Sex, drug stings nab more from suburbs than city

George Hunter
The Detroit News

She sashayed across the sidewalk, grabbing the attention of passing motorists. A middle-aged man in a pickup pulled over and made an offer: $15.

Detroit police officer Brian Ambrous does the paperwork for a vehicle from two men from Sterling Heights at the 12th Precinct in Detroit. The vehicle was impounded after the men were charged for intent to buy drugs.

A Detroit police cruiser swooped in and officers took the man, a Southfield resident, into custody. The pretty undercover cop resumed her pavement prancing. More drivers were nabbed after offering the going rate of $15 to $30.

Of the six men caught during the recent two-hour sting operation on Detroit’s east side, five live in the suburbs.

Detroit’s underground economy mirrors the legitimate one: Both rely heavily on suburban investment. Suburbanites flock to Detroit to spend money on sporting events, dining, casinos — and attractions not touted by city boosters, like illicit sex and drugs. It has long caused headaches for residents and police.

“A lot of people in Bloomfield Hills and Novi want to look down their noses on Detroit, and we do have our share of problems,” said Michael Johnson, who lives in a desolate area in Detroit near the Grosse Pointes. “But suburbanites are contributing to those problems.”

From March to September, 628 people were arrested or ticketed during undercover prostitution and drug operations citywide, Assistant Police Chief Steve Dolunt said. Only 275 were Detroiters.

Detroit police run regular drug and prostitution sting operations, and The Detroit News recently accompanied undercover officers on two details: A “Push-Off” drug sting (“push-off” is street slang for getting high); and an OTE (“Offer to Engage”) prostitution operation.

While drug dealers and prostitutes also operate in the suburbs, they’re generally more difficult to find than in some Detroit neighborhoods, where men and women hawking illegal wares often boldly flag down passing motorists.

Out-of-towners venturing into the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods and consorting with street hustlers is a recipe for trouble, Dolunt said.

“A lot of times these people from the suburbs aren’t very streetwise, and they become victims of crimes themselves,” he said. “They get robbed, beat up, sometimes killed.”

Of the city’s 298 criminal homicide victims last year, 39, or 13 percent, lived outside Detroit, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office annual report. In 2013, 14 percent of Detroit’s homicide victims lived elsewhere, and the year before that, 16 percent.

“This ain’t a game out here,” said Johnson, 43. “Some people learn that the hard way.”

A Pontiac pulls away from an undercover officer; the Ferndale driver was stopped and the car impounded. Officers say in neighborhoods that border the suburbs, almost all drug buyers are from outside Detroit.

‘A steady flow’

Neighborhoods that border the suburbs see the highest number of suburban lawbreakers, said Sgt. Ahmed Haidar, head of Special Operations for the 12th Precinct, which covers a five-mile area south of Eight Mile, the iconic northern demarcation line between city and suburbs.

“I’d say at least 80 percent of the people we pick up for prostitution are from the suburbs,” Haidar said. “And almost everyone buying drugs is suburbanites. There’s a steady flow of them coming in, one by one.”

On the city’s eastern edge, teens from the upscale Grosse Pointes trek across the border to buy heroin and marijuana, said Charles Flanagan, the former head of the Detroit Police Narcotics Section, also the longtime head of east side Special Operations units.

“I caught one kid, and I had him tell me who else was buying dope,” said Flanagan, who retired in July. “So he brought me his high school yearbook from Grosse Pointe South and circled the pictures of about 20 students that he knew of who were either buying drugs or were in rehab.

“A lot of these kids are hooked; they steal their parents’ jewelry and pawn it, then come into Detroit to get their heroin.”

Competition for suburbanites’ business can turn violent, said Johnson, who lives near the dimly lit corner of Philip and Charlevoix where Grosse Pointe Park student Paige Stalker was killed.

“You have the clientele from the suburbs, and they’re bringing in a lot of money,” he said. “So when you’ve got all this money coming in, the dope dealers are fighting and shooting each other to get a piece of it.”

Police believe Stalker, three other Grosse Pointe Park teenagers and one from Detroit crossed into the city the night of Dec. 22 to buy or smoke marijuana when a gunman walked up to their parked car and opened fire, wounding three of the occupants and killing 16-year-old Stalker. The case has not been solved, and investigators say they’ve received few tips, despite a $150,000 reward leading to an arrest.

In a 2012 case, two Westland teens, Jacob Kudla and Jourdan Bobbish, were killed after they had gone to a Detroit home to buy drugs. Instead, they were robbed, forced into a car trunk and shot in a nearby field. Fredrick Young, 26, of Detroit and Felando Hunter, 24, of Jackson were sentenced to life in prison in the killings.

Johnson said suburbanites bring other problems that can have an effect on families and neighborhoods, such as johns having sex with prostitutes in parked cars and alleys, or drug addicts leaving behind needles and crack pipes.

“They don’t even try to be incognito about what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s not their kids who have to see all that; it’s ours.”

The vehicle of a person from Hazel Park is impounded by police after the driver was arrested by the Special Operations unit for intent to buy a controlled substance.

‘Four boy and four girl’

Two undercover officers loiter on a side street in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Within 10 minutes of their arrival a skinny woman in a silver Chrysler Town & Country minivan pulls over and tells the decoys she wants “one boy” — street slang for a $10 pack of heroin.

A backup police crew comes out of hiding and takes the Hazel Park resident into custody. Five minutes later, another woman in a white Pontiac with a window sticker bearing the message, “Mary Kay: Enriching Women’s Lives” also orders a pack of heroin, although the Ferndale woman refers to the drug by its other street name: “Dog food.”

“They call it dog food because it’s so bad you wouldn’t give it to your dog,” one of the undercover officers said.

The drug operation nets six buyers in about an hour and a half. All but one are suburbanites. Their vehicles are confiscated, the suspects are driven to the 12th Precinct, and they sign paperwork explaining they must either pay $900 to get their vehicles back or fight the civil forfeiture cases in court. They are then free to go.

As the first alleged offenders are being processed at the precinct, more suburbanites try to buy from the undercover officers. A white work van advertising painting and remodeling with a phone number with a suburban area code, rolls to a stop. The two 30-something occupants order up “four boy and four girl” — “girl” being the street name for crack cocaine.

The two Sterling Heights residents are cuffed and taken to the precinct garage. As they sit at an elongated, collapsible table, hands secured behind them, one of the men, his paint-speckled baseball cap worn backward, becomes agitated.

“I don’t do drugs,” he rants. “I was just looking for my brother. I didn’t ask for ‘boy’ — I asked if anyone seen a white boy out here.”

Police say they take a second look when they see an influx of white people travel into predominantly black areas on buses or in vehicles.

Racial profiling?

With so many white suburbanites heading into the inner city to break the law, some Detroit cops say their suspicions are aroused if they see an unfamiliar white person in a predominantly black neighborhood.

When former Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans held a press conference in 2009 announcing an initiative to curb the number of suburbanites riding the SMART bus line into Detroit to buy heroin, he said the detail was launched after police noticed an influx of whites getting off the buses and walking into mostly black neighborhoods.

“(Officers) were seeing a number of white clients coming into a predominantly black area — clearly something was going on,” Evans said when announcing “Operation Heroin Express.”

When asked if that constituted racial profiling, Evans, now Wayne County executive, added there were other factors involved, such as the suspects going to known drug houses.

Flanagan, who organized the Heroin Express detail, which resulted in 70 arrests of suburban drug buyers in three days, said it’s natural for police in any city to take a second look at someone who statistically isn’t likely to live there.

“You can say it’s politically incorrect if you want,” he said, “but when black and white cops who’ve been on the street for 30 years see a parade of white guys going into predominantly black neighborhoods, we assume these people aren’t coming in to look at housing prices.”

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