Last week police identified a suspect, 29-year-old Sean Salley, in the murder of musician and pot dealer Jennifer Stahl, who was shot dead May 10 along with two others in her midtown apartment above the Carnegie Delicatessen. The hunt for Salley and an accomplice has spread to several cities in the South. Meanwhile, friends and buyers continue to mourn the loss of Stahl. Here's one customer's account of her business.
A few nights ago I was awakened from a half-doze by the ringing of the telephone. I was greeted by the lead singer of a popular local rock band. Let's call her Valerie. "Turn on the TV to Channel 1 quick," she shouted. "You've got to see what's happened." First like an impressionist painting, then in increasingly sharper focus, I soon saw the facade of the Carnegie Deli, garishly lit by revolving cherry-tops. The scene featured medical personnel, cops, and bewildered hangers-on in a matrix of yellow police tape, as a stretcher was shuttled out the door carrying a very bloody corpse festooned with IVs and wearing an identity-concealing oxygen mask. Putting the phone back to my ear, I could detect quiet sobs.
I knew her only as Jen. Six years ago my pot supplies ran dry when the impresario of the fake stage-lighting studio in the meat district succumbed to AIDS. No more, I thought sadly, would I feast my eyes on the spectacle of the Grateful Dead poster swinging away from the wall on silent hinges to reveal a yawning chasm filled with garbage bags full of good marijuana. I cast around among my fellow musicians to find a new dealer, and eventually asked Valerie. I'd known for a couple of years that she had a hot connection up in midtown, and we had whiled away many a pleasant evening in the back rooms of downtown clubs comparing the quality of our weed. We'd also swap stories about acquisition experiences. "You'd really like my dealer," she said. "She's a musician, and an actor, too." "What's she been in?" "She was one of the dancers in the last scene of Dirty Dancing."
After going once with Valerie, I was ready to solo. Here's how it worked: Jen's apartment on the sixth floor over the Carnegie Deli was open for business only between six and eight on weekday evenings, and you had to call ahead. Sometimes Jen would answer the phone, sometimes an employee. We all had monikers that were entered in her book, and if the person on the other end of the line didn't recognize your voice immediately, he'd have to look you up. Then you'd say something like, "Can I come by at seven?" and he'd usually say, "Sure."
It was a heady feeling standing in front of the deli on a warm summer evening, with tourists milling around, their noses pressed to guidebooks or discussing a Broadway play. Your mission made you feel like a secret agent. The way upstairs was directly adjacent to the deli door, and you'd have to push your way past a crowd of prospective diners to reach the buzzer, the fatty smell of hot pastrami filling your nostrils. Originally, it was necessary to be buzzed in, but in the last few months the downstairs door was invariably broken and you could walk right up.
The stairway first went up to the left past a landing that faced a locker room for deli employees that was usually empty. Sometimes one or two would be hanging out on the stairs as you passed. Then, five-and-a-half floors of dingy steps, past darkened doors and long halls with peeling paint and wobbling railings. In all my visits, I never encountered any other residents on my way up, though sometimes I'd hear the hollow tread of a customer behind me a few floors below.
Arriving at the sixth floor panting, you'd push the black bell in the middle of the garish pink door, and an eyeball would appear at the peephole. After calling out your moniker, you'd be ushered into a living room with a black-leather sectional that faced a big TV set. A few other customers would be sitting or standing, and there was always a six-pack of beer to lubricate conversation. On my last visit, the TV was tuned to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and my three couchmates were avidly answering Regis Philbin's questions.
That living room had become a kind of rolling soiree. Polite introductions would be offered all around. I met dancers, actors, musicians, visual artists, and producers of all sortssome famous, some obscure. Jen herself would often emerge from the adjacent room to greet her guests, and direct the door watcher to roll a fat spliff to be passed around. Sometimes phone numbers were exchanged. It became clear over the course of years that Jen had gone about selecting her patrons like some Italian Renaissance prince, for their artistic cachet and ability to carry on an intelligent conversation.
In good time, you'd be summoned into the "studio," a small bedroom that looked out onto a tenement airshaft, its walls lined with sound-dampening cork. A very modest collection of recording equipment stood in one corner, and a few publicity headshots, Jen's among them, were pinned to the cork. On a small leather love seat wedged into one corner was propped a list of marijuana offerings printed on a piece of cardboard with colorful markers. There were usually eight selections, with jocular names like Jingle Bells, Piney, Whopper, and White Wolf, priced in columns representing one-quarter and one-half ounce. These topped out at $160 or even $180 per quarter, making this some of the most expensive pot in the city. But oh, the pot! Looking like it had been ripped from the pages of High Times, the pristine buds were often two inches in length, completely seedless, and heavy with coagulated resin. The odor was enough to knock you out, and Piney really did smell like you'd tumbled into a north-woods forest. The smell was so strong that, after measuring out your quantity on a pharmacist's scale, Jen would double-bag it. You could still smell it as you tripped down the stairs, eager for a chance to sample your purchase.
Over my four years as a customer, I got to know Jen pretty well, though I never learned her last name till after her death. Often I would linger after my purchase, and the company would avidly discuss world music, a particular passion of the host's, or food, for which we all shared an enthusiasm. In addition to her appearance in movies like Dirty Dancing and Necropolis, I learned that Jen also recorded music, using the name Ganja Woman. One day she handed me a CD she'd made called Pro-Bitchin'. The cover, appropriately enough, depicts a woman made of green marijuana buds. Disappointingly, the CD contains only a single monotonous song, repeated in three lengthy versions, though the production values are high quality. Despite a spare mix, dozens of participants are credited, mainly by first name or street name, although legendary Sugar Hill bass player Doug Wimbish is identified by his full name. In retrospect, many of the lyrics have a haunting quality: "but I'm not going to stop/smoke till I drop/gonna stay red/ till the day I'm dead."
Gradually, Jen revealed to me business practices that were not readily apparent on trips to the studio. She provided medical marijuana free of charge to AIDS patients and cancer sufferers, and even paid messengers to carry the weed in brown paper bags to sick users. She gave an anonymous interview to High Times in 1998 that has now been loaded onto their Web site (www.hightimes.com). Jen was also a dealer to casts and crews of several Broadway shows, where she would appear at the stage door herself once a week to fill their orders. According to her own account, she made weekly visits to NBC's Today Show and Late Night With Conan O'Brien as well as serving the crew of Cats before it closed. When the Post reported that she may have been profiting to the tune of $1500 to $2500 per week, I laughed out loud. More like $2500 a day, I thought.
In the week that followed her execution-style murder, the tabloids led nearly every issue with more grisly details. We were told that it happened at 7:30 on a Thursday evening, when business had been concluded for the night and a security guard that 39-year-old Jennifer Stahl installed recently had been sent home. Anthony Veader, 37, hair stylist for the soap opera The Guiding Light and movies like Men in Black, had his scissors in hand, and was about to cut Jen's hair. He later said he knew nothing about the marijuana business conducted in the apartment. Also present were Stephen King, 32, a musician and health-club manager, who, according to his father, a University of San Francisco professor, was there to use the music studio, and two friends, Charles Helliwell, 36, a prominent Boston music promoter, and Rosemond Dane, 36. One of the men led Jen into the studio, while another held the other four at gunpoint. An argument was heard, and a shot rang out. The second man called out to the first, "Why did you do that? Now we have to shoot them all," and began methodically duct-taping the mouths and hands of the four, who were then forced to kneel against the wall. They were all shot in the head, and the gunmen fled down the stairs.
Jen and Stephen King were pronounced dead on the scene, Charles Helliwell died soon thereafter, and Rosemond Dane was taken to the hospital, where she is still recovering from her wounds. The Post noted that one of the dead had been shot through the eye. Anthony Veader had only been grazed, and managed to stumble to the phone, call police, and meet them at the door.
Suspicion now centers on Sean Salley, 29, a former George Clinton roadie who was fired a year and a half ago after making threats and brandishing a gun. He apparently fled to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he registered at the Royal Hotel under the name John Salley, then boarded a bus in Newark at 6:30 a.m., headed south. Police believe he may have been going to Georgia or New Orleans. His accomplice, who apparently goes by the nickname of D-Nice, is still at large. Security cameras installed by the deli captured the pair running down the stairs carrying a sack thought to contain money and marijuana.
Jen's surviving friends have spent a miserable week. Since the cops have confiscated her little black book, and the killers and accomplices unknown remain at large, they find themselves fearful for their own safety at the same time they're lamenting her death. They wonder if Jen had been too friendly and open in her dealing, if there's some way the crime could have been prevented. You feel contaminated somehow, being connected with a celebrated crime portrayed as sordid in the mediacontaminated because you're in the scandal sheets, and contaminated because you're afraid they may be right.
And of course we all wonder: What if I had been there that evening, buying some pot?
Jennifer Stahl's "Pro-Bitchin' " can be heard on her Web site.
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