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Out-of-town drug dealers fuel area drug trade

April 12, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

and ELLEN LYON

Staff Writers

A recent shooting death in the Tri-State area reflects an increasingly disturbing trend, according to law enforcement officials.

A Long Branch, N.J., man was found dead of a gunshot wound in the first block of West North Avenue in Hagerstown last month.

The man charged with what police believe was a drug-related crime is from Auburndale, Fla.

More and more serious crime here is being linked to out-of-town suspects, police said.

"What we have seen in the last three years is a growing number of out-of-town dope dealers," Sheriff Charles Mades told a joint meeting of the Washington County Commissioners and Hagerstown City Council on March 25.

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On that day, 66 percent of the 378 inmates jailed at the Washington County Detention Center were there for drug-related offenses, Mades said. Thirty-two of the inmates were from New York, 26 were from Baltimore and nine each were from Washington, D.C., and Florida.

Other police agencies across the Tri-State area have noticed the same trend.

When Frederick (Md.) City Police Lt. Thomas Chase began doing drug investigations in the mid-1980s, the faces of the drug dealers were familiar to him.

In the 1990s, the faces started getting less familiar and more of them were coming here from metropolitan areas, he said. Right now, the biggest problems are coming from the New York City connection.

Franklin County, Pa., District Attorney John F. Nelson said he has noticed an increase in out-of-town defendents, not just in drug cases but also for violent crimes like robbery.

"We have a lot of the same problems. We're seeing the same thing," said Fred Wagoner of the Eastern Panhandle Drug and Violent Crime Task Force.

In West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, out-of-towners have long influenced the drug trade.

But that connection seems to have grown stronger in the last 18 months, police said.

The price of crack

There may be several reasons for this.

The price of crack cocaine in Hagerstown and nearby towns is generally higher than the national average - creating a sellers' market that attracts out-of-state drug dealers, according to Washington County Narcotics Task Force Director Charles R. Summers.

"There is a lot of profit to be made," Summers said.

The largest number of out-of-state drug dealers selling in Hagerstown come from the New York City/New Jersey area, he said.

The average rock, or small piece, of crack cocaine sells for $5 to $8 in New York, compared to about $20 in Hagerstown or Frederick, police said.

"There's a lot more supply in New York than here," Summers noted. "The people here are just as addicted."

The price of crack cocaine in Hagerstown seems to be dropping, however, which is not a good sign. "It appears to mean the supply is up," Summers said.

A favorable balance between supply and demand may not be the only factor attracting drug dealers to this area.

Some big city dealers may be driven to smaller communities such as Hagerstown because "it's a relatively safe community . . . so it's a better place to sell," Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long said.

Some big city dealers have been driven to new markets by police shakedowns, Summers said.

The dealers also may believe that rural police are softer on crime, Frederick County Sheriff Jim Hagy said.

New challenges

Out-of-town drug dealers present certain challenges to law enforcement officers.

They can be difficult to identify and often have to be caught and fingerprinted before their true identity is known, Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones said.

They move around more often and use aliases, police said.

Some officers said it's easier to spot nonlocal drug dealers, who may be naive about the area.

A rise in violent crime often follows out-of-town drug dealers into an area.

"We have seen an increase in violence associated with them," Summers said. "We've definitely seen more guns associated with them."

Some dealers from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia are known to carry guns while making deals, said Martinsburg (W.Va.) City Police Sgt. George Swartwood.

But so far at least, the criminals haven't been using the guns in Martinsburg, he said.

The number of guns confiscated as evidence by the Hagerstown Police Department in the first three months of this year jumped 208 percent from the same period last year, according to Jones.

Between January and March 1996, 12 guns were collected in Hagerstown by police, compared to 37 during the same months in 1997, Jones said.

Three shooting suspects in Frederick last year had connections to New York City, Chase said.

The out-of-town drug dealers tend to exhibit "more callousness" and be more "alienated" because they are not from the community, Jones said. "They come in with more of a nothing-to-lose attitude."

There is no one single easy solution to the problem, officials said.

Long said he has asked the Washington County Commissioners to add two more prosecutors and two more support staff positions to his office.

Witnesses to drug activity need to be willing to testify in court to help put dealers in jail, Long said.

Summers said a vacancy on the Washington County Circuit Court bench since September has further reduced precious court time.

"There are too many cases and not enough time to deal with them," he said.

More police officers and drug addiction treatment resources would also help, Summers said.

Local landlords need to screen prospective renters more carefully, especially if they are from out of town, have no visible means of support and yet appear to have a lot of money, especially in cash, Jones said.

The out-of-towners may stay with friends or at local hotels, police said.

"They have a way of attaching to people in the community," Hagy said.

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