Slick Trouble

The government's determination to deport old-school rapper Slick Rick knows no bounds

"It was such a filthy, filthy facility," says Aragones, who flew down from New York often to see Walters. "It was so old. When Rick was there, his condition was horrible—his hair, his face, his nails. He got one jumper per week, and they often had nasty white stains on them, if you know what I mean."

"It was dark, and it was cold," Walters says. "The lower levels had bunk beds, so it was like 60 to 80 people sleeping on top of each other. The toilet facilities didn't have doors, so if you had to take a number two, everybody had to see you and smell you."

Over the months in Bradenton, the eye patch Walters was wearing when he was arrested began to disintegrate. (He usually changes them every week.) But prison officials wouldn't let his family bring him a new one.

photo: Matthew Salacuse


Editor's note: This piece appeared originally in New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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"They wouldn't let me have a new one because they said they had to have come from a doctor," he says. "I only had one the whole time. What I ended up doing was not wearing it at all."

"A year later, he had this filthy patch," Aragones says. "An eye patch! He needed it just hygiene-wise."

Even more depressing than the conditions was the state of the other inmates.

"It wasn't a very friendly place, because everybody was desperate to stay in the country," Walters says. "You saw people being torn from their families. Sometimes, when people wouldn't want to leave, they would hold on to things. It was very gloomy, very sad."

For a time, it looked like Walters didn't have a way out. In late 2002, Aragones flew over to Britain to prepare a new life for her soon-to-be deported husband.

"She went over there and packed everything, suitcases and everything," Walters says. "She flew over there and stayed in a hotel until she found an apartment."

Meanwhile, Walters' fans and supporters rallied around a "Free Slick Rick" campaign. Russell Simmons and Will Smith wrote letters to the government on his behalf. T-shirts and petitions appeared overnight. His lawyers filed four separate appeals arguing that he couldn't have deported himself that day in Miami.

In fall 2003, one of his three petitions for habeas corpus found a sympathetic ear in Judge Kimba M. Wood of the Southern District of New York. Wood, of course, was famous for her own moment in the immigration spotlight when, ten years earlier, she had been the second of Bill Clinton's nominees for U.S. attorney general to withdraw her nomination because she'd hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. (Zoe Baird was the first). Janet Reno eventually filled the post.

Wood ruled that the INS had violated the law when it reopened Walters' case in 1995. "When the BIA considered the 'new' evidence in ordering briefing on the five year issue, this resulted in a fundamentally unfair hearing in that it afforded the INS a second bite at the apple," she wrote. "Just as an alien must present his case in full before the BIA for its review, the INS must be expected to do so."

She invalidated Walters' deportation order, and a week later, he walked out of the Bradenton facility. For the third time in a decade, a New York court had ruled that Slick Rick could stay in the USA. But Florida kept calling.

These days, Ricky Walters spends most of his time changing light bulbs, taking out the garbage, and making sure the hallways are clean in the two three-family buildings he owns in the Bronx.

"I play the landlord role," he says. "I guess the hardest job is that sometimes, when a tenant moves out, you have to redo the entire apartment. Change the rugs, the sink, everything. That can cost a pretty penny. Sometimes you get bad tenants. Then you just have to follow the lease."

He still plays shows and benefits and still makes people stand up and scream along to "La-Di-Da-Di." He often comes to South Florida for shows and to visit his family in Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the 1990s, he released several more albums, several of them directly inspired by his experiences behind bars. But they never lived up to his first.

"I remember that every Slick Rick album that came out after was a bigger and bigger disappointment," hip-hop author Chang says. "His later records tended to be a lot less focused. He never really recaptured the glory of his first record."

Lately, Walters hasn't found much inspiration from his predicament. Even his wife describes him as "just above water with regards to celebrity."

"I have a little studio in my apartment, and I dibble and dabble," Walters says. "But when you get older in rap, you don't want to talk about the same old stuff. You really don't want to sound like somebody trying desperately to stay in the country all the time."

But any day now, he's expecting to be told to pack up and move to England and never come back.

After losing in 2003, the government appealed Judge Wood's decision, attacking every angle of Walters' case. The complex legal argument has many parts, but the one that appears strongest is very simple. Because Walters was arrested in Florida in 2002, the government says the New York courts that have repeatedly ruled in favor of Walters don't have jurisdiction over the case. Walters' fate, the government says, should be decided in Florida's 11th Circuit, which just happens to be one of the most conservative courts in the nation. This fall, a New York court agreed, and the case is currently being sent to Florida's court system, where Walters will likely lose.

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