“To solicit crack cocaine to prove there is a drug problem is like smuggling a bomb onto an airplane to prove we need better security at airports.”
— Council member Brownie Newman
It wouldn’t be a war without a little reconnaissance work. And as the principal planner and advocate of Operation Hard Time (a proposed war on drugs in public housing), Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower apparently figured he was the man for the job.
On the evening of May 14, Mumpower told Xpress, former Asheville City Council member Herb Watts, a retired police officer, “offered to educate me some more” about the open-air drug markets flourishing in Asheville’s public-housing complexes. Mumpower told how he and Watts had driven to Lee Walker Heights, where Watts’ car was approached by a group of young men. According to Mumpower, Watts rolled down the driver’s side window, asked for “a dime,” and “the guy dropped a rock in his hand, Herb handed it to me, and Herb then drove off without paying. I was looking over my shoulder waiting for the gunfire.”
Later that evening, said Mumpower, he drove downtown and turned the rock over to the Asheville Police Department. According to a “found property report” submitted at 3:25 a.m. on May 15, “1 tan rock = 1g. [was] found in the possession of Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower.” The report continues: “Dr. Mumpower stated that he got the tan rock from Lee Walker Heights. Dr. Mumpower requests testing for controlled substance.”
“The point of the episode,” said Mumpower, “is to illustrate how casual the drug dealers are. They have no natural enemies.”
The incident was first reported by Peter Dawes in the June edition of The Mountain Guardian News and Opinion, a local monthly newspaper. And the June 10 edition of the Asheville Tribune, a weekly, carried a story by Bill Fishburne that also mentions the Mumpower/Watts drug operation.
Interim Police Chief Ross Robinson told Xpress that the department would not be sending the rock to the SBI lab for testing because, “They’re not going to test it unless there is a defendant — there has to be a charge.” The APD, he explained, “could do a field test, but that doesn’t exclude a false positive.”
And though he declined to “speculate on [Mumpower’s] reasons,” Robinson did say the APD “would discourage anyone from putting themselves in close proximity to illegal activity, particularly drug activity.”
Asked if Mumpower had violated any laws, Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore told Xpress, “Technically, any possession of cocaine is illegal.” But since the police didn’t intercept the vice mayor with the cocaine before he turned it in, prosecution would be difficult, said Moore, because they would have to prove criminal intent. As a result, he explained, it’s unlikely that a jury would convict.
Moore, however, also pointed out that his office has prosecuted murder cases in which the defendant killed someone who’d run off without paying for drugs. Mumpower’s actions, said the district attorney, were “obviously not a very smart thing to do.” And if someone finds drugs, stressed Moore, they should first call the police. He also noted that if Mumpower had been stopped by a squad car on the way to the police station, “It may have been a whole different ball game.” Unless a civilian had been asked to buy drugs as part of a law-enforcement operation, added Moore, “It’s not the type of excuse we’d be impressed with.”
Mayor Charles Worley concurred, calling Mumpower’s foray into the drug world “a very risky thing to do.”
“You wouldn’t catch me going into the projects in circumstances like that,” added Worley.
Council member Brownie Newman went further still, saying: “To solicit crack cocaine to prove there is a drug problem is like smuggling a bomb onto an airplane to prove we need better security at airports. It is as reckless as it is unnecessary. Worst, it needlessly endangers the lives of children and families by creating the potential for violence in a residential neighborhood.”
Newman also wondered why Mumpower had felt the need to take such extreme steps to demonstrate the extent of drug trafficking in public housing. “No one has ever denied that there’s a problem; no one has ever challenged Carl on that. It’s just that we disagree on the approach to addressing the problem,” noted Newman.
And even before Mumpower first proposed the drug war at a Council meeting, a May 3 article in the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the vice mayor had spent the night in an apartment in public housing and had witnessed nonstop drug dealing outside his window.
Mumpower later told Xpress that his experience with Watts had taught him “more about how widespread [the drug problem] was.” He added that his overnight stay in public housing had occurred “over a year ago.” Mumpower was also adamant that “people have challenged how pervasive [drug dealing] is — they’ve challenged the seriousness of the issue.” As for the claim that his and Watts’ actions had endangered public safety, Mumpower acknowledged, “The dangerous thing to do was to drive off. Herb has said that himself.” But the vice mayor added, “I’m fascinated by the enthusiasm with which people have embraced the danger I represent to the public good versus these guys up there packing guns.”
Mumpower also stressed his own surprise at the way things played out: “I didn’t control the car. Herb drove off, and I don’t think he should have done that. I don’t think he should have taken the crack rock. I had no control over those things. I went up there to observe and listen to Herb; I didn’t go up there to make a drug buy. It’s not anything we ever discussed. I think that was a spontaneous thing that Herb kinda did. The plan was to go out and observe and learn from somebody who knows more than I do. This other was an incidental activity that I am glad happened, because it really illustrated to me how unafraid they [the drug dealers] are — and that really bothers me. These are predators.”
Watts did not return repeated phone calls.