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Cleveland Scandal : Did Cocaine Sting Fuel Drug Sales?

June 14, 1989|ERIC HARRISON | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — One step ahead of the police, White Art wheeled his El Camino off the road and vanished into the yawning maw of his warehouse. The door automatically lowered behind him.

From inside, he watched the police car pull into the driveway, right up to the edge of his domain, and stop as the warehouse door slid shut. Before long, the driveway was full of police cars.

The man known as White Art, alias James Lewis, alias Arthur Brooks, alias Phillip Starr, alias Winston Tajeda, was Cleveland's biggest drug dealer, an imposing, bearded, hip-talking white man who walked the city's black East Side as if he were king.

The El Camino he was driving that night had a secret compartment underneath that was loaded with cocaine, a fresh 13-kilo shipment from Miami. As he paced the cement floor inside his warehouse like a caged bear, White Art feared that his drug peddling days were about to end.

He didn't have to worry, at least not yet.

Undercover Operation

Although he did not know it then, White Art and the Cleveland Police Department were about to embark on a high-risk adventure that would rival the plots of the most far-fetched TV cop shows. The story would include double crosses, a near murder and some courageous police undercover work that would result in the biggest cocaine bust in Ohio history.

But the case also would bring allegations that the police had been so anxious to make headlines that they helped pour half a million dollars worth of cocaine into the black community and then allowed the money to vanish into the Miami drug pipeline. Later, a county prosecutor would accuse the city's top narcotics officers of being smitten with "fantasies of 'Miami Vice.' " If so, they were fantasies that would plunge the department into a controversy the likes of which the city had never seen.

Confronted by Police

But this all was in the future. Right now, in the wee hours of April 13, 1985, the only thing that concerned White Art was the police outside. Officers were pounding on the door, shouting for him to open up. But, alone inside with his dope, he refused to let them in.

To his delight, the police eventually gave up. They had no search warrant and, besides, they had no idea they had cornered a drug dealer--they thought White Art was a car thief.

When the sun came up he saw that the coast was clear, and then he hurriedly left, too, leaving the cocaine behind. He was sure the police would be back to find it as soon as they got a warrant. He was wrong.

Later, he would wish he'd never returned, either.

In 1985 Cleveland, like other big cities, was fighting an escalating drug war on inner-city streets. Cocaine was becoming an ever bigger problem as the potent cocaine derivative known as crack began to spread from the two coasts into the nation's heartland. The Cleveland police narcotics unit--especially the prestigious major-case squad nicknamed the "A-Team"--was under heavy pressure to make high visibility drug busts.

Like a gift from heaven, on April 19, 1985, White Art was dropped into their laps. One of his neighbors had found him badly beaten and left for dead in the very warehouse where the police had cornered him six days earlier.

He had a fractured skull, internal injuries and both legs had been badly damaged, beaten with a blunt instrument. He also had been given a "hot shot," an injection of cocaine and heroin that had been intended to kill him. Someone had jumped him from behind. Nobody knew for sure who had done it.

The cocaine-laden El Camino was gone, but the police who examined the warehouse knew they had a drug dealer on their hands from the cocaine residue, scales and other packaging equipment they found. A search of his various properties, including a spacious suburban home, turned up a machine gun and a pistol, both equipped with silencers, and about $70,000 in cash. Eventually, the police even came to learn White Art's true name--Arthur Feckner.

A-Team Plans Sting

By the time he was released from the hospital a month later, still barely able to walk, Feckner had been persuaded to aid the A-Team in an elaborate stair-step sting operation that the police hoped would lead all the way to Colombia, via Miami. In return, the police promised him leniency.

It was an ambitious scheme, by far the most ambitious the squad had ever attempted. And it was timed to win maximum national attention for Police Chief Thomas Hanton and his likely successor, Lt. Howard E. Rudolph, the head of the narcotics unit. A national Drug Enforcement Administration convention was coming up. If the A-Team could arrange a 50-kilo bust before then, Hanton and Rudolph would be able to attend as heroes.

There was only one hitch.

Feckner still owed his Miami drug connection $560,000. He later testified in court that he told Sgt. James Bistricky, the 18-year police veteran who headed the A-Team, that he would have to settle this debt before he could arrange another deal. According to Feckner, the only way he could do that was by selling drugs.

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