Poisonous Reach

Narcotics traffickers continue to move illicit drugs on the streets of metro Detroit, at the expense of lives, neighborhoods, and economic vitality.


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They fled before the verdicts were read.

Rather than appear on May 12, 2014, to hear their fates in a federal courtroom in downtown Detroit, where they stood accused of running one of the largest narcotics trafficking rings in Michigan’s history, three defendants — two of them brothers who made a name for themselves by wearing red velvet fez hats — opted to jump bail and make a break for parts unknown.

Given what was revealed during trial testimony, business on Detroit’s streets was incredibly profitable for Carlos Ellis Powell, then 39, Eric Powell, then 36, and Earnest Lee Proge, then 38. A Drug Enforcement Agency investigation traced their trafficking empire, spearheaded by Carlos Powell, back to 2006. 

Over a four-year period, the trio and 10 other accomplices extensively dealt in multi-kilogram quantities of mind-altering and highly addictive narcotics, until their poly-trafficking operation was dismantled in late 2010. 

In total, law enforcement agencies from across the country seized more than 30 kilograms of heroin, 12 kilograms of cocaine, and 1,000 pounds of marijuana intended to be distributed by the Powell crew in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs.

Bulk currency the brothers and their henchmen earned from narcotics sales was regularly transported to Arizona, Mexico, and other parts in the Southwest, then used to purchase more controlled substances to put out on the street. Semi-trucks and other vehicles equipped with concealed traps and compartments were used to hide wholesale quantities of uncut narcotics on the eastbound trips, and cash on the westbound trips.

All in all, the operation was so successful that during a four-month period in 2010, the Powell brothers and their associates took in $21 million. From 2008 to 2010, a total of some $99 million was generated from the group’s street sales.

The illegal proceeds were subsequently used to purchase some $800,000 in jewelry, real estate in Michigan and Georgia with a combined value of $750,000, boats, and multiple Mercedes-Benz luxury sedans, as well as a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, and a Bentley. 

As the drama played out inside the courtroom that day, and with U.S. Marshals issuing an all-points bulletin for the convicted fugitives, Tony Allen, an addiction specialist at Elmhurst Homes for Recovery in Detroit, was treating patients suffering the throes of drug addiction.

“They can’t sleep, they can’t keep food down,” Allen says of the patients who routinely see him in hopes that they’ll be able to break themselves from physical and psychological drug dependency.

Apprehended in St. Louis and Atlanta slightly more than three weeks after skipping bail, Carlos and Eric Powell — who had more than $800,000 in cash between them — were each sentenced to life terms in October 2014. Meanwhile, Proge, who was eventually captured in St. Louis, received a 25-year sentence in January 2015.

Although the Powell brothers, who resided in luxury suburban homes, will never be able to reign supreme on Detroit’s streets again, others like them who push narcotics to an impoverished population are operating across the city’s 139 square miles. 

Tim Plancon, DEA special agent in charge of the Detroit Field Division, says that “there are large and sophisticated drug trafficking rings operating in the Detroit area,” working to satisfy customers living in the city and the surrounding suburbs.  

The preferred modus operandi the narcotics trafficking rings employ is simple by design. They do the lion’s share of their business inside of Detroit, where they patiently wait for local residents and suburbanites with cash to come to them. Once an individual or group of dealers is established, they often expand their drug trade to poor areas in Flint and Saginaw, using I-75 — one of the nation’s top 10 smuggling highways on record. 

“We do know that millions of dollars’ worth of narcotics are smuggled into metro Detroit every year, and millions of dollars are spent in the region on purchasing drugs every year,” Plancon says. “The DEA’s Detroit Field Division seizes millions of dollars’ worth of drugs and assets every year from these organizations, and continues to focus on seizing bulk currency and assets from drug trafficking organizations.” 

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, who has headed up Michigan’s Eastern District Division since 2010, says investigations targeting Detroit narcotics traffickers who are highly skilled in laundering drug money and communicating in difficult-to-decipher codes are ongoing. “At any time, we have a number of active investigations into large drug trafficking organizations,” McQuade says. “More and more, our cases involve heroin and prescription pills, though we still investigate criminal organizations that traffic cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and marijuana.”

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