L.A.’s most famous dope man was doing life. I was writing his obituary.
It was a bright January morning in 1998, early into Ricky Ross’s sentence, and I had driven up the California coast, past Santa Barbara and over the Santa Ynez Mountains, where vineyards and seed fields meet razor wire and gun towers, to the federal prison in Lompoc. Originally a World War II disciplinary barracks, the compound became a maximum-security penitentiary after Alcatraz hit obsolescence; Lompoc was “the New Rock.”
He had grown up on 87th Place, where it dead-ends at the Harbor Freeway, which is how he earned his nickname: Freeway Rick. It was not uttered in awe, at least not in the beginning. To be poor and illiterate in the shadow of the 110 was to be a junky-ass freeway boy.
Later, when he emerged as the first crack boss of the cataclysmic 1980s, after he went from slanging $25 rocks to wholesaling $1 million loads, that moniker sounded like a Southern California joyride: slick, agile, unfettered, one step ahead of the law. Freeway Rick got so rich so fast, he began to think of himself the way a charismatic preacher might, as if God had put him on this earth to sell cocaine. It took some psychological acrobatics to ignore the sickness he was spreading, but he was good at that, too. In Rick’s mind, he was creating wealth, lifting up his community. The “Chosen One” was the phrase he used.
Rick was led to the visiting room in a khaki jumpsuit and plastic sandals. He is half the size you would expect, five feet six and 150 pounds, with dancing eyes and an electric smile and, at the time, a playful mop of mini dreads. He had no tattoos—none of the badges of the Blood-Crip civil war that had tripped up so many of his generation—and no patience for getting high. He had become a vegan, which in prison meant a lot of oatmeal. Everyone who has ever met him says the same thing: How could this curious little dude have mastered a business that is supposed to be all malice and excess?
“Right now,” he announced, “I might be more freer than I ever was.”
Rick’s voice is a blend of South-Central street and East Texas sticks, steeped in humor and hyperbole. He had begun to adopt the rosy aphorisms of the get-rich genre—what the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve—and he was testing them out, gauging their plausibility. I had known Rick to be animated and self-promotional before his arrest, sour and self-pitying after. Now here he was a three-striker, no possibility of parole, and he seemed to be more buoyant than ever. Maybe denial was his only prayer. Rick had plans to produce a mixtape, to launch a clothing line, to stage prizefights, to film a biopic, to show all the naysayers, the cops and prosecutors and moralists and cynics, that they had thrown away the key too soon. Adversity would make him that much stronger. Like the Mandela of the war on drugs.
Photograph by Bettina Monique
“It’s going to be a wild story,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “it’s already a wild story.”
“The wild part hasn’t even started yet,” Rick said.
I was shaking my head, marveling at the audacity, the futility of Rick’s ambition. He was inmate #05550-045. He was going to die behind bars.
“This is America,” he insisted. “We can dream. That’s one thing they didn’t take from me. They didn’t say, ‘You can’t dream no more, Freeway Rick.’ ”
Reckless, relentless, irrational optimism—Freeway Rick was the godfather of crazy hope. America was built on big, unrealistic dreams, at times even criminal dreams. We celebrate outliers and risk takers; we glorify comebacks and reinventions. But Freeway Rick had been granted a second chance. I had witnessed him blow it. He was being warehoused in Lompoc because America was, indeed, telling him that we had had enough of his dreams. He could no longer be trusted to dream.
Freeway Rick, the lost cause, went right on dreaming.
At the wheel of a battered Kia, its windshield cleaved by a deep, persistent crack, Ricky Ross navigates the freeways of his youth, the 10 to Crenshaw, the 91 to Carson, the 110—the route that eventually grew so wide, his mother had to sell their home—to Long Beach, taking calls on a BlackBerry, its screen also cracked. He has customers across L.A., but he is struggling to maintain inventory, to tap a pipeline that will keep up with demand. He is waiting on a shipment, 160 kilos, that may or may not make it across the border in the next month. A lady in Inglewood wants $10,000 worth, but she needs guarantees, on purity and weight, that Freeway Rick is unable to give.
“Growing pains,” he says, shrugging.
These are not the boom years, that inconceivable decade when Rick frolicked in snowdrifts of cash so colossal, he needed a crew with currency-counting machines to tally his millions. The Freeway Rick of 2013, his balding head shaved clean, his beard flecked with gray, his probation officer a constant thorn, is a kingpin on a shoestring. He is trying to get rich again—well, he knows he will get rich again—but for now he lives like a monk. He wakes before dawn. He eats once a day. He needs no caffeine to charge up, no alcohol to wind down. His wardrobe is all gimmes, a USC hoodie of late. He bought the Kia for $1,500, intending to flip it for a profit. But the mileage proved too good.
“My game has elevated,” he says. “The time I spent in jail was probably the most valuable time I spent in my life.”
Having oatmeal and tea at Denny’s in Van Nuys, Photograph by Forest Casey
The first time around, Rick was at the leading edge of a narcotic gold rush, mining uncharted terrain. At 53, he is a late arrival, trying to insinuate himself into a mature market, with higher start-up costs and entrenched competitors and, above all, profit margins that have not been propped up by prohibition. As much as it mimics cocaine—as agreeable as Rick finds the lexicon and arithmetic—his new scheme hinges on a legal commodity. Wherever he drives, the decal across the Kia’s rear window broadcasts his business: “100% Indian Virgin Human Hair.”
On the streets he once flooded with drugs, Freeway Rick is hawking weaves. A staple of the African American cosmetology industry, the weave—or “hair integration” piece—inspires cultlike reverence: a beauty secret that transforms an age-old preoccupation into a declaration of fabulousness. Rick has no training in hair care, no affinity for it either, but he knows that weaves cost a fortune, more than the average customer can sanely afford. A 3.5-ounce bundle, depending on length, retails for $150 to $175, and most women need several bundles to achieve a full, versatile coif, which means $1,000 or more to have the whole thing anchored and styled. In Freeway Rick’s brain, that adds up to opportunity. “It could be milk, tires, fertilizer—I don’t care,” he says. “They’re just products.”
The hood is bustling with salons (in the quasi documentary Good Hair, Chris Rock anoints L.A. “the weave capital of the world”), yet as Rick has discovered, the trade is anything but homegrown. The distribution network is governed by immigrant wholesalers, mostly South Korean. They get their merchandise from East Indian brokers, and the brokers get theirs from the great Hindu temples, like Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, which draws as many as 80,000 pilgrims a day. Most Hindus, at least once in a lifetime, submit to tonsure—ritual head shaving. In other words, a biological by-product, offered freely, in an act of egoless cleansing, is recycled, commodified, and transported halfway around the globe to indulge women discontent with their natural hair.
“Just like crack, you don’t need weave,” Rick says. “It takes advantage of people’s ignorance, I guess you could say. But there’s a lot of stuff people don’t need, and still we consume it. That’s how business works in America. It’s all programming—accessories—things we’ve been made to believe that we want.”
That he has no qualms about exploiting something he also laments is vintage Freeway Rick. Weaves may be expensive folly, but as long as someone is going to profit, why not him? If he can get clearance—parolees doing import-export tend to raise red flags—Rick envisions trekking to India to score a direct connect, then buying in such volume that no L.A. middleman can compete. “If they let me bring a million dollars of hair back, it’s over,” he says. “This can change the whole game for me.”
If not, something else will become Rick’s obsession, a new opportunity too good to pass up. Much of what he cataloged for me in Lompoc 15 years ago, when everything was imaginary, is actually now in the works—some of it seemingly poised to pay off, some of it threatening to blow up in his face. To evaluate every venture, the Hollywood flirtations, the NFL affiliations, the T-shirts, the Internet gambits, the literacy foundation, the feud with rap heavyweight Rick Ross, is to travel down endless rabbit holes. One day he is running a trucking company, the next he is rehabbing distressed properties. He is starring in his own reality-TV series—“a chance to show the world the meaning of change”—then, just as suddenly, he is not. He will handle your refund at Freeway Fast Tax Service and teach you his “life lessons” in $50-an-hour consultations. He is posing with Snoop Dogg. He is meeting with Don King. He is podcasting with Joe Rogan. He is announcing that Nick Cannon, the America’s Got Talent host, will play him onscreen. He is sponsoring a blood drive.
As a Los Angeles Times reporter years ago, I got swept up in Rick’s dazzle. He was selling confidence, in every sense, and he found in me someone who wanted to believe, who was pulling for him to apply his entrepreneurial magic to something positive. Now that Rick is at it again, I should be the first to call bullshit: I know the perils of his game. I should, but even with our tangled history, I find it hard not to get swayed by Rick, by his outsize yearnings, his terminal wishfulness. So do others—educators, religious leaders, juvenile justice advocates, substance abuse counselors—who see in Rick a messenger, his failings only adding to the credibility of his message. The more I am around him, the more I go back and forth, buying in, snapping out of it, reconsidering, hoping, worrying.
I study Rick for clues, for signs that he is being underhanded, for hints that he is growing desperate. I encounter only the visionary. “What I want,” Rick says, “is to have the greatest comeback story in American history.” He knows how attractive that sounds. By now, I should know better.
Rick with daughter Jordan at a baby shower in Ladera hights, Photograph by Forest Casey
As the Civil Rights Act was becoming law, Annie Mae Ross was packing up her two boys, trading the servility of the Cotton Belt for the promise of California. It has been called the Second Great Migration, the exodus of black Southerners not to the North but the West; from 1940 to 1970 L.A.’s black population leaped from 75,000 to 755,000. “I didn’t want them to come up the way I come up,” says Rick’s mom, who was raised in a sharecropping family halfway between Dallas and Shreveport. “Oh, God, no.”
In Troup, the speck of Texas where Rick spent his first four years, Jim Crow was not some bygone chapter. There were still Negro schools and Negro drinking fountains. “As long as you black, you better act like it,” Rick’s late father, Sonny Ross, once told me. “Act like black people’s supposed to act. I don’t care where you go. That’s the way you gonna be treated.” When Annie Mae left, Sonny stayed.
Instead of the land of opportunity, Rick was greeted by a harsher California. In 1965, the year after he arrived, Watts erupted. After the fires, he and his mom scavenged the gutted stores, extracting canned food from the ashes. At night Annie Mae cleaned offices on Avenue of the Stars. To keep her children fed, she went on the county. “Ricky never did like that too much,” she recalls. “He’d always say, ‘We can have a car wash’ or ‘We can have a rummage sale.’ He was always the brains, the dreamer, ever since he was born.”
By ten, Rick was a shoplifter, snatching candy bars from the five-and-dime. As a teenager, he was a timekeeper for the pimps on Figueroa’s “ho stroll,” knocking on motel doors to hurry along the tricks. He stole bicycles, then cars, stripping the parts. But the budding hoodlum had another, even more lucrative game: tennis. He was wiry and nimble, like Arthur Ashe, and he attracted mentors, like Richard Williams, whose daughters Venus and Serena had yet to be born. At Dorsey High Rick made all-city. Universities dangled scholarships. “I was under the illusion,” Rick says, “that I could be number one in the world.”
Until then, Rick’s inability to read had not struck him as odd or troublesome. If a teacher called on him, he played the clown. “I’d go to the principal’s office, get a swat, and everyone would laugh,” says Rick, whose antics landed him in special ed. When he really wanted to read, in prison, he taught himself without much problem. “Nobody in my house read, except my mom: She read the Bible,” he says. “But if you relate reading to the Bible, it was, you know, kind of a turnoff. Nobody never came and told me, ‘Oh, here’s a book that’s going to show you how to get some money.’ ” Once the coaches discovered Rick’s limitations, the offers vanished. He dropped out his senior year.
When Rick was in his early twenties, a friend who played football at San Jose State returned home, boasting of the fast life. He handed Rick a pale yellow pebble. Rick had never seen cocaine before, but he knew it should not look like a boiled peanut. His friend told him that he was holding $50 in his palm. “No way, man,” Rick said. A lot of people, driven by curiosity or rebelliousness or despair, might have sampled it themselves. Not Rick. Presented with crack for the first time, he went out and tried to sell it.
Freeway Rick has four Web sites. He has 4,000 contacts in his phone. He has 13,000 Facebook fans. He has 47,000 Twitter followers. By any logical measure he should be a pariah, and yet wherever his hustles take him, from halfway houses to college campuses, Slauson to Fairfax, he gets nothing but love.
“Freeway Rick, baby!” hollers someone who spots him walking downtown.
“Success, my brother,” offers a merchant in Leimert Park.
“Literally your words are so powerful—you have no idea,” says a USC undergrad, posing with him for a picture in the Taper Hall of Humanities. “I’m shaking!”
Some of the adulation is surely owed to outlaw chic, the public’s long fascination with the mobster. Some has to be a function of short memories, of our capacity to let go and move on. Some is strictly political; black men in America are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. But even accounting for Freeway Rick’s folklore—for the 69 million results you get if you Google “the real Rick Ross”—there is something else at work, a quality that a good portion of L.A. just seems to want to root for.
“What you symbolize to the people is a phoenix—the rise of the phoenix—as opposed to just a brother who’s been through a thing,” activist Mikal Kamil tells him at an Eric Garcetti campaign office, where Rick (who, as a felon, cannot vote) is endorsing Garcetti for mayor. “You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing; you’re right on the course with destiny.”
Speaking to a halfway house in Van Nuys, Photograph by Forest Casey
From the end of the road Rick has returned a brand, a proxy for unlikely survival and improbable freedom. If he were less messianic—more chagrined—people might equate him with the costs of his legend: the neighborhoods trampled, the families decimated, the minds scrambled, the flesh depreciated, the blood spilled. Instead Rick’s rise and fall (and rise and fall) and reemergence from prison in 2009 have come to transcend his own history.
“That’s one of the things that’s very arresting about him, that you would have never guessed: There’s a clean-slate-ness,” says Aeysha Walsh, head of film development at MJZ, the West L.A. production company that is backing Rick’s cinematic pursuits.
At every turn Rick has found unexpected allies, a support team that both mothers and mythologizes him. His significant other, Mychosia Nightingale, is an army veteran who did three tours in Iraq. Rick calls her “Boss Ladi.” She wrote to him while he was in prison, seeking financial advice. Now they have two young children (he has seven others from four previous relationships) and share an apartment in Long Beach. In a MySpace profile she describes herself as “a defender of this country which makes me afraid of nothing or no one.” Rick’s gatekeeper, Antonio Moore, is a former L.A. County prosecutor who grew weary of herding young black men through the system. Twenty years Rick’s junior, he is loquacious and ideological, a contributor to The Huffington Post. “ ’Tonio’s taken the position that he’s smarter than me and has to protect me,” Rick says. “Sometimes I have to tell him, ‘You don’t run it yet.’ ”
Rick has teamed up with Sundance-winning filmmaker Marc Levin to produce an autobiographical documentary, Crack in the System, which they hope to sell this year. Rick is getting free Web support from two Las Vegas sharks: Bill Waggoner, the self-proclaimed “spam king,” and Jordan Stark, who runs something called the Internet Hustler Society. If you follow the NFL, you might spot Rick in the stands this season. After all-American cornerback Cliff Harris sputtered out at Oregon—driving 118 mph on a suspended license, possessing marijuana—Rick gave him a bedroom, found him a trainer, and pledged to manage his career. Harris just signed with the New York Jets.
Sometimes the only killjoy seems to be the U.S. Probation Office, which has responsibility for Rick through 2015. Aware that he was on “supervised release” when he picked up his third strike, probation officers have been skeptical of Rick’s every move. They have admonished him for associating with convicted felons and failing to provide his sources of income. “Mr. Ross has replied that he is ‘too busy’ to complete the paperwork properly,” reads one report, “and on more than one occasion, he has responded to the probation officer with ‘fuck it,’ and ‘you can catch me when you can.’ ”
Convinced that he was scamming, they sought to revoke his probation in 2011, asking a federal judge to return Rick to prison for six months. The Honorable Marilyn L. Huff, who has known Rick almost as long as I have—who has seen him at his lowest and his luckiest, who has presided over the slippery opportunist and the unbowed ascetic—did not blink. “I think she has grown to appreciate who he is and what he is doing,” says Rick’s defense lawyer, Frank Ragen. “As you know, Rick seems to lead a charmed life.” Case dismissed.
Whatever deficit hindered Rick in the classroom, it took the form of ingenuity in the free market. To enter the drug trade, he and his sidekick, Ollie Newell, hot-wired a car in the faculty parking lot of their old junior high, then peddled the rims for $250. They sank it into an eighth of an ounce, and parceling the cocaine into smaller units, resold it for $500. Rather than splurging, Rick kept reinvesting, doubling his money each time. His goal was $5,000, then $20,000, then $100,000; the unattainable had to be recalibrated every few weeks.
“I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I knew I didn’t want the life my mother lived—welfare, no car, waiting till the first of the month to have milk and cereal,” Rick says. “I knew there had to be something in the world I could do, something that I could be the best at.”
This was 1981 or 1982, the infancy of the epidemic. It was not until 1984 that the L.A. Times would first report on the explosion of smokable “rock” cocaine sweeping South-Central. It was not until 1986 that a police report would first mention that “two male Negroes by the name of Rick and Ollie” were ruling the trade. Being ahead of the curve accelerated Rick’s ascent. So did treating drugs as a business, not a party. “You called me at twelve o’clock at night, I’d go,” Rick says. “Another guy, he might be with his girlfriend: ‘Oh, I can’t come tonight.’ You call Rick, Rick’s getting up. One guy, he be sitting there smoking a cigarette. He can’t do nothing until he finish smoking that cigarette. Rick don’t smoke cigarettes. Rick can move right now. He don’t have a beer can in his hands or a bottle of liquor. That’s the only difference between me and most of my friends in the drug business—my discipline.”
This feature was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine
As with all economies of scale, Rick’s unit costs dropped as his volume increased. In the beginning, when he was buying in ounces, he was paying about $2,000. Once he amassed enough cash to invest in a kilo (2.2 pounds), each ounce cost him half as much. Soon he was trafficking in ridiculous quantities, 50 to 100 kilos a day, which helped drive down his kilo prices from about $40,000 to $10,000. Between 1982 and 1989, Rick likely sold 2,000 to 3,000 kilos of cocaine—that is, two to three tons.
With those stakes it seems improbable that Rick’s name was never linked to mayhem. He had Uzi-toting henchmen. He wore a bulletproof vest. But Rick’s m.o. was to co-opt rivals, to turn them into customers, not out-thug them in the streets. He gave away kilos as enticements. He pardoned rip-offs. At Algin Sutton Recreation Center, on Hoover, he paid for new basketball hoops and sponsored the annual Easter egg hunt. The L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks awarded him a plaque, expressing its “deepest appreciation.” No drug lord could have been more un-Machiavellian: Rick preferred love to fear.
“My momma would always say, ‘You can’t outthink the white man,’ and there I was—I felt like I was beating the system,” Rick says. “I really thought that, ‘Hey, this is it, my blessing.’ I felt this was the American dream.”
In a fishbowl of a conference room, within the brick and beam cavern of MJZ’s production offices, Freeway Rick is selling yet another product, the most valuable one he owns. If movies are life writ large, Rick is certain that his story is an epic. To produce it he is trawling Hollywood for a benefactor—someone with $20 million to spare.
If he were willing to let a studio take the reins, Rick could have cashed in long ago. An authentic rags-to-riches cocaine saga would surely capture imaginations. Sony supposedly waved $1 million. But Rick wants to retain his intellectual property, to be the one who monetizes it. “Everybody’s interested in the movie, but what they are not used to dealing with is somebody like me, somebody that thinks like I do,” he told a hip-hop news site. “I can’t be bought.”
The candidate this afternoon is Apollo Choi, the emissary of a South Korean venture capital fund. As often happens, Rick appears subdued at first, fingertips pressed together, while Moore, the deputy D.A. turned impresario, makes the pitch. “This is going to be the biggest movie in the last 25 years—easy,” says Moore, prophesizing worldwide grosses of $100 million to $300 million. Meetings of this sort are not known for understatement, but Moore goes on, guaranteeing critical acclaim, too. Former ICM chief Jeff Berg, as Moore tells it, “has said there’s four to five nominations in it.” One of those Oscars will have to go to the title character, the casting of which Rick has been treating as a parlor game, inviting speculation. The front-runner at this point—last October—is Jamie Foxx. Rick chimes in Jamie Foxx loves the role and says whoever plays the role is going to win an award for it.”
“Lemme see if Jamie’ll answer,” says Moore, who puts his phone on speaker and dials.
It rings. Nobody picks up.
Unfazed, Moore pivots to the heart of today’s message: the universal qualities of Rick’s story. An unfortunate truth of independent financing is that films with largely African American casts do not play well overseas. To entice Choi, Moore has reimagined the Freeway Rick movie as an opportunity to “cross-pollinate” U.S. and Asian talent, as “a vehicle for Korean cultural recognition.”
Through a translator Choi points out that investments need justification—“a very viable, very convincing reason why”—and, forgive him, but the opportunities for showcasing Korean stars in the Freeway Rick movie seem rather scarce.
“What we can do,” Moore counters, “is shoot some substantial scenes in Koreatown.”
Only a few days earlier Rick was zipping around in the Kia, plotting to squeeze out Korean weave dealers. But needs change.
What nobody mentions is the price that Rick’s Hollywood education has already exacted. Three years earlier, fresh out of prison, Rick had decided that Nick Cassavetes (Blow, The Notebook, Alpha Dog) should be the one to write and direct. Cassavetes was all in: “Freeway Ricky Ross is a living American legend,” he said then. “To not know his story is to not understand our country—how it works, what it needs, and what it will do to get it.” Cassavetes wanted $100,000 for a first draft, another $700,000 once production begins. (To the extent Jeff Berg has praised the project—he denies, through a spokesman, speculating about awards—he happens to be Cassavetes’ agent.) Another undercapitalized producer might have balked, but big numbers to Rick have always been a little unreal.
He found a patron in a matter of months: Super Bowl-winning cornerback Corey Webster, who was enjoying a $43.5 million contract with the New York Giants. “The anticipation was that once the script got written, there would be people standing in line,” says Webster’s attorney, Roy Maughan Jr. In exchange for a coproducing credit, Webster agreed to lend Rick $400,000 upfront plus another $100,000 once Cassavetes delivered the script. The catch: Rick had only a year to pay it back.
To get Cassavetes started, Rick gave him $50,000. He was to complete the script in four months. “After much delay, I am pleased to be sending you the first rough draft of the Untitled Rick Ross project,” Cassavetes wrote in a 2011 e-mail. It had taken him eight months.
To pay Cassavetes off, Rick needed Webster to release the rest of the funds. But Webster’s lawyer hesitated. The full loan was about to come due and they only now had a script to shop? Rick pressed again. “We are at risk of losing the screenplay for non-payment and jeopardizing the entire project,” wrote a lawyer representing Rick and Rick’s producing partner at the time, Eugene “Geno” Taylor, who had filed for bankruptcy just as the two had formed Taylor and Ross Entertainment. A month went by, but Webster’s lawyer issued the final check. When Rick failed to repay the loan—$600,000, including interest and fees—nobody was surprised. “The late delivery of the script, that’s what caused the whole house to come crashing down,” says Maughan, who is suing Taylor and Ross Entertainment.
Getting a trim and shave on Crenshaw, Photograph by Forest Casey
Late or not, Cassavetes’ screenplay proved unmarketable: page after page of voice-over, less a movie than a PowerPoint. Because we are in Hollywood, where you can die of encouragement, everyone tells Rick how much they love it. But now that the script has been bouncing around town, unrevised, for more than two years, Rick is beginning to wonder what he has bought for himself. Cassavetes started off with such passion; lately Rick has had trouble even getting him on the phone. “If there ain’t no money,” Rick says, “Nick ain’t around.”
By March of this year Rick has found his leading man—and maybe his conduit to even deeper pockets—in Nick Cannon, the former Nickelodeon star who is married to Mariah Carey. At MJZ there are hugs and promises, if not contracts and checkbooks, as Cannon vows to help Rick make his movie, with or without Cassavetes. “I just need to know where his real passion is,” Cannon tells Rick. “ ’Cause there’s tons of other directors with even more heat that would love to jump on this.”
“One hundred percent,” says Walsh, the MJZ film head.
“We got the sexiness of Nick Cassavetes already,” says Cannon. “If he’s with us, then great, and if not, yo, let’s go talk to everybody from, you know—”
“Fuqua!” says Moore, referring to the Training Day director.
“All of them,” says Cannon.
“It’s such a relief,” says Walsh, “to know you have your shit together.”
Rick’s mother calls him her “miracle child.” Three times he has been locked up, facing doom. “They killed Ricky,” she has told herself. Three times he has walked out, renewed. “I can’t see nothin’ but God carrying him,” says Annie Mae, who believes that someday Rick will preach.
The first time Rick glimpsed the end was 1987. By then he had become so notorious, L.A. police and sheriff’s investigators formed a unit just for him: the Freeway Rick Task Force. Like the Gangster Squad that once chased Mickey Cohen, Freeway Rick’s pursuers became the crooks, administering ass whoopings and planting evidence. When they finally had Rick in custody, they tried to goad him into incriminating his lawyer; give them dirt or rot in jail. The interview was taped, then clumsily erased. Rick was home free.
The second time was 1989. By then Rick was running a coast-to-coast distribution network. He was indicted in Ohio, then Texas. In custody again, his life surely over, Rick received a visit from the Department of Justice. The feds knew all about the Freeway Rick Task Force. They wanted Rick to testify, to turn the tables on his tormenters. When jurors learned that prosecutors had never seized Rick’s assets, they were aghast. It was the cops’ turn to walk. Still, Rick had kept his end of the bargain. His Ohio sentence was trimmed to four years. In Texas he cut a deal for nine months. The prosecutor there consoled himself with the knowledge that Rick would at least have a second conviction—and be a goner upon his third.
The third was 1995, six months after his release. Although Rick had been vowing to go straight, announcing plans to convert a vacant theater in West Adams into a community center, he had resumed contact with his most trusted cocaine supplier, a Nicaraguan named Oscar Danilo Blandon. Unbeknownst to Rick, Blandon himself had been arrested—and released three weeks after Rick. “We’re going to make a lot of money,” Rick told Blandon, who wanted to sell him $1 million of cocaine. When Rick arrived with the down payment, the DEA was waiting.
Whether Rick was at last getting the life sentence he deserved, or getting sacrificed, was a question that soon consumed the nation. In 1996, a San Jose Mercury News reporter named Gary Webb alleged that Blandon had been more than Rick’s connection: He belonged to a ring of exiled Nicaraguans with ties to the Contras, the CIA-backed guerrilla army fighting to topple the Sandinistas. In the name of anticommunism, the U.S. government appeared to be allied with international traffickers—with a network that was delivering cocaine to South-Central—and, at best, looking the other way.
The response to Webb’s series, “Dark Alliance,” was unprecedented, an outpouring of fury and denial that few works of journalism have ever provoked. The L.A. City Council and county Board of Supervisors demanded a federal investigation. CIA Director John Deutch even came to Locke High School, in Watts, for a town hall meeting. He was greeted by an unruly crowd that included Rick’s older brother. “We are sick and tired of your excuses,” said David Ross, waving a finger at the CIA chief.
Every major American newspaper weighed in. At the L.A. Times we enlisted 17 reporters—I was one—to put Webb’s series under a microscope. Rather than advance what he got right, we aimed our firepower at his shortcuts, lambasting him for each omission and overstatement. It was a tawdry and defensive exercise, all these august institutions piling on a lone muckraker. In 1998, the CIA’s inspector general confirmed that Webb had been on the right trail, that the spy agency often “did not act to verify” allegations of Contra drug trafficking and, even when it did, such revelations “did not deter” the CIA from using traffickers as assets. By then our scrutiny had ruined Webb’s career. In 2004, he shot himself in the head. (Kill the Messenger, a movie about Webb starring Jeremy Renner, is set to begin filming this year.)
At first, Rick despaired, too. He had hoped that “Dark Alliance” would save him and played the victim when it did not. “Basically I was selling drugs for the U.S. government,” Rick said from jail. “They exploited me, and they made me exploit my community.” But then, instead of wallowing in bitterness, a different Rick—the Rick who first captivated me—emerged. Against all evidence, he tricked himself into believing that he was going to be free again, and invigorated by that false notion, went about making it real.
This feature was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine
As his reading improved, he began poring over law books. In time he came up with a theory, an argument so rudimentary, it hardly sounds worthy of an appeal: What if his Ohio and Texas convictions, rather than separate acts, arose from the same episode—he was nationwide, after all—and instead of two strikes, they counted as one? What if his sentence was nothing more than faulty math?
A few months after my 1998 visit to Lompoc, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred. Freeway Rick was still a strike away from life. At his resentencing, before Judge Huff, prosecutors urged a 30-year term. Rick’s record underrepresented his criminality, they argued, given his many breaks. But Rick was about to get one more. When Blandon became an informant, the INS concealed his criminal record to secure him a green card. The DOJ’s inspector general called the benefit “wholly improper.” Judge Huff gave Rick 20 years. He was paroled after 14.
On a Sunday in Venice, in a whorl of sunglasses and skateboards and $40 medical marijuana evaluations, Freeway Rick is selling T-shirts. Except that you could walk right by and never know it. The shirts are folded in a Walmart bag, tucked behind a bench, and Rick has stationed himself smack in the middle of the boardwalk, just standing there, anticipating the sparkle of recognition.
“Someone who don’t know me, they’d just be buying the shirt,” he explains, his 2-year-old son, Bricen, on his shoulders. “But somebody who recognize me, they’re gonna want to take a picture, you know, and then, when I ask them to buy a shirt, the shirt’s gonna mean something to them. They’re buying that connection.”
It is smart and a little sad, what he is saying, proud and shameless at the same time. Even though Rick uses every opportunity to warn young people against repeating his mistakes, he is peddling a certain kind of nostalgia, the elusive crack king of the ’80s now a seaside souvenir.
The T-shirt that Rick is selling—that he is wearing, that he is silk-screening himself by the thousands and shipping around the country—features a bearded face topped by a king’s crown. Most of the design, though, is text: “The Real Rick Ross Is Not a Rapper.”
For several years now hip-hop has been ruled by a dense-bearded, cannabis-infused, 300-pound Floridian named William Leonard Roberts II, who performs as Rick Ross. Like many rappers, he boasts of drug-dealing prowess in a way that blurs the line between past and present and fantasy. When it was revealed that Roberts was once a correctional officer, his image dissolved into caricature, and yet listeners, happy to suspend disbelief, continued to snatch up his rhymes.
The real Rick Ross was in prison when he became aware of the rapper, and at first felt gratified to learn that his name had such currency. Even now the publicity is unbeatable. “He’s a gift to you, he really is,” Joe Rogan, the former Fear Factor host, tells Rick during a February podcast. But as the rapper’s career surged, after he tattooed “RICK RO$$” across his knuckles, Freeway Rick began to feel slighted.
As soon as he was released, he filed a $10 million lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the rapper stole his drug dealer identity for its “criminal, entertainment, and commercial value.” The suit was tossed in 2010. Rick filed a new lawsuit in state court. A judge in 2012 not only dismissed that complaint but ordered Rick to pay the legal bills of the rapper and his record labels—$490,000. Rick pushed ahead, recasting his lawsuit yet again. When the judge set trial for this August, Rick was ecstatic.
“Boom, this is big!” he howled outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. His mind raced forward, to the image of a very high, very rich rapper laboring to explain the origins of his stage name to a jury.
Whether Rick Ross the rapper really did model his identity after Rick Ross the dopeman is not an issue that any court has addressed. Rick’s defeats have mostly hinged on technicalities. When the question was put to the rapper in a deposition, he explained that, on his high school football team, he was known as Big Boss—and that “a friend really mistaken it as Rick Ross at one time.”
Rick’s attorney was incredulous. “A friend accidentally called you Rick Ross instead of Big Boss, and you took on the name? Is that what you are saying?”
“A buddy thought I was saying the name, Rick Ross.”
“And then, you thought that would be a better name to use than Big Boss?”
“I was—of course. I just—it was just another nickname and I took it and I began recording music under it.”
With a defendant like that, Rick’s case starts to sound a little less wishful. But just when Ross v. Ross appeared headed for a public showdown, the same judge who set the matter for trial dismissed it once again. Now Rick’s hopes—and debts—are riding on appeal. “I ain’t got nothin’ to lose,” he says. “OK, you win, come collect!”
I first met Freeway Rick in 1994, between his second and third convictions, as he walked out the doors of a Texas jail. He took my hand and slipped it into a soul brother shake. The scene was almost cliché: the journalist and the drug lord, the white professional and the black felon, each of us practiced in the art of persuasion.
I had been at the L.A. Times for almost a decade by then, most recently as the gang reporter. I had reason to be wary, but I was drawn to Rick, to his effervescence and accessibility, to the confounding disconnect between his outlandish deeds and his modest habits. To be granted a front-row seat to his turnaround was to feel my cred go through the roof. From summer into fall, Rick and I were homies. We tooled around the Piney Woods, visiting the abandoned shack, in a field buzzing with cicadas, that his dad had built for his mom, then resumed our courtship in L.A., appraising the ruins of his crumbled empire, debating, ribbing, validating.
What felt like a coup, though, soon proved the most fraught chapter of my writing life. I have been accused of romanticizing a criminal, of caving to the government, of being both a sucker and a pawn. I have felt betrayed by Rick; Rick has felt betrayed by me. I have written about him in ways that were truthful but not entirely honest—that satisfied the imperatives of journalism without quite reflecting what I wanted to say.
Nineteen years ago when I tried to capture all his contradictions, Rick as Yoda and Rick as Scarface, the paper balked. I was told that my initial drafts made him appear too sympathetic, and me too gullible. To get the story in print, I needed Rick to be the devil. “If there was an eye to the storm,” I finally began, “if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist….” Well, you get the idea. It was not wrong—if you had to pick the most influential L.A. crack dealer, Rick was the guy—but it was hyped, a glib summation. I was interested in his psychology, the degree to which any one of us is in control of our fate, and instead I was nudged into ranking his exploits.
This feature was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine
When I learned that Rick had been snared in an undercover sting, that he had begun talking to Blandon before my story even ran, I was furious, at him and at myself. Although I had not vouched for him—the paper had spared me that indignity—I had still given him a platform. Rick had sworn he was too smart to sell drugs again. Now he would be another black man in a cell, a confirmation of every bias and statistic. When “Dark Alliance” erupted a year later, I wanted no part. I was embarrassed—I knew nothing of Rick’s supply chain—and distrustful of any narrative that Rick could exploit as a defense. Let Gary Webb be his new homie.
But the story would not die. Although I had relocated to the L.A. Times’s Houston bureau, the paper summoned me back to sweep up the mess. Webb had relied on my portrayal of Rick to bolster one of his theories: that the Nicaraguans supplying Rick had opened the “first pipeline” between Latin America and black L.A. To show that Webb was making a facile leap, I had to dial back my own overheated depiction of Rick, to reframe him in more nuanced terms. Sure, he was big, probably the biggest of his day, but that was still only a small share of the total market. Crack’s genesis, I wrote in 1996, involved “a cast of interchangeable characters…none of whom is central to the drama.” As the Columbia Journalism Review noted, “the same Jesse Katz” had managed to elevate and deflate Ricky Ross in the span of two years.
I took a stab at a more transparent account in 1998, when I made the pilgrimage to Lompoc for a first-person piece in Texas Monthly. I assumed it would be the final word: Rick’s story was over. Journalism, in any case, was like that. We parachute into people’s lives, root around for something that can be distilled and packaged—with accuracy and empathy, at our best—then move on, to the next event, the newest superlative. We do not often maintain the relationships that were so urgent while they lasted. We almost never reopen our files, reevaluate our perceptions. There is no way that Rick and I should still be at it today, doing the dance all over again. But I have never met anyone who has survived so many incarnations, whose life is such an irresistible puzzle.
When I called him last fall, to see how he might feel about a story, Rick was already a step ahead. “Jesse Katz!” he said. “What took you so long?”
We are on Vine, in the basement of a halfway house, for the morning 12-step meeting. Rick has arrived early, spry and jaunty, lugging a bag of “Real Rick Ross” T-shirts.
“When I was in prison, I felt like I was trapped inside this concrete box,” Rick tells the parolees who have gathered, scarred and tatted, on plastic chairs. “It starts to close in on you. It starts to get real small. My cell was basically my graveyard.”
If he was going to die in prison, Rick figured, he should at least try to understand how it happened, what caused him to give up his life. “I wanted to know me, how did I get in this position? Where did I turn wrong? Why did I die? What did I die from? What killed you, Rick?”
In prison he took refuge in the library, reading day after day, year after year, 300 books in all. Three stuck with him, books that he has read over and again, that he buys for young people who remind him of himself. Far from the literature of the oppressed, Rick’s reading list is the can-do canon of early 20th-century America—Think and Grow Rich, As a Man Thinketh, The Richest Man in Babylon—the propaganda of the industrialists, a blueprint for the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. In the burning optimism of the robber barons, in their undying belief that all limits are self-imposed, Rick found his lifeline.
“Those books showed me that anything I got myself into, I could get myself out of,” Rick tells the 12-steppers. “But I had to start thinking for myself. I had to start using my mind to get what I want.”
“Bless you, brother,” someone injects.
Rick is preaching, not as his mother would wish but as only Rick can. He was never an addict, at least not like the people who smoked his cocaine, but he was just as much a slave to it. He sold drugs habitually, around the clock, and when finally he understood the damage he was doing, to others and to himself, he did not stop. He could not. While in prison, he sent me a page from an addiction handbook, with a passage on the “emotional logic” of the compulsive gambler highlighted. It is not hard to recognize Rick’s feverish pace today, his serial scheming, as some kind of entrepreneurial Nicorette—just enough of a rush to keep him from slipping.
“You control the switch,” he says. “Don’t let nobody turn your switch on and off but you.”
“He’s got the fire,” someone else exclaims.
In the parlance of recovery, the addict surrenders to his enemy, then turns to a creator for sanity. But Rick is pure hubris. Up or down, in the joint or on the outs, he trusts in nothing more than his own tenacity, in his own stubborn, fantastical self. He will conquer or he will perish.
When the last testimonial has been shared, after the applause and the backslaps, Rick bounds up the stairs and out to the Kia, still carting his shirts. Whether he forgot, or whether he thought twice, he never tried to make a sale.