YORK — In the Valley, Gregory Davis is known as "Weasel." Jeffrey Davis is his housemate and nephew. To police, they’re wanted fugitives on the run.
Jeffrey and Gregory Davis —relatives "well known to law enforcement" and allegedly well-known to street-level drug dealers and buyers— both this month skipped trial, where they were expected to answer for charges they received last year after a sweeping drug raid in a York neighborhood reputed for overlapping drugs and violence.
Bench warrants have been issued for both Davis men, longtime residents of the Valley neighborhood who have united county drug agents and local police in a countywide manhunt. This month, they were sentenced to several years in prison on crack cocaine and conspiracy charges although they never appeared before a judge and jury.
“They’re career dealers in the Valley,” said Jennifer Colton, assistant prosecutor with the York County Solicitor’s Office. “They’ve been constantly involved with crack cocaine since the early ‘90s. They’re career drug dealers. Both of them.”
The Davises were among the 15 alleged drug dealers arrested last October in Operation Fall Back, a months-long undercover operation that resulted in a joint drug sting requiring manpower from 55 officers with the York Police Department, the county multijurisdictional drug enforcement unit and State Law Enforcement Division. Several bloodhounds, more than 15 police vehicles and a SLED helicopter were used in the raid.
The investigation produced 46 warrants, 31 of which were issued in one Friday morning in the Valley. The sting was built off a series of complaints from neighbors and tips from an undercover informant, York Police Chief Andy Robinson said.
Without Gregory Davis appearing in court to offer an alibi, a jury watched video of him reaching his hands into a car and allegedly trading drugs with an undercover informant, said Rock Hill lawyer J. Richards McCrae, Gregory Davis’ appointed counsel.
“The video did not show any drugs,” McCrae said, and it’s unclear if anything was exchanged. But, if the video is freeze-framed, “it appears he’s holding cash, but even that wasn’t 100 percent clear.”
Arrest warrants accuse Gregory Davis, 46, of selling crack cocaine to the undercover informant and conspiring with his nephew to make a profit off .2 grams of crack cocaine, typically worth $20 on the street. A judge handed down a sealed sentence despite McCrae’s attempts to cast “a specter of doubt” over the jury and discredit the informant whose intentions, he said, were “questionable.”
Gregory Davis faced between 10 and 30 years in prison.
“It’s possible an appeal could be filed, but it would require me to first have a conversation with my client,” McCrae said. It’s unclear when that might happen. In the days before the trial, McCrae tried to reach his client. He was unsuccessful.
Police say Jeffrey Davis, 45, sold crack cocaine near a park in “broad daylight,” Colton said. The charge, she said, was his “third strike,” the final straw for Jeffrey Davis, already previously convicted twice of drug charges.
State law requires that felons convicted of committing their third “serious offense” automatically receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Those offenses include drug and sex crimes, armed robbery, assault or embezzlement.
After his October arrest, Jeffrey Davis was released on a $40,000 personal recognizance bond he didn’t have to pay so long as he promised to show up for future court dates.
He went back on his word, police say. Before trial, prosecutors notified Jeffrey Davis they would seek a sentence of life without parole, which a judge would have to impose if Davis was convicted, Colton said.
During a trial that Jeffrey Davis missed earlier this month, a judge handed down a sealed sentence that, “in all likelihood,” will put him behind bars for the rest of his life, Colton said.
“I think the state was immoral and financially reckless” for pushing a life sentence against Jeffrey Davis, “a lifelong drug addict,” said Mark McKinnon, Jeffrey Davis’ public defender.
Once a promising athlete, Jeffrey Davis’ chances to earn scholarships crumbled with an addiction to crack cocaine, McKinnon said.
Drug convictions soon followed. He once applied for drug court, but was rejected. He has no car, house, cell phone or jewelry reflecting profits gained from dealing drugs, McKinnon said.
“His whole life was derailed by drug abuse and addiction,” he said. “It was immoral to seek life without parole for a drug addict.”
Now, if Jeffrey Davis is found, taxpayers will feel the burden of keeping him in prison for the rest of his life, McKinnon said.
The National Drug Institute and American Medical Association define drug addiction as a “disease.” It costs more than $17,000 a year to keep one sentenced inmate in prison.
Family members say they don’t know where the Davis men are, and tips have come in but none pan out, said Robinson, the York police chief. Officials were unsure if they were still in York County after receiving word the duo might be hiding in Charlotte or New York.
“We’re at a stalemate right now” in the search, said Lt. Mike Ligon, drug unit commander for York and Clover. “No one’s come forward” with information.
Leading the search is the drug unit, whose agents have spoken to friends and neighbors, visited places the Davis men might frequent and searched the Valley Road house where the two Davis men lived together.
If found elsewhere in the state, they will be returned to York County, Colton said. If found in another state, the two will be extradited. Members of the Davis family declined to comment.
‘Salt of the earth’
Many of Jeffrey and Gregory Davis’ prior convictions stem from activities in the Valley, a neighborhood on York’s southwestern end where average property values range between $9,000 to $14,000, depending on the street.
The community encompasses five streets, including Valley Road, Autumn Place, Galilean Road, Hickory Lane and Creekside Drive. It’s home to the young, the old and, according to police statistics, the criminal.
Last year, York Police were called to the area 243 times, investigating aggravated assaults, robberies and reports of gunfire. As of June 13 this year, police were called to the area 92 times, according to the York Police Department.
Those same numbers show that 27 people were arrested in the Valley last year, including 11 in the first six months. So far this year, police have arrested up to 16 people. The numbers don’t include suspects arrested for drug offenses, the bulk of which are investigated by the drug unit.
“We’re still trying to work (the Valley) aggressively and lock up people who are selling drugs,” said Mike Ligon, whose team patrols the community regularly. “It’s still a problem for the city of York. I don’t know if we’ll ever fully get it under control.”
Drug operations that remove Valley drug dealers are nothing new, Ligon said.
“We’ll push them out and slowly they’ll move back in,” he said. “It’s kind of like an ebb and flow— an ongoing cycle.”
Despite a harsh reputation, the Valley is filled with "good, salt of the earth" people, Robinson said. Yet, it’s still one of the most difficult city neighborhoods for police to make "inroads” and get residents to “trust us,” Robinson said.
Trust doesn’t come easy for the people who live there because “they’re scared,” said Linda Mitchell, a 15-year area resident who said most of her neighbors are working people, children or the elderly.
Information given to police that residents hope remains confidential is leaked into the streets, she said, and “you can get hurt like that.”
Fear of retaliation is a “huge roadblock” for residents, Ligon said, adding that many are afraid that retribution will come to their doorstep if suspects discover they submitted an anonymous tip.
Police don’t disclose who calls in a tip, but “in the same aspect, people can speculate and might lash out against innocents” who might not be involved, Ligon said.
Years ago, Mitchell, 61, left a one-bedroom apartment and moved into an aging house on Valley Road so she could give her kids a bigger home. Since then, she’s seen fights and drug deals from her living room window. She once had to dive to the floor and “crawl in the hallway” because escalating violence sent suspects running from police into her yard.
“I would see different vehicles” pull up to houses, said Brenda Robinson, 48. Residents would “dip in the window and dip out. I knew something was going on.”
On the heels of a deadly shooting in 2006, Robinson and Maeola Robbins, 58, walked the neighborhood each day and returned home disturbed by dilapidated houses, litter in yards and prostitutes conducting business.
Together with Linda Mitchell, they formed Women on a Mission and reached out to city officials who helped them secure a $485,000 grant they used to renovate 15 houses along a strip of Valley Road. For weeks, they picked up trash, regularly attended city council meetings and kept in contact with police.
“We got fed up,” Mitchell said.
It’s typically women who take action in areas like the Valley, said Tommy Pope, former 16th Circuit Solicitor and now partner at the Elrod Pope law firm in downtown Rock Hill.
“It’s unfortunately what we see happen in older communities... the legitimate neighbors are beginning to age,” he said. “It becomes a tough dynamic between older people who want to use it as a community and drug dealers who want to use it as a haven. Law enforcement, no matter their best intentions, can’t be there 24/7.”
He said it’s easy for police to encourage neighbors to take a stand, then leave: “One, I have a gun, and two, I’m not going to be there all the time.”
Neighbors who maintain good relationships with police officers are likely afraid of being labeled as snitches, he said, while others might simply profit from a relative’s “illegal enterprise.”
“It’s hard when you can’t make your power bill and ‘Jr.’ gives you 100 bucks,” Pope said.
York Mayor Eddie Lee said it’s only a “minority” of people he called “vultures” who swoop into the Valley and stir trouble. The rest, he said, are “good, law-abiding people.”
“That neighborhood has a right to safety...it’s an area that is important to us,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s safe, and we want to make sure that it’s clean.”
Within the Valley live “intertwined” families and “close-knit” neighbors who have known each other for years, said Robinson, the York police chief. They scarcely attend police-organized community meetings, and they’re slow to give police information about crimes.
“A lot of times we go into these places and there will be 50 people out there, and no one’s seen anything,” said York Police Capt. Brian Trail. “Everybody’s seen the whole thing,” but say “nobody’s seen a thing.”
Robbins, Mitchell and Brenda Robinson said residents don’t attend the meetings because police only tell them what to do. What neighbors need instead, the women say, is help.
Living in most households in the Valley is at least one drug addict, Robbins said. The “big, strong men” spend their days on porches, “waiting for somebody to get paid so they can get paid” and feed their drug habit.
Some residents, Robbins said, fear turning dealers away because they “might get beat,” or vengeful dealers might “shoot up” their houses.
“We need something to help them to get off the drugs,” Robbins said. “They need someone to come out and help them with their troubles.”
The Monday after Operation Fall Back —intended to make a “dent” in the Valley’s drug community— several of the accused drug dealers arrested had already been released on bond, including the missing Davis men.
Chief Robinson vented his frustrations in an email to media, blaming a “flawed” criminal justice system for giving longtime drug dealers the same “paltry bond” amounts as first-time offenders.
He now credits county solicitors for seeking punitive sentences for many of the people accused, including suspects who authorities say sold fake crack to informants.
Several of those accused dealers have pleaded guilty, receiving sentences as long as four years to as little as one year of probation, court records show.
But Linda Mitchell doesn’t think the drug activity has slowed. The dealers, she said, are just more secretive. In the past, they assembled in the streets to deal dope even if officers had left the area just minutes earlier. Now, they wait to sell “when they think everybody’s asleep,” she said.
“Fussing and fighting” and the occasional gunshots come from the “guests” in the community, Robbins said.
About six years ago, a fight at a community park resulted in shots fired. A bullet flew into Robbins’ house, penetrating the wall of a back bedroom where her grandchildren had been jumping on the bed just five minutes earlier.
Her children no longer bring her grandchildren to the neighborhood. To spend time with them, she has to go to their houses or take the grandkids out somewhere, she said.
“They’re still afraid of the shooting,” she said.
Robbins isn’t. Things are improving, she said. More families are moving into the area. Recently a North Carolina pastor distributed lunch to about 70 families in the Valley. Women on a Mission is no longer active, but Robbins hopes to organize a community-wide cookout and give children in the area “something to do while they’re out of school.”
“A lot of the stuff people say is going on, I don’t see it,” said 58-year-old Benny Adams, a 15-year Valley resident. “It’s pretty peaceful” on his street, Hickory Lane, where there have been no arrests this year after four last year.
On a recent evening, he sat on his porch after work and waved to neighbors who drove by. The majority of the “action” —the “fighting and shooting”— he said, is on Galilean Road, the longest street in the neighborhood that saw 153 calls to service last year, the most on any road in the area. By mid-June this year, police were called to Galilean Road up to 49 times.
“Just like everybody else, you have bad. I just stay to myself,” he said, “and mind my own business.”
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082