Vials of crack were an ugly, everyday reminder of neighborhood decay.
1985: Instant high sends Trenton low
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
Cocaine had been ruining movie stars and others with too much money for a generation when, in 1985, it came to the masses of Trenton in a form called crack.

It destroyed lives and fractured families faster than any narcotic ever before. Crack inspired a spate of senseless and sordid crimes that hurt Trenton's image and hardened its cops.

Instantly addicting, crack produces a euphoria so powerful that users stop caring about school, family, work and bills to concentrate solely on getting their fix.

Born addicted, crack babies started filling hospital maternity wards and often stayed for months because their mothers, if they could be found at all, were in no condition to care for them.

Crack was pure cocaine that was smoked with only a bit less danger than in the form that flared up and nearly burned off the face of comic Richard Pryor a few years earlier.

To make it, powdered cocaine was boiled in water until all the cutting agents were taken away in the steam. When the pure cocaine dried out in the pan, it cracked up like a dry stream bed.

Crack was priced for urban America. In the beginning, a chip the size of a small diamond sold for as little as $2, providing maybe two puffs of pure cocaine smoke.

The euphoria was instant. Within minutes, however, most smokers wanted more and started digging into their pockets again for crumpled bills and loose change.

Mercer County vice raiders, led by Lt. Al Heyesey, and Trenton police Sgt. Joe Salvatore's street squad had one of the first encounters with crack on Dec. 12, 1985, after storming into a vacant house on Ward Avenue.

Set up as a hideaway for smoking "freebase" coke, the supposedly empty building had seen more people coming and going than a grocery store in the days before the cops moved in and arrested four men, including a former star city athlete working as a house "doorman."

Detective Rick Callery recalls hearing about crack for the first time.  A plainclothesman assigned to the vice squad in 1985, Callery said he was having coffee when colleague Jerry Innocenzi came in and warned everyone to brace for the turmoil of a powerful new narcotic.

"'Crack? What's that?" I asked. "I didn't think too much about it. I thought it would be just another passing fad," said Callery, now a spokesman for the police force.

"Well, little did any of us know how much it was going to impact on our lives and the life of the city," Callery said.

Within weeks of its arrival, crack was wreaking havoc in Trenton. Students were stealing cash for crack from parents and grandparents. Dealers were accepting stolen items as payment.

Young ladies who had been attending church on Sunday only weeks before were selling their bodies for a couple of beads of crack. Boys too young to get locked up were operating as crack runners for dealers likely to go to jail if caught.

Murder and mayhem ran rampant during Trenton's crack years: A 21-year-old tossed out of
his house for stealing the family food money was so angry he returned in the pre-dawn hours and torched the place, killing his 2-year-old nephew.

A young woman in search of crack was lured into a vacant building on Perry Street by a man who told her he had no drugs, then proceeded to rape and strangle her with a belt.

Crack took away all inhibitions, it seemed. Callery and Innocenzi said it was common to see "crackheads," as addicts came to be called, walking down streets holding their drugs or the glass pipes for smoking it.

When completely addicted, crackheads stopped bathing and changing clothes and rarely ate. One day at the South Ward Wawa, a neighborhood crackhead didn't have quite enough cash for a lighter and a pack of cupcakes. She took the lighter, so important was firing up her pipe.

It was common in those days to find streets littered with tiny vials that had held a couple of chips of crack.

The sight of the vials scattered among the discarded needles of heroin addicts angered neighborhood leaders and led to allegations that law enforcement didnít care what happened to people in the ghetto.

Trentonís uniformed squad of curbside drug busters, the Pro-active Unit, set records for arrests and broken fingers in those years. To make a crack arrest, one cop remarked at the time, was to get involved in a grappling match.

Immune to pain when high on the drug, many suspects couldn't be stopped by blows from a nightstick and ended up breaking cops' fingers or hands as they twisted out of custody.

As a result, young cops in particular started wearing protective leather gloves on-duty and pumping iron off-duty. The cops hired after the crack craze tended to be more brawny than the previous generation of officers.

The cops tried to stem the flow of crack to the city, but it was up against a new, confusing distribution system. Before crack, Innocenzi said, the cops knew who the town's six or seven main drug dealers were.

But the crack trade was so lucrative, it seemed like everybody was getting involved, Innocenzi said. The new, freelance dealers usually traveled to New York on the train and paid $300 for a supply that would sell for $1,000 back home.

"Well, that wasn't nickel-and-dime dealing. If you went up to New York three times a week,
you'd be making $2,100 a week, and it was all tax-free," said Innocenzi.

The city was flooded with the smokable cocaine because, Innocenzi said, for some reason federal and other authorities never have been able to get at the people at the top of the distribution system.

While the cops worked on locking up the crooks, community leaders concentrated on keeping
youngsters away from drugs. And both can claim some success in the war on drugs.

Crack can still be found on the streets of Trenton today, but not as many people are as interested for it as they were in 1985 and for several years after.

Anti-drug education in grade-school classrooms and the after-school supervision of the Weed and Seed program, which President George Bush started in 1990 after a campaign tour of Trenton, have helped slow crack's addiction rate.

But, as Callery said, the bigger reason for the decline of crack might be all the little boys and girls who saw their older siblings or even parents destroyed by the drug.

ďI think maybe the second generation saw what crack was doing to people and said, ĎIím staying away from that stuff," Callery said.

Innocenzi, a police lieutenant assigned to the juvenile squad these days, said he's not so sure about that.

There are fewer crackheads around, he said, because so many from the bad old days of 1985 are now dead.
Recently, Innocenzi said, he met one crack survivor who told of losing all his money to lawyers, and another who lost all his teeth.
Back to The Capital Century index
1900s    1910s    1920s    1930s    1940s    1950s    1960s    1970s    1980s    1990s