Photos by Greg McCorkle and Pat Robinson
Guns and drugs fill a tabletop during a press conference about the White Center bust led by the ATF on Oct. 20. Over 50 people were arrested and law enforcement seized 68 guns and over 63 pounds of drugs. PLEASE CLICK THE PHOTO ABOVE FOR MORE.

SLIDESHOW: ATF zeroes in on White Center, more than 50 people arrested in drug and gun dealing operations

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On Oct. 21, the field house at Steve Cox Memorial Park was packed full of federal, state and local law enforcement officers responsible for a major bust of drug and gun traffickers operating out of the business corridor on 16th Ave S.W. in White Center.

Please click the photo above for more.

Two 15-foot long tables were set up to display the bounty of the 90-day operation culminating in the Oct. 20 raid of four White Center businesses operating as fronts for illegal trafficking. The ATF operation was dubbed “Center of Attention” and it yielded 53 arrests (26 face federal charges and 27 face King County charges) along with the seizure of 68 guns, 51 pounds of methamphetamine, two pounds of crack cocaine and over ten pounds of powder cocaine.

Many said Deputy Steve Cox, who was White Center’s storefront deputy when he was killed in the line of duty in 2006, would have been proud.

The actual boundaries of investigation for Operation Center of Attention stretched well north into West Seattle and down into Burien, and it became clear over those three months that the epicenter of distribution was 16th Ave in White Center.

The four businesses involved were not specifically named at the press event, but agents and police were seen raiding Papa’s Pub and Grill, DK’s Asian Restaurant and Bar and Lucky’s Nail and Massage. A press release stated in addition to drugs and guns, prostitutes were also available through the fronts.

“I think the real story here is the breadth of what came off the streets in 90 days,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said at the press conference. “I think these are staggering results, but also a sad commentary on how much this community suffered at the hands of these criminals. That will not happen again.”

“It is the impact this had on the community – the people themselves who were arrested, who day in and day out made this community a more difficult place to live – this is a place where community has worked very hard to reclaim the streets and we are proud now that law enforcement was able to help that community…” Durkan added.

“This is an extraordinary effort,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said, “and it shows what can be done when agencies come together when they hear a community cry out for help.”

Kelvin Crenshaw, head of the ATF Violent Crime Task Force that led the investigation, said, “The results are staggering given our operational time frame,” before walking to the tables of recovered contraband and picking up an encyclopedia-sized brick of cocaine.

“But I must admit, as easy at it is to pick up these three kilos of powder cocaine, it was just as easy to get it on the street. As easily as I pick up these 22 pounds of meth, it is just as easy to get it off the street. And as effortlessly as I pick up this .45 revolver and this assault rifle, it was just as easy to get them off the street,” he said, illustrating the point that this bust, although significant, does not forever solve the crime woes of White Center.

“White Center is a good community, a community of families, a community of hard-working citizens, a community of people who don’t deserve this,” Crenshaw said. “It is very important that everyone understands that law enforcement can’t do it by themselves. It takes the citizens of that community to help and join in the law enforcement effort. That means reporting crimes when they see them … This operation is proof that no agency or community can stand alone.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with King County elected officials and law enforcement, is holding a community meeting on Monday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. to discuss how the community can do just that: work with law enforcement to permanently clean up the streets of White Center. The meeting is open to the public and will be held at 7 p.m. at the Jim Wiley Community Center in Greenbridge, located at 9800 8th Ave S.W.

The community reacts

A federal agent at the conference said the ATF had a few troubled areas in King County they were considering for a major operation, and White Center won out because of the strong community concern voiced over the years.

Since White Center is part of unincorporated King County it has no local government, so that concern had to come from community groups such as the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council (NHUAC), White Center Chamber of Commerce, White Center Community Development Association and the White Center/South Delridge Community Safety Coalition.

There is a common sentiment amongst many White Center residents that they have known about and been asking for a law enforcement crackdown long before Operation Center of Attention came along.

“I’m upset because I feel this should have happened years ago,” Liz Giba with the NHUAC said, adding that the council has held monthly meetings with the King County Sheriff’s Office for years, voicing their fears of the rising tide of crime.

“Due to budget cuts, they took away our storefront deputy and reduced our police coverage,” Giba said, echoing the idea that White Center has, to a certain extent, been forgotten by the county.

Elizabeth Gordon, co-owner of Mike’s BBQ right in the center of 16th Ave where the busts occurred, said, “all (of those cuts) happened with the knowledge that the community told them what the consequences would be.”

“As far as the businesses that are located in the area right where all the storefronts were raided, there have been many businesses calling in to the King County Sheriff’s Office, some on a daily basis … to complain about the activity that’s going on,” Gordon said.

Gordon said she has witnessed illegal activity right outside her front door for years. She described a common scene of cars parked along the street all day long, operating as mobile offices for illegal transactions. (Clarified Gordon's statement on Oct. 27. In a post-story interview she said she had not personally called 911 several times, but knew other business owners had.)

Mike Gordon, Elizabeth’s husband and co-owner of Mike’s BBQ, said while the bust is good news for the community, it may create more problems for White Center businesses trying to overcome the negative stigma and encourage people to shop and eat along 16th Ave. S.W.

“I think initially when folks here about this and they see the magnitude of what has been going on quietly in White Center, there will be some fear,” he said.

Local law enforcements’ take

KCSO Capt. Joseph Hodgson said the bust is “a great opportunity. We’ve done a cleanup and now is our chance to keep it this way. The goal is to move from this point forward and maintain the ground that has been gained.”

Lt. Pierre Davis, operations commander for the Seattle Police Department Southwest Precinct covering West Seattle all the way down to where White Center and Seattle meet at Roxbury, said “Basically, the proof is in the pudding. You can see exactly what’s displayed on the tables and that’s all the more things we won’t find on the streets or in the hands of children or local miscreants.”

“The scary part is the job continues,” he said.

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