Drug war hits home for Gwinnett residents

If metro Atlanta is a battleground in the war against drug trafficking in the United States, then Gwinnett County is on the front lines.

That’s no secret to police or the residents who live there. A bountiful supply of rental homes and the state’s largest Latino population have made the county a magnet for Mexican drug cartel operatives looking to blend into their surroundings.

Federal prosecutors say the county is the epicenter of the Southeast region’s drug trafficking activity. Gwinnett is also designated as a high intensity drug trafficking area (HIDTA) by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, along with 19 other counties in metro Atlanta and central North Carolina. Jack Killorin, the director of the Atlanta HIDTA, says investigations into cartel activity typically have a tie in Gwinnett.

“Within our designated counties, Gwinnett is the center of their operations,” Killorin said.

This influx of drugs has had an impact on more than just the peddlers, dopers and the police.

It has punctured the peacefulness of Buckingham Place, a Duluth street where two homes served as bases of operation for drug cartel operatives.

It has blighted the business for shopkeepers at a Lawrenceville strip mall where a grocery store was a front for a brisk street-level narcotics trade.

And it has created a steady stream of clients for a substance abuse treatment facility in Lawrenceville that is fighting to pull addicts back from the brink.

These are their stories:

Buckingham Place

Buckingham Place is a residential street that lies about halfway as the crow flies between I-85 and Buford Highway in Duluth.

Take a drive along it and you’ll see a lane dotted with mature trees, wood-frame houses and hand-painted mailboxes.

What you won’t see — what few residents even noticed until recently — is the drug activity going on behind closed doors and curtained windows.

Seven months ago at a cream-colored ranch home at 4238 Buckingham Place, authorities hauled in the largest methamphetamine seizure east of the Mississippi River.

Several houses down and across the street at 4299 Buckingham Place is a blue split-level home that was the location of an unrelated drug rip-off in May that left one man dead and three others injured.

“You don’t know where or when you can find a drug dealer right here in this neighborhood,” said Jesus Hernandez, a seven-year resident of Buckingham Place. “Right now, you can find a drug dealer right next to your house.”

Part of the problem may be “for sale” and “for rent” signs that have cropped up like so many weeds along the street. Foreclosures and unsold, vacant homes are an open invitation for criminals to come inside.

A Buckingham Place resident, who asked not to be identified because he was a witness to the quadruple shooting, said the presence of the drug smugglers went unnoticed because “they kept to themselves and nobody knew what was happening.”

Shortly after the drug bust and shooting, about 30 residents held an impromptu street corner meeting to discuss improving neighborhood security. They toyed with the idea of installing cameras at the entrances to the neighborhood, but the effort stalled when some people complained it would violate their privacy, Hernandez said.

Hernandez plans to move as soon as the real estate market improves.

Other neighbors, such as Connie Pruitt, have no intention of leaving. The 39-year-old mother, who lives on Buckingham Place with her husband, said she was “freaked out” when the drug activity came to light. Especially since so many children — including Pruitt’s two elementary-school-age daughters and several of their playmates — live on the street. But Pruitt said the recent troubles haven’t spooked her badly enough to want to move.

“I have lived here 15 years. It is an older, established neighborhood, and the school system is good,” Pruitt said. “I’ve never felt threatened or afraid.”

199 E. Crogan St. shopping center

The Ramirez family has been serving authentic Mexican food at Tortacos restaurant for eight years. Situated on the corner of a shopping strip at 199 E. Crogan St. in Lawrenceville, the eatery doesn’t court a party crowd. It doesn’t even serve liquor. Families are the target customer, said the owner’s son, Jose Ramirez.

Families have been increasingly difficult to attract since October, when police arrested eight people and seized 7 pounds of cocaine and other illegal drugs at an adjacent grocery store. Police said El Parral Carniceria y Fruteria was a front for street-level narcotics sales.

El Parral may be gone, but darkened storefronts and criminal activity continue to plague the only three tenants still operating: Tortacos, a tax preparation company and a barber shop.

“We still see a lot of cars drive up to the store, get out and walk around,” Ramirez said. “These are people that we know normally wouldn’t be there unless they were looking for drugs.”

Several shopkeepers have fallen victim to a spate of robberies and burglaries. Tortacos was burglarized on Monday. Someone smashed a window and stole about $100. The restaurant was held up twice around Christmas last year.

Jorge Castano, who owns the tax preparation company Latin Georgia Services 2, said the grocery store was burglarized at least four times before the police shut it down. The owners never reported the burglaries because they were trying to conceal their illicit trade, Castano said.

Tenants say the shopping center has fallen into disrepair. No lights come on after dark, and about half the storefront windows are boarded up or empty.

Mercedes Ramirez, who primarily runs Tortacos, took a second job at a doctor’s office and cut the restaurant staff from four employees to two to offset declining profits.

“We’re right now in a situation that has not allowed us to move,” she said, since the restaurant is bound by a lease. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Property records show the shopping center went into foreclosure in August. A Florida mortgage finance company, Bayview Loan Servicing, purchased it. Brian Bomstein, the attorney representing the company, said Bayview is still locked in litigation over the property. Bomstein said the company does not have possession of the shopping center, and he declined to comment about the state of affairs there.

Castano said many of the people who used to frequent the shopping center were illegal immigrants. Customers are now staying away because they believe police are still watching the place.

“People are nervous,” Castano said.

Purple Inc.

Drugs can rob a man of many things: a home, children, marriage, job, reputation and health.

But Joel and Brett Bagley have made a business of restoring lives at Purple Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment center for men in Lawrenceville.

The father-son team of certified addiction counselors bought a 100-year-old farmhouse off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road in 2003 and turned into a place of healing. The serene 8-acre tract boasts a volleyball court, fire pit, and an oddball assortment of goats, chickens and guinea hens. With its relaxed atmosphere and the camaraderie of up to 23 clients, Purple Inc. is designed to immerse addicts in “recovery as a way of life,” Brett Bagley said.

“We give them a new life, is what we do,” Bagley said.

Bagley, who became addicted to drugs in his junior year of high school, understands what clients are going through. In-patient treatment worked for him, as he hopes it will for those who come to stay at Purple. The program also treats the families of addicts. His father, Joel, learned the importance of including families in the healing process in the wake of Brett’s addiction.

Counselors at Purple say addicts will always find something to numb them from problems — be it alcohol, prescription pills or illegal narcotics. But the more widely available a drug is, the more socially acceptable it starts to become, Brett Bagley said.

The easy availability, increased potency and lower price of narcotics is a concern for counselors at Purple. Ashley Kilpatrick, an addiction counselor since 1985, said the drug problem in metro Atlanta seemed to reach a crisis point around 2005.

“I have known more kids under age 20 that have overdosed on narcotics in the last four years than the previous 20 years put together,” Kilpatrick said.

Yet there is also plenty of cause for hope. The counselors at Purple point out that the Atlanta area has a huge recovery movement. There are nearly 30 narcotics recovery meetings held each week in various locations in Gwinnett County. The meetings have an average attendance of 30 people who are fighting to take back control of their lives, according to the Georgia Regional Service Committee of Narcotics Anonymous.

Among them are many people, such as the Bagley family and the counselors at Purple, who are willing to lead broken people along the path of sobriety.

“We live what it is we ask them to do,” Brett Bagley said. “We create opportunities for recovery to happen.”


Meet the reporter

Andria Simmons has covered Gwinnett County crime since 2002, first as a reporter for The Gwinnett Daily Post and later as a police and courts reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As an Atlanta-area resident since 1989, a graduate of Norcross High School and a Georgia State University alumna, she has witnessed firsthand all the changes the region underwent over the past two decades. “Although many people believe they are not affected by drugs, this story shows the impact that they can have on the community in unexpected ways. It’s also interesting to note how disrepair, high vacancy rates and property neglect can feed into the problem,” she said.