Though he is now a in wheelchair, John Allen still hangs out on Washington streetcorners. He grew up on this city's streets, doing what he felt he had to do to survive - lying, cheating, stealing, hustling and committing various acts of violence - before a shoot-out with police left him permanently crippled. His book, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, is the story of his life. Edited by Dianne Hall Kelly and Philip Heymann, who was once Allen's lawyer, it presents street life and street crime as the criminal sees it. Former attorney general Ramsey Clark writes of it, "If we want to understand crime in America, we must understand John Allen." This except shows Allen's view of survival - on the streets, and then in the wholly different world of the invalid.
To protect the privacy of people described in the account, all names have been changed with the exception of those identified as John's parents, siblings, wife and children.
YOU know when people are going to rip you off. You know when somebody up to something. They give theirself away, the way they look or the way they act of the way they talk. The amount of money really don't make no difference: you just can't let people get out on you. It don't matter who you are or what you are; they'll try, and you gotta stop them. At all times you gotta stop them.
I'll never forget what I did when a dude named Baby John tried to get out on me. Baby John was strung out on drugs, but he was a good booster. He'd get up in the morning, him and a whole lot of broads, and they'd go to all them big department stores - Montgomery Ward's and Hecht's. You could tell them what you want, what size, what color - and they'd get it.
This particularly morning Baby John was sick before he left. So he come to to me and say, "Man, like I need some drugs now. I'm going to steal something. When I come back this afternoon, I'll pay you back and probably buy some more drugs." Solid. I gave some drugs. But when he come back that afternoon, he buy some drugs from somebody else, sell all the goods that he done stole, and go hang out on the corner, high. He didn't say nothing to me about my money. I'm mad, even though it wasn't but $10.
Now, this woman Angela was my main gal at this time, and I was around her house that day. Here come by brother Nicey and Cub, and they got Baby John. They knock on the bedroom door. "Johnny, we got Baby John out here."
"Okay, I'll be out." I slip on my holster and my pants and go out there. I say, "Where my money at, man?" Immediately he began to say, "Johnny, why you want to make an example out of me?" He understood, 'cause he knew the code. He living the life just as long as I have even though he was young. "Why, man? Why me, man? Why you couldn't pick somebody else?
"You owe me money. It don't make no difference. You are the only one that owe me money right at this particular moment."
He got to begging Angela. "Angela, please don't let him do it."
She saying, "Baby John, ain't nothing I can do. You should have paid the man his money."
So now he really acting up. He done grab hold to the banister. "Don't let him do it! Please don't let him do it!"
I wanted to laugh real bad, but I got my gangster look on my face, and I'm telling my brother, "Pull that chump on down these steps." We called him all kinds of names, pushing him and pulling him. Finally we get him to the front door. He grab hold to the doorknob. "Angela, please talk some sense into his head!"
I guess he thought I was going to take him out, but the main thing I wanted to do was scare him. I knew it would get around what we did to him. So we get him in the car. I'm driving, Cub and Nicey sitting in the back with him. We took him up by the Catholic church over my way, where there's woods and it's real dark. I took a tree limb, stripped it down, and made him stand by the car. "Boy, you ain't never owe nobody else. you gonna pay up from now on." I proceeded to start whupping him with the tree limb. While I'm doing this, he hollering and falling out, going through that he got heart trouble and everything. Finally he faints. Most of it was acting. Then my brother and Cub, they work him over a little bit, and we push him back in the car. We take him all the way up right in front of the carry-out and kick him out on the ground so everybody can see him. He laying out there, crying, "Oh, help, please help, somebody help!" We drive off.
This broad named Toni that he used to hustle with - she dead now from an overdose of heroin - was his main partner. So when I come back up there, the first thing she say is, "You all didn't have to do that to Baby John. Especially you. I would have gave you the money." The way she said it, it was like she was trying to get out on me in front of everybody! I said, "B - shut up," pulled my pistol, and shot, just to scare her. She took off down the street while I pulled my pistol back up, sat down on the corner, and finished talking.
You got to do that sort of thing. You got to maintain who you are at all times. You do it for the people watching. I remember one time in Lorton the psychiatrist asked me, "Do you sometimes grow weary portraying the image of a tough guy?" And I say, "Yeah, I really do." Because you can't ever let your guard down. Once you start one way, people expect this of you all times. This thing where you just had to show you had the heart, you could do it.
Now, most good hustling dudes, especially with robbing experience, they never go out to hurt people. The main thing is getting what you're going after and getting away. Occasionally somebody say, "I ain't giving up nothing." But you can change his tune easy. You ain't got to kill him. Smack him with the gun or shoot him in the foot or kneecap, he gave it right up. Knock his big toe off with one of them .45s, he give it up. I think it's probably my background that it don't bother me.
But I ain't no different from somebody else when sad things happen. Then I'd be worried - like, if somebody take advantage of a kid, molest a kid sexually. Or I read in the paper one time right round in Maryland in a well-to-do neighborhood, all good-doing whites, they was putting LSD on candy and razor blades in apples. Sick! Little kids knocking on the door, trick-or-treating, and they give them apples with razor blades or candy with LSD. The kids could die. These people are sick. But yet them same people is set on the jury or be a judge or be the DA, and they call me a dirty common criminal 'cause I'm trying to make some money! I ain't trying to hurt nobody. I'm just trying to get money the way I know how.
I tell you what really get people. I suprise a lot of people because knowing the way I live, the things I done, they don't believe I pray. They don't belive that I enjoy walking in the rain. Little things like that. A lot of times I'll be setting out at nighttime, just dusk dark and the sky will be real pretty, and I groove, I really groove. They don't believe that I pay attention to things like this, but I do.
One of my friends, a dude named Bones, he been in jail most of his life. He older than me, and he been quite a few other joints than me. He done had the experience of killing two or three people in jail. Now, somebody had left a baby on a doorstep in the middle of winter. Bones was in Lorton and read about it in the paper. Immediately he writes the paper and offers his help. At that time, he was a yardman down at Lorton making about $5 a month. He said he would contribute that money every month and also try to get the other inmates to start some kind of fund for this baby. But Bones is a very uptight, real tough dude. I seen him just smack other dudes right out of their shoes. He won't take nothing off nobody. Taking a life with him was nothing. It's easy. It just come naturally.
I couldn't never explain the difference. Maybe it's because the majority of the people that we be doing things to are into drugs or some kind of hustling. They know that they going to be faced with these things sooner or later. We always faced with it day by day. But we are sensitive about children. Still, we're called animals and convicts - I don't know what all they have labeled us. So it really surprised me that it was publicized, what Bones had said, what he had done. See, most of us do feel that way, wven though we do lot of cruel things.
I know that I done a lot of cruel things, but it was something that I had to do at that particular moment for one reason of another. I have never did something unnecessary, especially when it comes to violence. But sometimes, in order to get what you want, or prove a point, or because some robbing drug dealers was trying to move in on you, you had to be tough. If you didn't, you would lose everything you had. They would step on you, take yours, get you out of the way. Then they would make the money, and you just be out in the cold. So you had to be tough. So many people espected so many things of me 'cause my reputation most of the time had preceded me. I had to act accordingly.
Most of the things I done was low-level-type crime. I didn't do some of the bigger crimes I would like to have done because I had no real way to abtain the information I needed to carry them out successfully. Or I didn't have the necessary equipment. There was one or two small banks jobs that I have been involved in, but they really didn't produce the money I felt you should get for doing a bank - the chance that you take, the time you got to serve in the event you're caught and convicted. I've been in a bank and took $6000. I've been in a Giant Food Store and took $8000. Evidently something wasn't done right somewhere. You get teller or two, and you've got to get out of there - quick, fast, in hurry. No time for bull - Unless it's well planned and well executed, it's get what you can and get out quick. The robbing that I was accustomed to, that was all it was - getting in, getting what you could, and getting out fast.
My friend Duke and I broke into a bank very late one night and waited for the people to come in that morning. When the people started coming in, we started gathering them up. Then one man tell us about the time lock. This where all the money at, in the safe, and he can't get into it because of the time lock. Well, what did we know about the time lock? We couldn't do nothing.
You think of a lot of things to do to get over. You might even think that you've got a pretty good idea, and then you find that it takes investing money, money that you don't have. When we was down at the Youth Center, Duke and I often talked about watching a bank, finding out who the president of the bank was, some of his habits: where he lived, who he lived with, a little family background. The whole idea was to snatch him, take him to the bank, make him open up his safe, take all the cash, and get rid of him. Then he would be the one that they'd be looking for because he would be the one who disappeared with all the money. But we never had the opportunity to do this. There was always something else going, and we'd say, "Well, we'll get around to this bank thing later."
I know about robbing on my own scale, but going out for a bank or a Brinks truck, people would think that out of my league. If I robbed a Brinks truck, the police probably wouldn't look for me, because they would figure this is out of my league. But I felt all I needed was having the right people together at the right time with the right equipment.
We made an attempt once on a Dunbar truck, which is an armored car. There was only two dudes on the truck. One stands fast with either a pistol or a shotgun, and the other makes the move with the money. Duke and myself and this dame pulls it. The dame have a baby carriage with her iron in it, and she pushing it right up to the back of the truck. As soon as she done that, we're supposed to make our move. But when she gets there and she getting ready to reach into the car carriage for the sawed-off riffle, a scout car pulls in one end of the parking lot and another scout car pulls in the other end. They came 'cause some teenagers raising hell in a sandwich place within the shopping center. That squashed it. Once the dame saw it, she came right on back to the car. We never even got out, and we never tried it again. Bad breaks. I catch a lot of that.
But I can honestly say that I got away with much more than what I ever got caught and convicted for, so in the long run that made it worthwhile. When I got shot, I wasn't at my peak. I know I could have went much farther. I always felt that way. Once I became a heavy user of drugs, though, the thing I mostly cared about was getting enough for my shot. You don't put out like you ordinarily would, and whatever you do, it don't usually exceed what you want for that day.
At the time I got shot, I saw that particular night as being a turning point if we had succeeded in getting away. The people we went after was big fish, and it would have been big money. It would have been the start of my march back up the ladder. I had been to a certain spot on the ladder, and then I had came down. If we succeeded that night, the money would have been so plentiful that I wouldn't have had to worry about the everyday hustle and bustle of trying to get drugs. I could have used what I had to get more money and drugs, and build up my business.
But John Allen didn't succeed on that Thanksgiving night of 1970. Rather his career as tough-talking, street-walking criminal came to an end. After a shoot-out with police in which one of his friends was killed and one policeman was injured, Allen found himself in a hospital - paralyzed from the waist down.
There was doctors all around me, saying, "This right her probably hurt. This probably hurt." By this time, I'm just out of my head, and I recall grabbing a nurse by the wrist and saying, "I want some dope, I need some dope." And the nurse saying, "Get your hands off me, get your hand of me!" The police ran in there, hit me on the arm. That make me let her go . . .
The next time I wake up, I'm in a bed. I look around, and there's an old man laying next to me. I'm immediately trying to get up. But when I try, I can't move. I'm wondering, What's going on? What the hell's happening to me? And then I remember my back. I stick my hand back there, and I say, "Now, I'm not gonna die, 'cause somebody done patched up my back."
I remember my mother coming in and the doctor telling her I wasn't going to make it. She say to me, "You know Duke is dead." But by then my mind had changed things all round, and Duke wasn't dead to me. We had got away, and I was at my house, and Duke was leaning up against the wall - he always had his back against the wall at all times - saying, "Damn, Jack, we just did make it from that one." And I was saying, "Yeah, one of them suckers shot me in my back." I was laying on the bed, and the girl Angela that I messed with was sitting there. And I said, "Angela, go get me some dope," and she say "Okay," but she wanted to wear what me and Duke was talking about. He was saying, "Yeah, man, one of them shot me in the chest. But we gave them the natural blues, didn't we?" I said, "We damn sure did. How many of them did we shoot?" Duke says, "I shot one." I say. "I think I shot two of them."
Then I wake up again, and I tell my mother, "Duke ain't dead, Duke got away." My mother said, "No, Duke dead. And the doctor told me you not gonna live until morning." I'm saying, "No, no," and I remember my mother finding my hand and me squeezing mine, and I said, "I'm not gonna die. No." A lot of people come in the room, relatives I think but I can't picture none of those faces but my mother's . . .
From then I don't remember nothing else till I was in this other hospital, D.C. General, and didn't know how I got there. They said I was tearing up the blood transfusion stuff and breaking the I.V. bottles, but I don't remember any of that. For some reason, I thought that they was trying to kill me, that they knew I wasn't gonna die, so they wanted to kill me. I would look out the window at D.C. General, and there was a little bridge with cars going back and forth, but to me it was an airport with planes landing. I said, "What they want to do is take me out on that airfield and let the plane run over me." I'm really gone at this point, out of my mind. When finally I start coming around little by little, I find that my arms are strapped down. This made me have even more fear of what was happening. I would wake up, see my mother, go back out, wake up, see one of my sisters, go back out. I thought these were just a short time apart, but it was more like days and days.
It must have been about two weeks before I got my thing in place about were I was and what was going on. But once I started to get together, I started remembering what had happened. Remembered Duke being dead. That really got to me. When I first realized that Duke was dead and that I was alive, I cried. It was the first time I had cried in a long time. I cried and cried, saying, "Man, why'd he have to die?" I couldn't shake the feeling of Duke being dead. I could still close my eyes, go out, picture Duke, and talk to him. Finally, little by little, I got over it - if you ever get over something like that.
Of all the things that ever happened in my life, I think that was one of the worst as far as losing somebody real real close to me. I had the same feeling when Clayton died of an overdose. I remember thinking to myself, All of these dudes, real good dudes and real good friends of mine, and all of them dying one way or another; and I keep doing the same things, but I keep living. Why, why, why am I still living? Way I'm not dead?
All of this time with my arms being strapped down, I couldn't move, and I just assumed that my legs were strapped down too. I never suspected that I couldn't walk. One day this doctor I had, a little Chinese or Japanese guy, came into my room. I say, "Doc, I don't feel real bad today. Why don't you give me permission to get up?" And he said, "You can't walk." Just like that.
"You can't walk."
"You gotta be crazy, 'cause I know that I can walk!" That's when I first started trying to move my legs, and couldn't. I struggled so hard to get up, to prove tht doctor wrong, 'cause I knowed he was wrong. I kept saying "I can walk. I know I can walk. You crazy! Something's wrong with you!" But I couldn't, you know.
After that I relied on the pain medicine a lot. I'm pretty sure they was giving me something for withdrawal from my drug habit. I just took myself out of it. That went on for a while, and then I started to hate everything and everbody. I didn't get along at all. I cursed everybody out. I constantly trying to spit on people. I did everything. Nobody like me, nobody wanted to be near me. Nurses had jobs they had to do, like come in the morning and wash me up. I would talk so nasty and bad to them that I made at least two nurses run out of the room, tears in their eyes. I started throwing things at people - water pitchers and stuff like that. I didn't care, 'cause I hated everybody. My family, as much as they came, I ain't want them to see me like I was. I was constantly thinking about what I was going to do. How was I ever gonna make it like this?
It was at that time that I first tried to commit suicide. I had a lot of thin string. I looped it and looped it so it would be thick. I had an "L" frame on my bed that you can lift yourself in and out of bed with. I tied the string to the "L" frame and pulled myself up so my back was against the front of the bed. I had three or four pillows and I put the pillows under me one at a time till I was setting all the way up on them. I made sure the rope was good and tight aroundmy neck. See, I was going to slide off the pillows and just hang there, but I said to myself, "I'm gonna smoke one last cigarette, and then I'm gonna hang it up." I reach over to my stand to get a cigarette, and just as I reach for the pack, I slide off the side of the pillows instead of down the front like I planned. And the rope immediately tighten up on my neck! That's when I realized that I did not want to die. I was choking. My tongue was all out, and I know I did change color, and I'm trying to get this rope off my neck! I knowed that sooner or later I'm gonna pass out, then it's gonna be too late. I'm scuffling but it seemed like the way I'm pulling, I was choking myself more. Finally I pull on it so hard that I wanted to die, but I was wrong. Within me, I really wanted to live, no matter what condition I was in. When I got my fingers up underneath that string and snatched it loose on my neck, I remember laying in the bed and thinking, Whew! Now that really was close! And what in hell is wrong with me? I don't want to die. I had a scar around my neck for along time.
Finding out that I wanted to live changed a lot of things for me. I knew that I couldn't get along the way I'd been doing, hating everybody and not caring how they thought or felt. So I started being more friendly with people, and in return people started being more friendly with me. I had the feeling to commit suicide maybe two or three more times, but I always overcame it without telling anybody about it. I always said, "Damn. If I do kill myself, I let down a lot of people, not only myself."
I went through so many changes, though, at D.C. General, knowing that I been on my own ever since I was a kid. I did everything for myself all my life. Now, all of sudden, there was just so many things I couldn't do. That was the hardest thing of all for me to accept. I don't know if I would've got through it without my friends and my family - without the help of people close to me.
I realized that I wasn't in a position any more where I could just hit someone in his mouth if there was any trouble. Some people took advantage of that; some people didn't. There was one particular police who had made me mad over at the jail in '66, and I had threatened him. He come to work in the locked ward after I got shot. There used to be three officers who worked in there - one stayed back in the dorm, one sat at the main desk, and one sat at a desk outside the door. One day I'm just setting there, talking to a couple of my friends, and this particular officer said, "Hey, tough guy," so I look at him. I'm still very weak and tired, and I don't say anything. I just turn back and finish talking. Then he says, "Yeah, you don't look so tough now in that wheelchair! They tell me you're going to be in that wheelchair the rest of your life, Ha! Tough guy in a wheelchair."
This blowed my mind. I'm so angry that I want to do something to him, but I'm just too weak. When I turned toward him, I couldn't think of but one thing to do, and that was to spit. And this is what I did. I tried to spit in his face, but I hit his clothes. he drew his hand back, and two or three dudes jumped up. Ain't nothing gonna happen like that. Then the nurse came in. I'm so upset and so mad 'cause I know that this a cold blooded punk, and if I was on my two feet, I would smack him unconscious. But I'm in such bad shape that the nurse got to drug me up and put me in bed. It took me a long time to get over that.
One of the things that happened on the locked ward that really got to me was, one day there was a white dude and a black dude playing cards on the table right in front of the TV, and I wanted to see the TV. So I asked them very nice, "Since you playing cards and I want to see TV, why don't you all move behind me?" The dude say, "After this hand man." So I say, "Okay, I don't mind." But after that hand, they deal another hand. Then I got kind of angry. The white dude say, "Wait a minute, man. Don't be pressing nobody about no damn TV. Ain't nobody want to see no television." So I say, "But I want to see television." "Well, you just gonna have to wait," he say.
Immediately this spark up everything about me. I turned the table over that they playing cards on, and I'm rolling toward th dude in my wheelchair. He backing up, 'cause he surprised! "Where this dude get the strength from, the way he be laying around?" He made get close enough to get my hands on him. I held myself in the wheelchair with one hand, and got him in the collar and pulled him down to me. I like to choke him to death. The nurses stopped me, but they didn't do anything to me.
A couple of days later some of my friends came to the hospital from the jail, and they had heard that some dude had tried to jump on me, which wasn't the case. My friends, they mad, so they immediately jumps on the dude, which was . . . well, that's the way it go.
During this time at D.C. General, and later when they moved me to the jail hospital, I met a couple people that I really admired. Dr. Myers was a plastic surgeon at D.C. General. So I told him, "I can arrange for you to have a lot of business, if that's what you want." He says, "No, no, don't do that." I think Dr. Myers operated on me about three times. He never abandoned me the whole time I was at the jail. He moved from on e hospital to another, but he still come to see me regular. He checked me out, and if something was wrong, then he would straighten it up.
Dr. Chase at the District jail was another guy I really admired. Both of these guys was the best in their profession. They knew it, and they carried theirself as such. I'd be sitting around talking my gangster talk, and Dr. Chase would say, "You ain't no real gangster, chump. From now on you're going to take your medicine like you're supposed to." It wasn't like I was scared of him, but I respected him.
Altogether I was at D.C. General from November of '70 to January of '72. Then they transferred me to the jail hospital from January '72 to September '73. At the jail in the daytime, everthing was just fine; but once evening came, things became difficult, because of couple of times I was in a room with nuts. I mean real nuts, people who should have been in St. E's people who was chained to their beds. Okay. I didn't need any chains, but I was automatically chained to mine, and I had to go through a lot of trouble to get a room with some half-way-safe people.
I never felt safe in this condition at the jail at no time, or hardly even now on the streets. I always think about my past and what somebody might attempt to do for something I done several years before. A lot of wrong things happened to me at that jail until I got myself established. But once I did get things going and got to talking to people, it became like my home away from home. I had quite a few privileges that no one else had. I had a TV and a radio in my room, and my door stayed open quite a bit.
I had a lot of charges on me from the night of the shooting, so I got six or seven two-to-six-year sentences running concurrently. I made parole on those charges in '73 and ended up at Glenn Dale Hospital as part of my parole plan.
Meanwhile, Ann and I had stayed in touch. At this time Ann was having another relationship. Still, on the day I was admitted to Glenn Dale, she went with me, and I didn't end up getting there till three of four in the morning. We started talking about old times, the good as well as the bad. Her and I just came to the conclusion that we still loved each other, and we wanted to be together with our kids. Before you knew it, we was married. I think that's what she wanted most of her life. I know it's just about what I wanted all my life - to be married to Ann, be with my children, and try to live a happy life.
The rules at Glenn Dale was pretty strict. You could only go home every other weekened. You could go home either for Christmas or New Year's, but you couldn't go for both. And they had rules about drinking. You couldn't even drink beer or wine, which is all I drank anyway. I saw Glenn Dale at its worst. I saw it as being another penitentiary. So I formed a group called Action on Wheels that I was chairman of, and we put a lot of proposals to the Glenn Dale staff. One was that every medically able man or woman should be allowed to go home on weekends and holidays and any time they had business to take care of.
I did learn some good things at Glenn Dale, and I made some friends there, but I was very glad when I got out in early '75 and went home to live with my family.