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."
They had good reason. Through Dallas' crack holocaust in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the city racked up record numbers of homicides and saw entire neighborhoods disintegrate under the drug's influence, Soldier slipped into the shadows of two of Dallas' most horrifying crimes. He was an associate of the young men who allegedly torched an entire Highland Hills family in their home in 1988 over a couple of thousand dollars of missing drug money, murdering five, including a toddler, and, according to three witnesses, he was inside the South Dallas crack house where five teenagers were squeezed into a bathtub and sprayed with semiautomatic gunfire in 1990. A 15-year-old boy died in the "bathtub murder," and three others were critically injured. The crime was a watershed event, signaling a new level of violence in Dallas' crack cocaine trade. Soldier wasn't charged in the shooting, but he bragged about his involvement, calling himself the "mastermind" of the attack, according to one account.
The Dallas Observer attempted unsuccessfully to contact Soldier through mail and by phone in New York City, where he has lived in recent years. While Dallas police were aware of his drug connections--Detective Charles Storey, who used to be on the area's Jamaican Task Force, has his street name logged in memory as one of the West Indians "who worked his way up" here--Soldier seemed to possess an uncanny ability to beat the many criminal charges against him and somehow escaped the net that encircled and choked off the big Jamaican crime syndicates in the early 1990s.
Today, it's difficult to retrace Soldier's steps: So often he seemed just beyond the reach of Dallas investigators who ended the careers of many Jamaican posse members. But sifting through court files, police records and interviews with former associates, a certain pattern develops, a way to follow the clues. You're on a trail of wreckage--of Dallas neighborhoods gone to hell, lives destroyed, a swath of murder and ruin.
All she wanted was a little weed.
Toni Thomas was fresh out of Skyline High School, the Dallas Independent School District's career development magnet, where she made the "A" honor roll and walked away in 1986 with a diploma as well as her beautician's license. Not long after graduation, probably in 1987, she heard about a place to get marijuana, a "weed house" run by the Jamaican boyfriend of one of her clients.
Thomas was no druggie, just a 19-year-old who worked hard all day. By her early 20s, in fact, she'd be running her own shop in Duncanville with 25 chairs, pulling in as much as $1,000 a day in the heyday of intricate, high-dollar weaves. She earned her fun, and the same adventurous streak that made her a success in business left her open to new sources of excitement.
That's how she found herself driving to the Briarcliff apartments one night with a couple of high school buddies, in search of a dime bag of weed.
Briarcliff, a two-story complex, was overrun with Jamaicans. "Oooh, Jamaicans got good weed," one of Thomas' friends said. "That's where my daddy gets his weed."
The three girls started tramping up the steps at one of the buildings. That's when Thomas saw him: A thin, light-skinned man stood at the top of the landing, coolly watching the girls. He was in his mid-20s, dressed in Run DMC mode--a red and white Troop track suit, thick gold chain, self-assured, limber posture. There was something about the way he bounced his head when he talked.
"Where y'all going?" he said.
"Y'all got something?" asked Thomas, the bold one, trying to act like she knew what she was doing.
"Like what?" the man asked coyly.
"Do y'all have dime bags here?" Thomas asked.
"I am," Thomas said.
"Then you come up." He meant alone.
Thomas glanced at her friends nervously. "Nobody gonna do anything to them," the man said in a soft Caribbean accent.
She walked up, then followed him down the breezeway. She noticed something she hadn't seen at first: a huge MAC-11, a wicked-looking submachine gun that he held in a peculiar way, with the end of the barrel balanced in his hand and the muzzle slid through his fingers. He cradled it so it was always concealed at his side, swinging in his arm as he led her into an apartment near the end of the hall.
When she got inside, two things caught her eye. An enormous jam box blasting the rubber-bottom bass lines of dancehall reggae and a table spread from end to end with tiny plastic baggies of a gray mineral-like substance.
"Pick what you want," the man said.
Thomas was baffled. He must have seen it when she practically stuck her face on the table, staring with wide eyes at all this stuff. "What is that?" she asked.
"Crack rock," he said quietly.
Weed, Thomas said. I want weed. Crack cocaine was new to Dallas, appearing here for the first time in 1986, police say. She'd heard a little about the stuff, but she'd never actually seen it. Later, she'd understand her miscue: These were $10 rocks, commonly known as dimes. The meanings were jumbled in her first encounter with the Jamaican man.
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.
Earlier that night, John had asked her to be his girl. She told him she already had a boyfriend.
"Tell him you found somebody," John said.
"I wish I could," Thomas said. "He likes to fight."
"He fight you?" John asked, seemingly astonished.
"He won't fight you no more."
In an instant, Thomas reached for her escape. She'd found a protector. "If you tell him that," she said, "if you tell him that and he leaves me alone, then I'm yours."
Thomas found herself driving to the Briarcliff apartments late that night. She'd been with John only a short while when her bulky, battery-pack mobile phone rang.
John picked it up. It was Michael.
The Jamaican kept it short. "I'll kill you if you ever call her again." Invasion
Dallas police weren't ready for the Jamaicans. If they'd known more about the posses, they would have understood that the city was ripe for invasion. For one thing, the climate was enticing, more so than Philadelphia, Kansas City and other stops along the posse trail. Most important, though, it was virgin territory, under the sway of no single drug-trafficking entity and possessing a large, concentrated population of black residents to hide behind.
The posses took control before anyone could see the big picture. They were tightly organized, imposing ruthless discipline on their workers and adjusting fluidly to law-enforcement tactics and changes in the market. Street cops understood it from their level, but one investigator says racial attitudes kept the higher-ups from grasping the magnitude of the problem. "Most white cops, when you have people who come from the islands, they will never think those people can be smarter than they are," says the investigator, who asked that he not be identified. "They're speaking broken English, they come here, and you try to tell people, 'These people have a business. They are organized. They know what they're doing.'
"There was a lot of ignorance. No one listened until there were enormous numbers of murders."
That was happening by 1988, when Dallas police attributed 55 killings to Jamaican drug trafficking. Only later would the business model come into clear focus, how the posses put sophisticated systems in place to ensure profits. At first they imported workers and product from New York to Dallas, a costly arrangement. Soon enough they began recruiting local kids and renting multiple units at single, fairly small apartment complexes--Dallas has an abundance of these, unlike New York--where the manager could be bought off or intimidated into looking the other way. One or two units would be set up as traps, or retail outlets for crack like the one at Briarcliff, and others would be stash houses, where the Jamaicans kept inventory. There was usually a "cool-out" unit, where workers could get some R&R--watching TV, napping, smoking weed. The location of the trap could change every day, making it extremely difficult for narcotics officers to obtain the search warrants they needed to build cases.
"I'll never forget we found a piece of paper one time, and it was a handwritten list of rules," the investigator says. "You report to work on time. You clean up. Don't take coins. Don't have women in here during your shift. If you want something to eat, call us. We'll bring it to you.
"I don't think we'll ever see anything like the Jamaicans again."
Most of the drug-related murders happened when someone found out where the money and drugs were kept. Kids in the traps would see tens of thousands of dollars flowing through a single dope house each week and search for new and better ways to supplement their $300- to $500-a-week commission. You could simply steal the cash: a pretty efficient way to get killed. Or you could sneak someone else's product in the dope house and sell it on better terms for yourself. (Some of Dallas' Jamaicans combated this by color-coding crack vials.) Robberies of rival dope houses became a common feature on the Jamaican scene, and it's a measure of the crackhead's desperation that many lived through such terrifying moments, face on the floor, 9 mm aimed at the brain, and they still went back for more.
It's in the bloody year of 1988 that Soldier begins to appear in the official record. By then Dallas police were militant, sweeping through neighborhoods with saturation force. The department made up for its slow start, eventually arresting more Jamaican drug traffickers than any other city in the Southwest, the investigator says. Local police coordinated their efforts with the FBI, DEA, INS, ATF and New York cops--especially the Brooklyn precincts--to keep up with the north-south travels of posse members. It was one thing, though, to chart the movements in Dallas of a guy like Soldier or "Freddie the Worm," who once operated out of Regency Village. But who were they really? The answers were slippery in the extreme. Detective Storey says many of the West Indian gangsters obtained false identities, complete with seemingly legit U.S. birth certificates and Social Security numbers.
Identities were elusive even in death. Take the case of Freddy Krueger, cut down in New York in 1992. He was known in various jurisdictions as David Wilson, David Broadbelt and, in Dallas, as Milton Lee Hunter Jr. Only the FBI's unique number corresponding to fingerprints enabled police to identify the dead and correlate their various criminal records under different names and birth dates. Dallas police still don't know who Freddy Krueger really is; they just know he's dead.
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.
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.
Soldier, she claimed, had beaten her up, robbed her and raped her in the back alley at Exodus.
"I was like, 'He gave this to me last night,'" Thomas says. "She said it happened last night."
Thomas questioned John about it. His denial didn't exactly put her at ease. "He said he didn't rape her, but he robbed her and was gonna beat out her 'blood clot' [tampon] because she got in his business."
Like most of the Jamaicans who made it to Dallas, Randy Shawn Brown was brought up in Kingston, a city of scrap-metal slums and glass houses on hills, where the trench between rich and the many more poor is exceptionally deep. Like Soldier, Brown was raised in straitened circumstances in a hardworking family. His father had a decent job; he worked as a police sergeant in Alman Town. But when the family immigrated to the United States when Randy was 10, there wasn't nearly enough money to amply feed and clothe five children to New York City standards. Randy couldn't keep up with the day's fashion trends, and the American kids teased him viciously. He didn't understand his parents' struggle, that they were doing the best they could, and the teasing "had an enormous effect on me," Brown says today. "I wanted to dress nice and have money in my pocket and be accepted."
In the shadows around his home, though, he observed a means of escape: the fast money kids were making in the crack cocaine game.
That's how Brown ended up in Dallas in late 1988; he was 18. At one time, Brown hints from the visiting room at a Texas prison, he was affiliated with a certain notorious posse, one of the most lucrative Jamaican drug operations in the United States. But contrary to the stereotype, not all the Jamaican boys owned BMWs or closets full of silk leisure suits and BK shoes. Theirs was a boom and bust cycle, with many busts and bouts in Lew Sterrett Justice Center--or Parkland, recovering from gunshot wounds--that left them dead broke. Brown, a talented lyricist, would sometimes DJ Jamaican-style at Club Exodus under his stage name Trouble Ranking, but after getting seriously injured in a car wreck, he found himself short of cash most of the time. One day he was hanging out in South Dallas at an apartment on Gould Street, one of the roughest areas of town, then and now.
The place belonged to a Dallas teenager named Tree Tree and her crack-addicted mother. Tree Tree tells what happened there that day: A bunch of the West Indian boys were hanging out, smoking weed, along with Tree Tree and a South Dallas gangster nicknamed "Money Mike." At some point, Soldier drove up. All of the boys seemed to know him. He was dressed fine, Tree Tree recalls, and walked to the vacant lot across the street to fire off some rounds from his submachine gun, which Brown identifies as an Uzi. Most of the guys were broke, Brown says. And, contrary to all the wild stories, Soldier was usually short on cash, too, Toni Thomas says. He was always borrowing $20 here, $30 there. If he was pulling in big money from dope dealing, Thomas says she never saw any proof, and she took care of all the bills.
The Jamaican boys seemed in awe of Soldier, who was older than most of them. And he came with a scheme. Kitty-corner from the apartment was a brand-new trap controlled by the Allen family, a nationwide Jamaican crime syndicate. Soldier was certain there were heaps of cash there, plus weapons and dope. He persuaded Money Mike, then the others, that they could take it.
Sometime after midnight on May 31, 1990, Tree Tree recalls as many as a dozen armed men, Soldier included, slipping over to Cleveland Street. "It wasn't a planned thing. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Brown says. "The first thing that came to mind was to rob that place. As I told the police, our mission was to rob and rob only. We thought we were going to get thousands and thousands of dollars."
The witnesses don't agree on how many of the boys made it into the second-story trap at 2727 Cleveland St.; the numbers range from three to seven. Brown admits he was there. So was Soldier, he says, and two other men--Money Mike, whose real name was Michael Charles Edwards, and Mark "Uzi" Larmond, a 19-year-old Jamaican who once ran a crack house on nearby Holmes Street.
There is little dispute about the outcome. One man--Brown says it was Soldier, and Edwards concurs in a statement to police--ordered the five teenagers inside the trap to get down on the floor. Soldier, Brown says, rooted around the apartment for dope, weapons and cash. Meanwhile, the gunmen forced the kids, two girls and three boys from South Dallas, to strip naked and crouch together in a dirty bathtub. Someone turned on the water. One of the kids, a 19-year-old named Kenneth Covington, started chattering nervously. He mentioned the name "Babyface."
"Kenneth, you remember that name you used?" one of the robbers said. "Don't ever use it again."
The tiny bathroom exploded with gunshots.
In the aftermath, one boy, 15-year-old Juniores Ray Mahan, was dead. Three others were critically injured, and one girl, a 16-year-old, played dead at the bottom of the tub and miraculously escaped the bullets.
The gunmen fled. They'd recovered only a few hundred dollars--chump change by crack-house standards.
The attack, which came to be known as the bathtub shooting, marked the beginning of the end of the Jamaican era as much as anything. Dallas police were successfully building cases against the West Indians and scrubbing out some of the most crack-infested apartment complexes. (And sometimes literally razing them. Police would work in conjunction with code enforcement, which would hold owners accountable for the dumpiest sites.)
Three men inside the bathroom--Larmond, Edwards and Brown--were convicted of murder and given long sentences. Brown, who says he didn't fire any shots, is in prison today along with the others. But Soldier wasn't charged. Police knew he was there; Edwards and Larmond placed him inside the apartment in their statements to police, and if he was indeed there, he could have been charged with murder under the law of parties. But statements from co-defendants weren't enough to gain a conviction, and none of the survivors was able to identify Soldier in police lineups.
Brown speaks openly about Soldier's involvement today, and his recollections generally match what Edwards told investigators. (Edwards declined two interview requests from the Observer.) "They [police] knew he was involved," Brown says. "Soldier was in the apartment, but he had nothing to do with the shooting. He was basically the one who grabbed up what drugs were found and the few guns they had." Larmond had recently made a connection with Soldier, he says. "He'd been hanging out of late with us," Brown says. "He had some business with Uzi [Larmond]. He had a reputation for shooting. When you move in those circles, they talk about you."
Soldier, witnesses say, was the one who got away. Investigators, however, never spoke to Tree Tree, who observed the events leading up to the attack and heard Soldier plan a robbery and leave her apartment building with a submachine gun. And they didn't question Toni Thomas, for whom the crime would unfold slowly and horribly. She admits she unwittingly delivered food to the bathtub attackers at Soldier's request while they were hiding out in Dallas motels after the shooting. She stopped, she says, when she saw the suspects' pictures on television and realized something: "John, you used me."
Soldier, she says, confided in her within a day of the deadly shooting. "They call it the South Dallas massacre," Thomas says. "I'll never forget that. And his words were, 'Toni, there was a bloodbath.' I mean, I learned a lot of things that were not worth learning being with him.
"I realize that he was bragging to me," she says. He specifically mentioned the girl who'd emerged untouched by the bullets. "He said, 'I told the bitch before I left, you say something, I'm-a have your head.' And I said, 'How could you do that? How old were these people?'"
His answer, according to Thomas: "'Old enough--fucking.' That's what he said. He is sick...
"He said, 'You know...we were taking over territory, and these young punks, I had told them I was gonna come over there...and they didn't want to leave...When we take over territory, you have to let them know who's who and who's what,'" Thomas says. "And he said somebody ran out, or somebody ran, and he said he stacked them up in the bathtub."
Soldier seemed proud of his role in the mess.
"Mastermind," Thomas says. "He bragged on that at home. And it made me sick. Yeah. That's why I say that was the last straw."
Two months after the bathtub shooting, Dallas police would finally catch up with Soldier. Investigators put Thomas' apartment under surveillance, and, if she's remembering the same arrest, found John hiding in a wash basket of dirty clothes. Thomas says she was dumbfounded: He'd apparently sneaked into her place and lived there undetected for two days while Thomas went to and from work. Police knew he was there, Thomas says, because he made the mistake of answering the phone.
Soldier was charged with murder in July 1990. But the crime was something from the past, the nadir of an especially bloody week at the Briarcliff apartments.
Thomas recalls a terrifying night that seems to coincide in many ways with some of the events in late summer 1988. One night at Briarcliff, she says, John ordered her to go home immediately--he seemed to have a sixth sense for when trouble was going to break out. "I'm at war with Baby Shine and Mega," she says he told her, "and somebody told me they're headed here now to shoot up the place." Thomas drove off down Legendary Lane. "I remember going down a side road," she says, "...and hearing, like, just claps of gunshots." She found out later that a "baby" had been killed. On August 23, 1988, in fact, at 3 a.m., a 2-year-old boy was shot while he slept in the back seat of his mother's car at apartments on Legendary Lane. His mother and her boyfriend had gone there to buy crack.
The toddler, John Kelly Redicks, died hours later of a gunshot wound to his head. Police eventually made an arrest in the murder: Mega, also known as 21-year-old Patrick Andrew Buchanan. He'd never be brought to trial, though. Nine months later, he was found dead on what was once Soldier's turf--the Regency Village apartments. A single bullet fired from a distance had struck his chest, punctured a lung and severed his spinal cord. The murder has not been solved.
Nine days after the toddler died, on September 1, 1988, another murder took place near Briarcliff. A witness would later tell police that he saw three men run down 36-year-old Orville McLean, and one would shoot at him with a handgun several times. He collapsed in the courtyard of apartments across from Briarcliff, dying from gunshot wounds to his head and leg. The witness picked out "Gregory Allen" from a police lineup two years later, in July 1990. Once again, though, the crime didn't result in a prosecution. As Assistant District Attorney Lana McDaniel--now a state district judge--was preparing for trial, her sole eyewitness, a drifter named Drewer Anthony Thomas, absolutely refused to testify. The murder charge was ultimately dropped, though not before Soldier had spent nearly a year in jail.
Thomas knew nothing about that crime and would soon break up with John. But while he was in jail, her own life began to disintegrate. Long hours on her feet had worn her down, as had the stresses of John's bizarre life and the people who wanted to tell her everything about it, whether it be myth or fact. She ran a beauty shop in Duncanville, but she says the local cops were harassing her clients, stopping them in the street for trivial matters and searching their cars. They probably suspected them because of her involvement with Soldier, who was once arrested on a weapons charge in Duncanville. She'd eventually give up her shop.
Meanwhile, she'd started sampling marijuana cigarettes that seemed to pack an unusually strong kick. A friend would share them with her, calling them primos, and after a while Thomas wanted them for herself. Plain old joints didn't seem to satisfy anymore, because her primo's jolt was fired by crack cocaine.
Thomas is settled down today, married to a good man who goes to work every day in a legitimate occupation. They met after she got out of prison in 1997, where she'd served less than a year for a forgery conviction brought on, she says, by the chaos of her life with John. In prison, she got off crack; hard time probably saved her life, she says. Now she is working on demos as an R&B singer.
After serving time for an aggravated assault conviction in the shooting of Darryl Blair and another man, who'd given police a fake name, Soldier got out of prison in 1993 and appears to have returned to his old ways, judging by the continuing weapons arrests and a marijuana possession charge in 1994, for which he was ultimately convicted. Thomas last saw him in 1996, shortly before he left for other states. One of them was Maryland, according to a letter he wrote to a judge in one of his cases. He'd burned out his welcome in Dallas.
He pops up in New York in 2000 and 2002, where he was convicted of misdemeanor drug offenses involving marijuana and crack cocaine. The small amount of crack baggies in his possession in two of those arrests on Harlem streets suggests that what Thomas heard many times, that at some point John began using his own product, could indeed be true.
Julie Lyons wrote about the survivors of the 1990 bathtub shooting in the July 17, 2003, cover story, "The Girl Who Played Dead."
Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this report.