Pomona Police Battle Shadows in a Drug War

Times Staff Writer

Drug sales were brisk as the sun set over Pomona. Hawkers were lined up along both sides of East 7th Street, flagging down motorists to try to sell them $10 bags of marijuana.

That night, undercover detectives posing as buyers arrested three men and lost another to the darkness. It was just one in a long series of battles with street dealers that the police say they are losing.

The short segment of 7th Street near downtown Pomona is one of seven areas in the city where police say a multitude of drugs, including increasingly popular cocaine, are bartered openly day and night.

They say that "curb service" sales, which began to increase earlier this year after a series of raids on suspected drug dealers' homes, are a dangerous new phenomenon that has resulted in more drug-related violence in the city.

Regional Marketplace

Police, both in Pomona and in surrounding areas, say that Pomona is rapidly gaining a reputation in the East San Gabriel Valley as a regional marketplace for drugs. Pomona police have asked the City Council for nearly $1 million to create a 16-member narcotics division with a dope-sniffing dog and a full-time attorney to speed prosecution of dealers.

Last month, Police Capt. Rick Shaurette made a lengthy presentation to the council that included a videotape of what police said were drug deals on the street.

Shaurette said dealers have grown increasingly sophisticated, employing teen-agers as front men on the streets who, in some cases, carry pagers so their bosses can keep in touch with them.

"Each time we find a way to catch the crooks and still stay within the legal limits, they find another way to do it," he said in an interview.

Budget Deficit

But as police continue their battles with drug dealers, the City Council is busy waging its own war against a growing budget deficit.

A number of factors, including expected cutbacks in federal revenue-sharing next year, may drive the city's $1.3-million deficit to $4.3 million, council members say. While they acknowledge the city's drug problem, council members have reacted coolly to the Police Department's proposal.

Councilman Mark Nymeyer said he is sympathetic and believes that the drug problem is severe. But he and other council members said the request for funds could only be granted with either a raise in utility taxes or the creation of a public safety assessment district. Under state law, two-thirds of the voters would have to approve such an assessment district if it included funds for the Police Department.

So far, no proposal for a public safety assessment district has been made, although the idea has come up in council study sessions.

Public May Support It

Nymeyer said that although residents forced the City Council to back down in July on a proposed assessment district for street lighting and landscaping, he senses more support for public safety assessments among his constituents.

Unless the city calls a special election, voters would not have a chance to decide the matter until June, when the next state election is scheduled, Councilman Jay Gaulding said. A special election is unlikely, council members said, because it would probably cost at least $50,000.

Gaulding said he feared that the council's decision to back down on the earlier assessment district proposal could harm the chances of another such proposal passing. "We don't have any credibility with the people," he said. "They don't believe anything we say."

Meanwhile, the city's five-man vice squad, which divides its time about equally between prostitution and drugs, spends many days and nights arresting small-time street dealers.

Recently the squad agreed to allow a reporter to observe their undercover operations.

22 Dealers Arrested

Sgt. Ron Frazier, leader of the narcotics team, complained that although he had helped arrest 22 drug dealers in the past two weeks, he was hardly making a dent in the city's drug problem.

"What's frustrating is we can't do enough to make a difference," he said.

That night the detectives played out a what they say has become an all-too-familiar scenario.

One of the customers on 7th Street was Ron Kelley, an undercover detective who bought four $5 bags of marijuana. Kelley wore a transmitter under his shirt and his conversation with the curbside dealers was monitored by police in an unmarked car a few blocks away.

As he left the area, Kelley described the two men who had sold him the drugs. Both were arrested within minutes, taken to the police station and charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to sell it.

Convenient Place

"It's hot, isn't it?" Kelley said of the aggressive sales techniques of the dealers who approached him. "It's a convenient place where the trafficker and the buyer can meet."

Eight months ago, Kelley said, street sales were confined to one central-city location. But as the sales strategy became more popular, drug dealers rapidly expanded their efforts.

Back at the police station, Frazier expressed frustration at the futility of the vice squad's efforts. "When we leave they'll be right back at it," he said.

Later that evening the five-man team, plus Kelley, drove to northeast Pomona, where, detectives said, the best-selling drug is cocaine.

Each Have Specialties

They said that each of the city's seven "hot spots" appear to specialize in either cocaine or marijuana, although other drugs, including heroin, speed and PCP are available if customers know whom to ask for.

The hot spots consist of two- to three-block areas. Besides East 7th Street and Lovejoy Street in northeast Pomona, highly visible drug sales occur on North Towne Avenue, North Garey Avenue, East Jacqueline Way, South Hamilton Boulevard, and South Chanslor and Angela streets.

Kelley, again posing as a drug buyer, cruised along Lovejoy Street in a residential neighborhood of dark, winding streets strangely crowded at 8 p.m. with furtive figures moving among idling cars. It is a neighborhood of broken dreams, across the street from a boarded-up shopping center and next door to the remains of a 2-year-old housing development where the rotting frames wait in vain for walls and roofs.

The area, near Towne Avenue and Arrow Highway, also has been the location of several of the city's 11 drug-related homicides in the past 21 months, police said.

Territorial Battle

Lt. Ernie Allsup, who is in charge of the department's detective bureau, said virtually all those shooting deaths involved drug buyers and sellers, and that many were related to a territorial battle among dealers.

"I've never seen any innocent victims involved," Allsup said.

Police said they have noticed a sudden jump in drug-related violence over the past eight months, since police raided 94 homes where drug dealing was suspected.

Kelley cruised down Lovejoy Street. He turned on his "body wire" and, within minutes, bought a $25 "rock" of cocaine, a tiny chunk of white crystal meant to be cut up and smoked. He described the men he had bought it from and three unmarked cars roared into the street from both ends, causing chaos among the shadowy figures who scurried into the dark.

'Wrong Guys!'

Four detectives jumped out of their cars, grabbed two men, forced their hands in the air and frisked them. But Kelley's voice could be heard over the radio: "Wrong guys! Wrong guys!"

Frazier drove to another street and pulled up to two more men. He stopped the car, opened the door and jumped out with his gun drawn.

"Police!" he yelled.

One man stopped. The other took off running.

The other detectives' cars screeched to the end of the street after the running figure. They leaped out of their cars and chased him through an alley and across a busy street. They crossed the boundary into Claremont and Claremont police were called to help. After mistakenly detaining another passer-by, they realized they had lost their man.

"Oh well," Det. Frank Terrio shrugged, "one is better than nothing."

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