By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A murderous drug kingpin standing before a Brooklyn federal judge and cryingChaka Raysor was adding the last dollop of icing to a stirring autobiography of a crack maker turned cake baker. On the run for more than a decade after leading a Bed-Stuy drug gang thought to be responsible for more than 30 murders, Raysor claims to have spent most of his time as a fugitive right here in Brooklyn, despite being repeatedly featured on America's Most Wanted. Once an expert at boiling cocaine into crack, Raysor says he learned to mix flour, eggs, sugar, and butter into tasty treats that he sold around the neighborhood. Topped with crude renderings of Dora the Explorer or Cookie Monster, the cakes for kids, he insists, taught him a life-changing lesson: "I didn't need to sell drugs to survive."
A sobbing, contrite Raysor acknowledged his misdeeds (well, some of them) to Judge Eric Vitaliano at his June 1 sentencing. With 17 well-dressed relatives spanning five generations to support him, Raysor begged for a chance at redemption, which he said could be obtained by his opening a bakery someday.
Before Vitaliano pronounced sentence, Raysor offered a final story. While locked up, he had accidentally dropped a thesaurus. When he picked up the book, it flopped open in his hands. "On one side of the book was the word 'probity,' and on the other was the word 'prison,'" he explained to the judge. "And it was just clear to me: If I wanted to better myself, I have to live a life of probity. Otherwise, the result will be prison."
The tears, the contrition, the supportive family, a page-turning mitigation report, the thesaurus, the crack-maker-to-cake-baker anglethe whole thingwas good stuff.
The lavish mitigation report, submitted by his defense team, tells of a nomadic decade during which Chaka Raysor always looked over his shoulder, too paranoid to contact his family but able to start a small business making birthday and wedding cakes. His murdered father, who Chaka imagined had been looking down from heaven all these years shaking his head in dismay at his son's life, was finally proud of him.
"Powerful," one prosecutor conceded. And it apparently struck the judge's sweet tooth just right: Instead of the life-plus sentences that some of his lieutenants received, Raysor was given 17 years by an almost apologetic Vitaliano.
"I really don't understand that," says Louie Savarese, a retired NYPD detective who helped make the case against what was known as the Raysor Organization, only to spend the last 10 years of his career fruitlessly searching for the kingpin. "He should be doing double life triple lifefor all the crimes he has committed."
But even Savarese admits that the return of Chakahe turned himself in last yearand his sweet story are dramatic stuff, seemingly tailor-made for the silver screen. Or maybe that's where it was stolen from.
In 16 Blocks (2006), small-time thief Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) tells detective Jack Mosely (Bruce Willis) how he plans to turn his life around: "I'm opening up a bakery. But it's only like a specialty bakery. You know, like birthday cakes for little kids. There's a lot of money in that."
After his performance in court, Raysor wouldn't say whether he'd caught that film, and his family wouldn't comment for this story. But Raysor was known to constantly watch movie videos while bottling crack at his various drug dens, and he had operated a video store (albeit poorly stocked) as a front for his drug headquarters.
Nine years ago, when he was supposed to stand trial alongside his brother May-May and cousin Raw, it was impossible to think that Chaka Raysor would do anything other than spend the rest of his life in prison. That is, if he got caughthe was already two years into his run as a fugitive.
Cops and prosecutors depicted the gang as a pumped-up version of New Jack City, with Chaka Raysor as a kind of Nino Brown on steroids. When the federal racketeering case against his cohorts went to trial, Raysor's name came up as often as any of the defendants'.
"Chaka was the man as far as all of this," gang member Lyte testified then.
In fact, as recently as last fall, when defense attorney Larry Sheehan was assigned the case and read the indictment, his first thoughts were, "Here was go againanother poster boy for the death penalty."
Instead of death, Chaka got a second chance at life. He'll be only 53 when his sentence is up, which, all things considered, is a pretty sweet deal.
This case came down to competing storylines, both of which start on the stoop of 382-A Quincy Street in Bed-Stuy, circa 1985. Hanging out are Chaka Raysor, his cousins Supreme and Bezo, and buddies Kusar, D-Black, Phat Bay, and Raheem. They're like 14, 15, 16 years old. It's a Friday, so the crew is off to one house party or another.
"We would, like, see somebody with jewelry and start dancing around them and take somebody's jacket, put it over their head, snatch their chain and run," Gerald "Phat Bay" Lewis later testified. The stolen chains were sold to a Canal Street fence.