LITTLE ROCK (KTHV) - It was a story leading TV newscasts and splashing newspaper front pages last fall: Operation Delta Blues in Helena-West Helena.
For many in the Delta community, the massive drug and corruption case finally brought to light a long-time criminal plague, swept under the rug. Well now that it's surfaced, has the city changed at all? Is this a new start for Helena-West Helena? (THV Photo Gallery)
We decided to go after this story after hearing from federal prosecutors about phone calls and letters they've received from residents there, thanking them for launching this probe and making it public. In our THV Extra, we'll share some of those letters and our trip down there, gauging the temperature of a community rebound.
He was one of the first voices we heard from when Operation Delta Blues came down last fall: U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer in Helena-West Helena October 11th. He was announcing 70 indictments, including city cops, in a drug and corruption case. In the days to follow, the case sent busloads of suspects into federal court and phone calls and letters into Thyer's office.
"Immediately after we made the annoucement, literally within days," Thyer said.
He said his office received about 15 to 20 letters in all.
"Most of them thank me and all of the officers that participated in the take down," Thyer said.
It's a debt of gratitude on a problem one resident wrote, "fallen on deaf ears." And "It is refreshing to see action finally occurring." Another writer concluded, "May God Bless you and your associates as you return peace and tranquility to an old but beautiful river town."
Thyer shared part of one more letter, a son recalling his mother's reaction.
"When she turned on the news day that day, she was one happy woman," Thyer reads. "She called me but I'd already heard it on the news. She said they got them. She said I can sleep peaceful in my bed at night without hearing gunshots throughout the night."
It's not an unusual claim as we learned from some folks in town.
"Where I lived honestly you could hear gunfire pretty frequently, and now I could probably count on one hand a month how many times I hear it, so it's significantly different in that regard," Patrick Allen said.
It's a welcome change for Patrick Allen and his hometown.
"As far as people feeling safer, yeah, I think that would probably be part of it as well," Allen said. But everyone we talked to is taking it all with a grain of salt.
"I think it's quiet and everyone's on pins and needles waiting to see what's going to happen next, I guess everyone's waiting for Phase 2, as they say, Phase 2 of Delta Blues," Arthur McClinton, Jr. said.
Since Phase One came, Arthur McClinton, Junior says that he's noticed those quieter nights and more cops around town.
"It's a lot more still going on, it's a heavy police presence and I'm hoping that Phase One wasn't it," McClinton said.
"The FBI is here and they are working with me daily, so we're still working on a few more issues," Police Chief Uless Wallace said.
Police Chief Uless Wallace feels confident that more pieces will come from Operation Delta Blues. But he's also adding some of his own to get his community back.
"A K-9 Division, Special Crimes Unit and a bike patrol, so I mean we're making changes," Chief Wallace said.
The chief has brought on 21 new department hires as well and taken about 200 guns taken off the streets since taking office last September.
"It has diminished incredibly, I mean we might have a shooting call maybe once every two weeks now, some weeks nil," Chief Wallace said.
As for narcotics, the chief says he's now fighting mainly prescription drugs, and overall finding "partners against crime" with the community.
"A lot of citizens are calling my personal cell phone and the department, so they're giving me good information," Chief Wallace said. He goes on to tell us, "I still get a few calls saying you're going to die within 24 hours but you get good with the bad."
He's balancing a new direction with deep rooted challenges.
"This whole area is not used to the law being applied," Chief Wallace said.
But if you ask the chief, he says the future here is looking bright.
"I give this project another year and half and I promise you this will probably be the safest place in America," Chief Wallace said.
Thyer says Operation Delta Blues remains an active investigation on his end.
"We still intend to go forward with additional indictments and additional arrests in due time," Thyer said.
He couldn't say how much time but Thyer also sees a long-term rebound percolating here. It's a crackdown on crime resonating with the community.
"It was about time because it's been going on for too long and I'm just glad something is finally been done about it," McClinton said.
Chief Wallace also plans to roll out neighborhood watch programs and an Explorers Program for youth to interact with police, plus lots of staff training this year. When he joined the force just a month before the Operation Delta Blues announcement, the chief told us that he felt the department was "grossly under-trained."
As for Operation Delta Blues, we've seen three of the five indicted police officers enter guilty pleas since October, along with one key ringleader. Thyer says his office has already added new charges to some of the original defendants.
You can click on this link to read all of the past annoucements from Thyer's office since this case broke last fall.