An article in the Jan. 27 Weekly misspelled the name of the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Washington Field Division. His name is Frank Chellino. (Published 02/03/2000)

The Washington area law enforcement community is losing one of its deans. Pete Gruden, 58, has stepped down after 10 years as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Washington Field Division.

Charged with spearheading the fight against drugs in Virginia, Maryland and the District, Gruden is widely credited with helping the region pull together to fight the tide of crack-related violence that washed over this area in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under his leadership, the DEA nailed dozens of multi-state gangs, including one that shot a Maryland state trooper to prevent him from testifying.

In the process, he made lasting friends and fans in the region's law enforcement community for his willingness to work with them rather than taking control of cases. He met regularly with all the local police chiefs and allowed them to take the credit for big busts.

"He's not a talk-down kind of guy. He's not back-dooring or back-stabbing," said retired Arlington police chief William K. Stover. "He's a man of high integrity and a cooperative spirit like I had never seen."

When Patrick Hynes took charge of the local division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1992, he had been there less than a week before the telephone rang.

It was Gruden, calling to introduce himself.

"He said, "Are you busy? Be outside in 20 minutes. I'm picking you up,' " Hynes said. Off they went to a Capitol Hill coffee shop, where Gruden gave Hynes an invaluable rundown of the area's characters and quirks. "Other people say, 'We should have lunch sometime.' He picks you up in 20 minutes. He's one of the best friends I've made in life," Hynes said.

Gruden downplays his successes. "I've ridden the backs of a lot of people," he said. "Every significant case, bar none, involves the participation and cooperation of multiple agencies."

No wonder Gruden's retirement lunch Friday drew several hundred people from around the country and the world, including two of his three children and Attorney General Janet Reno, a friend since both were fighting Miami's "cocaine cowboys" in the early 1980s.

Raised in Upstate New York, Gruden applied to what was then the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics shortly after graduating from St. Lawrence University in 1963.

Four years later, he found himself in Bangkok, trying to intercept opium and heroin that was headed to the United States from Laos, Burma and northern Thailand. "In those days, Bangkok was a world away. We didn't even have telephone service going back and forth," he said. "There would be caravans of hundreds of mules coming down from the hills loaded with opium."

Later, after several other stints, Gruden found himself in charge of the DEA's Miami office during the era when rival drug cartels would open fire on each other in the middle of suburban shopping centers. "For a DEA agent, it was a wonderful time to be there," Gruden said.

But eventually, he became bored. "There comes a point where a ton of cocaine is no longer interesting. It's a daily occurrence," he said.

So he moved back to positions in Washington, first at DEA headquarters and then as head of the local division.

"The challenges are greater in Washington," Gruden said, referring to the area's diversity. Unlike 1980s Miami, where almost all the drug gangs were Colombian or Cuban, Washington's drug scene is an equal opportunity employer and draws from dozens of native-born and immigrant communities.

"Most [immigrants] are really good people like my grandparents, but unfortunately the bad ones follow them," he said. "The best drug traffickers in this area are the ones we've never heard of because they have no criminal history and they're relatively recent arrivals."

Though many of Gruden's friends and acquaintances describe him as an "old school" law enforcement officer and a "living legend," he also wins praise for his adaptability and interest in nurturing the more diverse crop of agents now working for the DEA. The agency not only changed names and Cabinet departments during Gruden's 36-year tenure, it also quadrupled in size.

"Major changes in law enforcement have taken place, going from revolvers to pistols, civil rights litigation. He's gone through it all and improved himself and improved the institution," said Jimmy Carter, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office.

The crack wave has subsided somewhat since Gruden's arrival. The drug remains a problem for the Washington area, while Baltimore and the Shenandoah Valley struggle with heroin and methamphetamines, respectively, Gruden said. Last year, the division handled 900 cases and made 2,400 arrests. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of all cases stemmed from regional multi-agency task forces that Gruden helped nurture.

Area law enforcement officials say they have high hopes for Gruden's successor, Frank Chelino, who started this week. After all, Chelino, 53, was Gruden's deputy in the Washington area office for six years before going to DEA headquarters in the inspection division.

Chelino says he's looking forward to returning to his old stomping grounds, though he will miss his old boss and mentor.

"Pete is a real jewel of the DEA," he said. "I regret his leaving. It has been an honor and a privilege to have worked under him."

CAPTION: Pete Gruden, left, was head of the DEA's Washington Field Division. With him is his successor, Frank Chelino.