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Raid hits '24-hour' drug ring

15 in Roxbury are arrested

Police swept into Roxbury's Orchard Gardens development shortly after dawn yesterday and broke up what they said was a major crack cocaine ring, a move they hope will dramatically reduce drug-related crime in the city after several months of surging violence.

The 15 men arrested, along with five already in custody who were also charged, controlled the drug trade in the area, which was being run in plain sight of neighbors throughout the recently refurbished housing development, police said.

"The raid effectively eliminated a 24-hour, street-level drug operation that drew customers from as far as suburbs and controlled the drug sales in this area," said Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole. "Officers said they were so busy they couldn't serve the cars fast enough."

The early morning raid was nicknamed Operation Bad Apple by police. Residents have had growing concern about drug traffic, and some have grown fearful of stepping outside their homes. The sprawling complex had been plagued by drugs and violence at the hands of gangs in the 1990s, but was reborn last year as a 115-unit, mixed-income community of candy-colored wooden townhouses and seemed to symbolize a new era for Roxbury.

The crackdown is one of a number of initiatives being launched by police, as they seek to identify and remove the worst criminal offenders from city streets. They are especially concerned about felons returning to their old neighborhoods.

"Right now there are two factors in the city," O'Toole said. "Our juvenile population is growing very rapidly, coupled with the fact that a lot of people who went away and did serious time are now coming back to the community."

While not all the men arrested live in Orchard Gardens, most have ties to it. Eight of those arrested have previously been charged with drug-related offenses, and several have past firearms charges.

O'Toole said that several of the men arrested yesterday are members of the Orchard Park Trailblazers, a gang that terrorized Boston during the late 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership of New York City native Darryl "God" Whiting. But authorities were quick to caution that they do not believe that the current gang is nearly as organized as its forerunner and that they don't believe the city is facing a gang problem as menacing as that of 15 years ago.

"This operation was not structured or executed to target one particular gang's drug dealing. . . . The common denominator is not that they were OP Trailblazers or any other gang; the common denominator is that they were working around the clock to pump drugs into that neighborhood," said David Procopio, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, which was instrumental in planning and executing the raid.

Said Lieutenant Stephen Meade, commander of the Boston Police Drug Unit: "I don't see it as specifically a reemergence of gangs as they used to be, but we still have a problem of groups who use and claim turf to deal drugs."

Still, police are keeping a close eye on gang activity after the increase in homicides, O'Toole said. There have been 30 homicides in Boston so far this year, compared with just 17 at this time last year. Overall, violent crime is down 6 percent, largely because of a 20 percent reduction in armed robberies, O'Toole said.

The raid was the culmination of a four-month joint investigation by detectives from several city police agencies, including the Boston Police Department, the Drug Control Unit, the Youth Violence Strike Force, and the Boston Housing Authority police.

Many of the felons being released from prison now were gang members when they were sent away, O'Toole said. The commissioner said she believes that the city must offer services that give men released from prison support and job opportunities.

Elizabeth Echevarria and her 17-year-old daughter Leslie have lived in Orchard Gardens since 1991. Leslie has repeatedly asked her mother to move the family out of the neighborhood, but Elizabeth, who recently lost her $130-a-week job as a school custodian, said she has no options.

"Every time I come from school and walk down that street I'm so scared," Leslie said.

Her mother interrupted. "We need more security," she said. "There's been a lot of violence. It got better when they broke down everything and redid it. Now, it's worse again, just like it was. It's all the drug dealing."

Next to the Echevarria's front door is a planter holding rows of roses made of pink cloth. "I had real ones, but they ripped them out," Elizabeth said. "It was a mess. But they leave the fake ones alone."

Elizabeth Echevarria spoke of her efforts to keep a welcoming home with a smile. But Leslie is less hopeful about the neighborhood. Even as she dreams of gaining admittance to Berklee College of Music and a winning turn on American Idol, Leslie doesn't see much hope for the dark corners of Orchard Gardens.

"I think there's always still gonna be more [drug dealing and violence]," Leslie said. "Even though they got those 15 guys, there's even more young guys behind them who just want to follow in their footsteps."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who considers Orchard Gardens one of his key housing achievements, was more optimistic. He said police will continue to fight to make the neighborhood safe.

"Some guys think they're going to beat the system, and you can't beat the system," Menino said. "We're going to keep getting them."

As he looked across the expanse of a small public park toward the rows of freshly painted single-family homes where authorities announced the arrests, Menino said, "This place was our prize." 

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