It was quitting time. Charles Shelton walked up to his lieutenant at the corner of 14th and W streets NW and handed over several hundred dollars he had made peddling heroin that cold January day.
Shelton had been one of the Cloud Nine drug ring's best street salesmen. But in recent months his situation had grown precarious. He had two heroin distribution indictments pending in court. He had been robbed twice and owed the gang $1,500. He had sneaked bits of heroin out of the packets, selling it on the side and pocketing the money. Now, the girlfriend of a rival peddler accused him of selling baking soda disguised as heroin.
Shelton never saw the first punch as the tall, wiry Cloud Nine lieutenant caught him full on the jaw, sending him sprawling across the sidewalk. As Shelton reached for his eyeglasses, he felt a blow crash into the back of his skull. The lieutenant's young sidekick had joined in, swinging a baseball bat.
"I went to my knees," Shelton said later in an interview at Lorton Reformatory. "The bat was coming back at me. I put my arm up and stopped the bat and I could feel my hand wrap around the bat and come back.
"It broke this bone in here," he said, pointing to a disfigured arm.
He pulled himself under a nearby automobile to escape more blows. As he cowered there, the Cloud Nine lieutenant issued parting orders: "Be back to work tomorrow morning."
It was the worst of several beatings Shelton received while working for Cloud Nine. But he went back to work for the gang. He had to work off the money he owed and, besides, he said, "it was my livelihood."
Now, 14 arrests later, Shelton is serving a four- to 12-year sentence in prison. Starchy government food has put some bulk back onto his 200-pound frame, but little else has changed. "If someone was to offer me some heroin right now, I'd use it," he said.
Addicts confound the District's mandatory sentencing law for drug peddlers. Washington's narcotics gangs have a military structure, led by "captains" and "lieutenants." Addicts are the soldiers, and there is always a supply of them, willing to put their lives on the line for an injection.
"Who else is going to take those kind of risks but a desperate drug addict?" said Detective Steve Finkelberg of the District police department's narcotics branch. "The low man, that's the way it is in all segments of society. That's life."
A man with a large oval face, a quick, sardonic laugh and an analytical mind, Shelton once thought himself better than the addicts he saw shooting pool or nodding off on street corners. The son of a successful federal government equal employment specialist, he grew up in one of the city's most affluent black neighborhoods.
The Road to Addiction
He got involved in drugs in high school, starting with marijuana and then the appetite suppressant Preludin. He thought about becoming a stage artist and enrolled at Catholic University, only to drop out for adventure on the oil pipeline in Alaska.
There, while he was laid off, Shelton took up drugs again. He spent two years in prison after robbing a Fairbanks liquor store.
Back in Washington, there was a series of dead-end jobs: magazine distributor, clerk in a building supply firm, short-order cook. He was injecting dissolved Preludin pills, as many as 20 a day.
He tried heroin. "My first experience with heroin made me throw up for three days. My second experience made me throw up for one day." He moved out of his family's town house on the Potomac River waterfront to live with a group of addicts in a vacant building with no heat, electricity or running water. There, they operated an "oil joint," where other addicts brought in their packets of drugs to get them injected.
"I really don't know what to blame my drug use on," he said. "Experimentation. Going along with the crowd. I wasn't having a terribly disappointing life. It wasn't like I was fed up with society or with the power structure or anything like that."
Drugs, he said, "gave me a feeling of, not power, but invulnerability."
Arrests came in quick succession as Shelton took to the streets hawking drugs. On occasion he tried to pull away, but he always fell back into the addiction trap. He simply liked heroin and the street life that surrounded it; he liked the rush that surged through his body after he slid the needle into his arm.
"You'd get a feeling in your stomach; it feels like your stomach turns over a quick flip," he said. "While this is happening, there's a warm, tingly feeling that spreads in your head, through all your extremities."
Most of his arrests were for misdemeanor drug possession, so he usually was able to stay on the streets while his cases dragged on in court. He avoided drug treatment and everything else the government said he needed.
Once, in jail, he met a ringleader for a heroin gang with brands called Cloud Nine and Rising High. The man offered Shelton a job. It became a test of Shelton's skills as he prowled the sidewalks for customers to buy his bundles of $40 "quarters" -- tiny plastic packets containing a quarter-teaspoon of heroin, enough for one or two injections.
Four or five times a day he would sneak into vacant buildings to take his own shot.
"I would start my day off just like hundreds of other people who were doing the same thing I'm doing," he said. "We would converge on the strip area, which is between 14th and Florida Avenue and 14th and U Street.
"They were on both sides of the street, and there were about four different banks of phones that we would use to contact our lieutenants. They would tell us where to meet and the person who would hand the dope over to us at a particular street corner.
"We would be given a package of 10 of these quarters with one additional, which was supposed to be yours," he said. "If you're an addict, it's a wake-up shot. If you're not an addict, then that's $40 you can put in your pocket."
Shelton knew police were watching, but he didn't fear arrest. Usually he was free within hours of posting bond, a small price to pay for the $200 to $400 he could make in a day to support his growing heroin habit and that of his girlfriend.
Then -- shortly before his October 1983 arrest with Hall -- Shelton's world began to crumble.
Beatings From Bosses
One morning he walked out of Dottie's delicatessen to deliver $700 in sales proceeds to his lieutenant, thinking he had put the money in his coat pocket. When he got there, the cash was gone. Minutes later, blood was pouring from his head, where the lieutenant had beaten him with a walking stick.
A few months later, he was in Howard University Hospital with a broken arm and a stitched head from the beating with the baseball bat. Vice officers paid a visit, urging him to provide evidence against Cloud Nine, he said.
Shelton said he started to cooperate but came to distrust police.
Meanwhile, prosecutors were willing to make a deal: If he pleaded guilty to one felony heroin distribution charge, they would drop the other and not object to probation and drug treatment for Shelton.
"It was a fair exchange," Shelton said. "It was saving them a lot of money. They would have another conviction under their belt, which is all they're looking for."
After his sentencing, Shelton waited a month at Lorton before his name got to the top of the waiting list for a treatment program in Richmond. Judge Warren R. King released him, but Shelton never went to Richmond.
Three months later he was arrested for selling a $15 packet of marijuana laced with PCP to an undercover officer, his fourteenth arrest in four years. King revoked his probation and sentenced him to four to 12 years. He recently was transferred to a federal prison in Milan, Mich.
"This might sound contradictory, but I knew what I was looking forward to if I screwed up," Shelton said. "I have a bunch of reasons why I never made it, but they don't really hold water. If I was really determined to change my life, I would have broken all records getting down there."