Gardening trio arrested in drug sweep

Mike Hayes is one of a group of friends who helped turn a vacant Columbus Street lot into a garden. Three of the group, including Hayes, were arrested Thursday on charges of selling drugs.

Three friends whose reputations blossomed with the start of a community garden on the East Side apparently succumbed to seedier roots and now face charges of dealing drugs in their neighborhood, authorities said.

Calvin Dixon, Arnold Bellinger and Mike Hayes made no secret of past scrapes with Charleston police, but they earned praise from residents and authorities alike last year for helping to create a vibrant Columbus Street garden that provided fresh produce for their neighbors. Their efforts even earned them an invitation to speak to students in a rural Orangeburg school district who were starting a garden of their own.

Before they could make the trip, however, police swooped in Thursday and charged them with selling heroin and/or crack cocaine. They are among some 30 suspects named in an eight-month undercover investigation into drug peddling in the East and West

Side neighborhoods, police said.

Despite the arrests, Police Chief Greg Mullen still supports the garden effort and considers it an asset to the community, police public information officer Charles Francis said. Investigators found no evidence linking the garden to drug sales, and none of the undercover buys occurred there, he said.

"It's two completely separate things," Francis said. "These guys were helping with the garden but they were not selling drugs from the garden."

The garden got its unlikely start in March 2009 when Zachary Stansell, a chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decided to clean up a garbage-strewn lot near the home he was renting. He joked about starting a garden there. Calvin Dixon and his uncle, Vietnam veteran John Lambert, pitched in to help make it a reality. Hayes, Bellinger and their friend Kevin Coaxum also got involved. Soon, the garden yielded a bounty of okra, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and collard greens that kept the neighborhood in vegetables through Christmas.

The effort attracted attention and prompted a February visit from Orangeburg Consolidated School District 3 officials, who were involved in a literacy initiative featuring a book about a similar community garden. District Superintendent Cynthia Cash-Greene said the story of the Columbus Street garden seemed straight out of that book, "Seedfolks," and she invited the budding urban farmers to come speak to students about their efforts.

Cash-Greene said Friday that the planned visit had not yet occurred and she was disappointed to learn three of the young men were now in jail.

Cash-Greene said she was blasted by some critics for extending an invitation to the trio, who all have criminal records. She saw it as a chance to recognize the contributions of young men trying to do some good and perhaps move beyond their pasts. "It's disappointing that some folks are so willing to squash that little glimmer of hope," she said.

Dixon, 29; Bellinger, 30; and Hayes, 28, all have multiple convictions for past drug offenses, as well as for assault, disorderly conduct and other crimes, according to State Law Enforcement Division records. Hayes is still awaiting trial in connection with a July 2009 incident in which shots were fired on Hanover Street.

The friends acknowledged past run-ins with the law during interviews last year, but they insisted their work in the garden was for the good of their community. They spoke excitedly and earnestly about learning how to tend to the soil and bring forth a harvest.

On Friday, fresh, green shoots from green pepper and okra plants poked through the dry earth, arranged in tidy rows throughout the small plot. Dixon and his friends were a city away, awaiting bail hear ings at the county jail.