As officers cleared the scene of a Friday evening disturbance, Sgt. Widy Jean’s thoughts wandered back to the party he had spotted outside a home south of Cherry Hills.
He turned to a woman nearby.
The Riddick twin? he asked. Probably, she said.
The Heart of Boynton’s dead are often celebrated in loved ones’ yards before the next day’s funeral, and in hours it would be Kunta Kinte Riddick’s. Besides, news about families who’ve lived in Cherry Hills for generations spreads quickly — especially when it involves the Riddick twins.
Kunta and Kelcey Riddick, both 40, controlled the northwest Boynton Beach neighborhood’s drug trade for decades, or at least between stints in federal and state prisons, records show.
Years of records indicate the brothers kept their business close to Cherry Hills, where they were “kings,” a neighbor remarked. Their command of the narcotics trade was “common knowledge,” a Boynton Beach officer wrote last year, and a duplex on Northwest Fourth Street was their palace.
Two killings this fall — one of Kunta, the other by Kelcey, police say — brought their reign to an end. But the drugs have kept flowing in, as they have for decades. Other dealers will take the Riddicks’ place, city Police Capt. Steven Burdelski said.
The city’s leaders agree: Something must change. Generations of leaders have made similar pleas — for fewer drugs, more jobs, a sense of peace — and they’ve poured millions of dollars into trying to make them happen, to little avail.
The neighborhood, Commissioner Joe Casello said, is “a war zone.”
‘We’re trying to save lives’
Built in 1926, the once-bustling Cherry Hills sits in the greater Heart of Boynton district just north of Boynton Beach Boulevard between the FEC tracks and Interstate 95, with a canal as its northern border. The median household income is about $20,000, less than half of the median for all of Palm Beach County, according to city documents. People called it “Little Vietnam” and “Blood Alley” as drugs took hold in the late 1970s.
City commissioners have spent two decades trying to revitalizing the neighborhood. They even tried to change its name — one resident said “hill” made it sound like a gang area. Some of their efforts have succeeded; more have not.
Two years ago, the commissioners brought the first commercial development to the Heart of Boynton in at least 40 years — a Family Dollar at Martin Luther King Jr. and Seacrest boulevards. But the main businesses are three convenience stores that have become neighborhoods hangouts. Officials have been trying to bring in a full grocery store for years.
In the 1990s, police took a “get them on anything” approach to the neighborhood’s crime.
“If we can’t get drug dealers for drug dealing, we’ll get them for something else,” said then-Police Chief Marshall Gage. “We park our cars on a corner or a street where we know that drug dealers hang out, and we wait.”
“Then we get them on anything they do wrong.”
Now stings of alleged dealers, like the recent Operation Cherry Pill, are a common police tactic, as are more community-based approaches. There’s a substation on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for three officers, who walk the streets or ride Segways and try to build relationships with residents and businesses.
City police arrested the Riddick twins as part of Operation Cherry Pill, but the charges haven’t stuck. Even if they did, officers say the dealers locked up would soon be replaced — and the dealing would return to normal in a couple of months.
So police take what they can get. They sit wherever the drug trade is said to be flourishing — gas stations, markets, street corners — and wait for the silent tells of a deal in the making.
On Dec. 8, it was a car at the Marathon gas station on Boynton Beach Boulevard. The car, officers noted, parked on the wrong side of the pump. Authorities confiscated more than $4,000 worth of cocaine from the suspected dealer.
“We’re making a difference. We’re trying to save lives here,” said Officer Barry Ward. “You’ve got to go after this every day, and we’re not going to give up.”
He’s trying to make a dent, however small in may be, in an epidemic that stacks the odds toward the city losing.
Since January, there have been 542 drug overdoses in Boynton Beach, 56 of them fatal, according to police spokeswoman Stephanie Slater. In 2016, there were 433 drug overdoses, 35 fatal.
Dealing is known to happen outside the MLK Quick Stop and the Cherry Hill Mini Market, both owned by the Bell family.
Octavia Bell juggles running a business with cooperating with police, who have trespassing agreements with the markets so they can tell loiterers to leave at any point. But those loiterers are also the markets’ customers. They come in for a beer, food and lottery tickets.
“The drug problem, it’s not my fight,” Bell said. “It’s much bigger than here.”
And the officers’ proactiveness can backfire.
“If we see someone hanging out for a good five to ten minutes and they’re not buying anything but they aren’t leaving, we will come over and say ‘Hey, no loitering,’ ” Widy said. “But if we do that a lot, the owners will call the city commissioners and say officers are harassing customers.”
Police have been called to the Cherry Hill market more than 20 times since January to investigate everything from Adam Wood’s Sept. 7 death nearby to minor disturbances.
The city this year has had nine homicides, the most since at least 2009. Two of them happened in Cherry Hills; another two were just outside the neighborhood. And of the city’s 42 homicides over the past four years, one out of every four has happened within a one-block radius of another on the north end of Cherry Hills, a Palm Beach Post database shows.
The city’s most recent victim was Kunta Kinte Riddick, shot to death last month on Northwest 12th Avenue.
The violence and drugs have led Lasendra Wilson to beg to be let out of her Cherry Hills home she is bound to under a contract with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. She lives about four homes from where Kunta Riddick was murdered.
Wilson told city officials she wants speed bumps on her street to stop drive-by shootings. When her daughter hears fireworks, she drops to the ground in fear someone’s shooting at her. The family finds drugs in their mailbox.
There are no speed bumps planned. The city instead is working on a chronic-nuisance ordinance that officials say will give them some teeth in sprucing up the neighborhood.
“What are we going to do? What can we do as elected officials to help abate the problem that exists in these areas that we talk about day in and day out?” Casello asked Tuesday while discussing Wilson’s situation.
Mayor Steve Grant told Casello to knock on doors and find out what the residents want.
Casello, whose district does not include the neighborhood, turned to the mayor.
“I will not be going out to anybody’s doors in Cherry Hill,” Casello said.
Born in Allentown, Pa., Kelcey and Kunta Riddick came to Palm Beach County by their teen years. At age 19, they were convicted felons, thanks to a plea in a cocaine-possession case. By their early 20s, they were on federal authorities’ radar for their drug activity near a public-housing community just west of where Wilson Park and the Carolyn Sims Center sit.
Kunta, records show, sold the drugs there. Both pleaded guilty to federal charges. Kelcey spent five years in prison, and Kunta served eight. A cocaine charge landed Kelcey another two years in state prison. He was released in 2013, records show.
Four years into an eight-year probation period, a battery charge brought Kunta back into federal custody for violating the terms of his supervised release. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office decided not to file charges in the case, but federal authorities determined he needed to undergo anger management classes while he finished his four years of probation.
Records indicate he never would.
In the year before Kunta died, city police monitored him and his twin using “spot checks” of the trap house they allegedly ran at a Northwest Fourth Street home. For months they watched the brothers go in and out, bringing guests and drugs through as well.
A July 2016 raid was the first bust in the city’s Operation Cherry Pill, a yearlong investigation aimed at yanking alleged dealers from the streets to limit the city’s hundreds of yearly heroin-related overdoses.
It’s common in large-scale investigations for officers to delay arrests based on the needs of the investigation, said Capt. Steven Burdelski. So authorities didn’t file the
armed drug trafficking charges against the twins until Sept. 6 — more than a year after they found fentanyl, heroin, pills, scales, syringes, cash and guns inside that house — and two days after Kelcey reportedly killed Derrick Barber, 35, outside the MLK Quick Stop.
Had Boynton Beach police known Kunta was on federal probation when they searched the home, they would have alerted federal authorities, Burdelski said. What to do next would have been up to the feds, but city police said they still wouldn’t have arrested him at that time. Instead Boynton police got him in Boca Raton during Hurricane Irma when they thought they were taking his twin into custody on a murder charge.
Police say Kelcey fatally shot Derrick Barber on Sept. 4 following a fight between Barber and Kunta over a woman they’d both been seeing.
More than a week after his twin’s arrest, Kelcey was behind bars on murder and drug trafficking charges.
But like his brother’s, those drug charges wouldn’t stick. By mid-October the State Attorney’s Office decided not to file drug charges against the brothers saying the evidence was “insufficient to support a criminal prosecution.”
The homicide case kept Kelcey in jail. Kunta was freed.
The 40-year-old was fatally shot the evening of Nov. 29 in the neighborhood where he’d made his name.
The Riddick family declined multiple requests to speak with The Post, but dozens of Facebook posts from relatives and friends show smiling photos of Kunta and his seven children during the final month of his life.
He was with a friend, Cynthia Ballard, that evening at her home on the 400 block of Northwest 12th Avenue. Ballard told authorities Kunta became nervous when he saw a man through the window.
That man, 33-year-old Sam Barber, is the son of Ballard’s neighbor, and the younger brother of Derrick Barber, who Kelcey is accused of killing.
Ballard said Barber brought Kunta to the ground. She and Barber’s mother tried to pull the men apart, but Kunta reportedly reached for a 2-by-4 with a nail sticking out of it and Barber reached for the gun in his waistband. Witnesses gave police conflicting statements as to who reached for a weapon first, or whether Kunta reached for one at all.
What is known is that shortly before 5 p.m., Barber shot Kunta at point-blank range, killing him before rescue crews had a chance to save him. Barber, who drove himself to the city police station afterward, is facing a second-degree murder charge. He claimed the shooting was in self-defense.
“The Riddick twins have plagued the city of Boynton Beach for decades as drug traffickers,” Burdelski told The Post. “The reality that at least one brother (Kunta) will not return to the city of Boynton Beach to sell drugs is helpful to the city.”
People to protect
There have been improvements in Cherry Hills and the Heart of Boynton. The city demolished the public-housing community; created Ocean Breeze West, a community of 21 single-family homes that works with nonprofits to build more; and is redeveloping Sara Sims Park. Commissioner Mack McCray, who represents the Heart of Boynton, said police and the area’s ministers are addressing the drugs and violence.
But some say it isn’t enough.
Mayor Grant would like to see more technology such as automated license-plate readers to help officers. He wants to make sure every convenience store is following state statute by recording video security-camera footage.
Most of all, he said, more commercial activity would help deter crime. He wants to explore putting prefabricated commercial structures on vacant CRA property.
“It’s up to the CRA to remove slum and blight. Vacant land does not do that,” Grant said. “Currently from what I can see from the police reports is there is economic activity going on. However, none of it’s legal.”
Willie Aikens, the leader of the Heart of Boynton’s community association, came to Kunta’s murder scene after he heard about it. He’s calling for more police officers in the area than only the three stationed on MLK.
“You can’t protect the people when you got three officers doing the job of maybe 12,” Aikens said. “What we have in the neighborhood is working, but we need to increase the things that’s working and not try to reinvent the wheel.”
And he adds in frustration: “If the chief or anybody that’s in there will come down and actually walk the area themselves, instead of just riding through, they would understand and live it more and feel the tension.”
Police Chief Jeffrey Katz is retiring Wednesday. The city is opening a national search to find his replacement, and Commissioner Casello already knows what he wants: a “hard-ass type” with more officers patrolling the area.
“Some people might think it’s semi-militant, but it’s what we need to clean up the criminal element that’s walking the streets. There’s too many people that we need to protect to let this happen,” he said.
That includes the neighborhood’s children.
While on patrol, Sgt. Jean pulled into the Ezell Hester Center park where he knew he’d find teens there when they shouldn’t be. Some bring guns, to them a sign of power. Police often are called to suspected shootings but find only shell casings, not victims.
“They just shoot it up in the air,” he said. The youngsters aren’t a major concern yet, Jean said, “but it’s starting to rear it’s head.”
It’s not the area that’s the problem, Jean said. It’s the drugs, and he is hesitant to say what the best fix is.
“With anything you’re doing, it requires a lot of resources and a lot of times you have to justify — OK, what do we get in the long run from those resources?” Jean said.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.