As rampant drug dealing and violent crimes crept into the isolated Mississippi River city of Helena-West Helena, people in town knew something was up. But few bothered calling for help as gunfire rang out near the historic streets lined with boutique shops and boarded-up buildings.
"What are the police going to do? Nine times out of 10, they're just going to look the other way," Bubba Sullivan said, echoing distrust voiced throughout town.
Officials say a four-year federal investigation, dubbed "Operation Delta Blues," revealed that mistrust may not have been entirely misplaced. Hundreds of law enforcement officers swarmed Helena-West Helena in the middle of the night last week and arrested dozens of people — five of them law enforcement officers accused of taking bribes to ignore and sometimes assist drug traffickers who shipped marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs throughout Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The FBI said the probe focused on corrupt officers dealing with criminals who, in some cases, were convicted murderers.
"For far too long, a small minority of individuals has taken over this community," Mayor Arnell Willis said.
Parts of Willis' city of 12,000 remain undeniably inviting. Past a valley bathed in green vines, people have converted Victorian-style mansions into bed and breakfasts. Advertisements on more than one building boast the best Coca-Cola in town. Banners promote the historic downtown drag that drew tens of thousands of tourists just this month for the famous King Biscuit Blues Festival.
But a few blocks away, broken panes of glass and crumbling buildings hint at the crime that's haunted this city in the Mississippi River Delta, where jobs are scarce and the poverty rate has climbed to 30 percent. Financial troubles have led the state to take over the local schools, twice. Eight killings have been reported this year.
Bill Brothers, 60, remembers wandering the neighborhood as a child, without making his parents fret. But Brothers, who buys and sells airplanes, said he has been far more cautious raising his three sons.
"It's gotten where it's not uncommon" to hear gunshots, he said. "It's not something you'd be startled about anymore."
Willis, who took over the mayor's office in January, said he couldn't go to church on Sundays without hearing from people worried about killings and corruption. So just months into the job, he headed to Little Rock to beg U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer for help.
"To be honest, I got tired of hearing the question," Willis said. "Locally, we were doing all we could do."
Thyer didn't tell Willis during their three-hour meeting that his office already had been investigating for years. He also didn't tell the mayor that at least four area police officers and a sheriff's deputy allegedly had been taking $500 bribes to escort drug shipments through the city and use their authority to prevent arrests or prosecutions. Prosecutors say the deputy was caught on a wiretap referring to it all as "the good old boy system."
The officers, who have all pleaded not guilty, were among defendants listed in seven federal indictments unsealed last week that brought 184 charges against some 70 people. The main indictment alleges a drug trafficking operation directed out of Helena-West Helena "was responsible for the distribution of large quantities of cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana" and other drugs in east Arkansas, Memphis, Tenn., and Clarksdale, Miss., along with other areas.
Local pawn shop owner Vance Kalb III said he often would see and hear flashes of gunfire on the overnight security camera videos he watches every morning.
"We all feel like it can't get any worse, but it always does," Kalb said. "There's a lot of things that don't even show up in the newspaper."
When he came into work the morning after last week's busts, Kalb saw on the video flashes of emergency lights and heard arrests being made. The tapes were much quieter the rest of the week.
Kalb has tried to stay positive after bust, even designing several T-shirts celebrating the operation. One shirt pokes fun at defendants' nicknames listed in the indictments — "Ray Ray," "Cheeseburger," "The Mechanic" and "Pee Wee."
"You can't do nothing but laugh," Kalb said. "It's sad, but at the same time, I'm happy it happened."
Those arrested are being held in Little Rock, more than 100 miles away. People in Helena-West Helena say they're grateful for outside agencies' help, but can't help but wonder if they're only seeing a brief respite from the noise and violence.
"When they get out, what's going to happen?" asked Linda Walters, who drives a school bus. "Is the killing going to start all over again?"
Thyer and other law enforcement officials have said their investigation will continue, though they won't comment on their next steps.
Residents, meanwhile, are coming out on their porches and yards again. For the first time many can remember, people say they have hope. Some are enjoying the silence.
Walters had grown accustomed to dropping from her bed and hiding on the floor when she heard gunfire in the middle of the night.
"Ever since they shot at my house, I hadn't really gotten no rest," Walters said. "I didn't think anybody was going to do anything."
After last week's arrests, she said she got a good night's sleep.
Follow Nomaan Merchant at http://twitter.com/nomaanmerchant and Jeannie Nuss at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss .