“Skid Row Ricky” has his system down: He sets up shop outside rehab centers and sells beers to homeless people for $2 a tall boy ($1 if you're his buddy). He used to store his merchandise in a big, blue recycling bin. After about five years and dozens of arrests, he's a little more cautious, hiding the booze underneath clothes in a cart.
Some 100 Skid Row residents
This is according to LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, the most visible and popular cop on Skid Row, who has spent years trying to rid the area of 49-year-old Recondal “Ricky” Wesco.
Joseph says that he started by trying to reason with Wesco. Selling booze in Skid Row is wrong on a lot of levels: It's home to one of the country's largest homeless populations, many of whom struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Physical and mental illness are rampant, and most people survive off the area's social services.
When his plea for human decency was not effective, Joseph threw the book at Wesco — hard.
“When a spirit-of-the-law approach didn't work, I had to resort to arresting him,” Joseph says. “Of course, it seems like harassment — I have to focus on the same guy. But I have to go after him every day, for whatever violation I can get, until he decided to stop.”
Wesco has been arrested 50 times since 2008, Joseph says. A handful of these arrests were for beer sales; others were for laws not often enforced in the area, such as sitting or storing merchandise on the sidewalk. At best, Wesco would be taken into custody and spend a night in jail. Often he'd be given a release-from-custody citation — basically, an arrest in the form of a ticket.
According to Joseph, this practice sometimes is used for minor misdemeanors, such as illegal vending or drinking in public. And in a neighborhood ripe with the stench of burning crack, it seems beer consumption would be considered minor.
But in this tale, that is not the case.
Selling tall boys to the down-and-out — “It's almost as bad as selling crack,” says a local property manager, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “If a person can't get to it, they're less likely to use it.”
This was a common concern among Skid Row residents, recovery advocates and police. Many of the liquor stores in Skid Row don't sell booze — those that do often won't sell singles. Without sidewalk alcohol sales, people may have to walk a few extra blocks to get their fix, meaning temptation is a little lessened for those in recovery.
“The challenge is it's so readily available and in their face,” says Anita Nelson, chief executive officer of the SRO Housing Corporation.
Her agency manages the James M. Wood Community Center, which provides a slew of free services, from hot meals to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. On any given day, Nelson says, at least one recovery program takes place at the center, treating everything from cocaine to alcohol addiction.
Nelson says that she was aware of Wesco — her staff had pointed him out — but he's just one of many people peddling illegal goods in Skid Row.
But Wesco chose to set up sales right outside the Wood Center at the corner of Fifth and San Julian, according to police and the City Attorney's Office. Within a few blocks of this location is an array of other recovery programs treating all types of addiction.
“The community actually called me,” Joseph says. “Or, I go to meetings and they would tell me about this guy who would sell beer, sexually harass women, cause all kinds of problems near their facilities because they're all built around rehabilitation.”
Joseph has worked on Skid Row for almost 17 years. He is 255 pounds of pure muscle, his uniform sleeves stretched so tight over his biceps that it's a miracle they haven't burst at the seams. He's become an ally of many Skid Row residents who would otherwise steer clear of LAPD.
So when Wesco continued to be a nuisance, the community asked for Joseph's help. Joseph says more than 100 residents — many of whom were in local recovery programs themselves — signed a petition pleading for Wesco's removal from the area.
Colleen Granderson, 50, has lived in Skid Row for about seven years. She quickly recognized a mug shot of Wesco, to whom she refers as “Slow Bucket.” Granderson says she wished Wesco would find a new place to do business and stop taking up so much of the police's time.
“It amazed me that he can sell beer openly,” Granderson says. “He got to have constantly money and he just don't care.”
Last year, Joseph turned to the Los Angeles City Attorney, keen to find a solution that would keep Wesco off Skid Row for more than one day. On Oct. 5, 2013, the City Attorney's Office filed a case against Wesco, which included three separate counts for beer sales, spokesman Frank Mateljan tells L.A. Weekly via email.
Before the case even went to trial, Wesco was busted again — for selling beer in the same location.
As part of a plea deal, Wesco was ordered to stay away from Skid Row for three years. For a brief moment, it seemed justice had been served. Wesco would have to stay at least 100 yards from the neighborhood's boundaries, defined as Main, Third and Seventh streets and Central Avenue.
But only six days later, Wesco violated the plea deal and was arrested for being back on Skid Row a mere block from his old spot. He was given a second chance at probation but opted for 180 days in jail instead.
He served just 17 days and was released “due to lack of jail space,” according to the City Attorney's Office. Now he's out of jail with no probation restrictions.
And he still maintains his innocence — sort of. On a recent morning just after 9 a.m., Wesco was perched on a plastic milk crate on San Pedro Street. As he sipped a Colt 45, he was more than happy to discuss his ongoing feud with law enforcement.
“Anybody else know the law and can read or whatever, they can understand that they're railroading me,” Wesco says.
The New Orleans transplant says he's been living on Skid Row for about 11 years. Wesco claims police didn't follow correct procedure in his arrests, and that they've stolen money from him on multiple occasions — totaling a whopping $20,000 in cash, he says.
In return, he has filed multiple complaints against Officer Joseph and is saving money to hire a lawyer to sue the Skid Row cop.
“I don't sell beers, and I may have a few beers on me, but I don't sell no beer,” Wesco says. “I don't touch the money, or the beer. There's nothing wrong with not touching no money or not getting involved — I don't get involved.”
Wesco says his income comes from trading in recyclables, as well as the few hundred dollars a month he gets from a county assistance program. But LAPD surveillance video shows otherwise. In one particular tape, Wesco is seen selling beers on the sidewalk. He has a man in a wheelchair hold his profits as he directs a steady stream of customers to the booze stash.
For now, Wesco remains on Skid Row. The City Attorney's Office will “evaluate future cases as they are presented,” Mateljan says.
Concerned residents continue to call Officer Joseph with “Ricky” sightings; his file now has more than 10 complaints about Wesco.
“We've done the job — it's the system that's failing us,” Joseph says.
He said he will continue to arrest Wesco when he breaks the law and won't stop until the beer sales do — or until the justice system intervenes to help.