The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America’s Crack Epidemic
25 years ago, crack use was exploding across America. Cheap and readily accessible, the drug’s place in the national folklore was assured when President George H. W. Bush brandished a bag of crack rocks in an address from the Oval Office in 1989, opining: “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battlezones, and it’s murdering our children.”
About four months later, Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was busted by the feds. They caught him (on tape) smoking crack in a hotel room—where he famously muttered “Bitch set me up!” in reference to the former girlfriend who cooperated with the FBI to bring him down. That same night, Ruben Castaneda, a recently-hired crime reporter for the Washington Post who was lucky enough to be on the scene at the Vista Hotel, got high on crack in a room paid for by the newspaper. He was an addict, and with his blood racing from having seen the most popular politician in the city go down—and no one at the hotel giving up any dirt on the bust he could use for a story—the temptation was too great to resist.
Before his Post editors helped him get clean and kick the habit, Castaneda led a complicated existence—reporting stories on one hand and surreptitiously scoring crack on the other. His new book about those years, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, recalls David Simon’s beloved HBO show The Wire with its vivid, textured portrait of urban life and territorial gang warfare. The key difference, as Castaneda likes to point out, is that it’s all true (even if Simon’s own time as a crime reporter gave his show plenty of realism).
I called Castaneda up to ask him about experiencing the crack epidemic first hand, and how he pulled off such an incredible double life.
VICE: You were a reporter in your hometown of LA at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before being hired by the Post. Do you remember when you first heard about crack cocaine?
Ruben Castaneda: It’s hard to pinpoint, but I probably read an article in the LA Times or the New York Times about the impact crack was having in DC and in other cities around 1987 or 1988. Basically, that it was this incredibly powerful, addictive drug that was being sold in some of the tougher neighborhoods in the cities.
Tell me about your first experience with crack and what you think brought you to the drug.
I was on a reporting assignment on the western edge of downtown LA in a pretty tough neighborhood. This very, very attractive young woman caught my eye. She gestured for me to come over, so I put the reporting aside for a moment and went over to flirt with her. Now, I was already, at this time, drinking heavily. In fact, I had already gotten pretty toasted that afternoon at Corky’s—a dive bar—so I was pretty impaired in judgment. So when she offered me, very quickly into our conversation, a hit of crack, I was 27—old enough to know better but young enough to feel invincible. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing something that I had read so much about. I’d read that crack cocaine produced this incredible high. In that moment, I dismissed any thoughts that this would throw me into addiction.
"Strawberry" was a term I hadn’t heard outside of rap lyrics before reading the book. Can you explain it to our readers?
A strawberry is a woman who trades sex for drugs. Crack usually, though I suppose it could be other drugs. I was introduced to crack by a young woman who turned out to be a strawberry—Raven—in Los Angeles. Getting a strawberry to make the buy for me very quickly became part of my addiction or compulsion. And it added to the excitement. At least initially, the sex was otherwordly. But there was another component to it in that by handing money to the strawberry—Raven in LA, Champagne or Carrie in DC—and letting them make the buy, I was insulating myself from any police activity. It was a way of protecting myself.
But by the last month or so, I didn’t even care about that. All I wanted was to get drugs—I made the buys directly. Didn’t care about strawberries, just needed more crack.
Sex was wrapped up in your crack use from the start, though. Did you have qualms about exploitation of these women working the street?
At the time that I was caught up in it, I did not reflect on that very much. The women who I was picking up for crack and sex seemed to be very much in control of their own destinies. We didn’t talk about our respective lives—these were transactional encounters. Now, later on, I did start to reflect on the fact that I was playing a role in their own addictions. I think it was June of 1991 when there was a story on the front-page of the Post about a group of women who had worked the streets. I saw a picture of a woman I had picked up to make crack buys for me. Up until that moment, I think I had mentally compartmentalized what I was doing as relatively benign.
If the War on Drugs Is Failing, Where’d All the Cocaine Go?
Toward the end of last year, the DEA published its 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, a 28-page report chronicling drug consumption trends across the United States. These include the continued rise in abuse of prescription drugs (second only to marijuana in popularity), the increase in the production of heroin in Mexico and its availability in the U.S., and the emergence of synthetic designer drugs.
Much of the report is unremarkable—until you arrive at the section on cocaine. “According to [National Seizure System] data,” it reads, “approximately 16,908 kilograms of cocaine were seized at the southwest Border in 2011. During 2012, only 7,143 kilograms of cocaine were seized, a decrease of 58 percent.”
That sharp decline echoes an ongoing trend: 40 percent fewer people in the United States used cocaine in 2012 than they did in 2006; only 19 percent of Chicago arrestees had cocaine in their system two years ago compared to 50 percent in 2000; and less high school seniors say they’ve used cocaine in the last 12 months than at any time since the mid-70s. In fact, the report indicates cocaine was sporadically unavailable in Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, and St. Louis in the spring of 2012. So where’d the blow go?
What’s Going On in the New Rob Ford Video?
This has been a terrible week for the Rob Ford administration. On Tuesday afternoon, Ford admitted that he has smoked crack cocaine, which inspired a nearly unanimous string of mockery from every late-night TV host and Twitter account owner in the world. More importantly, that admission, after months of question-dodging and denial, sounded more like a proverbial fuck you to the City of Toronto and its many hard working councilors and employees who are not currently embroiled in a crack related crime scandal. Then, about an hour after the crack admission, VICE reported that Amin Massoudi, Rob Ford’s spokesman, allegedly hired a hacker to destroy the crack tape on a private server—an allegation that Amin denied hours after we published our investigation, despite not answering several of our very specific requests for comment days before.
The Toronto media has been blue-balling the public all week with hints that there are more bombshells to come, and that’s not surprising. The 474-page surveillance document released last week is so heavily redacted with swaths of thick black ink that clearly there are more, presumably ridiculous, revelations to come. As a journalist, it’s somewhat thrilling. As a Torontonian, it’s exhausting and sad.
Reflecting on happier times, 8 months ago, when we thought Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was just a buffoon with a terrible photographer.
Rob Ford’s Office Hired a Hacker to Destroy the Crack Tape
In late July, an anonymous source approached VICE with claims that he had been hired by Amin Massoudi, the communications director for troubled Toronto mayor Rob Ford, to hack into a website.
More specifically, the source—who for matters of simplicity will be referred to as “the hacker” from here on out—said he was asked by Amin to crack the password of a private online directory that allegedly contained a digital copy of the now infamous footage of Mayor Ford smoking a substance out of a crack pipe. Rob Ford has, up until very recently, publicly doubted the existence of the video.
VICE acquired a log of emails that, according to the hacker, detail his correspondence with Amin from May 18 to May 31 of this year. When contacted by VICE, the hacker confirmed the validity of these emails but also said it was a little more complicated than it seemed. He agreed to talk if we would preserve his identity, as publishing it would incriminate him.
In case you aren’t caught up on the intoxicated calamity that is Rob Ford’s contemporary existence, today he bluntly admitted to having smoked crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor.”This insane bombshell comes after last week’s statement from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, whoconfirmed that the crack tape Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on does indeed exist and contains footage that is “consistent” with their reports that claim the video shows Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Rob Ford also appeared on his weekly radio show this past Sunday toapologize to the City of Toronto and asked for the crack tape to be released to the public “immediately.”
In light of these recent developments, we believe that now is the time to publish portions of Amin and the hacker’s arrangement since first receiving the emails in July for the benefit of public interest.
Rob Ford Needs to Step Down
Update: Rob Ford has commented on today’s revelations by saying: “I wish I could come out and defend myself. Unfortunately I can’t it’s before the courts. That’s all I can say. I have no reason to resign.” Reporters yelled questions at him about whether he lied to the people of Toronto, but the mayor just walked away.
Early this morning, a line of reporters with microphones and cameras waited outside of Rob Ford’s house. When Rob Ford emerged from his suburban cave, he was immediately bombarded with questions about whether or not he is at the center of a drug-related police investigation, along with questions about his relationship with Alexander Lisi, a man who is known as Rob Ford’s driver, close friend, and an alleged drug dealer with a history of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, Rob Ford didn’t take the questions gracefully and ended up screaming and yelling, “Get off my property! What don’t you understand? Get off my property, partner!” at the reporters who, undoubtedly, are only asking the questions that are on every Torontonian’s mind right now.
This morning’s scrum was the result of the Toronto police released a 474-page document—with a lot of the presumably juicy stuff blacked out and redacted to avoid implicating those who are currently innocent—detailing results of a surveillance operation that clearly targeted Rob Ford and Alexander Lisi. The police dubbed their municipal spy mission “Project Brazen 2,” which I like to believe was inspired by the unbelievably bold and inappropriate behavior Toronto’s mayor appears to believe he can get away with.
I didn’t expect a major bombshell to come out of today’s release, given that an investigation is still underway and given that Ford has been gleefully avoiding the issue ofwhether or not he’s a crack user by decorating his office like a haunted house. I was very wrong. Shortly after the document was released, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair vindicated what Gawker and the Toronto Star have been claiming since May—much to the ire of Ford and his legion of largely suburban political supporters. Blair held a press conference where he admitted that yes, the crack video exists, and yes, Rob Ford is indisputably pictured in it with a crack pipe in his hands.
I Have Dated Several Crack Dealers
The source of this story, who lives in Canada, wished to remain anonymous for fairly obvious reasons.
Just last week, I was at a trap house with my ex in Cloverdale, British Columbia. The front door was covered in what looked a lot like bullet holes, but I’m not sure. There were a lot of unexplainable holes in the wall. Some of the holes were so big I could almost fit through them. The whole place smelled faintly like ammonia and dirty laundry. I was hanging out in the living room while they were all in the kitchen. On one burner they were cooking crack and on the burner next to it, they were cooking dinner. I think that’s kind of funny, but I also couldn’t help but wonder why I was there? I mean, it’s not like I seek this shit out, or anything. I think I just attract it.
Crack dealers tend to approach me. I’m not chasing them down. It’s not like I ever said to myself, “I’m going to date crack dealers now!” But when you meet one, you meet a lot of others. And then you just start dating.
I’ve met some of them through friends, some I’ve met randomly at the club, or at a bar, or on the street. I don’t smoke crack. I’m not about that. I’ve never tried it, probably never will. I guess I date them because I like their personalities. Maybe it’s because I thought it would be exciting—but it’s actually kind of boring. They always want to chill at home. They’re always so tired. They don’t want to do anything. They barely have time to sleep, let alone have fun.
The first time I was approached by a crack dealer, I was 19 and at a party somewhere in East Vancouver. He was a friend of a friend. I thought he was really tough. He had muscles and he was wearing a shirt with no sleeves. I liked that. We dated for a couple of years. He was actually my last serious boyfriend. No one’s held me down like that since.
How the Rob Ford Smoking Crack Scandal Is Just Like ‘The Wire’
The allegation that a crew of drug dealers had a video of mayor Rob Ford smoking crack has resulted in a prolonged and sad controversy in Toronto. Our city’s once triumphant king—who we have heralded for his ability to charmingly pose for terrible photographs, or conquer his rivals after getting fired—has become a political pariah while keeping both ass cheeks firmly on the throne. After the firings and resignations of several disloyal staff members and some accusations from the Globe and Mail that his brother Dougie used to sell hash, his other brother Randy kidnapped a dude who owed him money, and his sister Kathy (who was shot in the face by her boyfriend) hung out with Nazis, the once sparkling face of the Ford dynasty is now looking pimply and scabbed up.
What with City Hall, the police, Toronto’s drug dealers, and the media playing a major role in events, there’s no real-life parallel to this evolving story—it’s more like a work of fiction, specifically David Simon’s much-lauded TV series The Wire, and even more specifically the really implausible plot points in season five. (You can imagine a writer pitching a hard drug–abusing mayor to Simon and Simon tossing that suggestion out for being unrealistic.) But if Toronto’s crackgate (or whatever we’re calling it now) is The Wire, who are the analogues to the major players in the scandal? Here are the answers I came up with.