NEWARK, NJ - Word had already gotten around on Thursday to those at the Rotunda Recreation and Wellness Center about an alleged drug trafficking ring that worked out of the center, but it still came as a shock.
Three recreation center employees who worked at the Clifton Avenue center - Edward Williams, Rahim Jackson and Arthur Hardy - allegedly conspired to distribute at least a kilogram or more of heroin, federal prosecutors charged. Prosecutors say Williams was a member of the G-Shine set of the Bloods street gang.
A boxing trainer who sometimes teaches at the recreation center and goes by “Coach Nas” said he was in disbelief over the charges. He’s seen the three men working there before, but never suspected anything.
“It’s all new to me,” he said as he stood near the entrance to the recreation center's pool area. “I don’t know anything about what went on.”
Each recreation center has a security guard on hand, the coach said. One security guard this afternoon was visible sitting inside the recreation center with the door open.
The Rotunda Recreation Center offers scrabble, a chess club, a swimming pool and basketball. But prosecutors say that it was also serving as the location where drugs like heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine were being stored.
News of the charges wasn't keeping people away though. About a dozen people could be seen playing near the pool area this afternoon and a woman who was bringing five children into the pool area said someone had told her about the charges. She planned to read more about it.
But one parent who previously brought her kids to swim there was put off.
"Yes, me and my kids went there plenty of time to swim, but not this summer yet," Shakira Brunson said in a message to TAPinto Newark. "We made plans to go there today but after YESTERDAY??? Me and my sister will no longer be taking our kids there."
Mayor Ras Baraka said yesterday during a press conference the three employees who were charged were only part-timers, but the U.S. District Attorney's Office said Hardy was the director of the center. City employees who work part-time - even those who work with children - are not subject to background checks, but the mayor vowed to change that.
All three city employees allegedly involved in the operation have been terminated, Baraka said.
Prosecutors allege Williams worked with Wali Duncan, a high-ranking member of G-Shine. Seven other alleged G-Shine members were also charged: Tieshorn Fletcher, Kareem Collier, Fuquan Bunn, Shyiem Gordon, Michael Graham, Terrell Evans, Arraheem Washington, Wilfredo P. Jimenez
Those who live along Clifton Avenue by the recreation center were surprised when they first heard of the charges that allegedly stemmed out of the recreation center. One resident who lived nearby would speak to the employees there - though he wasn't sure who - and never suspected anything like this to happen.
Still, others said they didn’t always feel safe in the area.
“This street is weird,” said Cindy Bernacett, who moved here about a month ago.
“Here at night, even when this isn’t here,” she nodded towards the radio blaring from the recreation center. “It’s just people outside, music.”
Angel Mendoza, who has been living near the recreation center for year, said he was wary of Branch Brook Park that sits across the street. He said he sometimes sees baggies strewn about the ground there.
“It’s a nice park. It’s beautiful,” Mendoza said as he sat on his stoop, but later added that “At night, that’s not where you want to be at.”