Undercover detectives posing as drug dealers launched the first phase of a new LAPD crackdown on skid row's massive drug marketplace Thursday by arresting 14 buyers, including a Hollywood actor.
The undercover officers masqueraded as street dealers in scruffy clothing as they lured unsuspecting buyers to purchase balloons filled with fake heroin along Spring and 6th streets.
The officers made an arrest about every 5 to 10 minutes, yelling "Cancel Christmas" as a signal to uniformed officers to move in and make the arrest.
Among those held on suspicion of felony attempted possession was actor Brad Renfro, who has appeared in such films as "The Client," "Apt Pupil" and "Ghost World."
The Los Angeles Police Department invited several reporters to cover the operation in hopes that the publicity would make people from other parts of the city think twice before purchasing drugs downtown.
"The message we want to send is: You don't come buy your drugs downtown unless you want to end up in jail," said Capt. Andy Smith, who ran the operation.
The arrests pushed total drug bookings in and around skid row above the 6,000 mark this year. The area accounts for up to 20% of all drug crimes in the city.
Police Chief William J. Bratton and other city leaders who have vowed to clean up skid row have said a huge challenge is removing the drug-dealing that occurs just steps away from drug treatment centers where homeless people attempt to get clean.
And the first step in fixing the problem, the chief said, is making skid row less attractive to outsiders with money to come in and get their drug supply.
On Monday, three people, including a 75-year-old woman, died of apparent drug overdoses on skid row, one right next to where the LAPD sting took place. The deaths, Smith said, underscored the need to remove drugs from the area.
The crackdown is part of a new campaign by city and state leaders that also includes stiffening penalties for drug sales within skid row and establishing a community court that can quickly handle criminal cases there.
Right now, Smith said, officers see the same buyers over and over even after they have been arrested.
"We can see someone seven times before they are sent to state prison," he said. "If they get sent to County Jail, they usually only spend a few days there, and then they are back on the street."
The busts Thursday occurred in an area known as "heroin alley."
It's on the southern edge of skid row just blocks from high-rise office towers, the Biltmore Hotel and the city's winter ice-skating rink in Pershing Square.
The "alley," which runs along Spring and Broadway between 3rd and 14th streets, attracts drug users from as far away as Ventura and Orange Counties, said Det. Ron Hodges, who heads the LAPD's Central Division narcotics team.
"They can pretty much buy and sell here as quick as we can arrest them," he said. "People come for dope, because they think it is going to be easy."
The operation began with a roll-call session at which Lt. Lionel Garcia told the undercover officers that they might come across celebrities and public figures and that all suspects should be treated the same way.
Garcia also warned that much of the drug-dealing is run by street gangs and that the undercover cops should be careful because the gang members might view them as rivals.
Indeed, the first arrest wasn't of a prospective buyer but of a seller who offered drugs to a female undercover officer.
The decoy dealers stood along Spring outside a shopping center where vendors sell cheap toys, bags and electronics.
As Smith was arresting one suspect, a Silver Lake man in his 20s dressed in vintage clothing, another man turned to an undercover officer and said: "I thought they were going to arrest us." He proceeded to make a buy and was arrested.
Officers -- and reporters -- chased another fleeing suspect through the shopping center. But despite the commotion, more customers were on hand ready to buy drugs.
Renfro, 23, was dressed in cargo pants and what appeared to be a military uniform when he appeared on Spring. He was taken into custody after he tried to buy heroin from the officers, police said.
Renfro began acting as a child, gaining notice in "The Client," the 1994 movie version of the John Grisham novel. He went on to star in several independent movies, including "Telling Lies in America" and "Bully," and co-starred in "Sleepers" and "Tom and Huck," in which he played Huck Finn.
He was booked into jail Thursday evening.
The LAPD will continue the stings in the coming months, targeting buyers.
But a bigger push is planned for the next few weeks, when a team of undercover detectives will begin surveillance operations on drug sellers.
The idea is to figure out how the major drug operations work and gather evidence that could be used to break them up, Smith said.
On Wednesday, the city attorney's office announced an investigation into allegations that several hospitals dump patients on skid row, another practice the LAPD has denounced.
Smith acknowledged that Thursday's operation won't make much of dent in the drug marketplace. But he said he hopes it sends a message.
As he told Renfro after his arrest: "If you don't like it, don't buy drugs down here."