A predawn raid Wednesday by more than 100 law enforcement officers led to the arrest of almost 20 people accused of turning the Belmont community into an “open-air drug market” that catered to the entire city.
In all, 28 defendants face state or federal charges stemming from the crack cocaine trade in the east Charlotte neighborhood, long plagued by poverty, joblessness and crime. A combined posse of FBI agents, state troopers and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police were still hunting six of the accused late Wednesday afternoon. Most of those in custody have extensive criminal histories, officials said.
A sweeping federal indictment charges 20 defendants with multiple counts of crack possession and conspiracy to sell. Each charge carries a maximum 20-year sentence and $1 million fine.
“To the law-abiding citizens who reside in these areas, we will continue to work ... to combat drug activity and violent crime,” said U.S. Attorney Jill Rose. “To those who engage in criminal activity, our message is clear: We will not sit on the sidelines while you continue to pollute our neighborhoods with drugs and crime.”
Rose, with top FBI and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police leaders alongside, spoke during a press conference at a Central Avenue police station not far from where the early morning arrests were made.
The raid culminated an investigation triggered by a surge in violent crime in Belmont believed tied to drugs. CMPD Deputy Chief Doug Gallant said during one three-month stretch, his officers answered 31 calls for “shots fired.”
John Strong, head of FBI operations statewide, said the drug trade brought crime and violence to the majority of Belmont residents “who have chosen to live their lives peacefully.”
The neighborhood’s struggles have been chronic. According to the Quality of Life Explorer, a joint data effort by the city, county and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, the majority black community north of Central Avenue has almost six times the rate of violent crime, half the rate of home ownership and a third the college degrees as the rest of Mecklenburg County.
Carl Taylor, 72, a longtime deacon at St. Paul Baptist Church in the heart of community, says prostitutes and drug traffickers operate openly on street corners and sidewalks. His church’s windows, he says, have been punctured by bullets.
Invited to attend the press conference by police, Taylor described the crackdown as “an important first step. But I haven’t heard a lot about what’s the next step.”
He motioned to where police had placed the mug shots of those arrested. Some of those men and women had long before become familiar presences around his church, Taylor said.
Unless the city, police and residents do more to confront the community’s problems, Taylor predicted Belmont’s street corners will be manned by new faces “before the sun goes down.”
“To poor folks,” he said, “selling drugs is the easiest job in the world.”
Database editor Gavin Off contributed.