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Feds file claim on longstanding violent 'open-air drug market' in west Charlotte
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Feds file claim on longstanding violent 'open-air drug market' in west Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE — A strip mall in the middle of an emerging transportation and redevelopment corridor in west Charlotte has attracted potential new ownership: the U.S. Justice Department.

Federal prosecutors in Charlotte have filed a forfeiture complaint against the eight-shop, commercial site near West Boulevard and Remount Road, describing it as a brazen threat to public safety at one of the westside’s most prominent intersections.

In 2020, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police responded to more than 40 drug crimes at the location. Only Charlotte Douglas International Airport — which saw 27.2 million passengers last year — reported more, an Observer data analysis found.

“Few properties in the Charlotte area have a greater history or volume of drug-related crime and violence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Johnson wrote in the forfeiture complaint.

“Simply put, the Property serves as an open-air drug market. The drug-dealers who conduct their business there — many among them validated gang members — routinely do so in plain sight and with brazen impunity.”

So much in plain sight, according to Johnson, that dealers often stack their drug scales on ledges beneath the windows of the strip mall’s stores or hide their wares in store coolers or shelves when police drive up.

So brazen, Johnson says, that the heaviest drug activity often follows a police bust, when dealers know officers will not be immediately returning.

Rickey Hall, chair of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, told the Observer recently that the site, which sits near a major westside intersection between uptown and the airport, demands a new future.

“I hope this is not just a shot across the bow. I hope this is an opportunity for systemic change,” said Hall, whose organization represents 19 neighborhoods and more than 13,000 residents.

“This (illegal) activity has lessened the quality of life and the opportunity for entrepreneurial development that this corridor desperately needs ... This is one of the most strategic intersections in the entire corridor. It’s time for a change.”

Federal forfeiture claims on cash, houses or cars linked to illegal activity are common and run into the billions of dollars every year. They are also controversial since individuals can lose their property without being accused or convicted of a crime.

Claims on commercial property are rarer and viewed by law enforcement as last resorts.

In 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s Office seized the Thomasboro Plaza in west Charlotte after what prosecutors said were years of unsuccessful negotiations with tenants and property owners aimed at curbing the resident drug trade and related crimes.

In an extreme case, federal prosecutors in 2016 filed a forfeiture claim against the entire 36-acre Brookhill Village neighborhood at Remount and South Tryon Street, alleging a history of violence and drugs. They agreed to settle the case and stop the seizure after the property owner agreed to demolish or improve the apartments and do more to discourage crime.

Likewise, the West Boulevard strip mall’s drain on police, taxpayers, and nearby merchants and homeowners has been significant. Since 2017, the commercial site on the 1500 block of West Boulevard has been responsible for almost 1,100 calls for service by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, according to the court filing.

That includes 67 drug violations, 14 shootings, at least one homicide, and numerous assaults and robberies. Gunfire tied to the drug trade has struck passing cars carrying children and even a city bus. To date, the arrests on site have included members of at least five Charlotte gangs, the DOJ said in the filing.

The problem is worsening. In 2003, the West Blvd. Shop, the strip mall’s anchor convenience store, drew 17 calls for service. Last year, there were nearly 300, according to the filing.

In making the forfeiture claim, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte has put the strip mall’s owners and merchants on notice: Either cooperate with authorities to fix the crime problems or risk losing the property altogether. If the courts give federal prosecutors the go-ahead, they can seize the property, improve it, then auction if off to the highest bidder.

Drugs and violence

The West Boulevard strip mall has been owned by Abdoulkader Bouche and Mikiyas Gebremeskel since Dec. 30, 2016. The pair also own the West Blvd. Shop, where Bouche often works, according to the federal filing.

Neither could be reached for comment Monday. The number listed for the convenience store had been disconnected or changed. The case file does not list an attorney for the two.

Federal prosecutors say criminal activity at the site has “risen dramatically” under the current ownership. In 2017, the strip mall had 155 police calls for service. In 2020, that number jumped to 285, an 84% increase.

Despite pressure from police, the owners “have done little to assist law enforcement,” the DOJ claims in the filing, even refusing to have their names listed on arrest warrants or other legal documents.

Safety concerns may be a factor. According to a 2019 report on the strip mall by WBTV-Channel 3, many of the merchants in the area said they were afraid to go on camera out of fear of reprisals from drug traders.

“It’s an everyday thing. You can take your camera and point it out the window and see. All they do is sell drugs,” Khaled Alhalek told the station at the time, when he ran a store across the street.

Wild drive-by shoot-outs have been common. On Aug. 24, 2019, when a large crowd gathered at a going-away party for a guest of honor scheduled to begin a four-year prison sentence, three people were wounded by an unknown drive-by assailant who fired 20 shots at the crowd, according to the federal filing.

The area is represented on the City Council by Victoria Watlington, who did not respond Monday to an Observer email and phone call seeking comment.

Her City Council colleague Malcolm Graham welcomed the federal intervention as a warning to owners of commercial property across the city who provide “safe harbors” for crime.

“The city has taken notice as well as the feds,” Graham said.

Hall, the neighborhood activist, believes the next step is key.

“The evidence is clear. The right action has been taken,” he said. “But what do we do to that property to bring about a higher community use, a higher community value?”

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