I have had a few people ask me recently what happened in my hometown of Helena-West Helena that brought national news attention, especially since my interview this week on Fox16 News. Operation Delta Blues, as it was titled by the United States Attorney Generals Office, consisted of simultaneous raids on 70+ individuals that were carried out by 800 federal and state law enforcement officers. The agencies involved included the FBI, IRS, DEA, ATF, and the Arkansas State Police. Among those arrested, 5 were active law enforcement officers. And to answer the question everyone has asked, yes I did know a lot of these people.
The first reports I got about what was going on came from Facebook, where a lot of my friends who remain in Helena-West Helena were posting reports of helicopters and swat teams all over town w/ loudspeakers, machine guns, and total chaos. I was traveling out of town to a meeting but called a relative who’s office is located at the airport and he said that when he arrived at work that morning he was greeted at the front entrance by a host of federal agents armed to the hilt that informed him he had the rest of the day off work because they had taken over the airport and the National Guard Armory to use as their staging ground. It was later learned that the Armory was where all of those arrested were being held and processed. Below is a video featuring a news report and the press conference that was held immediately following all of the arrests:
As for me personally, my thoughts on what all went down are mixed, I hated to see my hometown look like Gotham City minus Batman on the news again, but knowing that a lot of planning and intel went into this investigation helped me to realize that maybe, just maybe, my hometown can start the process of getting back on it’s feet again after decades of decline partly due to an amazing crime rate.
Those of you that follow my blog may already be aware, I launched a line of products online shortly after the event went down not only to commemorate the event but also to hopefully raise some money for 2 charities, The Humane Society of the Delta and The One, Inc. Anyone that has ever visited Helena-West Helena is probably already aware that there is a serious stray dog problem in the area.
Here’s an article that was posted by The Associated Press detailing the entire event, one of my old roommates, Vance Kalb, was even interviewed. Hey, it’s a small town, everybody knows everybody!
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As rampant drug dealing and violent crimes crept into the isolated Mississippi River city of Helena-West Helena, people in town knew something was up. But few bothered calling for help as gunfire rang out near the historic streets lined with boutique shops and boarded-up buildings.
“What are the police going to do? Nine times out of 10, they’re just going to look the other way,” Bubba Sullivan said, echoing distrust voiced throughout town.
Officials say a four-year federal investigation, dubbed “Operation Delta Blues,” revealed that mistrust may not have been entirely misplaced. Hundreds of law enforcement officers swarmed Helena-West Helena in the middle of the night last week and arrested dozens of people — five of them law enforcement officers accused of taking bribes to ignore and sometimes assist drug traffickers who shipped marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs throughout Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The FBI said the probe focused on corrupt officers dealing with criminals who, in some cases, were convicted murderers.
“For far too long, a small minority of individuals has taken over this community,” Mayor Arnell Willis said.
Parts of Willis’ city of 12,000 remain undeniably inviting. Past a valley bathed in green vines, people have converted Victorian-style mansions into bed and breakfasts. Advertisements on more than one building boast the best Coca-Cola in town. Banners promote the historic downtown drag that drew tens of thousands of tourists just this month for the famous King Biscuit Blues Festival.
But a few blocks away, broken panes of glass and crumbling buildings hint at the crime that’s haunted this city in the Mississippi River Delta, where jobs are scarce and the poverty rate has climbed to 30 percent. Financial troubles have led the state to take over the local schools, twice. Eight killings have been reported this year.
Bill Brothers, 60, remembers wandering the neighborhood as a child, without making his parents fret. But Brothers, who buys and sells airplanes, said he has been far more cautious raising his three sons.
“It’s gotten where it’s not uncommon” to hear gunshots, he said. “It’s not something you’d be startled about anymore.”
Willis, who took over the mayor’s office in January, said he couldn’t go to church on Sundays without hearing from people worried about killings and corruption. So just months into the job, he headed to Little Rock to beg U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer for help. “To be honest, I got tired of hearing the question,” Willis said. “Locally, we were doing all we could do.”
Thyer didn’t tell Willis during their three-hour meeting that his office already had been investigating for years. He also didn’t tell the mayor that at least four area police officers and a sheriff’s deputy allegedly had been taking $500 bribes to escort drug shipments through the city and use their authority to prevent arrests or prosecutions. Prosecutors say the deputy was caught on a wiretap referring to it all as “the good old boy system.”
The officers, who have all pleaded not guilty, were among defendants listed in seven federal indictments unsealed last week that brought 184 charges against some 70 people. The main indictment alleges a drug trafficking operation directed out of Helena-West Helena “was responsible for the distribution of large quantities of cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana” and other drugs in east Arkansas, Memphis, Tenn., and Clarksdale, Miss., along with other areas.
Local pawn shop owner Vance Kalb III said he often would see and hear flashes of gunfire on the overnight security camera videos he watches every morning. “We all feel like it can’t get any worse, but it always does,” Kalb said. “There’s a lot of things that don’t even show up in the newspaper.” When he came into work the morning after last week’s busts, Kalb saw on the video flashes of emergency lights and heard arrests being made. The tapes were much quieter the rest of the week. Kalb has tried to stay positive after bust, even designing several T-shirts celebrating the operation. One shirt pokes fun at defendants’ nicknames listed in the indictments — “Ray Ray,” ”Cheeseburger,” ”The Mechanic” and “Pee Wee.” “You can’t do nothing but laugh,” Kalb said. “It’s sad, but at the same time, I’m happy it happened.”
Those arrested are being held in Little Rock, more than 100 miles away. People in Helena-West Helena say they’re grateful for outside agencies’ help, but can’t help but wonder if they’re only seeing a brief respite from the noise and violence.
“When they get out, what’s going to happen?” asked Linda Walters, who drives a school bus. “Is the killing going to start all over again?” Thyer and other law enforcement officials have said their investigation will continue, though they won’t comment on their next steps.
Residents, meanwhile, are coming out on their porches and yards again. For the first time many can remember, people say they have hope. Some are enjoying the silence. Walters had grown accustomed to dropping from her bed and hiding on the floor when she heard gunfire in the middle of the night. “Ever since they shot at my house, I hadn’t really gotten no rest,” Walters said. “I didn’t think anybody was going to do anything.” After last week’s arrests, she said she got a good night’s sleep.
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Hopefully, this information will help get everyone up to speed as to what all went down in my hometown and why I have been superglued to the news reports about the event. Please keep in mind that this was just phase one of the investigation, everyone that I have spoken to expects there to be many more arrests in the following weeks and months.
A couple of things that are of interest concerning Operation Delta Blues that I wanted to point out that might be worth watching…
- It has been reported by several outlets that a local defense attorney was named as the source for payments to the officers who provided protection to the people named in these indictments. That attorney hasn’t been named as far as I know, but you know good and well that deals are probably already being made on that front. Either the attorney is striking a deal or someone named in the earlier indictment is singing like a bird right now, possibly even both if that’s possible.
- The Washington Post mentioned that during the arraignment process one of the defendants named, Demetrius Colbert, said in court Thursday that he couldn’t afford to hire his own attorney. It was then that prosecutor Julie Peters told Judge Volpe that authorities had found $423,000 in cash inside an Oldsmobile Cutlass belonging to Colbert. Peters said Colbert also had a Cadillac and other luxury cars. That’s a lot of cash to be taken out of a drug operation, I don’t care if it’s Pablo Escobar, that much cash missing is going to raise some eyebrows and possibly lead to a lot of time. If this Colbert guy, who is obviously connected pretty well to a syndicate, is moving that much in drugs, it’s likely the Feds will offer him a serious break in order to take down bigger players on down the line, possibly moving into an international phase of this case.
- Most of the people involved in this case are mid-level dealers, and honestly don’t have two nickels to rub together, obviously some have more than others, but for the most part being broke is just part of that lifestyle. I look for a lot of these guys, especially the smarter ones w/ families and weren’t involved on a daily basis w/ the organized crime side of this case, to cut some serious deals by cooperating. That’s how the federal system works. Everyone I have spoken w/ in Phillips County that is familiar w/ the case is waiting on the hat to drop and the next roundup net just as many, if not more offenders.
One other thing I wanted to make clear, I’m a pretty busy guy and will not be updating my blog very consistently with updates regarding this case because frankly I have too much going on, but I will be keeping up as closely as I can. Just don’t rely on me for fact, or late breaking news because I am pretty detached from the entire area, as I have been gone for over a decade now. There are however tons of news stories on Operation Delta Blues available online from news and media outlets across the United States, here’s a listing compliments of Google News if you are interested…
This is a follow-up to a recent post where I opened an online store selling Operation Delta Blues Merchandise. The proceeds from this store will go to support The Humane Society of the Delta, and The One, Inc. You can purchase merchandise here…