Gangs, crack cocaine tainted city's image

Taking it down
News-Sentinel staff photo

Taking it down
An Allen County Police officer clears the marquee of Cinema Blue, an adult theater at 2441 Broadway in Fort Wayne, in March 1984.
By MIKE DOOLEY of The News-Sentinel

Fort Wayne crime in the 1980s may be most remembered for the war on:

(a) gangs
(b) drugs
(c) pornography
(d) white-collar crime
(e) all of the above

If you picked (e), move to the head of the class. When it came to crime in the Summit City during the 1980s, events in each of those categories made for some spectacular headlines.

Of all the decade's criminal activity, drugs — especially crack cocaine — probably have had the most lasting effect on the city.

A particularly powerful form of cocaine made by cooking the powdered drug with baking soda, crack, or "poor man's coke," started showing up on the local scene in the mid-1980s. Police believe it found its way here from Detroit and other large cities, where it had been the drug of choice for several years.

Within a year, it enjoyed that same distinction in some sections of Fort Wayne. Crack houses, usually vacant homes where dealers offered their wares, popped up throughout the city as the popularity of crack escalated. At one, officers shot and killed a man they identified as a dealer after he reportedly pointed a handgun at them. A network television news special used footage of a drug deal videotaped by a local landlord who secretly recorded sales going down near his rentals.

By the late 1980s, it was nearly impossible to drive down some streets without being approached by someone offering crack or other drugs with no regard for who might be watching. Only a few years after Fort Wayne was named an All America City, it had a new nickname in law enforcement circles — the city of crack houses.

Crack made the most news, but it was hardly the only drug available here during the ‘80s. Powdered cocaine was as popular as ever, as evidenced by two large-scale drug busts — "Operation Snowfort" in 1984 and the arrest of drug kingpin Darryl "White Oscar" McCleese in 1987 — and marijuana, heroin, LSD and other illegal substances were readily available.

Gang warfare

The rise of crack brought with it another phenomenon — gangs.

In one respect, "gangs" were nothing new to Fort Wayne. Relatively tame groups of teen-agers such as the Ventures or Wheelers & Dealers car clubs went back three decades or more; others, known for raising a little more trouble — such as the Sons of Satan or the Daughters of Desire — had been on the local scene for years.

The gangs of the ‘80s, though, were anything but tame. Their names — the Gangster Disciples, the Hellraisers and the Vice Lords, among others — sent a message about their reasons for being, and their activities reinforced it.

From the Black Jessies in 1980 to Mayor Win Moses Jr.'s admission five years later that they had become a major criminal problem, gang members virtually took over some areas of Fort Wayne. Their random gunfire became the newest sound of the city. They proudly wore their colors and flashed hand signs. On at least two occasions during the mid-'80s, they instigated a mini-crime wave downtown, beating, robbing and terrorizing crowds leaving the Three Rivers Festival.

By the end of the decade, running gunbattles between rival gang members were commonplace in some neighborhoods. The drive-by shooting debuted on local streets. Residents of some areas developed the habit of dropping to the floor in their homes when they heard

Pornography and corruption

While crack and gangs claimed the city's core as their turf, white-collar crime and pornography seemed to know no boundaries.

Long known as a city where so-called "victimless" crimes such as gambling and after-hours drinking were tolerated, Fort Wayne had for several years been developing a reputation as a mecca for those seeking thrills in topless bars, massage parlors and adult bookstores. The owner of one establishment at Broadway and Taylor Street even offered his version of one-stop shopping: Patrons could have a drink and take in an adult movie on the first floor, then go upstairs for a topless massage.

In 1982, a group calling itself Citizens for Decency through Law showed up on sidewalks outside several adult establishments, picketing and calling for a citywide crackdown to close them. Steve Sims, the county prosecutor, began a campaign using the state's racketeering law that saw many of the businesses closed for good by the end of the decade.

If most of those involved in the "adult" businesses were hardly household names, some caught up in white-collar crime during the decade were among the more prominent members of the community.

The first was state Sen. Phil Gutman, a prominent local lawyer and politician who went to a federal penitentiary in 1982 for taking a bribe from a lobbyist. The next year, veteran City Clerk Charles Westerman, whose political career went back to the days of the Truman administration, went to prison for stealing money from parking tickets his office processed.

Mayor Win Moses Jr. was indicted in 1984 for violating the state's campaign finance act by failing to report donations his political committee made to a sheriff's candidate. Moses escaped jail time, but he was forced to resign from office for 11 days in 1985 before a caucus of Democrat precinct officials returned him to the job.

Even the police chief got caught in a legal snarl as a grand jury indicted former Chief David Riemen in 1988 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his handling of the 1985 murder of community activist Sharon Lapp. A judge dismissed the perjury charges, and a jury found Riemen not guilty on the remaining count.
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