D.C. drug dealer's son has same name, different reputation

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A01

Tattooed across Tony Lewis's right biceps is a teenager's declaration of loyalty: "Like Father Like Son."

Father and son share the same rounded face, stocky 5-foot-7 frame and a name recognized instantly on some of the toughest streets in the District. Whereas the older Lewis is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary in Maryland, the younger one works for the federal government, helping people with criminal records find jobs.

Two men with one name grew up on the same block, but what "Tony Lewis" meant on Hanover Place NW during the peak of Washington's 1980s drug wars and what that name means now are two very different stories.

In 1989, Hanover Place, a one-block dead end just off North Capitol Street, was an open-air drug market. The sidewalks teemed with people looking to buy crack. "Little Tony" Lewis, then 8, and other neighborhood children made playhouses of the vacant buildings and served as lookouts, running through the streets shouting, "O-ler-ray," when they saw the police coming. Lewis still doesn't know what that word means -- it's pig Latin for "roller," which is street slang for the police cruisers that came rolling through the drug markets -- only that there was no shame in yelling it back then.

A common joke in those days, he recalls, referred to the view from the corner, a glimpse of a gleaming white dome: In the Capitol, they make the laws. Here on Hanover, we break them.

One of the main people breaking them was Lewis's father.

The older Tony Lewis was a legend on Hanover Place and beyond. He was the partner of the District's most notorious drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III, whom authorities described as the city's largest cocaine importer, bringing in millions of dollars of Colombian cocaine each week from Los Angeles.

On poverty-ridden streets where even a battered car was a luxury, Lewis and Edmond drove BMWs, Porsches and Jaguars. They wore designer watches, flashed gold-inlaid hubcaps and traveled on a whim to Vegas, New York and Atlantic City. Money coursed down Hanover, and it was no secret who was behind it.

The name Tony Lewis in those days inspired both fear and a perverse form of respect. Lewis gave money to needy families and took kids on field trips to Six Flags or Atlantic City, but he wouldn't take along children who dealt drugs. Yet he wasn't careful to hide what he did. At his trial, a witness testified that she saw $3 million in cash strewn around Lewis's house.

"He was Sonny Corinthos," says Jerome Plunkett, who grew up in the neighborhood, referring to the mob boss on TV's "General Hospital." Boys along the street wanted to be Tony. "They wanted to make a name for themselves."

* * *

The boy known as "Little Tony" remembers being escorted into a Virginia jail cell, where he saw his father, seated and crying. It was 1990, and he had never before seen his father cry. He's never seen him cry since.

"In retrospect, I know that always played a role in me," says the son, now 29. "That was my idea what prison was like. It breaks you."

It wasn't until later that he realized that his dad had just been sentenced to life in prison for his role in a drug distribution network that authorities said generated more than $2 million a week at its peak. "I can remember him saying, 'I'm not going to be home for a while,' " Lewis says. "He also told me from the beginning, 'Be strong.' But it's like, what does that mean? And I created in my little mind what that meant."

It meant that as a child, Tony fought to prove himself on the streets, playing tough. It meant, as a teenager, attending Gonzaga College High School, the elite Jesuit boys' school on North Capitol Street, even though he couldn't relate to most of the students. "None of my classmates came from where I came from," he says.

It meant, as an adult, taking a series of government jobs, accepting a paycheck that amounts to a tiny fraction of what his father once raked in. In an old picture in a family album, his father leans on the hood of a new BMW. The younger Tony Lewis drives a beat-up Oldsmobile and uses a cellphone with a shattered screen.

What got the son to a place that his father would never reach was the hardened determination of his aunt and grandmother, a school that opened another world to a kid whose male role models were mostly dead or imprisoned, and a neighborhood that was becoming home to a much greater variety of people.

The younger Tony Lewis still lives with his grandmother, Jabella Hinton, on the block where he grew up, a few doors from his aunt, Von Deleah Williams, and across from the rust-colored townhouse where his father was raised. The street is in transition. Unemployed men hang on the corner outside the liquor store as young professionals walk to work in business suits.

"A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same," says the younger Lewis, stepping past yellow police tape dangling in an alley, left over from a shooting. "A lot of guys I grew up with, they're not here, and they died right here."

When he was accepted to Gonzaga, his entire family celebrated, except for him. He didn't want to go to a school where he would be a minority in race and income. He remembers the disappointment he felt when he learned that he had received a full scholarship. His aunt, who helped raise him, had called the archdiocese for help.

"I passed that school all my life," Williams says. "I said, 'Gonzaga -- do you know what Gonzaga means? That's your road to success.' I didn't want him to miss that opportunity. That's where the Fortune 500 send their babies."

Tony's mother, Samone Hinton, never understood why people cried when they were happy. Then she saw her son graduate from Gonzaga. "I never was that happy in my whole entire life," she says. "I cried, and I could not believe it. I was actually crying like someone had whupped me."

Williams would look at "those other boys at Gonzaga" and think about how "when they woke up, Mr. Anderson across the street was a doctor, and a lawyer lived next door. Here, the person across the street, he's on welfare, and the person down the street, he's selling dope 24-7. Sometimes it's hard not to lose your children in this environment."

The women who looked after Tony had seen so many young black men lost to these streets. Tony's father was sentenced at 26. His uncle is serving a life term for bank robbery, and two cousins he considered brothers are in prison.

In a poster-size picture that used to hang in his bedroom, a 17-year-old Tony is shown at the Black Hole go-go club, long since shuttered, with 10 of his friends, posing tough. Three are in jail and three are dead, including a younger cousin who was gunned down two years ago.

"Oh, I'm lonely," he says. "I mean, I feel alone a lot. I really don't have anybody I can say, 'Remember when we did that?' "

The younger Tony Lewis went a different way: He got his degree in urban studies from the University of the District of Columbia, making him the first man in his family to graduate from college.

"There were a lot of people that thought I was going to be just like my dad," he says. "But my family didn't want that for me. They knew I had the potential to do something different."

* * *

Lewis is visiting Darryl Matthews at a downtown Ace Hardware store, where the ex-offender started work a few weeks ago. At 46, Matthews has struggled with drug abuse and served time for possession of stolen property. He is taking an auto mechanics course, which he hopes will lead to a better job. Lewis scans Matthews's résumé and notices that Matthews lists his Muslim name, Muhammad Abdul Rahim. As if anticipating the question, Matthews says quickly. If he lists himself as "Darryl," potential employers will assume he's black, he says. Which is worse? he asks.

"We already know there are existing barriers," Lewis says, urging Matthews to stick to his birth name. "We don't want to create more. Just think about it."

"If I let something hold me back from getting something, then I'm certainly stunting myself," Matthews replies, still weighing the choice.

Lewis worked for the District government for 10 years, first with at-risk youth and then with ex-offenders. For the past three months, he has worked for the federal agency that monitors D.C. residents who are on parole or probation. Finding jobs for ex-offenders has always been a challenge, but it's been even more difficult with the recession.

It's Lewis's job to persuade employers to believe in second chances. "That's the first name you hear at the halfway house -- 'Go holler at Tony,' " says Barry B. Bell, 53, who lives on Hanover Place and has struggled with addiction. "When I came home in '08, they said, 'Go holler at Tony.' "

Charles Jones, who was Lewis's supervisor at the D.C. employment agency, recalls Lewis helping find work for a man who had been in jail for 18 years and had never held a job. Lewis's name often rings a bell among ex-cons, Jones says, building trust between them and an agency run by the same governmentthat locked them up.

They get that he gets them. "As compassionate as I am toward this population, I'm also just as stern with them," Lewis says. His clients know not to try their excuses on him. "You can't tell me that because I'm you, really."

* * *

For 20 years, the older Tony Lewis has sat in prison, missing the formative moments in his son's life and the changes on Hanover Place. He wasn't there when it turned into a one-way street, or when new homes replaced vacant, dilapidated ones, or when young professionals started moving in, oblivious to the violence that once gripped the area.

He wasn't there to see how the meaning of "Tony Lewis" changed on the block -- he hears about it on his son's visits and from other inmates -- but he's glad it has.

"I tell him how proud I am that he has changed this name into something that is respectable and good," the older Lewis says in a phone interview from prison in Cumberland in western Maryland. He hears constant compliments from inmates who have dealt with his son on the outside. "Anyone should want their name to stand for good and not for a drug dealer."

The older Lewis says he started dealing when he was about 14, hoping to make a few dollars to help out his single mother. "I didn't realize then the damage I was causing to the city," he says. He says he's sorry for what he did. "There is no glorifying anything about being incarcerated for over two decades."

On Hanover Place, no one calls the younger Lewis "Little Tony" anymore. He defines the Tony Lewis name now. Now, if the guys on the corner know the father, it is through tales of long ago.

Michael Peoples, one of three teenagers draped in oversize clothes walking down the block, reaches out to shake Lewis's hand as he passes. "He's a positive young brother," says Peoples, 18, who grew up on Hanover, where Lewis would urge him to stay in school. "He's the first person I met that tried to raise us up. You say his name and everybody wants to be him. If he came from a family like that and he's doing good, why can't I do that?"

© 2010 The Washington Post Company