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Cocaine comes easy on "the Hill'

A Pasco County business enterprise is quietly developing a reputation for fast service, competitive prices and quality merchandise.

The reputation has spread south, with customers coming from Tampa and Tarpon Springs to get the merchandise.

Demand has grown in recent months, as have sales.

So why is this budding business not making locals happy?

Because no community wants to be known as an easy place to buy crack cocaine _ a place where drugs are traded daily for money or sex, where dealers set up lawn chairs and beach umbrellas to peddle their goods and where 6-year-olds are paid $10 or $20 to serve as lookouts.

If it sounds like a busy street corner in a major U.S. city, it's not.

The epicenter of Pasco County's drug trade _ where officials say the largest volume of crack is being sold _ is the small Port Richey neighborhood of Pine Hill, which has about two dozen residents.

Authorities say one corner in particular _ Pine Hill Road at Oak Leaf Avenue _ is a virtual drive-through drug shop, where young men and women jockey for position when potential buyers drive, bicycle or walk up.

"This is without a doubt the busiest corner for crack cocaine in Pasco," said Detective Howard Snyder of the New Port Richey Police Department. "It's cheap, it's addictive and it's easy to get. Especially up here on the Hill."

Law enforcement agencies have stepped up their presence on "the Hill," as the area is known to regulars, in the past two weeks.

A task force of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and police in New Port Richey and Port Richey has netted dozens of arrests on drug charges.

A man suspected of dealing out of his house _ and possibly supplying others on the Hill _ was arrested Thursday. Undercover agents seized money, drugs, guns and drug-packaging equipment.

But authorities know a two-week sweep will not erase a situation that has taken years to develop.

To truly have an effect on drug trafficking, authorities say they have to attack the problem from all angles.

Deter the buyers and the sellers with reverse stings. Clean up or tear down old buildings that serve as hideouts for dealers, drugs and weapons. And motivate those in the community who want the drugs out to take a stand.

"We're going to flood it with everything we've got," said New Port Richey police Lt. Darryl Garman. "And once we've got it cleaned up, we're going to stay on top of it."

It's a Friday evening on the Hill, about 4 p.m. Women in station wagons, young men in sports cars and pickup trucks and older men in minivans and Mercedes make their way up Pine Hill Road to get their weekend stash.

Marked police cars cruise by, but the stream of traffic continues, undeterred _ and unaware of the surveillance units capturing the scene on videotape.

As many as five cars line up at a time, drivers waiting nervously for their turn to buy a rock.

A man takes his rock and goes across the street to the ball field to smoke it.

On another night, deputies catch a couple having sex on a dirty, abandoned couch off Oak Leaf Avenue. It wasn't romance, but a need for crack that led to the tryst.

One man wants to trade a puppy for crack.

"The impression is that this kind of drug activity is just in the big cities, but it's right here," Garman said.

On one routine patrol through the neighborhood, sheriff's deputies stop a young woman for a minor traffic offense.

They search her Camaro. An infant is sleeping in the back. A small boy, maybe 6 years old, plays in the dirt near the Camaro while his father is questioned.

Deputies find a marijuana cigarette under the driver's seat. A check reveals the man has a 14-page history of drug arrests.

He offers to make a deal, to go undercover and buy drugs for the Sheriff's Office. "Any time, I can go down there and buy," he says.

Sgt. Jack Armstrong, standing by as backup for his deputies, knows the man is right.

"It's a cycle," he said. "Like, "Tag, you're it.' One guy's going down so he turns in another guy."

Across the street from the Hill is a ball field where the West Pasco Little League holds its games.

During a recent tournament at Plummer Field, visitors from several states came to see their little ones play ball.

The dealers on the Hill saw it as a business opportunity.

They approached the parents of Little Leaguers as they drove into the ballpark.

"The people who are peddling know they can get away with it," said the Rev. Freddie Hinson Jr., whose Union Missionary Baptist Church sits next to the heaviest spot for dealing. "The good, law-abiding citizens are afraid, and the dealers know it."

Hinson once had to interrupt his Sunday school class to break up a fight between two armed dealers behind his church.

Every night, he watches deals outside his window. Sometimes there is violence. Most times, just a quick exchange.

"You've got 11-year-olds making big money to take crack to a car. How do you combat that?"

For every drug dealer who goes to jail, authorities know there are two or three to take his place.

Maj. Gary Fairbanks, who oversees criminal investigations for the Sheriff's Office, remembers one day when every known dealer on the Hill was in custody.

Still, it was business as usual on the Hill. Dealers from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties had migrated to fill the void.

Last week, deputies swept the area and made 11 arrests for possession. Less than five minutes later, the dealers were back.

That boldness also has led to more violence between officers and suspected drug offenders.

A week ago, a man tried to get away by ramming his car into a Pasco Sheriff's Office car and a New Port Richey police car.

One drug dealer is suspected of shooting at a police car a couple of years ago, Armstrong said.

Fairbanks said he wants prosecutors to get tougher and make habitual offenders serve more time. "We want people to tell their friends and neighbors, "Don't come up here to buy crack. You're going to be arrested and you're going to do the time.' "

Hinson also wants tougher sentencing, but he thinks a community commitment to wiping out the drug problem is the key.

"We as citizens have to become more involved," Hinson said. "Law enforcement cannot do it alone."

Some residents in the neighborhood agree. Others don't want to get involved because they fear reprisals from the dealers.

"I like seeing all these (police) cars out here," said one older man who didn't want to be identified. "I want to help them any way I can."

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