Crack Down

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.”

Situated on a tiny block with an SRO and few permanent neighbors to complain, 16-18 Old Broadway sits between 125th and 126th Streets, surrounded by the towering Grant and Manhattanville housing projects. Cops at the 26th Precinct nicknamed the area “the Hole in the Doughnut,” because it remained the lone high-crime spot even as the neighborhood around it became gentrified with chain stores and multiplexes.

The building itself was perfect for the gang’s purposes. Because of neglect and its commanding view of the precinct house on 126th Street, 16-18 Old Broadway has been a bustling drug market for as long as police and its beleaguered residents can remember. Brennan believes members of the Black Top gang started out as runners for another operation years ago.

During the eighties, the building fell into disrepair at the hands of an absentee owner, Andonis Morfesis, and in 1995, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took it over for nonpayment of taxes. But even city oversight – HPD has issued 627 violations to 12-14 and 529 to 16-18 – did little to ease the gang’s grip. When apartments went vacant, as they often did, the gang took them over to store drugs or weapons. “Whenever HPD would put on new locks, they’d break them and install their own,” says 16-18 Old Broadway’s superintendent. The gang even covered the windows with black plastic bags, which foiled police surveillance from adjoining buildings.

Under HPD’s Criminal Trespass program, whereby people in a building can be arrested if they can’t provide proof they have a reason to be there, hundreds of arrests were made at 16-18 Old Broadway. “But we arrested customers,” Brown says.

Most of the alleged Black Top leaders lived at 16-18 Old Broadway, including brothers Angel and Jose Celpa, both 22; their mother, Gloria, who was the money courier; and their pudgy 16-year-old stepbrother, Miguel Valdez, who helped deliver the product and handle the money. (The brothers allegedly learned how to cook crack from their uncles in the Bronx.) They paid other tenants as much as $500 a month for access to their apartments, according to prosecutors.

But the gang didn’t occupy the entire building, and members became ruthless when they were refused access to an apartment. “The woman in apartment 14 was spending half her time in Brooklyn, so they broke in and used her apartment as a stash house,” says Brown. “She came back one time and found walkie-talkies in her baby’s diapers – she could tell that her apartment had been taken over. Two weeks later, she wanted to pick up her mail and her belongings, so she requested a police escort. We went over there and one of the locks was changed – they actually changed one of the locks to her door. So we drilled through the lock and found one individual in there with quite a few Black Tops on him. He also had keys that belonged to the apartment underneath. And in that apartment we found 200 vials and maybe $3,000 in cash. But you know what? The next day, they were back in business.”

In June 1998, Narcotics Sergeant Erin O’Reilly, an eleven-year veteran of the NYPD, was assigned to the 26th Precinct to help deal with the Black Top gang. After her role in rooting out a similar drug operation entrenched in the Castle Hotel at 106th Street and Central Park West, she earned a reputation as one of the department’s more diligent investigators. “Let’s put it this way,” Barry says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t want her investigating me.”

Born in the Bronx and raised in Bergen County, O’Reilly, 41, is a cop’s cop who peppers her Jersey-accented speech with lingo from Dragnet and relishes discussing the finer points of CompStat and Operation Condor. Her father is a retired New York highway patrolman who did “everything he could to keep me from becoming a police officer,” O’Reilly admits a little mournfully. “You always want to see your kids do better – I’m sure he saw his share of things that he didn’t want his daughter to see.

“But I became a cop because I wanted to make a difference,” she says plainly. “I know that sounds old sap, but it’s really the truth.” Her first assignment was to the 30th and 34th Precincts in Washington Heights at a time when “New York was the OK Corral.”

By the time O’Reilly got to the 26th Precinct, veteran officers “seemed to think it was a completely futile situation,” she says. “But you know what? That’s what they said in the 24th Precinct, and the building next to the Castle Hotel is undergoing a $150 million renovation into condos now.”

Her optimism faced its first big test in March, when Jose Celpa, arrested on a drug-sales charge, went free on a “30-30,” meaning that the clock simply ran out on the allotted time to bring him to trial. “I don’t know whose fault it was,” O’Reilly says, but Celpa’s release made it that much harder to keep her officers motivated. “It was an open-and-shut case. That really took the wind out of our sails.”

Making other arrests continued to be a problem. Since the gang members had monitors that warned them when the NYPD’s radio frequency was being used nearby, officers had to conduct undercover buys without being in communication. “It was extremely dangerous,” O’Reilly says. “We’d have to be closer, have more eyes on the location, more officers on the roof. We’d give it a time frame as well: If they’re not out in a certain time, we’re rushing in. It’s one of the most stressful things you can do as a supervisor. How far are you going to go to arrest a drug dealer? Are you going to sacrifice one of your officers?”

Every time police mounted a full-fledged raid, “we’d have to hide in the precinct’s garage to avoid being spied by the gang’s lookouts,” says Brown. When officers did make it inside, lookouts would check for cops by running “verticals” on the staircase, a technique pioneered by the police themselves. “By the time we would get into the building and up to the third floor,” O’Reilly explains, “the dealer would be gone. If we don’t see him run into an apartment, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The gang even used its own customers to run interference with officers entering the building. “Users told us that they were told by the dealers to go downstairs and intercede with police,” O’Reilly says, buying gang members time to move elsewhere in the building. “One woman who ran upstairs instead of downstairs got a severe beating. And the threat of violence was always hanging over them if they talked.”

Over the course of that year, O’Reilly realized that “something wasn’t right in the way we were dealing with this.” So in July 2000, she convened a “mini-task force” that included members of the NYPD’s Gang Intelligence Unit, the 26th Precinct SNEU, Community Policing, HPD, and the district attorney’s office. “I wanted to get everyone talking, throwing out ideas, pooling resources,” O’Reilly says. HPD suggested that O’Reilly contact Susan Lanzatella of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office. “I said, ‘What can I do? What charges can I use against these individuals based on all this investigatory information that I have?’ ” Lanzatella suggested that conspiracy law, traditionally used against the Mafia and vast drug organizations, could be applied to a small but entrenched drug gang like Black Top.

Even if that gang wouldn’t sell up, O’Reilly realized conspiracy law could give police a way to prosecute it using the bigger picture: Individuals selling $5 vials of crack thousands of times add up to a major drug organization. “What am I gonna get the businessman, the guy who runs the organization, on? I’m not going to get him on a hand-to-hand sale of narcotics,” O’Reilly says. “But he is running the business. He is partaking from the profits of that business. This is where conspiracy law comes in.” As opposed to arresting an individual for dealing, which requires that police observe a sale, conspiracy law allows police to use past arrest records and statements by drug buyers to prove that dealing is part of a structured business. “And that’s what this was,” O’Reilly maintains. “They had shifts, there was a set scale of who got paid what whether you were a lookout, whether you were an actual dealer that handed drugs to people, whether you were a runner, whether you were a cooker.”

“The application of the conspiracy law in this case could be regarded as a precedent,” according to Robert McCrie, chairman of the department of law, police science, and criminal justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It’s a ground-breaking move for prosecutors, but also a potentially risky one. “Conspiracy laws have fallen out of favor, because they’re hard to get convictions on – often they’re based on inferences, not evidence,” McCrie says. “That might be the case when prosecuting organized crime, because you’re talking about taping people meeting at a social club or observing a handshake between two parties,” counters O’Reilly. “Here we’ve based the case on past criminal activity. How can you tell me drugs weren’t sold when defendants have pleaded guilty to it in the past?”

Lawyers representing the defendants say that the prosecution has built its case on the troubled history of the building. “It falls woefully short of being a conspiracy,” argues Alberto Ebanks, Jose Celpa’s attorney. “It is, at best, a case of renegades in these buildings acting independently.” Martin Schmuckler, former attorney for Gloria Valdez, concurs, arguing that “the prosecution is creating the false impression that these defendants commandeered a piece of Manhattan real estate. If the word conspiracy didn’t exist, my client wouldn’t be guilty of anything except motherhood.”

Building a conspiracy case requires “really good old-fashioned police work,” says O’Reilly, and she and her fellow officers spent many cold nights crouching on adjoining roofs with camcorders taping “members who said they didn’t know each other shaking hands or the lookout posted on a milk crate outside 16-18 Old Broadway using his clicker to alert the dealers inside whenever we were near.”

That summer, O’Reilly got the breaks she needed. On July 10, a search warrant executed at 16-18 Old Broadway yielded automatic weapons, $3,000 in cash, and 699 vials of Black Top crack. On August 4, Hernandez’s motorcycle accident finally gave O’Reilly a solid connection between Angel Celpa and one of the gang’s couriers.

Four days later, Angel Celpa and alleged Black Top members Juan Tavares and Miguel Valdez were stopped on 125th Street because one of the headlights on the car they were in was broken. When the officer who stopped the vehicle began writing up a ticket, Tavares bolted from the backseat holding a brown paper bag he dumped into an incinerator in the nearby Manhattanville projects. Another man, who was never apprehended, tried to remove a paper bag from the backseat, but in his panic, he spilled its contents: 100 vials of Black Top crack. “It was amazing how things came together,” O’Reilly says.

Together, those incidents gave police the evidence they needed to present a conspiracy case to a grand jury in October. More than 60 witnesses testified during the four weeks of hearings, but since grand-jury proceedings are sealed, O’Reilly says she was “as clueless about what would happen as anybody else.” But by the end of the month, the NYPD had been granted fourteen search warrants and twelve arrest warrants – a chance to “take down the organization from the top to bottom all at once.”

“By the time we would get into the building, the dealer would be gone. If we don’t see him run into an apartment, there’s nothing we can do.”

Once takedown day was set for November 2, O’Reilly began leading reconnaissance missions to both the building and the neighboring projects. “I had to get every bit of information I possibly could,” O’Reilly says. “Looking into one of the apartments from an adjoining roof, I noticed that there was a huge Rottweiler in the apartment. If I hadn’t seen that, one of my officers might have been attacked.”

As November 2 approached, O’Reilly rehearsed the upcoming operation in her mind, sleeping no more than two or three hours a night while she obsessed about narrowly averted disasters during previous takedowns.

“We chose 6 a.m. because Black Top would take a break from dealing from about five to eight in the morning,” O’Reilly says. “We figured that they’d be at home resting or asleep. They’d be a lot less likely to be guarding the door with a gun.”

At approximately 5 a.m. on November 2, nearly 140 officers convened at the precinct house. “We had supervisors, prisoner-transport officers, K-9 units, EMS units standing by at several locations, and Intel units coming in with heat sensors to figure out where there were ‘traps’ – areas to secrete drugs,” says O’Reilly.

Just before six, the operation began with the arrest of a lookout who was finishing his shift. “We had officers posted by the building who said, ‘Individual X has just left the building; he got into a taxicab and he’s going eastbound on 125th Street,’ ” O’Reilly remembers. “And we had a team posted at his residence waiting.”

The next step was positioning officers around the building. “Prior to the troops going in, so to speak, we want to make sure that if someone starts throwing stuff out of windows, I have people in place to see who threw what,” O’Reilly says. Sure enough, during the operation a few hundred dollars in cash wrapped in a rubber band nearly landed on the head of an officer stationed behind the building.

As dramatic as the Black Top gang’s reign had been, it ended with barely a whimper. At around 6:30 a.m., “we executed the warrants simultaneously without incident,” O’Reilly says with typical understatement. “No civilians, not one member of law enforcement was injured.” The results of the raid were more dramatic: 4,100 vials of crack, thousands of dollars in cash, four guns, money-counting machines, bulletproof vests, electronic-alert systems, and 24 arrests – many on A felonies. Two defendants escaped, including Angel Celpa, who remains at large.

The next day, a bleary-eyed O’Reilly joined police commissioner Bernard Kerik, special narcotics prosecutor Brennan, and HPD head Jerilyn Perine at the special narcotics prosecutor’s office on Centre Street for an early-morning press conference to announce the results of the raid. “I looked at the video,” O’Reilly jokes, “and it looks like I was being held up by Scotch tape.”

On an unseasonably chilly spring morning, several members of the Black Top gang are led into the courtroom at 100 Centre Street in handcuffs to resounding cheers from family and friends. “This has been going on all morning,” growls a bailiff. “Quiet down or leave the courtroom.” The bailiff’s warning mutes the jovial atmosphere somewhat: Some whisper and point quietly; others leave the courtroom to chat in the hallway, including Jose Celpa’s slim and pretty fiancée, Caira Torres. “He’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet,” Torres says. “Everyone in the neighborhood misses him.”

Two members of the gang have pleaded guilty and the rest, including Celpa, face trial on charges ranging from conspiracy to criminal possession and sale of a controlled substance. For months after the takedown, the NYPD blocked off Old Broadway with police barricades and kept the building under round-the-clock surveillance. “What would the purpose be if we took this organization down and a new organization moves in?” O’Reilly asks. “The customer base is still there.” Indeed, although crime in the 26th Precinct dropped by 43 percent compared with the previous year in the 60 days after the arrests, one resident received death threats after being interviewed for a short New York Times piece about the gang.

In an effort to stop this kind of sophisticated drug operation in other neighborhoods, in January Kerik named O’Reilly the head of a new “conspiracy” unit. “What happened at 16-18 Old Broadway will be a model for this unit,” says Inspector Barry of the Central Harlem Initiative. So far it has: Three months later, O’Reilly used the same techniques to take down the Watson gang, a crack-dealing crew that controlled 2 West 129th Street for over a decade.

“I guarantee each precinct has a spot like that,” O’Reilly says, “a place where guys have been dealing drugs for years, and keep getting arrested – but the drug sales keep going on.” She thinks her conspiracy unit will give the NYPD an edge that will be difficult for dealers to counter. “Even if people find out we’re doing this, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “They can’t change history.”

Crack Down