Portland police say the investigation and arrest of a suspected crack cocaine seller was a high priority.
When Portland police learned that a crack cocaine dealer might be operating next to the entrance to Ocean Avenue Elementary School, they moved quickly to infiltrate the operation and make an arrest, investigators said.
Drug investigations often take weeks or months but the danger to schoolchildren made this one urgent, police said Thursday. Ocean Avenue Elementary students are encouraged to walk to and from school each day, which takes many of them past the house. Its “walking bus” has parent volunteers who walk a route and pick up students along the way.
Ronald Gullickson, 49, was arrested in a police raid Wednesday night at the house at 144 Ocean Ave. and charged with two counts of aggravated drug trafficking. The crime is classified as aggravated, or a Class A crime, because it took place within 1,000 feet of the school. It is punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
“We find there’s a higher incidence of crime around drug locations,” said Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch. “Trying to keep those as far away from schools as humanly possible has always been a priority.”
Drug activity brings with it violence and other dangers, even if dealers aren’t selling to children, Malloch said.
“We know the kinds of things you see around a drug house … you see people who are impaired – under the influence – people who might be desperate,” he said. “Sometimes you see turf wars between dealers, see people armed with weapons.”
Police were first alerted to drug activity at the apartment about a week ago by residents of the neighborhood, who are in the best position to identify signs of suspicious behavior at a house or apartment, such as visits by many people for short periods of time, Malloch said.
“A police officer could drive by 100 times a day and not notice anything suspicious,” he said.
On Wednesday night, members of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency supported by Portland’s special reaction team, in body armor and carrying automatic weapons, surrounded the house to execute a search warrant.
Undercover agents had purchased drugs twice from Gullickson, police said.
The house was kept under surveillance until 9 p.m., when the raid took place.
“I heard them yelling … saying to get down on the ground. (Police) were pulling them out of the building,” said Charles Wynott, who has lived next door for two years.
Surrounding streets were blocked off and officers with automatic weapons were positioned around the neighborhood, he said. Police stayed at the scene until 12:30 a.m., he said.
Wynott, from Boston, said the middle-class neighborhood, which has a mix of housing, has been a good place to live and he has not had any issues with neighbors.
Police detained four people, but later released three of them. Gullickson was also charged with failing to pay fines on separate, previous charges of operating after suspension.
He was being held at Cumberland County Jail, with bail set at $5,000 on the drug charges and $1,240 on the other charges.
Gullickson was convicted of cultivating marijuana in 2005, assault in 1989 and burglary in 1984.
Agents seized evidence of drug trafficking during the raid, including digital scales, cutting agents and packaging materials, but no drugs or guns, police said. Police could not say whether the people inside the apartment disposed of any drugs before the apartment was raided.
Malloch said the case remains active and police plan to make more arrests.
Heroin is becoming more commonplace and is a more serious issue in the city, but crack cocaine remains a problem, Malloch said.
The large, yellow two-and-a-half story colonial, built in 1807, is owned by Diane Gullickson. It is unclear what relationship she has to Ronald Gullickson. He was in a second-floor apartment of the house, which appeared to be in poor repair, with peeling paint on the exterior.
Police checked with school officials Wednesday to make sure the raid would not take place at the same time as activities at the school, said Principal Beverly Coursey. The last activity at the school Wednesday was sign-ups for Little League, which ended at 8 p.m.
“Because we had the heads-up, the doors were locked and everyone was safe,” she said.
Cathy Steele, president of the Parent Teacher Organization and the parent of a student at the school, said she was alarmed to learn there was a drug house in the neighborhood.
“It’s very disturbing, especially having a drug dealer living right next to the school … to me that’s unbelievable,” Steele said.