First Significant Sentence in Open-Air Drug War

BERLIN- The first significant jail term, and, more importantly, the first direct hit in area law enforcement’s renewed battle to rid Berlin’s neighborhoods of open-air drug dealing, was scored last week when a local man was found guilty of distribution of cocaine and was sentenced to 25 years without the possibility of parole.

With a stern warning for known repeat offenders and a somewhat softer alternative for those maybe caught in the web for the first time, Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd and several local law enforcement agencies last spring launched a renewed effort to end open-air drug dealing in Berlin. The so-called “Take Pride in Berlin” initiative promised a multi-pronged effort to rid the communities on Berlin’s east side from open-air drug dealing that has been so prevalent for decades.

Todd’s initiative, in cooperation with several allied law enforcement agencies in the area including Berlin Police, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Maryland State Police, for example, promised more surveillance, more arrests and harsher treatment for those found guilty.

“This is a new Berlin starting right here and now,” Todd told those assembled when the “Take Pride in Berlin” initiative was announced in May. “It’s over right now. I’m not kidding.”

Surveillance has increased, more arrests have been made and the illegal activity has been curtailed somewhat since that bold declaration last spring, but the first real evidence of a renewed battle against the open-air drug dealers on the prosecution side became apparent last week when the first of the cases connected directly to the new initiative came to trial last week and resulted in a significant amount of jail time for the defendant.

Graylin Spence, 42, of Berlin, was arrested as part of an undercover operation in Berlin in April in advance of the announcement of the renewed drug war in Berlin. An undercover officer was able to purchase cocaine from Spence after driving the suspected dealer to an undisclosed location outside of Berlin limits.

An arrest warrant for Spence was prepared in June and he was later taken into custody. Last week in Worcester County Circuit Court, Judge Theodore Eschenberg found Spence guilty of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and sentenced the defendant to 25 years in jail without the possibility of parole. Spence had previously been convicted of at least two felony drug-related offenses and Todd this week expressed hope his harsh sentence would send a message about the seriousness of the renewed drug war in Berlin.

“Our intent is to permanently remove open-air drug dealing in Berlin,” he said. “This is a giant step in that direction.”

Meanwhile, Spence wasted no time challenging his apparent role as the poster child for battle on drug dealing in Berlin. On Tuesday, he filed a letter with the court expressing his desire for an appeal in the case.

While Todd, along with local law enforcement agencies and community support agencies and elected officials formally announced the new initiative in May, the groundwork for the renewed battle against drug dealing in Berlin began months earlier. Starting in March, a multi-agency operation began including undercover officers from Berlin, the Maryland State Police, the Ocean City Police Department and even Somerset County all making undercover drug buys in known hot spots in Berlin.

A combination of bad weather and other factors hampered the investigation somewhat, but nonetheless, the officers were able to make buys from 11 individuals, nine of whom had been convicted before and two of whom were identified as dealers for the first time.  One of those identified was participating in the county’s drug court program at the time of his arrest.

The new initiative promised stern treatment for known repeat offenders, such as Spence, but offered an alternative to first-time offenders. Under the guise of the initiative, first-timers are given a second chance to avoid prosecution and harsh penalties by buying into a program of rehabilitation and community support. At the meeting in May when the “Take Pride in Berlin” operation was formally announced, two such offenders were present and vowed to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, but it is uncertain if they have followed through with the program.

What is certain is that the operation appears to be achieving the desired results. In August, Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said most of those targeted by the initiative had been rounded up and were making their way through the prosecution phase, in which the proof would be in the pudding, he said.

“The important thing is what happens to them next,” he said. “Collectively, we want to take them off the streets and we won’t be able to gage the success of this initiative until this first group goes through the process.” While the jury is still out, so to speak, on many of the cases, the 25-year sentenced handed down on Spence last week appears to indicate the court system means business with the offenders.