If the cops showed up, it was a proposition akin to three-card monte about whom to chase, the evidence fleeing in three different directions.
Their territory ran from 70th to 79th, Superior to St. Clair. It was a neighborhood like many on Cleveland's East Side, loaded with dying homes and threadbare aspirations. Empty bags and shattered beer bottles littered the streets. Epitaphs spray-painted on walls and shoes hanging on telephone lines stood as memorials to comrades felled from commercial and moronic beef alike.
The customers didn't seem to mind. This was among the city's best places to score crack, and everyone knew it. The clientele ranged from dopers flush with pawnshop cash to suburbanites returning from a bleary night downtown. Dealers waved them down like parking-lot attendants before Browns games. Their bravado was unnerving.
It was an "open-air market," says one DEA agent.
At the network's height in 2005, the dozens of dealers working the area trafficked anywhere from a quarter to a half-kilo a day. They were working from the Wal-Mart model. Those at the top drove cars with rims costing more than some neighbors' rent. Those who hustled the corners went home with only enough to put a bucket of chicken on the table for dinner.
But the drug trade has never been one of lasting riches. Despite their sophistication, it was their brazenness -- and the neighborhood's penchant for dimwitted violence -- that jeopardized a very handsome enterprise.
Thomas "T-Top" Thompson didn't start out as a gangster. "It started like a bike-riding thing," he says from behind Plexiglas at the Elyria County Jail. The boys would cruise the block on BMXs on their way to the basketball courts, weaving past the drug dealers.
Prior to 2000, the junior high-schoolers who lived on adjoining sides of Superior got along fine. The boys who lived to the south called themselves the Star Boys, but it wasn't like they were a real gang.
Then came high school, when most went off to East Technical. That's when the trouble began.
Beefs arose over trivial things fueled by testosterone. A threatening stare. An unintentional bump. Talking sweet on another guy's girl. Anything could set it off.
"People just get to jumping people for no reason," says Thompson.
What started with schoolyard fights escalated into mortal combat. Everybody north of Superior became a target. Packs of Star Boys would wait until the final school bell and hunt them down.
So the northern boys formed their own gang, the 7-Alls, a name taken from the streets they inhabited. There was no formal initiation -- the tapped were like drafted soldiers. Safety in numbers was the incentive.
"You get shot at, you going to want to take care of your business," says Thompson, who was shot once when a car he was riding in was sprayed with bullets. One round grazed his head. Another lodged in his hip. "Bullets ain't got no address."
Thompson dropped out of school soon after the shooting. His cousin and fellow 7-All, Matthew Manning (aka Phife), had recently started hustling and was quick to turn him on to the drug game.
Selling crack seemed like a natural transition. Many of the 20- to 30-year-old guys Thompson knew hustled for a living. Camaraderie was the major draw. Thompson liked the idea of hanging out on porches and street corners, talking shit with his friends. That he could make a buck doing it was icing on the cake.
"It was fun just chilling," he says.
Besides, dealing gave a street kid some direction. There were role models, people to look up to. Take Willie Ausler, who everyone called "Puff." He was 33, but unlike the rap mogul from whom he lifted his name, he didn't become a hood celeb by pushing CDs and zit cream. He earned his Mercedes as a crack wholesaler.
"Everybody wanted to be like Puff," says Thompson. Puff had money. Puff had respect. Puff had the whole neighborhood watching him.
Taiwan Wiggins was another big shot -- a 32-year-old heavyweight who earned enough from the drug game to move into the former Richmond Heights home of Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher. The Range Rovers and new Jag in his driveway served as ornate testament to his earning power. Like Puff, Wiggins worked in ounces, rocking up the powder cocaine he bought from a Jamaican supplier. He also moved marijuana by the pound.
For the 7-Alls turned dealers, gang-banging was kid stuff -- a juvenile pastime until one entered the more lucrative drug trade. While banging brought status and rep, hustling brought status, rep, and income.
Dealers at the corner level -- like Matthew Johnson, a 21-year-old who lived with his mom and never made it past the ninth grade, or "Crackhead" Lamar Pugh, a 44-year-old addict who only sold to support his own habit -- would pool their money to buy from the executive level. The profits accumulated as they did in any enterprise, with the bulk going to the top, while the guys on the street earned slightly more than they would at McDonald's.
But to play the game meant keeping a low profile. Popping your shit-talking rivals only drew the cops, and that was no way to do business -- or show respect for the game's elder statesmen.
Shrewder hustlers often complained about the gang-bangers, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Pinjuh. "They were pissed at the young guys for bringing heat to the neighborhood."
But it was a warning not always heeded.
On June 6, 2005, 71-year-old Elaido Delgado, who lived on East 67th, was headed home after dropping off his girlfriend. Police say two crack dealers mistook him for the "$100 Man," a customer known for dropping a Benjamin every time he shopped.
Delgado and the $100 Man drove similar-looking Jeeps. But when the dealers tried flagging him down, Delgado didn't stop. They jumped in a car and tailed him, flashing their brights. Delgado pulled over. One of the men walked up to the passenger side, opened the door, and fired. Delgado was hit in the chest. He died three days later.
Deaths like Delgado's prompted police to take a hard look at the violence in Superior-St. Clair. Judging by volume alone, the 7-Alls' territory had become one of the worst in Cleveland. "For the last 24 months, [it] was bad," admits homicide detective Sahir Hasan. The summer of '05 was particularly rough.
But while the gang was rising, police funding had taken a drastic dive. Cleveland had lost nearly 300 officers. The poorest city in America didn't even have a gang unit.
Judging by graffiti and the well-oiled nature of the operation, the cops assumed the dealers were 7-Alls. But the hustlers, with their carbon-copy dress and fragmented sales system, stumped them time and again.
When officers rolled up, they couldn't tell who was doing what. One guy might sprint off. The cops would chase the runner, while the guy holding the drugs disappeared into the shadows. Other times, the dealers would scatter like spilled jelly beans, hiding in backyards and leaping over fences. When police managed to knock one off a corner, another appeared. It was like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.
The cops were fed up. They needed more manpower, more resources, more ammunition. They turned to the feds for help.
"We could've tried, but whether or not we would've been successful is unclear," says Cleveland Safety Director Martin Flask.
The FBI decided to use informants and undercover agents to make buys. Just a few rocks at first. Then grams. Then ounces.
They'd catch it all on videotape. Log cell-phone numbers. Jot down names. Make a few arrests. Then they'd strong-arm the corner dealers with the threat of federal drug conspiracy charges, which carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years. It was the kind of leverage that could make a budding badass weak in the knees. "You always hope today's defendant is tomorrow's informant," says Pinjuh.
And if they could nail the 7-Alls, there'd be no one left to shoot at the Star Boys. And no one for the Star Boys to shoot.
On a frigid morning in January, some 150 federal agents, sheriff's deputies, and city police gathered for a 5 a.m. meeting. Some wore black body armor; others were strapped with Colt M4 assault rifles.
They divided into 15 teams with assigned targets. Ever so silently, a fleet of unmarked squads and black Suburbans crept through the motionless streets where the 7-Alls reigned. For the first time, law enforcement outnumbered drug dealers in Superior-St. Clair.
They circled homes front to back. Knock, knock, knock. Bang, bang. Open up! Police!
Most surrendered peacefully, too groggy and disoriented to struggle.
One by one, the men whom agents had spent two years videotaping were pulled into custody. When it was over, 43 people were in jail.
The headlines practically wrote themselves: Alleged gang members indicted in Cleveland! The 7-Alls' number comes up! Residents feel more optimistic for the first time in years!
On its face, it appeared to be a banner day for law enforcement. Police had dismantled a massive drug ring. Forty-three crack-shilling cretins were now behind bars, and nearly all would eventually plea out -- a coup, no matter how you spun it.
But that was also the problem.
The sweep took down most of the neighborhood's biggest dealers, yet fewer than 10 turned out to be 7-Alls. Which meant the dumbest and most violent were still roaming Superior-St. Clair, without the older hands urging calm.
In the months since the January sweep, the cars that used to circle slowly around the block have all but disappeared. The dealers who waved their arms so boisterously are gone too -- although in May, the grand jury returned indictments against 10 other dealers from the neighborhood. Steve Haynes, manager of the E-Z 1 convenience store at 79th and St. Clair, says hustlers used to camp outside his place, smoking and selling. It's quieter these days, but that hasn't stopped the violence.
On March 30, 13-year-old Terrance Allen was shot to death in a parking lot at 79th and Superior. He was walking home from Wade Park Elementary, where he attended eighth grade. Days later, at a vigil held in his honor, someone in a passing car fired shots in the air, sending the crowd ducking for cover.
Last month, 29-year-old dealer Curtis Johnson finally died from wounds he received in a March shooting. He and two other men had left a club and were heading to Johnson's house on East 74th. When they pulled into his driveway, two men opened fire on the '84 Olds. The bullets shattered the front and back windows. Johnson was hit four times. Another passenger, Juwaun Leonard, caught three slugs.
Johnson told police he'd been shot by William Calhoun. Calhoun, who police say shot Johnson before, in 2006, had been charged with attempted murder but was out on bond.
Haynes says his own 14-year-old son is being targeted by the 7-Alls. The boy got into trouble after talking to a girl deemed off-limits by the gang. A bullet ripped through his pant leg as he was chased down the block. Haynes' son responded by taking pictures of the bullet holes in his pants and posting them on MySpace.
"I got a $100,000 [life insurance] policy on his ass because he's fucking hardheaded," says Haynes. "He on that MySpace bullshit. They send messages. He egging them on now."
Just a few months ago, Haynes says police stopped a carload of armed boys outside his sister's house. They were hunting for his son.
Hasan Hasan, the owner of a gyros-and-Polish-sausage joint across the street from East Tech, is no stranger to the violence either. Late last year, he watched a man get gunned down outside his restaurant.
"It's really crazy -- they shot the dude three times," recalls Hasan. The injured man stumbled into his eatery, then collapsed. Hasan helped drag his body behind the counter. "The guy was leaking and shit. You see this every day in the Middle East."
The violence was enough to prompt Hasan to close his business permanently in April. For him, January's sweep offered little comfort.
"People are scared," he says. "If I get shot, who's going to raise my kids? They took my dream away."
With the supposedly steadying big shots like Wiggins and Ausler locked away, some believe the neighborhood has lost its peacekeeping force.
"They really didn't take nobody doing anything," says one 19-year-old, who doesn't want his name printed for fear of being targeted by the 7-Alls. "It didn't make nothing better. They (the drug dealers) wasn't shooting."
"They just some badass kids," adds Archie James, who lives in the neighborhood. "They want to be the top dogs. There a lot of these guys still doing their own thing. They just don't want to stay out of the streets. The police can't get them all."
Fifth District Police Commander Calvin Williams agrees, but argues that the notion of drug dealers as peacekeepers is revisionist history. "I really don't think there was anybody over there keeping the peace," he says. "There was a constant barrage of shootings . . . Before we initiated the takedown in that area, crime was everywhere. The takedown basically cut that in half. It's a lot better than it was before. It's still not crime-free, but it's a lot better."
Besides, there's little police can do about the deeper diseases that plague the neighborhood, says Safety Director Flask -- such as no jobs, no education, no hope. But claiming the sweep left the area worse for wear is a fool's proposition. "You take some serious offenders out of the neighborhood, and you're sending a clear signal that that kind of behavior is unacceptable. It gives a sense of hope."
In the meantime, however, the 7-Alls are alive and spinning off. New cliques have begun tagging the neighborhood. New crews are staking claim in the area, with names such as All Set and Trap Squad.
Twan Billings, a Crip-turned-youth-worker who befriends gang kids across the city, says the sweep had "nothing to do with 7-All."
LeMarr Moore, younger brother of arrestee Carlos Moore, echoes that sentiment: "The fucking feds didn't do shit. The old heads was the ones trying to calm that shit down."
Now, with most of those old heads behind bars, LeMarr believes the neighborhood is soon to erupt. "This summer is going to be crazy. Watch."