Raymond Hall strode out of police headquarters and climbed into a parked Cadillac Eldorado, which sped across dusk-shrouded Washington to the place where a lieutenant in the Cloud Nine narcotics gang was waiting.
Hall was more than a little nervous. Earlier that mid-October day in 1983, he had been arrested, booked and bailed out on a charge of heroin distribution. The softspoken, small, almost frail-looking 19-year-old, who had never been convicted of anything, was facing a minimum of four years in prison.
But Hall's Cloud Nine boss, a stocky man who meted out punishment with a walking stick, had other things on his mind. Where, he demanded, were the telephone pager, cash and heroin that Hall had been carrying when police grabbed him that afternoon?
Hall led the man back to Cardozo High School, where, Hall insisted, he had ditched the items when police closed in on him. Searching the school's lawn behind a wall at 13th and Clifton streets NW in the half shadows cast by street lamps, they did not find the pager or any money. But they did find the 40 bundled packets of heroin -- worth $1,600 -- right where Hall had tossed them in the overgrown grass.
Without missing a day, Hall went on working for Cloud Nine. He was careful, though, to take an assignment that wouldn't expose him so easily to arrest. "I had decided: What did I have to lose?" he recalled later in an interview. "So I took my chances. And I made out pretty well."
Hall said he stayed in the drug business another nine months, making hundreds of dollars a week, living in a style he had dreamed about while growing up in the inner city. When he quit the streets to take a job at Howard University installing electrical transformers, he said, it was because of a falling out with his bosses rather than anything that happened in court.
No Questions Asked
To prosecutors, Hall was just another number on a case jacket in the city's assembly-line process of prosecuting drug offenders. No questions were asked about Cloud Nine. Hall was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge. He was released on probation and told to do community service.
More and more of those arrested for selling drugs are teen-agers like Hall. Drugs were part of his adolescence. He had smoked marijuana, tried PCP and cocaine. In high school, he had friends who sold heroin. Dealing drugs was just like any other job, only the money was easier. In Hall's view, there were far worse offenses, such as "showing your body in Playboy magazine."
Hall grew up in Southeast. His parents were separated. His mother supported him, his two brothers and his two sisters on public assistance and his father was never around.
Because his mother "just couldn't supply me with what I wanted," Hall turned early to shoplifting, snatching boxes of candy from a drugstore and selling them to classmates for pocket change. Later it was pants and shirts and shoes and jackets. He said he stopped when he decided that "it was a sin."
He graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in June 1982 and briefly worked as a laundryman at an Econolodge motel until he was fired because he kept showing up late. Then a former classmate called him with a job offer, the details of which were fuzzy.
One bright summer day in 1983, he and the friend drove to a house near Fifth and Kennedy streets NW where a man was introduced to him as a lieutenant in the Cloud Nine narcotics ring. The man was polishing a new black-and-silver Renault Fuego. Hall, who dreamed about owning a Mercedes-Benz 190 sports sedan, was impressed. He did not have to think twice about signing on.
Soon Hall was riding around with the gang lieutenant in the Fuego, learning the fine points of delivering packages of heroin to the peddlers who sold Cloud Nine's narcotics in the teeming drug bazaar near 14th and W streets NW.
He was shown how to hide bundles of heroin in a fast-food bag or a roll of newspaper. He was given a digital telephone pager so those who supervised the peddlers could reach him when a fresh supply was needed. He was instructed to carry plenty of change at all times.
Hall learned the bureaucracy of the drug trade: the sidewalk peddlers who risked most; the couriers who kept them supplied; the lieutenants who supervised the street sales and the enforcers who stepped in when the accounts were not straight. In the background were others who controlled the flow of drugs and benefited most.
Rewards and Risks
It was a new world, with penalties as enormous as its rewards. Befo re he started, Hall was made to watch as Cloud Nine lieutenants, one as wide as a refrigerator, brutally beat addict and peddler Charles Shelton because he lost $700.
"He busted that guy's head wide open. Busted that guy's head and didn't care nothing about it," said Hall, who rationalized that "just whupping on them" was in the line of work. The violence bothered Hall, made him realize that he could get killed. But it did not stop him from joining Cloud Nine. "I was really just motivated about making money," he said.
As much as $16,000 worth of heroin had to be delivered each day, and Hall wandered the streets a few blocks from the drug market waiting for his beeper to sound. He traveled by bus or sometimes by rental car. He passed the time playing PacMan in arcades on Georgia Avenue, stopping at Blimpie's for a sandwich or browsing through magazines at the Howard University library.
With the $300 that Cloud Nine paid him each week, Hall kept himself in high style. He wore a Ralph Lauren windbreaker, a sweat shirt with the Polo monogram, Timberland shoes, leather jackets and a $450, gold-plated, Seiko Lassale watch.
"I was pretty much enjoying it, you know. Pretty much enjoying it," he remembered. "I was making a great deal of money, treating myself to a great time and treating my young lady to a great time. And that's all I was thinking about -- having a good time. All I had to do was just live out the day."
But about a month after Hall went to work for Cloud Nine, police arrested him and Shelton after they were tipped by an informant and watched Hall deliver heroin to Shelton.
Hall had not heard about the city's new mandatory sentencing law, so he was primarily worried that authorities would investigate Cloud Nine. They never did. "We just can't waste our time with every single one of them," explained Morals Division Capt. James Nestor.
"The worst thing you could become is a snitch, because they will kill you," said Hall. So he lied to his court-appointed attorney, Roger Durban, telling him that a stranger had offered him $100 to pass the heroin to Shelton.
Durban made a deal with prosecutors. Hall would plead guilty to misdemeanor heroin possession; the government would not object to his being placed on probation, and Hall would not have to help in any investigation of Cloud Nine. If Shelton went to trial, Hall would testify against him.
"Police had no evidence of Hall's activities," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Zeno. "We deal with what we get when the case comes in."
"The U.S. attorney's office is frankly not that interested in climbing the ladder," said defense attorney Durban. "The line assistants are there to get convictions, and they're not particularly interested in investigation."
Hall's probation ended last October because of his good behavior. He is "taking it easy" now, he said, working odd jobs and waiting to enlist in the Navy. "I was fortunate to be in the situation I'm in now, and I'm grateful," he said, insisting that he is trying to straighten out his life.
In March, Hall returned to the heroin bazaar at 14th and W NW with a reporter and watched as peddlers and customers milled outside the John "T" market. In front of Dottie's delicatessen, Hall pointed excitedly: There were some of his former colleagues in Cloud Nine.