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Residents, authorities take aim at drug trade

At night they come, looking for crack cocaine.

Sometimes they don't even wait until dark, cruising Pine Hill Road, stopping to complete a deal, then speeding off with small, rocklike pieces of the highly addictive drug.

And when the sun does set, traffic worsens along this popular shortcut between U.S. 19 and Congress Street, as dealers and users converge night after night to complete their illicit transactions.

"It's like a McDonald's drive-through here," said the Rev. Freddie Hinson of Union Missionary Baptist Church on Pine Hill Road.

"It's frustrating to me, because of what it says about our revolving-door system of justice. These dealers have been run out of one area, and they just go to another, an area where there is no pressure, where there is the least amount of resistance."

Hinson said that is exactly the problem in the neighborhood on Pine Hill Road, which is made up mostly of senior citizens who fear reprisals should they interfere with the illegal deals being made outside their homes.

If residents and law enforcement authorities get their way, however, the drug trade along Pine Hill Road will soon dry up _ for good.

A special task force of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the New Port Richey and Port Richey police departments has been sweeping the Pine Hill area for drug dealers and users since Wednesday.

In four days, the task force made 22 arrests on 36 charges, many drug-related, said sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers.

The Pine Hill area is the site of west Pasco's worst crack cocaine problem, Sheriff Lee Cannon said.

"Without a doubt, it is the No. 1 problem here, and at the top of the problem areas in Pasco County," Cannon said Saturday at a campaign fund-raiser. "It gets worse when you think that there's a church right there along the street, and a Little League park. It's something we're going to be dealing with a lot more from now on."

Cannon said his agency has been focusing on the area since January 1995. Undercover vice operations have netted 45 arrests in the area, 44 on crack-related charges, Cannon said.

"We arrest them, and they get back out and go back there and do it again," Cannon said.

Police presence in the Pine Hill area is now far more visible. Last weekend, marked cruisers sat in plain view of some of the dealers' favorite selling spots.

That didn't deter some dealers, however.

"The addiction to crack cocaine is so strong that they'll buy and sell it right in front of us," Cannon said. "You never know what a doper is going to do _ that's what makes them so dangerous."

One man tried to elude capture Friday night by attempting to ram a New Port Richey police cruiser and a Pasco sheriff's cruiser before being stopped and arrested on Congress Street, according to police reports.

Gary Pleickhardt, 28, of 5851 High St. in New Port Richey was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, fleeing to elude a law enforcement officer and possession of a controlled substance.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday at nearby Plummer Little League Field, representatives of the Pasco Sheriff's Office, the New Port Richey and Port Richey police departments, and county agencies will meet to see what can be done to drive dealers out of the Pine Hill area.

"We'll sit down and compare notes, discuss what's working and what's not, and set up a game plan," Cannon said.

Among the priorities will be getting county agencies to focus on the neighborhood by taking care of abandoned houses, tearing down illegal fences that deputies say hamper them while aiding drug dealers and generally help clean up the neighborhood.

Residents will have to help too, Cannon said.

"The best thing for them to do is organize," he said. "If they stand alone and go out there individually and confront the dealers, they won't accomplish too much, but if they unite and stand together, they can accomplish quite a bit and run out the dope dealers."

Hinson said that's just what residents are doing.

"We're going to protect our community at all costs," said the minister, who has been with the congregation four years.

"They'll just have to take it elsewhere. They're not going to do it in our house anymore."