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3:05 am
Thu July 3, 2014

Addiction Battled Ambition For Reporter Caught In D.C.'s Crack Epidemic

Originally published on Thu July 3, 2014 11:14 am

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Washington, D.C., was a city under siege. As with other cities, it descended into near chaos because of the crack epidemic that claimed even innocent lives. Whole neighborhoods became war zones, and the nation's capital became the nation's homicide capital.

Ruben Castaneda was a crime reporter for The Washington Post at the time. He tells NPR's David Greene, "Family members tried to minimize the chances that their kids would get hit by stray bullets: They would put the beds of their kids in such a way that any bullet that sailed through a window would not be in that trajectory."

In a new book, S Street Rising, Castaneda writes that S Street was once an epicenter of the drug war. Now, it's much quieter. Neighbors walk by with baby strollers, birds chirp, and a new coffee shop just opened. But Castaneda's book looks back to the worst of times, when the city was a combat zone.

"Crack cocaine, and the violence that it brought, was having an extraordinary impact on this city," he says. And, it turns out, it was having an impact on Castaneda as well — he was a crack addict who bought drugs on the very streets he was covering as a crime reporter. He had come to Washington from Los Angeles for his dream job and had planned to kick the habit he had picked up in California. But he only lasted four days before he went seeking another high. He recalls pulling up to the corner of 7th and S streets Northwest and being awestruck by what he saw there:

Directly across the street, in front of the abandoned Wonder Bread bakery, there were probably six to 10 drug dealers, slingers, just loitering in front of the building. There were about an equal number on the south side of the street, where I was parked. And they were completely unconcerned that anyone was watching them. They were out there with complete impunity. And I'd made a number of buys by then, in Los Angeles, and the drug dealers there — which were usually gang members — they at least looked over their shoulders. ... But these slingers didn't care. They clearly didn't care.

Castaneda made his first D.C. buy 15 blocks from the White House, where just the week before President George H. W. Bush had declared a war on drugs. The reporter visited that block for two reasons: his own addiction and to do his job. It was two lives he desperately tried to keep separate. He recalls one night when he raced to S Street after hearing about a shooting on the newsroom's police scanner.

"I parked, got out of the car and learned four young men had been shot to death," he says. "So it was a quadruple homicide." It was a huge story for a 28-year-old crime reporter trying to make a name for himself, but Castaneda almost didn't get out of his car to cover it. He remembers wondering if any of the drug dealers who had seen him make purchases would call him out to the police.

When he did get out of his car, he saw maybe half a dozen police squad cars parked at odd angles. "An officer was already putting up yellow tape around part of a night club. It was a scene of chaos," he says. "And there were no drug dealers in sight. If they had been out that night, then they scattered because of the presence of so many police."

When asked if he stands by the stories he wrote while on crack, Castaneda replies, "It's hard to tell how much better I might have been as a reporter, as a journalist, if I hadn't been using crack, if I hadn't been drinking large amounts of alcohol. But I tried really hard, and I worked really hard as a journalist. And I think I did some good work, until I couldn't."

And eventually he couldn't. The addiction got so bad that his editors could tell something was wrong. They forced him to go on leave and they took him to rehab.

At the same time, other people were also struggling through the drug war. On S Street, the pastor of New Community Church was trying to minister to a neighborhood full of addicts and dealers — including one powerful one.

Castaneda says, "Baldie was the main drug dealer who ran S Street during the 1980s and early 1990s. ... I have no doubt that I put thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars into Baldie's pocket."

But the drug kingpin was more complicated than you might think. According to Castaneda, he lived next door to the church and had a soft spot for its mission. He sent his two young daughters to its after-school program and occasionally to Sunday service. "So Baldie told his guys who worked on the street to respect the church," Castaneda says.

That brings us to today. Baldie, the drug boss on S Street, died in prison. Castaneda has been clean for 22 years. After a long career at the Washington Post, he's gone on to other journalism jobs. For many years he was afraid to return to this block, but he did in 2008. He knocked on the door to New Community Church and was surprised when he was invited to speak before the congregation on Easter Sunday.

Castaneda says he was anxious because, by telling his story, he would be acknowledging the role he played in the chaos.

"I was, to some extent, responsible," he says, "and I didn't know how people who lived through that might react. I hadn't figured out: How do you make amends to an entire neighborhood? Well, here was an opportunity. And I said, 'I'm sorry. I was caught up in my addiction and I realize that I was partly responsible for what occurred.' "

The church was happy to hear from him. "When my time was up," he says, "people in the congregation gathered around me and they thanked me for having talked about what I went through. And one of the women in particular, she hugged me and she said, 'We're glad you're here.' "

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Washington, D.C. was a city under siege.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 1: Cocaine used for sniffing - crack is four times as strong.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 2: One hundred and seven murders have been committed in Washington, D.C. this year - many drug-related.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 3: Illegal drugs - few have become so popular, so potent, so addictive, so fast as what's known on the street as crack.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 4: Suspicion of selling drugs - one of the man's visitors was Mayor Barry himself.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 5: This is it - the drug so powerful it will empty the money from your pockets.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 6: These charges are occurring at a time when the city's number one problem is drugs.

GREENE: Even the city's mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack. Whole neighborhoods became war zones. The nation's capital became the nation's homicide capital. As with other cities, Washington descended into near chaos because of the crack epidemic. It was claiming even innocent lives.

RUBEN CASTANEDA: Family members try to minimize the chances that their kids would get hit by stray bullets. They would put the beds of their kids in such a way that any bullet that sailed through a window would not be in that trajectory.

GREENE: That's Ruben Castaneda. He was a crime reporter for the Washington Post back then. We met him on S Street, which was an epicenter of the drug wars. Now it's much quieter - Neighbors walking by with baby strollers, birds chirping, a new coffee shop. And Ruben's new book is called "S Street Rising." He looked back, though, to the worst of times when the city was a combat zone.

CASTANEDA: Crack cocaine and the violence that it brought was having an extraordinary impact on the city.

GREENE: And it turns out, an impact on Ruben as well. Here is the amazing and painful twist in the story. Ruben was a crack addict himself, buying drugs on the very streets he was covering as a crime reporter. He had come to Washington from LA for his dream job, and he had planned to kick the habit he'd picked up in California. But he only lasted four days before he went seeking another high.

CASTANEDA: I pulled up near the corner of Seventh and S, Northwest.

GREENE: Right over there?

CASTANEDA: Yeah. And I was immediately awestruck by what I saw. Directly across the street in front of the abandoned Wonder Bread bakery there were probably six to 10 drug dealers - slingers just loitering in front of the building. There were about an equal number on the south side street where I was parked. And they were completely unconcerned that anyone was watching them. They were out there with complete impunity. And I'd made a number of buys by then in Los Angeles, and the drug dealers there, which were usually gang members - they at least looked over their shoulders to see if there were any LAPD black and whites nearby or any uniformed officers. But these slingers didn't care. They clearly didn't care.

GREENE: Rubin made his first buy 15 blocks from the White House where President George H. W. Bush, just the week before, had declared a war on drugs. And so Rubin would come to this block near Seventh and S streets for two reasons - his own addiction and to do his job. It was two lives he desperately tried to keep separate. He recalled one night when he heard about a shooting on the police scanner in the newsroom, and he raced here.

CASTANEDA: I parked, got out of the car and learned four young men had been shot to death. So it was a quadruple homicide.

GREENE: And a huge story for a 28-year-old crime reporter trying to make a name for himself. But Rubin almost didn't even cover it because he couldn't get one thought out of his head.

CASTANEDA: Would any of the drug dealers who'd seen me make purchases - would they recognize me? Would they call me out to police?

GREENE: I remember you writing about having those thoughts while sitting in your car wondering if you should just not get out.

CASTANEDA: It was a concern. So I drove here because I just felt, well, I have to do my job. And when I arrived at the corner of Seventh and S, there were maybe a half-dozen police squad cars parked at odd angles. An officer was already putting up yellow tape around part of the nightclub. It was - it was a scene of chaos. And there were no drug dealers in sight. If they had been out that night, then they scattered because of the presence of so many police.

GREENE: Do you stand by the stories that you wrote during that time?

CASTANEDA: It's hard to tell how much better I might have been as a reporter, as a journalist, if I hadn't been using crack and hadn't been drinking large amounts of alcohol, but I tried really hard and I worked really hard as a journalist. And I think I did some good work until I couldn't.

GREENE: And the addiction got so bad that he couldn't keep up his double life anymore. His editors could tell something was wrong. They forced him to go on leave, and they took him to rehab. Now, other people were struggling through the drug war as well. Here on S Street, New Community Church was trying to minister to a neighborhood full of addicts and dealers, including one powerful one.

CASTANEDA: Baldie was the main drug dealer who ran S Street during the 1980s and early 1990s.

GREENE: You probably were buying some of his drugs during that time.

CASTANEDA: I have no doubt that I put thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars into Baldie's pocket.

GREENE: And Baldie lived on this block right here?

CASTANEDA: He lived right next door to the church. Baldie had a soft spot in his heart for the church and its mission. Baldie sent his two young daughters to the church's after school program and occasionally to Sunday service. So Baldie told his guys who worked on the street to respect the church.

GREENE: Which brings us to today - Baldie the drug boss on S Street died in prison. Rubin has been clean for 22 years. After a long career at the Washington Post, he's gone on to other journalism jobs. For many years, he was afraid to return to this block. But he did in 2008. He knocked on the door right behind us, the door to New Community Church. They surprised Ruben with an invitation to speak before the congregation on Easter Sunday.

CASTANEDA: I was a little anxious because, by telling my story, I would be acknowledging my role in the chaos that occurred here on S Street in 1989 and through part of the early '90s - because I helped fuel that. I was, to some extent, responsible. And I didn't know how people who lived through that might react. I haven't figured out - how do you make amends to an entire neighborhood? Here was an opportunity. And I said, I'm - I'm sorry. I was caught up in my addiction, and I realize that I was partly responsible for what occurred.

GREENE: How did that congregation respond to you?

CASTANEDA: When my time was up, people in the congregation gathered around me, and they thanked me for - for having talked about what I went through. And one of the women in particular - she hugged me, and she said we're glad you're here.

GREENE: Ruben Castaneda's new book is called "S Street Rising." It's out this week.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.