to crack, and most will return to it once they finish the program, he said.

While counselors try to confront the crack users in Sussex County, towns there continue to confront its use.

Selbyville began to rid itself of a drug neighborhood in January when the county building officer condemned housing originally intended for migrant workers in Peppertown, said county prosecutor Brady. Peppertown is a cluster of peeling, two-room wooden shacks that once housed about 25 to 30 people involved in crack use and sales, Brady said. A few families still live there, but police arrested most of the alleged dealers earlier this spring, she said.

Now, owner Howard Pepper is under orders to demolish Peppertown because its outhouses violate county housing codes, said Housing Officer Calvin O'Day.

Next month, Small, the Laurel mayor, and Capt. Harris plan to ask the Town Council for more money, more officers and better drug education in Laurel schools, even down to the kindergarten level, Small said.

A sign already on the lawn of a Laurel school reads, "Say nope to dope."

Mr. Dixon said that he had led marches and handed out leaflets for drug treatment around Seaford's Third and North Streets, but that crack users who wanted help might have been scared off by the now-heavy police patrols.

Mr. Dixon said he would keep working because "right now, a lot of people are not getting any help from any people anywhere." Crack, he said, "has almost destroyed their lives."

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