The Gang That Couldn't Wear Its Hair Straight

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

They arrested Martinez along with his brothers and some 20 other members of the Jheri Curls gang. The indictments, on numerous charges, were based in large part on the work of James Gilmore and the members of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force—a tag-team effort between the NYPD and the district attorney's office.

At a news conference the day of the arrests, District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau invoked the murder of Jose Reyes and accused the Jheri Curls of carrying out the shooting.

During the subsequent trial, the Jheri Curls came unraveled, testifying against one another. Assistant District Attorney Fernando Camacho had little trouble convincing the jury of their guilt. And Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder (who later ran against Morgenthau for D.A.) had little trouble handing out stiff sentence after stiff sentence. The murder of Jose Reyes, however, never resulted in a conviction. Lorenzo Martinez and a Jheri Curls member named Roberto Gonzalez were eventually acquitted of the crime (but were convicted of other crimes related to their involvement with the Curls).

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

Nevertheless, the rigorous prosecution of the Jheri Curls and later of the Wild Cowboys andYoung Talented Children gangs, eventually helped snuff out Dominican gangdom in New York, according to Jackall. In the mid '90s, just as reports of Dominican gangs in New York began dwindling, stories about the arrival of Dominican gangs began popping up in places like Hartford, Connecticut, said Jackall. In other words, the Dominican gangs eventually did what countless other aging groups have done in New York as they grew older, became more established, or just plain got sick of the hassles of the city: They moved to Connecticut.

Or like Rafael Martinez, they relocated to jail cells in upstate New York. A few weeks ago, Martinez returned to the city of his youth. On a rainy, Tuesday afternoon, in mid May, he strolled into a courtroom in Lower Manhattan, his hands shackled behind his back. He was dressed in a gray suit with white pinstripes. His face was clean shaven and his hair was closely cropped. As a guard escorted him across the room, he smiled at his friends and family members, including his mom and two of his teenage sons, who were gathered in the gallery's wood pews. They smiled back.

The guard unlocked his handcuffs, and Rafael Martinez, now 38, took a seat facing the judge. To his left sat his brothers, Lorenzo, now 33, and Cesar, 39. They, too, were fresh out of handcuffs and looking well scrubbed: three Martinez brothers, and not a single jheri curl among them.

All three addressed the court. At one point, Cesar disputed his convictions and noted that during his original trial several Jheri Curls had testified against him only after cutting deals with the prosecutors.

In turn, Assistant District Attorney Luke Rettler replied that testimony from fellow conspirators was often the only way to proceed in cases like that of the Jheri Curls gang, particularly in neighborhoods like Washington Heights, where witnesses had been intimidated and killed.

"Most people would never, ever testify against these defendants," said Rettler. "They so terrified the neighborhood."

Rafael Martinez's lawyer, Sara Gurwitch, acknowledged to Judge Eduardo Padro her client's long list of convictions stemming from his years with the Jheri Curls, including murder in the second degree, criminal sale of a firearm, and multiple counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance. All told, the convictions add up to 213 years in prison.

But under the drug-sentencing-reform laws of 2004, Gurwitch argued, Rafael Martinez deserves to have his time behind bars reduced. Instead of dying in prison, she argued, Rafael should be allowed to see a parole board sometime around 2053—about the time of his 85th birthday.

She then emphasized her client's stellar behavior in prison as well as his numerous achievements. During his time behind bars, Rafael has earned a GED and a bachelor's degree in theology. He is currently earning a master of arts degree from Global University. In his spare time, he has worked as a teacher's aide, an HIV peer educator, and clerk in the prison law library. "He's used his time in prison more productively than any prisoner I've ever seen," said Gurwitch. "He has become deeply religious. He now uses his religious convictions to guide him."

A few minutes later, Rafael Martinez spoke to the court, denouncing his years of devilry on 157th Street and asking for leniency. "I regret what I did," he told the court. "I am ashamed of my past behavior. I was selfish, and unconscionable, and irresponsible. . . . . I apologize to the city of New York."

Assistant D.A. Rettler proved to be in no mood to accept the apology. Throughout the hearing, he vigorously opposed the resentencing requests of all three brothers, arguing essentially that the drug resentencing laws were set up to benefit low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

"That being the case," said Rettler, "the defendants are as far from that profile as heaven is from hell."

Rettler went on to call Rafael's remorse a sham and to note that there was nothing he could possibly do in prison to undo his past actions. Not even if he cured cancer from his jail cell. "Resentencing should be denied because of the horrendous, horrendous wanton violence they put out on a neighborhood in Manhattan," said Rettler.

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