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.♦