Breaking the ring

Life goes on in the breezeway in Building 105 of the Bridgeview Village apartments where heroin dealer Jamar Gathers was shot and killed on Aug. 21, 2010.

Light streamed in from opposite ends of a cinder-block breezeway as Jamar Gathers moved toward the staircase inside Building 105.

Gathers, 28, controlled most of the heroin that flowed through the corridors of Charleston’s Bridgeview Village, and he wore his illicit success with pride. A long and shiny chain dangled from his neck with a large crucifix. His smile revealed a full grill of gold. Stacks of gold bracelets circled his wrists.

Gathers knew every inch of the low-income complex on North Romney Street. But he had no idea that two people waited for him in the shadows with a gun in hand and a mission to get rid of him.

Four shots echoed through the breezeway. Gathers dropped to the ground and blood spilled around his head.

In that moment on Aug. 21, 2010, a world of gangs, drugs and violence began to unravel. Police and federal agents, already looking at Gathers and his network of suppliers and dealers, doubled down on efforts after his death, and finally got the evidence they needed to crack the shadowy enterprise.

Their work exposed a multi-state pipeline of cash, heroin and cocaine, and led to the indictments of 27 people in the two years that followed.

This month, the last defendant, 40-year-old Gary Lamontt Smith, pleaded guilty to his role as one of the kingpins of the drug ring. City officials and neighbors alike said the sweep that removed Smith and his crew had excised a cancer that kept dozens on the West Side of Charleston living in fear.

“It has been a significant impact in those neighborhoods,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said. “They had been creating a lot of violent crime.”

Smith was just a teenager when he started working his way up from the lower echelons of the drug world. He and his buddy Jermaine Bailey, now 35, started as lookouts, using walkie-talkies to alert dealers to people coming into the Bridgeview apartment complex.

Smith earned his first conviction for peddling heroin in 1990. But he stuck with the trade. It was good, easy money.

By 2006 Smith had started his own operation, with Bailey’s help. Smith knew a man in New York City who could get him the goods he needed. That man, 34-year-old Trown Davis, had a line straight into a Dominican gang that supplied high-end heroin.

The heroin bags were double-sealed, with the drugs in wax packets encased in heat-sealed plastic covers. It was a marketing gimmick designed to showcase the purity of their product, which they branded with names such as “Gold Star,” “Knock Out” and “Max Payne.”

Davis initially shipped heroin to Smith two to three times a month through the mail or by FedEx. He sent an average of 250 to 300 bundles each time. Each bundle contained 10 bags weighing 0.03 grams each. The bags sold for about $20 each.

Smith’s old friend, Bailey, soon became one of his biggest dealers, moving about three to five bundles daily, or up to $1,000 worth of heroin. In a month’s time, he could make about what a bus driver earns in a year.

Smith and Bailey were soon moving so much heroin that they needed help. They turned to Jamar Gathers, an ex-con and drug runner with ties to the Bloods, a national street gang, and a local offshoot known as “B-Mob.”

B-Mob once stood for “Bayside-Money Over Bitches,” but the meaning changed over time to mean “Bayside-Member of Bloods.”

A burly man with close-cropped hair, Gathers soon assumed control over the network that operated out of Bridgeview, a cluster of buildings isolated between acres of cemeteries and the county’s recycling center.

The drug ring also spread its tentacles into surrounding neighborhoods and towns.

B-Mob’s coveted heroin, crack and powder cocaine ended up in the hands of a West Side street gang called the “Romney Street Killers,” or RSK. The gang operated mainly out of Athens Court, a U-shaped street lined with double-decker homes and chain-link fences in the shadows of Interstate 26.

Smith and company also moved their product across the Cooper River, supplying heroin addicts and dealers in Mount Pleasant.

Business was lucrative, but dangerous as well, as alliances proved temporal and shaky. Blood spilled at times in turf wars among B-Mob, RSK and a rival gang called “East Side Posse,” which moved cut-rate heroin, crack and marijuana in the area around Hanover Street.

In one instance, an RSK member shot up a building used as a drug stash house in Bridgeview. Dealers retaliated by wounding a 16-year-old boy during a drive-by shooting.

In 2009, Smith’s key connection to the Dominicans, Davis, moved from New York City to South Carolina, although the pair took care to preserve Davis’ connections to the northeast heroin pipeline.

Twice a month, Davis would drive to New York City to buy 600 to 1,000 bundles of heroin at a time. Sometimes Davis would fly the cash to New York, but Smith preferred to have Davis drive back and forth.

That strategy would ultimately prove to be their undoing.

Charleston police and their federal counterparts took notice of the drugs flowing through Bridgeview Village, and the violence that followed.

The 10-acre complex had one of the highest crime rates in the city, with numerous shootings, armed robberies, home invasions, rapes and beatings. Many of these crimes went unreported by fearful residents and dealers leery of drawing attention to their activities.

The scope of the drug operation came to light on the night of July 27, 2009, when a drug dealer and career criminal named Herb Richardson, 37, was shot to death inside Bridgeview.

Richardson had been a thorn in the side of police and prosecutors, skating by on a number of violent offenses, including a 1999 murder charge and a 2004 armed robbery. But when he ended up dead, authorities realized that drug-related bloodshed in the area had reached a dangerous tipping point.

In the months that followed, Charleston police, local prosecutors and a number of federal agencies joined forces and formed a task force to probe drug- and gun-related crimes in the apartment complex. They tapped phones, collected names and charted the hierarchy of the drug network.

In a year’s time they had amassed a pile of evidence. But they soon encountered a major hurdle that only a few in Bridgeview saw coming.

As investigators dug deeper, they identified the man atop the drug chain at Bridgeview, Jamar Gathers, known as “Juice.”

Now, investigators needed to find out what he was doing and who he was doing it with. So they put a court-approved tap on his cellphone, and information soon began piling up on his associates, drug dealings and gang connections.

Investigators had hit the jackpot, but it would soon run dry.

An internal struggle had started to brew within the network. Gathers was getting suspicious of some of his crew members after some of them shorted him on cash from their sales.

They were young, lower-level dealers, like the kind Gathers and his handler, Smith, used to be, hungry for a chance to move up the ladder. They included Shawn Blount, 22; Shakeneth Deveaux, 22; Cephus Mitchell, 21; and Vashty West, 20.

Gathers didn’t keep his suspicions to himself, and word soon got out that he wanted to cut the young dealers out of the network. The four caught wind of it, and while counting money in a Bridgeview apartment one Saturday, they decided to get rid of Gathers first.

By Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010, a target was firmly planted on Gathers’ back. Blount lured him to the Bridgeview apartment on the pretense of picking up money and drugs.

“Juice in the gate,” Mitchell exclaimed as Gathers arrived.

They waited for him in the breezeway. Before Gathers made it up the stairs, a shot tore through the back of his head.

It remains unclear who pulled the trigger, but witnesses saw West holding the gun immediately after the shooting.

Word of his death quickly got back to Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Kittrell and the team of investigators. They had spent 11 days listening in to Gathers’ calls and collecting evidence. Now that pipeline of information had been cut off.

Police swarmed the apartment buildings after the killing and erected barriers to control access to the complex. That sent the drug dealers scattering and into hiding.

For Kittrell and his team, it was a frustrating setback.

Into the vacuum left by Gathers’ death stepped Smith’s old drug-running buddy, Bailey. He had been frozen out of Bridgeview heroin sales by Gathers, and now saw a chance to claim the territory.

But in doing so, he stepped into the sights of federal investigators. Soon they were listening in on his calls through wiretaps that also targeted his associates. Investigators also made undercover drug buys directly from Bailey and caught the kingpin, Smith, on a camera in an apparent drug deal.

Their major breakthrough, however, would come with Davis, the man delivering the drugs from New York.

In 2011 Davis bought an Infinity SUV and had a hidden compartment with a hydraulic lift installed. That’s where he kept his stash of narcotics during his nearly 800-mile trek from New York to the Holy City.

On May 15, 2011, he drove to Charleston, his SUV loaded down with 10,000 bags of heroin stamped with their latest brand, called “SWAT.” Davis didn’t know it, but investigators knew exactly what he was up to. They had heard all about the shipment through phone taps.

That afternoon, a South Carolina trooper, in cooperation with federal authorities, stopped Davis for speeding on Interstate 26. Under a trapdoor in the SUV, the trooper found nearly a half-kilo of heroin, which amounts to about $200,000 in value if sold on the street.

Davis’ arrest set in motion raids by investigators at several apartments in Bridgeview. They arrested nine people. That number grew to 27 as the investigation developed.

Smith went to trial this month in federal court, but abruptly changed course and pleaded guilty to his role in the distribution ring. His old friends Davis and Bailey already had done the same, as had 24 others indicted in the case.

Blount, Deveaux, Mitchell and West also pleaded guilty to their involvement in Gathers’ murder.

Drug investigators know they made a dent in the area’s heroin trade, but they worry that others will find a way to fill the gap and meet the demand.

They have seen heroin use jump in recent years, as prescription drugs become harder to get, a concern echoed by the nation’s drug czar.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The Post and Courier recently during a visit to Charleston for a drug conference that he worries that more young people view heroin as a recreational drug.

“We’re seeing greater seizures of heroin on our borders with Mexico,” he said. “And we’re seeing a group of young people that are pretty naïve about the dangers of heroin.”

Federal prosecutors said the investigation into the Dominican suppliers in the Charleston case is ongoing. So are investigations into pockets of Charleston where RSK and East Side Posse sold drugs.

The 27-person indictment in the Bridgeview case included five people from the RSK gang. A separate case targeting the East Side Posse resulted in at least 15 convictions in 2012.

In areas where these gangs operated, folks disagree on whether the law enforcement sweep brought lasting change.

On Athens Court, in the heart of RSK territory, resident Shirley Banks said she has seen fewer dealers on the street. But a sign posted on the fence outside her home still carries a warning: “Notice by Owner — No drug activity allowed on premises.”

“This is the only drug I want,” Banks said as she flicked the ash from a lit cigarette in her hand.

Across the railroad tracks, children were arriving home from school at Bridgeview Village. Many played on grassy patches between the buildings, and shouts echoed from a friendly basketball game on a nearby court.

Toya Williams’ front door stood open, letting in a cool breeze. Inside, the 29-year-old mother of three helped her daughter with homework.

Nearly three years ago, she kept the door locked. But it didn’t stop her from hearing the gunfire that crackled outside, claiming Jamar Gathers’ life.

Williams never told her children what that sound was and what it meant. The stain of blood has since faded from the breezeway’s concrete floor, much like the presence of those dealers.

“The kids can go outside and play now,” Williams said. “I didn’t let them before.

Dave Munday and Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or