Tom's Place in Boynton Beach used as stash house for drug boss, police say

A popular barbecue restaurant peddled ribs and sweet sauce -- and side orders of prescription pills, police said Friday.

Tom's Place World Famous Barbecue, a family-owned restaurant in Boynton Beach , is under fire after the co-owner allowed her ex-husband to sell drugs there, cops said.

Belinda Wright Johnson, 51, of Delray Beach , allowed Jerome Juan Johnson, 44, of Boca Raton , to use the restaurant as his own personal drug depot, according to an arrest report.

Now both are facing charges in connection with the multi-agency "Operation Keystone Express" probe into Jerome Johnson's alleged role as leader of a criminal organization that buys and sells narcotics such as crack cocaine, Oxycodone, Alprazolam and Dilaudid. Twelve people have been arrested in the investigation.

According to police, Belinda Johnson gave Jerome Johnson a "safe haven" at the restaurant to sell the dope and acted as his lookout. The two were married for several years and have two children together. She has since remarried.

For his part, cops say Jerome Johnson headed up a criminal group of at least seven people. Using a police informant and undercover officers, cops busted him after monitoring several drug deals at various locations including a Best Buy on North Congress Avenue and the rib joint, at 400 Boynton Beach Boulevard.

"Johnson conducted a great deal of the narcotics transactions at his primary residence as well as at the restaurant, Tom's Place," the arrest report read.

Belinda's current husband and Tom's Place co-owner Gerard Harris, Sr., who was not arrested in the probe, defended his wife and the family business.

"We aren't no drug dealers," Harris said Friday. "We're hard-working people."

Harris said he and Belinda opened the restaurant three years ago as a reincarnation of the popular Boca Raton barbecue restaurant owned by Belinda's father, Tom Wright. They also operate a Tom's Place food truck.

Originally opened in 1977 by Wright and his wife Helen in Boca Raton , Tom's Place became known as the premier soul food destination in Palm Beach County . In May 2004, the restaurant closed down as both Tom and Helen faced health problems. She died in July 2004 and he died in 2006.

Harris, 46, who says he is churcgoing man, hopes this arrest will finally break Jerome Johnson of his criminal habits. Public records searches show that Jerome Juan Johnson has faced numerous drug-related charges over the years.

"Despite what he does in the world, he's a good man, he's a good dude," Harris said Friday of his wife's ex, adding that Jerome Johnson gives to homeless people and is good to his daughters.

Harris said he'll be spending a lot of time over the next few days at his Boca Raton church, House of Refuge Ministries, praying for the strength to get through what he said will be a difficult ordeal.

"I'm going to have my pastor pray on me, that I stay strong," Harris said, adding that he had nothing to do with any illicit activity at the restaurant.

His wife, he said, has been in recovery from her former crack addiction. Sober for eight years, she tried in vain to ban Jerome Johnson from stashing and selling drugs at the restaurant, Harris said.

"She said 'don't bring that s--- around the restaurant,'" Harris said, adding that she would yell and swear at Jerome Johnson and hound him to drop the dealing and focus instead on his lawn-cutting business.

Belinda would also tell Jerome Johnson that "God is watching" him, Harris said. What she didn't realize was that police were also watching both of them.

Harris said Tom's Place will be closed until Wednesday.

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