For the most part, the downtown St. Paul drug dealers were an accommodating bunch, eager to win the trust of the man in the wheelchair buying everything: marijuana, crack cocaine, muscle relaxers.

Turns out, though, the man in the electric wheelchair was not to be trusted -- from the dealers' point of view, at least.

For a second straight year, St. Paul police have conducted a three-month crackdown on downtown dealing -- this time with an undercover operation targeting dealers working the streets near drop-in centers for the poor.

The undercover officer helped build cases resulting in criminal charges against 108 people, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said at a news conference Monday. The sting, dubbed Operation Gridlock, has since branched into other neighborhoods, with as many as 60 additional cases pending, police Cmdr. Rob Thomasser said.

The downtown crackdown was a follow-up to last year's Operation Shamrock, which targeted dealing at bus stops.

This year, police isolated areas near the Dorothy Day Center and the Listening House, which serve the homeless, and had the undercover officer work in a wheelchair to blend into the population in a non-threatening way, Chief John Harrington said Monday.

The drop-in centers also are near Xcel Energy Center but the chief denied any connection to the upcoming Republican National Convention: "This operation is based on community concern and community complaints," he said.

Building trust

In reviewing complaints filed against four dealers apprehended in recent days -- names selected because their arrests appeared in police reports made public Monday -- there's surprisingly little suspicion about the wheelchair-bound officer.

One of the four people charged, Ahmednuur A. Ali, 20, of St. Paul allegedly stiffed the officer, first failing to produce $20 worth of drugs the officer paid for and then by taking another $20 in exchange for a piece of plastic with just a balled-up gum wrapper inside. Ali was picked up by police Friday night.

Multiple complaints against two other men -- Lorenzo L. Baker, 58, and James T. Carter, 57, also of St. Paul -- reveal that both men, as well as an associate, were committed to proving to the officer that they could be trusted with his cash.

During one of four alleged deals with Baker, described as an intermediary between the officer and supplier, a temporary delay in the delivery of crack cocaine prompted Baker's associate to say later: "Now you know we're not going to run off with your money!"

Baker and Carter also prevailed upon the officer to let them break off pieces of crack cocaine for themselves, according to the complaints.

Though both men listed the Dorothy Day Center as their home address, Thomasser, who heads the police narcotics vice response team, said that only about a dozen of the 108 people charged had been living at the homeless shelter.

He said it's not unusual for people holding drugs to use others, such as homeless people, to find customers.

Operation Gridlock now is tracking sales in four or five other areas, "but we're not ready to put our cards on the table," Thomasser said.

Harrington, however, said people who had been selling downtown also had been setting up deals in pockets of the East Side, Frogtown and North End neighborhoods.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545