By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005
When he was sent to prison for the rest of his life, cocaine kingpin Rayful Edmond III had a message for just about anyone who would listen: He'd be back.
It has taken him almost 16 years, longer than he probably hoped, but Edmond has made good on his vow. Just like old times, his name is once again all over town, in print and on the air.
Washington, it seems, can't get enough of the legendary gangster, which is why the story of Edmond's life, recounted in a new DVD docudrama, has been selling by the thousands since its release in Washington last week.
From Mad T Music Box on 14th Street NW to Kemp Mill Music in Marlow Heights, the DVD has been the hot entertainment item for the past 10 days in many corners of the District and Maryland.
Edmond is to Washington what John Gotti was to New York, an almost mythic figure whose fearless, flashy style fascinated even those who condemned him and the way he amassed his fortune.
"There are a lot of people that remember the Rayful Edmond story," said Carlton Tucker, owner of Mad T.
But unlike similar stories, Edmond's is one that has been little told. No book was ever written, and before now, no film was produced.
Yet his life, and the spectacular trial that changed it, were like nothing the city had ever seen, and 27-year-old director Kirk Fraser set out to chronicle it all in an entertaining but cautionary tale.
Until his arrest at age 24 in 1989, Edmond had controlled a sizable share of the drug trade in the District, bringing in millions of dollars of Colombian cocaine each week from Los Angeles. The city's streets were awash in cocaine, and Edmond was flush with cash. He spent lavishly on cars and clothing and clubbing. He would drop thousands of dollars in boutiques or nightspots without a second thought. Until he was done in by two of his closest associates.
Put on trial under unprecedented security, it was a daily spectacle. Jailed not in the District but at Quantico Marine Base, Edmond was flown to court each day by helicopter, his comings and goings broadcast on the evening news. For the first time in the city's history, the jurors were kept anonymous and worked from behind bulletproof glass.
The legend has endured among many who lived through those times, who say that good or bad, few people have had the impact on the city that Rayful Edmond did.
"He's a historic icon," Mark Williams, a 34-year-old federal government worker, said as he left Kemp Mill earlier this week after purchasing "The Life of Rayful Edmond: The Rise and Fall, Vol. I." "I remember in the '80s hearing the name, but I never really knew his whole story."
Others, like Ronelle Lee, lived in Edmond's midst. "I grew up around his surroundings, when he was coming up, and I wanted to know what he was doing and why there was all the killing," Lee, 34, said outside Kemp Mill, DVD in hand, after finding the film sold out at a nearby Circuit City.
Inside, co-owner Armando Cruz said the Kemp Mill stores, too, had been sold out but had just been replenished, and none too soon for the people stopping in on their way home from work earlier this week. "I've never seen anything like it," Cruz said, "at least with an independent, local release."
So far, the film's distributor, Liaison Records in Laurel, says it has shipped 20,000 copies, having had to resupply almost all of the local retailers carrying it.
A criminal mastermind of remarkable charisma, Edmond was making millions by the time he was 22, a larger-than-life figure who flaunted his illicit wealth and all but invited the investigation that eventually brought him and much of his family down. His mother, Constance "Bootsie" Perry, was sentenced to 14 years for being part of her son's drug gang. Years later, Edmond won her early release by becoming a key government cooperator. He was put in the prison witness protection program, which shields his whereabouts from the public.
But his legacy runs far deeper and darker than the flashy clothes, fancy cars and extravagant Georgetown shopping sprees. It was Edmond who presided over the arrival of crack cocaine in the District. If it hadn't been him, it undoubtedly would have been someone else. But he was atop the city's drug trade just as crack began its destructive entry into America's inner cities, and the violence and desperation that followed are what he bequeathed his home town.
For years, director Kirk Fraser, who grew up in Lanham, had wanted to film a documentary on Edmond. But after dropping out of Howard University, where he studied film, Fraser ended up directing music videos. (This week, he was going to New York to direct a video for soon-to-be-imprisoned Lil' Kim.)
But eventually he persuaded one of Edmond's co-defendants, Curtis "Curtbone" Chambers, to collaborate with him. Convinced by Fraser that the film would not glorify the drug life, Chambers -- who after serving time created the Alldaz urban clothing line, which is featured prominently, and somewhat incongruously, in the film -- offered his insights on camera and off, and his cash, Fraser said.
For months, Fraser immersed himself in trial transcripts, newspaper clippings and television footage, along with audio and video recordings and documents from the FBI. He reconstructed the story of Rayful Edmond, transformed it into a screenplay, and began shooting last year around Washington.
"I just told the truth," Fraser said.
He and Chambers were determined, he said, to give hope to "the lost," as they put it in the closing credits.
The 75-minute film intersperses interviews, archival news footage and other traditional documentary elements with silent reenactments of assorted events in Edmond's life, from his earliest drug deals to his eventual arrest. It is, the producers say in the opening credits, a "dramatic interpretation of events and characters," and in fact it is a generally sober account that hews closely to the facts.
But it wasn't meant to be a PBS program, and so there is the occasional exercise of creative license. Like the staging of Edmond's arrest, depicted as a massive paramilitary operation in which masked police storm Edmond's home en masse as he sits at the dining table.
It was hardly so dramatic, said retired Sgt. B.J. Parker, who was one of the arresting officers. The house wasn't a mansion as in the movie but a rowhouse, Parker said, and just a few officers carried out the arrest, not a small army.
"It's Hollywood," Fraser says.
Well, not exactly. But as in Hollywood, a film sells best with creative license on the marketing, too. So for more than a year, Fraser has been talking up his film on local radio -- even though it was nowhere near being released. He announced release dates, never intending to keep them, he said.
"I did it to create buzz," he explained.
And it did. People were asking about it for months before it was released July 12, local retailers said. When the copies finally arrived the night before, there was no waiting for the official release moment, said Tucker, at Mad T. "It's not like Harry Potter, where we're going to keep it boxed up in the back until midnight," he said. "When you're waiting a year and you're selling to people who know the pulse of the streets, you can't tell them to wait."
Stories of it selling out have only fueled the interest of buyers -- and of bootleggers, who, Tucker said, were selling copies by 3 p.m. the day of its release and who say it has been a brisk seller for them, too.
And Fraser has kept up the publicity machine, appearing on radio to plug his film, which is narrated by Osei Kweku, the WKYS host known as "The Dark Secret."
It is working.
In the lobby of the U.S. attorney's office, of all places, a young woman spots the sought-after DVD. Where, she asks, can she get it, as if it were a secret.
It is all something of a wonder to Barry Tapp, who as an assistant U.S. attorney helped put Edmond behind bars. Curious to see how the case of his career would play out on film, he bought a copy, but he can't quite understand why everyone else seems so interested in it.
"I just don't know what the attraction is," he said yesterday.