Former Baltimore drug kingpin “Little Melvin” Williams, whose story of being on top of the city’s Westside heroin trade in the early 1980s, was immortalized in television lore by HBO and got the American Gangster treatment from BET, died this week of natural causes. Williams was 73 and led a heavily-structured and highly innovative narcotics organization that became the inspiration for the critically-acclaimed HBO television show, The Wire (2002-2008). The show’s charismatic villain for the first half of its’ five-season run, fictional 2000s-era West Baltimore crime boss, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), was based on Williams.

Retired newspaper reporter David Simon’s brilliant and exquisitely researched five-part investigative expose on Williams and his crew, entitled Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun in 1987, served as the source material a decade-and-a-half later for his own creation of The Wire, called by some critics the greatest tv show ever. Simon’s writing partner, Ed Burns, a former Baltimore Police Department detective responsible for bringing Williams down in 1984, was also integral to the process of translating The Wire from concept to the screen. Leaving his underworld persona behind for good in the early 2000s, Williams himself had a recurring role on the series as a community religious leader known as “The Deacon.”

The legend of Little Melvin Williams on the streets of Baltimore began in the 1960s, as the flamboyant and intelligent Williams, a pool and dice-game hustler from an early age, got his start in the east coast underworld in the gambling and illegal numbers lottery business, learning at the feet of the city’s then-Jewish mob chief and policy czar Julius (The Lord) Salsbury, a racketeer connected to Meyer Lansky and the Italian mob’s Gambino crime family in New York City and local African-American gangsters like Joseph (Proposition Joe) Johnson and Charles (Cherry Reds) Franklin. FBI agents would follow Williams from Baltimore to Brooklyn to deliver portions of Salsbury’s numbers profits to his Gambino syndicate contacts.

Eventually branching off on his own, Little Melvin entered the drug game and quickly rose through the ranks, forging critical relationships with out-of-town hoodlums and supply sources such as the mysterious and powerful Frank (Black Caesar) Matthews, known to do a lot of his business in Baltimore. For all and intents and purposes, Williams reached iconic street status immediately, in both underworld and law enforcement circles – a reputation heightened in April 1968 when he helped police quell rioting and looting in Baltimore’s black neighborhoods after the Martin Luther King assassination. His link to Matthews (missing since he jumped bond in 1973) was a lieutenant of his named James (Big Head Brother) Carter.

Williams’ ascent was interrupted with drug convictions in 1969 for a hand-to-hand heroin sale to an undercover cop two years prior and for which he served a little less than three years behind bars and again in 1975 when he and his protégé and bodyguard, Glen (Young’n) Hawkins were busted for trafficking and sent to prison for respective four-year terms. Hawkins had been acquitted on murder charges in 1974.

Released in 1979, Williams teamed up with business-minded Lamont (Chin) Farmer, the real life Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), Avon Barksdale’s studious and savvy No. 2 in-charge on The Wire, and their partnership took the operation to a whole other level, growing to be the biggest and most successful drug ring in Baltimore history. With Farmer masterminding an intricate communication system for the organization based on pagers and punch-code sequences on payphones to use as a means of thwarting police surveillance methods, un-arrestable elementary and junior-high school aged kids acting as his primary street-level distributors and sociopathic enforcers like Nate (Bodie) Barksdale and Ronald (Ronnie Mo) Bell, instilling fear in the vast territory that the group roamed with barbaric muscle tactics, Williams was soon the undisputed heroin king of West B-More.

At its’ peak, the Williams organization was churning out almost a million dollars per week in cash dividends and Little Melvin became a fan of the finer things in life, like tooling around the Lexington Terrace housing projects he controlled in a custom-made Maserati wearing a fur coat (authorities would confiscate over $100,000 worth of fur coats from his residence). Most days, he could be found at his topless bar-strip joint, the Underground Club.

The Wire's Avon Barksdale

The Wire’s Avon Barksdale

The beginning of the end for Williams and his crew came with a series of revenge slayings in 1982 and 1983: including the headline-grabbing murder of 27-year old Dessera Press, the scorned ex-girlfriend of Williams’ lieutenant, Louis (Cookie) Savage and the hit that sparked the flame for the police probe into the Williams organization affairs, as well as the notorious Club Chandelier double homicide of nightclub owner Michael Stewart and Proposition Joe Johnson, and the summer 1982 killings of Frank Harper, a mentor of Bodie Barksdale’s, in July and John Bailey, a stick-up kid who had robbed Cookie Savage, in August.

“Prop Joe” was turned into a character on The Wire. So was Ronnie Mo, Big Head Brother (called simply “Brother”) and a Barksdale gang soldier named “Bird,” a clear reference to Williams’ confidant Kenny (Bird) Jackson, owner of the El Dorado strip club in the 1970s and 80s. Bodie Barksdale says his middle name is Avon and claims his name was used to come up with the show’s signature character. There was a character called Bodie in the show, too.

Ed Burns’ role in the Williams investigation was portrayed in the series by actor Dominic West as hard-charging Baltimore PD drug-unit cop Jimmy McNulty. The 1999 movie Liberty Heights features a character named Little Melvin played by Orlando Jones based on Williams at the start of his career as a young Baltimore hood running numbers.

Little Melvin Williams was arrested in 1984 and convicted in 1985 of heading a massive drug conspiracy. He did more than a decade in the can before coming out in the late 1990s and finding himself back in trouble with the law after a pistol whipping of a man who owed him a $500 gambling debt. Returning to prison for four years, Williams was freed in 2003, officially leaving his criminal ways in the past in the final dozen years of his life.

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