By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — When neighbors in the 1600 block of Michigan Avenue heard the pounding of a police battering ram and shouts of “Down on the ground” early Monday morning, they suspected it was a long-awaited wake up call for William “Willie” Johnson.
They were right.
“I’m not surprised,” one neighbor said, moments after a Falls Police SWAT team broke down the door to Johnson’s first floor apartment. “They have too much traffic over there. You notice all the people coming and going.”
City narcotics cops say Johnson ran a brisk drug dealing business out of the flat he shared with his mother, his girlfriend and their 4-month-old child. After searching the apartment, investigators found traces of cocaine on a digital scale, some pot and some prescription pills.
As Johnson emerged from his home in handcuffs, he scowled and harped at waiting reporters and photographers.
“Pictures? Video? You all got the wrong man,” Johnson moaned. “This is crazy.”
His neighbors felt differently.
“(Johnson’s drug dealing) has been going on a long time,” said neighbor Mary Jo Niziol. “He has people coming in vans and trucks all the time. It’s obvious people are coming for drugs and it’s time someone did something about it.”
Falls Police said that was what a series of raids Monday, dubbed Operation Spring Clean Up, was intended to do - Clean up some of the street level dealers that have plagued Cataract City neighborhoods.
“These houses were active drug houses and nuisances to the community,” Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said. “The purpose (of the raids) was to send a clear message that Niagara Falls is not the place to do drugs.”
Niziol said the Michigan Avenue block where Johnson was dealing is home to a large number of children. She said kids should not be exposed to that.
“I’m happy all this traffic is gonna be gone,” another neighbor said.
Wesley Richards lives two houses down from Johnson and said he used to watch cars pull to the curb and then back up toward his neighbor’s house.
“I’d see the cars and I knew they weren’t going to (the house next door). She’s a little old lady,” Richards said. “You never know when someone’s gonna go down like (the raid). But everything comes to an end sometime. (Johnson) is a good guy, just trying to make some money. He’s just doing it the wrong way.”
Richards’ neighbor, who lived directly next to Johnson, seemed pleased with the police response.
“I appreciate what’s going on,” she said. “But otherwise, I have no comment. I know the (Johnson) family. It’s sad.”
In addition to Johnson’s Michigan Avenue apartment, Falls police, aided by a dozen other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, swept through the city’s North and South Ends with a half dozen SWAT teams raiding homes on 20th, 24th and 27th streets, a house on Cudaback Avenue and a motel on Niagara Falls Boulevard that has been described as “an open air drug market.”
Police said when officers burst into a room at the Hospitality Inn, in the 6700 block of Niagara Falls Boulevard, they found the target of their search warrant and another person smoking on a crack pipe. It was the third raid on a room at the motel in six weeks.
“The Hospitality Inn just doesn’t seem to stop” said an exasperated Narcotics Division Capt. Dave LeGault.
LeGault said SWAT teams were used for the sweep because police had information that there might be guns at many of the locations that were being hit. Investigators recovered a shotgun from a home on 27th Street.
“A lot of the information for these investigations came from citizens who are tired of their neighborhoods being destroyed,” LeGault said. “We are going to continue to pursue these individuals.”
Police made a total of five arrests. Johnson, 29, 1642 Michigan Ave., was charged with seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, unlawful possession of marijuana, endangering the welfare of a child, second-degree obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.
At the Hospitality Inn, investigators charged Donna DeGregorio, 48, who lives and works at the motel, 6734 Niagara Falls Blvd., with third- and fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Detectives arrested Jacob Smouse, 41, 1954 Cudaback Ave, Apt. 3, and charged him with third and fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and third-degree criminal possession of marijuana.
Durrell Tabb, 24, 413 27th St., was charged with third-degree criminal possession of marijuana.
Investigators arrested a suspect at 630 20th St., but did not identify him because charges are pending.
No one was charged after the raid of a home at 220 24th St. because no drugs were found at that location.
Falls officers were assisted in the raids by deputies from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, officers from the Buffalo, North Tonawanda, Lockport, Lewiston, Town of Niagara and Town of Tonawanda Police Departments, troopers from the New York State Police, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Also assisting were Niagara County Probation officers, prosecutors from the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, members of the Niagara Falls Fire Department and paramedics from Rural Metro Ambulance.