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Cops derailing drug deliveries
Cell phone system replacing street corner deals

YOU COULD call them the Domino's Pizza of drugs.

Delivery guys, but instead of dropping off a large pepperoni, it'll be a couple of packets of cocaine or heroin.

They may not have a "30-minutes-or-it's-free" guarantee, but they are fast. And very efficient.

It's simple: you call a cell-phone number, tell them what you need, and a few minutes later the delivery guy will drive to a convenient location near your house—and sometimes even to your front door.

Since Operation Safe Streets began in May—chasing drug dealers off street-corners throughout the city—drug delivery services have gone into operation, narcotics cops say.

The delivery services have been operating in South Philadelphia for some time, authorities said. But Operation Safe Streets appears to have inspired delivery services in North Philly, West Philly and other neighborhoods, narcotics cops said.

Many displaced corner drug dealers are now making deliveries to keep their businesses going, said Sgt. Bill Torpe of the Narcotics Field Unit South.

"They're adapting to what they heard about in South Philly," said Torpe.

Typically, a mid-level drug dealer will have several delivery guys working for him. Three of them might be on the same cell-phone number, with different phones or handing off the same one, taking turns working eight-hour shifts around the clock.

The delivery guys will pick up bundles of heroin and cocaine from the dealer, take the calls, make the drop-offs, then go back to the dealer to re-supply.

And they seem to have no shortage of customers. When narcotics cops bust the delivery guys and confiscate their phones, the cops are often amazed by the torrent of calls coming in. Gimme this, gimme that, I need two dope, I need two rock.

Dope is heroin, rock is crack. Some of the delivery guys have one or the other, often they have both, and sometimes even marijuana.

It's one-stop shopping, and in this case the dealers are the ones making the stop.

They're not listed in the phone book, but they don't need to be. Their phone numbers are spread by word-of-mouth from buyer to buyer, and through prostitutes who get a kickback for referrals, said Lt. Tom Wixsted.

Many dealers hand out phony business cards listing their cell-phone number. The cops at the field unit keep a collection of the cards, like the one purported to be for a DJ who does parties.

Another advertised "baked goods."

"The baked goods was the crack," said Torpe.

The number gets passed around, and "pretty soon the dealer has a customer base he can utilize," said Wixsted.

At your service

Most deliveries take place at an agreed-upon corner near the buyer's home or workplace. If the buyer is a regular, the dealer may bring the drugs to his front door, just like a pizza man.

But the majority of buyers don't want that kind of attention. They'd rather meet the dealer in his car somewhere down the street.

Because delivery dealers are constantly on the move, they're harder for cops to catch. But sometimes buyers will give up their dealers, identifying them for the narcotics guys.

When that happened not long ago to an alleged dealer named Shawn in South Philly, undercover cops made three separate buys from him.

They later arrested him while he was in his car making deliveries. And then they confiscated his car, and his cell phone, and pretended to be him.

All day, the calls came in for heroin and crack. Driving the dealer's Chevy Corsica, two of the undercover cops, "Big Cat" and Pete, arranged meets with the buyers, sold them phony drugs, and then locked them up.

The primary goal isn't to put the buyers in jail, but to discourge the delivery services, says Wixsted.

"We want the buyers to have second thoughts about buying drugs in our city," he said. "Because when they make that phone call to buy their heroin or crack, they never know who they're buying from."

There's also the hope that the buyers will get court-ordered drug treatment, said Wixsted.

With Big Cat and Pete in the Corsica, the phone is ringing like crazy.

"Yo, whassup?" says Pete, answering one of the first calls.

The buyer hesitates. He doesn't recognize the voice.

"Where's Shawn?"

"Shawn's busy today. I'm his cousin Eric."

The buyer seems satisfied with that. "This is Dave. I'm under the tree."

Of course, Pete doesn't know what tree, so he has to ask. "This is my first day," he explains.

Some buyers get scared off if the guy on the other end of the phone is not their usual dealer. But not Dave. He's at 9th and Lombard, he says.

Center City. The narcotics guys had heard that's where the dealer operated. And that's where they end up making deliveries throughout the afternoon.

When they get to 9th and Lombard, Dave climbs into the back seat of the Corsica and pulls some bills from his pocket. He's got what sounds like a British accent.

"I'll give you 12 for 3."

Meaning, $12 for three $5 packets of crack.

Pete, who's in the passenger seat, doesn't agree to deal. Why should he take a loss?

"Shawn usually takes care of me," pleads Dave. "I buy from him once a day, sometimes twice a day."

Pete is adamant. "I'll give you 2 for 10."

Reluctantly, Dave hands over the money. Pete gives him two clear, plastic packets of "crack"—actually slivers of macadamia nuts.

And then, it's all over for Dave. Big Cat, sitting behind the wheel, taps the brake lights, and from out of nowhere, other narcotics cops appear, pull Dave out of the back seat, and put him in handcuffs.

The set-up

Guys from the narcotics field unit had tried a similar "reversal" a few weeks earlier, with an undercover cop named Gratz driving, waving a rag out the window to signal when the deal was done.

They were able to arrest a young woman near her workplace in Center City - that's her in the photo with this story—but then the calls quickly dried up. Somehow, word had spread that the dealer had been been busted.

This day, though, Big Cat and Pete are having much better luck, making one arrest after another. Halfway through the afternoon, they head over to Broad and Locust to meet another buyer. They pull right in front of the DoubleTree Hotel and just sit at the curb.

A few minutes later, the buyer spots the Corsica and walks over.

"You with Shawn?" he asks Big Cat and Pete, then hops in the back.

"What you want?" asks Pete.

"Two dope."

The exchange is made, Big Cat taps the brake light, the other narcotics guys move in. They pull the buyer from the car, and hustle him away to a nearby police wagon.

Instead of moving on to the next location, this time Big Cat and Pete stay where they are, and start getting the buyers to come to them.

It's the perfect set-up: there are so many people in front of the DoubleTree, the other narcotics guys can stand a few feet from the car and not even be noticed.

The calls come in.

"Where you at?" asks Pete.

13th and Locust, 12th and Spruce. Nearby.

"I'm already up that way," Pete tells them. "I'm at Broad and Locust."

And an amazing scene unfolds.

One by one, buyers walk up to the car, get in, and a minute later get hustled away. The Corsica is like a Roach Motel—the buyers check in, but they don't check out.

Pretty soon, a crowd in front of the hotel is watching the action. Construction workers, tourists with suitcases, gawking, waiting for the next arrest. Like it's a movie.

The last guy to be arrested is a nicely dressed young guy, maybe 25. In, out, suddenly in handcuffs.

"I knew this was too good to be true," he tells the cops locking him up. "I just got the number from someone on the street. I was thinking about going to a street corner in Kensington."

Why didn't you, one of the cops asks.

"It's too crazy, too scary," the guy says. "But I should have gone there."


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