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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

When the crack era ruled the streets of NYC

Crack made Leslie Torres feel like God. At the same time, he explained to the jury at his murder trial, he saw the Devil every time he looked in the mirror. So pushed and pulled by the deities, he was willing to do anything to get more cash to cop more crack. It was the only reason he had for wasting five people and wounding six others early in 1988.
He'd never been in trouble before. He was only 17 years old.
His rampage had begun on New Year's Day and ended eight days later when police cornered him on an East Harlem rooftop. In an extraordinarily bad year for crime, this remained the city's worst single killing spree. And it was the definitive example of what crack  a smokable derivative of powdered cocaine  was doing to the City of New York.
"I was anxious to get crack," Torres said. "It made me get blind."
The drug that made its users blind with desperation for more and more and ever more of it had arrived in the city in 1985, from Los Angeles, where cocaine dealers had perfected a way to turn expensive powdered coke into inexpensive small rocks. They did this by adding baking soda and water to the cocaine, then boiling the mixture into pellets that gave off a cracking sound when smoked. This enabled them to transform a $1,000 ounce of powder into 280 100-milligram vials of crack that could be peddled for, say, $10 apiece  or $2,800. For the first time, cocaine, previously a pleasure of the affluent, became affordable to the lesser economic orders. It was, some expert later told Congress, as if McDonald's had invented the opium den.
Perversely, crack packed an even bigger wallop than cocaine  and caused the typical user to become addicted much faster. Crack vapor got to the brain in about five seconds. The euphoric rush would last just about 10 minutes, and then the user would be overwhelmed by a depression erasable only by another hit on the crack pipe. Very quickly, crack users became like dogs chasing mechanical rabbits in endless circles.
Meanwhile, chronic use produced intense paranoia. "Everybody becomes a user's potential enemies," another expert explained. "He strikes first before they can get him."
Leslie Torres, who was spending $500 a day on crack, never even gave his last victim a chance to turn over his cash. He walked into Jesus Rivera's little bodega, put down a bottle of Yoo-Hoo on the counter and immediately shot Rivera in the head.
Confessing this to police, Torres remembered: "He opened his eyes like he was surprised."
Leslie Torres was a terrible harbinger of things to come in 1988, when marauding crack addicts swarmed across the whole town. Thousands of citizens were robbed. Dozens were killed, including cops and witnesses. Nineteen people died simply because they happened to walk into the crossfire as warring dealers opened up on one another.
By several measures, the city was brought to its knees. It was the worst year ever for murder; nearly 40% of the 1,896 homicides were drug-related, meaning mainly crack-related. It was the worst year ever for total violent crimes  murder, plus robbery and assault. The violent-crime total, 152,600, meant that New York had as many victims as Syracuse had people.
Though no part of the city was safe from an addict in thrall, the worst peril was in the poorest neighborhoods. In the South Bronx, for instance, violent crime was 44% higher in 1988 than in 1985. "Crack crime in poor neighborhoods is at such levels that if the same were true in wealthy neighborhoods, we would be under martial law," Citizens Crime Commission President Thomas Reppetto told the Daily News.
Crack ripped apart families the same way it did neighborhoods. Domestic violence reports increased 24% in 1988  and were up 150% since 1985, the dawn of crack. Child abuse and neglect petitions shot up 19%  and were up 156% since 1985. Some kids never got a chance to be rescued; a record 133 died of abuse and neglect. More than 5,000 were born with severe ailments caused by their crack-pipe mothers.
The young abused the old as well. Attacks against the elderly by youthful relatives shot up 44%. By midyear, said Kevin Smiley, the city's probation boss, crack had "wiped out certain ethics" that even criminals once had. "Crack," he said, "is a scourge, a curse  and it's now pandemic."
People lucky enough to escape the violence paid in other ways. Car theft increased 25%. Burglary went up only 6%, but many theft victims weren't bothering to file police reports anymore, believing  quite accurately  that crime-swamped police didn't have time to deal with small property matters.
In fact, the system was arresting, indicting, trying, convicting and jailing more people than ever. The boss of the cops' anti-crack unit, which had opened for business in May 1986, kept a chart of crack-dealer arrests on his office wall, and in June 1988 it showed that his unit had arrested 13,200 sellers  an average of one every 85 minutes for 25 months.
But those sellers were so easily replaced that police finally gave up the citywide fight against street-level operations and instead adopted a new strategy of driving sellers and users out of specific neighborhoods. Large chunks of some of these target neighborhoods were controlled by a wanton new breed of gangster  the crack boss  and these czars were not happy with the police interference. In South Jamaica, Queens, in a crime that rocked the city, crack bosses ordered the murder of Edward Byrne, a rookie policeman sitting by himself in a squad car, guarding the home of a witness in a case involving $30 worth of crack. One of the two assassins was high on crack.
The most notorious of the crack gangsters was Baby Sam Edmondson, who lorded over Brownsville and East New York, in Brooklyn, the old stomping grounds of Murder Inc. At least nine people were murdered by Edmondson and his men in an 18-month reign of terror aimed at protecting his crack empire.
And what an operation it was. Employing separate specialists for cooking, cutting, packaging and selling crack, Edmondson averaged $100,000 a day in grosses. Police said that Baby Sam, who wore a $40,000 pendant with the words WORLD IS MINE spelled out in diamonds, made more money than the entire Gambino organized crime family did with its unions and construction companies.
In April 1988, shortly after Edward Byrne's execution in Queens, Baby Sam's men gunned down a housing officer, Anthony McLean, and this new cop killing galvanized the law enforcement community and marked the beginning of the end for Edmondson and the other crack gangsters. It would take a couple of years yet, but they would be brought to justice and made to pay with life sentences  as had been one of their customers, young Leslie Torres.
Meanwhile, the mayhem unleashed by crack led the city to hire thousands more cops and moved legislators to pass stiffer laws against drug sellers. Things would remain bad through 1989 and 1990  but not so bad as they had been in 1988. The tide turned.
It turned because society fought back. But it also turned because crack simply burned itself out. In many neighborhoods, rare was the family that had not somehow suffered. Increasing numbers of young people began to think of crackheads as losers.
Almost as quickly as it had become fashionable, crack became uncool. The fever was broken.



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