The other goal amid dozens of Phila. drug raids

Undercover officers preparing to enter a rowhouse on Leeds Street in West Phila. Recently, gun violence has spiked in the 16th and 19th Districts. Raids are part of a fact-gathering strategy.
Undercover officers preparing to enter a rowhouse on Leeds Street in West Phila. Recently, gun violence has spiked in the 16th and 19th Districts. Raids are part of a fact-gathering strategy. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 10, 2012

One suspected drug dealer kept a four-foot alligator chained in his basement and two gigantic Burmese pythons in the dining room. He also had seven bundles of crack cocaine in a fish tank in the living room.

Another suspect had $263,000 worth of marijuana stashed in buckets in the basement of his West Philadelphia grocery.

Umar Garvin tried hiding heroin in his long johns before police descended on him, and officers banged down the door of Milzy, a neighborhood barber, allegedly selling pot out of his shop, handshake-style, beneath framed portraits of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

These arrests - and dozens more - came Wednesday and Thursday as teams of Philadelphia Police Department narcotics officers conducted drug sweeps in violent hot spots across West and Southwest Philadelphia.

More than a hundred narcotics officers executed more than 50 warrants throughout the 16th and 19th Districts, said Lt. Robert Otto of Narcotics Field Unit South.

Those districts were targeted because they've suffered recent spikes in gun violence, said Deputy Police Commissioner William Blackburn.

In November, after a rash of shootings, the department carried out similar raids in the 22d District in North Philadelphia.

By late Thursday afternoon, 66 suspected dealers had been arrested, while eight guns and about $327,389 worth of illegal narcotics had been seized, Otto said.

The show of force had two goals, police said: get guns, drugs, and repeat offenders off the streets, and, perhaps more critical, gather intelligence for ongoing shooting and homicide investigations.

"We're going after bad guys with guns and drugs, and we're trying to cultivate information on all this gun violence," Otto said in a predawn interview at a staging ground along the Delaware River.

Over the last six months, the 16th and 19th Districts have been the scenes of high-profile murders.

In September, two gunmen executed a grocer, his wife, and her sister during a robbery at Lorena's Grocery, at 50th and Parrish Streets in the 16th. The killers remain at large despite a $50,000 reward.

And just hours before officers began knocking down doors Thursday, a shooting in the 4200 block of Pennsgrove Street underscored the challenge of policing neighborhoods ruled by silence and fear.

About 1 a.m., two 16th District officers responded to the nonfatal shooting of a man, 19. The officers asked him who did it, but he would not tell them before he lost consciousness.

In the 16th District, between 2010 and 2011, homicides more than doubled, from 8 to 20.

In the 19th District on Monday afternoon, Dennis Gore, 24, the son of a police officer, was shot down at 55th and Hunter Streets.

All of the suspects detained in Thursday's raids were being debriefed by investigators for information in other crimes, said narcotics Sgt. Berle Brereton.

And ballistics tests were being conducted on seized weapons for possible matches with shootings.

Some of the warrants carried the names of large-scale targets, such as Charles Johnson, whom police suspect of selling crack cocaine across South, West, and Southwest Philadelphia.

He was arrested in his home with 111 grams of cocaine and two handguns.

Information is the commodity sought from smaller targets.

"Information is gold on the street, like money, and people use it when they need to," explained Officer Greg Barber, driving through darkness Thursday morning with his partner, Officer Theresa Weaver. Both are 17-year veterans.

Narcotics South seized 357 guns last year, $7 million in drugs, and $1.8 million in cash.

Though Thursday's initiative was a large-scale effort, narcotics units are routinely deployed in the wake of homicides to roust up information through arrests.

Thursday's raids began shortly after dawn.

"Police! Search warrant!" bellowed Officer Leslie Simmons as another officer battered down the door of a rowhouse on the 6600 block of Leeds Street.

The team had already nabbed one occupant of the house, Patrick Barley, 32, selling a block away.

Upstairs, they found Charles Townsend, 30 - who served six years in prison for murder - and more drugs.

The apartment reeked from cats and their neglected litter boxes. There was a bundle of crack on a shelf in a bedroom, and more in a pill bottle on top of the TV.

Townsend asked police if he could change out of his slippers before going to prison.

Before police left, Officer Weaver left water and food for the cats.

Near 64th and Callowhill, officers spotted Umar Garvin coming from a known drug house above a carpet shop. Garvin, 23, wearing a black jacket and a gold Superman necklace, lay down in the street and denied having any drugs. He was a workingman, he said.

Inside the house, police found heroin in his long underwear.

They also arrested Cynthia Whitley, 50, a woman who lives in a room in the house. Police and neighbors said she has allowed dealers to shoot up and to sell in the filthy rooms. Sheets covered the windows, and the basement was a lake of sewage.

Upstairs, Otto searched Whitley's bedroom, careful for needles, while neighbors gathered out front.

One neighbor hoped the city would come and board up the house after the raid.

"If they don't," he said, "it's just going to happen again."


To watch a video of the police raid, go to www.philly.com/drugbust


Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 215-854-2759 or mnewall@phillynews.com.

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