On Thursday, Nov. 29, an Ulster County jury convicted Chad Richards on all counts in an indictment alleging that he sold crack cocaine to undercover cops on two occasions back in November 2011.
The 34-year-old Richards, officials said, was the last of some 80 alleged drug dealers indicted as part of Operation Clean Sweep — an ambitious, multi-agency investigation targeting gangs and drugs in Midtown Kingston.
The undercover operation, which kicked off in the summer of 2011 and culminated with a massive early morning sweep by heavily-armed raid teams in March 2012 has, cops say, uprooted deeply entrenched drug-dealing networks and taken dozens of dangerous gang members off the streets. But defense attorneys, including Ulster County Public Defender Andrew Kossover, have criticized the sweep as a heavy-handed crackdown on small-time drug peddlers who found themselves branded gangsters — and given long prison terms — on the flimsiest of evidence.
According to District Attorney Holley Carnright, Clean Sweep has its genesis in the February 2010 murder of Charles “C.J.” King by members of the Bloods gang, allegedly to prevent King from testifying about another gang-related shooting. By the summer of 2011, five members of the Sex Money Murder Bloods set were serving long prison terms on murder or conspiracy charges stemming from murder. But, Carnright said, he had received information that Gary “B-War” Watkins — reputedly a high ranking member of the “G-Shyne” Bloods set — was actively recruiting associates from New York City to come to Kingston and fill the vacuum. In response, Carnright came up with a plan for a major undercover investigation which would circumvent the code of silence that prevails among gang members and intimidated residents of the neighborhoods where they operated. By using undercover cops to target the low-level drug dealing, authorities could lock up violent gang members without having to rely on reluctant, vulnerable civilian witnesses.
“This was not a case of targeting low-level drug dealers or addicts selling to support their habit,” said Carnright. “This was going after violent gang members with serious felony records using [drug busts] as a means to get them off the street.”
A team effort
Carnright enlisted three agencies for the operation: the Kingston Police Department’s newly created Special Investigations Unit, the countywide Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team and a state police Community Enforcement Narcotics Team. The investigation also brought to bear new technology — specifically high-quality camera equipment that allowed police to capture clear video and audio of targets engaged in drug transactions with undercover cops.
According to Carnright, investigators drew up an initial target list of about 10 high-ranking gang members. Dozens of others were targeted as investigators sought to embed undercover cops into the city’s gang culture. Between August 2011 and March 2012, the team carried out 207 separate undercover drug buys. In most cases, the buy teams consisted of state troopers working undercover using confidential informants to make introductions to drug dealers. KPD and URGENT cops, meanwhile, were positioned nearby to monitor the transactions, identify suspects and provide security.
In most cases, the deals involved small amounts of crack or powdered cocaine amounting to a total of 365 grams over the course of the investigation. Rather than moving in to arrest the dealers once the transaction was completed, investigators allowed them to walk away, then logged the evidence and, in nearly every case, sought to make additional buys from the same target. By the time the investigation wrapped up, most of those targeted had unwittingly sold drugs to undercover cops on anywhere from two to five occasions. The tactic, Carnright said, ensured that when cases went to trial, defendants would have a hard time convincing a jury that they were only peripherally involved in the drug trade.
“Once you have two, three or four buys from the same person,” said Carnright, “it’s hard to claim that you were just doing a favor for a friend or the police somehow entrapped you.”
The hammer falls
By March, police had assembled cases against 80 alleged drug dealers. In a marathon grand jury session in late March, prosecutors obtained sealed indictments charging all 80 with criminal sale and criminal possession of a controlled substance. Then, on March 31, raid teams deployed throughout the city and surrounding towns to arrest dozens of the accused. A number of targets who were locked up on unrelated charges at the time of the raid were rearrested and presented with the sealed indictments. Within a week of the sweep, cops had hauled in all 80 of the accused as well as another 20 or so people who were arrested on various charges during the raids. Cops also turned up three guns and a modest amount of drugs during the March 31 sweep.
With the defendants indicted, the action in Clean Sweep moved to the Ulster County Courthouse where the sudden influx of drug cases strained the resources of the district attorney’s and the public defender’s offices. Over the next eight months, 78 of the 80 accused would be convicted — five after trial and the remainder as a result of plea agreements. (One defendant, Brother K. McPherson, was acquitted at trial; another, Matthew Felton, had his charges reduced to a misdemeanor and transferred to Kingston City Court.) Sentences ranged from probation or one- or two-year prison stints for those with relatively clean records to 15 years in state prison for defendants with lengthy rap sheets.