Curtis and Hazel Chambers were both born in Lee County, Arkansas, a community that rested in the southeast portion of the state, about an hour’s drive west of Memphis, and had a long history of cotton farming, economic despair and strict segregation. The couple met when they were teenagers attending school in Marianna, a county center-point that exemplified the region’s racial divide. Hazel was only 13 years old when she started dating Curtis, who was 18, almost 19 and attending high school later in life than usual due to his earlier teen years working as a sharecropper.
In 1948, Curtis, 22 and Hazel, 16, two months away from turning 17, married and moved onto a family-owned 44 acre farm and plantation that sat on the borderline between Marianna and La Grange, a mostly black and impoverished farming village on the outskirts of the county. Over the next two decades, the couple would go on to have a whopping 16 children, 12 boys and four girls.
Around 1967, Curtis and Hazel opened up a bar and restaurant on their land and soon the road leading to the Chambers’ property was constantly packed at all hours of night and early morning, littered with people coming and going from the county’s newest hot spot. Alternatively referred to as The Tin Top Inn, The Blue Swann, or simply Curt’s Place and in lockstep with the area’s customs by catering to an all-black clientele, the loud and sweaty watering hole became a remarkable learning environment for aspiring criminals like a majority of the family’s young boys. There wasn’t anything you couldn’t find there. You name it, they had it: live music, food, booze, dancing, drugs, gambling, pool, dice, girls – it was all available for the right price.
However, unlike many future master criminals who are schooled in the way of the underworld by their fathers, it was the Chambers boys’ mother, Hazel, who conducted the course in “Hustling 101” for her ambitious offspring. If there was money to be made, Hazel was there in a flash. Such behavior did little to endear her to her husband, who routinely had his wife’s extra-marital dalliances flaunted in his face in public and in turn, beat her vigorously in private
One by one, the Chambers boys began getting old enough to fend for themselves and started to leave the family nest of their Marianna farm. Curtis Chambers, Jr., the family’s eldest son, was the first to leave, going to St. Louis before shipping out to Vietnam to serve his country in the military in the late-1960s. Larry and Danny Chambers, the next two eldest boys, wound up in St. Louis as well, an alternative homestead for the family back then since Hazel Chambers parents had moved there after Hazel had married Curtis in 1948.
As Larry drifted towards an early adult life of petty crime and frequent incarceration, Danny split St. Louis shortly after his arrival and becomes the first Chambers brother to reach Detroit in 1970, fresh off a six month stay with his aunt on his father’s side in nearby Flint. He goes to work in an East Side welding factory and is followed to the Motor City four years later by his brother Willie and sister, Delois.
Willie Chambers graduated from Marianna’s Lee High School in 1972, spent two years in the Army stationed in San Diego and finally settled in the Motor City in 1974, getting a steady paying job at the post office, delivering mail. Eventually Danny left his job at the welding factory and went to work at a Dearborn-based plant that manufactured automobile carriages. While working the assembly line there, he became friends with a fellow Lee County native named, L.C. “Big Terry” Colbert, who had a mid-level marijuana distribution network set up on the side. He had no idea that in a matter of a few short years, Colbert and his connections into the local drug world would wind up changing his and his whole family’s entire lives.
It wouldn’t be Danny Chambers however that would facilitate this change in his family’s fortunes and subsequently its bank account. Instead, it would be his baby brother, Billy Joe, a mere 16 years old when he arrived in Michigan in the summer of 1978 and ready to take on the world. And he soon would, with the help of practically all his siblings.
With Hazel and Curtis divorcing in 1976, there was little keeping Billy Joe Chambers in Marianna. “B.J.” as he was known, had a mind for business at an early age and was fast to understand that if he wanted to be making big moves he had to be in the big city. Marianna, he knew, wasn’t that city. Before even completing his junior year in high school, B.J. picked up and left Arkansas, traveling to Detroit to live with his two brothers.
He enrolled at Detroit Kettering High School in the fall and although he would never receive his diploma, he used the school’s job placement office to land employment at a local shoe store where he went to work as a janitor in the afternoons after class. It was a meager-beginning for someone who go onto become one of the most successful drug kingpins in American history, but B.J. swallowed his pride and did the work diligently.
Along with his new best friend, Jerry “J-Man’ Gant, Big Terry Colbert’s little brother, B.J. started making some extra money by selling marijuana for Colbert out of “The T and T”, a restaurant and convenience store Colbert opened up after getting laid off from his job at the plant. Welcoming a son, Billy Jr., into the world with a girlfriend of his named, Niece (pronounced Nee-Cee), in the spring of 1980, B.J. quit his job at the shoe store and decided not to go back to Kettering for his senior year, opting instead to take an unofficial apprenticeship under Colbert at the T and T and start fending for his soon-to-be ever growing brood of woman and children.
Adding a daughter to the family abode with Niece in 1981, B.J. was schooled in the ways of the narcotics trade by Colbert, who took an immediate liking to the young and hungry fledgling street pharmacist. Proving a prized pupil, B.J. branched off on his own in the drug world in 1982, setting up a base of operations at “Willie’s Retail Store”, a virtual clone of the T and T opened by him and his brother Willie at corner of St. Clair and Kerchival on the Far East Side of the city. The store, along with a neighboring car wash, were each in Willie’s name and on property he had purchased with savings from his near-decade on the job as a postman.
Displaying his well-honed business sense, B.J. used the dual properties to launch his own burgeoning drug empire, pushing marijuana and heroin out of both the store and the car wash. With a steady supply line drugs coming from Big Terry Colbert and surrounded by a close-knit crew of lieutenants made up of family members and trusted associates, the soon to be kingpin was off and running.
B.J. kept his inner-circle relatively small. Besides B.J., there was his identical twin, Little Joe (also known as “Yo-Yo”), his older brothers Danny, Willie and David, his best friend Jerry Gant, Big Terry’s son, Little Terry and two of his girlfriend’s brothers, Perry “P-Boy” Coleman and Willie “Boogaloo” Driscoll.
Then there was his ever-growing workforce, an always expanding group of teenagers and young adults that as soon as the Chambers organization was up and operating at full-capacity started relocating in mass from Arkansas, looking to attain wealth in the Detroit drug game. DEA documents from the era estimate over 300 young men and woman from Mariana and the surrounding areas of the Delta region migrated to the Motor City and went to work for the Chambers gang selling drugs.
The seeds of success had been planted. They would soon blossom into garden of riches the likes of which were well beyond any of the brothers’ wildest dreams. Diminutive in size – barely 5-foot-5 in height –, B.J. made up for his lack of physical stature with an ironclad will, natural business sense and a gigantic-sized ambition. Once he got started in business for himself, he wasted little time imposing all three on the city he called his adopted hometown.
By the early part of 1984, B.J. Chambers had already become one of the biggest drug dealers in the city, operating out of Willie’s Retail Store on St. Clair and Kerchival, which by that time had been re-named, “B.J.’s Party Store”, and several local residences across the Eastside that he purchased and converted into fully-functional product factories and sale houses. And things were about to get much, much bigger.
Around this time, B.J. is introduced to crack cocaine by Perry Coleman, his girlfriend Niece’s older brothers. Back when B.J. first arrived in Detroit, Coleman was someone who had taken him under his wing and showed him the ropes around the local streets. As the years went on, B.J. began tapping Coleman as an alternate source for marijuana if Big Terry Colbert was ever running low and going to him for counsel on business strategy.
Coleman had recently started selling crack, the newly-created super drug which was cocaine in smokeable rock form, and was eager to champion its merits to his former street protégé. Soon, B.J. was including rocks of cocaine in his menu of products being sold out of his party store and within a matter of weeks it replaces marijuana and heroin as his primary source of illegal income.
Up until the summer of 1984, B.J. and his family was nowhere near being on the radar of area law enforcement: Then came the month of August when word on the street had reached a fevered pitch about the Chambers boys and their prowess moving crack. The cops could no longer ignore them, Within weeks, by Labor Day in fact, the brothers and their drug organization, found themselves smack dab in the middle of that radar, squarely in the government’s crosshairs.
The few months or so of heavy crack dealing had made the Chambers brothers and their laidback, yet lurid leader a top priority. Crack cocaine and those who peddled it had recently been targeted by the city, state and federal government as Public Enemy No. 1, and as soon as police started culling information from their widely-placed snitches, the name they kept hearing was B.J. Chambers. Old school dealers that sold “junk” and “weed” were shuffled to the back burner and a freshly convened task force of Detroit Police, DEA and FBI agents set their sights on finding out everything they could uncover regarding the mysterious out-of-towners that were flying up the latter of the local underworld.
“They were really the first group in the city to start moving crack cocaine at a major level,” said Robert De Fauw, the head of the DEA in Detroit from 1978-1987. “We became aware of the Chambers brothers at the same time the crack epidemic hit. Both took the city by storm.”
The task force’s top street unit dubbed itself the “No Crack Crew” and was made up of grit-laced, adrenaline-junky cops, all ready to roll 24 hours a day seven days a week and at a second’s notice. Pounding the pavement at a relentless pace gathering information and raiding suspected drug houses, these guys worked hard and partied even harder. Most interestingly, even though nearly all of the criminals they were trying to take down were black, practically all of the members of the task force and 100 percent of the No Crack Crew, the task force’s top street operatives, were white.
The undisputed leader of the No Crack Crew, comprised of primarily DPD narco squad detectives, was Gerard “Mick the Bronco” Biernacki. His nickname told you all you needed to know about him. For good and for bad, Biernacki was an animal on the job, exhibiting unbridled intensity and aggression and manic-like compulsion in pursuit of his targets. An ex-U.S. Marine who served on the front lines in Vietnam, Bronco Biernacki became a drug cop in 1973 and ended up serving more than two decades on the jobs, participating in over 1,000 arrests and convictions.
Besides the No Crack Crew developing a reputation for high-profile arrests and for being fixtures on the local nightly news broadcasts, some of its members became known for their questionable views on race relations.
“Detroit was a great place to work narcotics until the Blacks became bosses,” Greg Woods, a No Crack Crew member spawning from a long family line of Detroit police officers, was quoted in William Adler’s book, Land of Opportunity, which chronicled the Chambers brothers organizations and the men in law enforcement who tried to lock them up. “But I’ll be honest, I’m a racist. Fuck them niggers.”
Having operated for over two years without so much of a sniff in their direction from the police, August and September of 1984 put an end to any form of anonymity the Chambers clan thought they might have possessed. Between mid-August and early-September, B.J. took four busts, two of which he was arrested for. The first was a charge of assault of a police officer against B.J. and Little Joe, that stemmed from a street brawl between the pair of twins and two DPD patrolmen who had made a traffic stop of B.J. in front of his house. The incident, although not drug related, would serve as the impetus for a vendetta forged by the federal task force, specifically Biernacki and the No Crack Crew against the Chambers family, and set into motion a near five year cat and mouse game that they vowed to win at all costs.
B.J.’s second arrest came on Labor Day and as a result of a raid of his residence on Gray Street which uncovered nearly 2,000 baby-sized packets of rock cocaine. It was on the Labor Day 1984 raid – the second the brothers had faced in the two weeks and one of many in a long line of them dating from 1984 until 1988 – that B.J. Chambers was positively identified for the first time in person by police. Going to great lengths over the previous two years to keep his appearance a secret to law enforcement, the pint-sized drug don’s cover was officially blown when an informant pointed him out to surveillance agents who were watching the house prior to the raid. One member of the task force was so surprised by B.J.’s young age, he commented, “Nigger, I thought you was an old man.”
The No Crack Crew was so overjoyed for finally being able to pinpoint exactly who the gang’s leader, B.J. Chambers, actually was, the members of the rough and rugged police battalion started chanting, “BILLY JOE, BILLY JOE, BILLY JOE” as the brothers and their associates were all rounded-up outside the house. Handcuffed and chained together in a line, those placed under arrest, including B.J.’s brother, Danny and his first cousin, Alvin “Frog” Chambers, were forced to announce aloud “We sell dope, we sell dope, we sell dope” as they were paraded around a crowded street corner, littered with neighborhood residents assembled to witness the siren-filled commotion, and into the DPD paddy wagon that had been called to the scene to haul them away.
Although the drug bust would not stick due to a technicality, make no mistake about it, the incident dealt a severe blow to B.J. and his whole organization. First, it placed a giant target on B.J.’s back and second a more importantly it would go on to serve as a predicate offense for a massive narcotics indictment years down the road.
On September 10, 1984, B.J. and Danny had their house on Gray Street raided for the third time in three weeks, this time with Big Terry Colbert inside. Nobody is arrested, but B.J., Danny and Big Terry were all cuffed, placed in the back of a police vehicle and taken by the No Crack Crew on a raid of one of their competitors’ drug houses a few blocks away. The tactic was one of general harassment and used as a means of making B.J. and his crew look bad to other dealers, by making it appear that they tipped the cops off about the whereabouts of their rivals’ place of business was so that it could be raided.
B.J was no dummy. The heat was being applied heavy and there would be no escaping its wrath if he kept to his same routine. He needed to switch things up. And so, as the rest of the city was preparing itself for the first trip to the playoffs in 12 years for its beloved Detroit Tigers, B.J. Chambers vanished from sight, taking refuge on the family farm down in Arkansas for the next 10 months, hundreds of miles away from the tight scrutiny he was coming under back up north.