The Fire Inside

The young black man stands barefoot and handcuffed in the middle of Harrison Street, surrounded by a scrum of cops, most of whom are white. His vintage blue basketball shoes rest neatly on the pavement beside his feet. The officers have blocked traffic in both directions on the residential thoroughfare. As neighborhood children gather to watch, it begins to rain on this late spring day in McNair.

The deputy constable, a large blue-eyed man in civilian clothes, explains how a motorist flagged him down just minutes before to report that the young man in T-shirt and baggy jean shorts tried to sell him crack.

"We come out here to check him out," Deputy Marvin Keller says. The officers have searched the man and his shoes, and now they are scouring the adjacent ground. They can't find the crack.

Something doesn't add up: The guy claimed to have $200 on him, but the officers checked and found $485. That's highly suspicious in a part of town that's a "real hot spot for crack," Keller says.

But with no drugs as proof, they are forced to let the 23-year-old walk. The traffic and crowds disperse.

"We'll get him…," Keller says later.

"The Thrill Is Gone" bleats from the stereo as Milton Collins coasts through McNair with the ease of a man who has spent the better part of his adult life in this small community near Baytown. A bear of a man at 59, Collins sits way back in the driver's seat of his SUV, leaving just enough clearance for his belly behind the steering wheel.

His face is a road map of sorrows, worn down by a pair of divorces, a disabling back injury and a son in jail. Yet Collins laughs hard when given reason. And he finds solace in the landmarks he and fellow community leaders have left on this town of roughly 3,000.

He points proudly to the fire department where he was a volunteer in the '70s. His enthusiasm is only slightly dampened by the fact that the shiny trucks are hidden from view inside the brick edifice. A few blocks down, he rolls off-road to show two hulking water tanks that the community installed to improve water supplies.

But it's the J.D. Walker Community Center in sprawling green Edna Mae Washington Park that clearly enjoys pride of place in his universe. Collins parks in front of the long one-story building and smugly notes his framed head shot hanging among those of other founding members in the lobby. Before the center opened in 1979 there wasn't a whole lot for the kids to do, Collins explains. The bustle of summer camp now in session shows that has changed.

"This is great," he says in a voice not unlike Jimmy Carter's, as he peers into the white-tiled activity room where dozens of youngsters noisily play. Collins's doleful visage relaxes into a smile. "This is primary perfect right here."

Longtime McNair residents do not indulge in hope lightly. Experience has shown that whole generations can go awry. Collins moved here after marrying a local girl in 1959 when the burgeoning community wasn't much older than he. The young Louisiana native went on to become a chemical plant operator, earning a respectable living for his family until a ruptured disk left him disabled three years ago.

But even as Collins thrived, McNair went to hell.

Wheeling past the unassuming homes with their shade trees and pit barbecues the size of small locomotives, Collins wonders which ones harbor the dope dealers who took over the town. Are those three "suckers" playing cards behind the chain-link fence really playing cards? Or are they masking their purpose as they wait for customers to pull up? They should be out working honest jobs, Collins grouses.

He drives on past a scraggly old-timer walking down the street with his mouth agape.

"That old boy there used to be a good boy. You see how they go down?" he says over the blues pouring from the speakers. "We've got good people all throughout here -- just some of them went bad, brother."

The numerous Baptist churches seem to promise redemption for those who have fallen. Only the police have a higher profile in McNair. Officers in patrol cars crop up everywhere, interrogating suspicious characters on the streets, running background checks on unfamiliar vehicles and regularly arresting folks for infractions great and small.

"I'm glad to see them," Collins says of the men in uniform.

He and other leaders pleaded with the constable to move full-time forces into this unincorporated town. In so doing, they unleashed the fury of the dope dealers. With his brash, boastful style, Collins gained particular notice from the thugs.

In this gritty crusade to clean up McNair, Collins reaches back to the words of Martin Luther King. "If a man ain't got something he's willing to die for," he says stoically, "it ain't worth living."

A neighbor was the first to alert Collins to the strange object gleaming in his front yard in December. Collins checked it out and at first thought it was no big deal, just a brown beer bottle that someone had discarded. Then he noticed the rag stuffed into the top and the fluid inside. He picked up the bottle and whiffed the stench of gasoline.

Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail. A second bottle lay shattered beside it. More angry than afraid, Collins called the constable's office. Deputies confirmed his suspicion: Dope dealers were warning him to stop messing with business. It was a sobering message. On the other hand, Collins's swaggering streak made him dismiss the stunt as "unprofessional."

"They never really did frighten me, and I never did think it would go to the real thing," he says.

McNair was not always a lair for brazen criminals. For most of its history the town was a safe rural community of working-class African-American families, many lured by the oil industry. The descent came with the stealth of a disease.

"I can remember not having burglar bars or sleeping with a gun by the door," says Olivia Messiah. The retired teacher arrived with her family in 1939 when McNair had just a dozen or so houses and no electricity or running water.

Today, residents fumble for explanations for the community's unraveling. Certainly it was abetted by the scant attention from law enforcement. But Messiah and others are just as likely to cite intangibles like taking religion and corporal punishment out of the classrooms.

Law enforcement officials don't offer much more in the way of specifics. But everyone agrees that over the past decade the small town became infested by crack, prostitutes and occasional shoot-outs.

"Back in the day the drug was marijuana," says one McNair man on condition of anonymity. "If you had a beef with someone you'd go and fight it out. Nowadays, they'll shoot your ass."

Once-secretive dope deals spilled into the open, and at all hours of the day. Cars and 18-wheelers from nearby Interstate 10 snaked through the neighborhood, holding up traffic as illegal transactions went down at the curb. The dealers were mostly small-time operators, says Ken Jones, elected constable for Precinct 3 last November. But they did enough business to supply addicts from Liberty, Chambers and Harris counties.

"They had a nice comfortable haven where they could operate," says James Fretty, a retired Houston police investigator and a McNair resident since 1943.

The constable's office has a dearth of specific crime data for McNair, reflecting many years of neglect by police, says Jones. In the past, the constable and the sheriff made sporadic attempts to clean up the town, but the efforts were short-lived. Residents had asked county officials for more vigorous enforcement and even got former constable James Douglas to assign a deputy to McNair. But many feel that was a token gesture with little impact.

Most of the dealers came from within the community and had a network of lookouts and an elaborate system of codes -- trash cans placed upside down, lawn furniture positioned just so -- to warn of the presence of the law. Nobody was immune from the trouble.

"I'd say that there isn't a family in McNair that hasn't been touched by drugs or drug-related illnesses," says Messiah, the first African-American woman elected to the Goose Creek school board.

Collins himself knows the tragedy of drugs. Milton Jr., the second of his three boys, has been in and out of jail on a variety of charges since graduating high school. The 32-year-old "just had one hell of a nice personality," Collins says, but drugs consumed him.

"We've always talked to him and tried to get him to go straight," he rues. "He had the ability to do good work until he let this drug business mess him up."

There was no single incident that made residents decide to fight back, just a growing weariness of living in fear, Messiah says. Old hands like Fretty, Messiah and Collins resurrected the flagging civic group The Concerned Citizens of McNair, and began to clamor anew for outside help.

They found an ally in Constable Jones. A precinct captain since 1982, Jones decided to run for office when his longtime Precinct 3 boss James Douglas announced his retirement. In the fall election campaign, the desperation of McNair leaders convinced Jones that law enforcement action was crucial.

"I assured them that…we would be there," says the soft-spoken 54-year-old. "They did need special resources and attention."

After he won the race, community leaders called another meeting that attracted him as well as representatives from County Commissioner Jim Fonteno's office and the county health department. One woman drew laughs and energetic nods when she quipped that if the drug dealers were so stealthy maybe they "need to be with the FBI."

On December 30 the constable struck with a force unlike anything McNair had seen. He initiated around-the-clock patrols and began stricter enforcement of a curfew for minors. Jones dedicated four patrol cars full-time to the small town -- a huge investment for a department of fewer than 100 officers responsible for a large chunk of east Harris County. The results of Operation Safe Street were immediate.

In the first few weeks the department averaged a half-dozen arrests a day for drug possession, outstanding warrants and other crimes. If officers saw a suspicious tractor-trailer in the neighborhood, they'd call the trucking company, sometimes in places as far away as Florida, and ask the owners if they knew why their driver was stopping in McNair.

"The way we have been successful is that we showed up one morning and never left," Jones says. "This pretty well pushed the drug dealers underground."

The dealers were not going to give up their lucrative turf easily in this shadowy war. Community activists never had any direct confrontations -- as they drove by, even the young men they suspected of peddling crack waved politely.

However, Fretty had been receiving ominous phone calls. Collins discovered the Molotov cocktails. But they and deputies never could figure out exactly who was behind the threats.

In retrospect, Collins says, "I never figured it would get that bad."

Collins had lived alone since buying the simple frame house from his brother for a mere $10,000 in 1991. He poured double that amount into fixing it up into a cozy place for family members to visit.

And he was happy for grandson Milton III's company for a few days during the boy's winter break. Before turning in for the night on January 8, Collins stopped in the guest room where the 11-year-old was watching cartoons.

They said goodnight and Collins retired to his room.

Around 11, he was awakened by the sound of steps on the porch outside his window. At first he thought it was his dogs. Then he noticed light. In his semiconscious state, he told himself it was just a passing patrol car shining a beam into his window. But it seemed awfully bright. And the footsteps outside seemed too loud for his mutts. Someone was out there.

Collins swung out of the bed and grabbed his .32-caliber pistol.

Stepping into the living room toward the front door, he was aghast. The wall was on fire. In what seemed like seconds, flames consumed the whole front of his house from the floor to the attic and were "spreading pretty good." The window shattered. Was it the attacker trying to get in? When the Sheetrock started popping, Collins realized it was the scorching heat.

He had seen enough nasty explosions and fires during his years at the Equistar chemical plant and as a volunteer firefighter to know to remain calm. He fired his pistol in the direction of the blaze just in case the arsonist was still out there.

"Hell, I've got to defend my family," he says.

Collins ran to the guest room where his grandson lay watching Scooby-Doo, blissfully unaware of the inferno.

"Let's go, son!" he yelled, grabbing young Milton by the shirt and marching him out the back door. He passed the boy over the low metal fence to the neighbor's yard. Then, despite his back troubles, he shimmied himself over it as well.

Collins did not know who might be out there in the dark looking to take a shot at him, so he remained at the neighbor's until police and firefighters arrived. Meanwhile, as smoke filled the air, a worried mass gathered on his front yard, unsure whether Collins and his grandson were inside. His three sons arrived. Fearing for both his father and son, Milton Jr. and a neighbor attacked the flames with a fire extinguisher, but it was useless. The son succeeded only in burning his hand.

Fire trucks screamed up, and volunteers jumped out to battle the blaze. As the flames died, Collins and his grandson ventured to where neighbors and family waited anxiously. He recalls how their looks of fright turned to relief. His sister wept.

"Nothing nice about that," he says of the ordeal. "Nothing nice at all."

Collins lost almost everything in the fire: his furniture, his roof, the only picture he had of his mom and dad. He left the smoldering scene at 3 a.m. to stay with his sister in La Porte. He still finds it hard to fathom.

"It's terrible," he says. "I felt I did a lot to turn around the community for something like this to happen."

The investigation into the fire was swift. The Harris County fire marshal's office sent two investigators to help. Three days later they arrested McNair resident Thomas Egan, 38. He was described as a drug-addled odd-jobs man with a history of petty crimes.

Egan was also an acquaintance of the Collins boys. "He was one fine fellow, they say," notes Collins sorrowfully. Egan confessed to dousing Collins's porch with gas and lighting the match.

His motive, he said, was $100 and four rocks of crack cocaine.

But Egan refused -- even as he was sentenced to 12 years in prison -- to reveal who paid him to torch the crusader's home. Constable Jones continues the investigation, saying he believes he knows who is behind the crime.

"The problem is we can't prove that this person did it at this time," he says. "We're close."

He has no doubt the blaze was intended to be an unmistakable message, but one that backfired on the drug dealers. "This just strengthened our resolve," he says.

Collins sits in his living room on this June morning, overseeing the resurrection of the modest frame home. The roof has been rebuilt and the walls replastered. A neighbor named Felipe, sporting an "Addicted to Jesus" T-shirt, sucks on a Budweiser as he lays carpeting on the reconstructed front porch.

Collins has yet to move back, but the activity here today suggests a home is taking shape. Milton III and his sister Brittany busy themselves with computer games in the haphazardly furnished living room. Other family members and friends mill about, inevitably talking of the fire.

Milton's older brother, Bruce Collins of Channelview, initially thought Milton was crazy to want to move back to McNair. "I thought he should leave, at first, but running isn't always a good thing. You can't let them run you out of your home," the 61-year-old says.

Lounging on a leather sofa and fiddling with a flyswatter, Milton Collins says his urgency to make a stand only increased when his son went back to jail recently for a parole violation.

"It seems that whole damn class went bad," he says of his son and his peers. "They're not bad people, but they ruin their whole lives because of little bitty stuff."

Patrols have tapered off since the launch of the operation, but police still maintain a 24-hour presence. If they pulled out, the pushers would be back in 48 hours, Jones says. Residents "are either left to the thugs' mercy or to law enforcement."

Some community members gripe about the crackdown because they get caught for small infractions like seat belt violations and expired inspection stickers. But even those who grumble seem grateful for the officers' help. Eager to keep the momentum of positive change, they are more willing than ever to feed information to the police, no matter how unsavory.

The day after officers came up empty in their search of the suspected crack dealer on Harrison Street, Deputy Keller took a call from McNair.

"We just want you to know that they're laughing at y'all 'cause the boy had the dope stuck up his rectum," the caller told him.

At last, Keller realized why they hadn't found the crack. But he was upbeat: He and his men haven't seen that young man on the streets since.


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