ADVERTISEMENT

Ali Salah pointed to the bullet holes in his deli where two gunmen fired 16 rounds into the store three weeks ago after a suspected drug dealer ducked inside to get away from his attackers.

“The bullets came through the Plexiglas door and hit displays of food, soda, with some of the bullets ricocheting and knocking out ceiling lights,” said Salah, who has run the deli at French and Kehr streets for nearly two decades.

It’s just one of the stories of violence that have played out in an East Side neighborhood north of Martin Luther King Park, where 10 homicides have occurred in the past year.

It’s a neighborhood where residents routinely hear the gunshots, see the drug deals and listen to the sirens.

Local and federal law enforcement tried to make a dent in the violence-prone area Tuesday morning. In predawn darkness, more than 150 officers, with a helicopter hovering overhead, swooped in and busted several drug houses, arresting 10 people, seizing cocaine, and confiscating five handguns, a shotgun and two AK-47 assault rifles.

“We actually need this. There’s times when I sit on my porch and can hear gunshots behind me on Box Avenue and in front of me on Urban Street,” said Clyde Rathbun, who has lived in the same house on French for the past 50 years.

Rathbun hears the gunshots all around him some nights and does his best to keep his 15-year-old daughter inside as much as possible.

“You could pretty much say you’re a prisoner in your own home,” Rathbun said.

That’s the way people live in this neighborhood, roughly defined by Northland Avenue to the north, Fillmore Avenue to the west, Colorado Street to the east and Genesee Street to the south.

Dale M. Kasprzyk, head agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Buffalo office, pointed out a day care center in the middle of the block on French, to make the point that drug dealers do not care where they do business, even if it means putting the lives of children at risk.

“There have been at least 10 homicides, multiple shootings that have wounded people and shots fired in this area of the city in the last 12 months, and when we noticed the day care facility, it certainly gave us more focus in moving the investigation along,” Kasprzyk said.

“I’m glad the dealers are gone,” said Errol Weathers Sr., who was visiting his girlfriend on Box Avenue. “The neighborhood has really been corrupted by them. They don’t care about nobody. They’ll sell the drugs to kids.”

Two of the three men arrested on federal warrants live outside the area where they were supplying the drug houses, authorities said.

Mashi Phillips, 38, and Rayshawn Minter, 35, reside in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood, a couple of miles away. They face federal charges of distribution of controlled substances that included powdered cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana. According to U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., they could spend a minimum of 20 years in prison, if convicted.

Pounding home the theme of collaboration among the DEA, FBI and local police agencies during an afternoon news conference, Hochul said, “This sends another loud and clear message that we are joined at the hip with our law enforcement partners and will not stop.”

The dealers, though, are formidable adversaries.

As SWAT team members were bursting into Minter’s second-floor apartment on the 400 block of Stockbridge Avenue, he was spotted smashing a back window with a handgun and only dropped the .45-caliber Colt to the ground after repeatedly being ordered to give it up by police outside.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda promised to keep up the pressure on drug dealers.

“This is only one of many more joint efforts to come,” Derenda said, noting that since 2010, work with federal agents has increased dramatically and “will not only continue but intensify. We’re using every tool in the box to make Buffalo and neighborhoods like this safer.”

Another alleged dealer who worked the East Side neighborhood, selling crack cocaine from his girlfriend’s Winslow Avenue home but living elsewhere, was identified as Isaiah Washington, 27, of Cambridge Avenue. He also was arrested on federal drug distribution charges.

Authorities identified only one of the seven people arrested on state drug charges.

At the news conference in Buffalo Police Headquarters, an enlarged interior photograph of Kevin Baldon’s Winslow Avenue bedroom was on display to show just how prepared he was for intruders.

“He could walk with his hands up in the air toward the doorway and then grab his AK-47 because it was mounted in such a way above the bedroom door,” Kasprzyk said. “The gun was loaded with 29 rounds.”

But on Tuesday morning, Baldon, 36, of the 400 block of Winslow, surrendered without a fight. Police confiscated a half ounce of crack cocaine and a scale from his residence.

Back on French, as daylight replaced the predawn activity, resident Andre Marrow was out walking his dog and offered an explanation as to why drug dealing is rampant.

“Not everyone takes the school route, and there aren’t enough manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Anytime you see a drug dealer, especially in this neighborhood, it’s because there are no jobs. It’s about choices. Dealers can make $1,500 in a day.”

Street dealers, he added, are taking advantage of a strong demand for illegal drugs, but he added that people with much greater resources actually bring the drugs into the United States.

To be sure, the streets where the raids occurred are poor. The median household income is less than $18,000 a year, and an estimated 38 percent of the people live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 15 percent of those 16 and older are unemployed.

Homeowners occupy more than 38 percent of the housing stock in the area, but nearly a quarter of the houses are vacant.

Joyce Bolden, who has lived on the 100 block of French Street for two decades, was less concerned about the bigger picture and more concerned about her grandchildren.

“The police were everywhere this morning. I said, ‘Oh my God. What’s going on?’ I’m glad they were here, but I was nervous about my grandchildren going outside to catch the school bus,” Bolden said.

She added that neighbors all watch out for each other and are well aware that drug suppliers causing problems on their streets often live outside the neighborhood.

“It’s people from different neighborhoods coming here. Never have I seen this kind of violence,” Bolden said, specifically mentioning the shooting at the corner deli a few weeks ago. “They shot up the store. It was unbelievable.”

In addition to the DEA and Buffalo narcotics investigators, members of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force assisted in the six-month investigation, which involved surveillance, cellphone wiretaps and undercover purchases of drugs.

SWAT teams from Buffalo, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and FBI conducted the raids at 10 different houses.

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: lmichel@buffnews.com