By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Soldier appears to have figured out the game early on. He shows up in Dallas court records for the first time as Gregory Allen, with a November 4, 1961, birth date, but he answered to John, his real first name. He had other identities, too, according to a former associate. His arrest was the first of six in Dallas on weapons charges, and this time he pleaded guilty. The multiple weapons charges are a strong indication that Dallas police were monitoring his activities as a suspected drug dealer, though they never would file a felony narcotics charge against him.
Soldier would get arrested by Dallas cops at least four more times, for charges ranging from misdemeanor marijuana possession to murder. But the dichotomy in Soldier's life was razor-drawn: In the same years official records show him running wild through drug dens like Briarcliff, he was sitting beside Thomas and her family at Thanksgiving and Christmas, charming them with his quick wit and quiet manner, impressing the kids with his mastery of any kind of homework problem that stumped them.
Thomas and John were living together, and she found something to appreciate about him right away: He never lifted a hand against her. She might fuss, even get rowdy with him, but he never fought back. He even surprised himself, she says. "If anybody hit me," she says he told her once, "I don't fight. I kill."
Early in their relationship, John would present her with jewelry and gifts. He even bought her mother a car, Thomas says. "Maybe I felt like it was the limelight or something," she says. "I don't know." She had her own friends, her own life as a beautician, known for the signature "X" she embossed in her clients' hair with a hot curler. "My customers would come from John's friends and their circle, because their boyfriends could afford it," she says. "The dope dealers. American dope dealer girlfriends, Jamaican dope dealer girlfriends. And I hate to say that, but that was my clientele. And I was making money."
Thomas knew, of course, that John's business was dope, and it was a dangerous one. He tried to insulate her from the sordid side of the gangsta life, but the weapon itself gave him away: He always carried a gun, and he was constantly cleaning them at home. The beauty-shop talk provided another hint: The girls would talk about John, whispering about things he'd supposedly done, conjuring up scenes so far-fetched that Thomas didn't know whether to believe them.
Time would suggest that some of the stories were true. One day she was leaving Briarcliff with John, and an older lady was crossing the street in front of them with groceries in her arms. "He said, 'Run over her,'" Thomas says. "I just stopped and said, 'Are you serious?'"
He was. "Her son owes me money, and that old biddy locked me out," Thomas remembers him saying.
He has got to be playing, Thomas thought. A few years later, when she'd find herself without a job and on her way to prison, she'd think otherwise: "He was not joking. He was a serious cat."
Soldier couldn't drive. He'd run up on curbs and pose a menace to all around him, whether on foot or in other cars. So this time Thomas was driving. It was probably '88 or '89; hard to say, because the dates are a jumble in her mind. She just remembers scenes, unforgettable scenes: "It was almost like the life I lived with him was a picture show," she says.
They pulled up one night at Yellow Shoes, a car detail shop on Ledbetter Drive near Glendale Park. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Yellow Shoes: Painted yellow footprints wound around the parking lot. "He asked me--and this was the weirdest thing--did I want a soda?" Thomas says. "I said yeah."
John stepped out of the car while Thomas waited. He was standing on the passenger side, she says, with his back to the car. A man was walking toward him; she heard John call him Big Man.
"I was gonna bring you your money," Big Man said.
"It's OK. It's cool," John said. "I just stopped to get her a soda."
Thomas was barely paying attention. The sound of gunshots jolted her--and a man going "Ahhhhh..."
John scrambled back into the car. He reached over, grabbed Thomas' right knee and pushed down as hard as he could. "Drive!" he said.
Thomas whipped away from Yellow Shoes. She was trembling; her right leg was "shaking like hell."
Some distance away, still frightened, Thomas asked, "Why did he holler?"
She remembers his answer precisely. "Because it was hot."
Hot. The feeling of bullets through flesh. The groaning, she recalled, coincided with the gunshots. John knew what he was talking about. Before he came to Dallas, he was shot up in a New York City dope house in 1987, taking seven bullets. One wound in his back was slow to heal, and the bullet was still causing him serious pain when they first met.
She never heard another word about the incident at Yellow Shoes.