Carlos Hernandez must have thought he was home free. As he drove down Broadway from Washington Heights, the summer heat was finally fading and the late-afternoon sun glinted off his light-green motorcycle. His destination, a dilapidated seven-floor walk-up at 16-18 Old Broadway, just off 125th Street, was only blocks away.
But when Hernandez crossed 126th Street, he braked too hard and lost control of the bike. Pitched headfirst over the handlebars, he landed on the pavement semi-conscious and bleeding profusely. Within minutes, a crowd gathered and an officer from the nearby 26th Precinct arrived at the scene. Reaching down to Hernandez, the officer noticed an unusual bulge under his shirt -- Hernandez was wearing a bulletproof vest. Then she noticed something else: 100 vials of crack cocaine had spilled out of his knapsack onto the street near his bike.
Examining the knapsack, the officer found 4,500 other vials, all rolled tightly in groups of 100 in brown paper bags.
Back at the precinct house, a routine vehicle-registration check revealed that the motorcycle belonged to Angel Celpa, one of the alleged leaders of Harlem's infamous "Black Top" gang, named for the black caps that covered the vials of crack it sold.
While Hernandez lay handcuffed to his hospital bed with head and neck injuries and several broken bones, police say the Black Top gang tried to find out how much they knew. Several members "assembled in an alleyway beside the precinct house, boosted themselves up, and peered into the windows," remembers Lieutenant Daniel Brown, who worked as the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit (SNEU) supervisor in the precinct for two years. "You could see it on their faces: 'Did they find the crack? Did they get the motorcycle?' " After a few minutes, officers "sent two uniformed cops outside," Brown says. "Then they left."
"They were not greedy. Greedy people make mistakes. And that's one of the things with this group: they didn't make mistakes."
For the Black Top gang, who police say were brazen enough to slash the tires and smash the windows of cop cars, it was another chance to prove who really ran the block-long stretch of Old Broadway they had turned into a thriving narcotics center. But for Sergeant Erin O'Reilly, it was the break she had been waiting years for.
For almost a decade, prosecutors allege, the Black Top gang ran a crack supermarket out of two connected apartment houses at 12-14 and 16-18 Old Broadway, just half a block away from the 26th Precinct house. Composed primarily of a large extended immigrant family from the Dominican Republic, the gang effectively sealed off the building from police, dead-bolting doors and fire exits and arming street lookouts with remote alarms that could alert dealers inside. Inside, gang members sat on milk crates in the third- or fourth-floor hallways and sold drugs to customers lined up on the stairway. During police raids, they vanished into apartments the gang had rented -- or simply commandeered. To mark their territory, they even sprayed graffiti in the hallway that read black tops this way.
In a city where crime is dramatically down, parks are no longer littered with crack vials, and drive-by shootings are largely a thing of the past, the Black Top gang might seem like a throwback to New Jack City. "It does remind you of the bad old days," acknowledges special narcotics prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan. But in comparison with the constantly warring crack crews of the late eighties and early nineties, Black Top and similar gangs that came of age in the midst of the Giuliani crime crackdown have evolved into shrewdly managed, almost corporate operations. Police say they spurned street pushing for private sales and avoided unnecessary violence as hazardous to their bottom line. "One of the lookouts once told me that another lookout was fired because he drank too much," Brown says with a laugh. "The feeling was that if he was drinking, he wouldn't pick up on things." The Black Top gang enforced a Mafia-style peace on the block and even "cleaned the sidewalk in front of our shul," according to a member of the Old Broadway Synagogue. "I think after everything, they respected religion."
Over the years, the gang earned the kind of customer loyalty many legitimate businesses would envy. Black Top's crack was cheap -- it sold "nicks" for $5 while most other dealers sold "dimes" for $10 -- and "they didn't cut their drugs with other substances," says O'Reilly. "One of the things all the users said is that they loved this product."
"Can you compare them to the Cali cartel? Of course not," says Inspector Kevin Barry of the NYPD's Central Harlem Initiative. "But they moved 5,000 vials a week, so you're talking about a million-dollar business." Or more: Brennan estimates that the Black Top gang sold up to $500,000 of crack per month.
The gang eluded police by scrutinizing its customers carefully. "If they didn't see the individual in the neighborhood, they wouldn't sell to them," says O'Reilly. When officers did make a buy, the gang refused to "sell up" -- deal more than a few vials of crack at once -- to avoid being charged with anything worse than a B felony. "They knew the law as well as we knew the law," O'Reilly says. "They were not greedy. We like people to get greedy, because greedy people make mistakes. And that's one of the things with this group: They didn't make mistakes."
Taking down the gang ultimately required the NYPD to rethink its strategy as radically as gangs have reinvented theirs. "In the mid-nineties, we were getting more aggressive and the dealers stopped carrying guns on their person," says O'Reilly, giving an example of the strategic "arms race" at the center of the war on crime. "If you came upon a center of drug activity, you'd find guns in a flowerpot or mailbox. Then we began searching the immediate area. So they started leaving the guns in the buildings. We became a little more aggressive and searched the buildings; now they've got them in the apartments. So we've really got to get thinking because we need a search warrant to get into the apartment.
"It's a new millennium," O'Reilly declares. "We've got to stay one step ahead of the dealers."