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.
"I knew them since they were teenagers," recalls Savarese, who was in the 79th Precinct anti-crime unit. "They were doing their little bullshit in the street, robbing people, snatching chains, getting their crew together."
Back then, says Savarese, "Chaka was always the nasty one, out-and-out. He was a nasty guy."
The crew gravitated to robbing street-corner drug dealers, and after one rip-off, they came home with vials of chalky white stuff. None of them had ever seen crack cocaine before. Some of them tried smoking it, and they sold the rest.
The boys decided that selling drugs was easier than robbing dealers, so they put up $50 each and had Kusar ask his stepdad if he'd sell them some cocaine. The dutiful stepdad gave them a lecture about the dangers of getting high on your own supply, then sold them a half-ounce for $350.
They found a neighbor who agreed to cook it into crack. Right away, Chaka took a special interest in learning how to boil it down. He would become so proficient that others in the business called him the "mad scientist." His pals rounded up discarded crack vials strewn about the neighborhood; then they stuffed the chopped-up crack into the vials and split up the "jacks." Most went back to their Quincy Street stoops and, within feet of each other, started hawking. "It was gone that night," Lewis later testified, at almost $1,000 profit for the group. "We went to the Chinese restaurant, got a bunch of food, went to Tompkins Park and just started thinking of all the things we were going to buy . . . . Chaka wanted to buy all the jewelry in the world. I wanted clothes and cars. Everybody was just telling what they want out of this."
The next time around, instead of scrounging used vials, they bought supplies at a "paraphernalia store" at Myrtle and Broadway. The shop was stocked with thousands of empty vials with caps of different colors (to ensure your workers were selling your product and not a rival's).
Chaka and Bay started buying two or three ounces of cocaine at a time in Washington Heights. One trip a week turned into two, as the boys' operation spread from Quincy Street around the corner and down Tompkins Avenue. Eventually, they'd consider anything within a five-block radius of their homes their territory.
Soon, the group moved from the risky job of hand-to-hand sales"slinging" vials for as little as $2, $3 or $5 apieceto wholesale. They packaged $125 worth of crack vials in baggies called "bombs" and fronted them to workers who were expected to return $100 and keep $25 for their efforts. Most of their sellers were 13- and 14-year-old kids.
Smarter than the others, Chaka Raysor naturally moved into the role of both the supplier of drugs and keeper of the gang's pooled money.
A sibling rivalry almost undid the Raysor crew before it got started. Chaka's brother Umeme (known as "May-May") had joined up, but in the spring of '86, May-May announced that his brother was stealing them blind. Chaka denied it, but the suspicion was too much, as Bay testified: "We all broke. Split the money and drugs and went our separate ways."
A few months later, however, the group reformed when Raheem was arrested but couldn't come up with the $500 bail. The guys ponied up the bail money, and Chaka convinced them to start pooling money as a rainy-day bail fund. They agreed to give Chaka $100 a week. When the kitty reached about $9,000, Chaka called everyone together and convinced them to use the money to buy cocaine to cook and then sell as crack. They doubled their savings overnight, and the Raysor crew was off and running again.
That year, the organization opened its first successful indoor crack spot. A handyman named "Crackhead Joe" was their Bob Vila, showing them how to fortify an apartment in an abandoned building, cementing over the windows and reinforcing the doors. A bucket half-filled with ammonia served as the commode. Money and crack were exchanged through the doorknob hole.
At first, they let the sellers lock themselves in. But after getting burned a few times by workers who took off with their crack and/or money, the crew decided to lock its workers in. The sellers were mostly homeless men from a nearby shelter, who ostensibly made $50 for a 24-hour shift. But since the crew demanded that shortages had to be repaid double, the homeless men often ended up working for free, after, of course, receiving beatings.
Running "spots," instead of just hustling on the street, required an entirely new business model. The crew needed sellers, "steerers" to bring in customers, lookouts, managers for each place, workers to "re-up" the spot when the crack ran out, and a money collector. Vials had to be filled and bombs packaged up. Coordination was key, and back then there were no cell phones, only pagers. Chaka, still only 17, and May-May, all of 16, supervised "Scotties," their name for the loose-knit crew of assorted crackheads, kids, and killers they assembled.
Opening up new spots was only half the job; keeping rivals out of their pockets was the other. So Chaka devised the "witching hour": late-night shoot-ups of rival drug spots. Gunfire produced by the gang's automatic pistols and machine guns not only scared off customers but attracted police, who closed their rivals down. Authorities say Chaka called this strategy "rock 'em and sock 'em."
Murder was also a tool of these young capitalists. In 1988 alone, authorities attributed seven murders to the Raysor crew. Savarese recalls those times as blur: "Bodies were dropping all over the place in Brooklyn."
In one 1988 incident, Chaka told gang member "Wise" to fetch another named "Reason" for a meeting. Each was accusing the other for a shortage at one of the drug spots. Instead, Wise shot and killed Reason. For the murder, Wise, who everyone knew stole the money, received a short suspension before eventually being accepted back into the group.
Perhaps the most reckless murder mission of '88 was perpetrated by an honorably discharged Army paratrooper turned crackhead hit man nicknamed "Happy." That summer, Kusar, the guy whose stepfather got the Raysors started in cocaine, was shot and paralyzed. No one saw who did it, but word on the street was that it was "White Owl," a/k/a "Scoobie." None of the Raysor crew knew him.
When a kid working for the gang told the group he thought Scoobie hung out on Willoughby and Throop, the Raysor crew went after him. Armed with semi-automatic handguns and assault rifles, the group approached Scoobie's corner from opposite sides. Happy took the lead, walking past a white Volvo parked on the corner and toward a group hanging on a stoop. As he did, he passed a tall, young man heading by him and casually said, "What's up, Scoobie?" The man grunted back, "Whassup."
Taking this as confirmation that he had his man, Happy turned and shot 22-year-old Alfair Williams Jr. As the rest of the Raysor crew opened fire, Williams's mother, Mary, was shot in the head inside her Volvo while shielding her 14-year-old daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter. Alfair Sr. was also shot as he tried to help his son. The parents survived, but Alfair Jr. didn't.
It turned out that Alfair Jr. wasn't White Owl or Scoobie: The six-footer's nickname was "Shorty," and that night, he and his family were going to South Carolina to visit family.
May-May's penchant for guns claimed another unexpected victim that year. On March 16, police were called to a shooting inside 382A Quincy Street and found 18-year-old Chaka lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen. A black Bersa .380 automatic handgun was found next to him. Chaka's right eye was gone. A federal agent who talked to those familiar with the shooting says that May-May shot Chaka "accidentally on purpose. You see, May-May was always a little bit jealous of his big brother."
Chaka, who from then on sported a glass eye, refused to tell police who shot him.
His lawyer recently claimed in court papers that "subsequent to being shot in the face and losing his eye, Chaka had a strong disdain for firearms." In fact, many of the crew called him "Chik," for "chicken," because of Chaka's refusal to take part in the gunplay that many of the others thrived on. But "Chik" was a relative term in this crew: Only two months after he lost his eye, Bay later testified, longtime martial-arts expert Chaka, along with May-May and D-Black, pulled a 62-year-old addict named Edward Morris out of their crack spot after he messed up on two of their $500 bombs. They dragged him into a nearby park and stomped and stabbed him to death.
In 1989, the gang expanded its operation to Virginia. Chaka supplied the drugs, and May-May ran the day-to-day operations in the Norfolk area, gang members testified.
What they found was a crack dealer's paradise. A $5 jack in Brooklyn would go for $20 in crack-starved Norfolk. You could sell out of your own apartment, eliminating the need for homeless slaves. Rip-off crews were few and far between, and the Norfolk cops were less sophisticated and just plain less in number than NYPD narcotics squads.
"Virginia was fresh," Lyte said, using vernacular that died out soon after he muttered it at trial in 1998.
In exchange, the "boys from New York," as the locals called them, brought their Brooklyn-style violence to the Southern city: Molotov cocktails, machine gunning, beat-downs, and several murders.
But one killing in Virginia turned out well for Norfolk. Against his better judgment, a guy named Leonard "Mass" Rothwell started slinging crack in Norfolk for May-May in the winter of '92.
"Everybody in New York was like, 'Yo, stay away from that nigger because the nigger will try to treat you like a slave,' " the Brooklyn-born "Mass" told Norfolk detectives about May-May. " 'Get you wrapped up in something that you can't get out of.' "
He made that statement to police on March 16, 1992, the day he turned informant because May-May was threatening to kill him over a drug debt.
Over the next two weeks, Mass kept in daily contact with the detectives. He also called his closest friend, Robert "Robo" Butler, and told him not to worry about May-May, who they both owed drug money to, because he was helping to get him locked up. But on one of those phone calls, May-May grabbed the phone from Butler and listened in as Mass described his traitorous plan. On March 29, Mass was shot in the head and killed by his pal Robo, reputedly on May-May's orders. It was Norfolk's good fortune, because most of the Raysor crew returned to Brooklyn while things cooled down.
But with hotheads like Ronald "Raw" Stanley taking a more active role, it was impossible to avoid the heat even on the crew's home turf. Stanley lived with his three brothersall of whom ended up going to prisonin 382A Quincy, on the floor beneath their cousins, the Raysors. He fancied himself the heir apparent to the crew. A prolific letter writer who referred to himself as "Prophet," he, more than any other member of the gang, believed there was a cause behind their chaos. "Teddy [police] trying to give niggers life, and dudes [rivals] trying to give niggers death, so we can't be on no solo shit," he wrote to a crew member.
"He's a bad boy," says Savarese. "If he had the chance, he'd kill more people than the plague."
In the summer of 1993, Raw was arrested for gunning down a rival drug dealer on the corner of Tompkins Avenue and Quincy Street. Through court records, Raw learned the case was based on one woman's identification. Deducing that the witness lived near the murder scene, Stanley wrote to other gang members, ordering them to find and kill this "wit bitch." What happened next was revealed later only because some gang members snitched. To his good friend Lyte (later a cooperating witness), Stanley wrote, "I look ahead and see me being out soon, real soon. But this wit bitch can throw shit in the game. So she a threat. What do we do with threats, huh?"
By the summer of 1994, with the trial nearing, Chaka finally gave the word to quiet the witness. Based mostly on wild speculation, the gang decided that Kimmana Reaux, a crack addict who lived on the second floor of a house at 301 Tompkins Avenue, was the "wit bitch." A 16-year-old named Stash, who had been selling crack since he was 14, was recruited for the job. On June 29, 1994, he knocked on the door at 301 Tompkins. A woman opened it but, seeing the gun, tried to close it. Stash pushed his way in, put the gun flush to her forehead, and pulled the trigger. A few days later, he bragged to crew member Shawn Davis: "I killed her. That shit felt good."
"You stupid ass," Davis told him. "You shot the wrong person."
The 51-year-old woman he shot, Jemela Brown, was known in the neighborhood as the "church lady."
On July 12, 1994, Stash and his friend Spank, also 16, were sent back to finish the job. This time, Spank found Reaux; he shot and killed both her and her boyfriend. Wrong again: A woman who lived in the third floor of the house was actually the witness, not Reaux. After she was locked up on a drug charge, effectively blocking the gang from getting at her, Chaka spearheaded an effort to get her mother to sign an affidavit saying that her daughter was with her when the murder happened and was lying. Prosecutors think May-May Raysor also visited her in jail, threatening her. Ultimately, she refused to testify; Raw eventually walked on a mistrial.
By the time Raw rejoined his Quincy Street cohorts in the fall of 1995, however, a task force was putting the finishing touches on the crew's final act.
The investigation had started almost by accident in November 1992, when an officer saw a man entering 317 Quincy Street with a gun. They chased him through the building, only to be chased back out by a pit bull. After shooting the dog, the cops looked around the apartment and found several guns, a bulletproof vest, 2,500 vials of crack, and $2,300 in cash. This was Raw's stash house, government witnesses later confirmed. The cops also found a wooden plank, two feet long by 10 inches wide, with writing on it. "Quincy St. Klan," it said at the top, followed by "CaptainChaka," "2nd in Command May-May," and the names of various "Lt's" (lieutenants).
Brooklyn Homicide North detectives matched the names and nicknames on the board to the real people and started compiling a list of unsolved murders these "Quincy St. Klan" members and their associates were suspected of. The federal agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the list topped 100 if you figured in the dozens of workers who came and went during the crew's 10-year run. Cops thought they could tie at least 34 murders directly to the gang's leadership. (Of those, prosecutors ended up including the most compelling nine in an indictment and introduced six more murders as uncharged acts at trial.)
An informal task force of cops from the NYPD, ATF, and State Attorney General's Office was formed. Later, some of these investigators would try to estimate how much the crew was making. One estimate was $90,000 a week in profits. Another, based on their selling eight to 12 kilos of crack a week, was $130,000 a week, or $6.7 million a year. A prosecutor pegged that figure as high as $9 million a year.
May-May's attorney, Jeremy Schneider, says those estimates were overblown. If the crew was raking it in for all those years, he says, "Where is it? No money was ever found. Where are their vacation homes, their cars, their jewelry?"
Chaka Raysor drove a $30,000 1994 Nissan Pathfinder, and May-May had a Jeep. Investigators suspected Chaka of using drug money to pay down a refinance mortgage at 382A Quincy Street and buy his mother a $90,000 home on Putnam Avenue. A local woman once big in the numbers business was looked at for investing Raysor crew drug money in properties in Alabama, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But nothing came of it.
Given that the government never found much material wealth or evidence of large-scale money laundering, how little or much the crew made is anyone's guess. But it had been enough to kill for.
In April 1996, after authorities flipped a couple of high-ranking members of the crew, a confidential informant was used to make four buys for a total of nine ounces of crack, approximately $7,600 worth. Twice Chaka was caught on film inside his video store, selling crack. Raysor and several others were indicted that May 29.
Investigators began rounding up the crew. But when they pulled up to the video store to get Chaka, he was across the street at a bodega buying a soda. He ran out the back of the store and disappeared for the next decade.
On June 1, ATF agents traveled to Norfolk and arrested Raw, who was trying to kick-start the crew's Virginia operation. AFT agent Jim Figliuolo told Stanley things could go easier for him if he told them where Chaka was.
"I'll never give up Chaka," Stanley sneered.
Chaka Raysor petered out over the months and years. Eventually, cops looked for him only sporadically. But Louie Savarese, for one, never gave up the search. As he says, the streets of Brooklyn talk; they just don't testify. Until his retirement in 2006, the detective tracked down a steady stream of what he thought were solid tips about Chaka's whereabouts.
In 1998, he recalls, cops raided a girlfriend's home and found what they believed were his clothes in the washing machine, but no Chaka.
Other tips linked Chaka to having a stake in a fish restaurant, a comedy club, and, yes, a bakery. Savarese says they sat on those locations a few times without luck. Another informant told him that Chaka was still into drugs and often made his deals in the parking lot of a Pathmark on Fulton Street; surveillance led nowhere. One time they heard he was recovering at his mother's after appendix surgery. But a lieutenant in that precinct wouldn't OK the raid until he physically saw the arrest warrant. By the time they obtained a copy, Chaka had supposedly slipped away.
As Brooklyn North homicide detectives retired, Savarese brought their replacements up to speed on Chaka Raysor. One informant told them that Chaka had buried a large amount of money in his Quincy Street backyard before digging up and depositing it in an Antigua bank. Another tipster said Raysor was connected to the hip-hop industry and had attended award shows in Las Vegas and Miami. None of the tips panned out.
And there were plenty, because he was a celebrity of sorts. America's Most Wanted featured Raysor no less than 13 times, naming him one of their "Dirty Dozen" and making him the seven of diamonds on AMW's deck of playing cards. Each AMW airing sparked a new slew of clues. AMW says hundreds of tips came in over the years from 39 states, the Virgin Islands, and Canada.
The federal agent says that Raysor may have returned to Brooklyn in recent years, when the search efforts flagged, but that there's no way he was there the entire period. "If he was in Brooklyn the whole time, we were the stupidest cops in all the world, and he was a super-sleuth," the agent says. "That wasn't the case."
Years after retiring from the ATF, Jim Figliuolo faithfully played the lottery with the dream of hitting the jackpot, then going on America's Most Wanted to offer a $1 million reward for Raysor's capture.
Before Savarese retired, part of his annual December 25 ritual was to fill in for the younger guys on the squad. Then he would sit on the homes of Chaka's mother and girlfriends, hoping to nab him making a Christmas Day visit.
"We were on him-there's no two ways about it," Savarese says. "It's just that it wasn't his time yet. That's the way I think about it."
After he retired, Savarese assumed that if Raysor was ever caught, he wouldn't go quietly. But that's exactly what he did.
On August 7, 2006, Chaka Raysor walked quietly into the 79th Precinct station house in Brooklyn around 10 at night and said he wanted to turn himself in. Savarese recalls that it took some convincingsome of it by Chaka himselfbefore the cops there realized just how big a fish had reeled himself in.
Right after his arraignment a few days later, a reporter yelled: "Hey, Chaka, what happened? How come you're giving up now?"
Raysor calmly replied, "Because it's the right thing to do. I'm tired of living that lifestyle. I need my life back. And I miss my family, my children."
Expanding on those themes was a slick, 23-page mitigation report that Raysor's defense team compiled through interviews with Chaka and 20 family members and friends. Judge Vitaliano noted in court that he read it "cover-to-cover" before pronouncing sentencing.
According to the report, Chaka's father, Herbert, used to take the boys on strolls along the Hudson River, during which Dad would point out the names of flowers and plants and collect wild herbs like sage and oregano to season his vegan meals. Chaka described his father as a "master carpenter" and hard-working jack-of-all-trades who used to make them toys out of wood.
But when Chaka was 7, Herbert was shot and killed by a man who lived in the apartment above them.
After the murder, both Chaka and May-May became "quiet, anxious boys" despite receiving counseling, according to their mother, Maxine Raysor.
Young Chaka, according to the tear-jerking report, had to become a "substitute parent," helping his mother-who at the time was attending college and eventually became a city schoolteacherraise his three siblings. On weekends, the mother and her children were regulars at festivals around the city selling food, banners, and artwork. Chaka admitted to becoming a "momma's boy."
The best thing that happened to Chaka as a kid, according to his mother, was Uhuru Sasa Shule, a private, Afrocentric school that offered the Raysor children both a safe cocoon and accelerated education. But when the school closed because of money problems, Chaka's mother was forced to enroll him in a public middle school. She called that "the beginning of my son's troubles."
His superior education at Uhuru landed Chaka in a gifted class, where he was labeled by the other students as a "nerd." He says that meant "we got beat up and robbed all the time. After a few years of that, you can't take it anymore."
The defense report blames much of Chaka's subsequent misbehavior on his being shot in the eye by his brother when he was 18. Chaka says he forgives the shooter, because he too "was shot when he was a kid and after that was never completely right in his mind." But strangely, every reference to the shooter is either as a "deranged relative" or "crazy relative," never as his brother and fellow gang member.
The shooting left him plagued by debilitating migraine headaches to this day, according to the report, and caused the teenage Chaka to adopt a caustic worldview.
"After I was shot I asked myself, 'Why follow the law if I'll be dead in a few months or a few years?' I couldn't get a decent job, my daughter Monifa needed my help, and I just decided that I had to get money for her as fast as possible before I died. I just surrendered to the drug life; it was a scene that for my whole life had been happening all around me in Bedford-Stuyvesant."
His mother is quoted in the report as saying, "I believe that when Chaka decided to start with the drugs, like so many teenagers he believed that he would die young and he just seemed to lose hope in the American dream."
Investigators say the Raysors' timetable is off by about three years, that Chaka was already deep into the game when he got shot in the eye by his brotherover influence in the drug gang.
That had left Chaka half-blind, but if you believe his tale of his years on the run, the cops were totally blind.
When asked after his arraignment last August where he'd been hiding all those years, Chaka Raysor replied, "Brooklyn." At subsequent court hearings, his lawyer, Larry Sheehan, repeatedly referred to Chaka's time as a fugitive "hiding in plain sight."
The question of where Raysor hid during that decade would be mostly academic if it weren't central to his quest for sympathy. "Chaka Raysor was not some drug lord from Cali or Mazatlan who absconded to Rio de Janiero to live the luxurious life of an exiled crime chieftain," his defense team's report contends. "Instead he lived a vagabond, hobo-like existence during his ten years as a fugitive. Homeless most of the time and frequently without a place to sleep, he often rode the No. 2 subway all night from Flatbush Avenue in lower Brooklyn to 241st Street in the upper Bronx."
The report quotes Raysor as saying, "The subway was my home on many a cold or rainy night. From end to end the No. 2 train took a little more than an hour and a half; it stopped at almost 50 stations. I rode that train back and forth through the night. I didn't get much sleep because I couldn't risk being arrested by subway police. I had to sit up and look alert. But at least the subway kept me from getting pneumonia."
His story: He collected cans to buy food, slept a night or two at various friends' places before moving on, and bunked under the bleachers in Wingate Park during the summers. "My life was filled with high anxiety," he's quoted as saying. "I wore glasses, a hat, a buttoned-up shirt and never wore sneakers. I did this to look older and neater than street people. Each casual walk by a policeman left me shaking. I was always looking over my shoulder."
An aunt's letter in the thick defense packet says, "His 10 years underground was the same as incarcerated, in my opinion. There is no freedom in hiding."
Staying in the drug game, Raysor's narrative argues, "was too risky with the warrant on me, but pretty soon I saw that I didn't need to sell drugs to survive. I taught myself that I could get by, even though it was no real life. . . . In a way the charges in 1996 freed me up; I was sick of the whole thing by then and wanted out."
After taking any job he could find demolition, handyman work, garbage clean-up, janitorialhe found what he claims was his salvation.
"Cake baking and icing designs were my main source of income in the last few years I was on the run," Raysor says in the report. "For the first six years I did lots of jobs to earn a little money. But for the last four I baked pretty regularly. For two years I baked maybe two cakes a month, but for the final two years I was selling about two each weekend. They were all for people who heard about my skills or saw my flyer; they used them for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. I would save up enough money to rent a room for a day, and that would give me access to the communal kitchen. I would bake up a storm and sell my cakes, mostly for about thirty dollars. Everybody said they tasted good and looked great."
To bolster this claim, Raysor's defense team submitted pictures of six cakes with designs featuring the likes of Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants. A flyer for "First Choice Cake's & Bake's," advertising cakes and cookies but with no contact information on it, was also included in the package to the judge.
Did Chaka Raysor borrow this recipe from the movie 16 Blocks? The film was released in March 2006. Five months later, he turned himself in. But the cake photos that Raysor's lawyer submitted to the judge have date stamps on them purporting to show that the pictures were taken between July and September of 2004. There is no proof offered that Chaka made those cakes himself back then or at any other time, or that, if he did, he created any others. The cake-baking business seems a stretch for a guy who's supposed to be broke and homelesswhat with all the ingredients needed, the pots, pans, and kitchen utensils, and the rental of a room to use the communal kitchen.
But that's his storycrack maker turned cake bakerand he's sticking to it.
Chaka Raysor agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to sell drugs, but would admit to none of the murders or mayhem associated with his gang. The government's offer of no more than 19 1/2 years in prison was practically a fire sale. After all, his brother May-May and cousin Rawboth of them his subordinateshad received life-plus sentences.
The passage of time had made the case harder for prosecutors to make: Cops had retired; the original prosecutors, with their storehouse of knowledge and connections in their heads, had all moved on; and witnesses and other peripheral players had scattered.
The probation department, which by its nature has institutional memory, recommended the maximum sentence, 20 years to life, but the judge had flexibility. Vitalianowho acknowledged in a profile last year in the Staten Island Advance, "I don't like motion pictures at all, I never have. I much prefer live theater"nonetheless went for the typical feel-good-movie ending: 17 years in prison, meaning a chance, at the age of 53, to open a bakery. To that end, Vitaliano agreed to put in a word to have Raysor housed in Otisville prison, because it has a culinary arts program. No matter what Chaka really did after he fled prosecution, his decade on the lam has paid off.
In one of the corny scenes in 16 Blocks, detective Jack Mosely and bad-guy-turned-informant Eddie Bunker, while outrunning the bad cops that Bunker's supposed to testify against, get into a debate about whether people can change. "Days change, seasons change, not people," the detective says. "People don't change, Eddie." To prove him wrong, Bunker moves to Seattle, opens up Eddie & Jack's Good Sign Bakery (don't ask), and sends a cake to the cynical Mosely. Written in icing is "Chuck Berry, Barry White, Eddie Bunker and Jack Mosely. People can change. . . . "
Will Louie Savarese someday get a cake signed by Chaka Raysor? That would probably frost the detective.
"Who knows, maybe he turned his life aroundmaybe he found God," Savarese says. "It's possible, I guess. But I don't think so. I think he's full of shit."
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