The Nine Lives of ‘Fat Cat’

Van­i­ty Fair, April 1991

One of New York’s most ruth­less drug war­lords, Loren­zo “Fat Cat” Nichols even called the shots from behind bars—ordering hits on a child­hood bud­dy and the moth­er of his son. But a mur­der he didn’t com­mit final­ly destroyed his empire. Then the Cat turned canary. FREDRIC DANNEN tracked Nichols down for a first-ever inter­view
_______________________

They called it sim­ply “the Block”—a sec­tion of 150th Street in Jamaica, Queens, that served as home base for one of the largest drug rings in the nation. From a back office at Big Mac’s Deli, Loren­zo “Fat Cat” Nichols ran a cocaine-and-heroin trade that brought in an esti­mat­ed $20 mil­lion a year. In his rabbit-fur coat and gold jew­el­ry, he was a famil­iar sight on the Block—a stocky, beard­ed black man from Alaba­ma with a ninth-grade edu­ca­tion, a busy mind, and an apti­tude for mur­der. Fat Cat’s enforcers were pre­pared to tor­ture or kill all those who betrayed him or poached on his turf. Even after he was arrest­ed at Big Mac’s in 1985 for pos­ses­sion of drugs and firearms, and began a tour of the New York State pris­on sys­tem, he con­tin­ued to call the shots—literally, in some cases—and no rival gang could usurp his author­i­ty.
     In the end, it was a mur­der Fat Cat did not com­mit that brought down his drug empire. In the early-morning hours of Feb­ru­ary 26, 1988, a twenty-two-year-old rook­ie cop named Edward Byrne was sit­ting in his patrol car on a street cor­ner in Queens when he was ambushed by four assailants and shot dead. The Byrne killing rapid­ly became a media event, a nation­al sym­bol of out­rage in the war on drugs. In 1989, a jury found that Byrne’s death had been ordered by one of Fat Cat’s fel­low inmates at the Brook­lyn House of Detention—Howard “Pap­py” Mason—in retal­i­a­tion for a show of “dis­re­spect” by anoth­er police­man. Mason com­mand­ed his own drug gang, the Bebos, but he had start­ed out as a secu­ri­ty guard for Fat Cat and still did busi­ness with him. Nichols’s sis­ter Vio­la worked for Mason and was his lover. An F.B.I. tap on her phone in the wake of the mur­der pro­vid­ed fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors with enough evi­dence to arrest the key mem­bers of the Bebos and the Nichols gang—thirty-seven peo­ple in all, includ­ing Vio­la and Fat Cat’s elder­ly moth­er, his wife, his girl­friend, and three of his nieces.
     “I feel like what Pap­py did, he destroyed everybody—he destroyed my whole fam­i­ly!” com­plained Vio­la in a secret­ly record­ed con­ver­sa­tion with her broth­er. Nichols, speak­ing by pris­on phone, was not about to say that Pap­py had ordered the hit, but his ver­dict on the slay­ing itself was unre­served: “The stu­pid­est shit in the whole fuck­ing world.”
     Indeed, Nichols was said to be furi­ous with Mason for his impul­sive act. “I wouldn’t say we friends today. Def­i­nite­ly not friends,” Nichols allowed in a recent inter­view. “Pap­py was so mil­i­tant because he spent the major­i­ty of his life in jail. He had a good heart, but he just didn’t think—you know what I’m say­ing? I liked him, he was a good per­son, but his way of think­ing was just…off. Things you could solve with your mind he’d rather solve with a pis­tol.”
     Fat Cat was more than put out of busi­ness by the Byrne assas­si­na­tion. Today, at thirty-two, he has lost not only his enter­prise but even his name. If you call the federal-prison Inmate Loca­tor Ser­vice and ask his where­abouts, you will be told that there is no record of a Loren­zo Nichols. This is because he now lan­guish­es in a fed­er­al pen under an alias, as part of the pris­on­er wit­ness pro­gram. It is the ulti­mate sym­bol of his defeat: as one wag put it, the Cat has become a canary. In Sep­tem­ber 1989, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brook­lyn got him to sign a plea agree­ment in which be con­sent­ed to be “ful­ly debriefed” on his knowl­edge of “nar­cotics traf­fick­ing and homi­cide” and, if called upon, to tes­ti­fy in court.
     It is unlike­ly, how­ev­er, that Loren­zo Nichols will ever be put on the stand. The mer­est out­line of his life sto­ry would dis­gust any jury. In set­tling his case with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, he plead­ed guilty to order­ing two deaths. One vic­tim was a close friend from child­hood and the oth­er, even more grotesque­ly, was the young moth­er of one of Nichols’s sons. And he remains a prime sus­pect in a homi­cide as brazen as the Byrne hit, yet one that some­how got far less publicity—the 1985 exe­cu­tion of his parole offi­cer, Bri­an Rooney.
     So far, Nichols’s val­ue to the gov­ern­ment has been lim­it­ed. He has helped pros­e­cu­tors get a court-approved wire­tap, but no indict­ments have result­ed from his coop­er­a­tion. Still, Nichols says he was tor­tured by his deci­sion to become a snitch. “It was hard to swal­low for the first cou­ple of months,” he says. “I’d wake up in the mid­dle of the night, and it feel real, real, real bad. I kept say­ing, Damn! How could I let myself be put in this posi­tion?” Yet he knows full well how it hap­pened: his moth­er, Louise Cole­man, who gives her age as seventy-seven, faced twen­ty years in jail for her role in her son’s drug enter­prise. As a reward for Nichols’s agree­ment, she was sen­tenced to five years’ pro­ba­tion and a fine.
     No one in law enforce­ment seems offend­ed that Fat Cat’s moth­er was given a reprieve. But it will soon be learned whether Nichols will get a far more con­tro­ver­sial bonus for becom­ing an infor­mant: clemen­cy for him­self. A fed­er­al judge is about to sen­tence him on mur­der and rack­e­teer­ing charges—which car­ry manda­to­ry life impris­on­ment, unless the gov­ern­ment makes a motion for a “down­ward depar­ture,” which would leave the door open for parole. That pre­rog­a­tive belongs to Leslie Cald­well, the high­ly regard­ed assis­tant U.S. attor­ney in Brook­lyn who con­vict­ed Pap­py Mason and extract­ed the guilty plea from Nichols. Her deci­sion won’t be made pub­lic until Fat Cat’s sen­tenc­ing, but observers sug­gest that she has ample grounds not to make the motion. One of Nichols’s for­mer lieu­tenants, who has also turned infor­mant, has impli­cat­ed him in an addi­tion­al mur­der. More­over, Nichols remains under indict­ment by the Queens Dis­trict Attorney’s Office for the mur­der of parole offi­cer Rooney. “We received a lot of crit­i­cism for deal­ing with Nichols at all,” Cald­well admits. “He was prob­a­bly the biggest drug deal­er in Queens and, to the police, the most evil thing on the face of the earth.”

 

Nichols has no idea whether Cald­well will rec­om­mend his even­tu­al release from pris­on. But, he points out, “every­body want to hope. And I just don’t want to die in jail. I want to die with my feet on the side­walk. Even if I get fifty years, I’m gonna find it in my body to do fifty. I may not make it, but I had it in my mind at the time—I tried to walk out a free man. Dying in jail is a cold, cold feel­ing.”
     Nichols is mak­ing his remarks over the tele­phone, in what he says is the only inter­view he has ever given. There are three fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiaries equipped for the pris­on­er wit­ness pro­gram, and rumor has it Nichols is at the one in Phoenix. He denies it. “They don’t allow me to tell you where I am,” he says. “All I can say is, it’s a fed­er­al facility—ain’t no coun­try club.”
     He speaks in a soft voice, with more than a trace of a south­ern accent; his intel­li­gence is evi­dent. It is not the voice one expects of a cold-blooded killer, nor does Nichols have the appear­ance of one. “If you put him in a brown cor­duroy jack­et with patch­es on the elbows, he would look like a col­lege pro­fes­sor,” says War­ren Sil­ver­man, the assis­tant D.A. in Queens who sent Fat Cat to state pris­on after the arrest at Big Mac’s. “He’s a soft-spoken guy—but those guys are the most dan­ger­ous. He could say ‘Kill him’ in a real soft voice. And there were bod­ies stacked up like cords of wood in Jamaica as a result.”
     The boy who grew up to be a killer was born on Christ­mas Day, 1958, at Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, to Louise Nichols and John White. Lorenzo’s par­ents were not mar­ried, so he acquired the sur­name of his mother’s deceased sec­ond hus­band. He had three old­er half-sisters, all legit­i­mate: Martha, Mary, and Vio­la. When Loren­zo was nine months old, his moth­er left him to look for work in New York City. For the next eight years, he was raised by his grand­moth­er Blanche Shel­ton in Besse­mer, Alaba­ma. She was a devout Bap­tist. “If you didn’t go to church on Sun­day, you couldn’t leave the yard to go skate or play with the oth­er kids on the block,” Loren­zo recalls.
     By 1968 his moth­er had set­tled into a two-story house on 139th Street in Queens with her third hus­band, a plumber named Amos Cole­man. She worked as a private-duty nurse. That year, Louise Cole­man sent for Loren­zo. “I nev­er want­ed to go; I loved my grand­moth­er,” he recalls. His moth­er was a good provider, but large­ly absent and uncom­mu­nica­tive, he says. One of his strongest ear­ly mem­o­ries was of hav­ing to scuff up a new pair of sneak­ers because oth­er chil­dren at school “made you feel ashamed, like it was a crime to have some­thing new.” Louise Cole­man remem­bers Loren­zo as a qui­et, well-behaved boy. “Nev­er was sassy,” she says.
     Nichols dropped out of school when he reached the ninth grade. In the mean­time, he had joined a large and well orga­nized gang in Queens called the Sev­en Crowns. Since he was still in his ear­ly teens, Nichols was rel­e­gat­ed to a junior divi­sion and was not entrust­ed with any firearms. “The most pow­er­ful gun was a .32 or a .38,” he recalls, “and you had to be real­ly high up in the ranks to have that—president or vice pres­i­dent or war coun­selor. The rest of us just had sticks or chains.” Nichols says he nev­er saw much vio­lence, except for one street brawl when the Sav­age Nomads came down from the Bronx and “flashed their col­ors.”
     In 1976, Nichols stepped into a pool­room and met Eddie Gard­ner, whom he describes as a “stick­up kid” with a big rep­u­ta­tion. Accord­ing to Nichols, Gard­ner said he had given some cocaine on cred­it to the own­er of a local bar, and it was time to col­lect his over­due debt. Would Nichols like to come along? “I thought I went to heav­en,” Nichols recalls. “Eddie was like a leg­end. I was so hap­py to be with this nig­ger.” When they arrived at the bar, Nichols says, he stood at the front door by the juke­box, and watched in sur­prise as Gard­ner robbed the cus­tomers at gun­point, ordered them into the bath­room, and began to pistol-whip the own­er. Nichols couldn’t have been too shocked, how­ev­er: lat­er the same evening, he and Gard­ner com­mit­ted anoth­er rob­bery, in the Bronx. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a num­ber of the cus­tomers at the bar rec­og­nized Nichols. He and Gard­ner were con­vict­ed of the two rob­beries. Nichols got eigh­teen years, but was paroled after serv­ing two and a half.
     When he came back home in 1980, Nichols turned his atten­tion to the drug trade. It was not a busi­ness eas­i­ly entered; one need­ed a con­nec­tion to off­shore sup­pli­ers, which usu­al­ly meant a tie-in with the Mafia. In the six­ties, the lead­ing Queens drug deal­er was Pop Free­man, who, accord­ing to rumor, had been set up by Vito Gen­ovese. In the late sev­en­ties, Free­man was suc­ceed­ed by the noto­ri­ous Ronald Bas­sett, bet­ter known as Ron­nie Bumps, who import­ed his narcotics—$1.2 mil­lion worth of uncut hero­in in just one nine-week peri­od tracked by fed­er­al agents—via Bal­ti­more. It was long assumed that Nichols was set up in busi­ness by Ron­nie Bumps. In fact, says Detec­tive Sergeant Michael McGuin­ness, his real men­tor was “Pret­ty Tony” Feur­ta­do, an estab­lished deal­er who hap­pened to be half black and half Ital­ian.
     Nichols fig­ured out ear­ly on that the most lucra­tive approach to the drug busi­ness was as a whole­saler. He dis­trib­ut­ed set amounts of cocaine and hero­in to mid­dle­man deal­ers, and what­ev­er prof­it they made was theirs to keep. His stan­dard rate for a kilo of coke was $50,000. Nichols’s income was tremen­dous; a lot of it was invest­ed in prop­er­ty that has since been seized by the gov­ern­ment. He decli­nes to esti­mate how much mon­ey he made in drugs, but his for­mer top lieu­tenant, Joseph Rogers, has tes­ti­fied to per­son­al­ly earn­ing about $2.5 mil­lion over a four-year peri­od.
     Not long after his release from jail, Nichols became atten­tive toward Joan­ne McClin­ton, whose street name was “Mousey.” She had known Loren­zo as a teenager, but, she recalls, “I thought he was nasty.” (She also remem­bers that his favorite pas­time as a teen was watch­ing shoot-’em-up cow­boy movies on tele­vi­sion.) They had some­thing in com­mon, though: both were already par­ents. Nichols had two ille­git­i­mate sons; McClin­ton had an out-of-wedlock daugh­ter. Ever the strate­gist, Nichols won the daughter’s affec­tions, grad­u­al­ly wear­ing down her mother’s resis­tance. Nichols and McClin­ton were mar­ried in 1980 and moved to an apart­ment on 169th Street in Queens. They had their first child, Loren­zo junior, a year lat­er. Anoth­er son, Leonard, was born in 1985.
     Joan­ne was bet­ter edu­cat­ed than her hus­band, and poked fun at his “down-South accent.” She was also sur­prised to dis­cov­er that Loren­zo was deeply super­sti­tious. He refused ever to wear black or to ven­ture out­side on Fri­day the thir­teen­th, and if she acci­den­tal­ly swept his feet, he made her spit on the broom. She was even more amazed at his fas­tid­i­ous­ness. Sat­ur­days were spent scour­ing the apart­ment from top to bottom—”He even did windows”—and he seemed obsessed with per­son­al hygiene. “He was very attract­ed to the mir­ror,” Joan­ne says. “He loved to smell good. He tried to use the per­fume on my dresser and didn’t care if he smelled like a wom­an.”
     Since Nichols was a parolee, he need­ed a cover-up occu­pa­tion. For a time, he sup­pos­ed­ly helped run Big Mac’s Deli, a gro­cery store that had been turned over to him and Joan­ne by her father. In 1984, Loren­zo Nichols’s tax return list­ed him as an employ­ee of Impe­ri­al Home Improve­ments, a con­struc­tion com­pa­ny. Nichols assured Bri­an Rooney, his parole offi­cer, that he was hard at work remod­el­ing bath­rooms. Rooney was obvi­ous­ly unaware that Nichols was mak­ing sub­stan­tial invest­ments in real estate. Along with the deli, he now owned a game room and two apart­ment build­ings on the Block, used as meet­ing places or liv­ing quar­ters for his gang.
     In 1984, Joan­ne, sus­pi­cious that Loren­zo was being unfaith­ful, sep­a­rat­ed from him, tak­ing up res­i­dence in an expen­sive split-level home in Elmont, Long Island, com­plete with a Mer­cedes and a Lin­coln Town Car. In the mean­time, Lorenzo’s moth­er, Louise Cole­man, had become an active par­tic­i­pant in her son’s gang. (Nichols still denies this, insist­ing she mere­ly worked in the gro­cery store, “sell­ing chick­en sand­wich­es.” She denies it, too: “I didn’t do noth­ing. I worked all my life. I was so sur­prised when they come and get me.”) Cole­man did plead guilty to own­ing real estate used for drug traf­fick­ing by the Nichols enter­prise. Accord­ing to Sergeant McGuin­ness, she was also once caught sell­ing a small amount of cocaine to an under­cov­er cop, though she was nev­er charged with the crime. Fur­ther­more, he recalls lis­ten­ing to a wire­tap in which “some dere­lict dope fiend was try­ing to get into the gro­cery store, and Louise was say­ing, ‘If he don’t get the fuck out of here, give him two in the head.’ She’s a vicious old wom­an.”
     To run his enter­prise, Nichols depend­ed heav­i­ly on two men also in their twen­ties. Bri­an Gibbs, bet­ter known as “Glaze,” was an enforcer so blood­thirsty that Nichols says even he had to restrain him. The oth­er was Joseph Rogers, who went by the name “Mike Bones.” Rogers was less vio­lent, as evi­denced by tes­ti­mony he gave in 1989 about the mur­der of a man named Roo­sevelt Ben­jam­in, who had stolen mon­ey from anoth­er drug deal­er allied with Fat Cat. Rogers was dri­ving a car on the Inter­boro Park­way, with Ben­jam­in sit­ting next to him. It was win­ter­time, and the win­dows were shut. Rogers tes­ti­fied that from the back­seat anoth­er man drew a gun and shot Ben­jam­in, dous­ing Rogers with blood. “I lost my head,” Rogers said. In a pan­ic, he tossed the corpse onto the high­way and lat­er had the car torched.
     Rogers was in charge of the gang’s arse­nal; he pur­chased forty-four guns with defaced seri­al num­bers and hired young wom­en to bring them to New York in their lug­gage. “Mike Bones was more or less a think­ing type of person—a busi­nessper­son,” Nichols says, explain­ing why he made Rogers his right-hand man. “He remind­ed me of myself.”

 

It was in state pris­on that Nichols first met an inmate who was emphat­i­cal­ly not a think­ing per­son: Pap­py Mason, a stur­di­ly built Rasta­far­i­an with long dread­locks and gold teeth, one of which had a sham­rock carved in it. Sergeant McGuin­ness com­pares the two men in this way: “Nichols was cun­ning and ruth­less; Mason was stu­pid and bru­tal.” While Nichols behaved well in pris­on and made parole at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble date, Mason served the full sev­en years of his sen­tence, also for armed rob­bery. Pap­py would attack any pris­on­er sus­pect­ed of being a snitch, even if it didn’t involve him per­son­al­ly.
     When Mason won release in 1983, Nichols had already estab­lished him­self as a drug lord. Pap­py dropped by the Block and asked for some mon­ey; Fat Cat gave him $800. A few days lat­er, Mason came back and applied for a job. Nichols made him a secu­ri­ty man, with respon­si­bil­i­ty for guard­ing the game room.
     The salary was $1,000 a week. To Nichols’s sur­prise, Mason showed up for work with clock­like reg­u­lar­i­ty. A short time lat­er, Nichols pro­mot­ed him to drug deal­er, giv­ing him a spot near the For­ties Projects, a build­ing com­plex in South Jamaica. Mason was a poor sales­man, how­ev­er, and his busi­ness improved only mar­gin­al­ly when Nichols gave him a bet­ter spot, across from a pub­lic school. Nev­er­the­less, by 1985, Pap­py had bro­ken free and cre­at­ed his own drug gang, the Bebos, whose name was sup­pos­ed­ly derived from a Ras­ta greet­ing.
     Fat Cat was prob­a­bly hap­py to see Mason leave his orga­ni­za­tion. He was begin­ning to find Pap­py a bit too wild and uncon­trol­lable, and he was not alone in his assess­ment. “I thought he was crazy,” says Louise Cole­man. “He beat up on wom­en. He’d kick ‘em and he’d dog ‘em.” It was true: Mason, accord­ing to a fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tor, once hung his girl­friend by the legs out of a mov­ing car and dragged her along the pave­ment. Anoth­er time, Nichols, him­self hard­ly inno­cent of bru­tal­i­ty toward wom­en, had some of his crew abduct a Bronx wom­an who sup­pos­ed­ly had knowl­edge of a theft from his orga­ni­za­tion; she was tak­en to a Queens apart­ment and slapped around. When Mason learned of the inter­ro­ga­tion, he sent a few of his own peo­ple to fin­ish the job: they tor­tured the wom­an with curling irons, hauled her back to the Bronx, and shot her.
     Before long, Fat Cat’s sis­ter Vio­la became a girl­friend of Mason’s and a mem­ber of the Bebos. She worked direct­ly for Mason, bag­ging crack. Vio­la was a crack addict—and an exceed­ing­ly plump one at that. (In one fed­er­al wire­tap, Mason refers to Vio­la as his “over­weight lover”; she snaps back, “I ain’t no over­weight lover, you moth­er­fuck­ing, dreadlock-wearing son of a bitch!”) Loren­zo tried to steer clear of his sis­ter, who was a decade old­er than he, and big trou­ble. One time, Vio­la smoked $10,000 worth of Mason’s crack, and Fat Cat had to make good on the debt by giv­ing Pap­py a free kilo of coke. Anoth­er time, she called one of her brother’s attor­neys with a hard-luck sto­ry, and he hand­ed her a few hun­dred dol­lars in return for what proved to be a forged check. “Vio­la had the thiev­ery in her blood,” Nichols says with a sigh. “From a kid, she robbed my pig­gy bank.”
     To round out the cast of char­ac­ters, Pap­py Mason also wel­comed his moth­er, Clau­dia, into his drug ring. Proud of her sta­tus, she took to call­ing her­self “Mrs. Bebo.” Though elder­ly and infirm, Clau­dia Mason was no pushover. In one bugged phone call, Vio­la Nichols says of her, “She ain’t no moth­er­fuck­ing joke—not with a god­damn trunk full of guns. Shit! They talk­ing about her son crazy. He got it hon­est.”

 

In the sum­mer of 1985, Queens police got a tip that Big Mac’s was a drug head­quar­ters. On July 29, about thir­ty offi­cers descend­ed on the gro­cery store with a search war­rant. Word was the action would be on the sec­ond floor, so near­ly all the police­men hit the upstairs apart­ments; they were emp­ty, save for one unarmed sus­pect and about $150,000 in cash—perhaps three days’ take—stuffed in paper bags that bore the slo­gan “Just Say No.”
     The two offi­cers who entered the deli itself—Sergeant McGuin­ness and Queens detec­tive Edward Sullivan—were unaware of the bonan­za that await­ed them. As they made their way past the shelves of food, they noticed an open door, lead­ing to a back office. The inte­ri­or was well lit. There, at his desk, amid file cab­i­nets and a birth­day card that read WORLD’S GREATEST DADDY, was Loren­zo Nichols. He was flanked by two of his sol­diers. McGuin­ness lev­eled a shot­gun at Nichols and ordered him to stand up and put his hands on the wall. Fat Cat did so, then motioned back toward his chair. McGuin­ness yelled for him to freeze. After a tense moment, Nichols obeyed. Sul­li­van exam­ined the chair; Nichols had been sit­ting on two load­ed pis­tols, con­cealed under a cloth.
     “He knew he was fucked—that’s why he made his move,” McGuin­ness says. “But you don’t get two chances with some­thing like that. If he wouldn’t have stopped, I would have shot him.”
     A search of the premis­es turned up two ounces of cocaine, six ounces of high-grade hero­in, sev­er­al pounds of mar­i­jua­na, police scan­ners, scales, a mon­ey count­ing machine, and an addi­tion­al $30,000 in cash. Fat Cat’s desk draw­er con­tained a Steyr, a top-of-the-line Aus­tri­an semi-automatic. Nichols was arraigned for pos­ses­sion of drugs and guns, but imme­di­ate­ly post­ed bail—a sur­pris­ing­ly low $70,000—and returned home.
     Two days lat­er, he dropped by the office of his parole offi­cer, Bri­an Rooney. Nichols explained that he’d been arrest­ed, but described it as a trag­ic misunderstanding—he had mere­ly gone into the gro­cery store to buy a sand­wich. Rooney was almost inclined to believe him, until he picked up the phone and had a con­ver­sa­tion with McGuin­ness. Incensed over what he heard, Rooney slapped hand­cuffs on Fat Cat and arrest­ed him for vio­lat­ing his parole. At a hear­ing soon after­ward, Rooney tes­ti­fied again­st Nichols, who was remand­ed with­out bail.
     Two months went by as Nichols stewed in pris­on. Then, on Octo­ber 10, 1985, Rooney got a call from a man named Per­ry Bel­lamy, who said he was a friend of Fat Cat’s and had some impor­tant infor­ma­tion. Rooney swung by a Queens bar called the Dog House in his beat-up Dodge Dart, and Bel­lamy climbed in. They parked on 119th Avenue. A Dat­sun 28OZ pulled alongside. Rooney looked up and found him­self star­ing down the bar­rel of a gun. He was fatal­ly wound­ed before he could pull the ser­vice revolver from his waist­band. Bel­lamy rode away in the Dat­sun.
     “Rooney was just a ded­i­cat­ed guy,” McGuin­ness says. “I remem­ber after we had the hear­ing where they held that Nichols had vio­lat­ed his parole, Rooney and I went out for lunch. He had an eighteen-month-old son, and the kid’s toys were in the back win­dow of his car. The next time I saw that car, it was at the 113th Precinct, full of bul­let holes, being dust­ed for fin­ger­prints.”
     A few days after the Rooney mur­der, Per­ry Bel­lamy gave a video­taped con­fes­sion. He implied that Nichols had ordered the hit from jail, and said that Pap­py Mason and a Nichols employ­ee named Chris “Jug­head” Williams were in the Dat­sun. Mason, he said, had fired the shots. Per­haps Bel­lamy expect­ed immu­ni­ty in return for his state­ments, but that isn’t how it turned out: he got twenty-five to life. Jug­head was until just recent­ly a fugi­tive, and he will prob­a­bly stand tri­al for the slay­ing lat­er this year.
     Pap­py Mason, mean­while, was tried for the Rooney homi­cide in Feb­ru­ary 1987, but the case end­ed in a hung jury—nine to three for conviction—after a key wit­ness recant­ed his tes­ti­mony. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Mason, when he was arrest­ed on the Rooney charges, police found a Der­ringer in his boot. Despite the legal ser­vices of civil rights attor­ney C. Ver­non Mason—no relation—Pappy was even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed of gun pos­ses­sion.
     Fat Cat insists he played no part in Bri­an Rooney’s death. “To this day, I’m wait­ing anx­ious­ly to be tried in court for that,” he says, “because I nev­er ordered or told any­one to do any­thing to Rooney.”
     In ear­ly 1988, Nichols was final­ly tried on the state charges stem­ming from his arrest at Big Mac’s. He got twenty-five to life. Though incar­cer­at­ed since 1985 for vio­lat­ing his parole, he had remained very much in charge of his gang. Glaze vis­it­ed him on a reg­u­lar basis for instruc­tions. Nichols need­ed to show he was still capa­ble of vio­lence or rivals would encroach on his ter­ri­to­ry. “I believed the­se were the rules you got­ta live by to sur­vive in Jamaica,” he says.
     On Decem­ber 4, 1987, for exam­ple, a gun­man walked into the Wilkens Quick Wash and Dry on Lin­den Boule­vard and fatal­ly shot the change­mak­er in the head. The victim’s name was Mau­rice Bel­lamy, and his only offense was that his son hap­pened to be Per­ry Bel­lamy, the man who had tried to impli­cate Fat Cat in the Rooney killing. Last June, Glaze tes­ti­fied that he ordered the Bel­lamy hit “on behalf of Loren­zo Nichols.” Not true, Nichols says. “May­be I could have stopped it if I was pay­ing atten­tion, but that’s all.”
     But Nichols does admit to order­ing the death two weeks lat­er of his girl­friend, Myrtle Hor­sham, bet­ter known as Mye­sha. She was twen­ty at the time, the moth­er of Nichols’s two-year-old son, and an active play­er in his drug oper­a­tion. Her crime was skim­ming mon­ey and, even worse from Nichols’s per­spec­tive, spend­ing it on anoth­er man. “There was about $50,000 or $60,000 she owed,” he says. “She told me her ver­sion of it; I said, Cool. But then Glaze told me a dif­fer­ent version—she spent the mon­ey on this nig­ger. She was now mess­ing with me. Glaze says, ‘What you gonna do, man? You look bad if you let her get away with this.’ So I said, ‘Go ahead, do what you got­ta do—but don’t do it at her house.’ I think it was more out of jeal­ousy, my motive. It def­i­nite­ly wasn’t the mon­ey. I could have for­gave her for that. But she get me over the boil­ing point, because I was high­ly mad about her spend­ing the mon­ey on this dude.”
     On Decem­ber 20, 1987, Glaze and three asso­ciates drove to a build­ing in the For­ties Projects where Hor­sham had left her son, T.C., with a baby-sitter. Accord­ing to tes­ti­mony, two of them hid in the back­seat of a car belong­ing to Regi­na Brown, a friend of Horsham’s who would be giv­ing her a lift home. They wait­ed until they saw Hor­sham approach with the baby in her arms. Regi­na Brown was with her. Hor­sham tried to run, but she was forced into Brown’s car, along with Brown and the baby. They were dri­ven to a dead-end street, with Glaze fol­low­ing in the car behind. Both wom­en were shot five or six times at point-blank range and left for dead. T.C. is pre­sumed to have wit­nessed the shoot­ings. Hor­sham died, but Brown man­aged to crawl out of the car and flag down a motorist. She recov­ered, but has nev­er agreed to tes­ti­fy.
     Some­time after mid­night, the killers called Horsham’s moth­er from a pay phone and told her to go look in her yard. T.C. had been deposit­ed there.
     Nichols claims to feel deep remorse over the mur­der. “There are cer­tain things I can sleep with. But I can nev­er sleep with what hap­pened to Mye­sha. Even though she was in the game, there was no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for what I do. No mat­ter what. It haunts me, and haunts me, and haunts me.”
     It appears that Nichols can sleep, how­ev­er, with the one oth­er mur­der he’s admit­ted to. While still on the street, Nichols became involved with a wom­an named Karolyn Tyson. Unlike Hor­sham, he says, she played only a small role in the drug oper­a­tion. When Nichols dis­cov­ered that this girl­friend had a use­ful skill—”She could count”—Tyson was asked to assist in the trea­sury depart­ment. And that set the stage for the mur­der of Isaac Bold­en.
     Bold­en belonged to a Mus­lim sect and went by his “right­eous” name, Just Me. “I grew up with him,” Nichols says. “He was the only per­son I ever went back to jail to visit—that’s how good a friend he was.” When Bold­en got out of pris­on, Nichols gave him mon­ey and got him a job with Impe­ri­al Homes, the con­struc­tion com­pa­ny. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Nichols says, Bold­en was a drug abuser, and he fell in with a Bronx thug named Hen­ry Bold­en (no rela­tion). In 1985, Hen­ry Bold­en, Isaac Bold­en, and sev­er­al accom­plices sur­prised Karolyn Tyson at home, pistol-whipped her, and robbed her of mon­ey and jew­el­ry. It did not take long for Nichols to learn that Isaac Bold­en had been involved. “I said, Just, what hap­pened? Why did you do this to me? You loved me like a broth­er. When you came to me at Sing Sing and told me you had no mon­ey, I gave you $20,000 and didn’t ask for noth­ing. He said he was sor­ry, his head was messed up. I said, Tell me who else was involved. They got to pay because they bust­ed my girl’s head.” Bold­en gave up the names, and Nichols told him to go back to Alaba­ma. Nichols sent some would-be assas­sins after Hen­ry Bold­en, and there was a shoot-out, but he escaped. Then Fat Cat found out that Just Me had not gone down South and, more­over, had told Hen­ry Bold­en that Nichols would be com­ing after him. On Novem­ber 11, 1986, Isaac Bold­en was shot dead on the street.
     “I loved Just,” Nichols says, “but he gave me no choice. Here I gave him a free pass, and he put my family’s life on the line. Hen­ry Bold­en was noth­ing to play with. I knew what type of work he’d do. He was the type that would do you and your wife and kids. Do I regret what hap­pened to Just? Yes. I even feel sor­ry for him. But it wasn’t like I could go to the police. It was the law of the jun­gle.”

 

Nichols had good rea­son to wor­ry about pro­tect­ing his rep­u­ta­tion. Around the time he was sent to pris­on, a new pro­duct hit the streets. Crack was dra­mat­i­cal­ly chang­ing the game of drug deal­ing. With a lit­tle start-up cap­i­tal, any­one could get into the busi­ness. All you need­ed was a bag of cocaine, some plas­tic vials, a fry­ing pan, and bicar­bon­ate of soda. Crack was more addic­tive than coke, much cheap­er, and could be smoked with­out the inher­ent dan­ger of freebasing—namely, set­ting your­self on fire. Pap­py Mason, for one, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly moved his Bebos into the new trade. Crack was far less appeal­ing to Fat Cat—it was, after all, a retail busi­ness, which he had deter­mined to avoid—but he knew he had to suc­cumb to the will of the mar­ket­place.
     There were oth­er signs that Nichols’s hold over the Block was slip­ping. For all his bru­tal­i­ty, he sim­ply could not avoid appear­ing vul­ner­a­ble from behind bars. It is hard to imag­ine, for exam­ple, that any­one would have attempt­ed to kid­nap Nichols’s wife when he was a free man. But that is what hap­pened on May 22, 1987, the Fri­day before Memo­ri­al Day week­end. Joan­ne Nichols was dri­ving her black Mer­cedes to the super­mar­ket, near her home in Elmont. Some men in an unmarked car forced her to pull over, flashed police badges, and told her she was want­ed for ques­tion­ing in the mur­der of her husband’s parole offi­cer. She was hand­cuffed and tak­en away in the abduc­tors’ car. Then the men cov­ered her eyes with sur­gi­cal cot­ton and gauze, trans­ferred her to a van, and revealed that they were kid­nap­pers. “I freaked out,” she says. “I remem­ber throw­ing up.” For the next two days, Joan­ne remained blind­fold­ed and shack­led in an apart­ment some­where in Brook­lyn. She would lat­er tes­ti­fy that the kid­nap­pers threat­ened to unleash pit bulls that would “bite my breasts off.” They demand­ed a ran­som of ten kilos of cocaine, per­haps think­ing that a pay­ment in drugs would make it impos­si­ble for Fat Cat to noti­fy the police. Iron­i­cal­ly, he sur­mised that the abduc­tors were police, and that the kid­nap­ping was a sting oper­a­tion. When the cap­tors real­ized they were not going to get the drugs, they released Joan­ne for $77,000 in cash, dropped off at a White Castle in East New York. Joanne’s fam­i­ly had called the police, who were on hand to take down the kid­nap­pers’ license-plate num­ber. Four sus­pects were prompt­ly round­ed up, and three of them were even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed.
     Fur­ther vio­lence struck Nichols’s fam­i­ly almost exact­ly a year after the kid­nap­ping. In the early-morning hours of May 20, 1988, a gun­man crouched behind a car parked across the street from the tan South Jamaica house where Loren­zo Nichols had grown up, and where his moth­er, step­fa­ther, and sis­ter Mary still lived. He fired at least four­teen rounds into cars belong­ing to the Cole­mans before toss­ing a fire­bomb through the living-room win­dow. Louise Cole­man lat­er said she’d been watch­ing tele­vi­sion when she saw the front door and cur­tains burst into flame. She escaped with her hus­band and three grand­chil­dren after futile attempts to push Mary, a 250-pound invalid in a wheel­chair, out the win­dow. Mary died in the blaze.
     For once, Fat Cat refrained from tak­ing revenge, even though, he says, Glaze came to him with one of his dia­bol­i­cal schemes. “Glaze said, ‘I know where the moth­er [of the man respon­si­ble for the fire­bomb­ing] lives. When she open the door, let me kill his moth­er,’” Nichols relates. “I said no. Even though my sis­ter was lay­ing in the funer­al home, I couldn’t see that.” Fat Cat did not hold back out of com­pas­sion, how­ev­er. “I’m super­sti­tious,” he says. “I believed it would bring me bad luck.”

 

More bad luck was brew­ing all the same. In Feb­ru­ary 1988, Pap­py Mason, still await­ing a retri­al for Rooney’s mur­der, was set free by a judge impa­tient with the long delay. One night that mon­th, he stood on a South Jamaica street cor­ner with some of his gang mem­bers, drink­ing beer from a can. A Queens police­man named Robert Kissh ordered Mason to put his beer away. When Mason refused, Kissh grabbed him by the hair, forc­ing him to throw the beer can to the ground. Pap­py was enraged. The police­man had “dis’d” him in front of his crew. Great­ly com­pound­ing the insult, Mason was con­vict­ed a few days lat­er on the charge of car­ry­ing the Der­ringer that had been found in his boot. He was tossed back into pris­on. From his cell at the Brook­lyn House of Deten­tion, Mason alleged­ly got the word out to his crew­men: a cop had to die to avenge his mis­treat­ment.
     The Feb­ru­ary 26, 1988, mur­der of Eddie Byrne by four young men—David McClary, Todd Scott, Philip Copeland, and Scott Cobb—swiftly became nation­al news. Byrne had been sit­ting alone in a patrol car guard­ing the home of a Guyanese-born police infor­mant. Robert Kissh had pre­vi­ous­ly been assigned to the Inwood Street post and may have been the intend­ed tar­get. At approx­i­mate­ly 3:30 A.M., a .38-caliber bul­let from a nickel-plated gun blew apart the car win­dow and tore through the left side of Byrne’s face. He took four more rounds in the head and neck, and died instant­ly.
     Now it was the turn of the jus­tice sys­tem to take revenge. The Queens D.A.’s office went after the four assas­sins, and ulti­mate­ly con­vict­ed them all. But juris­dic­tion over Pap­py Mason was given to fed­er­al author­i­ties, and for good rea­son. It is far eas­ier for a U.S. attor­ney to get a court-approved wire­tap, and less strin­gent rules of evi­dence give the Feds an advan­tage in homi­cide cas­es. Less than a mon­th after Byrne was shot, the F.B.I. placed a wire­tap on Vio­la Nichols’s phone and began to lis­ten in, hop­ing to learn details of the mur­der.
     The Feds got far more than they had bar­gained for. Vio­la was not mere­ly a junkie but a phone addict, capa­ble of han­dling a hun­dred calls in a sin­gle day. By the time the tap was dis­con­tin­ued, in August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brook­lyn had enough evi­dence to charge thirty-seven mem­bers of the Bebos and the Nichols gang.
     On August 11, 1988, the fed­er­al com­plaint was unsealed, and “Oper­a­tion Horse Col­lar” was set in motion. More than four hun­dred fed­er­al agents and police­men descend­ed on the Block and var­i­ous oth­er places to arrest as many of the sus­pects as pos­si­ble. Among those who were named in the com­plaint: Clau­dia Mason, Bri­an “Glaze” Gibbs, Joseph “Mike Bones” Rogers, Joan­ne Nichols, Karolyn Tyson, and three of Fat Cat’s nieces. Louise and Amos Cole­man, who had returned to Besse­mer, Alaba­ma, after the fire­bomb­ing, were arraigned as well. “We was in the bed, sleep­ing,” Louise recalls. “They were all around the house yelling, ‘F.B.I.! Open the door!’ I let ’em in, and they put shack­les on my feet.”
     Vio­la Nichols was also led away by the police, kick­ing and scream­ing, and man­aged in the process to spit at a tele­vi­sion reporter hold­ing out a micro­phone. No soon­er was she in cus­tody, how­ev­er, than Vio­la became a gov­ern­ment infor­mant. She went on to tes­ti­fy again­st Pap­py Mason at his Decem­ber 1989 tri­al for the mur­der of Eddie Byrne. She also proved use­ful as a court­room trans­la­tor. Many of the bugged con­ver­sa­tions were in a sort of pig Lat­in: “street” came out as “stri-di-deet”; “cash” was “kuh-zash.” Pap­py was par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of talk­ing this way. “Sti-di-zay stri-di-dong [Stay strong], ‘cause everything’s gonna be alri-di-di-dight,” he told Vio­la in one phone call. Vio­la was so help­ful, in fact, that she was paroled and placed in the Fed­er­al Wit­ness Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram.
     Fat Cat has not for­given his sis­ter for rat­ting out mem­bers of her own fam­i­ly. “We don’t speak,” he says. “I don’t side with try­ing to jam your moth­er, the per­son who gave you birth into this world.” Nichols was obvi­ous­ly dis­traught over his mother’s arrest. In a bugged pris­on phone call to Vio­la on Christ­mas Day, 1988—Nichols’s thir­ti­eth birthday—one could hear the mak­ings of his plea agree­ment. “I’d cop out if it’s to save my mama,” he said. He also fret­ted over his wife, his step­fa­ther, and his girl­friend Karolyn Tyson. Joan­ne Nichols plead­ed guilty to her role in the oper­a­tion before Nichols did, and was given pro­ba­tion and a fine. The charges again­st Amos Cole­man were dropped. After Nichols signed his agree­ment, the gov­ern­ment allowed Louise Cole­man and Karolyn Tyson to plead to lesser charges. Fat Cat’s mama got pro­ba­tion and a $10,000 fine, and Tyson did three months as a tax scofflaw. (Her returns list­ed her occu­pa­tion as a minimum-wage clerk at Filene’s Base­ment, yet she owned sev­er­al homes, a Mer­cedes, and a BMW.)
     Clau­dia Mason, Pappy’s moth­er, was not near­ly as for­tu­nate. Her son was unco­op­er­a­tive in the extreme—he even refused to attend most of his own mur­der tri­al, prompt­ing U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Edward Kor­man to have a closed-circuit TV installed in the hold­ing cell—and there was no basis for a deal. Clau­dia Mason was con­vict­ed of drug pos­ses­sion and con­spir­a­cy. At her sen­tenc­ing, Judge Kor­man not­ed that she was suf­fer­ing from dia­betes, but still gave her ten years—the min­i­mum term for her crime under fed­er­al guide­li­nes. “I’m gonna die in jail,” she pre­dict­ed.

 

Iron­i­cal­ly, Pap­py Mason may nev­er be sen­tenced for the mur­der of offi­cer Edward Byrne. He was found men­tal­ly com­pe­tent to stand tri­al, but now the valid­i­ty of that deci­sion has been called into ques­tion. Last Novem­ber, Mason was led into court for a hear­ing on his san­i­ty. He was brought before Judge Kor­man and had his man­a­cles removed. It was imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent that this would be no ordi­nary pro­ceed­ing.
     “FUCK YOU, CRACKER!”
     With that intro­duc­tion, Mason launched into one of the most bizarre solil­o­quies ever heard in a court of law. He stood eeri­ly motion­less, his jaw trem­bling with rage.
     “My granddaddy’s name is John Smith and I don’t give a fuck about you.… If I die, your whole TRIBE will die! They eat DOUGHNUTS!… You put my broth­er in the nut­house. I was going to kill all you moth­er­fuck­ers a long time ago—DON’T PLAY WITH ME!… I sup­pose to be here for a writ and I want every dime of my mon­ey.… What do I look like—Fat Cat? One of those nig­gers you beat up? All my life I’m fight­ing a ghet­to and you’re going to put me in HERE? I’m a BOSS, just like you.… I went to jail; YOU sup­posed to be in jail. I got nig­gers that love me.… They put dicks in your mouth. They praise me like Mal­colm.” He fixed his gaze on fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tor Leslie Cald­well. “That bitch, I’m going to mark that ho. This is Amer­i­ca. She’s wrong, she’s going to jail. I mark her, I mark her.… I’ll kill every moth­er­fuck­ing white in Amer­i­ca. I am the moth­er­fuck­ing may­or of moth­er­fuck­ing Brook­lyn. I’m going to be that or peo­ple going to DIE—”
     “Can I talk to your lawyers?” Judge Kor­man cut in, refer­ring to the two court-appointed attor­neys han­dling the case, Har­ry Batchelder and Ivan Fish­er.
     “My lawyer is Ver­non Mason,” Pap­py answered, appar­ent­ly unaware that Ver­non Mason no longer rep­re­sent­ed him. “Pay him $25,000! I ain’t dis­re­spect­ing. Moth­er­fuck­ers don’t respect me, I keep them in the base­ment.”
     “Mr. Mason, if Ver­non Mason comes to rep­re­sent you—”
     “If he talks like the Klans­man, he can go where you go.… I respect­ed you and you dis­re­spect­ed me and you keep shit­ting on me like I’m a nig­ger.”
     After that, Mason was silent. In Feb­ru­ary Dr. Abra­ham Halpern, a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist hired by Fish­er, con­clud­ed that Mason has been men­tal­ly incom­pe­tent since before the mur­der tri­al. Judge Kor­man has yet to rule on the mat­ter.

 

A foot­note: One week before Pap­py Mason’s explo­sive court­room appear­ance, the New York Post ran an item con­cern­ing his ex-boss. An Eng­lish teacher at a pub­lic school in Queens had noti­fied her class of seniors that they would be assigned research papers on notable blacks. She asked for sug­ges­tions. After a few obvi­ous candidates—Joe Louis and Thur­good Marshall—someone called out, “Loren­zo Nichols.” Oth­er stu­dents chimed in their assent, accord­ing to the Post. One stu­dent report­ed­ly explained that Nichols was wor­thy of admi­ra­tion because “he is a famous black man and he made it.”
     Nichols says he has heard about the Post arti­cle. At first it seems to amuse him, but then he adopts a tone of con­tri­tion, as if remem­ber­ing that he is still to be sen­tenced. “I’m nobody to be idol­ized,” he says qui­et­ly, in per­haps the truest state­ment of his life.♦