Cleveland Scandal : Did Cocaine Sting Fuel Drug Sales?

Times Staff Writer

One step ahead of the police, White Art wheeled his El Camino off the road and vanished into the yawning maw of his warehouse. The door automatically lowered behind him.

From inside, he watched the police car pull into the driveway, right up to the edge of his domain, and stop as the warehouse door slid shut. Before long, the driveway was full of police cars.

The man known as White Art, alias James Lewis, alias Arthur Brooks, alias Phillip Starr, alias Winston Tajeda, was Cleveland's biggest drug dealer, an imposing, bearded, hip-talking white man who walked the city's black East Side as if he were king.

The El Camino he was driving that night had a secret compartment underneath that was loaded with cocaine, a fresh 13-kilo shipment from Miami. As he paced the cement floor inside his warehouse like a caged bear, White Art feared that his drug peddling days were about to end.

He didn't have to worry, at least not yet.

Undercover Operation

Although he did not know it then, White Art and the Cleveland Police Department were about to embark on a high-risk adventure that would rival the plots of the most far-fetched TV cop shows. The story would include double crosses, a near murder and some courageous police undercover work that would result in the biggest cocaine bust in Ohio history.

But the case also would bring allegations that the police had been so anxious to make headlines that they helped pour half a million dollars worth of cocaine into the black community and then allowed the money to vanish into the Miami drug pipeline. Later, a county prosecutor would accuse the city's top narcotics officers of being smitten with "fantasies of 'Miami Vice.' " If so, they were fantasies that would plunge the department into a controversy the likes of which the city had never seen.

Confronted by Police

But this all was in the future. Right now, in the wee hours of April 13, 1985, the only thing that concerned White Art was the police outside. Officers were pounding on the door, shouting for him to open up. But, alone inside with his dope, he refused to let them in.

To his delight, the police eventually gave up. They had no search warrant and, besides, they had no idea they had cornered a drug dealer--they thought White Art was a car thief.

When the sun came up he saw that the coast was clear, and then he hurriedly left, too, leaving the cocaine behind. He was sure the police would be back to find it as soon as they got a warrant. He was wrong.

Later, he would wish he'd never returned, either.

In 1985 Cleveland, like other big cities, was fighting an escalating drug war on inner-city streets. Cocaine was becoming an ever bigger problem as the potent cocaine derivative known as crack began to spread from the two coasts into the nation's heartland. The Cleveland police narcotics unit--especially the prestigious major-case squad nicknamed the "A-Team"--was under heavy pressure to make high visibility drug busts.

Like a gift from heaven, on April 19, 1985, White Art was dropped into their laps. One of his neighbors had found him badly beaten and left for dead in the very warehouse where the police had cornered him six days earlier.

He had a fractured skull, internal injuries and both legs had been badly damaged, beaten with a blunt instrument. He also had been given a "hot shot," an injection of cocaine and heroin that had been intended to kill him. Someone had jumped him from behind. Nobody knew for sure who had done it.

The cocaine-laden El Camino was gone, but the police who examined the warehouse knew they had a drug dealer on their hands from the cocaine residue, scales and other packaging equipment they found. A search of his various properties, including a spacious suburban home, turned up a machine gun and a pistol, both equipped with silencers, and about $70,000 in cash. Eventually, the police even came to learn White Art's true name--Arthur Feckner.

A-Team Plans Sting

By the time he was released from the hospital a month later, still barely able to walk, Feckner had been persuaded to aid the A-Team in an elaborate stair-step sting operation that the police hoped would lead all the way to Colombia, via Miami. In return, the police promised him leniency.

It was an ambitious scheme, by far the most ambitious the squad had ever attempted. And it was timed to win maximum national attention for Police Chief Thomas Hanton and his likely successor, Lt. Howard E. Rudolph, the head of the narcotics unit. A national Drug Enforcement Administration convention was coming up. If the A-Team could arrange a 50-kilo bust before then, Hanton and Rudolph would be able to attend as heroes.

There was only one hitch.

Feckner still owed his Miami drug connection $560,000. He later testified in court that he told Sgt. James Bistricky, the 18-year police veteran who headed the A-Team, that he would have to settle this debt before he could arrange another deal. According to Feckner, the only way he could do that was by selling drugs.

Later the police would contend they thought Feckner got the cash by collecting on past debts.

In reality, from mid-June to late July of 1985, while he was in close cooperation with the A-Team, Feckner operated a drug "safe house" on the city's far East Side, across the street from a sprawling housing project. He sometimes brought in as much as $60,000 a day, selling mostly to mid-level dealers who then resold the merchandise on the streets.

It was sometime in June that he started turning over to the A-Team brown paper bags filled with cash. The police would give him a receipt, and then store the cash in a safe in Chief Hanton's office until it was time to launch the sting.

Worried About Safety

Feckner had begun meeting with his old drug-dealing partner, Leonard Brooks, immediately after getting out of the hospital. The police knew about the meetings. In fact, they were concerned for Feckner's safety because they thought it was Brooks who had tried to kill him.

Detective James Lynsky, one of the A-Team members, gave Feckner a bulletproof vest, but he couldn't put it on because his left arm was still paralyzed from the beating.

He wasn't terribly afraid, though. He didn't think Brooks would try anything in broad daylight. But to be on the safe side, he made sure his driver, an employee in his drug business, carried a pistol to the meetings, which took place in fast-food restaurant parking lots.

At their third meeting, Feckner wore a wire. It is clear from the tape transcripts that the two men were discussing selling drugs, but the police contend that Feckner was doing it on their instructions, in order to get Brooks to incriminate himself.

According to court documents, the police made 46 tapes of conversations between Feckner and other people. Officers who did an internal police investigation of the operation later reported that it should have been obvious to anyone listening to the tapes that the money piling up in Chief Hanton's safe came not from Feckner's old debts but from fresh drug sales.

The A-team detectives told investigators that they hadn't bothered to listen to all of the tapes. On one, Detective Lynsky can be heard asking Feckner whether he and Brooks had enough "merchandise" to raise the money needed for the sting. Despite the taped dialogue, Lynsky and the other officers continued to insist that no one knew what Feckner was up to.

Before making his deal with the police, Feckner's routine was to cut and package cocaine nightly in the warehouse. The red brick building was hunkered down far off the road in one of Cleveland's worst neighborhoods, a drug-infested area of working-class homes, junkyards and decay on the edge of an industrial zone. A former stamping factory, the building had once housed a home improvement business Feckner had owned. Some of Feckner's old home improvement employees still worked for him, but most of the renovating they did was on Feckner's own safe houses.

Feckner and Brooks had a drug house open somewhere on the East Side seven days a week, 12 hours a day. The sales clerks, all women, were paid $500 weekly for three or four days of work. They would record each sale on a work sheet, seal the money in an envelope and place it in a drop safe to which only Feckner and Brooks had the combination. One of the two men would come by after closing time at 1 a.m. every night to pick up the money and sales records.

Feckner and Brooks, astute business men, never personally sold drugs. Nor did Feckner frequent the safe houses during the hours of operation. His working day began after the sun went down and ended in time for him to see his kids off to school.

Every morning, after spending all night packaging the drugs, Feckner would drop the merchandise off at one of three well-fortified houses he owned. A trusted employee would pick up the prepackaged cocaine--each package worth from $140 to $2,800--and take it to the house that would be used for sales that day.

Moved Operation Daily

Feckner and Brooks operated out of several houses, moving the operation daily from house to house so that the frequent comings and goings wouldn't attract attention.

But when they went back into business in June, Feckner said he told his employees they had nothing to fear--the police were protecting them. They could make all of their sales from one house.

By the time the sting took place in Miami on Aug. 27, 1985, Feckner had already paid his Miami connection, Jose Munoz, the $560,000 he owed. Munoz made two trips to Cleveland to get the money. Also by this time, two of Munoz's relatives had been arrested in Cleveland while ferrying drugs to Feckner. Thirty-six kilos of cocaine had been confiscated. Now it was time for the big bust.

Actually, the A-Team originally aimed much higher than Munoz. They had wanted to go to Colombia, straight to the source of the drugs Feckner was selling, but jurisdictional friction with the DEA squashed that idea. But at least they would get Munoz.

When they got to Miami, however, things started to go wrong.

The police had gotten a $2 million "flash roll" from the DEA. All in $100 bills, the money was placed in a large suitcase and stashed in the trunk of a rented Lincoln Continental. Bistricky, posing as a drug dealer, was supposed to drive the car to a shopping center parking lot for the meeting with Munoz. Bistricky would show him the money. When the dealer produced the cocaine, the police would nab him. That's how it was supposed to work.

But then Feckner, after meeting alone with Munoz that morning, notified Bistricky that things had changed. Munoz had already shown Feckner the cocaine and now wanted Bistricky to bring the money to his home.

Knew Money Was Nearby

That was dangerous. DEA agent Frank Magoch, who had flown down for the bust, tried to talk Bistricky out of going inside alone. "I didn't know if they were going to hold him hostage or not," Magoch recalled later. "They knew the $2 million was in the area, possibly in the car."

At first Bistricky, heeding Magoch's advice, stayed behind the wheel of the Lincoln while Feckner went in. Magoch hid on the floor of the back seat. But Munoz came close to spotting the agent when he came outside unexpectedly and started toward the Lincoln. Quickly, Bistricky got out and went to meet the drug dealer, going alone with him back into the house, where he saw three Colombians armed with automatic weapons were holding the merchandise.

After about five minutes, the police officer came back out. He signaled to the Miami police officers and DEA agents who secretly had surrounded the house, and they swooped down upon the dealers.

From the police department's viewpoint, the unorthodox sting operation was a howling success.

In all, 15 people were arrested. Six of them actually were convicted and 46 kilos of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $50 million, were recovered. Feckner, who pleaded guilty to federal and state charges of selling 13 pounds of cocaine while he was working with the police, is serving a five-year sentence in a federal prison. Munoz is serving a 15-year sentence in a Florida state prison. Brooks is serving a seven-year sentence in a state prison on two counts of supplying money to obtain drugs.

Cleveland Mayor George V. Voinovich at first praised the police sting as "innovative" police work in 1985. Appearing with Bistricky and Rudolph at a press conference to announce the bust, he posed for pictures in front of the piles of money and drugs.

Nevertheless, when news of the department's alleged arrangement with Feckner began leaking out in 1986, there was an immediate uproar from the NAACP and others in the black community.

"No decision like this could've been made to have this type of operation on the West Side of Cleveland or anywhere that's predominantly white," said U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, who has pressed for full disclosure about the operation for two years.

"They didn't do that on their own," he said of the five officers. "Somebody gave approval. Somebody above those five officers made a conscious decision that this is a throwaway community."

The operation, one of the most investigated police actions anyone can recall in Cleveland, has been probed five times at various levels, the first time in an internal police review that a subsequent department investigation dismissed as a sham.

In 1987, investigations were performed by members of the police Professional Conduct and Internal Review unit and investigators from the sheriff's department. The investigative reports, which led to indictments of the five members of the A-Team, supported Feckner's allegations that the officers allowed "and, in essence, participated" in illegal street sales.

At the subsequent trial, attorneys for the five A-Team members tried to paint the officers as inexperienced and out of their league, contending that Feckner, the wily con man, had taken advantage of them. It was "a classic example of the hunter being captured by the game," is how Clarence D. Rogers, Bistricky's attorney, put it.

Hanton, the former chief, said during the trial, "I think Mr. Feckner scammed the police department."

Albert Figler, a detective from the police Professional Conduct and Internal Review unit who investigated the sting operation, said Lynsky, one of the A-Team members, told investigators: "From day one, we were flying from the seat of our pants."

But Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Jack Hudson portrayed the police officers at the trial as being more concerned with making a splash than with keeping drugs off the street. He made much of the fact that the sale of 31 ounces of cocaine is enough to earn a dealer the maximum sentence. For the police to press Feckner to make a 50-kilo buy, he suggested throughout the trial, was gross overkill.

Also, two former narcotics detectives testified that Bistricky had told them to keep their men away from the area where the drug sales were going on, indicating that he knew they were taking place.

But Judge Michael J. Corrigan ruled mid-trial, after presentation of the prosecution's case, that, even if the officers knowingly conspired with Feckner to sell drugs, the sales would be legal under Ohio law if they were done for a law enforcement purpose. The officers were acquitted in December of last year.

The verdict brought howls from some members of the black community, who said it gave the police permission to sell drugs with impunity. The verdict by law cannot be overturned, but citing alleged errors in Corrigan's reasoning, the prosecutor is appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court. Also, U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh has agreed to open a Justice Department review of the case, which will be the sixth inquiry into the matter.

City officials and lawyers for the five officers, contending that Feckner would have been stopped had the police known he was selling drugs, say the police department's biggest mistake was failing to keep closer tabs on him.

After publishing excerpts from the damning investigative reports, the Cleveland Plain Dealer in April called for the dismissal of Rudolph, who now is the police chief, saying he must have known about the drug sales when he was in charge of the narcotics unit.

Rudolph acknowledged in a letter to Voinovich in early 1987 that he and his men had made mistakes. "However, these mistakes can be attributed to errors in judgment or poor record keeping," he wrote. "They were certainly not the result of police misconduct or violation of law."

Safety Director Mitchell J. Brown said steps have been taken to institute controls in the department to make sure that what happened cannot reoccur. Still, he said the A-Team broke no departmental rules, mainly because no rules had been established prohibiting such acts as using a drug dealer's money in a police operation.

$500,000 in Drug Sales

But no one now disputes the fact that Feckner, while under police supervision, collected $500,000 from narcotics sales and passed it on to his Miami drug supplier.

In Miami, Lt. Russell Kubik of the Metro-Dade Police Narcotics Bureau said the most money he can recall being lost in a police operation there was "$1,000 to $1,200, and that was like 15, 18 years ago. . . .The chances of losing a half million dollars are just infinitesimal, almost non-existent," he said.

But Brown said the Cleveland police had no obligation to keep the half million dollars from disappearing into the drug underworld because "that was somebody else's money. They can do whatever they want with their money."

Then he grew angry with black leaders who attacked the police department for allowing Feckner to sell drugs.

"First of all, this man was selling drugs since 1972 to the best of our knowledge, and the black community never turned his ass in," said Brown, who is black and was appointed after the controversy broke. "We didn't have any great support from the black community in getting (him) arrested. Who the hell was buying the drugs? . . .

"I get very angry when people come to me with indignation about the guy selling drugs when the guy couldn't sell drugs in the black community if they didn't want him there. . . .

"We did what we had to do to get rid of this guy permanently," he said of Feckner. "We care about this community. We care about the entire city."

Karl Bort, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Assn. and a vigorous defender of the five A-Team members, accused Stokes of pressing the issue mainly because his brother, former Mayor Carl Stokes, is contemplating running for mayor again.

"You know, it's damn the cops even though the cops didn't do anything wrong," he said. "Election year is damn the cop year. And we know we're going to get our butts kicked every election year."

Aside from possible ramifications for the local mayor's race, the case also promises to have repercussions in next year's gubernatorial election. Voinovich is a candidate. Already, the head of the state Democratic Party is promising to make Arthur Feckner into Voinovich's Willie Horton, referring to the rapist George Bush's campaign used to attack Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the presidential election.

"It should've been done better," William Howell, the mayor's executive secretary, said of the sting operation. "But this was a first-time process. The major goal at that time was to nail this sucker and the people with him.

"We took down the major drug dealer in the city and his cohorts, all the way down the line," he continued. "They're all in jail. They have been tried and convicted . . . (The sting) was successful from a judicial viewpoint."

"We can do a lot of ifs," said Hanton last December from the stand at the trial of the five police officers. "If we had known this (drug sales) was going to occur, it would not have occurred."

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