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Group's goal: Clean up Copeland Park

Neighbors and a sheriff's lieutenant join forces to improve the park, which is rife with drug dealers.

By SUZANNAH GONZALES
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Citrus County sheriff's Lt. Joe Eckstein remembers playing basketball with a buddy in Crystal River's Frederick W. Copeland Park. They got a ride there on weekends about once a month. Eckstein was a kid growing up in Inverness then. That was about 25 years ago.

Things around Copeland Park are different now.

Everybody knows it's an area where you can buy drugs on the streets, said Eckstein, 36. And he said the park has had that reputation for the past 18 years, at least. That's how long he has worked at the Sheriff's Office.

Now many people don't want their kids playing at the park, he said. Now cars -- their stereos blasting -- speed up and down the park's surrounding streets, in the subdivision known as Knight's Addition. Now people hang out on street corners.

"See those guys over there?" Eckstein asked, driving down First Street one recent afternoon. "They're drug dealers. . . . I know them by face."

Someone will drive up to dealers like them and ask, "Hey, do you have crack?" Eckstein said. "And that's all it takes. . . . Yup, it's that simple."

Lifelong residents are fed up with what they're seeing in their neighborhood. Six to eight months ago, knowing that the Crystal River Police Department doesn't have the resources the Sheriff's Office does, residents started calling Sheriff Jeff Dawsy to complain, Eckstein said.

A month or two later, when Eckstein was named district commander on the west side of the county, Dawsy approached him about the residents' concerns. "What are you going to do about it?" Eckstein recalled Dawsy asking.

Keeping Crystal River officials informed all the while, Eckstein went into the neighborhood and made contact with the residents. Eight of them formed a "core group," which has evolved into a neighborhood watch program.

"If we both worked together, we felt that we could conquer the problems they have up there," Eckstein explained. It's called "community policing," he said.

Through the Sheriff's Office, members of that core group declined a request for interviews last week.

The Copeland Park area isn't new turf for the Sheriff's Office. The drug problem has brought deputies there many times before. They'd go in, make arrests, then leave. Eventually, the problem would resurface, Eckstein said. In the past, the agency provided only short-term relief.

This time, Eckstein vowed, things will be different. The Sheriff's Office has made a long-term commitment to help the neighborhood. It has an action plan.

The Sheriff's Office intends to improve the neighborhood's quality of life, make it prettier and safer. It will make certain lights are installed on the streets drug dealers frequent. It will see to it that properties in possible violation of housing codes are reported to the proper authorities.

And through undercover operations, sheriff's officials will attack the drug problem.

The first major step came Nov. 22. Deputies arrested seven men on charges that they were selling and possessing crack cocaine. Dawsy identified three of the men as the area's biggest dealers.

While drugs in Copeland Park are not as severe a problem as in other more urban areas, there is a presence here, Eckstein says. The community isn't all bad, he added.

"Ninety-eight percent of people in the neighborhood are good people. Only 2 percent are bad, and unfortunately, they're the ones getting the headlines."

The recent roundup was part of "Operation Thanksgiving Feast," an investigation that began in October. Detectives worked with undercover informants who bought crack cocaine in Crystal River, Lecanto and Beverly Hills. The buys led to arrest warrants for seven men, six of whom were arrested that Friday.

Police began the roundup that afternoon at Hip Hop Fashions, a store at 255 SE U.S. 19 in Crystal River. They alleged the store was a front for the drug dealings of Eric Harris, 26, of Crystal River.

In a back office of the store, an informant asked Harris for $200 worth of crack cocaine, arrest reports showed. Harris, who said he only had $100 worth, turned to Undrell Sneed, 22, of Gainesville, who provided Harris with $100 worth of crack cocaine, according to the reports. Authorities did not have an arrest warrant for Sneed in advance as they did for Harris.

Police also charged Harris with possession of marijuana after they found the drugs in his front right pocket during a search.

At 5:10 p.m., police found and arrested Earl "Cowboy" Jenkins, 33, of Crystal River, in an auto repair shop in Lecanto. As he was being searched for weapons, Jenkins broke free and ran, according to an arrest report. Authorities later pulled him down off a fence in the back yard of the auto repair shop, handcuffed him and also charged him with resisting an officer without violence.

That afternoon, law officers found Ernest Scrivens, 25, of Crystal River hiding out in the attic of a house off Ninth Avenue.

Scrivens, Jenkins and Harris are three major drug dealers in the county, Dawsy said.

Police also arrested Wardell Whaley, 55, at his Lecanto house. Steven Brooks, 28, was stopped in his car near his house in Beverly Hills. And 17-year-old Gennero "Fat" Williams of Holder was arrested at the Renaissance Center in Inverness, an arrest report said. He was charged as an adult in this case, according to the report.

While Sneed, Jenkins, Brooks and Williams remain at the Citrus County jail, Harris, Scrivens and Whaley have posted bail and been released.

"It's frustrating," Eckstein said. "But either they'll straighten out or go back to dealing drugs. And if they do, we'll be there to put 'em back in jail."

"We will not leave this area," he said. "We are here to stay."


-- Suzannah Gonzales can be reached at sgonzales@sptimes.com or 860-7300.

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