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20 arrested in drug roundup

At least 20 people were arrested as police and federal agents swept through the city at dawn Thursday, rousting residents suspected of distributing $250,000 of powder and crack cocaine each week on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Thirty-one people, suspected of being mid- to upper-level dealers in a drug ring, were indicted Thursday in the culmination of the year-long Operation Project X. Several other suspects still were being sought late Thursday.

One man, Kevin "Kag" Griffin, allegedly fired two rounds from a window as police entered his Childs Park residence. No one was hurt.

Investigators think the ring was led by St. Petersburg resident Ibisia "O" Smith, 30, of 1544 14th St. S. Smith was among those arrested Thursday.

"This guy controlled the street level sales for a good part of St. Petersburg," said Joe Kilmer, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "That's not to say people won't step up to take their place."

Investigators think most of the cocaine was routed through Miami, where two residents have been arrested in the investigation. Like the St. Petersburg suspects, they are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine.

After serving 13 search warrants Thursday, police and federal agents seized more than eight pounds of cocaine, a small amount of heroin, a little more than a pound of marijuana, 40 firearms _ including assault rifles _ 15 vehicles, $40,000 cash and two rented moving trucks containing electronics.

The roundup comes as St. Petersburg leaders and police administrators have been criticized for not aggressively fighting drugs. Drug arrests in the city dropped 19 percent last year, the second consecutive decline.

"Drugs in our society are prevalent," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "People see it and expect police, in very short order, to take care of the problem. We're always working it. And when people don't think we're doing something, we really are; but we just can't talk about it."

Ethel Eva, 69, who resides next door to Smith, the alleged leader of the ring, said she lived in fear since he moved in four months ago. She shouted for joy when police showed up Thursday, she said.

"Drugs, drugs," Eva said. "All kinds of cars parked in the front, back. It was very intimidating. You couldn't go out in your back yard and hang up your clothes."

Federal agents and St. Petersburg police said Operation Project X was a spinoff of a drug bust in St. Petersburg in March 2000. At that time, 20 people were indicted in Operation Nikkos, an investigation of a multimillion-dollar drug ring described by a federal prosecutor as "the Microsoft of south St. Petersburg."

The alleged leader of that operation, Elrick Bernard Wynn, 31, fled St. Petersburg several years ago and has not been found.

At dawn Thursday, police and federal agents began arresting suspects and brought 20 people to the Coliseum at 535 Fourth Ave. N for processing before being taken to a Tampa jail.

One suspect, Phillip Wainwright, 27, who has a prior bullet wound in his back, was brought to the command center in only blue boxer shorts.

"They got Reggie. They got Sam and me," said another suspect, Sandra Robinson, 45, who was wearing a robe. "All of my boys. Boyfriend."

About 15 of the defendants, including Wainwright, made their first appearances in federal court in Tampa on Thursday.

When the first six walked into court shackled and handcuffed, supporters in the courtroom offered encouragement. The second group of defendants were met with the same support.

Federal prosecutor Stephen Muldrow's depiction of the defendants as an organized drug ring brought many protests from the defendants, seated in the jury box for the hearing. Several shook their heads and mumbled under their breath.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo warned the defendants to keep quiet unless asked a question. When the cacophony persisted, Pizzo had U.S. marshals take them out of the courtroom.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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