Curtis Malone, left, and DerMarr Johnson in 1999. Malone was a mentor to Johnson, who went on to become a basketball pro. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Just who is Herman Curtis Malone?

Gregory Holloway, former director of audits for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, called Malone “exemplary as father, mentor, coach and friend” to thousands of D.C. area youth.

Theresa Dear, board member of the national NAACP, said that for two decades Malone “committed his life to rescuing, helping and advocating for youth” and “provided clothing and meals to youth and their families — many times from his own pocket.”

Adrion Howell, chief lobbyist for Prince George’s government under County Executive Jack B. Johnson, described Malone as “a family man, a loving husband, devoted son and someone who cares deeply about providing educational opportunities to our youth.”

The Malone these by-the-book high achievers know is, well, one of them. Over three decades, he guided hundreds — some say thousands — of teenage boys toward higher education, especially those whose skills on the basketball court set them apart from their peers. The athletically gifted youngsters often landed on the Amateur Athletic Union basketball team Malone founded with his friend Troy Weaver in 1993, D.C. Assault.Malone built a winning team, which attracted more talent, which meant more wins. Charismatic and driven, Malone grew D.C. Assault into one of the top AAU boys’ basketball programs in the United States with nine teams.

Big-name sponsors — Adidas and Under Armour — signed up to contribute gear and money. Top college coaches came to know Malone as the go-to guy to recruit Washington’s best players. And Malone gave back to the community. The Malone the high achievers know sponsored charity golf tournaments. He raised money for nonprofits for at-risk youth and a rare disease. He even invited players and non-athletes from troubled homes to live with him, sometimes for years.

But the Malone prosecutors and police know can be summed up in two words: drug dealer. Turns out, Malone was a key player in an East Coast cocaine and heroin distribution ring.

Two Curtis Malones, two lives worlds apart.

Curtis Malone was 4 when his family moved into the one-story frame house on Muncy Road in Palmer Park in Prince George’s County. It was spring 1973. Palmer Park was a working-class community of 6,000 people, most of whom lived in small semi-detached houses like the Malones’. Theirs was a traditional family: parents Herman Curtis Malone and Rosa Mae Malone, and sibling Beverly Yvette Malone, six years older than the young Curtis.

The community, between Landover Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Highway, gained fame in 1976 after Sugar Ray Leonard, who lived about three blocks from the Malones, won a gold medal for boxing in the Summer Olympics. “Ray loved Curtis,” said Curtis’s father, Herman.

“He’s older, but he used to always come around trying get Curtis interested in boxing. I wanted Curtis to play sports, but not boxing. Too dangerous.”

Curtis’s passion lay with basketball. He graduated in 1986 from Parkdale High, where he was the starting varsity shooting guard. He hoped to use basketball to secure a scholarship to college, but a senior-year leg injury squashed those plans, his father said. Curtis did spend a little time at a junior college in West Virginia, but, for reasons the father says he cannot recall, that setting didn’t work for his son.

Weeks after Malone graduated from high school, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. It was two days after the Boston Celtics selected him second in the NBA draft. The death of Bias, who had grown up a mile and a half from Malone, shocked the country and sparked a fundamental change in U.S. drug policy: Enforcement became a priority; penalties became harsher and mandatory.

Nevertheless, crack cocaine flooded urban areas. Crack was highly addictive, cheaper than powder and plentiful. A lucrative commodity. Local gangs fought each other over selling rights at 24-7 outdoor drug markets. It did not take long before the local drug-turf battles turned into turf battles with gangs from New York, Miami and Jamaica.

Palmer Park did not escape the times. Like many neighborhoods around Washington and Baltimore, it was labeled by the Justice Department as a high-intensity trafficking area. “It was hell here,” said former county police detective Thomas Eveler, who now works for the police as a civilian. “You should have seen it.”

Curtis Malone lived it. At 22, four years out of high school and living at home, he joined the drug game. He made it a family affair, employing his older sister to help him sell crack. In 1990, an informant told county narcotics officers that Malone was selling from his family’s home. Undercover officers bought crack at the house, then at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13, police showed up with a search warrant. They found 17 grams and a .38-caliber revolver. Malone, his sister and his father were arrested.

Charges against Malone’s father were soon dropped. Not so for Curtis and his sister.

In Prince George’s Circuit Court, Curtis pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to five years with all but three months suspended and three years of supervised probation. His sister pleaded guilty to the same charge; she got 10 years with all but 18 months suspended.

For three years, Curtis stayed out of trouble with the law, hanging out and watching youth basketball games.

On Aug. 22, 1993, Malone and a friend, Jabbouri McClamb Sr., were cruising around Palmer Park shortly after midnight. Malone, still on probation, was driving. Several blocks from home, Malone noticed five or six marked county police cars in the rear-view mirror. According to his deposition, Malone made a U-turn, triggering sirens and flashing lights. The short chase ended at the Malone house, where Malone was arrested.

Malone said he drove back because he feared the officers would beat him if he stopped in an isolated area and McClamb asked him not to stop because he had an outstanding arrest warrant.

McClamb escaped on foot. He was later found dead in a nine-foot-deep utility ditch filled with water. The medical examiner’s office ruled that he died accidentally from drowning and injuries suffered from falling into the ditch.

In March 1994, Malone was given a verdict of probation before judgment to a single charge of negligent driving in the case.

It was shortly after that arrest that Malone’s attention turned hard toward basketball. “We had been talking about trying to start some kind of sports programs to keep kids off the streets around here,” his father said in an interview. “I was working for Trailways at the time. We figured we could get Trailways and Greyhound to chip in some [financial] support.”

But Curtis Malone had bigger plans.

Malone coaching a D.C. Assault team in 1998. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

By late summer 1994, Malone was making a name for himself on the youth basketball scene. Big games? He was in the stands. Big talent? He was whispering advice to the potential pro basketball players.

He applied for a job coaching the boys’ junior varsity team at Dunbar High School, a basketball powerhouse. “I first heard his name about a year or so before then,” said Mike McLeese, the Dunbar varsity coach who moved to Howard University that October. “We were hoping that two kids from [the former] Evans Junior High in Northeast would come to play at Dunbar. I kept hearing that Curtis Malone had their ears. He was a mentor, an adviser to them.”

Dunbar hired him. After a season, Malone moved on. He and his longtime friend Weaver, now assistant general manager for the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder, established D.C. Assault. At the time, registration with the Amateur Athletic Union required no background check, no requirement to divulge felony convictions.

Initially, Malone coached and recruited for D.C. Assault, in addition to his administrative duties. But after media reports about his 1991 crack conviction, the AAU changed its rules, and Malone had to stop coaching or even sitting on the team’s bench at AAU events.

“He was doing things like dealing with the shoe companies and recruiting players,” said P.K. Martin, AAU’s men’s basketball national chairman.

Founded in 1888, the nonprofit AAU was established to ensure uniformity in amateur sports and to represent the United States in international sports competition. Basketball is the AAU’s most popular and most prosperous sport. The league is headquartered in Florida and sponsors national tournaments, some televised on ESPN.

Television contracts plus lucrative deals with sneaker companies make AAU basketball a big-money sport. The AAU publishes an annual directory of the “best” AAU players in the country. The 2013 edition contains statistical bios of 5,000 players, some as young as 8. The directory costs $60.

Success came quickly for D.C. Assault. So did prominence for co-founder Malone. The program grew to nine teams, some of which traveled the country to play, courtesy of sponsorships with the athletic apparel companies and donations. Three Assault teams were ranked in the Top 20 in the country last year in their age brackets by the AAU.

“I heard his name more and more when it came to local ballplayers,” McLeese said in reference to Malone. “You could not really recruit in the area if you didn’t know him.”

In 2004, Malone bought a $525,000, 5,000-square-foot home in Upper Marlboro. Spacious living conditions made it easier for Malone to reach out to what his supporters call “troubled” teens who might need a place to stay because of turmoil at their own homes. Cynics say Malone opened his home to get on the good side of athletically gifted teenagers who had the potential to get big paydays in the NBA and repay his kindness.

Curtis’s father said his son’s acts of kindness were without ulterior motives. “He was doing what he was raised to do,” he said. “When he was growing up, me and his mother used to take in kids from the neighborhood all the time. We were a little better off than some, so we could do that. We taught him to do for others and don’t go out and talk about it. Do it from the heart. He would do anything for anybody.”

Sean Frye, a Loudoun County kid, lived for a while at Malone’s. “I was having problems with my mother, and Curtis took me in,” said Frye, now a senior at Kansas State University.

Frye met Malone during an NCAA men’s basketball tournament practice at Verizon Center. “He was sitting in the stands, and I was wearing a Michael Beasley jersey,” Frye said. “Curtis called me up in the stands to sit with him.” Beasley is one of the most famous products of D.C. Assault, the second player chosen in the 2008 NBA draft.

For the next three years, Frye managed one of D.C. Assault’s travel teams. The position — coupled with Malone’s connections — helped Frye get a scholarship as a manager for the K-State team.

During this period, Malone met Monica Smith, the woman who would become his wife. At the time, Monica worked for the Washington Wizards’ general counsel. Her husband — former NBA player Derek E. Smith — had died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart ailment years earlier. Friends told her that her teenaged son, Nolan, was ready to play AAU ball and that D.C. Assault was the best program in the country.

It took three years for Curtis to win over Monica. His generosity sealed the deal. “I saw this man help so many people, from the young players to his neighborhood and his family,” Monica later wrote to the judge presiding over her husband’s federal drug case. (Neither Monica nor Curtis Malone agreed to be interviewed for this story.) “I often thought to myself why is this man so giving and so generous.

“I had everyone’s blessing, including my late husband’s family,” she continued. “They really liked Curtis. I truly felt I had a great companion.”

Soon after they married in 2005, the couple started the Curtis and Monica Malone Charitable Foundation. Among other things, the foundation sponsored charity golf tournaments. In 2009, for example, $500 went to the Fishing School in Northeast Washington for at-risk kids. The participants showed just how powerful Curtis and D.C. Assault had become: basketball representatives from the University of Virginia, Memphis State, West Virginia, Georgetown, Kansas State, Maryland, Villanova, North Carolina State, the University of Massachusetts, Vanderbilt and Boston.

Soon a blemish appeared in the Malones’ fairy-tale life. The year after they wed, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $125,959 tax lien against Curtis for failure to file income taxes from 2001 to 2004 (the civil case is still pending). But there was apparently no hint to Monica of the other Curtis Malone. She believed that part of his life had ended with his 1991 conviction.

He had told her about it before they married. “I remember the meeting clear as day,” Monica wrote. “Curtis was very kind, honest. He told me a lot about himself, especially his past. I remember asking one question, ‘Is your past your past, to the point where you will not do anything to hurt the kids or me?’ Curtis looked me in the eyes and told me he would not.”

That promise would be hard for Malone to keep. In 2007, a confidential informant told Prince George’s County narcotics detective Thomas Eveler that several times he had visited a cocaine dealer who lived on Medwick Road in Upper Marlboro, according to records in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. A records check of the phone number showed that it was subscribed to D.C. Assault — the alleged dealer was Curtis Malone.

“I don’t pay attention to anyone’s stature,” Eveler, the former detective, said in an interview. “It doesn’t make any difference. We go after people who violate the law.”

The detective started a file on Malone. But an assignment to a joint federal-local task force kept him from focusing on Malone. Still, others in the Narcotics Division knew Eveler was working the case — and the intelligence would prove valuable two years later.

On April 1, 2009, Prince George’s County Police Officer Jason Jones and his partner set up a speed radar at Largo Road and Lenox Drive, less than four miles from Malone’s home. The officers at the time were assigned to a violent crimes unit. At 2:20 a.m., according to a statement of probable cause filed in Prince George’s District Court, a white Toyota Tundra with Maryland tags was headed south on Largo Road at 79 mph in a 50-mph zone.

In an interview, Jones said he pulled behind the Toyota and cut on his flashing lights. “What really got my attention is that he did not stop right away,” Jones said.

When Malone did pull over, Jones said he smelled alcohol and marijuana. Malone twice declined to take sobriety tests. Officers found traces of marijuana under the driver’s seat, passenger’s seat, center cup holder and center console. In the rear on the floor, officers found a white plastic bag holding almost $26,000. “That doesn’t happen every day,” Jones said.

Malone told the officers he had won the cash gambling in Atlantic City, but the bills tested positive for cocaine, Eveler said. Malone was charged with possession of marijuana and driving-under-the-influence counts. He was acquitted of all but a driving-while-impaired charge, for which he was given probation before judgment and fined $500.

Prosecutors kept the $25,790 cash and initiated drug forfeiture proceedings in Prince George’s District Court. The case was moved to federal court in Greenbelt, probably to take advantage of federal drug forfeiture rules that are more favorable to the government.

“Someone contacted me shortly after the stop happened,” Eveler recalled. He passed along what the confidential informant had told him in 2007.

Investigators contacted a dozen Atlantic City casinos to determine whether any had records showing Malone had won about $26,000 during the time Malone said he had. Eight responded; none had records of winnings by Malone, according to records in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled in the government’s favor in July 2010, and Malone forfeited the cash to federal prosecutors. Malone told Prince George’s court officials that when he was arrested in April 2009, he made $200,000 a year and that when he was arrested six months later, he made $100,000.

Curtis Malone, center, in orange, and his attorney, Billy Martin, at Malone’s status conference on Dec. 13. ( Dana Verkouteren/For The Washington Post FTWP)

A couple of years later, the Drug Enforcement Administration started investigating Micah Jerry Bidgell, a District resident suspected of dealing heroin and cocaine around Clay Terrace in far Northeast Washington and across the District border in Prince George’s along Central Avenue. Through wiretaps of Bidgell’s cellphones, agents identified Malone as Bidgell’s supplier — a relationship they said dated to at least August 2010, according to U.S. District Court in Washington. The agents got authorization to wiretap Malone’s telephones and to conduct video surveillance of visitors to his Upper Marlboro home. The monitoring lasted more than a year.

On Aug. 9 last year, Malone, 45, was arrested. A federal grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiracy, distributing at least 100 grams of heroin and at least five kilograms of cocaine and possessing a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense. Five other people were charged, too, including Bidgell, who is still at large.

Facing a mandatory sentence of 25 years, Malone pleaded not guilty, and a trial date was set for April. Hearings came and went, his supporters filling the courtroom each time.

In February, the Malone saga seemed ready to end. Billy Martin, his attorney, told U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle in open court that Malone was “prepared to accept responsibilities for his actions.” A hearing was set for Malone to accept prosecutors’ plea offer that carried a sentence of five to 11 years. Malone asked for more time. A second hearing came. He hesitated again. “Nah, your Honor,” Malone told the judge. “I don’t think I can accept it.”

Finally, on March 12, Malone pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute or possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine and 100 grams or more of heroin. He agreed to forfeit $150,000 and acknowledged that the conspiracy to which he pleaded guilty had distributed between five and 15 kilograms of cocaine and heroin. His sentencing is scheduled for May 28. His punishment could be between five and 11 years, with a possibility of more prison time pending a pre-sentence investigation.

This time, the courtroom was empty except for a couple of reporters and the two DEA agents who had worked the case.

Keith Harriston teaches journalism
at Howard University, where he edits

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