As one gospel song after another fills the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street, Rhozier “Roach” Brown basks in the forgiveness of his community.
The ex-convict triggers emotions, much like Mayor Marion Barry does, among the elderly women with canes and the men with vivid memories of the temptations of the streets. Even though Brown has victimized his neighbors on more than one occasion in his journey from the nearby alleys to become a special assistant to the mayor, they believe he deserves redemption and praise.
Barry, who rode back into office on the same appeal after paying off his debt to society for a drug convic-tion, says Brown is a victim of “the injustice system.” Brown rode in alongside, but his debt still dogs him.
To a federal judge, Brown is a three-time loser and a parole deadbeat who’s on his way back to a prison cell if he makes one more mistake.
But Roach Brown is nothing if not a survivor, and Saturday night about 500 people gather at the Lincoln for “A Tribute to Rhozier ‘Roach’ Brown,” chipping in $ 15 each to help Brown give back what he took nearly a decade ago. Barry personally comes up with $ 200 and tells the audience that their admission price isn’t enough, they must do more. Brown owes a lot of money and he needs to pay it off fast, he says.
“He needs this $ 45,000,” Barry says, taking on the role of an auctioneer to encourage people to kick in a few extra bucks as he literally passes a hat in the theater.
Activist-comedian Dick Gregory sets the tone for the evening by saying Brown is “under attack for the wrong reasons,” especially because he is trying to help ex-convicts make it. “If you had come out and sat down on a corner, whistling at women with a bottle in your hand, nobody would be bothering you,” he says to Brown.
Ministers Willie Wilson and Imagene Stewart sing and preach that Brown, if given a chance, can find his way to salvation.
But nobody sings or preaches for Brown’s victims: the poor, emotionally disturbed children who didn’t get the help they needed because he stole $ 45,000 from a charity that serves them. Nor does anyone mention the promises Brown made to those children nearly a decade ago.
‘A Little Rascal’
He is known around town as Mr. Christmas because he greets everyone with a hearty “Merry Christmas” no matter what the time of year. Brown says he uses the greeting because it makes people laugh, and it re-minds him of all the good and bad things that happened to him during his life around the holidays.
His office is just down the hall from Barry’s at 1 Judiciary Square. Room 1170 is a large, empty space with a few battered desks and broken telephones, except for a small corner room. From there, Brown serves his people. His mission is to help as many ex-offenders, inmates and their families as he can. He points to stacks of letters, pleas to Barry to ease the suffering of an incarcerated son dying of AIDS or to help an imprisoned father see his dying daughter one last time.
Brown, 51, is the father of two sons and, counting his fiancee’s three grandchildren, soon to be a grandfa-ther to four. There is no way, he says, that he is the same person who killed, dealt drugs and cheated his way into prison. “I have a lot less hair,” he jokes, stroking his balding head. At 5 feet 10, Brown suits up like a man on the move, confident, charming and unashamed to talk about his role as repentant criminal.
“I’ve done some things,” Brown says, shaking his head. “I’ve not been an altar boy. I’ve been a little rascal, a little demon all my life. I even took money out of my mother’s purse. I’m not proud of those things. But I’ve asked for forgiveness over and over.”
To understand where Roach Brown is, you’ve got to know where he’s been. He started out a poor kid, who learned he had to hustle to survive. Standing in the refurbished lobby of the Lincoln Theatre, Brown points across the street. “Temperance Court was over there, beyond those buildings,” he says. “That’s where I grew up, in those alleys. We didn’t have plumbing. We didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have anything.”
A boyhood friend gave him his nickname because Brown was so stubborn and “hard to get rid of,” he says.
When his mother died of cancer, Brown says, he turned to heroin to ease his grief. He was in his late teens. By the time he was 20, he and three of his friends had murdered a fence during a robbery attempt.
While doing time on the murder charge, Brown started a prison theater group and garnered the recognition of then-Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.). Brooke went to bat for Brown, helping him get the chance of a lifetime when President Ford commuted his life sentence.
But Brown squandered the chance by getting into trouble again in 1987 when he sold cocaine to an under-cover drug agent and, in an unrelated episode, embezzled funds from a children’s charity.
He pleaded guilty to both charges, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $ 45,000 back to the charity. Nearly two years ago, he hit the streets again, immediately going to work on Barry’s campaign. Brown created a coalition of ex-offenders and delivered that untapped bloc of votes during last year’s mayoral primary. He was paid back with a job as the mayor’s assistant for “diversity and special ser-vices.”
But not more than four months into that $ 31,275-a-year position, he came to the attention of Senior U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch, who, it seems, was surprised to learn that Brown was working in the mayor’s office and not in the industry shop at the Lorton Correctional Complex.
In 1965, when Brown was convicted of murder, Gasch was the judge who sent him away for life. Brown and three others had broken into the home of Lonnie Page, a fence who dealt in stolen televisions and appli-ances. Page surprised them when he suddenly returned from a trip to the store.
One of Brown’s accomplices testified against his friends and told how Brown ordered him to put his hand over the mouth of a little girl who was in the house to keep her from warning Page. Her head had been cov-ered with a pillowcase so she could not identify the thieves. When Page came through the door, Brown jumped him. Little is known about what happened next, except that Page was shot three times. Police never found the murder weapon.
To this day, Brown denies that he killed Page. “They never proved who shot him,” he says. “I was not the triggerman. I’m not proud of being there. But what happened happened. It was just a robbery that went awry.”
When Brown went to prison, he was following in his father’s footsteps. When he was 9, Roach met his father for the first time at Lorton, where the boy thought he worked. But the elder Brown, a heroin addict, was do-ing time. With his father away, life was not easy for Brown, his seven brothers and sisters and his mother. They moved from place to place to keep one step ahead of rent collectors. The first time he had a bed of his own was when he went to prison.
Not that life was any easier there. He was in and out of St. Elizabeths Hospital after suffering mental break-downs from 1965 until early 1968. On his final return to Lorton, Brown says, he had a political awakening. He joined the inmate advisory council and quickly became a target for his activism. Guards beat him so se-verely that he temporarily lost feeling in his left side. Years later, a jury would give him $ 300,000 for his pain (a sizable portion went to lawyers, while the rest was simply spent -- on his theater troupe, among other things). The injured Brown was not taken to a hospital. He was put in solitary for eight months. As his wounds slowly healed, Brown began to write poetry in the dust of his cell.
When he emerged from solitary, the city’s corrections director, Kenneth Hardy, took a personal interest in his case. “At that point, a transformation took place,” Hardy wrote to a judge in 1987 when Brown was in trouble again, “and Mr. Brown changed from a ‘rough hood’ to a more constructive oriented behavior.” Har-dy knew what he was talking about. He had been Brown’s father’s parole officer and remembered the “des-titute” life Brown lived as a boy.
Hardy allowed Brown and the Inner Voices drama group of prisoners to leave Lorton more than 1,500 times to perform plays that Brown had written about the horror and humor of being locked up. In 1973, Hardy stood up to Gasch when the judge demanded to know why he was giving so many breaks to a convicted murderer.
Through his work with the theater group, Brown had already made the political contacts that would serve him from then on. At Christmastime 1975, President Ford commuted Brown’s life sentence to 30 years, making him immediately eligible for parole.
Brown landed a job as a gofer at Channel 5 and over the next dozen years worked his way up to producer, where his work was nominated for several local Emmy awards. He testified before Congress on rehabilitat-ing criminals. Barry appointed him to several boards and commissions. He also went into business for him-self, forming at least three communications companies.
But in the mid-1980s, Brown lost everything. He was traveling with the District’s elite and going to parties where he was introduced to cocaine. He snorted it. He smoked it. And on April 3, 1987, he sold it to an un-dercover agent. He insists it was the first time he had ever sold drugs. But agents secretly recorded Brown as he bragged about his connections, political and criminal, and promised he could make even larger sales. He also warned that if he was double-crossed, he would “hold court in the street.”
At about the same time, Brown stole the $ 45,000 by tricking a girlfriend into telling him how her employer, the Hillcrest Children’s Center, invested its money. Brown then convinced Riggs National Bank he was the center’s executive director and had the money transferred into his own account.
When he had his day in court, prosecutors argued that the two crimes showed who the real Roach Brown was: “a dangerous, manipulative and self-serving criminal.” Stealing from a charity that used to be the Washington City Orphan Asylum, they said, was “heartless.” A three-time loser like Brown didn’t deserve another chance, they argued.
Brown spent 6 1/2 years in federal prison for the drug and theft convictions. But he got yet another break in 1993 when he was turned over to D.C. prison authorities. He was supposed to come back to the District and finish up the balance on the old murder rap -- seven years, according to Brown, or 16 years, according to federal prison records. But the D.C. Parole Board decided that Brown was ready for release and put him on parole until November 2009. The bottom line: Brown did only five months in D.C. custody -- most of it in a halfway house.
The Inmate Industry
Brown says he deserves all of the chances he has gotten and so do other ex-offenders. He puts in long hours, going anywhere and everywhere he is invited to speak about the life of an ex-convict. He says he wears a beeper so he is never out of touch with inmates and their families.
He helped Claudette Brooks, or at least he tried. She wanted her son, Eric, who was dying of AIDS at Lor-ton, to spend his last days not in prison but in a nursing home. Brown kept in almost daily contact with her. Finally, in March, he pulled it off. But Eric Brooks couldn’t hang on. He died a week before he was sup-posed to go to the nursing home.
“I have nothing but good things to say about him,” Claudette Brooks says. “He was a great inspiration.”
Brown believes he can do more for inmates than help them die with dignity. He believes they represent a potentially powerful force in politics and economics. Brown estimates that in Washington alone there is a voting bloc of 100,000 to 120,000 ex-offenders and their relatives. Nationally, there are millions. If they heed the lessons of special-interest groups such as homosexuals and senior citizens, ex-offenders can make changes, he says, in everything from mandatory minimum sentences to the amount of “gate money” in-mates get when they are released. “The ballot is more powerful than the bullet,” Brown says.
Ex-offenders have had their right to vote restored in 35 states and the District. Bills have been introduced in Congress to restore their right to vote in federal elections.
To stay out of prison, ex-offenders need jobs, Brown says. He believes they can become their own bosses by starting businesses that cater to the growing corrections industry. In his job as Barry’s special assistant, he says he will do everything he can to help them and is urging that they start companies that provide food and other services to prisons.
Like himself, they deserve another chance, Brown says. “A lot of people make mistakes. Why do we keep on punishing them for the same act?”
Brown delivers those messages everywhere he goes these days -- back to Lorton, in meetings with African American business leaders and in seminars. He captivates people, as he did recently at a national meeting of CURE, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, where he overshadowed two other ex-convicts with powerful stories of their own: a former judge and a murderer turned minister.
As people crowd around him, he hugs them all, extending his trademark “Merry Christmas.”
Time to Pay
No one would have known that Brown had never paid a dime of the $ 45,000 if it hadn’t been for Gasch. (The administration of the children’s center had changed over the years and current officials were not aware that the money was owed.) Brown and his supporters deeply resent the judge’s interference. It wasn’t even his case, they say. It belonged to U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, who died two years ago.
On Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre, Barry criticized Gasch. “I don’t mind calling his name,” the mayor said. “He’s about 90 years old and has lost touch with reality or something.”
But for Gasch, an 89-year-old senior judge, the restitution is still owed on a federal crime. That is why he called Brown and the D.C. Parole Board into court last month to explain themselves.
Sitting at an outdoor cafe on Indiana Avenue NW, not far from the federal courthouse, Brown explains that it’s not his fault; the D.C. Parole Board was supposed to tell him when to begin making the payments.
“I’ve paid my price,” Brown says, “and I’m still being ripped apart. This sends a not-too-pleasant message that even if you do what’s required you can be penalized.”
But Brown is at a loss when asked to explain The Letter.
The letter is tucked away inside a three-inch file on Brown in the federal courthouse. It is in Brown’s hand-writing, a rambling, five-page plea for mercy. In it, he offers to pay the $ 45,000 back to the Hillcrest Chil-dren’s Center, and more. “When I’m released I would like to offer my services to this honorable court, to as-sist in developing some kind of [drug treatment] program that will surely be needed, because my case is not even nowhere near the tip of the iceberg,” Brown wrote.
“Along with [that], I wish to make restitution to Hillcrest Children’s Center, the agency I’ve wronged, and if possible, to offer my services to them above and beyond performing community service as one way to make amends for my misconduct. The restitution I am offering is based on future employment.”
No one -- not Brown, not his lawyers -- mentioned this offer to Judge Gasch last month.
“It tickles me that you found that letter,” Brown says, sounding more ticked that tickled.
Later, he says he forgot that he wrote it. But he eventually owns up to it. “I initiated that. I didn’t like what I had done. I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done [the crime]. It’s so embarrassing, so humiliating and it hurts.”
Since Gasch hauled him in, Brown has started making monthly payments of nearly $ 300 on the $ 45,000. He says repeatedly that he meant to pay it, but 22 months out of prison just wasn’t enough time to find work, pay off old debts to friends and family and meet new obligations. “I’ve only got one foot on the beach,” he says. “I’ve got to get both feet on the sand.”
If he misses a payment, Brown knows that he is going back to prison. As a result of Gasch’s intervention, Brown isn’t reporting any more to the D.C. Parole Board, whose “clerical error” gave him a nearly two-year grace period on the debt. Instead, the U.S. Parole Commission is watching over him.
“I’m glad you found that letter,” Brown says again. “I wrote it and I’m willing to pay it.”