86ed

West Palm's "most notorious": Big fish or a small scapegoat in the war on drugs?

The Sunset Lounge had just finished serving its last drinks late one night in June 2001 when Officer James Megathlin parked his patrol car around the corner. At Henrietta Avenue and Eighth Street, the Sunset is dead center in West Palm Beach's downtown ghetto. Clubgoers began spilling out, mixing on the street with dealers, pimps, and hookers. It was ladies night, and Hoopty cars from the '70s cruised by with men making one last attempt at a hookup. Megathlin began ordering the crowd to get lost when he spied a better target, a man the cops said was West Palm's most wanted and dangerous drug kingpin. He goes by "Eighty-Six."

Eighty-Six was cruising his green Ford F-250 pickup slowly through the crowd, but Megathlin didn't try to pull him over where it would make a scene. In this part of town, Eighty-Six gets more respect than a West Palm cop. This is the neighborhood, after all, where a cop who shot a gun-toting drug dealer in 1994 was then stoned by an angry crowd. Megathlin wisely jumped back into his patrol car, called for backup, and waited until Eighty-Six was well clear of the Sunset before he pulled him over. Megathlin asked for his license, which displayed the name Elroy Phillips, 37 years old. It's a name he used at the DMV or to get a credit card, but few in town have ever heard it. He's Eighty-Six, or maybe "Six" if you know him back from his days in the Miami suburb of Little River. Two more cops who had been helping clear the crowd at the Sunset rolled up to help Megathlin. The three ordered Eighty-Six to get out of his giant-sized pickup, the one with "Trojan P" on the license plate. Carefully, Megathlin tried to slap handcuffs on Eighty-Six's wrist.

The arrest that night had really been coming for 17 years, ever since Eighty-Six moved to West Palm. Cops say he was one of a bunch of former Boulder Boys gang members who left the competition of Miami for uncharted territory in Palm Beach County. Cops say he immediately started peddling dime bags on street corners and moonlighted as a tough-guy enforcer. He could induce fear by the look of his fence-post-thick arms and 250 pounds of muscle on a frame no taller than five-foot-nine. He was most famous, though, for that massive head of his, outlined by a pinstripe of hair along his chin bone and a broad nose that appeared pancaked by a right hook or two. The cops say he eventually became the west side's biggest dealer, but that's still up for debate. If you ask Eighty-Six, he'll tell you it's about something else entirely: It's about the fact that the cops can't believe a black man in the ghetto can make money without dealing drugs.

Elroy Phillips and his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Ann White, became known on downtown West Palm Beach streets as Eighty-Six and Little Red
Elroy Phillips and his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Ann White, became known on downtown West Palm Beach streets as Eighty-Six and Little Red

So on June 8, 2001, Officer Megathlin gingerly tried to slap handcuffs on Eighty-Six's wrists as they stood next to the F-250. But as the cop made his move, Eighty-Six saw his chance. He bolted, his tree-trunk frame cutting across lawns, dodging palm trees and mailboxes like a halfback. As he ran, Eighty-Six says, he heard the cops shouting for him to remove his hands from his pockets or they'd shoot. He pulled out his left hand, and with it came a wad of cash -- $1,600 in small bills floating under the streetlights. He says he's not so dumb as to drop a wad of dough like that, but the cops say it was his way of trying to throw them off. The money didn't stop the officers, who chased Eighty-Six up the sloping hill of Sapodilla Avenue, back toward the ghetto and the Sunset Lounge. Finally, Eighty-Six tripped in a spot of sugar sand and hit the ground. "Don't shoot me!" he bellowed, fighting with the cops. "I know you want to shoot me. Please don't shoot me!" His fight ended with a burst of pepper spray to the face, and in short order, Eighty-Six was at the county jail. The cops had in their custody a man who they said represented the city's biggest victory in the war on drugs in years -- or perhaps in its history.

But the arrest and eventual conviction of Elroy "Eighty-Six" Phillips would come to stand for something far less clear-cut. It would suggest the hopelessness of the government's war on drugs and the often-questionable way the feds go about putting suspected dealers behind bars. Eighty-Six would end up facing decades in federal prison with little actual evidence against him, according to his defense attorney. And the evidence the feds did offer would be pieced together from lost police reports, the word of felons trying to save themselves from prison, and the testimony of a disgruntled ex-girlfriend paid almost $10,000 for her cooperation. "The whole case," says his court-appointed attorney, Randee Golder, "was built on people blaming Elroy for crimes they committed themselves." Worst of all, a federal judge handed Eighty-Six a 30-year prison sentence despite a jury's acquitting him of most of the charges. He'll spend much of the second half of his life behind bars mainly for possession of a couple of boxes of bullets and less than one gram of coke -- about a night's worth for an addict. But Eighty-Six's sentence was comparable to the kind of time you're supposed to do if you're a top-echelon supplier.

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