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After body found last fall, some recall Central Falls’ ‘Sparkle City’ era

As police work to solve the mystery, some people remember the legacy of the Sheridan Street address where the body was found and the Sportsman’s Lounge once was, a hub for the growing Colombian community in the 1980s, and the unlikely epicenter of cocaine for all of New England

Central Falls, Rhode IslandJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When the backhoe scooped up the body on Sheridan Street last October, the only natural clue as to who it might be and — why it was there — was the address.

State Police and the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s office said they still don’t know who it was.

Or why they were buried here.

They haven’t even said whether it’s the body of a man or a woman. Or if they know how old they were. Nobody knows how they died, or how they ended up here.

“Waiting. We’re waiting,” sighed Major Christopher Reed, a detective at the Central Falls police last week. “We know as much as you.”


But some people in Central Falls remember things. The lot here at 49-55 Sheridan St. has a legacy.

The past is the past

The Sportsman’s Lounge, at 49 Sheridan, just off busy Broad Street, was one of the original hubs of the growing Colombian community of Central Falls and neighboring Pawtucket back in the 1980s. Good Colombian food and quality bands — some straight from Medellin, where many of the locals learned to work textile jobs that Central Falls offered.

It was also the unlikely epicenter of cocaine for all of New England — a wholesale clearing house for dealers from Maine to Boston to New York. They’d buy kilos and kilos of the drug. In the 1980s, its owner, Hector Garcia, was the handpicked representative here of Pablo Escobar, leader of the feared Medellin Cartel.

Tiny Central Falls — at 1 square mile, the smallest community in the nation’s smallest state — has spent years trying to outrun its outsized reputation as a rough, crime-ridden city of failed red-brick mills. The Sportsman is part of the long shadow following Central Falls.

“Most people here, they don’t know about that,” Franklin Solano said about the Sportsman. Solano, 72, came here from the Dominican Republic in 1989 just as the local cops and the federal prosecutors were dismantling the $100 million-a-year ring at the Sportsman. He’s now a city councilor, and a big booster of the CF as a come-back city. “Right now, Central Falls is a great city, a place I love. And people come here from everywhere to live a better life.


“Whatever happened in the past is the past.”

‘Sparkle City’

The assumption, of course, is that the body is that of a murder victim.

And it’s not hard to understand why. The Sportsman, closed since 1990, was at the center of a dark and almost-unbelievable chapter in Central Falls’ history.

On the one hand, the Sportsman was a popular meet-up for local paisas, and featured real-deal Colombian food, and good bands, sometimes straight from Medellin, where so many immigrants here hail from. Its owner, Hector Garcia, was a friendly, generous businessman who funded the popular Little League here and would slip struggling countrymen cash for school or weddings. He was affectionately known as “La Cura,” roughly “The Priest,” or even “the Godfather.”

But he was also Pablo Escobar’s man in New England. And the Sportsman was the regional franchise of the Medellin drug cartel, Escobar’s legendary — and legendarily violent — cocaine behemoth.

In the mid-1980s, as cocaine and cocaine-related violence was dominating front pages, local and then federal investigators began tracking drug dealers from all over as they made their way to the lounge in this hardscrabble mill town. Federal court documents alleged they made deals for multiple kilos of cocaine at a time — cocaine driven up to Garcia from Florida or even stashed in the instrument cases of Colombian bands visiting Central Falls. It was cocaine almost completely pure, no cutting agents.


By the time Garcia and others were convicted and the bar seized, investigators had conservatively estimated the local operation was brokering more than $100 million a year — in mid-1980s dollars.

The Medellin cartel likely chose Central Falls simply because of its Colombian population, drawn here by the textile mills, one of the biggest in the U.S., and allowed Garcia’s business to blend right in.

But the incongruity was irresistible to the media. The New York Times did a feature on the tiny city and its gargantuan coke connection. Even Rolling Stone sent a young Mark Bowden — later the author of the definitive Pablo Escobar book, Killing Pablo, and then Black Hawk Down — to Central Falls. His story, “Mayberry Vice” in 1986, marveled at the drug ring’s size and at the tenacity of the Central Falls cops who scrapped to dismantle it. It helped put Central Falls on the map, for all the wrong reasons.

For years a framed copy of that story hung proudly in the Central Falls Police station.

Along the way the larger world heard the tag “Sparkle City,” a nickname for Central Falls, an inside joke. Longtime residents said it refers either to the glitter you see holding up a chunk of super-pure cocaine here, or to a News Year’s Eve when a group of kids smashed every car window they could find and left the shards to sparkle in the next morning.


‘Do you know Pablo Escobar?’

Central Fall’s association with cocaine was inevitable and sometimes cruel. Especially for Colombians.

“Oh, god, when we would go out of town to play soccer or basketball, and kids would hear you, and would ask you where you were from and you’d say Medellin? It was always, “‘Oh, wow, do you know Pablo Escobar?’ Kids would touch the sides of their noses, do the coke thing at you,” recalled Tatiana Baena, 31.

Baena came to Central Falls from Medellin with her family when she was 8 years old. The year she was born, Garcia was halfway through his federal prison sentence, and she arrived in Central Falls a full decade after the feds shut down the lounge.

She runs the grant programs for Central Falls schools, has her own nonprofit, and is also a city councilor. The Colombian community today, she said, is prouder than back then. Documented, official, bilingual, business-owning residents of a comeback city who she said are less afraid.

When she read about the body on Sheridan Street in late October, she rushed to ask some older Colombians here what they knew.

“Honestly, I was like, tell me,” she said. “I’d never heard about it.”


Most of the old-timers begged off, she said, or admitted just that they’d been there maybe a time or two but knew nothing about backroom stuff. Embarrassed, they wanted to move on.

Baena is like a generation of younger Central Falls residents. The sting of being a Colombian immigrant stereotyped as a coke dealer persists, she said, but has also cooled. But as time goes by, the same attraction to a cinematic, lost outlaw gangster past Italian-Americans on Federal Hill in Providence must feel sometimes pops up among Colombians here, she said.

“Oh, there are definitely people who romanticize it,” she said of the Colombian-Escobar legacy. It was almost 40 years ago a bar on Sheridan Street had ties to Pablo Escobar. It might as well be Jesse James.

Comeback city

But Central Falls has filled out, with Colombians, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speakers. It is majority Spanish-speaking, the first Rhode Island community to become so. No one would mistake Central Falls for Newport, or Tiverton, but Broad Street and Washington Street are now crowded with bakeries, restaurants and hair salons, and few empty storefronts. The yellow-blue-red colors of Colombia, and the blue and white of El Salvador and Guatemala, are everywhere.

“I feel like the misconceptions have changed,” said Michelle Moreno-Silva, 29. She grew up in Central Falls and Pawtucket and has had high-profile communications jobs for Congressman David Cicilline and others.

Today she works for James Diossa, the newly elected State Treasurer. He is the former two-term mayor of Central Falls — its first of Colombian heritage — and himself a son of Medellin immigrants.

“Over the eight years I served as Mayor, I worked hard to uplift our city, which is home to a sizable Colombian community dating back to the 1960s. Colombian immigrants have enriched the city and our state with their small businesses, hard work, and cultural contribution,” Diosssa said in a statement last week. “As Mayor, one of my key priorities was increasing civic participation and ensuring that the local electorate reflected the city’s demographics. I am proud of the work we did in Central Falls, and I am confident that the progress achieved will encourage the city to continue excelling.”

The discovery of the body may be a flashback to a grittier time in Central Falls, but most people here think the city has turned the page.

“I mean, it’s always going be a working class city,” said Robert Beadle, 43, as he waited for his car at the body shop just around the corner from the spot where the body was found. “It’s just filled with real, hard-working people chasing the dream.”

Beadle, who is white, moved to Central Falls in 2005 when he got a job in Providence and Central Falls was the only place he could afford a house. He now works in communications for the state’s office of energy resources.

He’s seen his French-Canadian neighbors move away and the city become dotted with even more Spanish restaurants, bakeries and groceries. He had heard about the body, but the rumor is it was put there by the Mafia or “some kind of organized crime.” He was curious and wanted to know more, but didn’t think it would reflect on today’s Central Falls no matter what the story turns out to be.

“The city is a landing place for people,” he said. “This place has really come back.”