Rhonda Johnson, 54, who described herself as a recovering crack addict, attended a June 13 community meeting called to gather public opinion about whether notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III should be released early from federal prison. “The people you should be asking are dead,” she said. “Ask the adults who were born addicted to crack cocaine because their mothers smoked.” (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

As he sat on his porch the other day, Amir Ali marveled that he never could have enjoyed such a simple pleasure a generation ago, when the city’s most notorious drug lord turned his Northeast Washington street into the epicenter of the District’s crack epidemic, crammed with heavily armed peddlers and desperate addicts.

Ali and many other Washingtonians thought they had seen the last of Rayful Edmond III in 1990 when a judge sentenced him to life without parole.

But with prosecutors now seeking Edmond’s early release — because he helped convict more than 100 other drug dealers over 20 years — this ghost of Washington’s ugly past has been reborn, forcing a public reckoning for a city that bears little resemblance to the one in which he reigned.

“He’d come on the street and throw little bags of drugs in the air and everyone — all the crackheads — would scramble to pick them up,” recalled Ali, 82, a retired Metro mechanic who lives on Orleans Place NE, which was known as “The Strip” during Edmond’s heyday.

“When I walked outside,” Ali said, “I walked in the middle of the road because the sidewalks were so crowded with drug dealers and crackheads. I haven’t had to do that in a long time. And now I sit on my porch anytime I want.”


Edmond ran his drug operation in the 1980s from his grandmother’s house at 407 M Street NE in Washington. Today the house is owned by an engineer and a nurse who bought it for $720,000 in 2017. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who will decide whether to release Edmond early, has asked Attorney General Karl Racine to solicit the sentiments of District residents at a series of public forums, the first two of which were held in the past week.

For months, the prospect of freedom for Edmond, now 54, has provoked chatter across the city, particularly among black Washingtonians who recall him traveling around town in a chauffeur-driven limousine and handing cash to strangers — the largesse he could afford from selling 1,700 pounds of cocaine a month.

On busy nights during that time, his employees carried out as many as 30 transactions a minute, according to court documents.

If he returns to Washington, Edmond would find a far different city than what he left in 1990, when Marion Barry was mayor, the homicide toll more than doubled over five years, middle-class blacks fled for the suburbs, and the MCI Center, which would launch the first wave of downtown gentrification, was still years from construction.

The neighborhood where he based his operation — between Gallaudet University and H Street NE — was nearly 95 percent African American, according to the census. Many residents were poor and working class and living in ramshackle rowhouses. By 2017, the same neighborhood was 66 percent white and 24 percent black, according to census estimates. Nearly 60 percent of the households earn more than $100,000.

The two-story rowhouse where Edmond’s grandmother lived on M Street NE — and where he maintained his headquarters — is owned by a couple who paid $720,000 in 2017, according to property records. He’s an engineer; she’s a nurse. They have a toddler.

A block away, a Trader Joe’s recently opened, along with a restaurant serving $190 steaks. Union Market, once frequented by blue-collar patrons, is now a Taj Mahal for foodies.

“We like the changes in the neighborhood and hope it helps our property value,” the nurse, 31, who declined to be identified, said at her door last week.

A couple of blocks over, on Orleans Place NE, Darin Milanesio, 27, an American University graduate student from California, said he knew nothing about Edmond when he and three housemates moved into a rowhouse a year ago.

The place they rented for $4,800 a month was once a vacant stash house for Edmond’s gang. During a 1988 search, police found “100 $25 bags of cocaine in a plumbing pipe in the basement,” according to court records.

Milanesio’s ignorance did not last long.

“Every Uber driver who drops us off tells us about Rayful Edmond,” he said. “I enjoy hearing about it. It’s history.”

Down the street, Adam Mausner, 38, a Pentagon policy adviser, said Orleans Place’s sordid lore is sometimes a topic of conversation among recent home buyers, as they linger on the sidewalk watching their children play.

“I’ve heard there were dead bodies, literally on the street,” he said as he walked his golden doodle, Obi-Wan Kenobi. “It’s a whole new world today. The only thing they’re selling is Asian-Mexican fusion tacos around the corner and $15 avocado toast.”

Mausner said he learns his Edmond history from Ali, who is a repository of details such as that Edmond’s dealers liked to stash drugs in the cracks of the massive ginkgo tree outside his house.

The memories are so vivid that the idea of Edmond being free makes Ali anxious.

“I never thought he would come out,” he said.

Weighing in

Since it was created in late May, a website set up by Racine’s office has received more than 300 comments about Edmond. Only about 30 people showed up at the first of his public hearings last Thursday, including a dozen who volunteered to speak.

Some testified that the 30 years that Edmond has spent in prison is more than enough.

“Child molesters and rapists are back on the streets in less time,” Keisha Morris, 45, a District government project coordinator, told Racine.

Harry Sullivan, 44, who spent five years in prison and said he was 14 when he sold drugs for Edmond, described Edmond “as the most kindhearted person I had ever dealt with.”

“He didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do,” Sullivan said. “I don’t glorify him. But he should be allowed to live his life outside those prison walls as I did.”

When it was her turn, Rhonda Johnson, 54, who described herself as a recovering crack addict, told Racine he was surveying the wrong people.

“The people you should be asking are dead,” she said. “Ask the adults who were born addicted to crack cocaine because their mothers smoked.”


Robert Vinson Brannum attends a public hearing to help a judge decide whether Edmond deserves to be freed. Brannum says middle-class black families left the District during the crack epidemic that Edmond fed, setting the stage for gentrifiers to later buy real estate and transform the city. He is opposed to early release for Edmond. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Others saw a connection between the terror caused by Edmond’s drug empire and the demographic and economic changes that have redefined the District since his arrest.

“Many decent people were forced to leave the homes of their parents and grandparents because of threats,” said Robert Vinson Brannum, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5. “It must not be lost to the minds of others that African American communities were devastated, or forgotten.”

'The biggest superstar'

Before his 1989 arrest, Edmond was viewed by many in his neighborhood as a largely benign hustler who played and coached in youth basketball tournaments and volunteered to buy clothes for kids and help parents pay their bills.

“He was the biggest superstar that us kids got to see,” said Sean Thomas, 43, recalling his teenage encounters with Edmond. “He always had big rolls of money, diamonds, European cars. To all of us, he was a hero.”

Edmond would jet to Las Vegas for a Sugar Ray Leonard fight, make frequent trips to boutiques in Georgetown and New York and go on shopping sprees along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had made millions, creating the largest, deadliest drug network in the city, prosecutors said in court at the time.


Rayful Edmond III

Idriis Bilaal, 92, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades, recalled that Edmond once gave him $50 when he told him he was on his way to buy a sandwich. Bilaal said he never asked Edmond how he made his money.

“That wasn’t my business,” he said. “We all do things that sometimes we may not be proud of, looking back. As black people, sometimes we have to do some things to make ends meet.”

It was during Edmond’s trial that the public became aware of the scope of his criminal enterprise, one that employed more than 150 people, including his mother and other family members, and featured Colombian cocaine imported through Los Angeles.

“I was just amazed that his operation was as big as they said it was,” said Clifford Waddy, a civic leader in Edmond’s neighborhood at the time. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ I guess what we saw was the tip of the iceberg.”

Bill Lightfoot, an at-large D.C. Council member when Edmond was in business, said he only became aware of the drug dealer’s name after his arrest. The city’s battle with the crack epidemic did not end with Edmond’s arrest, he said.

“It put a face to the epidemic and gave the prosecutors something they could show publicly that they did to limit the spread of crack,” he said. “But on the streets, how much of a difference did it make? Not much.”

His organization was implicated in 30 homicides, but Edmond was never charged, a fact raised by those who contend that he deserves to be released early. Yet others argue that Edmond’s decisions as an inmate are reasons to keep him in prison.

In 1996, while confined to a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania, Edmond was sentenced to an additional 30 years for continuing his drug trade from behind bars. At some point in the late 1990s, he began cooperating with investigators, providing information that led to the convictions of dozens and dozens of other dealers — a transformation cited by some as an irredeemable violation of the honor code of the streets.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘How is he getting a second chance when others aren’t because they didn’t work with the feds?’ ” said Anthony Lorenzo Green, 33, a Ward 7 civic leader. “Everyone deserves a second chance, but there are a long line of brothers who deserve it before Rayful.”

Anwar Saleem, a hairstylist on H Street NE since the 1980s, said he understands the damage Edmond caused. But he also said that Edmond could use his influence to deter future generations of potential drug dealers.

“We can all get off track,” Saleem said. “The test of a man — if we get off track — is coming back in a positive way.”

'Friends all over'

Amir Ali, still on his porch on Orleans Place NE, is aware that he could earn a hefty profit if he put his house on the market. Around the corner, a rowhouse is for sale for more than $1 million. He paid $16,500 when he bought his place in 1975, he said.


New buildings, including one housing Trader Joe’s, make up the gentrified neighborhood along Florida Avenue near the home where Edmond ran his drug operation in the 1980s. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

But Ali said he has no interest in leaving, not when he’s enjoying all the newly arriving families, with their newborns and dogs. At the same time, he remains concerned about vestiges of the neighborhood’s past, including Edmond.

“He has friends all over,” Ali said. “He still has people in the area.”

Even if Sullivan grants Edmond an early release from federal prison, he faces an additional 30-year prison sentence from Pennsylvania that he has not begun to serve. Prosecutors there have not indicated publicly whether they are seeking a reduction.

If he is released early, it’s not clear where Edmond would start a new life. He is in the witness protection program and would remain there, meaning his identity and location would be hidden from the public, his attorney, Jason Downs, said at a court hearing.

In recent months, neighbors became aware that a sister of Edmond had bought a rowhouse on the block in 2017. In the 1990s, prosecutors described her as the girlfriend of Jerry Millington, a “supervisor” in the Orleans Place operation.

Tim Purdy, 50, who works in law enforcement and lives next door to the home she owns, said the sister’s presence causes him to worry that Rayful could return to the neighborhood if he is released. Edmond, he said, could be a target for retaliation and endanger others on the street.

“If I wanted to blast him, where would I go?” Purdy asked, answering his own question. “Right here.”

Edmond’s sister did not return a phone message and declined to talk to a reporter when contacted by text.

A sign on her porch reads, “Pray more, worry less.”