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 latter-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.