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A dealer's downfall: How efforts to tackle the opioid crisis brought down a group of drug traffickers

Deputy Eric Gibson talks to Katlin Lynn on a recent Friday night as he works to draw out information about drug use and dealing in Pinellas County. Lynn admits she smokes crack cocaine but says stays away from heroin because it's too dangerous. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
Deputy Eric Gibson talks to Katlin Lynn on a recent Friday night as he works to draw out information about drug use and dealing in Pinellas County. Lynn admits she smokes crack cocaine but says stays away from heroin because it's too dangerous. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Apr. 18, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Kaysandra Lee heard the clatter through her bathroom window. Someone was rummaging in her backyard shed.

It was after midnight, on Sept. 27, 2016, and her 8-year-old grandson was sleeping in the next room. Her heart throbbed in her ears.

She stepped to the front window, peered through the blinds and saw the dim outline of a man's face.

"Who is it?" she said.

"Flat."

Flat, or Flat Top, is William Harold Wright, whom Lee knew as a friend of her husband's.

Cops in Pinellas County knew him as a heavyweight supplier of heroin.

Lee opened the door a crack, and Wright and another man pushed their way in.

Wright yelled that he wanted "his stuff."

Officers had missed it when they served a search warrant weeks earlier and carted Lee's husband, Robert, off to jail.

The other man eyed Lee as Wright tore through the house, tossing furniture and storming into her grandson's bedroom. They were after a kilo of heroin, worth as much as $100,000.

Wright gave up after an hour but said he wouldn't leave St. Pete until he had it. He said he'd be back.

Lee sat sleepless until sunrise. Then, calmly, she readied her grandson for school.

At the same time, she picked up a phone.

• •-•

The opioid epidemic — a scourge that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says contributes to overdoses that now rival heart disease as one of the nation's top killers — has been well-documented in stories of lives destroyed.

Less has been said about where the drugs come from, who deals them and what is being done to stop the supply chain. Greed fuels a booming business as much as addiction.

Florida once had more prescription pill mills than just about anywhere else. When the state started cracking down, many addicts turned to heroin, a cheaper alternative. Then came fentanyl, the high-powered synthetic painkiller, often added to batches of heroin to boost profits and offer addicts a stronger high.

The mounting death toll became widely apparent in 2015, and local police struggled to identify and cut off the flow of drugs. Agencies turned to the federal government for help.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, which anchors a territory that includes 35 counties between Naples and Jacksonville, handled only five opioid-related drug cases in 2015. It had 23 the next year and 43 in 2017.

Cases typically grow from street-level intelligence, gathered by local police. From there, they progress to operations that involve undercover work, confidential informers, surveillance, patience, and, in the case of William Harold Wright, a touch of serendipity.

•••

That September morning, Lee called her attorney, who phoned the FBI.

The bureau had been building a case against Flat Top for months, ever since they rounded up seven people who had been working for him. All were drug users, each accused of helping move heroin into Central Florida. All agreed to help take down Wright.

Lee's call let the feds know Wright was back in town.

Hours later, unmarked cars zeroed in on a white Chevrolet Impala as it rolled up Third Street S and came to a stop outside Red Mesa Cantina. Officers pulled Wright from the passenger seat.

He was taken to the Pinellas County Jail.

In the meantime, an FBI agent drafted an affidavit, summarizing a meticulous, yearlong investigation.

• • •

Cops in Tampa Bay had heard about Flat Top as far back as 1996, according to the federal criminal complaint, but he didn't become an investigative target until nearly 20 years later, in 2015. Informants said Wright worked locally with Robert Lorenzo Lee, whom people called "Low."

They knew each other from childhood. Both hailed from St. Petersburg, though Wright lived most of his life with his father in Southern California.

Robert Lee had a substantial criminal history, including prison time for drug-related convictions.

But Wright had avoided trouble.

"He never, ever, ever got caught. Ever," Kaysandra Lee said.

That may have been because he never stayed in one place for long. The word was that he visited the Sunshine State once a month from his home in Los Angeles. In between, he made regular stops in Atlanta.

Where he went, heroin followed. At least, that's what the informants said. What authorities could prove was another matter.

Kaysandra Lee said she met Wright when she met her husband, 14 years ago.

He visited the Lees for backyard cookouts, crab bakes and Sunday afternoon football games.

His backstory was familiar, she said. Like her husband, he was raised in a poor family, without enough guidance. "All they know is the hustle," she said.

But she never cared for Wright.

Her husband submitted so easily to his demands whenever he was in town. In hindsight, Lee said she thinks her husband's own heroin addiction was something Wright used against him.

"He's a bully-type of guy," Lee said of Wright. "He thinks he knows everything. He's just arrogant as hell."

Tampa police once found Wright slumped against the wheel of his Impala.

The car was still in drive. He seemed confused when they woke him, and they made him perform sobriety tests.

He had $4,106 in his pocket, according to a police report. He called it "petty cash."

At the station, officers tried to give Wright a breath test, but when told to blow into a machine, he puffed his cheeks out.

Officers scolded him. He argued back.

In the report, an officer wrote, "Wright claimed I was only a 'DUI' cop because I did not possess the intellect required to be an FBI, DEA, ATF, or CIA agent."

Wright went on to brag about other DUI charges he had beaten in California.

He later bailed out, then failed to show up in court.

• • •

By summer 2016, authorities had enough evidence to link Robert Lee and others to individual drugs sales. But they needed more to make a case against Wright for conspiracy.

Agents were waiting when he stepped off a flight at Tampa International Airport on June 13. He walked to the curbside, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Yards away, agents took a snapshot. They watched as he made his way to the Lees' house.

Surveillance footage and wiretaps would play a large role in the investigation.

Sometime that month, Wright and Lee went to the home of Dalton Baptiste, a heroin user who also sold.

"I just finished breaking down a brick of that boy," Wright said at the home.

He handed Baptiste a bottle with a mixture of water and the powdered remnants of a kilogram of heroin. He wanted him to test it.

Baptiste loaded 40 cc's into a syringe. The injection made him dizzy, the heroin was so strong. He told Wright it was good.

Wright asked Baptiste to reach out to "the boys from Texas." He wanted to deal.

The "boys from Texas" were two St. Petersburg police officers, working undercover.

They had been buying heroin for months — an ounce in October, two in December, another two in February, another four in March.

Soon, the detectives began dealing with Robert Lee directly.

One day, they heard Lee and Wright.

"You was out on 26th and Central, huh?" Wright said.

"No," Lee said with a laugh. "I ain't go over there."

"Where you was at?" Wright asked.

"I was, uh, barely hangin' on 23rd," Lee said. "I, uh, about to be hangin' on 26th Lane, but ain't nobody over there playing no ball."

The men were speaking in code, prosecutors said. When Wright said "26th and Central," he was asking Lee if he still had 26 grams of heroin.

• • •

On June 14, federal agents watched through a hidden camera as the Lees and Wright got into the Impala and drove away from the Lees' house in the Pinellas Point area of St. Petersburg.

A GPS device on the car started tracking their movements. They visited a bank and a U-Haul shop. Wright bought groceries at Publix.

The next morning, Robert Lee pulled up to his house driving a rented van. He backed into the driveway and rolled into the open garage.

The door went down. About 15 minutes later, it went back up, and Lee drove off.

Wright stood inside the garage, leaning against a large, wooden crate. Beside it, standing on end, blocking the light from a rear window, was a large vanity sink.

Concealed in the countertop, prosecutors said, was a kilo of heroin.

Lee returned and helped Wright load the sink into a pickup truck, then they drove to an apartment owned by a man named Ernest Wooten. There, they used sifters, scales and mechanical presses to measure out the kilo and apply equal amounts of lactose powder, a case of which Lee had bought from a store in Tampa.

In drug parlance, this is known as "cutting." It allows dealers to increase the volume of their supply, driving up profits.

Wright turned one kilo into two.

He gave one to a man who toted the drugs in a package wrapped as a gift and boarded a bus to Atlanta. Wright later met him there, prosecutors said, to distribute it.

• • •

While authorities waited for Wright to return to St. Pete, they kept tabs on Lee, who had arranged another sale to the undercover cops for July 27. Before it could happen, he and the rest of the group were arrested and warrants issued to search their homes. The FBI turned up packages of heroin behind wall fixtures and stuffed in furniture.

Later, they jumped on Kaysandra Lee's tip about Wright's visit to her house.

That December, Wright sat in a Tampa federal courtroom and listened as Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston argued before a judge why Wright shouldn't be allowed bail.

The government's evidence included financial and business records, statements from informants and notes of undercover drug purchases. All of it pointed to Wright being the man responsible for shipping heroin over state lines and reaping the profits. Authorities think he may have been responsible for trafficking as much as 30 kilos of heroin, with a street value of more than $4 million. Where he got the drugs, and whether he worked for someone else, was never clear.

The prosecutor also noted Wright's failure to show up in court for prior criminal charges, after a handful of minor arrests, and his frequent out-of-state travels. He said Wright had more than 20 aliases, plus six social security numbers.

Against the advice of his court-appointed attorney, Wright demanded to speak.

"The only thing the prosecutor presented to this court was hearsay statements," he told Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone.

Wright had claimed he was unable to pay for a lawyer. But Preston noted purchases Wright made in 2015. He had returned a $931 pair of tennis shoes to a Neiman Marcus store, then bought another pair for $665, along with $200 jeans and $60 worth of underwear.

As Preston spoke, Wright raised his hand.

"As a mom of kids," the judge said, "I appreciate when everyone raises their hand."

Still, she cautioned him against talking without consulting his attorney. Wright spoke anyway. He cited a federal law, saying judges can deny bail to only the worst of criminals.

"I'm definitely not one of the most dangerous criminals on the street," he said.

The judge said she was concerned Wright could flee the country.

She ordered him held without bail.

• • •

An indictment charged Wright with conspiracy to distribute heroin and possession with intent to distribute heroin.

As a court date approached, he ditched his lawyer and chose to represent himself.

In January 2018, he stumbled through a week-long trial. He repeatedly drew Senior U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore's admonishments for the way he asked questions of government witnesses.

After Kaysandra Lee led authorities to Wright, she also led them to the block of heroin he had torn through her house to find. She had stored it at a relative's house, she said, after her husband's arrest.

Prosecutors decided not to charge her with a crime, or bring additional charges against her husband. That's because the Lees, along with the others who had been arrested, had agreed to testify against Wright.

The jury heard from them all.

Wright asserted there was no evidence, that witnesses were coerced and that they were all drug dealers looking to save themselves.

"You can't cast a play in hell and get angels in starring roles," Preston said in his closing argument. "And this heroin distribution is a form of hell in our society. And those are the people that are involved in it. And those hellions include this defendant."

The jury returned a verdict in six hours: guilty on all counts. A sentencing hearing is set for April 30. Wright faces up to life in prison.

• • •

Every arrest gives investigators a snapshot of a criminal organization. Those glimpses create a kind of mosaic, depicting the organization's structure and building cases against its leadership.

In Tampa, those pictures are patched together in a nondescript office, high atop the BB&T building. There's little to denote the presence of the U.S. Attorney's Office, save for the American flags and prominently displayed photos of the president and attorney general.

Drug cases are overseen by Chris Murray and Kelley Howard Allen, both veteran prosecutors.

His focus is on violent crime and illegal narcotics, hers is on unscrupulous doctors and those fueling prescription drug abuse.

Together, their teams have pushed a 15 percent increase in drug-related prosecutions in the last year, according to the Department of Justice. They have to believe they're making a difference.

"Our goal is to rip out the entire organization," Murray said of major traffickers. "We're going to keep going until everyone has been held accountable."

He points to the case of Felix Mejia-Lagunas, described as the top U.S.-based distributor of heroin for a Mexican drug trafficking organization. He lived in California and mailed large shipments of drugs to a man in Orlando, prosecutors said. The drugs would then be divided, repackaged and distributed to street dealers.

Leftovers ended up sold in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

After pleading guilty in December, Mejia-Lagunas was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.

In 2015, the U.S. Attorney's Office assembled what's known as the Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, called CAGI. It is a consortium of 24 agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and local sheriff's offices and police departments.

Its goal: to identify and use federal resources against the biggest criminal threats in the region.

That year, they looked at Manatee County, a stretch south of Tampa Bay, which was quickly developing a reputation as the heroin overdose capital of Florida. That led to what came to be known as "Operation Hot Batch."

Rather than target any one organization, the task force focused on taking down as many midlevel dealers as it could.

The result: more than 30 federal indictments against people the government said were responsible for supplying heroin and fentanyl in the Bradenton area.

Their targets included Shavon Montgomery, a Bradenton woman with a history of abuse and addiction whose criminal record parallels the opioid epidemic.

In 2010, she ended up in prison after authorities said she sold fraudulently obtained prescription pills. Police said she recruited another woman to present fake MRIs to doctors to obtain prescriptions for opioids. One arrest report listed her occupation as "drug dealer." When she got out, Montgomery began selling fentanyl, driving around town in a signature white Camaro. A few customers turned out to be informers and undercover cops. She recently pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Among the other targets was David Earl Johnson, one of the few dealers directly linked to an overdose death.

When a Bradenton woman died in January 2017, authorities examined her phone contacts to identify the person who had sold her the drugs. They posed as her to arrange an undercover sale before arresting Johnson. He recently pleaded guilty to distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 26.

The result of all this? A 78 percent drop in the number of overdoses in Manatee County, Murray said.

"One misconception that people sometimes have is that we're targeting addicts," he said. "We are not. We are going after the people that are killing people."

• • •

On a Friday evening in mid-March, Eric Gibson rolls through the trailer parks and modest residential streets of Lealman, north and west of St. Petersburg. He's driving an SUV bearing the Pinellas County Sheriff's insignia.

Gibson is a deputy, but he is not looking to pull anyone over or make any arrests. With most people, he just wants to talk.

The idea is to build trust and gain information.

He's here so much, he knows who uses drugs. He knows who deals and where they conduct business. He knows that the man strolling in the courtyard between a set of cottages on 28th Street N is a lookout for the people selling dope there.

What he learns might go to narcotics detectives. It might be what helps take down the next William Wright.

But this quiet fight is long and tedious and, Gibson says, never-ending.

What keeps him in it is knowing that he is helping people.

"If I get cynical," he says, "the problem is not going to be solved."

As the sun sets, Gibson drives east along 52nd Avenue N and stops beside a skinny woman in jeans and a leather jacket. Katlin Lynn is 24 and sells herself for cash and drugs. She admits she smokes crack cocaine and injects crushed opioid pills.

She says she got high just 10 minutes earlier.

She's scared to do heroin, she says, because you never know if what you're getting might be laced with fentanyl.

She stands in a dirt lot, across from what locals call "the compound," a shabby collection of trailers where addicts can go to get a fix.

She knows police are trying to clean things up but also knows how "the game goes around here."

If one supplier gets arrested, she says, "we go to another source." She says there are at least six other places she can go to buy.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.