For years, residents of the Northwood Harbor neighborhood in West Palm Beach say they could not leave their homes at night without witnessing a drug deal. Their children couldn’t play outside. Many considered moving away. But since mid-April, the neighborhood has felt shockingly quiet.
Police arrested 29 people on charges including racketeering, fentanyl dealing and prostitution in an organized crime takedown a few weeks ago that began out of complaints from people in the community, officials said Tuesday.
West Palm Beach Police Chief Frank Adderley, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James announced the findings of “Operation Blockbuster Fugitives” Tuesday afternoon at a news conference outside of the small, unassuming brown home that became the heart of the criminal activity in the 600 block of 54th street in West Palm Beach.
In a speech, Adderley thanked residents for bringing the matter to his attention.
“They’re the ones that helped us initiate this case; they’re the ones that their complaints weren’t ignored, and we responded to them,” he said, recalling a community meeting just before Christmas in 2021.
“I was in the place where I didn’t really see it, and I knew people in this neighborhood felt every bit of it, because they lived it every day,” Adderley added.
Last month, at a Wednesday night community meeting a few days before the takedown, residents raised the same complaints again, he said. “I couldn’t tell them Saturday was going to be a big change in this neighborhood.”
Many of those arrested came to Northwood Harbor from other areas because they saw it as a “safe haven” for crime, especially fentanyl distribution, Denise Smith-Barnes, a community leader who lives in nearby Pinewood Park, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Of the 29 arrested, 16 are facing RICO charges, special charges for those who demonstrate a “pattern of racketeering activity,” according to the Florida statute. Each of those suspects could face up to 60 years in prison.
In his speech, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg emphasized the catastrophic effect that fentanyl has within Palm Beach County, calling it the “number one drug crisis our country has ever faced.”
Fentanyl is present in 95% of all opioid overdose deaths in the county, he said.
In the Northwood Harbor area, 150 people overdosed, and 54 of those people died, Adderley said.
“No matter the ZIP code, no matter the quadrant of the city, you deserve to be safe and secure,” Mayor Keith James said. “And we as law enforcement under my leadership, under the Chief’s leadership, we do everything to ensure that the bad guys know this is not a place to do business in our city.”
Residents who attended the news conference Tuesday said that quiet over the last month has felt like a relief. They can finally walk around at night, and their kids have been playing outside.
But the success of the operation does not mean the neighborhood’s challenges are over.
“Our next step is preventing the next group from coming,” Adderley said. “The word is out now that this group is gone … and they know that this particular location is a hotbed for the distribution of fentanyl.”
The neighborhood community redevelopment association has hired a private security company for the next six months as part of their efforts to combat crime, said Angela Ogburn, a resident of Northwood Harbor. That will be the “true test,” she said.
When police “clean up” one street, the criminal activity moves to another, Smith-Barnes said. Over the past few weeks, residents have seen it pop up on neighboring streets and in the parks.
But one of the things that residents believe will make this latest effort successful is the fact that so many people are speaking up.
Smith-Barnes no longer lets fears of retaliation control her, and encouraged others to feel the same. She used to go out at 2 or 3 in the morning and “engage with the guys on the corner,” she said, often calling the police right in front of them. More of them know who she is than the other way around. Sometimes they show up at her house in the middle of the night, not to hurt her, but to ask for a blanket or something to eat.
“The sad part is, some decide occasionally to reach out to me,” she said. “They stop by and hold a conversation, they need help with something or their kids need help.”
In those cases, she tries to get the kids into a boys and girls club, or get them information.
“I’m not just here to call on you, I’m here to help you,” she said.
The investigation into the crimes is ongoing. In addition to the 29 arrested, three more suspects are at large, Aronberg said.