The Detroit Drug Wars (Part 1)

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Interestingly, just when the gang was reaching its pinnacle, Chester Campbell was brought down by his own brazen behavior. On February 6, 1975, Campbell turned a routine traffic stop on Orchard Lake Road in Keego Harbor into a high-speed chase that ended with him running a police car off the side of the road before finally being apprehended several miles later. When the arresting officers searched Campbell’s vehicle they found two semi-automatic pistols, a rife, a sawed off shotgun and several ounces of heroin. They also found a trunk load of notebooks with the names and addresses of over 300 law enforcement and government officials, as well as the names and daily habits of several recent murder victims and heaps of photocopied classified police documents. During a forthcoming trial which Campbell was convicted on drug and weapons charges, federal prosecutors alleged the notebooks and their contents constituted a “hit list” of past and potential targets.

With Chester Campbell imprisoned, enforcement duties for the Murder Row gang passed to Adolph “Doc Holiday” Powell, a grizzled and well-traveled felon who had migrated to Detroit from New Orleans in the 1950s. The selection of Powell as a top lieutenant in the gang by Usher and Morton proved faulty, as the power of his new position quickly went to his head. Tensions started to swell between Powell and Usher and as the decade came to a close, they were ready to boil over. The standoff tilted decidedly in Powell’s favor due to the fact that Usher’s main backers in Harold Morton and Tony Giacalone were both in the midst of serving jail sentences when tempers were reaching their highest pitch in mid-1978.

This lack of support left Usher vulnerable and Powell pounced. Recruiting a pair of notorious hitmen – James “Red” Freeman from Detroit and Robert “Lefty” Partee from California – to help eliminate Usher and his inner-circle, Powell prepared to try and seize control of the whole Murder Row organization for himself. Luring Usher, a female companion named Joanne Clark and Usher’s two closest associates at the time, William “Dirty Dirt” McJoy and William “Straw Hat Perry” Jackson to the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club located on Garfield, not far from Woodward, on July 18, 1978, Powell is alleged to have ordered Freeman and Partee to murder all four of them.

Big Frank Nitti somehow convinced Freeman and Partee to spare his life. Some claim he bribed them with drugs and money. Others say he simply used his quick-wit and politician-like savvy to talk his way out of being killed. McJoy, Jackson and Clark weren’t so lucky and it’s alleged that Freeman and Partee shot all three of them in the back of the head execution style and then chopped off their heads and hands and left their mutilated corpses in a van parked on the Eastside.

Usher, Holiday, Partee, Freeman and a social club employee named Benjamin “Shorty” Fountain, would all be charged with the murders and go on trial in 1980. Despite testimony and evidence pointing to Usher being an intended-victim of the slaughter, he was convicted of the killings along with Partee, while Fountain had the charges dropped and Freeman and Holiday were each acquitted.

Spending close to a decade in prison serving a life sentence, Usher had his conviction overturned by a Recorders Court judge and was issued a new trial in 1989 where he pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was soon released after being credited with time served. Adolph Powell’s fate wasn’t so fortunate. He was murdered while having an afternoon drink at La Player’s Lounge on Joy Road on January 22, 1983 amid rumors that he had become a government informant. Powell was blown away by a shotgun blast as he readied to take a shot of cognac and tip the bartender with a $50 bill, which was found by police in his clenched hand.

For all intents and purposes, the murders that took place at the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club marked the end of Murder Row as a megawatt drug organization, splintering the gang into factions that either backed Usher or stood behind Powell in the dispute between the two. When Usher was jailed, his men dispatched from the gang, allowing Powell to sweep up the pieces of what was left and set out under his own banner until he was killed three and a half years later.

Chester Campbell emerged from prison in 1984, but by that time the Murder Row crew was no longer active and he went back to work as a hired gun until his imprisonment in 1987 on charges stemming from an arrest practically identical to his 1975 roadside squabble with the cops. Just like the first incident, when police searched his car they found several firearms, a suitcase full of drugs and another address-filled notebook which contained what authorities dubbed a hit list.

“A lot of people breathed a lot easier the day Chester Campbell was locked up for good,” Carone said.

Sprouting up in the late-1970s on the city’s Westside around the areas surrounding Dexter, Monterey and Linwood Avenues, Young Boys, Inc. started out as a small group of loosely-connected drug dealers sharing a common supply source and soon formulated into a mega narcotics empire that operated with assembly line-like efficiency and expert criminal acumen. YBI, as they became known, completely changed the drug game in Detroit. The organization was pioneering in underworld marketing and sales strategy and in just five years it would solidify itself as a genuine icon in the city’s vast historical fabric while becoming it’s the most financially successful narcotics gang ever. Authorities estimated the gang cleared close to half a billion dollars cash in the 1982 calendar year alone.

“YBI was the first real iconic criminal organization to emerge out of the city since the old Purple Gang of the Prohibition era,” Taylor said. “They crafted the mold for all who came after them in the game. They were the model of how a well-run, large-scale narcotics gang operated. The emergence of YBI changed everything and really opened up a Pandora’s Box of activity that hasn’t stopped to this day.”

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