The drug den that defied a city
The Star Ledger, November 18, 2007
How the steady decline of one house haunted Newark
Beer bottles, cardboard boxes and discarded trash cans litter the front stoop of the abandoned century-old home. A rectangular alarm clock hangs by its cord from a tree.
Plywood covers the first-floor windows facing Tillinghast Street. A padlock secures the dented front door. Two fading stickers above the porch’s curved wooden brackets reveal the house’s location on the street: 27.
Not long ago, this was a proud Newark address, bustling with single mothers and squealing children. Then the drug dealers set up shop, peddling cut-rate heroin and cocaine from the porch. Junkies flocked from across the state at all hours, shuffling like zombies with fistfuls of cash to the three-story brick-and-wood building.
The operation also drew the police, who busted down the doors and hauled hundreds of people to jail. But the roundups did little to stanch the flow of drugs. Investigators never targeted the ringleaders or suppliers; the drug mart flourished.
In barely six years, 27 Tillinghast became an emblem of Newark’s failures, a stage where the players - desperate addicts, enterprising merchants, aggressive street cops and their statistics-driven commanders - seemed to feed off each other, with innocent residents stuck in the middle.
“The house at 27 Tillinghast was without a doubt a symbol in this city, and by far the worst,” Deputy Mayor Ronald Salahuddin said.
Eager to fix Newark’s battered reputation, the city’s new leadership devised a new strategy this year. They stopped seeing Tillinghast as a home and started seeing it as a public scourge that had to be eliminated.
If it worked, the plan could be a blueprint for shutting down urban drug markets. But not without a price: tenants uprooted, dealers scattering to new turf, more violence.
Built in the early 1900s for working-class renters, 27 Tillinghast reflected the sturdy, utilitarian streetscape of the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Upper Clinton Hill. But the house was clearly designed to stand out. It had a gabled entryway, the facade featured two-tone brickwork, and the windows were Colonial Revival-style, grouped in threes.
As Newark fell prey to the traditional urban troubles - suburban flight, job loss, poverty, crack cocaine, gangs - Tillinghast Street proved more resilient than most. It unraveled slowly.
Rock bottom came on Sept. 19, 2006, a Tuesday, at 3 a.m.
Even at that hour, the house was buzzing with activity. Dealers manned the front porch. Addicts lined up like customers at a bakery.
No one noticed Terrell Hyman hiding behind a wall next door.
A 24-year-old drug dealer, Hyman wanted to take control of the lucrative Tillinghast operation, authorities would later say. As buyers and sellers mingled outside the house, he launched his surprise attack.
Toting a .40 caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun, Hyman sprayed at least 10 bullets toward the building, authorities said.
One struck 34-year-old David Greer in the head as he waited by the porch to buy drugs. Greer crumpled to the ground, his blood staining the sidewalk. Another junkie was shot in the stomach and hobbled from the scene.
A third bullet hit Lashon Bass, who authorities believe was Hyman’s target. Police suspected Bass and some of his siblings were behind the operation. His older brother, Ladon, had been gunned down months earlier, outside a nearby bar.
As Bass dashed into the house, a tenant called 911. Outside, Greer lay dying on the sidewalk, his trembling hand still clutching the $16 he had hoped to trade for a fix.
Detectives arrived and followed a blood trail into the first-floor apartment where Bass lived with his grandmother. He was alive; the bullet had only grazed his head. Under his mattress, officers said, they recovered two loaded guns - a 9 mm Smith & Wesson and a .38-caliber Titan Tiger - and charged Bass with weapons offenses.
The armed assault that night was part of a pattern of violence on Tillinghast Street. From 2004 though 2006, two people were killed and five were injured in shootings at the house or on the block. Last year, police were called to No. 27 about every other day, records show.
A review of public documents, plus interviews with dozens of law enforcement officers, administrators, city officials and residents, reveals the drug emporium there hadn’t appeared overnight. It had evolved, a product of the right conditions: an inept landlord, passive tenants, understaffed police, a demanding market and resourceful dealers.
The young merchants who pioneered the operation were home-grown, friends who spent their afternoons together at the Boys and Girls Club on nearby Hawthorne Avenue before it closed in the early 1990s. Most were sons of drug-addicted mothers and absent fathers, looking for a little cash and camaraderie, according to one former member of the operation.
“The majority of the time, drug dealers were lonely children before they became drug dealers,” he said.
The man agreed to recount his experiences only if his name and age were not printed. He said that publicly discussing the Tillinghast operation could endanger his life.
‘I WANT IN’
He said his turning point came during his freshman year at Weequahic High School. Walking home from school, he passed a group of kids sporting new leather jackets, throwing dice and flashing the money they made selling drugs on a nearby corner.
“I want in,” he told them. They agreed.
Sometime in 2000, feeling stifled by too much competition and too much attention from the police, they decided to relocate.
Each of the dealers had either once lived or hung out at 27 Tillinghast, he said. They remembered the house’s warren-like layout: three floors, a stairway in the front, another in the back accessible only through the apartments, a backyard with a five-car garage. They knew the nooks and crevices to stash drugs and hide from the cops.
The newcomers persuaded a local trafficker to front their first shipment of cocaine, and they offered free samples to spread the word about their product. Get an addict to test it, the former dealer explained. “Then he’s the voice.”
The house turned out to be better than any corner. Dealers could peddle on the porch, near the front door, or take cover in the backyard and sell in the alleys. They could hide drugs under stairs, over doors and in abandoned apartments.
They enlisted lookouts to stand across the street and at upstairs windows.
As business picked up, other dealers came aboard, bringing their own connections. The tenants didn’t complain much. Law enforcement seemed little more than a nuisance.
The upstarts wore identical uniforms - white T-shirts, jeans and Timberland boots - to make it difficult for officers to identify them. They hung their heads low when patrol cars passed.
The dealers worked independently at first, like vendors at a farmer’s market, sharing space but not profits. They later organized the operation under a loose hierarchical structure that sliced the day into shifts and installed supervisors, known as “ballers,” to manage the flow of cash and drugs, the former dealer said.
The group expanded its product line to include heroin and Ecstasy, and sold “loosies” - single tobacco cigarettes - for a dollar apiece. They tried to undercut competition by slashing prices. They discounted individual bags of heroin from $10 to $6 and stamped them with brand names like “One Shot,” “Dead End” and “Gangsta” so junkies would remember them.
Drawn by word of mouth, the customers at 27 Tillinghast crossed all social, economic and demographic boundaries. Dealers came from other towns to buy drugs for resale.
The operation collected between $15,000 and $45,000 a day, police estimate.
“They made as much money in that house as they do at an entire housing project,” said officer Samad Washington, a former narcotics investigator with long braids and a towering frame, who became known on the block as “Big Samad.”
From 2000 through 2006, the police received 645 calls related to 27 Tillinghast. In the past two years, officers logged more than 200 drug arrests there, records show.
But the numbers represent a flaw in the city’s drug enforcement strategy that even officers acknowledge. At Tillinghast, street cops typically focused on the “runners,” the low-level street dealers who worked on commission and didn’t have access to the supply pipeline. They were easy to catch - but also easy to replace.
Investigators never devoted time or resources to catch the people who bankrolled, organized and supervised the operation.
“We don’t do six-month investigations in Newark,” said one veteran narcotics officer, who said he could not be named while speaking so bluntly about department policy. “We do six-day investigations. Or six-hour investigations.”
The shortsighted strategy emerged as one of the biggest problems cited by consultants hired last year by Mayor Cory Booker and his new police director, Garry McCarthy. Most of Newark’s crime was drug-related, the consultants concluded in a January report, but the narcotics units remained “understaffed, ill-equipped and limited to street-level enforcement.” One commander described the approach as “body snatching.”
That, officials say, is why 27 Tillinghast continued to thrive.
Police say they believe several Bass brothers played key roles in the operation, an allegation disputed by their relatives and friends, including Newark City Councilman Oscar James II. He and others acknowledge drugs were sold at the building but contend that authorities inflated the arrest statistics and the house’s notoriety.
“They’re not the leaders they’re trying to make my kids out to be,” said Ali Muslim, whose sons include Lashon Bass.
The family and friends also accused the police of conducting illegal raids and planting drugs on suspects. Police say no such complaints have ever been substantiated.
Deputy Police Chief Daniel Zieser said the family was trying to “spin” the case to its advantage. Many of the Bass siblings have long arrest histories, Zieser said. “They’re well-documented career criminals.”
As years went on, the house looked more battle-torn. Outside, empty vials, color-coded caps and glassine envelopes were strewn about the backyard and front stoop. Inside, trash cluttered the hallways, ceiling tiles collapsed, the basement reeked of sewage.
Longtime tenants said they didn’t condone the drug trafficking but didn’t feel threatened by the dealers, many of whom they knew since childhood.
Residents came to dread the officers as much as the drug traffickers.
“You’d be returning from work, worrying if they were going to kick your door down,” Sharon Redding said. “I hated to come home.”
It wasn’t always that way.
Redding prefers to remember the house as it was when she moved in: a refuge.
She had been living up the street, in an apartment house at No. 60, when the city seized that property in 1985 because the landlord failed to pay his taxes. Redding was a 27-year-old single mother expecting another child. She didn’t want to go far.
She had spent most of her life on Tillinghast Street, growing up in No. 32, the house her uncle bought in the 1950s. At the time, hers was the third black family on the street.
Redding said she can still count the roses in her uncle’s garden. She can taste the tart green apples that fell from a tree in the backyard at No. 27, across the street, where the neighborhood kids liked to play. She remembers lying awake a night, smelling the bread baking at Kiel’s Bakery on Hawthorne Avenue, and stopping to say hi to “Mr. Bill,” the Newark cop who lived next door.
Then came the 1980s, and the crack epidemic. Dealers fought over corners, addicts roamed the streets, residents abandoned their homes. Tillinghast suffered, with a few property owners sticking it out. They included Lewis Kaplan, who owned No. 27.
Kaplan had known Redding since she was a child; he told her his building had a vacancy. Redding, her two children, her sister and her kids took a third-floor apartment for $217 a month.
The building felt comfortable. A small brick porch led to a wooden door that opened into a tiled vestibule. A second door, framed by glass, led into the front hallway. On the wall was a bank of mailboxes and buzzers. Inside, a carpeted stairwell climbed to the upper floors.
Redding’s front windows faced south, with sturdy two-story homes across the street and, beyond them, views of the city’s Weequahic section. In the spring, before the trees blossomed, Redding could see both ends of the tiny two-way street, from Osborne Terrace to Clinton Place.
She worked an early shift at a soap factory in East Orange and discovered that most of the other tenants were also working mothers. They left their apartment doors open while they cooked, letting the aroma of fried chicken, pig’s feet and collard greens waft through the halls. When one of them scolded their kids, everyone heard.
“The people in this building were like a family, not just six-odd groups of people living in the same building,” said Beulah Barnes, a former tenant. “My kids would say: ‘I was raised by 27. Tillinghast raised me.’”
The parents took turns baby-sitting each other’s children. In summer, they barbecued in the back and drove the kids to Great Adventure and Wildwood. The children called the other mothers “Aunt” and referred to young neighbors as their cousins.
Donna Moore, who lived with her family on the first floor, recalled a blizzard in the 1980s when everyone poured from the building to help shovel the walks. Then someone brought out a football, and an impromptu game began.
Moore and her family left a few years later, when they no longer felt safe.
“I have a lot of good memories of 27, enough to outweigh the bad,” Redding said one recent day, sitting outside a friend’s house up the block.
The sun was setting, casting an orange glow on her weary face. She had her straight hair pulled into a tight ponytail and wore braided gold hoop earrings, pink lipstick and an embroidered orange T-shirt. Now a preschool teacher, she smiled and tried to remain upbeat.
The street, dominated by older wood-frame homes, looked tired. Longtime homeowners still maintained their hedges, but some lived next to vacant lots or boarded-up buildings. A few decrepit properties had been replaced by narrow two-family homes.
Redding and other former tenants traced the start of their house’s slow decline to the late 1980s, when Kaplan sold the place to a man named Sam Edelman.
When things broke - doors, windows, plumbing - Edelman’s maintenance men didn’t fix them properly, former tenants said. Some of the kids had grown into rambunctious teenagers who broke into the basement to drink beer and smoke marijuana, scrawling graffiti on walls and urinating outside.
“We couldn’t hang out on the front porch by the end,” said Moore’s daughter, Maisha.
Edelman declined to comment.
In 1998, he sold the house to Bridget Borns, a 34-year-old NJ Transit employee and expectant mother. Borns, an aunt to the Bass boys, had dreamed of owning a house in the neighborhood. She paid $92,000.
Two days after Borns moved in, the furnace broke, the first of many woes. Fixtures fell apart. Pipes burst.
In 2001, officials found widespread lead-paint poisoning. It coated the house and sickened Borns’ baby boy.
She and her boyfriend tried to the remove the paint on their own; she was deep in debt. She applied for city grants but was rejected. She was losing control.
“I wonder how we got here and how am I ever going to make this right,” she said in a 2001 interview with The Star-Ledger.
Two years later, the city financed a lead-abatement project at the building. Residents called it too little, too late.
By then, the drug dealers had set up shop outside and many longtime tenants had left. “People didn’t like what was going on but weren’t willing to say anything to put a stop to it,” said Beulah Barnes, who moved out in 2000 after two decades.
In the years that followed, the building solidified its reputation as a drug mart. Among the hundreds of people arrested there were several of Borns’ nephews. Authorities say not all members of the Bass clan have been in trouble with the law, but court papers show that six of the Bass children had racked up 57 arrests on Tillinghast and other locations in the city by February 2007, mostly for gun or drug charges.
In a drug case against one of them, Alif Bass, an Essex County prosecutor wrote in a brief to a judge that “several” Bass family members in the building “are known to be part of the family’s narcotics trafficking activities.” She did not elaborate.
Borns, the landlord, declined repeated requests for an interview in recent months. Her attorney, Thomas Ashley, did not deny drugs were sold at the house and said Borns asked police for help. “She was someone who was trying to resist and deal with a problem that at least to some extent she was aware of and couldn’t stop,” Ashley said.
Redding blames the government. She said building inspectors were too lax, the health department failed to deal properly with the lead paint, and residents stopped complaining because they didn’t trust the police.
“The city didn’t do enough to keep the place under control,” Redding said.
Her family urged her to move, but she resisted. Even on mornings when, on the way to work, she shooed away junkies. Even when she saw people shot in the street.
“The building got such a bad rap,” Redding said, “that when you told people you lived at 27 Tillinghast, they’d say, ‘You live where?’”
David Robinson grew up in the neighborhood, too.
He knew the Bass family well. He watched the drug enterprise grow into a street version of a big-box retail store, undercutting competition, staying open at all hours and offering an array of goods.
And on a November morning last year, Robinson, now 44, was back, standing on the sidewalk outside No. 27, thumbing through a wad of cash. A black hoodie covered his head and a New Jersey Devils cap shaded his brow, concealing his graying temples and goatee.
Under his sweatshirt, he wore a gun and badge. A sergeant in the Newark Police Department’s Fugitive Apprehension Team, Robinson leads a team of officers who track down wanted criminals.
They were part of a churning treadmill in the drug war: dealers luring the addicts, cops chasing the dealers, commanders pushing arrests.
The bustling drug market actually made Robinson’s job easier. Because police never focused on the roots of the operation - and never succeeded in shutting it down - Robinson could bring his team to No. 27 and be assured that he’d find plenty of bad guys with open warrants.
He would pose out front as a dealer and funnel the addicts to the backyard, where officers were waiting. Reeling in the suspects was so simple, officers gave the yard a nickname: the Pond.
By the time Robinson took his spot in front of 27 Tillinghast that morning, the house itself was a broken shell.
The stately wooden front door, busted down by police, had been replaced by a metal one. The inside door was secured with two industrial-size slide locks. The floor tiles were cracked or missing. The apartment buzzers didn’t work and the locks on the inner door were useless - strangers simply reached through a broken window pane and let themselves in.
The hallway was littered with rolling papers, empty beer bottles, potato-chip bags. The stairway carpeting had been ripped away.
Outside, an addict approached Robinson on the sidewalk.
“They open?” he asked. “Got dope back there?”
“Yeah, they open,” the undercover officer replied, tilting his chin at the alley.
Others followed. Robinson directed them all to the Pond.
Police officers, hiding in the back, started grabbing them. Some scrambled but didn’t get far.
Officers called the junkies who frequented the address “the walking dead.” Some were so desperate that they didn’t wait to get high in private: walking down Tillinghast, they’d press the envelope of heroin to their face, snort it, and toss the package into the gutter.
These were not just local drug fiends, police discovered. They came from as far away as Toms River. Some rode a train to Penn Station and caught a bus to Tillinghast Street. Robinson once nabbed a man from Canada who’d parked his RV up the block with his wife inside.
On that autumn morning last year, Robinson’s team corralled 30 people in 30 minutes. Half had outstanding warrants on charges ranging from assault to parole violations.
The roundups at the Pond boosted Robinson’s arrest numbers and took some dangerous people off the street. But in their cat-and-mouse with dealers, police never got close enough to the operation to figure out who was running it, or how.
When officers drove up to the house in unmarked cars, lookouts hollered, “Fall back,” or chirped warnings into walkie-talkies. Investigators tried to outsmart the dealers by parking a block away, taking cabs or hiding in the garage.
The dealers outfitted the doors with two-by-four braces to keep out police; officers often heard them laughing inside. A first-floor apartment had a hole in the floor, hidden by a rug, that dealers used to dispose of contraband when the cops arrived.
Robinson knew the roundups at the Pond were only temporary, that the arrests and his warnings to the junkies wouldn’t keep them away from 27 Tillinghast.
“The dope,” he said, “is more powerful than a threat from me.”
On a Thursday morning in February, two dozen high-ranking police officials filled a ring of tables in the Newark Police Department’s downtown communications center. Unit commanders met there every week as part of a crime-analysis program called Compstat.
At the head sat McCarthy, the director. A former New York Police Department crime strategist, McCarthy had built his career on cleaning up drug-addled neighborhoods. Newark, a hub in the Northeast’s underground trafficking of heroin and cocaine, posed a new challenge.
Even before the consultants had released their report the previous month, McCarthy realized the city’s narcotics strategy was ineffective and had formed a Central Narcotics Division to target mid-level drug sellers - like those who operated at 27 Tillinghast.
Now McCarthy went around the room, asking the commanders where they needed help. One of them was Capt. Sheilah Coley, head of the 5th Precinct, which includes Upper Clinton Hill.
“When I said the words ‘27 Tillinghast,’ there were moans and groans and people threw up their hands,” Coley recalled. “Everyone in the room knew about it.”
McCarthy glanced at Salahuddin, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety, who heads a team of officers cracking down on health- and building-code violations.
In New York, McCarthy had worked with that city’s Civil Enforcement Unit, which used public nuisance laws to shut down nightclubs and apartment buildings where drugs were sold. This kind of tactic - using non-traditional legal tools to thwart drug dealers - had been gaining popularity around the country.
No one had considered using it on 27 Tillinghast. Until now.
A few weeks later, Detective Joann Lopez huddled in her hiding place at daybreak, training her black Bushnell binoculars at the house on Tillinghast Street.
By then, the house had been haunting neighbors and police for years. Lopez had been visiting the place since her rookie year, when Samad Washington took her there for training as a narcotics investigator. Now she was a member of the new narcotics division, gathering intelligence that officials hoped would lead them to the suspected suppliers.
“Tillinghast definitely worked out, because it was nonstop,” Lopez would say later.
Her task was just one part of the three-pronged plan Salahuddin, Coley and the Central Narcotics Division had devised. The second phase came March 22, when police raided the building. They stopped a dealer who was carrying a gun and cocaine out of an abandoned first-floor apartment. Inside, officers found hundreds of vials of cocaine and heroin packets. They arrested five people.
Then Salahuddin brought in the code inspectors. They documented the damaged electrical wiring and mold on walls. Covering their faces, they descended rickety wooden steps into the basement and aimed their flashlights into the darkness, where pipes leaked sewage onto the garbage-strewn floor.
The Department of Neighborhood and Recreational Services declared the house “unfit for human use,” boarded up the windows and ordered it shut. Officials offered vouchers to tenants for a hotel in East Orange. Two, both elderly, accepted. The rest found other arrangements.
Sharon Redding went to stay with Beulah Barnes up the block.
For the first time in years, 27 Tillinghast went silent.
Police worried. They knew drug dealers don’t quit when cops chase them from their territory; the dealers just move somewhere else. And that usually triggers more violence.
“I’d like to think they all turned a new page, but because the operation was so big, that’s not likely,” said Coley, the precinct commander.
In the ensuing weeks, drug-related shootings in the area spiked. Police speculated that dealers who had been chased from 27 Tillinghast were encroaching on competitors’ territory, sparking a turf war.
Coley dispatched her community-affairs officer to encourage Tillinghast residents to form a block-watch group. No one joined.
“Everyone is waiting for this white horse to come and save them, but they don’t know that each of them is a leg of that white horse,” Coley said.
Eight months after police shuttered the house, the Bass family hasn’t disappeared from Tillinghast Street, police say. City officials gave Borns, the building owner, a list of repairs to complete before she can rent apartments again.
Alif Bass, one of Borns’ nephews, is in a federal lockup, waiting to go to trial on gun charges. Another, Ali Bass, was recently convicted of a minor drug charge and will be sentenced this month.
City officials still consider No. 27 a test case.
“What it really showed,” McCarthy said in a recent interview, “was that the strategies and tactics we employed were not working.”
They’re looking at other properties, including a house in the West Ward, for a similar crackdown. But nothing, they say, will ever match the building on Tillinghast.
Oscar James II, the South Ward councilman, said the operation did little to address the city’s narcotics trade. “It looks like a win, but it’s not a win when the same amount of drugs are still being sold in my community,” he said.
Today the house resembles any of the countless other vacant homes in Newark.
Redding, at 49, is putting her life back together. She’s trying to save enough money to rent another apartment.
If she could, she’d stay on Tillinghast Street.
“It wasn’t always this way, and 27 is not the big, bad building they made it out to be,” Redding said. “The drug dealers have moved on, but we’re the ones who suffered in the end.”