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?

And what happened to the girl who played dead? What did she do with her one clean shot at a second chance?