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"Freeway" Ricky Ross

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American Gangster: 'Freeway' Ricky Ross

 

Ricky Ross didn’t invent crack cocaine, and he wasn’t the first to market it. But once he got started, Ross became the most famous dealer in south central L.A., eventually expanding his base into a coast-to-coast conglomerate that sold a half-million rocks a day. His illicit operations eventually shed grim light on the policies of local police, the CIA, and the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

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Ross was living in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway – hence the nickname – when he discovered the remarkable earning potential of crack. A natural salesman, he was more hustler than gangsta; didn’t dress flashy, avoided violence, and gave money back to the community, giving rise to his reputation as a modern-day Robin Hood.  But Ross was also seriously addicted to his trade, a 24/7 workaholic, and in the words of one grudgingly admiring cop, “a guy who could sell popsicles to an Eskimo.”

What really got Ross noticed, though, was his suppliers – a pair of Nicaraguan contacts who funneled their own profits to the Contras under the apparently approving eyes of the CIA – and who provided Ross weapons and equipment to help him in his business. The Contra connection – which was exposed in a series of investigative reports by San Jose Mercury reporter journalist Gary Webb – gave rise to suspicions that the CIA had deliberately funneled crack into south-central L.A., while helping the Reagan administration illegally fund a dirty war in Central America. The result was outrage, climaxed when hundreds of South Central residents packed a community center to vent their grievances at then-C.I.A. Director John Deutch.

Long before that, Ross had attracted enough local attraction to spur the creation of what became known as “the Freeway Rick Task Force,” some of whose officers turned out to be as corrupt as the criminals they sought. Arrested in 1989 and released from prison five years later, Ross vowed to build a new life and a community center in south central he called the “Freeway Academy.’. Instead, he was arrested in a sting operation after agreeing to mediate a drug buy through his old Contra connection, Danilo Blandon – who was now on the Drug Enforcement Administration payroll, despite his own convictions. Sentenced to life in prison, Ross successfully appealed its length, and could be back on the streets by 2009.