The Girl Who Played Dead

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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."

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons