The Gang That Couldn't Wear Its Hair Straight

The Jheri Curls of Washington Heights, and how they made everybody else's hair curl

Sometime in the past 15 years, Rafael Martinez chopped off his jheri curl. Perhaps that's not too surprising for a guy who is doing time at an upstate prison. Few hairstyles require more maintenance, and the average prison commissary isn't likely to stock rearranging cream and curl rods.

Then again, to anyone who has spent time flipping through his rap sheet, Martinez's current lack of a jheri curl is notable. After all, back in the early '90s, when Martinez was arrested, he was no run-of-the-mill criminal. Rather, he was the ringleader of the so-called Jheri Curls, one of the earliest, most violent, and best branded of the Dominican gangs of Nueva York.

During their reign over the cocaine trade in upper Manhattan in the early '90s, the Jheri Curls drove gold-painted cars and wore their hair in a uniform style: long, loose, and greasy. From the safe distance of history, that may sound quaint—a gang of dudes looking like a mid-'80s version of Michael Jackson. But the Jheri Curls were no joke.

Stylin': Martinez brothers (clockwise, from bottom left) Lorenzo, Julian, Daniel,  and Cesar
Stylin': Martinez brothers (clockwise, from bottom left) Lorenzo, Julian, Daniel, and Cesar

One time, a girlfriend made fun of gang leader Rafael Martinez's limp. He responded, she later told authorities, by shooting her in the kneecap.

Others who crossed paths with the gang weren't even that lucky. A retired social worker named Jose Reyes objected to the Jheri Curls' selling drugs out of his building. He wasn't afraid to tell them. He got a bullet in the head.

Fifteen years later, Martinez has come down to Manhattan for a resentencing hearing on drug charges related to his heady days at the helm of the Jheri Curls. It's a different Washington Heights these days, but Martinez and the Jheri Curls have not been entirely forgotten—not by the detective, now retired, who helped put them behind bars, and not by some of the longtime residents who recall the story behind the murder of Jose Reyes.

As it turns out, the legacy of the Jheri Curls gang has remained remarkably well preserved, despite the fact that the flow of real estate money has gradually replaced the flow of drug money. A new set of concerns has surfaced on the tree-lined streets of this neighborhood, said David Dubnau, a research scientist who has lived in the area since the '60s. "Sure, the crime rate has gone down," he says. "But that's a global phenomenon with many complex causes. Is the neighborhood better now than it was then? It depends on who you are."

Since the '80s, Dubnau and his wife have been working with RENA, the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, in part, to help tenants negotiate with negligent landlords. As real estate values have gone up, said Dubnau, so has the pressure on tenants.

"There's a tremendous amount of harassment of tenants—particularly elderly residents," said Dubnau. Landlords are constantly trying to turn the apartments over and get much higher rates. Tenants are terrified because of the gentrification pressure."

It wasn't long ago that tenants on West 157th Streetwere terrified of someone much more volatile than venal landlords. They were terrified of their neighbors, the ones with the long, loose, and greasy curls.

On a hot summer day in 1991, Rafael Martinez's little brother Lorenzo set out for Queens to fetch some money, according to prosecutors from the New York County district attorney's office. It was two days shy of the Fourth of July, and life was good for the Jheri Curls. They were pulling in several million dollars a year in cocaine sales, and the Martinez brothers were living in a comfy house in Queens, a safe distance from the cesspool of their workplace.

After picking up the cash from his house, Lorenzo headed back to Manhattan. At the Triborough Bridge, the police pulled him over and searched his car.

To get access to his car's secret compartment, according to prosecutors, you had to proceed through an elaborate ritual: Turn on the car lights. Press the brake pedal. Connect two points under the dashboard with a coin. Only then would the chambers unlock on either side of the backseat.

But somehow the police seemed to know his car's secrets. They confiscated $22,500 in cash, a loaded .45-caliber automatic gun, a loaded .44-caliber revolver, and 20 or so rounds of ammunition.

That day, if Lorenzo hadn't been busted, he might have ended up back at one of the Jheri Curls' business headquarters, a six-story apartment building located at 614 West 157th Street. From the sidewalk, near the intersection with Riverside Drive, a long, barren courtyard led to the building's lobby. On either side of the courtyard, the building's near symmetrical wings rose up six stories, giving the overall layout a U-shaped appearance.

Two of the apartments in that building, like Lorenzo's ride, had supposedly been outfitted with all sorts of James Bond trickery, including secret trapdoors that concealed stashes of guns, drugs, and money. But the setup protected their business operations from the vicissitudes of the street. It was a buffer, with an elevator and a lobby.

The arrangement was much less ideal for the other tenants of the building, who found themselves surrounded, day and night, by coke-slinging Jheri Curls. One resident later told reporters: "It was like open house here. The gang was the doorman of the building."

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