The Gang That Couldn’t Wear Its Hair Straight


Sometime in the past 15 years, Rafael Martinez chopped off his jheri curl. Perhaps that’s not too surprising for a guy who is doing time at an upstate prison. Few hairstyles require more maintenance, and the average prison commissary isn’t likely to stock rearranging cream and curl rods.

Then again, to anyone who has spent time flipping through his rap sheet, Martinez’s current lack of a jheri curl is notable. After all, back in the early ’90s, when Martinez was arrested, he was no run-of-the-mill criminal. Rather, he was the ringleader of the so-called Jheri Curls, one of the earliest, most violent, and best branded of the Dominican gangs of Nueva York.

During their reign over the cocaine trade in upper Manhattan in the early ’90s, the Jheri Curls drove gold-painted cars and wore their hair in a uniform style: long, loose, and greasy. From the safe distance of history, that may sound quaint—a gang of dudes looking like a mid-’80s version of Michael Jackson. But the Jheri Curls were no joke.

One time, a girlfriend made fun of gang leader Rafael Martinez’s limp. He responded, she later told authorities, by shooting her in the kneecap.

Others who crossed paths with the gang weren’t even that lucky. A retired social worker named Jose Reyes objected to the Jheri Curls’ selling drugs out of his building. He wasn’t afraid to tell them. He got a bullet in the head.

Fifteen years later, Martinez has come down to Manhattan for a resentencing hearing on drug charges related to his heady days at the helm of the Jheri Curls. It’s a different Washington Heights these days, but Martinez and the Jheri Curls have not been entirely forgotten—not by the detective, now retired, who helped put them behind bars, and not by some of the longtime residents who recall the story behind the murder of Jose Reyes.

As it turns out, the legacy of the Jheri Curls gang has remained remarkably well preserved, despite the fact that the flow of real estate money has gradually replaced the flow of drug money. A new set of concerns has surfaced on the tree-lined streets of this neighborhood, said David Dubnau, a research scientist who has lived in the area since the ’60s. “Sure, the crime rate has gone down,” he says. “But that’s a global phenomenon with many complex causes. Is the neighborhood better now than it was then? It depends on who you are.”

Since the ’80s, Dubnau and his wife have been working with RENA, the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, in part, to help tenants negotiate with negligent landlords. As real estate values have gone up, said Dubnau, so has the pressure on tenants.

“There’s a tremendous amount of harassment of tenants—particularly elderly residents,” said Dubnau. Landlords are constantly trying to turn the apartments over and get much higher rates. Tenants are terrified because of the gentrification pressure.”

It wasn’t long ago that tenants on West 157th Streetwere terrified of someone much more volatile than venal landlords. They were terrified of their neighbors, the ones with the long, loose, and greasy curls.

On a hot summer day in 1991, Rafael Martinez’s little brother Lorenzo set out for Queens to fetch some money, according to prosecutors from the New York County district attorney’s office. It was two days shy of the Fourth of July, and life was good for the Jheri Curls. They were pulling in several million dollars a year in cocaine sales, and the Martinez brothers were living in a comfy house in Queens, a safe distance from the cesspool of their workplace.

After picking up the cash from his house, Lorenzo headed back to Manhattan. At the Triborough Bridge, the police pulled him over and searched his car.

To get access to his car’s secret compartment, according to prosecutors, you had to proceed through an elaborate ritual: Turn on the car lights. Press the brake pedal. Connect two points under the dashboard with a coin. Only then would the chambers unlock on either side of the backseat.

But somehow the police seemed to know his car’s secrets. They confiscated $22,500 in cash, a loaded .45-caliber automatic gun, a loaded .44-caliber revolver, and 20 or so rounds of ammunition.

That day, if Lorenzo hadn’t been busted, he might have ended up back at one of the Jheri Curls’ business headquarters, a six-story apartment building located at 614 West 157th Street. From the sidewalk, near the intersection with Riverside Drive, a long, barren courtyard led to the building’s lobby. On either side of the courtyard, the building’s near symmetrical wings rose up six stories, giving the overall layout a U-shaped appearance.

Two of the apartments in that building, like Lorenzo’s ride, had supposedly been outfitted with all sorts of James Bond trickery, including secret trapdoors that concealed stashes of guns, drugs, and money. But the setup protected their business operations from the vicissitudes of the street. It was a buffer, with an elevator and a lobby.

The arrangement was much less ideal for the other tenants of the building, who found themselves surrounded, day and night, by coke-slinging Jheri Curls. One resident later told reporters: “It was like open house here. The gang was the doorman of the building.”

At the time, most of the residents adapted to the Jheri Curls by learning to treat them as one might treat a doorman—that is, with every outward show of respect, plus a touch of aloofness. It was a trick that everyone in the building seemed to learn, except for Jose Reyes.

A retired social worker who lived on the fifth floor, Reyes didn’t take to cowering in the face of the Jheri Curls, several survivors of the era recently told the Voice. In the spring of 1991, a few months before Lorenzo Martinez’s arrest at the bridge, Reyes confronted several members of the gang.

Not long after the argument, someone broke into Reyes’s apartment while he was out. Depending on who is telling the story, the intruders either left a death threat for Reyes in the form of a letter or they left a death threat scrawled on the apartment floor in black paint. Either way, it wasn’t an idle warning.

A few days later, Reyes went out to run some errands on Broadway. Late in the afternoon, according to court documents, he walked out of a doughnut shop and began strolling up Broadway. As he passed a television store, a thin man in a striped polo shirt approached Reyes from behind and fired a single shot into the side of his head. Reyes crumpled to the pavement, dead. In the meantime, the news ricocheted around the neighborhood, along with the usual murmurs: Don’t meddle.

Pauline Turner watched as the police robot rolled through the long, barren courtyard, approaching her building.

It was the early ’90s, and Turner was living on the second floor of the Jheri Curls’ building at 614 West 157th Street. From her window, she looked at the robot in disbelief. “There were ambulances and police cars,” recalled Turner. “Here comes this robot. I said, ‘What is this?’ I still don’t know. Nobody told us anything. I find out the next day that there was supposed to be a bomb in the elevator shaft.”

Some 15 years later, Turner, now 85, widowed, and retired, still lives in the same apartment she moved into with her husband in the early ’60s. Back then, Turner explains, most of the building, like the surrounding neighborhood, was Jewish. Turner and her husband were one of the first black families to make the building their home.

Over the next 40 years, Turner watched as whites gave way to black people, blacks gave way to Dominicans, and Dominicans gave way to Central Americans. Now the neighborhood is slowly turning white again.

What was the building like back in the early ’90s when the Jheri Curls moved in? To hear Turner tell it, living next door to the drug dealers wasn’t all that much different from living next door to anybody else. Just another group passing by in the halls. Plus the occasional bomb-sniffing robot. Plus the occasional shooting.

“They were quiet,” said Turner. “I would be coming up the steps, they would help with my groceries. Very well-dressed people.”

What annoyed Turner about the occasional outbursts of mayhem was the lack of communication about it from the police. Exhibit A: the murder in the lobby of a man thought to be a gang member.

The leader: Rafael Martinez

“From my window, I could see something in the lobby,” recalled Turner. “I didn’t know what it was until later they told me that the man had been shot. We never were told who was shot. We never were told who shot him. Police don’t tell you anything.”

But Jose Reyes wasn’t tight-lipped. “He was quite talkative and in people’s business and all,” Turner recalled. “And he did the wrong thing.”

Even now, in 2006, Turner is reticent to talk about the era of the Jheri Curls. “You know better than to get into that,” she said. “That’s what happened to Reyes. He got into that, and you see what happened?”

At the time of the Jheri Curls’ infestation, Cassandra Lewis was a schoolteacher in charge of the building’s tenants’ association. Now retired, she still lives in the building. Like other residents, Lewis watched her once elegant building descend into disorder. Back in the ’60s, the foyer was well kept and comfortable. Then the furniture disappeared. Then the rugs. Then the chandelier. By the time the Jheri Curls moved in, there weren’t even locks on the building’s front door.

Not that Lewis had a personal problem with her new neighbors. “Many things went on, but none went on openly in the building,” recalled Lewis. “They were very polite. Whatever they did was in their apartment. They minded their business, and you minded yours.”

Except, of course, for Jose Reyes. Lewis said she tried to convince Reyes not to confront the gangsters. “Jose was very outspoken,” said Lewis. “He had his faults, like we all do. You have to be subtle. I would tell him, ‘Something not too nice is going on in this building, but you have to be subtle.’ ”

By all accounts, subtle wasn’t Reyes’s style. Lewis said she and Reyes once worked together for the city’s welfare department. Lewis knew her neighbor and co-worker to be the crusading type. And it worried her.

“Working as closely as we did, I knew his personality,” recalled Lewis. “I knew how he would get himself involved in things and he shouldn’t have—not that he shouldn’t have, but you learn to see and not see.”

Now retired from the NYPD, James Gilmore thinks back to the days when the Jheri Curls cruised up and down West 157th Street in gold-painted Mercedeses and Jeeps and recalls the death threats they left for him back at the 34th Precinct or the charred corpse that cops found on a nearby rooftop or the automatic-weapon fire the Jheri Curls sometimes sprayed into the air. That era makes him think about Hurricane Katrina.

“The people there were always great people,” said Gilmore of the block’s residents. “It was more like we, society, had failed them. Sort of like the way Katrina made you realize things were being neglected.”

That neglect took myriad forms at the time: run-down housing, bad sanitation service, flagrant drug dealing, prostitution, and—all too often, according to Gilmore—poor police work.

“It’s like these residents didn’t have any value, in the way that the department related to that area at that time,” said Gilmore.

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, before their subsequent relocation down the block, the Jheri Curls were running their operations out of an apartment house at 550 West 157th Street—a 10-story building east of Broadway, just inside the boundaries of Gilmore’s beat. The gang had set up shop in two of the building’s apartments.

“People were afraid of them—the other drug dealers were afraid of them,” recalled Gilmore. “They had a reputation that if you crossed them, or whatever else, you would be taken out. The residents in there were petrified about speaking about them.”

Rather than charging headlong into 550, Gilmore first labored to win over the trust of the neighbors. He says he helped them with housing problems, took their kids to ball games, explained how to better navigate the city’s social services. “You could meet people and address their housing and youth issues,” said Gilmore, “and then you could deal with the drug issues later.”

Over time, Gilmore said, he set up a system for the tenants in 550 to report in secret on the comings and goings of the Jheri Curls. By the summer of 1990, Gilmore’s efforts were starting to pay off. In July, according to prosecutors, the police raided an apartment there and found two guns and more than 12 ounces of cocaine. A few months later, another raid turned up another four ounces. “At 550, we had a fighting plan,” recalled Gilmore. “We had ways of reporting stuff. I had people in the building taking pictures of [the Jheri Curls] doing different things. They could do it anonymously without the risk of getting hurt.”

In September 1990, perhaps because of the mounting pressure, the Jheri Curls began shifting their operations down the block to the U-shaped apartment building at 614 West 157th. As it happened, the Jheri Curls’ new headquarters fell just outside of Gilmore’s beat, which ended at Broadway.

As a result, the residents of 614 would have to learn to deal with their new curly-haired neighbors all by themselves.

“When those guys hit up that building, that building hadn’t yet built up the resistance and different techniques which are necessary when you’re invaded in that way,” says Gilmore. “I’ll be honest with you, those things take time, energy, and an investment that’s usually not done by the police department.”

Thus a shroud of silence fell over 614. According to a 1994 American Spectator article about the Jheri Curls that followed Reyes’s highly publicized murder, there was nobody in the building who would talk to the police. And according to court documents, at that point the majority of the police work at 614 had moved undercover. The investigation into the Jheri Curls gang was ongoing, yet it was also a closely held secret. The silence between the residents and the police was reciprocal and ran deep.

At the time, Robert Jackall, a sociology professor at Williams College, was working on a book about the Wild Cowboys, another Dominican street gang in Washington Heights. During his research, Jackall tagged along with various police officers as they rolled through the streets of upper Manhattan. Seeing but not seeing, recalled Jackall, was a strategy not just for the residents of the Jheri Curls building, but also for the entire neighborhood.

“Snitches get stitches,” said Jackall. “That was the maxim. You never stuck your nose in other people’s business. Ever. And if you found yourself caught there accidentally, you made sure that other people would not cause any problems.”

At the time, due to the thriving cocaine trade in the area, federal agents used to call Washington Heights “Miami on the Hudson.” Local cops, who struggled to get neighborhood witnesses to talk about crimes they had seen, had another nickname for the Fort Washington section of Washington Heights. They called it “Fort ‘Yo No Sé’ ” —”Fort ‘I Don’t Know.’ ”

During the salad days of the Jheri Curls gang, Rafael Martinez managed to invest a heap of savings in the Dominican Republic. The nest egg, prosecutors said, included three houses, a gas station, and two trucks. But Martinez never made it back to the Dominican Republic. Instead, in October 1991, five months after the murder of Jose Reyes, the state of New York threw Martinez a going-away party of sorts.

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).

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.

Judge Padro took the requests for resentencing under advisement and promised a decision soon.

On West 157th Street these days, a block that was once all curls has now gone straight. Residents sit out on stoops. Kids ride by on bikes. The gaudy golden chariots favored by the Jheri Curls have yielded the streets to Volvos and minivans. New scaffolding creeps up the sides of old buildings. The corner cocaine markets have given way to a weekend farmers’ market.

Patches of the Jheri Curls’ former turf have turned upscale in their absence. On the west side, where the block slopes away from Broadway, many of the lofty pre-war buildings have gone co-op. As a result, a new minority group—white people—has started to roll into the neighborhood. A two-bedroom apartment at the corner of Riverside Drive and 157th Street was recently listed at $899,000.

Vivian Ducat, a documentary filmmaker who works for Columbia University, moved in a few years ago. She said she first considered the area back in the early ’90s, but her husband nixed the plan. Roughly a decade later, with the Jheri Curls nowhere to be seen, she and her husband bought an apartment with a butler’s pantry and river views in a building at the intersection of 157th and Riverside Drive—a building that, unbeknownst to the Ducats, hangs directly over the Jheri Curls’ former headquarters.

Despite her proximity to Jheri Curls history, Ducat said she had never heard of the gang. “I am a born-and-bred Upper West Sider,” says Ducat. “The neighborhood reminds me of what the Upper West Side was like in the ’60s and ’70s. I love it here.”

Others neighbors are still marveling at the metamorphosis. Kyle Cuordileone, a history professor at the New York City College of Technology, first moved to West 157th in 1992, when her then husband began a post-doc at nearby Columbia University Medical Center. “This area was like the Wild West back then,” said Cuordileone. “There were shootings all the time. The streets were littered with crack vials. It was pretty rough. It’s hard to believe that apartments are now going for a million dollars.”