By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
LaTonya Williams' adult life has two vastly different phases: the time on the outside, when she stayed hooked on crack and alcohol, and her seven years behind bars, when she sobered up because she had to and started thinking about getting a real life. Off the streets, off the drugs, she is instantly likable and funny, quick to laugh, brash and not a bit shy. She starts pulling off her clothes right there in the empty visitor's room, showing her scars from the shooting, big swaths of rippled skin where the bullets plowed through.
I had to ask her: What does it feel like to be shot 11 times? (LaTonya testified that she'd been shot 11 times. Her Parkland hospital charts, however, appear to diagram 10 entry and exit wounds.) LaTonya goes back to the first shot, fired by Money Mike. It struck her in the arm. "I still have teeth marks where I was trying to hold my arm," she says. "I tried to hold it because it was burning. It was on fire. My whole body was on fire."
It wasn't exactly pain, she says, just fire, even with her body plunged into cold bathwater. "After they shot us like that, then all of them just start shooting," she says. "I went blank." She was semiconscious some moments later, listening to Lizzie's voice as her cousin tried to keep her awake. She remembers fading in and out when paramedics loaded her into an ambulance.
LaTonya walked me back to her early days, trying to explain why she ended up at Cleveland Street. She flashes back to childhood: She is on her knees, praying at her bedside that her mother will come home safe. That's because, when LaTonya was 5, her mama got hooked on drugs. Up until then, she'd been "a great mother" who "worked her little butt off" to raise her three girls alone. The drugs--powder cocaine at first, then crack when it hit Dallas in the mid-1980s--took over her life. "She stayed high constantly, 24/7," LaTonya says. "I never knew if I would see her laying behind someone's alley. Or I'd have to lay down and say, who she gon' jack? Who she gon' rob for some dope? That kind of stuff is real painful, but more stressful."
Like so many kids whose mothers got hooked on crack, LaTonya grew up in a house full of people, a constantly shifting cast of folks getting high. Her mother hung onto a few scraps of dignity, one or two absolute limits. She never smoked crack in front of her daughters and made sure their hair was pressed, their clothing clean and that they were at least given a nudge in the way of school each morning. Food was on the table, thanks to her mother's dealing. Keeping up appearances, though, wasn't enough to raise a needy little girl. "I wanted my mama's attention," LaTonya says, "and she was so strung out on drugs...till I ran away from home. Started wheeling and dealing, gambling. Anybody that was giving me attention, I like it."
LaTonya's venture into the streets led her to gangbanging, peddling crack on the "cut," or corner, and hanging out in the Silver Slipper, where she ran into Dallas' Jamaican contingent. LaTonya admits she jacked people and jumped folks. "She was hurtin' me," she says of her mother, "so I didn't mind hurtin' others. I had an attitude from hell. I had this don't-give-a-damn attitude. But it didn't get me nowhere."
Her mother would drive around looking for her, find her on the streets and make her come home. "She'd be saying, 'I know you mad at me 'cause you see me doing what I'm doing, but I don't want you doing what I'm doing. It's a reason I'm doing what I'm doing.'"
Whatever the reason was, she never got around to telling it.
At first, LaTonya speaks in code about what happened next. One day her mother sent her daughter out onto the streets with a job to do: "I couldn't come back home unless I had some money. And I knew what she wanted."
I was momentarily stunned. "Now you're not saying that she wanted to pimp you..."
"That's what I'm saying," LaTonya fired back. "I sold my body for my mama at one point. 'Cause I used to always try to keep her happy. I was 15."
"Did your mother ever say she was sorry?" I asked.
LaTonya shook her head with disgust. "Girl, ain't nobody ever sorry trying to wheel and deal."
Our conversations always took us back to Cleveland Street, when LaTonya made the most dreadful choice of her life. She insists it was Lizzie's dumb idea, because she was messing around with Kenneth Covington. In court, Lizzie claimed the opposite: that LaTonya was sweet on Ken. Whatever the case, the girls originally planned to party at some club in South Dallas, which evidently had no qualms about entertaining 16-year-olds. Lizzie drove them in a borrowed car but never got there, because they stopped by Covington's place. When they pulled up to the apartment complex around 7 p.m., LaTonya immediately knew what was going on. Only one unit occupied in the whole complex, in what was--and still is--absolutely the worst part of town?
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