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."
U.S. District Judge Emmet 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.
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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."
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."
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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.
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."
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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.
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."
As their minivan rolled north, they felt their nerves kick in - but they kept on driving.
At the wheel: Lija Greenseid, a rule-abiding Minnesota mom steering her Mazda5 on a cross-border drug run.
Her daughter, who is 13, has Type 1 diabetes and needs insulin. In the United States, it can cost hundreds of dollars per vial. In Canada, you can buy it without a prescription for a tenth of that price.
So, Greenseid led a small caravan last month to the town of Fort Frances, Ontario, where she and five other Americans paid about $1,200 for drugs that would have cost them $12,000 in the United States.
"It felt like we were robbing the pharmacy," said Quinn Nystrom, a Type 1 diabetic who joined the caravan that day. "It had been years since I had 10 vials in my hands."
They're planning another run to Canada this month to stock up on insulin - and to call attention to their cause. This time, they'll be taking the scenic route, driving from Minnesota through Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan en route to London, Ontario, where insulin was discovered nearly a century ago.
Like millions of Americans, Greenseid and Nystrom are stressed and outraged by the rising costs of prescription drugs in the United States - a problem Republicans and Democrats alike have promised to fix.
Insulin is a big part of the challenge. More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. About 7.5 million, including 1.5 million with Type 1 diabetes, rely on insulin.
Between 2012 and 2016, the cost of insulin for treating Type 1 diabetes nearly doubled, according to the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute.
Some pharmaceutical companies, under pressure from U.S. lawmakers, have tried to reduce the cost for some patients. But many who rely on insulin still struggle. Large numbers resort to rationing - a dangerous and sometimes deadly practice.
Some diabetics and their families are taking matters into their own hands. They meet in coffee shops and strip mall parking lots to exchange emergency supplies. An unknown number travel outside the country to buy the lifesaving drug for less.
None of this is recommended by U.S. officials, and some of it might be illegal, under Food and Drug Administration guidelines. But the organizers of the caravan - their word, a nod to the migrants traveling in groups through Mexico to the U.S. border - are speaking out about their trip because they want Americans to see how drug prices push ordinary people to extremes.
"When you have a bad health-care system, it makes good people feel like outlaws," Greenseid said.
"It's demeaning. It's demoralizing. It's unjust."
The caravaners aren't the only ones looking north. Republicans and Democrats have produced federal and state proposals to import drugs from Canada.
Those ideas aren't necessarily popular in Ottawa, where many worry that bulk buys from the United States could cause shortages or drive up prices.
Barry Power, director of therapeutic content with the Canadian Pharmacists Association, said the group is tracking both U.S. drug-buying proposals and reports of cross-border trade closely, but has yet to see a disruption to Canadian insulin supplies.
He said insulin prices in Canada are controlled through policy, including price caps and negotiations with manufacturers.
"This is something the U.S. could do," he said.
When the Canadian scientist Frederick Banting co-discovered insulin in the early 1920s, he balked at commercializing it because it seemed unethical to profit from a critical drug. He eventually sold his share of the patent to the University of Toronto for $1, in the hope the drug would remain widely accessible.
In the nearly 100 years since, insulin has become a lifeline for millions. But the price in the United States has surged in ways its discoverers could not have predicted.
When Nystrom was diagnosed with diabetes as a child in the late 1990s, she said, her family paid about $15 to $20 a vial. Now, at 33, she sometimes pays more than $300 for the same amount.
Nicole Smith-Holt, who drove north with Greenseid and Nystrom, said her son spent about $1,000 per month on the drug. Alec Raeshawn Smith, an uninsured Type 1 diabetic, rationed his insulin supply due to cost, his mother said. He died in 2017.
Elizabeth Pfiester is founder and executive director of T1International, a British-based nonprofit that advocates for people with Type 1 diabetes around the world.
"It's kind of a myth that America has the best health-care system in the world, because it is set up to allow Americans to go bankrupt or die because they can't afford their medicine," she said.
Pfiester grew up in the United States. One of the reasons her organization is based overseas, she said, is because the cost of treating her diabetes in the United States is so high.
"What I think is quite clear is that these companies will charge what they can get away with," she said. "They have been able to get away with costs going up because of a broken and opaque health-care system."
A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America noted that drug companies are increasingly offering rebates on insulin in the United States - but they aren't always reaching consumers.
"Too often, these negotiated discounts and rebates are not shared with patients, resulting in the sickest patients paying higher out-of-pocket costs to subsidize the healthy," PhRMA spokeswoman Holly Campbell said in an email. "This is the opposite of how health insurance is supposed to work."
Greenseid, who has purchased insulin for her daughter in six countries, said U.S. prices stand out as not just high, but unpredictable. As people bounce between insurance plans and navigate rebates, she said, you often "have no idea how much you are going to pay."
In the United States, you can buy some types of insulin without a prescription. But to get the newer analog insulin on which Type 1 diabetics rely, you need to visit or call your doctor.
If Nystrom forgets to pack enough for an extended trip, she said, she needs to get her endocrinologist on the phone. In Canada, she can walk into a pharmacy and get the analog insulin she needs.
"The attitude up there is: 'Why would someone buy insulin if they didn't need it?' " Nystrom said.
On their first trip north, the caravaners received support from Canadians, they said, but also accusations that they were looting drug supplies.
"We heard a lot of comments like, "Canada needs to put up a wall," Smith-Holt said. "I was like, 'Oh, come on.' "
Before the group set out for Fort Frances, they said, they called ahead to check that the local pharmacy had enough to fill their order without disrupting supply.
They see buying in Canada as a short-term emergency measure and a way to call attention to U.S. pricing - not the answer.
"I don't think that the solution is going outside the United States," Greenseid said. "The reason they have lower prices is because they have put in regulations to make sure their citizens are not paying too much. We have not yet made that decision in the U.S."
LaShawn McIver is senior vice president for government affairs and advocacy at the American Diabetes Association.
"Insulin is not a luxury, it is a matter of life and death," she wrote in an emailed statement. "Action to reduce the high out-of-pocket costs that endanger the lives of the millions of Americans who depend on this medication is critical and urgently needed."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, said the Trump administration is focused on lowering drug prices.
"President (Donald) Trump and (Health) Secretary (Alex) Azar are firmly committed to getting drug prices down," spokeswoman Caitlin B. Oakley wrote in an email. "They are both very open to the importation of prescription drugs as long as it can be done safely and can deliver real results for American patients."
Until things change, the caravaners say, they'll keep driving.
Their first trip led to queries from families across the country, they said, including Type 1 diabetics, parents of children with diabetes and family members supporting elderly relatives with diabetes. Some want to join.
So when they head north in a few weeks, they'll switch from family cars to a chartered bus.