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The Detroit Drug Wars (Part 2)

Unlike the Buttrum brothers and their Pony Down crew who looked to challenge top dog YBI at every opportunity or DFG which did an end-around and went out of state to move the bulk of its drugs, the Curry brothers were content to play second-fiddle to Butch Jones and his Young Boys empire. Minus the flashy handle and juvenile preening, the press didn’t want to write about the Currys. Their story didn’t have enough glitz and glamour. That was fine by them.

Lurking in the shadows, the Curry gang sat back and watched as YBI and Pony Down went to war with each other, racking up headlines and flouting the law with bloodshed and overly-boastful behavior. The fallout eventually spurred both of their downfalls and led to the Curry gang swooping in and coyly picking up the scraps left behind. Led by twin brothers, Johnny and Leonard Curry, the gang was centered on the Eastside, conveniently stashed away from primary YBI and Pony Down sales districts further west. Federal files allege the Curry brothers’ dad, Sam “Sammy Mack” Curry, acted as the gang’s top advisor and reputedly chipped in with startup cash back in 1978 when the gang was formed. Also along for the ride was the family’s baby brother Rudell “Boo” Curry, an eager lieutenant almost always at his older siblings’ sides, being groomed for a future leadership role.

The most recognizable figure from the Curry gang proved to be Johnny’s ace protégé, Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, a teenage street prodigy with a fierce and flamboyant reputation he had earned by the time he was 15 years old. Wershe rise to fame blew peoples’ minds and created frenzied news coverage. He had no business holding as much weight as he did, but somehow he climbed to heights in the urban underworld few his age or skin color have ever achieved. Being white and not even old enough to hold a driver’s license, he stuck out like a sore thumb, yet it made no difference. The lanky, mop-topped, almost gawky, fresh-faced 15-year old was Johnny Curry’s right hand man and that said it all. If Johnny trusted him and treated him like a son, the rest of the street had no choice but to respect him.

“They were an odd coupling,” said one former highly-placed member of federal law enforcement of Johnny Curry’s association with the teenage drug dealing wunderkind Wershe. “Seeing those two tooling around town together in Johnny’s Benz was like watching Superfly tote around the kid from Leave It To Beaver. At first glance, everybody was shocked. Then it was just accepted by everybody. It’s like on the streets and in law enforcement after everyone got over the novelty of the two of them running together, all of sudden he changed skin color. Within a few months, everybody just viewed him as black. There was no differentiation. That was the way he acted and those were the type of girls he dated and people he hung around with. It appeared very effortless for him. He lived the culture, so people didn’t view him as an outsider playing gangster. Surprisingly, the assimilation process was very fast, he was accepted very quickly by all the major players outside the Curry boys as one of their own. To his credit, he was very business savvy for a kid his age. He had a deep understanding of street politics and he knew how to exploit certain very complex and dangerous angles and use them to his advantage.”

Johnny and Leo Curry might not have been as well-known to the general public as many of the other kingpins of the day, but in the streets, they were as big as it came. Anybody who made a living in the drug trade at that time would tell you that Johnny, known as “Little Man” and Leonard, known as “Big Man” were as well-respected and feared in the Motor City underworld as Butch Jones, Gun Buttrum, Reggie Davis and Frank Usher. By 1986, they were the only ones left standing.

“The funny thing about that time is that a lot of guys who made major paper, guys like Little Man and Big Man, were considerably less well-known to the public than the guys who had these big personalities and were in all the headlines but didn’t hold a candle to cats like the Curry boys when it came to hustling,” Boyd said. “Nobody outside of the game back then would have been able to tell you who Little Man and Big Man were. They liked it that way. In the hood on the other hand, where it mattered the most, everybody knew the Currys’ weren’t anybody to mess with.”

As a result of their ability to avoid the spotlight, the Currys wound up being the longest lasting of all the Detroit drug syndicates of their era. Both YBI and Pony Down lasted five years apiece. So did Murder Row. The Davis Family Gang did them one better and lasted six. However, the Curry brothers ruled for almost a full-decade, acquiring equal riches with far less fanfare and acquiring the type of highly-placed connections in both local politics and law enforcement that his contemporaries like Jones or Buttrum could only dream of.

“Little Man was real slick, a behind the scenes guy who got things done,” Boyd said. “Big Man was out front, a little more outgoing and willing to engage with people outside their inner-circle. They weren’t on your TV screen at night on the nightly news, but they were the guys coming down the street or riding around Belle Isle with the freshest new cars and hottest threads.”

The Detroit Drug Wars (Part 1)

The years 1978-1990 on the streets of Detroit represent one of the most violent eras of crime in American history. In tune with the treacherous times across the country, practically all of the bloodshed in that period could be attributed to the local drug trade. Experts and local criminologists place the death toll at well over 1,000 gangland-related homicides. Throughout those dozen years both the product and consumer changed drastically, yet the landscape itself stayed pretty much the same – vicious as humanly possible.

“The streets were decaying, people were fleeing the city in masses and the dope peddlers took over what was left,” said Robert De Fauw, former head of the DEA in Detroit. “First it was heroin and then it was cocaine. Things got pretty chaotic. Murder was rampant and life was cheap.”

One retired DEA agent best analogized the climate to military combat.

“I served in Vietnam in the 1960s and that experience was the only thing I can equate to my experience working the narcotics trade in Detroit in the 1980s,” he said. “In terms of how much you’re observing death in its most raw and visceral sense, they were almost identical. Whatever side you were on, whether you were a cop or a dealer, you were constantly surrounded by death. Violence and murder was so commonplace, that after a while everybody became immune to it. Not that I didn’t feel for the victims, especially the innocent ones, but that it just became routine, kind of ho hum. Every second you turned around another bottom dropped. By the time I left Detroit, I was numb.”

Besides the carnage of the era, it was a time known for its decadence. And accordingly, the men who made their names in the era lived their lives lavishly with flamboyant showmanship and media-friendly panache and charisma. Eye-popping excesses were displayed all around town by these catchy-nicknamed urban crime czars, flashed for everyone to see at all the city’s trendiest nightclubs, most posh restaurants and front row at any number of local professional sporting events and music concerts.

“Some of those guys were walking around with chains around their neck that were worth as much as my entire year’s salary,” said one former Detroit police officer. “You’d see kids that you had once known as these little tikes on 10-speed bicycles bouncing around the neighborhood and all of sudden in a matter of months they’re driving a $50,000 Mercedes and flashing a cash roll that would choke a horse. That’s how fast you could get rich.”

The start of the 1970s saw the death of Detroit’s first genuine African-American Godfather in Henry Marzette and the emergence of more traditional black street gangs like the “Black Killers” and the “Errol Flynn’s”. The “BK’s” and “Flynns” or “Flynn Nastys” as they became known, were into drug dealing at a minor level and did engage in murder, but these things weren’t the gangs’ primary motivation and never came near equaling the level of their successors.

While early gang life in Detroit’s black community was more about an outlet for juvenile angst, male bonding and random petty crime than making truckloads of money, this new era on the streets brought outright bloodlust in the quest for dominance in the drug market and created demigods of aspiring kingpins. The gangs that formed in the latte

r-portion of the 1970s and then in the first half of the 1980s were considerably larger in size and more organized in their operations than that of their predecessors like the BKs or Flynns, and would far exceed in money earned, body count and overall exposure any urban criminal faction or individual gang leader of the past.

“There was a significant shift that took place on the streets around here in the late-70s and early-80s,” recalls former drug lord turned author Rob Boyd “Things moved from strictly gangbanging to pushing weight in the drug trade. All of sudden everyone is scrambling for the same dollar and the same spots to slang and it ain’t about gangbanging anymore. That’s when it became about business. Nobody could get rich from gangbanging. With powder, everybody could get fat and the market never went dry, so there was always more money that could be made. It was not about being brothers or being homeboys like it was before. It was about stacking as much paper as you can and showing it off.”

Widely-renowned sociologist Dr. Carl Taylor, a Detroit native who wrote his dissertation on urban crime and gang activity in the Motor City, concurred with Boyd’s assessment.

“The entire paradigm changed,” he said. “When things got organized and young black men realized they could reach for the American Dream on the street, which wasn’t just to get paid, but to get paid in full and they would be applauded for it by a lot of people, the game was immediately altered from that point forward. What spawned from that renaissance were highly-efficient war tribes. These weren’t just thugs or hooligans anymore. These were true sophisticated criminals with a mind for free enterprise.”

Following the imprisonment of Eddie Jackson, Marzette’s replacement atop the city’s self-proclaimed Black Mafia, in 1977, a void was created that was eventually filled by a pair of drug gangs going in polar opposite directions and representing polar opposite ends of the spectrum in the city’s narcotics industry at that time. The aptly-named and slightly-archaic Murder Row gang represented the old school and the flashy and innovative Young Boys, Incorporated or, simply, “YBI”, represented the new wave in the black drug game. While Murder Row was always subservient to a well-entrenched and immensely powerful middle man in order to get its product, YBI sought and eventually achieved virtually complete independence in the supply department.

Formed around 1975, the Murder Row gang was led by Francis “Big Frank Nitti” Usher and Harold “The Hawk” Morton and until around 1979 could stake claim to being the largest and most feared drug conglomerate in Detroit. Usher and Morton, oversaw a lethal crew of lieutenants and street workers that reached close to 50 people and slung the finest of European heroin. Like many black drug lords of the past, the Murder Row boys were supplied with their product by the city’s Italian mob contingent.

The relationship between the mob and Murder row was a natural one. Big Frank Nitti was introduced to Detroit mafia drug kingpins Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola and Raffealle “Jimmy Q” Quasarano, a pair of men with deep ties in the international narcotics market, by mob Street Boss, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, Usher’s early mentor in the underworld. Most Italian mobsters traditionally look down on aspiring Black criminals and racketeers, but Tony Jack took a quick liking to a young Usher in the 1960s, kept a close eye on him and put him to work as a gofer. For years, Usher could be found flanking Giacalone at his usual haunts around town, eagerly absorbing everything he could from the city’s toughest mobster and taking pride in being allowed to be part of his inner-circle. In the ultimate sign of acceptance, Tony Jack tagged Usher with his nickname, “Frank Nitti”, a reference to Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti of the infamous Al Capone mob in Chicago during Prohibition.

The Story of Detroit’s Chambers Brothers & The REAL ‘Crack Commandments’

From The Delta to The D

The Story of The Real New Jack City

The rags to riches tale of the Chambers brothers, seven siblings that migrated to the Motor City from less-than meager beginnings in the Deep South, plays out like a Hollywood movie script. The first of the Chambers family set foot in Detroit in the early- 1970s and they would keep coming all the way until the middle of the next decade. They were ambitious souls in search of prosperity in any form, ready to take it by any means necessary. It took a little while, but by 1985, the Chambers had gone from growing up dirt poor, without indoor plumping in rural Arkansas, to being multi-millionaires living a life of luxury and excess while ruling the Detroit underworld’s narcotic industry with corporate-like acumen and efficiency.

Sent to prison in 1988, the Chambers brothers and their gang of Southern recruits, credited by some for being the first group in the city to start selling crack cocaine, left a rich and heavily-layered legacy. All striking eerie resemblances to one another with their wide foreheads, extra-dark skin, and short, stout frames, the Chambers boys transcended the drug game to become cultural influences and pseudo-pop culture icons. Anybody who is a fan of the movie New Jack City or the New Jack Swing music-genre of the early-1990s pays homage to the Chambers crew, primary inspirations for the term, ‘New Jack” itself and everything it represented.

It all started in 1987 when Barry Michael Cooper, at that time an investigative reporter for the Village Voice, came to Detroit to do a story on the city’s drug trade. He contacted world renowned sociologist Dr. Carl Taylor, a native Detroiter who taught at Michigan State University and lived in East Lansing, and Taylor pointed him towards the Chambers gang, which he spent several weeks in the Motor City observing first-hand.

What he ended up witnessing was documented in an award-winning feature for the Village Voice titled, “New Jack City Eats It’s Young”. The article spawned a movement, the term “New Jack” going on to represent a substantial shift in urban youth culture and a blending of music, film, dance and fashion.

Inspired by Cooper’s words, Harlem-based recording artist and producer Teddy Riley created the “New Jack Swing” sound, a late-80s and early-90s music genre fusing rap, jazz, traditional R&B and hip hop. Within months, the Village Voice piece was optioned for a movie and became the 1991 gangster classic, New Jack City, starring Wesley Snipes as flamboyant and diabolical drug kingpin Nino Brown, a character partially-based on one of the Chambers brothers and his methods of operations.

Although both the new sound and popular film – written by Cooper himself – were based in New York, the roots of both were unquestionably seeded in Detroit with the Chambers gang and everything it stood for. A career-making, nationally-televised speech by a then-unknown Governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton delivered at the 1988 Democratic Convention further ingrained the Chambers family into the fabric of that time by citing their rise and fall as an example of the criminal ingenuity being displayed by the nation’s youth and the severity of country’s crack epidemic. The enterprising culture exuded by these brothers resembles that of a legitimate businessman in many ways. Except they are not. Crack has and will continue to ruin lives nationwide. On the contrary, marijuana has finally been disassociated from this heinous crime, courtesy of the decision to legalize in many states. Proper businesses have emerged with the industry exploding, there are even companies that provide dispensary supplies. This shows how far we have come.

“I don’t believe that family (the Chambers) came up North to become criminals, but that’s what they became,” said Dr. Carl Taylor. “They came to Detroit to better themselves, get jobs in the plants, find a better life. When they realized that they couldn’t sustain that dream or that certain variables prevented them from attaining it, things got twisted real fast and they turned to making a living on the street. Obviously, they were pretty good at it.”

Taylor points to the gang’s ability to find such success in spite of the fact that the Chambers boys and their crew were viewed by most as outsiders, interlopers from the South with a country mentality, as one of its significant legacies.

“What they did was a rare in the sense that these young men were outsiders and they were able to come in without any real help from the Detroit homeboys and basically take over a huge part of the city just for themselves,” he said. “These were country boys and guys around here kind of dismissed them as hayseeds and didn’t really give them the time of day at first. But it wasn’t long before that all changed and the locals were forced to give them their respect because they (the Chambers) were a force of nature in that once they got going, their operation was rolling and constantly growing.”

When the final curtain closed on the gang and its antics, the Chambers Brothers organization was the most lucrative street-level drug dealing operation in U.S history up until that time. The Chambers family took the whole city by storm. Detroit had never seen anything like this batch of Southern-raised sin-spinners. These young men might not have originally come to the city thinking they would turn it on its head. But they did. Boy, how they did.

Back At War: Philly Mob Conflict Recap (1992-1996)

In the years following the headline-friendly and carnage-filled Scarfo regime, the Philadelphia underworld went quiet. With the new Philly mob pecking order in a state of limbo, there wasn’t much going on. A once overloaded press corps had little to nothing to report.

The silence wouldn’t last for long.

Upon Scarfo’s imprisonment in the spring of 1987, Anthony “Tony Buck” Piccolo, Little Nicky’s first cousin and Consigliere, was appointed his replacement as Don, purely as a stopgap measure while future long-term leadership options were contemplated. A passive man in nature, the notoriously understated Piccolo didn’t want the job or the responsibility of being a Boss and his short-term reign atop the crime family barely registered a blip on the gangland radar.

About the most significant event of his tenure came when an aspiring mob solider named George Fresolone tape recorded his making ceremony in the summer of 1990. Under Piccolo’s leadership, the mafia in Philadelphia slugged along for four relatively boring years, making few waves, a shadow of its former multi-faceted, high-powered organization of a self.

It was the calm before another proverbial storm of massive proportions ravished the Philly underworld, setting it ablaze in war for almost five years. The city had seen its share of mob-strewn bloodshed the previous decade and it was about to see quite a bit more.

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Surprisingly, hardly anybody noticed him.

Being that it was Halloween night, the fact that a man in a ghost’s mask toting with him what appeared to resemble a trick-or-treat bag was making his way through the crowded restaurant, did little to raise alarm. The masked man walked briskly and with purpose, but didn’t appear at all jittery. Most of the patrons at the tiny Dante &Luigi’s, a longtime popular Italian eatery located on the corner of 10th and Catherine, nestled in the center of South Philadelphia’s Little Italy neighborhood, barely raised an eyebrow.

That was until he reached into his bag, pulled out a 9 millimeter automatic pistol and unloaded his entire clip into a young man eating dinner at a corner table.

“Help me,” the wounded man gasped as he tumbled backwards onto the floor in his chair, blood starting to flow profusely out of his mouth. “Someone, please help me.”

The man with the gun, turned and left. As he exited, he dropped his weapon on the floor of the restaurant as he exited alas Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone character in the famous scene from the film “The Godfather.” Swiftly shuttling into a waiting getaway car idling on the burb outside in front of the entrance, he sped off into the night, never to be officially identified or brought to justice.

Such a daring and public gangland hit was a throwback to the not-so-long-departed Scarfo era, a day where outlandish violence like the 1989 Halloween night attack was carried out on a near-regular basis.

There was good reason.

The shooter and victim in the highly-publicized Dante & Luigi’s Halloween hit were tied directly into the inner-sanctum of the Scarfo regime.

The victim of the attack was Nicky Scarfo, Jr., son and namesake of the imprisoned Don and someone who had been acting as Little Nicky’s liason to the street since being put behind bars. According to federal documents, the shooter was Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, a one-time close associate of both Scarfos, the son of Little Nicky’s deposed Underboss, Chuckie Merlino and a future superstar in the East Coast mafia.

In addition to being reminiscent of days gone by, the shooting would also prove a sign of things to come and a return to the times when Philadelphia and New Jersey were virtual mob shooting galleries and the local media covered the mafia like the on-going human soap opera it genuinely was.

Scarfo, Jr, had spent the day with his cousin John “JP” Parisi running around South Philadelphia, making his rounds and meeting with Bobby Simone at his law office before meeting up with a friend of theirs’ named Johnnie Palumbo for dinner at Dante & Luigi’s around 7:00 that evening. Chaz Iannece, son of incarcerated mob soldier “Charlie White” Iannece, came by their table around 7:20 to say hello and departed by giving what some law enforcement officials have described as a “kiss of death,” laying the groundwork for the pending attempted hit.

Only a few minutes after Iannece left Scarfo, Jr’s table, he was gunned down while in the middle of eating a plate of spaghetti and clams. The one-time mob prince was felled with nine bullets by an assailant authorities allege was Skinny Joey Merlino, once a former close friend and frequent social companion of his that had pledged a vendetta against him and his family for the mistreatment Merlino and his family had suffered at the hands of his father. Informants say Merlino was ferried from the scene in a waiting getaway car driven by Michael “Mikey Chang” Ciangalini, Merlino’s most trusted associate whose father and brother were both imprisoned soldiers once under the elder Scarfo’s command.

Astonishingly, even though he was shot nine times at point-blank range with an automatic weapon, the younger Scarfo survived the attack and by Thanksgiving that year was back on the streets with quite a story to tell and if you listen to some, a vendetta against Joey Merlino by him and his father that continues to this very day.

Despite the rampant speculation surrounding Merlino’s involvement in the crime, he was never charged. Nonetheless, it went a long way in enhancing his reputation as a wiseguy and earning respect. Unabashedly, he used it as leverage, an early calling card on the street that he wasn’t someone to be messed with, that he was a force to be reckoned with, someone to be feared. He was no longer a tagalong or simply just Chuckie’s son or Yogi’s nephew. He was Skinny Joey, a bonafide blue chip mob prospect on his way up the ranks at rapid speed.

As the 1990s began it was obvious to anyone paying attention in the Philly underworld that Little Nicky was the past and Joey Merilno was the future.

In many ways it was quite appropriate. Little Nicky and the young Merlino had a lot in common.

Not only did their families go back decades together, both Scarfo and Merlino were power-obsessed ego maniacs with balls by the boatload, magnetic leadership qualities and an affinity for the red-hot glare of the media spotlight. The main difference between the two would wind up being that Skinny Joey’s lust for the throne and top billing in the local news headlines didn’t isolate him from his soldiers or steep him in violent paranoia like it did Little Nicky.

Merlino would always have a loyal support base, lifelong friends that would never think of betraying him no matter what. Their loyalty was to him, to their bond as boyhood buddies, not to any crime family or La Cosa Nostra.

In a day where the old school Sicilian code of honor that the American mafia was predicated upon means little, that was more than enough to get the job done and in many ways was a considerably better way to insure against betrayal in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Before Merlino’s reign atop the Philadelphia mob could begin, however, there were a few speed bumps he would have to encounter first.