Pioneer Square drug sweep targets cocaine dealers
A months-long investigation into Pioneer Square's open-air drug market culminated Tuesday in a sweep of Seattle's historic district, with officers rounding up some of the neighborhood's most prolific sellers of crack cocaine. The operation — a cooperative effort among police, community members and the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office — identified 27 suspects, 15 of whom were in custody as of early Tuesday evening.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The young woman — late 20s, short and with her hair pulled into a tight ponytail — burst into tears as she was placed in the back seat of a patrol car outside a Pioneer Square coffee shop late Tuesday afternoon.
"I just got down here. I want to know what's going on," she told the Seattle police officers who'd arrested her inside the Starbucks store at First Avenue and Yesler Way and led her outside in black plastic handcuffs. "I didn't do anything today."
The woman had no way of knowing that she had just stumbled into a major sweep targeting 27 crack-cocaine dealers who've been repeatedly busted but continue to return to Seattle's historic district to ply their trade.
Though she wasn't on the department's list of most-wanted dealers, a "spotter" officer witnessed the woman make two drug sales from his vantage point in a nearby building.
"She is a known drug dealer and one of our officers saw her do two hand-to-hands [drug sales] outside of Starbucks," said Lt. Mike Kebba of the department's narcotics section.
Hours earlier, two dozen officers — bike cops, anti-crime team officers, narcotics and vice detectives, along with officers from the state Department of Corrections — gathered in a conference room at the department's West Precinct on Virginia Street for a briefing on "Operation Roll the Rock," a months-long investigation that focused on the key players in Pioneer Square's open air drug market.
Much of the operation focused on the area around the Lazarus Day Center, a drop-in center for homeless men over 50 on Second Avenue Extension South, just south of Yesler Way. The operation's name is a Biblical reference to the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, emerging from his tomb after the rock barring the entrance was rolled away.
Symbolically, the hope is that "Operation Roll the Rock" can help revitalize Pioneer Square, and make visitors feel safe in the neighborhood, Kebba said.
The investigation involved undercover detectives buying crack from dealers, then working with a King County deputy prosecutor to build their cases, developing probable cause so they could make their arrests within a short period of time — before word spread and the dealers could scatter to other neighborhoods.
At approximately 1 p.m., the officers fanned out across the square, each with a packet of surveillance photos and booking shots of their targets.
Of the 27, five were arrested by Seattle officers for other crimes before Tuesday's drug sweep, Kebba said. Another man on the list was apprehended during a traffic stop Tuesday morning for driving with a suspended license, he said.
Within the first 1 ½ hours of the operation, officers had arrested six more dealers. Two others were taken into custody just before 5 p.m., when they showed up at the Department of Corrections office on Fourth Avenue South.
Almost three hours later, officers arrested another dealer who was spotted playing checkers at the corner of Third Avenue and Yesler Way. When he was searched, officers found six rocks of crack in his possession, Kebba said.
The 15 suspects in custody as of 7:30 p.m. Tuesday included an unregistered sex offender from Whatcom County and a felon who has already served prison time for first-degree murder, according to Kebba.
Officers continued their hunt for suspects through the night, and will keep looking for any of the dozen dealers still outstanding over the next few days, Kebba said.
The operation was launched months ago, after Pioneer Square residents and business owners complained to bicycle officers that they kept seeing the same faces over and over, said Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a King County deputy prosecutor. The bicycle officers also "saw these same individuals committing these crimes," and reported the neighborhood's concerns to their commanders, she said.
But instead of doing a typical buy-bust operation, where a dealer is arrested after selling drugs to an undercover detective, this operation deliberately focused on "chronic drug dealers" by "observing them over a period of time, not just a snapshot in time," O'Neill-Stephens said.
Police reports, criminal histories, and data from citizens and beat cops were compiled in hopes that prosecutors can successfully argue for stiffer prison sentences, taking the repeat dealers off the streets for up to five years, O'Neill-Stephens said.
Kebba, pointing out that there is a concentration of social-service providers in Pioneer Square, said he is offended that dealers prey on people struggling with addictions, throwing temptation in their faces where they're seeking help.
Clusters of drug dealers and users, who crowd into alcoves to smoke crack, or loiter in the middle of sidewalks, can make tourists, residents and people who work in the neighborhood feel intimidated or fear for their safety, said Capt. Les Liggins, also of the narcotics section.
Jennifer Kelly lives in a third-floor unit at the Monterey Lofts, above the Chief Seattle Club and the Lazarus Day Center.
From her balcony, Kelly, who attended Tuesday's police briefing, said she witnesses daily drug deals on the street below.
"Seriously, you see a drug deal, watch for a few minutes and you'll see a couple more. It never fails," she said. "That's why what the police are doing right now is very exciting."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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