The Gang That Couldn't Wear Its Hair Straight

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

"Working as closely as we did, I knew his personality," recalled Lewis. "I knew how he would get himself involved in things and he shouldn't have—not that he shouldn't have, but you learn to see and not see."

Now retired from the NYPD, James Gilmore thinks back to the days when the Jheri Curls cruised up and down West 157th Street in gold-painted Mercedeses and Jeeps and recalls the death threats they left for him back at the 34th Precinct or the charred corpse that cops found on a nearby rooftop or the automatic-weapon fire the Jheri Curls sometimes sprayed into the air. That era makes him think about Hurricane Katrina.

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

"The people there were always great people," said Gilmore of the block's residents. "It was more like we, society, had failed them. Sort of like the way Katrina made you realize things were being neglected."

That neglect took myriad forms at the time: run-down housing, bad sanitation service, flagrant drug dealing, prostitution, and—all too often, according to Gilmore—poor police work.

"It's like these residents didn't have any value, in the way that the department related to that area at that time," said Gilmore.

During the late '80s and early '90s, before their subsequent relocation down the block, the Jheri Curls were running their operations out of an apartment house at 550 West 157th Street—a 10-story building east of Broadway, just inside the boundaries of Gilmore's beat. The gang had set up shop in two of the building's apartments.

"People were afraid of them—the other drug dealers were afraid of them," recalled Gilmore. "They had a reputation that if you crossed them, or whatever else, you would be taken out. The residents in there were petrified about speaking about them."

Rather than charging headlong into 550, Gilmore first labored to win over the trust of the neighbors. He says he helped them with housing problems, took their kids to ball games, explained how to better navigate the city's social services. "You could meet people and address their housing and youth issues," said Gilmore, "and then you could deal with the drug issues later."

Over time, Gilmore said, he set up a system for the tenants in 550 to report in secret on the comings and goings of the Jheri Curls. By the summer of 1990, Gilmore's efforts were starting to pay off. In July, according to prosecutors, the police raided an apartment there and found two guns and more than 12 ounces of cocaine. A few months later, another raid turned up another four ounces. "At 550, we had a fighting plan," recalled Gilmore. "We had ways of reporting stuff. I had people in the building taking pictures of [the Jheri Curls] doing different things. They could do it anonymously without the risk of getting hurt."

In September 1990, perhaps because of the mounting pressure, the Jheri Curls began shifting their operations down the block to the U-shaped apartment building at 614 West 157th. As it happened, the Jheri Curls' new headquarters fell just outside of Gilmore's beat, which ended at Broadway.

As a result, the residents of 614 would have to learn to deal with their new curly-haired neighbors all by themselves.

"When those guys hit up that building, that building hadn't yet built up the resistance and different techniques which are necessary when you're invaded in that way," says Gilmore. "I'll be honest with you, those things take time, energy, and an investment that's usually not done by the police department."

Thus a shroud of silence fell over 614. According to a 1994 American Spectator article about the Jheri Curls that followed Reyes's highly publicized murder, there was nobody in the building who would talk to the police. And according to court documents, at that point the majority of the police work at 614 had moved undercover. The investigation into the Jheri Curls gang was ongoing, yet it was also a closely held secret. The silence between the residents and the police was reciprocal and ran deep.

At the time, Robert Jackall, a sociology professor at Williams College, was working on a book about the Wild Cowboys, another Dominican street gang in Washington Heights. During his research, Jackall tagged along with various police officers as they rolled through the streets of upper Manhattan. Seeing but not seeing, recalled Jackall, was a strategy not just for the residents of the Jheri Curls building, but also for the entire neighborhood.

"Snitches get stitches," said Jackall. "That was the maxim. You never stuck your nose in other people's business. Ever. And if you found yourself caught there accidentally, you made sure that other people would not cause any problems."

At the time, due to the thriving cocaine trade in the area, federal agents used to call Washington Heights "Miami on the Hudson." Local cops, who struggled to get neighborhood witnesses to talk about crimes they had seen, had another nickname for the Fort Washington section of Washington Heights. They called it "Fort 'Yo No Sé' " —"Fort 'I Don't Know.' "

During the salad days of the Jheri Curls gang, Rafael Martinez managed to invest a heap of savings in the Dominican Republic. The nest egg, prosecutors said, included three houses, a gas station, and two trucks. But Martinez never made it back to the Dominican Republic. Instead, in October 1991, five months after the murder of Jose Reyes, the state of New York threw Martinez a going-away party of sorts.

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