After three months of targeting street-level drug dealers with undercover agents making buys, local, state and federal officers split into three groups this week and rounded up 36 of 55 suspects on whom they obtained warrants.
They called it Operation Wild, Wild East.
Agents delivered the series of rude wake-up calls to the suspects early Tuesday and Wednesday, surrounding their houses and then banging on the front doors. Some of the sleepy suspects acted surprised that police were at their door and said they hadn't done anything. Click, click, click went handcuff after handcuff as the suspects were led to a police car for the trip to jail.
"The individuals we took off the street are the ones who make life miserable for the good citizens of East St. Louis, Washington Park, Alorton and Centrevlle. They believe they can operate open air drug and gun markets without any consequences," said Stephen Wigginton, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois. "This operation shows there is a big consequence."
The investigations and round-up by agents from the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southern Illinois, St. Clair County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Marshal Service were partly funded by a $150,000 federal grant for which the local authorities competed. Wigginton said addicts were avoided, and the target was violent hot-spots where gunshots are too often heard.
"We purposely avoided crack heads and went after the individuals who were involved in drug sales and other bad acts based on our intelligence."
The agents targeted the Crown Food and other gas stations and convenience stores in East St. Louis where the dealers are known to hang out and where armed robberies occur. In Washington Park, they went to secluded areas where only one, two or three houses remained occupied on blocks of derelict houses or blocks that had been cleared and then the lots allowed to become overgrown.
Agents made about 115 purchases from the 55 suspects, MEGSI commander Joe Beliveau said. "We seized approximately 20 firearms during the operation."
Some buys were made in broad daylight with plenty of foot traffic going past the McDonald's restaurant and the Foot Locker shoe store on State Street in East St. Louis. Some drugs were purchased in front of Jones Park where families bring their children to play.
"This could potentially be dangerous for innocent victims," Beliveau said.
Both federal and state charges were issued. Some charges were enhanced because suspects sold drugs to undercover agents within 1,000 feet of a school or church.
Willie Bishop, 36, of the 2500 block of Douglas in East St. Louis, was charged with three counts of delivery of crack cocaine. His vehicle was used for deals, so it was seized.
Glibert Evans, 54, on Tuesday morning had just gotten into his white Cadillac when agents swarmed him with their lights flashing and ordered him out. He was charged with delivery of crack cocaine, but charges were enhanced because he sold within 1,000 feet of a church. His Cadillac was seized and bond was set at $300,000.
DeMario Garner, 22, at 7:50 a.m. Tuesday was arrested at his home in the 2500 block of Waverly Avenue and charged with marijuana trafficking. His bond was set at $150,000. He appeared to have been sleep when he was brought out of his residence.
Roderick Lewis, 23, of the 7100 block of Church Lane tried to hide from the police. Others in the house lied about his whereabouts. Lewis was found and charged with delivery of a look-alike substance, with bond set at $200,000. Charges will be sought against the other occupants who lied, Beliveau said.
Others who were charged include Tobias Austin, of the 700 block of 88th Street, in East St. Louis. Tommy Ross and LaTosha Peltier were charged with two counts of delivery of crack cocaine, one count of delivery of heroin and three counts of criminal drug conspiracy. Bonds were set at $200,000.
Wigginton said those targeted were bad actors.
"We targeted individuals who were known in our intelligence data to have violent backgrounds or significant criminal histories. Our focus was to get the most bang for our buck, which is what we have to do in these lean financial times."
Federal and local prosecutors also worked together to determine who should be charged with what. St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said 40,000 people in East St. Louis and the surrounding community do not have the same access to law enforcement that their neighbors have.
"During the 96 hours that the agents conducted this investigation they only encountered a member of a local police department once," he said.
Drug dealers benefit from the understaffed, overwhelmed local police departments.
"They either don't respond or can't respond because they are busy running from one call to another. They do not have enough manpower so laws are not being enforced." Kelly said. "We have a failed state in the home state of the president of the United States."
Prosecutors and police gathered at a news conference in Belleville Thursday afternoon to discuss the sweep. They showed a video of the open drug dealing.
"Look how close to schools and churches these people are dealing drugs," Kelly said.
Kelly said that ridding the community of drug dealers and other criminals "has to be a priority for federal, state and local police as well as business owners and churches."
"These are not just minor possession charges or individuals smoking joints," Kelly said. "These are persons dealing heroin and cocaine."
The 55 suspects charged in this operation previously have been arrested a total of 1,168 times.
If convicted of the new charges, most the suspects face jail time, Kelly added.
Beliveau said he hopes residents gain a little peace as a result of the operation.
"We hope to make it more difficult for these street level drug dealers to congregate and distribute their illegal drugs."
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.