In D.C., ex-con constructs his new legacy

November 17, 2011

Harold “P-Nut” Hill launched his bid for redemption on the very same D.C. block where, 24 years ago, he pumped five bullets into a man and left him to die.

In the predawn darkness, Hill grabbed a hard hat and clipboard and headed to the construction site on the corner of Seventh and S streets NW to retrieve a hand-held stop sign, which he would wield for most of the day.

For Hill, 43, laboring for $10.50 an hour isn’t just a job. The convicted murderer, a two-time ex-con, is trying to change his life. He needs work to do that.

Hill’s struggles to live the straight life mirror those of about 15,000 people in the District who are on parole or probation. For these ex-offenders, success is far from certain. A study released this year by the Pew Center on the States found that more than four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of their release.

And Hill has bucked long odds. According to a study released Thursday by the Council for Court Excellence, 46 percent of 550 ex-inmates surveyed in the District reported being unemployed.

On an August night in 1987, in an alley across the street from his summertime work site, Hill shot a man in the back three times in a fight over drug turf, then stood over him and fired twice more. He looked into his victim’s eyes and realized that the man was still alive. Hill walked away.

Landing a job near the murder scene was more than happenstance, he said.

“This is destiny for me to be here,” Hill said as he directed traffic one morning. “I believe in God. I believe all of us have a purpose. If you don’t get it right the first time, it’ll come back around. I feel I’m not here by accident — there’s a purpose to this.”

‘Raised by gangsters’

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hill was a boy, S Street was full of old-school drug dealers: Reb, Country, Baldie. Hill ran errands for them, picking up soda or snacks from a convenience store, and they taught him the rules of the street, the primary one being that silence is golden.

When he was 9, Hill said, he grabbed a handful of methamphetamine pills that one of the dealers had hidden. To this day, he won’t say whose stash it was. Hill sold the pills for $70, using the cash to buy candy for girls.

So began his career as a drug dealer.

Hill’s mother, Harriet Hill, was 17 when he was born. His father didn’t stick around. He was such a small baby that his grandmother called him Peanut, a nickname that stuck. He later shortened it to P-Nut.

His mother ended up renting a room in a place that didn’t allow children. She knew a woman, named Virginia Brown, who watched children in her apartment on Sixth Street NW near S Street. Harriet Hill paid her $25 a week to take care of her son.

To young Harold, Brown became Granny. She took him to church and taught him to be respectful.

She also showed him how to hustle. Brown ran a neighborhood numbers game and was a bootlegger, Hill said.

“I was raised by gangsters,” he said. “Granny may have been the biggest gangster of all.”

By the time he was a teenager, Hill said, he had a handful of “runners” working for him: boys who sold cocaine, crack or methamphetamines.

Hill was a cocky street king during the late 1980s and much of the ’90s. He drove late-model Mercedes Benzes, Audis and Saabs.

He said he once handled $1.2 million in drug money and gave $10,500 to a girlfriend for a down payment on a house. He said he has fathered eight children by five women.

Harriett Hill said she tried to talk her son out of street life, to no avail.

“He was making money,” she said. “It was hard to compete.”

Fateful August night

On Aug. 1, 1987, Hill’s daughter Chamila was born. To celebrate, Hill threw a party in an alley behind Brown’s apartment. One recent day, he returned to recount that night.

Hill said he had spotted a man selling drugs in the alley — a place Hill considered his turf. “I told him, ‘Y’all need to go across the street, I got kids out here,’ ” Hill recalled.

He and the man exchanged angry words. The man left but returned. Someone said the man was carrying something.

Fearing the man had a gun, Hill got the pistol he kept stashed under the chassis of his van.

“I shot him three times,” Hill said. “He fell.” Hill fired twice more.

Everyone ran. Hill loaded his victim into the back of the van, intending to dump him in Northeast. He drove a few blocks, thought better of it and returned. He wrapped the man in a car cover, left him in the alley and started to drive away. Then he realized that the cover had his name on it.

“I took the cover off,” Hill recalled. “He looked up at me; I looked at him. I thought about taking him to the hospital, but I knew that if he lived, he’d kill me.”

Hill left William L. Wynn, 36, to die. Efforts to reach Wynn’s family were unsuccessful.

A woman who lived nearby and had known Hill his entire life told police that he was the killer. Brown told him how disappointed she was.

Hill confessed. Court records say he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

“What stands out is that he was genuinely remorseful,” recalled his defense attorney, Mark Rochon.

After serving seven years, Hill was released. He got a job at a gas station and tried to go straight.

But soon he was back in the drug game. In December 2000, Hill sold cocaine to an undercover police officer and went back to prison.

While he was locked up in Maryland, Hill said, he got into an argument with an inmate who tossed him across the room. Three weeks later, Hill said, he got his revenge and stabbed the man with a homemade knife.

Hill said he was thrown in “the hole,” solitary confinement, for more than two years. Prison officials would not confirm his account but said such punishment would be possible.

It was a turning point.

“I started having bad dreams,” Hill said. “Like a darkness came over you, and you couldn’t move. I didn’t want to be locked up anymore. I didn’t want to ever experience that kind of dream again.”

In 2005, Hill was transferred to a Virginia prison. He earned his GED, learned construction skills and became a supervisor in the textiles operation.

A warden recommended him for early release, and he walked out in May 2010.

From prisoner to employee

This time, Hill told himself, it would be different.

Shortly after he got out of prison, Hill had a dentist remove a gold tooth, giving him a noticeable gap in his upper front teeth — part of his transformation from gold-toothed hustler to law abider.

He moved into a halfway house in Southeast and took a bus to a job-training program at the United Planning Organization . It was a frustrating routine for a former drug dealer accustomed to tooling around in high-end cars. “Those buses don’t always run on the regular,” Hill said.

He began filling out job applications, always checking the box for convicted felon, and racked up about three-dozen interviews without a single offer.

Then, this spring, Steven Stanford, vice president of Division 2, a construction contracting outfit, gave him a chance. Hill arrived for his interview 15 minutes early, dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and a tie. He was polite, Stanford said.

During the interview, Hill said he had been in prison but didn’t offer details. Stanford didn’t ask.

Stanford hired Hill for a work crew. Hill started in March, keeping track of the loads of dirt that truckers were paid to haul from the site.

One steamy July morning, a burly truck driver asked Hill for a favor: Would he forge a ticket so the trucker could get paid?

“Where’s your ticket?” Hill asked.

The trucker threw up his hands. “Forgot it.”

Hill shook his head no.

The trucker cajoled, pleaded, begged. Hill remained firm.

The trucker jumped out of his cab. He was inches from Hill. “Come on, help me.”

Hill stood his ground. He’s usually relaxed on the job, chatting up pedestrians and co-workers, but his eyes went narrow. “I’m not putting my job in jeopardy,” Hill said.

Real-life lesson

One August day, Hill walked into the small building behind New Community Church on S Street, where the boys in a summer program were waiting. He was there to offer a real-life lesson, his story a warning.

The boys, between ages 10 and 13, jostled playmates; others squirmed.

Hill shook each boy’s hand and asked his name. Hill said he worked at the construction site on the corner. Then he told them that he’d been to prison. Their eyes went big.

Hill launched into his story: “On my daughter’s birthday, August 1, I killed a guy right here in the alley. Worst day of my life. When you kill someone, the first thing that happens is your conscience whips you. You feel like half of you has been pulled from you.”

The boys stopped squirming.

Hill told them he went to prison for murder. “I came home and tried to do what was right, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to hang out with my boys. I wanted to be gangsta.”

Hill said he ran a drug organization and drove Mercedes-Benz sedans and sport-utility vehicles. He told the boys that he was locked up again for dealing drugs.

“By the time you are in the seventh, eighth, ninth grade, the Department of Justice knows whether you are going to be successful just by looking at your grades,” Hill said. “If you’re a D student, they already know they should be preparing a jail cell for you.”

“What does it mean to be a man?” he asked. “Responsibility. Respectfulness. I wasn’t being a man because I was letting my emotions dictate my actions. If someone had a chain, I got jealous I didn’t have one.”

Hill told them that he decided to get educated in prison. He passed around his GED certificate.

The boys asked questions. What was it like to kill someone? Were any of Hill’s friends locked up? “Many,” he said. “For life.”

“Any place you need to take a gun to go to, you don’t need to go,” Hill admonished.

Hill finished. The kids applauded.

Obstacles ahead

About once a week, Chamila Hill meets with her father to help him with homework from the construction school he attends. She is 24, a graduate of an art institute in the District and a mother to two young daughters.

Harold and Chamila Hill have had their ups and downs, and she’s open about his mistakes. “I tell him all the time, he’s a smart dumb person,” Chamila said.

The Rev. Jim Dickerson, pastor at New Community Church who knew Harold as a teenager, is there for the ex-con, too. He helped set Hill up in a low-cost apartment.

He’s got hope that this time Hill can stay out of trouble, but he knows it’s a tough road.

“The newness will wear off, and he’ll have plenty of challenges,” Dickerson said. “He still has that street in him. I believe he’s strong, mentally and emotionally, and he’s smart. But he’s not as strong as the devil.”

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