NYC ARCHIVES

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

“What made 147th Street so bad was the kids. They had all grown up right in the neighborhood; now they were killing it, and each other.”

by

Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People
January 15, 1979

One Sunday night last fall, trying to un­wind from the sights and sounds of a day in Harlem, I switched on my Trinitron and aimlessly turned the dial. What should come beaming into my bedroom but a service of worship that was obviously emanating from a storefront church in Harlem! I was hypnotized instantly by the preacher, a tall, slim black man in a sleek blue shirt and vest and an ice-blue tie. He was standing high in a bright orange pulpit, improvising his sermon in heavily cadenced free verse, at first chant­ing it, then singing it, and finally screeching it in a spiritual frenzy. His neatly dressed congregation, swaying on the edges of their folding chairs, sang out affirmation at the end of every line. Here is a sample of what the preacher was saying:

If we are going
To preserve our race
We cannot let our boys and our girls
Walk around the streets
And take chose streets away from us!
Somewhere, somehow
Somebody’s going to have to take these boys and girls
And kill them!

The preacher lavished several beats on the word “kill,” making it beautiful to the ear, and the congregation responded with a shout of approbation. Yet these did not look like bloodthirsty people; they had the solemn, rapturous faces of that large class of ghetto residents who pour into the churches every Sunday. Living in Harlem has forced these people to realize that nothing is meaner than a mean 15-year-old, and many have come to regard the death penalty for adolescent kill­ers as their only means of self-defense. There is a growing segment of the population that would go along behind this TV preacher, who, neglecting to mention the Seventh Commandment, cited all kinds of scripture to the effect that, although Christ didn’t ac­tively favor the taking of life, when it came to a choice between the destruction of society and capital punishment, He would have been for capital punishment.

***

In the Sixth Homicide Zone, I often heard the detectives talking about a kid named Hemorrhoids, and for several weeks that was the only name I knew him by. Hemorrhoids was being cultivated as a witness in a couple of cases. Because the detectives seemed to see him as a puckish figure and told funny stories about him, it took me a while to realize that he was a serious criminal, one of the legion of feral, amoral adolescents whose atrocities are reported almost daily in the newspapers. He­morrhoids wasn’t the baddest little dude in Harlem — not by a long shot — but he was, unmistakably, one of the breed. The detec­tive who knew him best was Jeddy Gates’s partner, Joe Leake, and Leake said he was capable of anything you could imagine. Al­ready, at the age of 15, he had pulled countless stick-ups, sold vast quantities of dope, and acquired a reputation for selling beat packs — all cut and no heroin. He had also shot a number of people and missed killing them more by accident than by design.

One day in March, I went into the office, and there was Hemorrhoids, sitting regally in one of the back rooms, making a deposition to Leake and Gates. Had I not known who he was, I would have taken him for a boy of 12. He was scarcely over five feet tall, with nar­row shoulders, long arms, and slender hips. He had a receding chin, a finely shaped nose, small, shrewd eyes, and long eyelashes. His lips were full and his mouth came out like a scoop. His was a mobile face, a comedian’s face; he reminded Gates of J.J. Walker, the actor on TV who says “Dyn-omite!” When he smiled, his top lip rose from his rabbit’s teeth and it was like seeing a velvet curtain go up on a brightly lit stage. It wasn’t until he signed the deposition that I first heard his real name, Willy Horton.

As I later found out, Willy had a habit of holding on to all the money he made from selling dope, telling his bosses, “The police got my shit.” It was one of these bosses who gave him his nickname because he was such a pain in the ass.

Willy didn’t take this lying down. “At one time,” he said, “I had people calling me Wil­ly. I would stick a pistol in their head and cock it and say, ‘Next time you call me He­morrhoids, I’m gonna let it go.’ But then all the old niggers started calling me Hemorrhoids, so I said, ‘I don’t care. You all go on and call me that, I just don’t answer.’ ”

I always called him Willy. Because I never saw him outside the presence of Leake and Gates, he never seemed threatening to me, and I was able to appreciate his better quali­ties, which were charm, humor, and a keen but underdeveloped intelligence. Unfortu­nately, life in Harlem had made him crazy, and the values he had picked up in the street were not exactly sterling. Willy’s true school and playground was the block of 147th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The newspapers ran so many stories about the shootings on that block that I tended to dis­count its notoriety as a product of media hype — but when I talked to some of the resi­dents, they seemed convinced, from their own experience, that it was the worst block in Harlem. Certainly Willy thought so. What made it so bad, he said in one of his more in­trospective moments, was the kids. They had all grown up right in the neighborhood; now they were killing it and each other.

The main thing these kids seemed to want, and which constantly slipped through their fingers, was respect. For them, the idea of re­spect was synonymous with big money, dirty money. Their models were the wealthiest men of the community. “Nicky Barnes had biiiig respect because he would spend money,” said Willy. “I seen him walking around plenty of times with a suitcase full of cash. A black briefcase.”

These kids are Nicky’s spiritual sons, and their code is quite possibly harsher than his had ever been. In Nicky’s day, the youth gangs had a certain sense of fraternity, and at least paid lip service to the notion of one for all and all for one. When Nicky was Willy’s age, in the late 1940s, he belonged to a gang named the Turks, whose special colors were green and white, and whose rivals were the Bishops and the Comets. Today the gangs have largely been supplanted by crews, com­mercial entities for selling dope and doing stick-ups. The crew with which Willy was associated had neither name nor colors. They all wore pretty much the same thing Willy wore: jeans with rolled-up cuffs, zippered jackets or hooded sweatshirts, and the staple footwear of ghetto kids, sneakers — especially Pumas, Pro-Keds, and Adidas. It is as if the dress code acknowledges the truth of the si­tuation — every man for himself.

The thing that makes Willy’s life particu­larly difficult, I think, is that he is not quite as alone as many of his fellow hoodlums. He has a mother who loves him and a family that is in his corner, and this has made it hard for him to acquire the utter and unswerving de­pravity necessary for survival in his profes­sion. Willy has attended church on many oc­casions and heard the scriptures; he even claims to believe in God. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he once told me. “One minute I’m ready to do something baaad. Then, just about when I’m ready to do it, something comes into my mind — ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that.’ Gotta be the Lord. The devil can make you do something wrong, but if you got the Lord, the Lord’ll help you out.”

Caught between these opposing counsels, Willy hesitated and was lost, or maybe saved — he decided to do the Lord’s work and testify against a murderer, the leader of his crew. With that, he was instantly ostracized by his old cohorts and banished from his old neighborhood; his life was threatened. He and his family have now been relocated to another part of the city, but anything short of relocation to another continent is not going to ensure Willy’s preservation. He seems to be­lieve he’s enjoying the protection of the Lord. “Lord helped me plenty times,” he told me. “I got hit by a car, got shot in the head, fell off Mopeds about three or four times, bust my lip up, fell on my head, and everything. Lord helped me a lot.” Still, some of the people who know Willy be­lieve — and it is a terrible thing to say — that he wants to die.

Willy was born in 1962, the fifth of six children, and grew up on the top floor of a tenement on 148th Street. It wasn’t such a bad block in those days, but the landlord didn’t keep up the building. There was no heat in winter, except what came from the open gas stove. Later, the water was shut off; Willy had to go fetch it by the bucketful from the hydrant on the corner.

The burden of raising the family devolved upon Willy’s mother; his father, a short man with the nickname of “Mousy,” skipped out when Willy was one. Mrs. Horton, a good­-tempered woman who laughs easily, is now 38 but looks older; she had her first baby when she was about Willy’s age. She is squat, with a broad face, wrinkled brow, and short, hennaed hair. Because she suffers from high blood pressure, a common ailment among ur­ban blacks, she was unable to find steady em­ployment, and had to make do with welfare.

She was not entirely alone. Her own moth­er always stood by her in times of trouble, and her brothers — particularly James, a karate pro — helped to discipline the kids. James in­structed Willy in the martial arts and was his “main item” until two years ago, when he was mysteriously killed on a trip to Mexico City.

Willy is almost as much of a mystery to his mother as he is to everyone else. “He was al­ways a very fair child,” she told me; it wasn’t until he was 12 or 13 that she noticed he was more of a challenge than the rest of her chil­dren. “One thing about Willy,” she said, “he always had big ideas.” He never lacked for clean clothes or hot meals, but he didn’t have big money, like his friends who were dealing, and that was what he wanted.

From the age of 11 onward, Willy hung out assiduously on the corner with a gang of teenagers who sold dope and did stick-ups. He soon found the drug operation to be a closed shop; the older kids used him as a gof­er but only rarely gave him any drugs to sell; without a connection, he was nowhere. But armed robbery was another matter entirely; all he needed was a gun and a lot of nerve. Soon he joined the other stick-up kids, prey­ing on the wide variety of people who walk around Harlem carrying cash: junkies, scramblers, dealers, gamblers, numbers cou­riers, people whose numbers had hit. The most he ever made on one job was $800, and usually the take was much less; on a good day, however, he could do several stick-ups. His only problem was explaining his new­found wealth to his mother. At first, he told her that he’d won the money playing celo, a dice game; but that story pretty soon wore thin. So Willy would either leave the money with a friend or stash it in his private hole, a course followed by many stick-up kids. There is more treasure buried in Harlem’s vacant lots than Captain Kidd ever dreamed of.

What did Willy spend his earnings on? The usual things — movies, women, guns, gambling, Pro-Ked sneakers, suits from A.J. Lester’s on 125th Street, rides around Cen­tral Park in Godfather limousines, coke, and angel dust. Note well: not a penny for smack. Willy was never going to be what Nicky Barnes had been at 14, a junkie. I once asked Nicky what got him started on heroin, and he said it was that his heroes — Parker and Miles — snorted horse. But by the time Willy hit the street, those heroes were long gone from the scene, and so were the places where they had played.

Every place Willy looked, he learned the lesson that smack is poison. “I used to see the posters on the wall in school — DANGER, HE­ROIN, DO NOT USE,” he said. “Me and my friends used to say, ‘We ain’t ever gonna mess with that stuff.’ ”

Willy’s idea of users came from the vast population of junkies that Nicky Barnes helped to create. “I hate dope fiends,” said Willy. “They arm swole up, they stink, they just ruin theyselves — I ain’t never sniffed dope or shot it, and I never will.”

But Willy does smoke large amounts of an­gel dust, which is by far the most popular drug of his generation. Angel dust has shaped, or misshaped, the personality of the up-and-coming criminal class; it makes them think they’re supermen, immune to bullets, blades, and steaming locomotives. For some­one like Willy, who weighs barely 100 pounds, dust is virtually a business expense; it gives him the insane energy he needs to hold up people twice his size. Its effect on people who are full-sized and jail-hardened is to make them mean beyond belief. One of Willy’s older friends, a stick-up artist who was feared all over Harlem, used to get dust­ed up and force girls to blow him as their terrified boyfriends looked on.

The active ingredient in angel dust is a chemical called PCP, an animal tranquilizer, which is sprayed onto marijuana: I once met a cousin of Willy’s who told me, “It sort of pushes your eyes back in your head, and if you smoke it for a while, you lose a lot of weight.” It also makes you feel numb. Willy was shot in the head while he was on dust, and he didn’t feel a thing. The dust numbs out everything — not just pain, but also emo­tions, particularly fear and remorse. It’s the perfect drug for a generation of kids who as­sume that they’re going to get killed, but want five wild years before they die.

In 1976, as Willy entered his 14th year, he was doing pretty much what he pleased: rob­bing, selling, screwing, smoking dust, and hanging around in poolrooms. He went to school when it suited him. Every so often he would be hauled into Family Court, but his mother always accompanied him, and he was usually permitted to go home in her custody. Only once, after having robbed an old wom­an, was he sent to the Spofford Juvenile De­tention Facility in the Bronx. For many kids, Spofford would be a terrifying place, but it serves Willy’s neighborhood as a kind of boarding school; he saw a lot of friends there.

“Must have been a real shock, going there,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Willy, “had to go to bed ear­ly.”

Willy’s major professional problem was his inability to break into the drug business. The gang he hung out with was a tight-knit group of 15 brothers and cousins called the Gillis clan. The Gillises refused to give Willy a meaningful place in their operation, and after a while he decided that they were just ex­ploiting him, getting his labor for nothing. “You take Larry Gillis,” said Willy. “He ain’t the oldest brother, but he’s the biggest brother, and he tries to get a lot of respect from everybody. He’d tell me, ‘Go over to my house, take this, sell this for me, I’ll hook you up.’ He got all the money and he ain’t gonna give you a damn thing.”

It was just at this juncture in Willy’s career that James Charleston reappeared in his neighborhood. James Charleston been convict­ed, at the age of 14, of having killed a girl from 148th Street with whom Willy had grown up. Now, after 18 months in jail, James was back on 147th Street. Even in that very tough block, among kids who had grown up with killing, Charleston was con­sidered too crazy to mess with. He didn’t kill for what the other kids considered good reasons, like revenge; he killed for the pure pleasure of it, whenever the urge hit him.

However, Charleston had his good side, too. He was fair with Willy, and gave him half the take whenever they did a job togeth­er. He was also clever, resourceful, and defi­nitely badder than Larry Gillis. “See,” said Willy, “the Gillises couldn’t pull any of their tricks with Charleston.”

Charleston formed a little stick-up gang with Willy and two other kids. Willy served as a kind of squire, following Charleston around, carrying his gun for him, shooting whomever he said to shoot. Charleston also became the main enforcer — the muscle — for a rising drug dealer named Moose, who was sufficiently powerful that the Gillis clan was forced to share 147th Street with him. The arrangement between the two groups seemed to work well until the police cracked down on the drug strip further south on Eighth Avenue, with the result that a flood of customers was flushed into their shared territory.

Alas, the influx of business only stimulated the dealers’ greed, and within weeks the deli­cate truce between Moose and the Gillises disintegrated in a hail of lead. A running bat­tle ensued.

In one month alone, March of 1977, there were 17 shootings. According to Willy, this was when the block really started to go mad. A number of innocent bystanders were hit by stray bullets; nobody could venture out with­out the risk of being shot. The besieged resi­dents raised a ruckus, and the police bore down on the offenders, busting several of Willy’s acquaintances. The dealers packed it in and moved to 143rd Street. Charleston’s gang, according to Willy, was so feared by then that they were able to go into the protec­tion racket. “People was givin’ us money just to don’t do nothin’.”

By the summer of ’77 there was peace again on 147th Street, but nobody who lived there really trusted it. Although the dealers were gone, Charleston’s gang remained and continued their depredations upon anyone stupid enough to walk through the neighbor­hood with a full wallet. It had been a trau­matic spring, people’s nerves were badly shot, and everyone had become extremely cautious. There was no hanging out on stoops that summer, no dancing in the street to disco from the radios; even the after-hours joint was shut tight by nine every night, with the customers locked in until the break of day. At every burst of firecrackers on the Fourth of July, people dove for the sidewalk.

Then came the blackout, a raucous night of gunshots and drunkenness, illuminated by darting flashlight beams. It was also Willy’s 15th birthday, July 13. Some kids from the neighborhood looted a liquor store, and Charleston saw one of them, David Nurse, running down an alleyway with a case of whiskey. David didn’t stop when James told him to, so James allegedly shot him in the back and killed him.

“David Nurse,” Willy mused later, “he was a good person. I’ve known him all my life, man. I know his whole family and every­thing. I was by myself that night, for a little while. If I would have been there, man, I would have stopped that… David used to let me ride his bike a lot, right on 148th Street.”

But Willy was right there beside Charles­ton a couple of weeks later when James went up on a roof to test his new rifle on a human target, a scrambler named Heavy, who was lying in bed across the street — and Willy didn’t lift a finger to stop that from happen­ing. On the contrary, he acted as lookout. Maybe Heavy hadn’t ever let him ride his bike.

Toward the end of the summer James got arrested for sticking up a numbers guy and was sent to Riker’s. Willy began to learn how effectively he could work on his own. One af­ternoon in late August he did a solo job on 148th Street — another numbers guy.

“I knew him and I knew he was a punk,” Willy explained. “That’s why I stuck him up. I knew him cause we two lived in the same block, ever since I was livin’ there.” So Willy robbed his neighbor of 14 years in a hallway, and the neighbor put out the word, and Joe Leake heard about it. Willy’s neigh­borhood happened to be Leake’s special area within the Sixth Zone; he and several other detectives were working on Charleston’s two homicides, and they needed to crack some­body from Charleston’s gang.

“I’ll take care of it myself,” the numbers guy insisted, but Leake convinced him to let the system do it for him and got him to press charges. That same night, Leake picked up Willy, drove him to the station house, informed him of the case against him, and made a candid plea for information. Willy was totally stand-up. Leake brandished the threat of jail. “I’ll take my chances,” said Willy with a shrug. Leake made him get up, searched him, found several decks of heroin, and charged him with drug possession on top of robbery.

But Joe Leake didn’t let this unfortunate incident sour his relationship with Willy. He didn’t do the cop act any longer than neces­sary, and tried to keep everything friendly. Leake is an extremely handsome man, tall and graceful, with an easy smile to take the edge off his splendid looks. He turned the charm on Willy’s whole family. He dropped into their apartment, chatted with Willy’s mother about her grandchildren and his own kids, took Willy for rides in his sports car, bought him breakfasts, treated him like a lit­tle boy-king. Leake told him if he ever put his street smarts into legitimate business, he could really go somewhere — which Joe really believed. But Willy still didn’t feel up to helping the police.

So, in early October, the robbery trial went ahead in Family Court.

***

One of the great problems that always arises when one culture meets another is that of credibility, and it is a problem that haunts every courtroom in Manhattan. To what ex­tent can a judge or jury give credence to a res­ident of Harlem who speaks in street talk and has stepped out of an environment that they know to he steeped in crime? The Harlemite sits on the stand, a deep mystery. Has he any respect for the majesty of the law, for a white system of criminal justice? How can his lis­teners ever hope to guess what his motives may be and whether or not he is telling the truth?

Here is a complainant, 27 years old, testi­fying under oath that the defendant, one Wil­ly Horton, 15 years old, held him up at gun­point and robbed him of $105.

The judge, anxious not to condemn the youth out of hand, asks the complainant how he makes his living.

“I hustle — write numbers, play cards, shoot a little craps.” And how much income has he reported recently to the IRS? None. And why did he not report the crime im­mediately? “Because I was gonna take care of it myself.” All of which is, of course, true.

“I do not find this man credible,” the judge declares after due deliberation. “He admits that he paid no income tax in 1975 and 1976, and that he was going to instigate vigilante action against the defendant.” Case dismissed.

What has this judge been smoking? What does he think goes on up in Harlem? Hasn’t he noticed that every time Willy is led back to the holding pen, he leans toward the com­plainant and mutters, “Hey, man, Craig is looking for you”? Even without knowing that Craig is in Charleston’s gang, doesn’t he know a death threat when he hears one? Vigi­lante action! What does the judge think is go­ing to happen now that the defendant has found out his word is no good in court be­cause he doesn’t pay taxes? Has the judge ever stopped to consider how many people in Harlem don’t pay taxes?

***

It was a good thing for Leake that he’d been cultivating Willy all along. James had been in jail for a couple of months now, his power over Willy was dwindling; his place in Willy’s affections was being taken over by Leake. “It was like he got a new girlfriend,” Leake put it later. He kept begging Willy to do the right thing, and he made Willy feel like the key. In November, he decided to demonstrate his faith in Willy by arranging for the drug charge to be dropped — a win­ning tactic. Willy came forward with the de­sired goods, first a crucial piece of evidence that made the Nurse case possible to try, and again with the solution to the murder of Heavy.

Many months later, I asked Willy exactly what had made him decide to help the police. “I guess the Lord took care of that,” he answered with a meaningful look. Leake thought it was more a case of Willy’s enjoying all the attention he was getting.

Just a few days into the new year, 1978, Willy got shot in the head and nearly went out of the picture. This was Leake’s second witness to get shot within a year; the other one had been DOA. At first, Leake feared the shooting might have had something to do with Willy’s decision to cooperate, but such was not the case. Willy’s two best friends, both kin of Charleston’s, had been killed the week before, and Willy needed money for a new black suit to wear at the funeral. Selling dope in a hallway on 143rd Street, Willy had tried to push around the resident scramblers and thus aroused the ire of the block’s most prominent dealer, who shot him. The bullet struck him just under the left sideburn, trav­eled down under the chin, and lodged harm­lessly in the neck — a miracle. When Leake visited the intensive care unit, Willy bright­ened and said, “Hey, my main man!”

Willy recovered within a few weeks, and the next months were a period of wandering for him. Leake was promoted to sergeant, with a desk job in a West Side precinct, and so passed temporarily out of his life. Willy’s mother moved the family to an apartment in the Bronx, in the precinct the cops call “Jun­gle Habitat”; though the new neighborhood was full of drugs and violence, it was, never­theless, a slight improvement over the old one. Unfortunately, Willy headed right back to 147th Street and continued his career as a stick-up artist. That summer he turned 16, was arrested for several shootings, was charged as an adult, and even spent a few days in Riker’s — no more Family Court. In September, Leake was transferred back to Sixth Homicide with an assignment to watch over Willy and help him prepare for his star­ring role in the imminent trial of Charleston.

Heavy’s murder was the first case to be tried. One warm fall morning, Leake drove Willy down to Centre Street, jiving all the way, and deposited him in the courtroom. Things started off well enough; Willy took the oath with his hand held high and his chest puffed out, standing so straight he was almost swaybacked. James Charleston leaned back in his chair at the defense table, and smiled. He was stocky and powerfully built, wearing a beige short-sleeved safari suit and red Pumas. He had a round head, with taut, gleaming skin, and a scar running across the brow. Several of his girlfriends were in the audience.

The assistant district attorney asked Willy the first question, one they had rehearsed many times: “On the 31st of July 1977, were you on the roof of 290 West 147th Street?”

“Nope.”

The a.d.a. reeled as if from a blow; recov­ering quickly, he put the question in another form, with the same negative result. A recess was called and the a.d.a. took Willy down­stairs to his office. “What are you doing?” he kept asking him over and over. Meanwhile, Leake, thinking Willy could use some moral support, called his mother; she came down in a taxi and talked some sense into him; he finally agreed to go back and tell the truth. But as soon as Willy got back on the stand and saw Charleston, he changed his mind again. This time they summoned his legal aid lawyer, who warned him he could be held on perjury charges if he changed his story. The trial proceeded once again.

The judge was determined to keep going until both the a.d.a. and defense attorney had finished with the witness, but around 7:30, while being cross-examined, Willy be­gan falling asleep on the stand. The defense lawyer asked him why he had his eyes closed. “Because I’m tired of looking at you,” said Willy. That’s when the a.d.a. persuaded the judge it was time to stop for the day.

Anxious to keep Willy happy, the a.d.a. allowed him to go home with his mother, rather than making him stay the night in a hotel, under guard. They stopped for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and called the house. Willy’s older brother reported that he had run into Charleston’s older brother, who had said, “I wouldn’t testify against your brother, man.” Now, Willy was a connoisseur of death threats — he had made enough of them himself — and this statement by Charleston’s brother struck him as extremely sinister. So his mother called Joe Leake, who arranged for a police car to pick them up and take them to the Bronx. Later, he offered to have them put in a hotel, but by that time Willy was crying and thoroughly spooked; his mother thought he’d be better off at home. Still later that night, Willy stepped out the back window and let himself down the fire escape.

Where did Willy go? He stayed in Harlem for a week and a half — part of the time with his father, part at a motel. Then he and a friend drove to Detroit in a Mercedes; having retrieved his stash of money from its secret hiding place, Willy was able to travel with a cardboard carton half filled with 10s and 20s.

The search for him was intensive. Gates and Leake and three men from the 32nd Pre­cinct stayed out until dawn, night after night, checking every place Willy used to hang out, looking up his friends, offering a reward of $100 for information. Every cop in Harlem had a flyer with Willy’s picture on it. After two weeks of searching, the cops heard that he was vacationing in the Motor City.

The a.d.a. on the case was named Allen Reiter; it was his third homicide. He was a thin fellow, with a neat rabbinical beard, and he reminded me of myself in that he was rather high strung. He must have been under severe pressure from his superiors, which can only have increased after an incredibly preju­dicial article appeared in the New York Post — MISSING WITNESS PERILS CASE AGAINST KILLER TEENAGER. The article gave a long description of Charleston’s psy­chopathic career and made a mistrial virtually inevitable.

The sergeant who caught the case in De­troit has a vivid memory of his first phone call from Reiter. “It sounded like the man was crying. He said, ‘Everything is at stake.’ I told him I didn’t realize it was that impor­tant. He started calling once a day, and I tried to be diplomatic, but finally I had to say, ‘Look, we’re working on it, we’ll get back to you when we get something.’ ”

Toward the end of October, the Detroit police picked Willy up; he was living in a trailer on a block notorious for drugs. When Gates and Leake were dispatched to retrieve him, I got wind of their mission and flew out with them.

When we arrived at the ominous brick building that housed the Wayne County Juvenile Facility, Gates stayed in the car and I went in with Leake to take the fugitive into custody. As usual, everything about Leake was elegant — the real Cartier tank watch, the blue blazer, gold belt buckle, and beige slacks that fell in long crisp lines and broke on his loafers, just so. He sauntered over to a ticket window in the reception hall, and spoke to the clerk, who sent for Willy and laid out his possessions — five cinnamon can­dies, some change, and a black plastic hair pick. The handle of the pick was embossed with a peace sign and tapered off into a black power fist.

After a few minutes an attendant pushed open a door, and in swaggered Willy, with his shoulders back, his feet splayed, and his hands thrust nonchalantly into the pockets of his orange imitation-leather jacket. “Hey, man,” he said to Leake with a sly con­spiratorial grin that seemed to add, “I knew you’d find me.” And Leake grinned back.

Knowing the drill, Willy went directly to the window and signed for his property; he whipped the pick into his hair at a rakish an­gle. Leake held him gently by the collar and led him outside. “Don’t you trust me?” Wil­ly asked disingenuously as they crossed the concrete driveway.

“I’d trust you if you were under this ce­ment,” said Leake.

Willy got into the front seat between the Detroit police sergeant and Leake. Gates, sit­ting in the back, greeted him with a big smile, leaned forward, pulled the pick out of his hair, and handed it to him. “Put that in your pocket, man,” he said.

Leake started asking questions in a low voice, talking street talk. “I came out here to get rich,” said Willy, in a tone of braggadocio, and went on to claim he’d set him­self up as a pimp, with seven girls in his sta­ble. Gates asked him if he’d had a Mercedes. “That’s right,” said Willy, “Mercedes. Drove it out here.” He unzipped his jacket and showed Leake the designer shirt he’d bought for $56 — a handsome garment, made of black silk, imprinted with a design of yel­low parrots, green palm trees, and red tropi­cal flowers. Leake later asked him if he were going to make a clean breast of things so he could walk with his head high, and wouldn’t have to hit the shadows. To which Willy an­swered, “Yup.”

As we drove along the freeway to the airport, it occurred to me that here was Leake, 38 years old, just the same age as Willy’s mother, a perfect father for him; and here was Jeddy, 64, an ideal grandfather. I thought how different things might have been if that had actually been the case, and wondered what Willy would be doing now, instead of flying back to a city where he was now both publicized and marked.

Willy came back from Detroit much im­pressed with his own importance. His name had been all over the papers; large amounts of time and money had been lavished on his apprehension; for the moment he had tran­scended his role as a creepy kid with little re­spect in the street. He was about to commit the single most virtuous act of his life, put away a pathological killer; forgotten was his own complicity in the killing; forgotten were the many shootings he had done himself. Willy’s life was largely one of fantasy, and for the moment he convinced himself that his re­turn was a voluntary act; he expected grati­tude, appreciation, and a room at the Plaza.

“Unfortunately,” Leake explained, “Willy has shown that he doesn’t deserve to be put in a hotel.” What with all the publicity, the embarrassment to the D.A.’s office, there was no chance of Willy’s going anywhere that offered the slightest opportunity for escape. As a material witness, he was placed in the Queens House of Detention.

Willy’s legal-aid attorney expressed honest outrage. He was a serious young man with curly hair and horn rims who was of the opin­ion that, having committed no crime in this instance except running away from a death threat, and having always appeared willingly in the past, Willy ought not to be kept in jail like a criminal.

This reasonable — if unrealistic — argument fell on deaf ears. The judge, Martin Evans, was unmoved. He is the same judge who pre­sided two years ago over the first of the Mosque trials, at which time I wrote that opinion as to his abilities was widely divided. This was wrong. It’s his philosophy that is controversial, not his legal competence. Evans is known as “Maximum Marty,” for his practice of giving stiff sentences; he is generally considered the hardest liner in a courthouse that remains essentially soft-­hearted. Many defense lawyers condemn him for being mean, cold, and pro-prosecution­ which may be true, but I’m not sure it makes him a poor judge.

If the murder and pillage that goes on in Harlem ever comes to midtown Manhattan, I can assure you there will be torchlight pa­rades down Fifth Avenue, with the marchers clamoring for public executions in Sheep’s Meadow. While I myself abhor capital pun­ishment, 11 months in Harlem has made me realize the need for certain punishment, some means to keep inveterate killers off the street. If judges shirk the duty of sentencing killers to long terms in our ghastly prisons, there is going to be a growing movement to­ward vigilantism uptown, which can only lead to further violence and chaos. There is no simple solution to these problems, and a society that doesn’t want to spend money on criminal justice is probably placing too heavy a burden on its judges. I will just say that when I looked at James Charleston, I was re­lieved to see cool, careful, controversial, no­-nonsense Marty Evans sitting on the bench.

The new trial began on a Wednesday, early in November. Willy was an A+ witness that afternoon, helpful and alert. He told the sto­ry of the murder with clarity and precision of detail:

It all took place on 147th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, two weeks after the blackout, in a heat wave. The victim, a guy named Heavy who lived at 291, worked as a scrambler for a dealer named Moose­ — the same Moose who employed Charleston and his friends as gorillas. Heavy also had a job as a super in a building up the street, but had to sell dope to make money to support his habit, which he had picked up in Viet­nam.

That day, Heavy was standing on the stoop of 291 when a customer came up and told him, “You sold me something bad.” James, standing in the hallway, overheard the com­plaint, and immediately assembled a posse of 10 or 15 friends to enforce quality control. They took Heavy across the street to the hall­way of 290 and stomped him for nearly a quarter of an hour. Willy tried to kick him, but couldn’t get in close enough.

That night, James told Willy to go get the rifle. It was a rusty, lever-action 30/30 that they’d found in the alley around the comer, sticking out of the dirt. They had cleaned it and left it with a guy named Tiny, who lived in one of the block’s abandoned tenements.

(The only three facts I could ever get out of Willy about Tiny were these: “Tiny just went out of his head one day. His family all left him. Used to walk down the island and up the island.” Willy seemed to feel this was all there was to say on the subject).

Willy got the rifle for James, and they went up to the roof of 290 with Craig. Craig and Willy stood lookout on either side of the roof, and James stood in the middle. “He was looking for something to shoot,” Willy testified. “Then he said, ‘Heavy, I’m gwan get Heavy.’ ” Heavy was lying in bed across the way on the fourth floor of 291, reading the News, with the window open. James aimed, and the shot sounded a lot louder than any shot Willy had ever heard.

They saw Heavy writhing in agony on the floor and heard him screaming he’d been shot; James told Willy to pick up the shell from the roof and gave him the rifle to take back to Tiny’s. A few minutes later, Willy joined the other two on the stoop of 292, and they watched the ambulance come take Heavy away.

By the time Reiter finished his direct ex­amination of Willy, the courtroom was grow­ing dark and the day was over.

Next morning came the cross-examina­tion, and everybody warned Willy again, as they’d warned him before, that James’s law­yer was going to try to get his goat, and Willy knew it, but it didn’t do any good. The law­yer, Phil Edelbaum, is by nature a schmooz­er, but in his professional capacity he became extremely nasty, insinuating, and sarcastic. The lawyer dragged out a great many of the bad things Willy had done, and Willy resent­ed having to admit he’d done them. Things like: selling dope; shooting a guy named Marcus “for personal reasons”; shooting another guy named Mo, in the chest, “not too long ago”; robbing an old lady with his friend Butchie (“I told Butchie not to do it”); shooting his friend Styx in the foot (“I was shooting at the ground, it just hit his foot”). By turns, Willy was sassy, sulky, argumenta­tive; not once did he fail to rise to Edel­baum’s grossly baited hook. At the lunch break, the stenographer shook her head and wondered out loud if the boy might not be a “bad seed.”

After lunch, coming up the hallway on his way back to face further cross-examination, Willy looked pretty grim; Reiter had scolded him severely. When he came to where I was, he suddenly stuck out his elbow, and I thought for a moment he was going to put it in my stomach — but then his hand came out like a flipper. “Squeeeze!” he said, with a big grin. So I squoze and wished him a gung-ho good luck.

Two days later, the jury convicted James Charleston of manslaughter. I have no idea what their reasons were for believing Willy, but if I were to guess, I’d say that Willy came across to them as precisely the kind of kid who would have been up on that roof with James Charleston when he shot Heavy.

A few days after Willy was released from the Queens House and returned to his block in the Bronx, somebody stabbed him in the back, and he nearly went out of the picture again. He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and now he’s apparently as good as new… but somehow I get the feeling that in terms of his life as a whole, he’s not in very good shape. His family is hoping that things may still turn around for him — after he testifies in the other case against Charleston, and goes on to his own trials, maybe the judge will put him on probation, or give him time in an honor prison “like they gave Ehr­lichman and all the rest of them”; maybe he’ll hit the books, go to high school, become a cop; maybe he’ll live to a ripe old age…

Most people who spend any time with Wil­ly lose patience with him; I think the basic reason for this is his relentless determination to get himself killed. As for myself, I have the luxury of knowing him from a distance, and my heart goes out to him. Talk about lost boys… here is a Wee Geordie in Harlem, tormented by his small stature, lifting his weights to try to get muscles, humiliated by his nickname, unsettled by all the upheavals of adolescence, grieved by the death of his two friends, caught tightly in the toils of the law, despised by his old companions, fully aware that people may be plotting his death…

Or is he fully aware of anything? I often wonder just how thoroughly he cons himself along with everyone else. I remember some­thing he told me on the plane coming back from Detroit, and I wonder if he really believes it.

“There are so many things, man, that I don’t understand in this world,” he said gravely. “There have been times when I wanted to jump out the window. But things are gonna start comin’ better, I know it. Right now, I’m followin’ the path of the Lord.”

And I remember another conversation, a few weeks later, when Willy called me from the Queens House of Detention. We were talking about Heavy, and I said, wow, here is a guy who survived all those firefights in Vietnam, and got strung out over there, and then he comes home and gets shot — isn’t that sad?

“Might be in heaven now,” said Willy, “having a good time.” I thought I could hear him smiling.

“I sure hope so,” I said. ■

This is the fourth story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 19, 2019

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