A neighborhood's turf war

In St. Pete Beach, a frustrating culture of drug dealing leads to police action and arrests.

Published June 4, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH - When it opened two years ago, the Oyster Shucker restaurant seemed to have it all: a pretty Nantucket-blue exterior, fine seafood, a location steps from the water.

There was just one catch. Drug dealers frequented the apartments in the 600 block of Corey Avenue. For years, they annoyed small businesses in the area, as well as residents and officials who didn't want them hanging out in a city known for beaches and tourists - not drugs.

On Memorial Day weekend, St. Pete Beach police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ended a six-month investigation and arrested 28 people on drug-related charges. Most were accused of dealing in crack cocaine, though police found smaller quantities of marijuana and other drugs. They also searched three residences: Unit 6 of 526 Corey Ave., Unit 129 of 600 Corey Ave., and Unit 2 of 6655 Gulf Winds Drive.

The arrests pleased business owners fed up with drug dealing in the neighborhood.

Want to attract nice stores, restaurants and boutiques to a block? Then clean up the streets first, business owners say.

"If they see that the city is taking action and cleaning things up, they would be more inclined to come into the area and do things," said Oyster Shucker manager Jim Mangan.

He has already seen a stark difference since the roundup. There haven't been any shouts, mysterious gatherings of cars, or loitering addicts: "It's very quiet, serene and peaceful."

Redevelopment has been a hot-button issue in St. Pete Beach in recent years. Tempers have flared and lawsuits have been filed over plans to replace older homes and businesses with new condominiums and upscale stores.

The drug-sting operation, called Operation Sand Spur, could become part of that conversation about the city's future. Developers and home buyers won't have to worry so much about dealers when making the decision to move to St. Pete Beach.

"Any time you do something like that drug sting, you hope people will look at the area as improved," said City Manager Mike Bonfield. "It's an area that's constantly going to require some attention. We'll continue working in that area and try to get it cleaned up."

St. Pete Beach police said officers found small quantities of drugs on many of the people they arrested in the weekend sweep. They hoped the arrests would curtail a drug-dealing problem that's festered in the area for years; many of those arrested had been arrested before for drug-related crimes.

Consider the case of Lisa Yaple, 43, who's now facing felony charges. She was arrested Saturday, authorities said, after selling small amounts of drugs - like 0.7 grams of crack cocaine - to undercover investigators several times in March. Police also arrested her last December on drug-related charges, but records show she was released from jail within a month and was awaiting trial.

"We feel the operation has been a success," said St. Pete Beach spokeswoman Natalie Strong. "But our efforts will be ongoing."

That's because residents know how small-time dealers can grow into nuisances. Dan Hughes, the co-owner of the Sun-Dial Motel, said he has watched with regret as once-decent properties turn into flophouses over the years .

"They got pretty seedy," he said.

Now, he's hoping that the neighborhood takes a turn for the better. He expects people to be more vigilant of the consequences of letting properties decay.

"It'll help bring the situation into light," he said. "People will be more aware."

Times staff writer Paul Swider and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.