By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Same with his next request: "Smoke a spliff with me."
Thomas was confused again. "What's a spliff?" she thought. She'd never heard the word, a Jamaican term for joint. She opted to take her weed and split.
The two would meet again, with Thomas stopping for dime bags about twice a week. It didn't take long for her to recognize that the Jamaican man, who called himself John, had a crush on her. He'd try to delay her, get her to hang out, pulling gently on her arm, grasping her hand. They started talking, and Thomas learned some things about the man the other Jamaicans called Soldier, pronounced Soljee in their patois. Like how he'd gotten his street name: In Jamaica, he told her, he'd been in the army--possibly a military policeman, as Thomas recalls. (She could be talking about the Jamaica Constabulary Force, a semi-military police agency.) His father was a military man, too. Both of his parents died when he was young, and he spoke as though he'd been raised in poverty in Kingston, home to slums such as Tivoli Gardens and Trench Town that would birth the posses, or criminal gangs, that started taking over the United States' crack cocaine trade in the mid-1980s. Several of the big posses found their way to Dallas, according to Detective Storey: the Shower Posse, so named for the "shower" of lead aimed at its rivals; the Jungle Posse, often pronounced Jung-gless; the Dunkirk Posse; the Spangler Posse.
The posses had roots in Jamaica's violent political rivalries, with different gangs enforcing their dominance and reaping their party's patronage in respective Kingston neighborhoods, but poverty and greed were the deeper causes of the drift to the States. When the posses got to America, recruiting Brooklyn-raised Jamaican teenagers and American kids in the Eastern, Southern and Midwestern cities where they set up shop, it was strictly business: first weed, then crack cocaine, transported to Dallas in powder form and "rocked up" in numerous underground factories throughout Southern Dallas. From Dallas and Miami, shipments of guns traveled back to Brooklyn in buses and rental cars, an exchange made profitable by Texas' and Florida's looser gun laws. Back then, all it took to get a gun in Texas was a valid drivers license, and the Jamaicans would insinuate themselves into the lives of young Dallas women who'd visit the gun shows, using their IDs to purchase weapons in bulk. A gun bought in Texas for $300 could sell for $800 in New York. (The Jamaicans persuaded one Dallas woman to front the purchase of more than 70 guns, Storey says.)
Only slowly would Thomas discover some truths about Soldier's business. Even when she was contacted by the Observer, Thomas didn't know about many of the criminal allegations lodged against him. Today, she knows it's hard to understand why a decent, professional woman from a hardworking family would take up with a skinny Jamaican dope dealer. The reasons defy simple judgments; she's still working through it all. "Things still haunt me," Thomas says, "and I have to ask myself--what in the hell? It's really like the truth came out afterward to where I was like, thank you, God. I really did have angels that I never knew."
For one thing, few people in Dallas back then understood where the whole crack cocaine thing was headed, that 16 years later scraggly, cracked-out survivors would still be wandering the street on stilt-thin legs, looking for a hit, that thousands of young men would waste their prime years in prison for having dispensed the stuff, that hundreds of Dallas men and women would die behind it. Thomas knew none of that. What she saw instead was excitement: "What lured me was what he did in the beginning," she says. "Money, money, money."
But there was more, something unexpected for a man of Soldier's sinister reputation, a side few people saw. "He pretty much rescued me," she says.
She went on to explain, delving deep into her mind-set at 19. She talked about a guy named Michael. He was an older man, a boyfriend who courted her in high school and turned increasingly violent the closer she got to graduation. First, of course, he was all honey talk, a down-home gentleman offering to do chores for her mother and grandparents. Away from the charade, Michael's sisters tried to warn Thomas: He's so crazy, he beat a girl bad enough to put her in Parkland hospital.
Thomas had to figure it out for herself. One day Michael was driving her car way too fast for Thomas' nerves. She asked him to pull over.
"What did you say?" Michael asked. In a fraction of a second his easygoing demeanor had transposed to rage. Before Thomas had even figured out what happened, she felt her head snap to the side and found herself looking at her own blood and saliva sliding down the passenger-side window. He'd smacked her so hard, so fast, "he knocked the spit out of my mouth."
Thomas tried to tell her mother about the real Michael, but Mom couldn't reconcile what she heard with her picture of that meek, respectful boy. And it only got worse, till one night Michael stalked her at her apartment, ran in the door while she was opening it, shoved her to the floor and beat her until she called the apartment security. Then, like a scared possum, he skittered away.