Battleground: Warren

WARREN – When asked “Why Warren?” police Chief Timothy Bowers summed it up like this: “Drug dealers are no different from other business people. They go where the business is.”

And for the past few decades, business has been good in this northeast Ohio city with a population of 41,000.

So good that some people have dubbed it “Little Detroit.”

Last week, the connection between Detroit and Warren came to the forefront again as law enforcement hit the streets to round up 97 people indicted on various state and federal drug and gun charges. Some of the suspects have Detroit addresses, while others have addresses in Detroit and Warren.

The sweep was dubbed “Operation: Little D-Town.”

“There’s no doubt there’s a problem in Warren,” said Dave Coulson, a spokesman with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But Warren’s not alone. It’s a problem we’ve seen it in other places. It’s not unusual for a city like Warren to see this kind of activity. It’s not unusual to see people, especially this close in proximity to Detroit, go back and forth, to live there for a period, even make connections and come back.”

Warren police reported that heroin-related drug arrests are overtaking arrests involving other drugs and running neck-and-neck with those involving marijuana. For example, Warren police reported making 156 heroin-related arrests in 2012, compared to 145 arrests involving cocaine, 107 involving pills and roughly 155 other drug-related arrests.

Last week law enforcement tried to break some of those connections along with the stronghold of crime they acknowledged has gripped the Warren area over the years.

Lt. Jeff Orr, project director of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, said “the drug may have changed, but the people haven’t.

“I don’t think anyone can identify one specific reason drug dealers like Warren,” Orr said. “You have the economic factor, the downturn of the economy. You see the people who get in on something like these conspiracies, these deals, and they’re not thinking it’s a conspiracy. They’re just seeing it as an outlet, a way to make some quick cash.

”Many of them don’t work. Even if they do they still see it as a way to make that quick cash. For some it’s a way of life, what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown up.”

Although Warren police initially were reluctant to link some of the city’s more violent crimes to Detroit-Warren pipelines, the connection seems apparent as spelled out in a recent federal indictment against Valentino Thomas Sr., 41, of Detroit. He is named at the top of an alleged conspiracy involving at least 20 other people – including his son, Valentino Thomas Jr., 22, of Warren, and Derrick “Rizzi” Peete, 22, listed in the indictment as a Detroit resident although local police and court records also list a Warren address for him.

Peete is waiting to stand trial in the Nov. 11 shooting death of Marco Dukes Sr., 32, of Warren. Dukes, who had a long criminal history, died in a downtown shootout with Peete, according to police. Dukes’ cousin, Larry Smith, 29, of Warren, was wounded.

The recent indictment charges Peete with three counts of heroin distribution, the use of a phone in the commission of a felony, and possession with intent to distribute heroin, crack cocaine and cocaine.

More than 80 of the 97 people named in state and federal indictments that were unsealed on Wednesday as part of “Operation: Little D-Town” had been arrested, had turned themselves in, or like Peete, were already behind bars in connection to other cases. Officials identified the suspects as career criminals.

Valentino Thomas Sr., who is facing three counts of distributing 58 grams of heroin to undercover agents in Warren, remained at large on Friday. Valentino Thomas Jr. was arrested last week in Warren.

The indictment states that Thomas Sr. and Peete obtained drugs in the Detroit area and elsewhere and sold them to Anthony L. Ector, 29, of Warren, to distribute to 18 street dealers, including Thomas’ son Valentino Thomas Jr., who sold the drugs in Warren.

Thomas’ brother, Stanley Thomas, was fatally shot Oct. 16, 2011 ,at the former Clancy’s Bar. Investigators said they suspected Detroit gangs were involved in the shooting.

Bowers stressed that when addressing the local drug war, officials are also faced with the byproducts of it.

“Drugs are big business, but with that comes the other crimes we see, like burglary, robbery, thefts, assaults and shootings. Those are battles within the war we fight,” he said.

Beyond the recent indictments, Detroit has played a role in other cases.

Katherine L. Eggleston, 46, of Homewood Avenue S.E., told police in January that someone called her cell phone several times and threatened to shoot up her house days after her son, Taemarr Walker, 23, was extradited from Detroit on an aggravated robbery charge. At the time, Warren Police Lt. Jeff Cole said he could not confirm the matter was connected to Walker.

In September 2009, Eggleston told police that her home had been shot at, according to Tribune Chronicle archives. This came after Walker was reported to have been involved in a January 2009 shootout that left him wounded in the stomach and another man, Ahmaze King, dead.

Walker’s ties to both Warren and Detroit are among several connections between the two cities that local officials have investigated involving dozens of people and a slew of crimes from drug possession and robbery to felonious assault and murder.

In June 2011, Frederick D. Johnson, 40, of Warren, who reportedly transported drugs from Detroit to Warren for some 15 years, was sentenced to 32 years in prison. According to reports, Johnson bought the drugs in Detroit, his former hometown, and sold them in Warren.

Officials said the way is made easier for criminals to set up shop in cities like Warren where resources are limited.

“So you have your demand for drugs, the people who see meeting that demand as a way to make the quick cash, and add limited resources to stop them to the mix, that’s an opportunity for your drug dealers,” Orr said.

Mike Tobin, a spokesman with the U.S. Attorneys Office, said Warren was identified as a target area for a collaborative effort among various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies because of its strapped resources and crime problems. He, along with other officials, said working to break a crime pipelines between Detroit and Warren is a vital step.

“But it’s not the only one,” Orr said. “We have to address treatment and prevention. We have to work to take away the demand. The drug culture needs to change if we’re going to keep Detroit out of Warren.”

vshank@tribtoday.com