The Girl Who Played Dead
Her name, like most of her life, is forgotten, but her one defining moment is carved into memory: She is the girl who played dead. That moment came in a South Dallas crack house, where she'd been hanging out with four other teen-agers "in the game," dabbling in the margins of the drug trade. Her survival was the closest thing to a miracle at a time when it seemed like we were witnessing a final surge into apocalyptic violence on the streets of Dallas.
Her story was born in an act of brutality so horrifying that it's still recalled vividly by everyone who touched the case. In the early morning of May 31, 1990, a swarm of Jamaican gangsters pushed their way into a second-story crack house where five teens, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were hanging out, smoking weed and drinking beer. The Jamaicans would later call it a robbery gone bad, a turf thing; it turned into an execution. The gangsters, armed with semiautomatic weapons, forced the kids to strip naked and squeeze into a dirty bathtub.
One thug turned on the faucet. Two others faced the tub, weapons poised.
A boy begged for his life. He spoke a name: Babyface.
The tiny room exploded. Bullets ricocheted and reamed into flesh. Limbs jerked; an eye was shot out. "All you could hear was noise," one witness says.
There was no earthly way to dodge the bullets, huge .45s fired from just a few feet away. The teens wilted into the water swirling with their blood.
But one girl escaped. Through instinct or terror, luck or grace, the 16-year-old pulled herself tight. She closed her eyes and ducked her head. She played dead.
The bullets never touched her.
After crouching in the water for 10 minutes, not daring to move or make a sound, she climbed out of the tub, covered in blood. She pulled on her bra and underwear, ran out the apartment door and hauled down a flight of stairs. She passed the boy they called "Youngster," naked, lying facedown on the sidewalk in a spreading pool of blood. He'd hobbled out of the tub and collapsed there.
She saw an old man they called "Pops" and screamed for help. Her actions would save three of her friends' lives.
After the shooting and three highly publicized prosecutions, the girl who played dead faded away. Her name wasn't mentioned in newspaper reports, because she was a minor.
I set out to find her and the other survivors. Part of it was personal; I was looking for answers about a generation of kids in South Dallas who just seemed to disappear. Today, I drive down Grand Avenue and see ghosts, wizened men and women of indeterminate age with the pop-eyed look, hoochie clothes and stilted walk of dope fiends, and I think about the people I'd met and read about in those years, like the 13-year-old dope dealer named Youngster who was gunned down in the bathtub that day. Shot four times, he nearly bled to death. What happened to him? Who were his parents? What went wrong? Did he ever pull out of the mess his life was in?
There were many kids like him, boys and girls from poor homes who'd gotten sucked in by the allure of men from Brooklyn with bad cars, big guns and easy money, the bounty of crack cocaine.
I wanted to know what happened to those dealers, too--the young West Indians who abruptly took over Dallas' crack trade in the late 1980s, then disappeared just as quickly a few years later.
I knew enough to fear the worst. While the violence of the early 1990s has long subsided, I still see those ghosts, hanging on corners, walking through vacant lots on a carpet of baggies and broken glass, bodies and minds attuned to one thing: a 20-second high from a hit of crack.
For 13 years, I've been a member of a South Dallas mission church that has built a ministry on the changed lives of a handful of former dope fiends and alcoholics. I have friends who are and have been hooked on crack, including one fresh out of rehab who pointed out the location of a couple of active South Dallas crack houses, or traps, as they used to be called. I can say that the redemption stories involving crack are exceptionally rare. Everything I've seen affirms what one Dallas cop, the detective who solved the bathtub case, told me: "Dope just caught a hold of people, and it wouldn't let go."
Did anyone get out alive?
In a court file was a name: Lizzie Williams. That led to a photograph of an attractive girl, grinning like a South Dallas Mona Lisa at the jailhouse camera. I carried it with me and knocked on doors. I found her the day after April Fools', sitting in a metal folding chair in an empty courtyard surrounded by two levels of apartments with freshly painted red doors. Two men sat on either side of her in a sort of crooked triangle, arranged for conversation, but no one was talking.
"Is that where Lizzie Williams lives?" I asked, pointing to an apartment door where I'd heard she lived.
There was a quiet moment; the woman smiled.
Lizzie Williams looked at me in the sun, face scrunched up slightly. She was still youthful, with smooth, coffee-colored skin and remarkably clear brown eyes. There was a small scar on her lower lip, like she had a habit of chewing it. She didn't seem the least bit surprised to be suddenly accosted by a reporter 13 years after an attack that's still remembered in these neighborhoods. She stood up and walked to stairs made of scabrous concrete.
A woman stole a look at us from the upper floor; a man watched us from the shadows in a corner of the compound.
"You saved your cousin's life," I said.
Lizzie chuckled, shrugged her shoulders and looked away shyly. "That's what they tell me."
We talked over a span of three days, as much as we could. One day I pulled out a sheaf of papers, transcripts of Lizzie's testimony in two murder trials, where she boldly identified two of the young men who'd shot her friends. It was a courageous act; one of the witnesses--her cousin, LaTonya Williams, also 16 at the time of the shooting--was so terrified that she went on the run before the first trial, nearly blowing the state's case. The prosecutor finally had to put her in jail to get her to testify.
Lizzie listened to the familiar names, smiled faintly and tried to sift through her mind's debris. Eventually, I turned my attention to those who knew her, then and now, and I tracked down each of the survivors of the bathtub shooting. I also interviewed two of the gunmen and a woman who witnessed the events leading up to the attack. I searched through hundreds of pages of court and police records that revealed bits of Lizzie's story and those of her friends, and I spoke with the detective and prosecutor who handled the case.
Because it soon became clear that the girl who played dead remembers nothing.
Those were crazy days, the era of running gun battles with the police and barricaded traps, of Uzis and TEC-9s and Too $hort and the Geto Boys. If you weren't there, it's hard to understand just how bad things got. The numbers tell part of the story: 442 murders in 1990, 500 in 1991--still a record--and much of the violence took place in the few square miles known as South Dallas, south of Interstate 30, between Lamar Street and Fair Park, just north of the Trinity River.
Crackheads would literally line up down the block in South Dallas--"like you getting ready to ride the roller coaster at Fair Park," one former user told me--pushing to be next to get a hit. Drive through South Dallas' side streets in the evening, and bands of young men dripping with gold and menace would block the way, brazenly asking if you "need anything?"
That was the blood money side of things, the users, the sellers and those they corrupted. Then there was everyone else, people whose lives were circumscribed by fear--the thick ladies in housedresses, tucked away behind multiple deadbolts, telling you in weary voices that Jesus would return to get them, to snatch them out of Sodom just in time. If you're middle-class and live in the grassy reaches of North Dallas, it's hard to relate to. Consider that everyone in South Dallas--I mean everyone--can tell you the name of a friend or relative who was murdered. Or the name of an aunt, a mother, a brother, whatever, who was or is strung out on crack. It's part of normal conversation: how so-and-so is a dope fiend, how he'd sell his mama for crack.
So many people got caught up in crack in one way or another, it's like an entire small town that went to war. "That was a stormy era in Dallas," says Dallas police Sergeant Chuck Hudson, who handled the bathtub murder investigation. "Man, it just grabbed us. Kind of like what happened in New York on 9/11."
Hudson, who is now with the Crime Scene Response Unit, witnessed the birth of Dallas' crisis. It started in the mid-1980s, when the Jamaican posses arrived from the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn and the drug trade jumped to a sinister new level of sophistication. Until then, powder cocaine had been the drug of choice, but in 1985 the Jamaican crime syndicates sent emissaries to Dallas with an extraordinarily valuable piece of technology: how to "cook" powder and baking soda into crack cocaine rocks, which are smoked. The Jamaicans quickly took over turf once ruled by the Cuban crime element in South Dallas, in short order assassinating a couple of Cuban drug lords. "They knew how to convert the powder to crack, so they just started converting it and getting people hooked on it," says Dallas police Detective Charles Storey, who served on the multi-agency Jamaican Task Force during those years. "Crack is very addictive, and it just became a landslide."
What Storey remembers is 55: the number of murders in Dallas in 1988 alone that somehow involved Jamaican dealers or their product. By then, the Jamaican--or, more accurately, West Indian--posses had carved up South Dallas and East Oak Cliff. "It's a very structured organization, and it ran exactly as a business," Storey says. "But it was a business that had no conscience. They took total control."
The posses employed every recognized principle for growing a business: marketing, advertising, R&D. Former dope fiends tell how the Jamaicans sold bigger $20 rocks than the other guy, or gave you a free rock after you'd purchased 11. Storey ran into something even more cunning--marketing campaigns pointing out the location of new traps. "There used to be Jamaicans standing on the street corner handing out pieces of paper that say $20 rock, $50 rock, apartment 110." They passed out free rocks in an apartment complex or set up a free community phone to get residents to look the other way. "Money creates corruption, and the crack creates the same problem," Storey says. "They turned South Dallas into a geographical area of victims."
You wouldn't find a Jamaican sitting in a dope house, doling out rocks under the door to desperate users. That was the work of the locals, poor South Dallas kids impressed by $50, the typical day's pay for a young lookout--entry level in the crack cocaine business--or $200 to sit inside a trap. "They would come down here and offer them pie in the sky: You'll have all the money you want. You can buy jewelry, cars, women, whatever," Hudson says. "Then they would go out and rent this little apartment somewhere, put 'em in it to sit there 24 hours a day and do nothing but sell dope. And give them a little bit of money.
"And you'd be surprised how many of these dope houses we'd go into that all you would see is chicken boxes--thousands of chicken boxes. You know, to keep them there, they'd go out and buy chicken to eat. I mean, they were slaves. They never left the house until they died. It's so pathetic."
The Jamaicans ran their business with cool, murderous precision and swift retribution for kids who saw the thousands of dollars flowing in and out of the crack houses and started wondering why they were only getting a measly couple hundred bucks. It was tempting to pocket a few more, or to slip someone else's product into the trap and take a bigger cut of the profits. But that was a deadly game. "Time and time again you go out on these murders, and it's 15- and 16-year-old kids," Hudson says. "That's what really just hammered you. You thought, well, here are kids with a life, and it's over."
James Gallagher, who's been a Dallas police homicide detective for 20 years, remembers one such case in the 1980s that let him know the city was dealing with an entirely new level of violence. It started with an anonymous call from Brooklyn telling Dallas police that they would find a young man's body at a certain address on Grand Avenue. Gallagher and another detective went there and found a locked apartment. They peeked in a window and saw there was hardly any furniture, a good sign that the place was a drug house.
"We kicked the door in," Gallagher says, "and there he was at the kitchen table. They had nailed his hands to the table and shot him in the knee before they killed him. They tortured him. And it was just a constant wave of that. The violence to us was almost unbelievable, and we work violence every day. What got us were these kids--15, 16 years old."
Hudson, who would frequently work a regular shift in homicide then get called in from home when the unit got overwhelmed, recalls the toll it took on his colleagues. "We'd get called out in the middle of the night, work all night, all day, and when we finally got to a point where we could stop, we went home, died for a few hours, and then we'd get called out again. It was just that way.
"Inside, in my psyche...I felt like, is there ever an end to it? Is it ever gonna be normal? Is this just building up for the worst? Is this the end of the world?"
By 1990, the area around Cleveland Street was controlled by rival groups of Brooklyn-based Jamaican drug dealers who had an almost mythical status in South Dallas. They dressed well, drove well, armed well; their pockets bulged with money, and their sophisticated ways and sensuous talk lured the neighborhood girls, making their own boys seem little more than scrubs. From the Silver Slipper, a nightclub on MLK Boulevard that always stayed krunk with a dancehall reggae beat and what seemed like nightly shootings, to the Caribbean liquor store nearby, where members of the Allen family--a notorious Jamaican drug ring--were known to hang out, to Elaine's Kitchen a few blocks west, where the boys would gather after hours in their gold-package BMWs and Benzes for aromatic plates of curry goat and stew beef, the Jamaican posses had the run of the 'hood.
It was easy for authorities to find their traps, Storey says. Undercover cops would wait outside Elaine's Kitchen and watch the posse members leave with stacks of take-out food for workers in the crack houses. Then it was simply a matter of follow-the-jerk-chicken. It was much tougher, however--and infinitely more dangerous--to put together a case against operators of a barricaded crack house.
Inside the traps, South Dallas kids cut and bagged rocks and ordered around the users--the butt side of the bottom rung in the hierarchy of the streets--like slaves. Their Jamaican lords would cruise by several times a day to deliver more dope and scoop up piles of cash.
And so it was that Kenneth Covington, a 19-year-old small-time dope dealer, was doing his shift in an upstairs apartment at 2727 Cleveland St. on May 31, 1990, smoking weed, drinking cheap beer and working with his two helpers, Daryl Oudems, 13, known on the street as Youngster, and Juniores Ray Mahan, a 15-year-old buddy of Oudems nicknamed "Red." Folks knew it as Kenny's place, but Oudems was actually the chief of the dope house, and the skinny boy was suited for the task. He knew South Dallas as well as anyone, having grown up in a tough area on Elihu Street near Fair Park, and he'd been in the game since he was 9, carrying a weapon, working as a lookout in crack motels. His taciturn manner was strictly business, just the way his Jamaican bosses wanted it. As usual, the men who came by to pick up the cash--Oudems knew them by their street names, Junior and Chris--melted away whenever things got hot, leaving children to deal with the consequences.
This was a new location, open about a week, and business was slow, so to pass the time Covington invited over 16-year-old Lizzie Williams, whom he'd seen earlier in the day. She brought along her cousin, a street-tough, smart-mouthed little gangbanger named LaTonya Williams. Unit 205 was one of only two occupied apartments in a clapped-out complex, supposedly run by the Allen drug ring, and few users made their way there that night. At about 1:40 a.m., when the most desperate dope fiends are trolling the streets, a pregnant woman and a younger man walked up the stairs. They fit the early-morning profile: willing to trade anything for $50 rocks, from a pair of snakeskin boots to an old Cadillac Seville parked outside. LaTonya Williams was sitting on a couch facing the front door with Lizzie and Red, watching Covington try on the boots, and she picked up something strange: The woman insisted on keeping the front door open a crack while she bargained. Even a dope house has rules, and Williams, streetwise beyond her 16 years, knew that users didn't tell folks how to run their business.
LaTonya was on edge, but she never had a chance to react. Just three minutes later, she'd testify, she heard the sounds of men clambering up the concrete stairs. A pack of Jamaican gangsters--five or six, with high-caliber weapons in hand--pushed aside the two dope fiends and shoved their way into the apartment.
"Everybody get the fuck on the ground!" one hollered.
Covington was grinning, chuckling at first. He thought it was a joke; he knew these guys, even called some of them by name. Oudems thought it was a game, too. When the Jamaicans pointed guns in their faces and started smacking Mahan upside the head with an Uzi, they realized there wasn't anything to laugh about. The kids hit the floor.
The gangsters--one in a black ninja suit, others wearing towels wrapped loosely around their faces--kicked over furniture and demanded to know where the kids had hidden the money and drugs. One pistol-whipped Mahan until his face was covered with blood. Others yanked off Oudems' necklace and kicked him in the head. More gunmen milled around outside, distracting Pops, an old crackhead who stayed in a first-floor unit at the complex.
Inside the trap the kids cowered and Covington cried. But LaTonya looked boldly into the gunmen's faces. "What the hell?" she thought. "I'm gonna die anyway." One kid she recognized immediately was a boy she'd known from Lincoln High School, a South Dallas wannabe called "Money Mike." Her courage--or plain ornery nature, to hear her tell it--would later be a key to cracking the case.
No one knows how long the gunmen were there, but at some point the atmosphere shifted. The gangsters found the dope and money--chump change--and what started as a robbery turned to something else. By then, the pregnant woman and man, so eager to score a rock, had slipped out the door, never to be seen or heard from again.
One of the gangsters ordered the boys to strip naked and climb into the apartment bathtub, and Youngster got in first while a man armed with a pump-action shotgun guarded him. The other boys joined him later, butt naked and terrified. The girls were next: Lizzie did as she was told and pulled off her clothes, but LaTonya defiantly hung on to her bra and panties, fearing she'd be raped. They crouched beside each other, heads down, flesh against flesh.
One gunman turned on the faucet, and cool water started gushing into the tub; he might as well have cued up the scary music. Another stood beside him in front of the tub, weapon in hand, and Money Mike was in the bathroom doorway, LaTonya would later testify, one foot in, one foot out. Covington started chattering nervously, asking Money Mike if they were going to kill him. At one point, he addressed one of the gunmen as "Babyface."
"Kenneth, you remember that name you used?" the gunman shot back in a West Indian accent. "Don't ever use it again."
He fired a single shot. It blew out Covington's eye. LaTonya glanced over and saw an eyeball in his mouth.
Lizzie reacted instantly. She ducked on her knees, head to the floor, pretending she'd gone down with the first shot.
Just then, LaTonya says, Money Mike shot her. Her arm jerked up and back, she says, like it had been blown from her body. She yanked it back and was holding it with her teeth when the room blew up in light and sound. Someone sprayed the tub with semiautomatic gunfire. LaTonya passed out.
The kids' recollections are fragmented after that. One remembers hearing the gunmen talk about leaving by the back stairs; moments afterward, Oudems, shot four times in his leg, arm and side, pulled himself out of the tub and staggered down the apartment hallway, leaving streaks of blood. He stumbled down the outside stairs and sprawled on his face on the sidewalk. Youngster lay there, bleeding profusely, when he saw a man's feet beside him. "Oh, man, no," he heard the man say, and he recognized the voice. It was Junior, his Jamaican boss.
"Help me, help me," Youngster groaned.
Junior rushed up the stairs to the apartment, gun in hand, looked inside and ran back down. When he heard sirens in the distance, he tore out of there and left the boy, who nearly bled to death.
The cops who arrived at Cleveland Street just minutes later would call it one of the bloodiest crime scenes they'd ever seen, like an "assassination." One officer would testify that paramedics were pulling out the naked body of a girl covered in blood. He figured that was it; then someone shouted, "There's more!"
By then, the water had overflowed and left a bloody residue on the tile floor. The drain was clogged with bullets and bits of flesh. Covington was still in the tub, critically wounded in the head.
And Juniores Ray Mahan was dead.
Word filtered out on the street, passing from dope fiend to drifter until it reached clear across South Dallas to Elihu Street, where Daryl Oudems' father, a user himself, was hanging outside with some buddies. Out of the darkness came some crackheads with horror in their eyes. "You hear what happened on Cleveland? Man, they did a bloodbath. They put these young kids in a bathtub and shot 'em."
Jimmy Oudems instinctively thought about his son. He'd arrived at home in a cab earlier that evening, ran inside and took a shower, then handed his father a $10 bill: "Here, Daddy." Then he jumped in the cab and was gone again.
His mother found out first: That's my Daryl. "She was so tore up," Jimmy Oudems says. "She fell on her knees, went to praying. We both went to praying and crying."
Meanwhile, at Dallas' biggest trauma center, three teen-agers were fighting for their lives. Daryl Oudems was at Parkland Memorial Hospital, with doctors trying to stanch the blood flowing from an artery in his thigh.
Covington was also there; a bullet had plowed through his brain. LaTonya Williams was immediately ushered into surgery. She'd been literally shot full of holes, suffering 10 or 11 bullet wounds, just about everywhere but her head and heart. For a while, the police didn't know if the kids would pull through.
A few days later, they were still hanging on. Sergeant Hudson remembers his first words to LaTonya: "I can't believe you're still alive." He came to the hospital on June 5 to show her lineups of suspects in the shooting. Williams had another surprise: Even though she was groggy and in pain, she was able to pick out four men from some 30 photos Hudson showed her. Since her arm was in a cast, Williams signed "Tonya" in chicken scrawl on the back of each photo she recognized. In another room, Covington picked out three men.
Daryl Oudems, however, wouldn't even look at the photos. He knew the rules of the street, and he was appropriately terrified. He'd later explain in court why he didn't cooperate: "Because I didn't want to get shot no more."
Lizzie Williams, though unhurt, didn't recognize any of the gunmen's faces except Money Mike.
Still, Hudson had solid IDs on five suspects, all of whom had been in trouble with the law before. After the shooting, in fact, Dallas police had been flooded with information. People in South Dallas were sick of the violence and, in a trend that cut squarely against the stereotype, phoned in numerous bits of information, Hudson says. On June 7, he released the names and photos of five suspects: Mark Anthony Larmond, 19, known by the street name "Uzi"; Randy Shawn Brown, 19, who used his dancehall DJ stage name, "Trouble" (short for "Trouble Ranking"); Michael Charles Edwards, 19, better known as Money Mike; Christopher Barronette, 20, who had several aliases; and a man with a distinctive burn scar on his throat, Phillip King, 21. All except Money Mike were natives of Jamaica. Each was indicted for Mahan's murder.
Police quickly arrested Randy Brown after a tip that found him napping outside an Oak Cliff car detail shop, then Larmond and Edwards, who'd holed up in a cheap motel north of downtown. Under police questioning, the three suspects immediately cracked and began implicating each other. In their rush to finger each other as triggermen, all of them made a huge tactical mistake: They placed themselves at the scene of the crime and admitted they took part in a robbery of drugs and money. Their confessions would be crucial pieces of evidence.
On the surface, the Dallas police investigation was going amazingly well. Behind the scenes, in the minds of the young survivors, fear was creeping in. Barronette and King were still at large, and police knew that more men had taken part in the attack, including a Jamaican who went by the street name "Soldier." He is mentioned repeatedly in Edwards' and Larmond's confessions, but none of the victims could attach a name or face to him. Somewhere out there, more suspects were lurking.
At some point, Covington, depressed and recovering from his head wound--which essentially gave him a bullet-induced lobotomy, Hudson says--had a change of heart. He stopped cooperating with police and the prosecutor assigned to the case, Keith Anderson. Something happened that seems to have put Covington in a squeeze. It could have been the "visitors." While he was still in the hospital in a supposedly secure area, the Jamaicans sent up some emissaries to threaten him, or so he told Anderson. LaTonya, who also says some of the Jamaicans' women tried to see her at Parkland and sent her a gift of stuffed animals, is certain the Jamaicans "got to" Covington.
Anderson, who worked hard to develop a rapport with Lizzie, LaTonya, Covington and Oudems and is now a county judge, practically shouts when the name Ken Covington first comes up. "Oh, boy, do I remember him," he says. "The one person in this mess I remember quite well. He cooperated with me fully initially. Then Robert Rose got a hold to him. Oh, God. When Robert got through with him, Ken didn't know nothing."
Robert M. Rose is a disgraced former criminal defense attorney who relinquished his law license in 1995 while facing discipline by the State Bar of Texas for a federal tax-evasion conviction. Rose represented bathtub suspect Phillip King, who was placed at the scene by one of the suspects, but, most important, had been picked out of a lineup by Covington. The state was forced to drop the murder charges against King and Christopher Barronette in November 1990 for lack of evidence. Anderson says Rose had persuaded Covington to sign a statement that King wasn't at the scene of the crime, and Anderson couldn't convict him, or anyone else, solely on the statements of a co-defendant. Anderson knew Covington was lying, and Covington knew that he knew. The teen simply said he was sorry.
When Covington recanted, Anderson knew he needed the Williams girls--his best remaining witnesses--to hold up under the pressure. Anderson instantly took a liking to the South Dallas girls and particularly appreciated LaTonya's keen mind. The first time he met her, in fact, LaTonya had played a joke on him. While Paul Wimer, Anderson's investigator, looked on poker-faced, LaTonya handed the prosecutor a bullet she'd found. Anderson picked it up, examining the hulking .45 slug, turning it in his fingers. Then LaTonya told him where it came from: "out my butt." Anderson shrieked and threw the bullet straight in the air, while LaTonya and Wimer laughed. The two hit it off: the wisecracking, street-tough witness and the down-home prosecutor who wouldn't give up on the bathtub case, despite the many challenges it posed. "I had more trouble with that case than you could shake a stick at," Anderson says. "You know what the facts were; it's hard for someone who's dealing drugs to admit what they're doing. It was a hard case. Really hard."
But now, LaTonya and Lizzie had decided to make themselves scarce. Terrified of retaliation, they'd run--in different directions.
As the trial date approached for the first defendant, Mark Uzi Larmond, a Jamaican drug dealer well-known to police, Anderson could hardly blame the girls. He'd tried to persuade them that his best shot at keeping them safe was getting the thugs off the street forever. "The girls were very nice," Anderson says. "They were just scared. I wouldn't lie to them. I told them it could be dangerous--things could happen. But if you don't testify against these people, they'll probably get you later on." Jamaican gangsters, in fact, had once put out a contract on Anderson's life.
The subpoenas went out anyway. And Anderson waited to see if any of his witnesses would dare to show up.
It's a part of Dallas you never knew was there, a thatch of dense woods east of the Cedar Crest Golf Course along Southerland Avenue. It's a favorite place for illegal dumpers, as the piles of dead tires and toilets attest.
If you scale the limestone ledge along the road and step down into the hollow, you're no longer visible from the street; surrounded by rock and trees, you could just as well be somewhere in East Texas. Other folks have obviously figured this out. In the brush you find an empty wallet, a gutted checkbook.
It's a perfect place to murder someone.
Along the wooded path, about 90 paces in from the street, a passer-by found the fully clothed body of a thin young black man on the morning of January 9, 1991. His pockets were turned inside out, and on the ground were several 9mm shell casings. The man had been shot at close range four to six times, including a fatal wound to the back of the head.
It looked like an execution.
Walking that lonely walk into the cold, dark woods with his unknown assassin, or running into a young thug with no regard for life, he had to have known what awaited him. He had to think about the choice he'd made: to stay in the game, to go back to the one thing he knew--peddling crack cocaine--even after he'd come within a hair's-breadth of losing his life.
He must have been terrified.
The cops who examined the crime scene found no ID on the young man's body, but the medical examiner recorded two essential bits of information: He had an old head wound on the left side of his face. And he had one glass eye.
Still, it would take several days and fingerprint analysis to determine that the body was that of 20-year-old Kenneth Covington. His lean frame suggested he'd started using his own product; with that as a given, anything can happen. The murder has never been solved.
At the same time police were puzzling over the identity of the young man in the woods, Keith Anderson stood at the foot of a mountain, one he had to climb with the shakiest crew imaginable. He had to rely on his young, scared witnesses to demonstrate uncommon courage in the moment of testing; he had to transport the jury to their alien planet, a place where sweet 16s hang out in crack houses. It was Anderson's job to demystify South Dallas.
The challenge only got bigger on January 15, the first day of Mark Larmond's trial. Lizzie was there; so was Oudems, but what he'd say from the stand was anyone's guess. But there was no Covington--Anderson didn't know one of his witnesses was already dead--and, worst of all, no LaTonya Williams. That was potentially devastating: LaTonya was the only witness who could identify Larmond in a police lineup.
It is remarkable to consider what Anderson accomplished in obtaining the convictions of Larmond, Edwards and Brown in quick succession. In Larmond's and Brown's trials, the juries were presented with an oft-confusing stew of testimony from police, experts and most of all the eyewitnesses, who tried to freeze-frame and dissect the most terrifying moment of their lives.
Anderson's opening statement in the Larmond trial indicated he knew this could come out any which way. "You'll have to wait and see what they say when they get up there," he said of his witnesses. "It's a different world you're going to hear about, an entirely different world than you're used to. I guarantee you."
In Larmond's trial, neither Lizzie nor Oudems could testify that Larmond fired a shot. LaTonya, of course, didn't testify. Anderson melted down his argument to a single sentence in closing:
"I can't tell you who pulled the trigger, but I don't care. He's dangerous."
The jury took only 30 minutes to find Larmond guilty of murder, then slapped him with 99 years. They were clear about one thing: They never wanted to see this man again.
Two months later, Edwards was set for a jury trial, and once again, the chief witness, LaTonya Williams, didn't show up. Her testimony was crucial. She had seen Money Mike shoot her, the only clear identification of a specific triggerman in the three cases. (The prosecution never established for certain who fired the first shot at Covington, though the witnesses' descriptions of the gunman pointed to either Brown or Larmond.) Anderson negotiated a plea bargain with Edwards for 25 years, and Edwards agreed to testify against Brown, the man in the black ninja suit.
One intriguing bit of information came up while Edwards was in court, according to a 1991 story in The Dallas Morning News. Edwards testified that Gregory Allen, whom he identified as the mysterious Soldier, had told him in jail that he was going to arrange a hit on Covington and the other bathtub witnesses. Allen was in jail in connection with the 1988 murder of a man named Orville McLean; the charge was later dropped when the sole eyewitness refused to testify.
Edwards' morsel of information sent the police scrambling for a while, but they were never able to identify a suspect in Covington's murder.
By the time Randy Trouble Brown was set for trial in May, Anderson resorted to extreme measures to get his best witness in the courtroom. One day, police called LaTonya downtown, supposedly to look at more lineups. Instead, they arrested her and threw her in jail for contempt of court.
LaTonya testified with a vengeance, offering the clearest picture of who was in the bathroom when the shots were fired. Her testimony pointed straight to Brown, though Lizzie and Oudems were less clear on the suspects' clothing, nicknames and weapons. Lizzie testified that Covington had called Brown "Babyface," but Brown looked anything but. He'd been in a police chase in 1989 that wrecked out, seriously injuring him. He'd broken his jaw in seven places, his nose in five and had nearly lost an eye. Now his features were twisted into a screwface, and a large scar ran across his scalp from ear to ear.
Anderson said he sure "looks like Trouble," not Babyface, and he hopped over the conflicting testimony in his closing argument. "You saw these kids," he said. "They're not rocket scientists. They just tried to tell you what happened that day. I'm sorry that everything's all messed up...That's the way it happened. It's not like Mission Impossible."
After asking the court reporter to read LaTonya's testimony about who was in the bathroom when the shooting started, the jury convicted Brown and sentenced him to 65 years.
Anderson had little time to savor his latest victory; he simply moved on to the next case, part of the routine for one of Dallas County's chief felony prosecutors. He remembers being concerned about his young witnesses, wondering what the future held for them. "I told them I'd never met an old drug dealer," he says. "Can't you find something else to do? But me and [Paul] Wimer agreed, they'd probably go right back to that lifestyle. I told Wimer, I hope they don't. We just left it alone and went on to the next case. I never heard from those girls anymore."
One day Dallas looked up, and the Jamaicans were gone. That's how it seemed, anyway; the change was so sudden. What happened, in reality, is that law-enforcement authorities around the country had caught up to the source, the drug kingpins with roots in Jamaica's violent political rivalries who'd been sending over soldiers from Kingston for more than a decade. In 1992, Detective Charles Storey and some 300 federal and local law-enforcement agents descended on Brooklyn and busted up the notorious Allen family, the Jamaican drug ring that at one time practically owned South Dallas. Nationwide, the Allen brothers and their associates had taken in an estimated $100 million over five years, all in cash.
Today, many of the West Indian gangsters who plied their trade in Dallas are in prison, dead or deported back to the islands. Crack cocaine is still easy to find in parts of South Dallas, but the siege mentality has lifted from the streets. The game is a gentler business than it used to be, with sellers much less likely to engage in deadly turf battles or shoot up a small-time dealer over a few hundred dollars.
The gangsters may be gone, but the human wreckage is still strewn about, in the jails, in the grave, in rehab and on the streets.
LaTonya Williams was the first survivor I found--in prison, for dealing in crack cocaine. And it wasn't her first time there.
The obvious question kept going through my mind as I drove to the women's prison complex in Gatesville: Why did she go back? Why, after a for-real near-death experience, did she return to the very thing that put her in that bathtub on May 31, 1990?
I figured she'd hit bottom on that morning so long ago. I was wrong. She actually had a long way to go.
LaTonya doesn't hide any of it, though the details came out gradually during two visits and about six hours of interviews. Court records chart the depths to which she descended: three arrests for prostitution; multiple felony drug convictions; an unsuccessful bout of rehab. One evaluation, conducted before she went to prison the second time, summed up her prospects like this: "Despite being shot in a drug house, being medically disabled, and having been to T.D.C. [Texas Department of Corrections], the defendant continues to be involved with drug dealing and drug dealers."
A state jail information sheet puts it even more bluntly: "Drug of choice? Crack. Last Job Held: None. Job skills: None. Training: None. Religion: *."
LaTonya sighs, shakes her head. It's hard to understand, she knows. Cleveland Street "should have been a wake-up," she says. "But it wasn't, sad to say. As soon as I healed up, it was on." Though she'd stayed at her grandmother's place, slowly regaining the ability to walk and signing up for beauty school, the old friends oozed into her life again. "I get with the wrong crowd, and I just say 'fuck it.' I was still living a thuggish life. I didn't care. Everything was fun and games. Time wasn't like it is now.
"There is many days and many nights I done cry 'cause I hate that I have to experience stuff like this."
In prison, LaTonya earned her GED and has learned to speak positively, to repeat the little proverbs she's learned in rehab, but behind it is a certain weariness, and fear. She's up for parole next summer. Though she'll be only 31, she knows it is her last chance to get her act together, and she faces a new obstacle this time. She found out in 1998 that she is HIV-positive.
Her family has pretty much given up on her, she says. Her calls get blocked, the mail unanswered; folks don't bother to send forwarding addresses. The younger sister who was there at her bedside every day at Parkland has wearied of LaTonya's lies, her many promises to change. She never hears directly from her mother. "I just want to know if she all right," she says, fighting back tears. "She can just put her name on the envelope and send it to me."
LaTonya Williams' adult life has two vastly different phases: the time on the outside, when she stayed hooked on crack and alcohol, and her seven years behind bars, when she sobered up because she had to and started thinking about getting a real life. Off the streets, off the drugs, she is instantly likable and funny, quick to laugh, brash and not a bit shy. She starts pulling off her clothes right there in the empty visitor's room, showing her scars from the shooting, big swaths of rippled skin where the bullets plowed through.
I had to ask her: What does it feel like to be shot 11 times? (LaTonya testified that she'd been shot 11 times. Her Parkland hospital charts, however, appear to diagram 10 entry and exit wounds.) LaTonya goes back to the first shot, fired by Money Mike. It struck her in the arm. "I still have teeth marks where I was trying to hold my arm," she says. "I tried to hold it because it was burning. It was on fire. My whole body was on fire."
It wasn't exactly pain, she says, just fire, even with her body plunged into cold bathwater. "After they shot us like that, then all of them just start shooting," she says. "I went blank." She was semiconscious some moments later, listening to Lizzie's voice as her cousin tried to keep her awake. She remembers fading in and out when paramedics loaded her into an ambulance.
LaTonya walked me back to her early days, trying to explain why she ended up at Cleveland Street. She flashes back to childhood: She is on her knees, praying at her bedside that her mother will come home safe. That's because, when LaTonya was 5, her mama got hooked on drugs. Up until then, she'd been "a great mother" who "worked her little butt off" to raise her three girls alone. The drugs--powder cocaine at first, then crack when it hit Dallas in the mid-1980s--took over her life. "She stayed high constantly, 24/7," LaTonya says. "I never knew if I would see her laying behind someone's alley. Or I'd have to lay down and say, who she gon' jack? Who she gon' rob for some dope? That kind of stuff is real painful, but more stressful."
Like so many kids whose mothers got hooked on crack, LaTonya grew up in a house full of people, a constantly shifting cast of folks getting high. Her mother hung onto a few scraps of dignity, one or two absolute limits. She never smoked crack in front of her daughters and made sure their hair was pressed, their clothing clean and that they were at least given a nudge in the way of school each morning. Food was on the table, thanks to her mother's dealing. Keeping up appearances, though, wasn't enough to raise a needy little girl. "I wanted my mama's attention," LaTonya says, "and she was so strung out on drugs...till I ran away from home. Started wheeling and dealing, gambling. Anybody that was giving me attention, I like it."
LaTonya's venture into the streets led her to gangbanging, peddling crack on the "cut," or corner, and hanging out in the Silver Slipper, where she ran into Dallas' Jamaican contingent. LaTonya admits she jacked people and jumped folks. "She was hurtin' me," she says of her mother, "so I didn't mind hurtin' others. I had an attitude from hell. I had this don't-give-a-damn attitude. But it didn't get me nowhere."
Her mother would drive around looking for her, find her on the streets and make her come home. "She'd be saying, 'I know you mad at me 'cause you see me doing what I'm doing, but I don't want you doing what I'm doing. It's a reason I'm doing what I'm doing.'"
Whatever the reason was, she never got around to telling it.
At first, LaTonya speaks in code about what happened next. One day her mother sent her daughter out onto the streets with a job to do: "I couldn't come back home unless I had some money. And I knew what she wanted."
I was momentarily stunned. "Now you're not saying that she wanted to pimp you..."
"Did your mother ever say she was sorry?" I asked.
LaTonya shook her head with disgust. "Girl, ain't nobody ever sorry trying to wheel and deal."
Our conversations always took us back to Cleveland Street, when LaTonya made the most dreadful choice of her life. She insists it was Lizzie's dumb idea, because she was messing around with Kenneth Covington. In court, Lizzie claimed the opposite: that LaTonya was sweet on Ken. Whatever the case, the girls originally planned to party at some club in South Dallas, which evidently had no qualms about entertaining 16-year-olds. Lizzie drove them in a borrowed car but never got there, because they stopped by Covington's place. When they pulled up to the apartment complex around 7 p.m., LaTonya immediately knew what was going on. Only one unit occupied in the whole complex, in what was--and still is--absolutely the worst part of town?
LaTonya knew. But all she cared about right then was that she hadn't made it to the party. While Lizzie went upstairs, LaTonya sulked and sat on the steps. She's resigned to her decision today. "When you wheeling and dealing and living wrong, shit happens," she says. "You can't really blame nobody. Because I knew better. I knew it was a dope house. I knew I should have got my ass up and left."
By midnight, LaTonya had been coaxed upstairs and was sitting on a ratty sofa with Lizzie and "Red" Mahan when the posse of gunmen burst inside.
She describes them in contemptuous terms today. There was Trouble in a black ninja suit--Randy Shawn Brown, with his disfigured face. "This lil' ugly thing there," she says, pointing to his jail mug shot. And she remembers Larmond, who she believed was Babyface. (For the story of the real Babyface, see the sidebar "Four Kings.") "I can't forget that little bitty head," she says. Christopher Barronette was also there, she says, kicking over furniture and looking for the drugs. "I never forget a face," she says. And Money Mike, and a dude with a towel over his face that she didn't recognize. They all got the brunt of her anger. "I'm so hard-headed. I think that's probably why them people did me like that. Because I'm not gon' lie. I was lettin' they ass have it."
After getting herded into the tub with Lizzie and the boys, she had enough street sense to know where all this was headed. She thought about jumping out the window, but she didn't want to leave her cousin behind. LaTonya brushes back a tear. "I have flashbacks of when I was in that bathtub," she says. "And I trips out. It just trips me out. I finds myself waking out of my sleep crying, because that's not something you can forget about. It's not."
I ask how she went from scared girl, ducking the police through Larmond's and Edwards' prosecutions, hiding out at friends' houses, to fearless witness. The metamorphosis was actually sudden, to hear her tell it, brought on by a stunning coincidence after she'd been jailed for contempt of court. One morning, she was ushered into the front of a van to go to the courthouse for Randy Brown's trial. Her mouth just about dropped open, she says, when she saw her fellow passengers: Randy Brown and Money Mike Edwards.
The guys flirted with her, even asked for her phone number.
"They had me in the front of the van, and they had them in the back," LaTonya says, voice rising. "And them peoples did not know me. I was just looking at them like, 'I can't believe this bullshit.' I didn't say I'm going to testify against y'all black ass. I wanted to go off on them, because they was talking about how they did people. They was talking about how they did us--saying how they smoked some kids.
"I was saying to myself, you stupid bitch. How could y'all just say that and smile about it?"
In the space of that short ride from the jail to the Frank Crowley Courts Building, LaTonya was transformed.
"I wasn't just gonna be all hard," she says. "But they made me mad. Y'all is bragging about how nobody wouldn't come and testify. They was for shore nobody was gonna come and testify. Y'all motherfuckers is bad with them guns, but if y'all catch them one by one they ain't shit. And I knows this."
LaTonya got payback the only way she could: by telling the truth. Brown ended up with many years of hard time. But after the trial, LaTonya's life stayed stuck in thug mode. Up until that point, she'd only tried crack once, courtesy of Lizzie's sister, who died recently, and hated it. "I thought I was going to die," she says. Fear and desperation drove her back when life after Cleveland Street proved to be one disappointment after another. LaTonya was 18, a high-school dropout, disabled, at one time forced to wear a colostomy bag because of her gunshot wounds and stuck in South Dallas, knowing that some of the gunmen were still out there, never brought to justice.
"I used to stay paranoid a lot," she says. "I used to stay drunk all the time, to the point where it wouldn't be on my mind so heavy." Drug use turned to drug dealing, to feed her habit. "I knew it wasn't right, but I liked the money."
Today, she says, the fear is gone. "People ask me, when I get home, am I going to be nervous? In reality, no. Whatever happens is gonna happen regardless. It don't really make no sense running. What are you gonna run for? Can't too much more happen to me than done already happen to me in my life."
Sometimes she thinks about her cousin Lizzie, and she gets angry, because Lizzie had a fighting chance. LaTonya hasn't seen Lizzie in years, and she draws her own conclusions from the letters she occasionally receives from Lizzie's mom. The blanks tell the story, she says. There's never any mention of LaTonya's mom. Or Lizzie, for that matter.
One time, though, her auntie sent a picture of Lizzie. "I don't know why they send me pictures like that," LaTonya says angrily, "because you can tell she's out there." In her thick South Dallas accent, the word comes out theya.
"I know the street look. The rough look. Just out theya."
LaTonya's voice softens a bit. "Lizzie," she says, and smiles. "We all grown, and we know right from wrong. I really can't look down on nobody, because of the simple fact that I'm in here."
To be honest, I had little hope for Daryl Oudems, known back in the day as Youngster. Carrying a gun at 9; put in charge of a crack house at 13; ninth-grade dropout; and, as a check of Dallas County court records showed, recipient of two felony drug charges by his early 20s--it's difficult to screw up your life in more ways as quickly as Oudems did.
So I was surprised to find myself talking to a young man who'd made a firm decision to put aside the easy money and devote himself to the working man's life. Up until a few years ago, he'd never even done an honest day's work.
When we spoke, Oudems was sitting in the home of a friend, fresh from his job moving cars at an auto auction. Though he was wearing young-man's garb--'do rag, FUBU jersey and blue suede shoes--he looked vaguely older than his 26 years. Maybe it was his serious demeanor, or the absence of small talk. Oudems answers questions with one word when one word will do.
"I'm maturing," he said. "I'm beginning to see regular, normal life. How people are supposed to live. I love real nice things. I knew how to get it by selling drugs. Now I do my best to try to work hard.
"Sometimes I think, you know, I'm gonna go back and get on my hustle. But I don't want to do that. I done weighed everything out, and it ain't worth it."
I asked him about Cleveland Street. He grew silent for a moment, unable to speak.
He remembers sitting on the couch. Then "they came in there like the Army, with AKs, pumps, all type of automatic guns...they throwed me on the floor." Oudems climbed into the tub first while a young man held a shotgun to his head. He's never seen him since and didn't spot him in any of the police photos. "I was looking at him, and he told me, 'Don't look at me no more.'"
The girls came in last, he says. At least six gunmen were milling around the apartment. "They was debating what they was gonna do...and rambling around the house, throwing stuff. We could hear 'em. And the next thing I know, Ken was begging them not to shoot us."
Covington made the deadly mistake of calling some of the gunmen by their street names, including "Babyface."
"And the next thing you know, it was just smoke in that bathroom, it was just gunfire everywhere. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. "
Oudems was trying to duck when he felt his left leg buckle. "My leg just seemed like it broke," he says. In the aftermath, while the smoke and dust were still settling, he "went into a dream," he says. "I got a dead leg, and I'm dragging it out of there, I'm crawling...I think I just rolled down the stairs. I remember trying to talk to the police...trying to stay up, praying, hollering for Mama, crying."
The worst came later. Oudems found out that his buddy from Elihu Street, Juniores Ray Mahan, was dead. Oudems is silent again, looking down, trying to hold back the tears.
He admits the shooting didn't do much to change his life, not at first. When his father and mother visited him in the hospital, right after he'd gotten out of surgery, his first words were, "Where are my Nikes?"
A few months later, he saw Covington climbing into a cab in front of Grand City, a popular liquor store and grocery on Grand Avenue. He had a pocket full of money. "Come on, man, go back to work," he urged Oudems.
Covington, he said, had started selling crack soon after the shooting--right back on Cleveland Street.
Just days after they met, Covington turned up dead.
Even that didn't sway Oudems.
He doesn't have much to say about his own return to the game; there's nothing glamorous or sexy about catching two drug cases. Oudems was never a crack user, but he found it hard to pull away from wheeling and dealing and the money that went along with it. In 1994, he was arrested for felony cocaine possession. Several months later, his probation was revoked and he ended up in prison. Right after he got out in 1997, he was arrested again, this time for drug trafficking.
Oudems had barely tasted freedom, and now he was back behind bars. During his six months in state jail, he says, he spent his time going to chapel and praying. He knew he had to make a change or he'd be dead.
Meanwhile, on the outside, another man had hit bottom. Here is where Oudems' story becomes inextricably wound with his father's. Jimmy Oudems, now 47, had been a crackhead for years, living a messy life in front of his wife and children. Change the names and places, and his story of how he got hooked could be anyone's. He describes the first time he used crack in sensuous terms: "I was wondering what it was, a long pipe thing, and I said let me try it. And so she said OK. Her eyes were bigger than mine--here. And she put that little piece of rock in there, lit it, and I puffed on it and my ears popped. It's like you in an airplane and going too high. My head just seemed like it was flying, right away. It do not waste time. It hit me, and it just seemed like I was whoooeee. Where in the world did this come from? This just must be from heaven."
It didn't take long for Jimmy to figure out its real place of origin. "I started smoking it, and it was on from that day on," he says. "Crack seemed like it come straight from hell. Straight to me."
Jimmy stayed strung out for years, pawning everything in the house that wasn't bolted down while his long-suffering wife worked as a nurse's aide. He even hocked his wedding ring. He'd find himself sitting in dope houses, a grown man taking orders from little toughs with TEC-9s and eyes full of contempt. He'd stand in line at the dope house, stripped of any dignity. Even his alcoholic father tried to set him straight. "I said, 'Everybody doing it, Daddy, everybody doing it.' He said, 'If everybody eat shit, are you gon' eat shit?'"
One time Jimmy was at home, and Daryl, his youngest son, ran by in a big hurry. Clunk. Something dropped out of the boy's pocket. Jimmy looked down. "I said, 'What the hell, boy?' It was a 9-millimeter. And then my other son said, 'I told you. I told you.'"
Little, quiet Daryl was selling dope. Even in his sorry state, Jimmy despaired about his son, and one day he asked him point-blank, "Daryl, will you stop what you're doing?"
The boy shot right back. "Would you stop what you're doing?"
From then on, Jimmy Oudems watched his son get deeper and deeper in what he knew from first-hand experience was an extremely dangerous vocation. "Whenever he'd come back home, he have money, jewelry, clothes, shoes. I'd say, 'Where have you been? Man, you gon' make me do something real bad to you.' He'd say, 'You don't know. You ain't there. How else we gon' get it? You ain't giving me no money to buy Nikes. I get it myself.'"
As low as Jimmy Oudems sunk, he knew in his heart that his son was tapping into something darker. "Selling it was worser than using it," Jimmy says. "It was way more addictive than using it, because it's a ritual with them. They got to cut it up, bag it up...and they be sweating. They got their cigar. I used to watch them."
Finally, in 1997, after an ultimatum from his wife, a brief time living on the streets and a stint in the Salvation Army's drug rehab program, Jimmy Oudems strolled into a service at Bishop T.D. Jakes' church, The Potter's House. He says he walked away transformed, the beneficiary of something like spiritual brain surgery. Jimmy says he was through with crack from that day on. But the preacher went deeper.
"He really preached on fear," Jimmy says. "It really touched me, because I feared so much in my life.
"I didn't really think I could do anything but physical labor," he explains. "I really felt like I was just a warehouse-type person, and I could unload trucks. After I heard him talking about don't fear, go for it, I told my wife I was gonna drive an 18-wheeler. She laughed all the way down the street."
Just months later Jimmy was in New York City. He'd driven his 18-wheeler there. He could hardly believe it himself. Freed of fear, he turned around and reached down to his prodigal son.
Both men speak with admiration about each other, commending how far the other has come. "My dad, he's the one that encouraged me," Daryl says. "He made a dramatic change. He was never there when we was little." Even when Daryl was out on the streets, selling dope, Jimmy, in and out of the penitentiary for offenses such as car theft, made only the feeblest stab at parental guidance. "He'd always say just be careful, and turn his 40-ounce up," Daryl says. "My mother, she was a good father. I think that's the reason I'm still here today, because she used to always tell me she prayed for me. But he's come a long way. He's a father now."
Jimmy and Daryl sometimes work small jobs together, and Daryl has followed his father's path, recently earning his commercial driver's license. When we spoke, he was looking for work driving 18-wheelers, but the search was discouraging. Those drug cases--and that terrifying night on Cleveland Street--always shadow him. The father sees it in his son's anger, in the depression from which he sometimes suffers. "I always try to encourage him to do his best," Jimmy says. "You're gonna get discouraged, but don't let it eat you up. Just be a man. Don't be weak and try to find an easy way out of stuff."
Quit crying, he'd tell his son, "because you whinin' and whinin' and whinin'. And there's a lot of black kids and a lot of black men, that's all they do."
Daryl says his new life gives him satisfaction. "Now I go on the job, be there all day and get hard-earned working money," he says. "My daddy say that yesterday, my mother woke up and she say she happy. She feel good. She hated to see us going through.
"They happy now. They take walks together."
Jimmy, a burly man with an easy smile, has finally given his wife, who stuck with him all those years, something to be proud of. And his son is right beside him.
"It's amazing. It's a miracle," Jimmy told his kids one day. "I'm a miracle."
An answer came back from the kitchen. It was Daryl, the quiet son, saying, "Me, too. I'm a miracle, too."
Of all the survivors, Lizzie Williams had drifted into the greatest obscurity. I remembered what LaTonya had said, after looking at a recent photograph of her cousin: "I can tell she out theya."
She meant the scraggly look, the street look. Out there.
Lizzie had left just the faintest trail since the 1990 shooting. She popped up in court records in 1996, when she was sentenced to jail for shoplifting. What she stole provides a clue to her world: six pairs of earrings ($11.94) and one pair of sunglasses ($1.99). On this arrest, when she was detained by a store security guard, Lizzie gave that goofy smile for her jail mug shot.
I carried around that photo in my search for her and started knocking on doors. The trail finally got warm on a short street near a shabby collection of liquor stores and cinder-block Latino clubs. An address in a database from 2001 led me to a lime-green shotgun house with boarded-up windows.
In the street, maybe a dozen muscled young men in tank tops, T-shirts and dangly britches hung around some cars, sucking on beers and smoking weed: the cream of wasted manhood. One guy was tossing a football; a perfect spiral whizzed overhead and hit the street with a slap.
It was 6 p.m. on a March day; the sun was sagging. A woman was sitting on her front porch with a friend. She motioned me over. I pulled out my Lizzie photo; the woman looked at it and smirked. "That's her face," she said. "She was here just yesterday morning."
While Lizzie had moved out of the lime-green house long ago, she'd still wander back here when the weather turned nice, park herself on an empty barrel on the backside of a nearby business and drink. Out theya.
The woman chuckled. "You know, she's not playing with a full deck," she said. "She's missing a few cards..."
Her voiced trailed off. "...like an ace, a jack, a king, a queen..."
The photo, I said, was from 1996. What does she look like today? "Oh, her hair might be standing up, but that's her face," she said. The girl, she said, would be easy to spot. "Don't matter how hot it is, she'll have her coat on." The woman tightened her eyes to little slots and pulled her arms across her chest like a straitjacket, mimicking a crazy woman.
Finally, after days of just missing Lizzie, one of the boozers who hangs out with her led me to a dingy apartment building with a single decapitated tree trunk out front.
I found the girl who played dead sitting in a metal folding chair in the bare courtyard. Her boyfriend, Elvin Armstrong, sat beside her. Her hair was uncombed, and she was dressed in a black sweatshirt, clean blue jeans and crisp white canvas tennis shoes, the kind you get at the dollar store. When I saw her over the next two days, she was wearing the same clothes, just dustier. She looked young and old at the same time, with a smooth face that has tightened into a strained look.
It's difficult to describe our attempts at an interview. She'd look up into the distance, then answer some question--but usually not the one I asked. She had great difficulty putting together the simplest sentences.
She'd say "I-I-I-I-I..." then give up. She seemed to have an answer in mind, but in a moment it slipped out of reach.
"Do you recall what happened that night on Cleveland Street?" I asked. Here is her exact answer, transcribed from tape:
"See, see, uh uh uh, most people always, you know, uh, stay away from each other and stuff when, you know, I do not know."
She chuckled under her breath. "No?" she asked.
"How old are you?" I asked.
She thought for a while. "Twenty-eight or 29."
Over the next two days, I searched for clues about what had happened to her and found her in a slightly more lucid state at times.
"Did the shooting change your life?" I asked.
"It really did," she said, momentarily connecting. Then she drifted off again. "'Cause you know, see, um um, from that, see, see, I was staying with...I was staying...I was staying...I was staying with my mama and stuff, and then you know, you know, she had took my kids and stuff, and then, you know, my kids..."
That was one thing lodged solidly in her brain, the fact that she'd lost her kids, two boys, to the state.
"Why did they take your kids away?" I asked.
"For some reason...they just took my kids away," she said.
"That must have hurt you."
For the first time, Lizzie looked me straight in the eye. "It really did," she said, then faded into mumbles.
I made one last attempt to pry open her memory.
"What have you done since the shooting on Cleveland Street?"
Lizzie paused for a moment. "Nothing."
We walked up the stairs into the apartment where she lives, joined by her boyfriend, who smelled of liquor and suffers from a developmental disability. He remembers more of Lizzie's past than she does. Elvin Armstrong attended to his "girl" with tender concern, trying to prod her memory at times and pick up the conversation when she'd go ambling down mental rabbit trails.
He pointed to a photo on an end table taken at a family reunion last year, the only picture he has of her. Lizzie is wearing a dress and is leaning against her man. Her hair is done nicely, with a little bob, and she is smiling. Someone has pasted a cartoon bubble next to Armstrong that reads, "I'm ready for happy hour."
Ever since she was a little girl, he explained, she's had epileptic seizures. She just had one the other day, flopping out of bed and hitting the floor, he said, and each time it erases her memory and sends her back to start. Still, I didn't understand why her recollection was so poor: I have transcripts of her 1991 testimony in court, and there's no question that she was a normal, intelligent young woman back then.
Lizzie retrieved her medicine from the bathroom and handed it to me: phenytoin, prescribed at Parkland for her seizures. She pointed to a red sticker on the plastic bottle.
I read it to her. It said something like, "DO NOT TAKE ALCOHOL WHILE USING THIS MEDICATION."
Lizzie and Armstrong both gave me a puzzled look. At the bottom of the steps, outside the apartment, Lizzie had set down her half-full 40-ounce of Colt 45.
A few days later, I spoke to Armstrong's sister by phone. She filled in some of the gaps. They found Lizzie, she said, in 1993 or 1994, when she'd run away from a relative's house and was living under the stairs at a South Dallas apartment complex. Elvin knew her from childhood, and he felt compassion for her and invited her into their home. Soon afterward, the girl who'd shunned him as a child became his steady girlfriend.
Lizzie told Elvin the story of the shooting soon after they met, but since then, the sister said, her condition has worsened. She used to be able to play cards; now she can't. Folks gave up on having a normal conversation with her. One day, though, the sister was gathered with Lizzie and some friends when Lizzie suddenly began to tell about a horrifying incident, bit by stuttering bit, that took place some time after the shooting. The friends just listened, stunned.
She talked about a man--a close relative--ordering her to lie down on the bed, kissing her, asking her repeatedly, angrily, "Why are you so still? Why aren't you moving?"
Then, Lizzie said, he struck her in the face.
Lizzie never mentioned it again.
The last time I saw her, she was standing alone in the apartment courtyard, looking anxious and dazed. Elvin was gone, she said, and she had no key to the apartment. The noonday sun was pulling high. She was left to wander outside on the dirty, scorched concrete, lonely and shut out.
The apartment complex at 2727 Cleveland St. still exists; the area is now nicknamed "Jurassic Park" for its vacant lots and scary look--"like a jungle," as one former crack user explained to me. The apartments are still extremely run-down, and there are obvious signs of drug dealing and prostitution in the vicinity.
When I last visited LaTonya Williams, she was making plans to move to another state and start a new life when she got out of prison.
Lizzie Williams was planning to move when we spoke in April, and I lost contact with her.
When I checked up on Daryl Oudems last week, he was on his way to San Antonio in an 18-wheeler. His father says he's been working steadily as a long-haul trucker for the last six months and has driven all over the country.
Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this report.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Dallas Mayor Discovers S&M for First Time, Very Turned Off, For Now
Sat., Feb. 13, 9:00pm
University of North Texas Mean Green Mens Basketball vs. Florida International University Golden PanthersThu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:00pm
- Real Estate Investment Firm Sues Dallas Police and Fire Pension System
- These DFW-Area Down-Ballot Elections Shouldn't Be Trumped by the Focus on the...