A Plague Fueled by Crack

crack cocaine

Beacon reeled from crime in the ’90s

Before Daniel Aubry began marketing real estate from the storefront at 192 Main St. in Beacon, the building became a shrine to Michael Adrian Brown.

Police found the 19-year-old sprawled on the stoop of the then-boarded-up structure on Sept. 5, 1995 — one bullet struck Brown’s left arm, the other his face. People began filling the stoop with candles, cards and flowers in honor of the former Beacon High School student.

An article in the Poughkeepsie Journal described the building as “a one-time barbershop, now marred by graffiti and peeling paint.” For police, the corner of Main and Willow streets, where 192 Main sat, was at the epicenter of the illegal drug trade and an era.

“Weapons, armed robberies, you name it,” said Harold Delamater, a retired Beacon detective. “It was the Wild West.”

Before city officials declared a full-fledged renaissance, Beacon residents had to survive the 1990s, when the emergence of crack cocaine fueled an outbreak of drug sales, robberies and burglaries. Homicides and reported rapes remained low, according to crime data, but other violent crimes — aggravated assaults and robberies — reached highs in the 1990s, when the crack epidemic spread upriver from New York City.

Beacon averaged 110 violent crimes during the period, peaking at 173 in 1995. Brown’s death was the sole homicide that year, but the city recorded its highest number of robberies and aggravated assaults since at least 1990.

Property crimes — burglaries, larcenies and car thefts — also spiked, which authorities attributed to people addicted to narcotics searching for items such as VCRs and televisions that could be sold. The 168 burglaries recorded in 1991 was 10 times the number recorded in 2022; the city averaged 209 larcenies annually during the 1990s, nearly twice as many as the 115 from 2022.

When Clara Lou Gould defeated Jim Fredericks in 1989 to become Beacon’s mayor, she named the illegal drug problem as a priority. She still held the mayor’s seat in 2000, when the crime wave began a steady decline as Beacon drew new residents, housing and businesses.

“People did get involved,” said Gould, when asked what led to a safer city. “This is your city; you can’t leave it all to everybody else.”

Police in Beacon and Poughkeepsie first began to notice in the late 1980s the emergence of the smokeable cocaine derivative that became known as crack. According to a Poughkeepsie Journal article in November 1986, “until six months ago, many local police officers didn’t know what the new crystalline form of cocaine looked like.”

By March 1988, Fredericks and leaders of Beacon’s Muslim community gathered for a march along Main Street, where they vowed to drive out drug dealers. Before crack, Beacon officers mostly dealt with a handful of heroin addicts who largely kept to themselves; the odd person smoking a joint; public drinking; and dice games on Main Street, said Delamater.

Crack “slowly worked its way into Beacon,” he said. “When it came in, it came in with a vengeance. We were not prepared.”

Dealers selling crack dominated on the West End, along Main Street between Bank Square and Elm, and powder cocaine at the East End. Main and Cliff streets, and Main and Willow, where Brown died, were two of the hot corners, said Delmater.

The arrests during the 1990s included a man charged with chasing a woman with a knife and demanding her bank cards, car and money; three Beacon men charged with possessing 66 vials of crack after police stopped a taxi near the Edgewater apartments; and two men arrested 2½ hours apart for selling drugs at Main and Cliff.

Police raided a third-floor apartment on Cliff Street being used as a stash house and a pool hall on the East End where dealers sold cocaine, said Delamater. In July 1990, police charged six people with felony cocaine possession and sales after raiding 163 and 174 Main St. and finding 6 ounces of cocaine and $5,000 cash.

Beacon’s East End hosted most of the city’s heroin trade, he said. Police raided one house and the dealer threw 100 bags of heroin out of a window — where it landed at the feet of a police officer, said Delamater.

Beacon averaged 105 burglaries annually in the 1990s, compared to an average of 20 since 2018. In addition to VCRs and televisions, thieves looked for cash and small items of value that could be fenced, such as jewelry. In 1990, a man living at the Mount Beacon Hotel was charged with committing burglaries at 15 businesses over a three-year period. Police said he stole things he could fit in his pocket.

That same year, police said they were investigating a string of five burglaries that occurred overnight on Aug. 29, including a 1987 Iroc Z Camaro valued at $12,000 and $200 in jewelry and cash.

One serial thief had a special tactic, said Delamater: “People would leave their windows open and the guy would lift the screen or poke a hole in it and then take a stick and reach in and grab the pocketbook that was close to the window.”

Beacon, which had two armed robberies in 2022, averaged 20 annually throughout the 1990s, including 28 in 1995. The victims included pedestrians on Main Street.

A man with a pistol stuck in his belt stole $300 from Little Jo’s Corner Store at 73 Teller Ave., in March 1990. In December 1992, a robber demanded money and shot a 17-year-old in the ankle at Main and South streets.

“People would be walking along, minding their own business, and the next thing you know, they were being mugged,” said Delamater.

After Gould took office in 1990, she requested $20,000 from Dutchess County to fight the drug trade and $50,000 from New York State to hire two officers for the city’s understaffed department. The City Council passed a budget for 1991 that added funding for one new officer, bringing the total to 35, but that still left the department below the 40 recommended by the state.

Gould and the Beacon school district employed another strategy, announcing in 1990 the posting of 24 signs designating drug-free zones around city schools. Under a state law enacted in 1986, the penalty for selling drugs to a person under 19 years old within 1,000 feet of a school increased, becoming a Class B felony, instead of a Class C. The maximum prison sentence rose from 15 to 25 years.

“We had a neighborhood watch set up, and that worked,” said Gould. “People, if they saw something, could call the police to check it out.”

Troopers assigned to the state police’s Community Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET) and officers from the multi-agency Dutchess County Drug Task Force, formed in 1989, aided Beacon’s undermanned department. The council approved the creation of a narcotics unit within the Beacon Police Department and officers cracked down on quality-of-life crimes, such as drinking alcohol in public.

“Quality-of-life was big for the Police Department and then, when it comes to the purchases of the drugs and any search warrants, that was done by the drug task force,” said Delamater. “CNET focused on street sales.”

Entrepreneurs who began buying up and un-boarding properties in Beacon also helped, said Delamater, by allowing police to use their buildings for surveillance.

Felony drug arrests in Dutchess County spiked during the era, averaging 320 a year between 1989 and 1996, higher than any period since 1970, according to state data. Police also arrested more people for violent and property crimes between the end of the 1980s and the mid-1990s.

By January 2001, Gould was lauding Beacon’s recovery in a State of the City address that highlighted the coming Dia Center for Arts, several waterfront projects and the strengthening of the city’s code-enforcement office.

A year earlier, larcenies were still high, at 243, but violent crimes had fallen to 69 and burglaries to 35.

In an article about Gould’s speech, Ori Brachfeld, then the owner of Dash Lock & Key in Beacon, told the Poughkeepsie Journal that “it’s been a long struggle, but I believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

“The future looks good,” he said.

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