By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This was a crazy place, the wild frontier of the gangsta life. You'd never know it now, staring at this empty slab of weathered concrete, overgrown with grass and barely visible from the street. A few people can still tell you what happened here; the rest would probably just as soon forget the sight of skinny boys with darting eyes, 15 to 20 at a time standing like pickets at every bend and corner, beckoning to the cars slowly winding through, like a graveside procession. In the cars are the hardworking men and women of black Dallas--laborers, teachers, nurses, even preachers--exchanging Friday's pay for $10 rocks of crack cocaine.
No one knew it when they slapped together the Regency Village apartments, which once stood here at the corner of Lancaster Road and East Ledbetter Drive, but they'd devised the perfect bit of civil engineering for a drive-through drug depot. You could enter on Ledbetter, where the drug lords posted a lookout, walkie-talkie in hand, drive around a courtyard hidden from the street where you'd be approached by teenage vendors, 9-millimeters tucked beneath baggy shirts and Starter jackets, then exit onto Lancaster, where another sentinel stood watch. In the middle was a bootleg house for the older generation that never got on the crack cocaine trip, a place where cheap beer could be had in otherwise dry South Oak Cliff.
The cars would be bumper-to-bumper on Friday nights. Rocks passed invisibly from hand to hand in choreographed motions that people learned to recognize instantly from a distance. By early morning, the traffic had thinned; the boys in the street relaxed a little, looking for other diversions. Sharp kak-kak-kak bursts would echo inside the complex. Usually it was just some kid getting to know his 9.
Those were the good nights. Too often the bullets signaled something else: robbery, retribution, slaughter. Tiny smudges of lives were rubbed out here, school-age boys for whom names in a police file are just about the only thing left, like 19-year-old Jewell Chester Denmark Jr., murdered in 1987.
By the late 1980s the address 2133 E. Ledbetter Drive had been called out hundreds of times on police dispatch radios. Controlled from the inside out by Jamaican gangsters with New York connections--some Regency Village employees were reportedly cut in on the deal, and one of the security guards cooked up hot meals for the teenage street peddlers hungry from all-night shifts--the complex was known to police for its shifting cast of perpetrators. Some of them moved between Regency Village and another cracked-out complex west of there, the Briarcliff apartments at 3744 Legendary Lane. Men like Coolie, one of the first Jamaicans to pioneer crack cocaine sales in Dallas; Soldier; Jamaican Benny; Freddy Krueger; Big Man.
There is no trace of them today. Coolie gunned down a man in the Regency Village laundry room in 1989, did a few years' probation for murder, then melted back into the New York City suburb where he came from. Freddy Krueger was murdered on a New York subway train. Regency Village and Briarcliff disappeared with them, as if the ground itself were cursed. People say a tornado dropped out of the sky one day and crushed Regency Village, which by then was nearly empty of legitimate residents. Briarcliff stood like a bombed-out ruin for years along Marvin D. Love Freeway.
It went down in a hurry. Whoever did it carved gashes in the dirt, leaving behind a few piles of jagged concrete hidden in the brush and a moonscape of dull ridges and shallow craters.
Nothing was built to take its place.
This is a story about a man named Soldier, one of the Jamaican "rude boys"--or gangsters--who came to Dallas by way of New York and worked his way from the ground up to the higher echelons of the city's crack cocaine trade. Where exactly he fit in among the West Indian factions that controlled low-income apartment complexes like Regency Village and Briarcliff and the numerous drug houses in South Dallas isn't clear; the Jamaican gangsters, who'd pretty much disappeared from Dallas by the mid-1990s, didn't leave corporate flow charts.
What's certain is that Soldier--John, to the people who knew him best--was widely known, particularly in Oak Cliff, and much feared. "One piece of information I know will never leave my memory," one of his former associates says. "If you step on his toes, he will amputate yours. He was one of the most feared Jamaicans around. Everyone assumed he was the big man."
A Dallas police investigator who remembers Soldier well confirmed the description. "He was pretty much an enforcer. He was over several [drug-selling] operations because his reputation was so big. He was a ruthless guy. He'd shoot you in a minute." One clue to Soldier's fierce image, he says, is that other Jamaicans adopted the same name after the original Soldier had receded from the scene.
Though Soldier was a diminutive man, a wiry 140 pounds, with light skin and striking hazel eyes, everyone in the dope game, from the established Jamaicans who ran numerous workers to the boys at the bottom, the $50-a-night lookouts, respected him. "I would see Jamaicans, biiiiigJamaicans, and then here comes little John," says one person who knew him well. "And they would be scared of him."