By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Oddly enough, a remarkably similar shooting is recorded in court records from 1990 at 1200 E. Ledbetter Drive, at or near Yellow Shoes. But the details indicate it's a separate event. An affidavit for an arrest warrant states that Gregory Allen, a "Jamaican drug dealer," drove up to a garage parking lot and opened fire on two men standing outside talking. It says the men knew him by his nickname, "John Soldier." The document records a brief conversation: Soldier rolled down his window and asked one of the men, "Why did you turn my friend in?" He didn't wait for a reply. Soldier opened fire with a 9 mm handgun, hitting one man in the foot, the other in the leg. One of the men, 25-year-old Darryl Blair, would tell police that the other guy owed Soldier $4,000 for drugs. Soldier would get arrested for aggravated assault, the one charge in Dallas that got him state prison time for nine months in 1992 and 1993.
The Yellow Shoes incident was one of two shootings Thomas witnessed, though the other appears to have been in self-defense. She and John were in New York, where he traveled frequently, and Thomas decided she'd like to visit the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. John hailed a gypsy cab with two men in the front. As Thomas recalls it, the man on the passenger side turned around and asked for a box in the back seat. It was the cue for a stickup: He pulled out what appeared to be a gun. It was actually a telephone, Thomas says.
"He didn't know John, didn't know he was crazy, didn't know he had a gun," Thomas recalls. "And he was like, 'We're not giving you our money.'"
John pulled out a real gun and fired away. Thomas was so terrified, she leaped out of the car and ran in the street. "I flagged down the police," she says, "and he was going, 'Toni, no, Toni, no!' And he ran the opposite way." They met up later at their hotel, and Thomas has no idea to this day whether anyone was hurt.
Back in Dallas, Thomas would tell her mother about some of the wild things she'd seen. Mom would brush it off, like Thomas was telling tall tales. She'd entered a fast world, so different from the Oak Cliff neighborhoods where folks tended their tiny gardens, everybody knew everybody and the entire family would go to church together with four generations represented in the pews. John, in fact, was often there right beside her, smiling contentedly when Thomas sang solo in the church choir. Her family, she believes, was his only tie to normality, the single strand of decency in a desperate life. He loved playing with her family's children, and they loved him.
In quieter moments, he confided to Thomas that she reminded him of his mother, whom he'd lost as a little boy.
Though it's impossible to pinpoint when it began, Soldier was losing his grip on anything resembling a normal life. First came the rumors, the late-night callers with a confession to make: Toni, stay away from John. He's on crack. Thomas didn't pay too much attention to it; she'd never seen John use crack or any hard drug. "I thought people were lying on him because they were jealous of me or him," she says. "Basically, I was like, I know my man. You think you do. And I mean, I got calls all the time."
Soldier, by then, was well beyond his early days in a Briarcliff trap. He'd quickly progressed to running workers of his own. A former associate remembers him from Regency Village and the Dallas Inn, a wretched motel near Briarcliff that still stands. (Two murders took place there just this year.) The associate measured things this way: Unlike the other Jamaican dudes, Soldier didn't ask the boys on the street how much they'd sold that night. He was above that. "He would come and talk to us, almost intimidate us," says the man, who sold crack as a teenager. "It seemed like he dictated a lot of the other Jamaicans."
With his reported role as enforcer came new enemies. When he and Thomas went to the clubs where the Jamaicans hung out, like Club Exodus in Deep Ellum and the Sandpiper in Southwest Oak Cliff, John always positioned himself by the back door for quick exits. When he danced, he always maneuvered behind her, never taking his eyes off the crowd. Both joints, in fact, hosted plenty of shootings along with the Jamaican DJs and booming dancehall reggae. Thomas was at Club Exodus once when bullets were flying, but an uglier incident sticks in her mind.
One night a deaf girl whom she knew from the beauty shop walked up to her at Exodus, trying to tell her something. The girl was dating a Jamaican. Thomas had a hard time understanding her; she thought she'd said something like, "You look cute." Then the woman's sister walked up to interpret. Thomas, she said, was wearing the deaf girl's jewelry--a necklace, bracelet and rings.