SAN FRANCISCO — Braving gunfire from drug dealers, a 21-year-old woman and two friends sneaked into a fortified Oakland "rock house" to rescue a cousin being held hostage for failing to pay a $50 drug debt, police said Wednesday.
Saturday's daring daylight rescue was the latest in a series of incidents dramatically illustrating the extent to which the availability of cheap crack, or rock cocaine, has rent daily life in parts of Oakland and other cities.
In February, police charged an Oakland woman with murder after she failed to care for twin sons she bore in her apartment bathroom while high on crack. She did not call for an ambulance until she felt faint from bleeding; her newborn twins were found dead a few hours later.
That same month, a 36-year-old Oakland woman fired a shotgun blast at her 16-year-old daughter after the girl refused to sell her $20 worth of crack on credit. Police said the girl saw her mother as "just another customer."
In March, someone set fire to the home of a 67-year-old East Oakland woman who had been leading efforts to rid her neighborhood of a new flood of crack dealers. A 27-year-old ex-convict has been charged in the case.
Two weeks ago, two crack dealers doused a second 36-year-old Oakland woman with gasoline and set her ablaze when she could not pay a $50 crack debt. She survived the attack with second- and third-degree burns over her body.
"There's not any more violence or any less violence here than in any other big city with a drug problem," said Oakland Police Sgt. Jerry Aguirre, who is investigating the hostage case. "But the incidents do seem to be getting more bizarre."
Actually, Oakland has a higher per capita crime rate than Los Angeles and New York, both of which also suffer serious drug problems. Specific numbers of drug-related arrests are not available, but in 1986, the latest year for which some statistics are available, Oakland's murder rate was 36% higher than the per capita rate for Los Angeles; the FBI's overall "crime index" for Oakland was 28.7% higher when adjusted for the size difference between the two cities. Oakland has 371,000 residents, about one-tenth the number in Los Angeles.
In the hostage case, Aguirre said a 20-year-old Oakland man was confronted in North Oakland about a week ago by dealers seeking to collect $50 owed them for some crack purchased a week earlier. When the young man could not produce the money, he was abducted.
Aguirre declined to name the victim or his rescuers to protect them from retribution, but he said the victim was handcuffed to a 15-foot chain bolted to the floor of an apartment used to sell crack in a run-down section of West Oakland. The young man was not given any food or water during the length of his captivity, which Aguirre estimated at between six and seven days.
Meanwhile, the dealers contacted the young man's family and inquired about settling his debt. Instead, the young man's cousin and two friends decided to rescue him.
They watched the apartment where he was being held, and when his captors left Saturday morning--to replenish their cocaine supply, Aguirre speculated--the rescuers somehow got inside, locked the door behind them and started to free the hostage.
However, the cocaine dealers returned before the rescuers finished. Aguirre said that when the dealers found the door locked, they began shooting into the house. The 21-year-old woman leading the rescue was wounded in the arm before police were summoned to the scene by neighbors.
The dealers fled, but Aguirre said police have descriptions and other means of discovering their identities.
"Once we get these people identified," Aguirre said, "it should not be too long before we arrest them."