Ray Enright, R.I.P.: Remembering the top drug cop who took down Vito Genovese

John Ray Enright died this past weekend at the age of 85, leading to some polite tributes here and there, with most focusing on his years as director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in the 1970s and 1980s and his subsequent service as a member of the Colorado Parole Board. But I remember Enright in a different context as well -- as a smart, funny and extremely modest man who somehow survived decades in the trenches of America's war on drugs and emerged with his integrity intact.

I didn't have much interaction with Enright when he was at CBI. But after his retirement, we had some conversations about a possible collaboration on a book about his law enforcement career, most of which had been spent as a federal drug warrior. He'd started in 1951 as a field agent in New York City for the Bureau of Narcotics, later known as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and then as the Drug Enforcement Administration, and worked his way up to assistant director of the entire DEA before requesting a return to the field and ending up as a regional director in Colorado. That's how Governor Richard Lamm ended up luring him to the CBI.

Enright had a wealth of stories about the joys and frustrations of being a drug cop, from the rough-and-tumble futility of street buys to the elaborate investigations of major cartels that often ended in frustration and compromise. In the 1950s, he'd played a lead role in probing the role of the Mafia (or La Cosa Nostra, as J. Edgar liked to call it) in drug trafficking and the ruthless ascension of Vito Genovese over other family bosses. In 1958, when Genovese was taken down in a major heroin deal, it was Enright who made the arrest. Genovese, who died in prison a decade later, always maintained that he was framed; Enright insisted that it was a righteous case.

But Enright's best stories weren't about his triumphs; he was not a born braggart. They were the strange and often darkly comic adventures of a wide-eyed, small-town boy from Jersey getting an education on the street. He joined the Bureau of Narcotics when agents were still expected to make a quota of undercover buys, no matter how paltry or risky. During his second night on the job, he was sent to Harlem with a junkie informant to buy heroin. Although he practiced his lines carefully, all about having some "bread" to buy "horse," he nearly got sliced up by some takedown artists in an alley. Later that night, he ended up making his first suspected narcotic purchase from one of his assailants. It turned out to be three capsules of sugar.

Another story involved thousands of morphine pills being hawked by a shady doctor in Atlanta, with the assistance of a strongarm thug named Bright and a woman described in reports as the "Lesbian bootleg whisky queen of South Georgia." Enright's men busted the tuxedo-clad Dr. Feelgood in the parking lot of a church, shortly before he was to serve as an usher in a wedding.

The stories were entertaining and revealing. Enright acknowledged that the street busts had little impact on the drug trade, but investigations of figures higher up the supply chain sometimes turned up corruption of local government -- and even of federal agents. Although he proved himself a solid administrator, I got the feeling he often missed the simpler shades of gray on the street.

I don't remember exactly what happened with the book project. Enright had no axes to grind and was too much of a gentleman to propose a tell-all book, so maybe there was a mutual decision not to pursue it. But they were good stories, from a cop's cop who had a front seat in the theater of the absurd -- and knew exactly what he was looking at.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Philip Van Cise's crime busting to be remembered at Bill Ritter-led dedication of new justice center named for him."

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