When Tommy Edelin and his father weren’t preaching to their Southeast neighbors against drugs and violence, prosecutors say, they were preying on them.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
The playground of Turner Elementary School couldn’t have been more full if it had been the first day of spring. So many people filled the fence-enclosed grassless yard off of Alabama Avenue SE that it was hard to move. Around tables at the back of the playground, kids scarfed down chips, elderly ladies sipped punch, and men sank their teeth into hamburgers and ribs. By a stage next to the food, anyone who felt the urge could move to the live music of go-go bands Pure Elegance, Junk Yard Band, and Ultimate Groove.
It was May 11, 1997Mother’s Day. But showing their moms gratitude wasn’t what had brought more than 2,000 people out in the drizzle. The crowd was there for “Tommy E’s Annual Celebration.” Tommy E was Tommy Edelin, an aspiring rapper. He and his father, Earl “Tony” Edelin, had organized the neighborhood celebration every year for the past three years. And this year’s event was more exciting than usual because nearby, along Stanton Terrace SE, Tommy Edelin was filming scenes for his new music video, “Growing Up in the ‘Hood.”
The setting was a natural choice. Tommy Edelin had grown up on Stanton Terrace, on the edge of the Frederick Douglass Dwellings housing project. In fact, the house he lived in sits next to the playground of Turner Elementary, where he and his sisters went to school. Teachers, neighbors, and friends still remember how the children lived with their mother’s drug addiction, how they virtually raised themselves, how they grew up fighting other kids, who teased them relentlessly about their mother. Edelin says he never used drugs himself, although he has admitted that he once took up dealing to survive. But by the time he filmed his music video, he says, hustling was nothing more than a memory, an inspiration for the anti-drug lyrics to his rap songs.
The Tommy Edelin neighbors saw that day on the playground was always looking for ways to help his community. He donated recording time in his studio in Clinton, Md., to children working on a school play about the dangers of guns and drugs. One night in the dead of winter, he recruited his family to help him hand out food and blankets to the homeless.
In his move away from a life on the streets, Tommy Edelin, then 29, seemed to be following in the footsteps of his father. The elder Edelin, then 46, had served time in prison for armed robbery before becoming the director of Project Reachout, a drug-prevention program on 15th Place SE, in the Stanton Dwellings housing project. Many residents of the Stanton and Douglass Dwellings community regarded Earl Edelin as a neighborhood savior. Whenever a fight was about to break out, local school principals knew they could call on Earl Edelin to help defuse the situation. If a family didn’t have enough cash to pay a bill, Earl Edelin would take care of it for them. “He was a father figure,” says Stanton Dwellings Resident Council President Elaine Carter.
All the neighbors knew the Edelins. Or at least they thought they did.
Today, Tommy Edelin sits in a 7-by-10-foot cell inside the D.C. Jail facing the possibility of death by lethal injection. Federal prosecutors accuse him of leading one of the city’s most violent drug gangs: the 1-5 Mob. According to a 103-count indictment, the
1-5 Mob is allegedly responsible for seven murders, 13 assaults, and 20 shootings. The roster of its alleged victims includes rival members of the Stanton Terrace and Congress Park Crews, police officers, and innocent bystanders.
U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis and Attorney General Janet Reno believe that Tommy Edelin should be sent to the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., for ordering or encouraging others to commit three particular murders: the November 1993 slaying of drug rival Maurice Doleman and the December 1993 killing of Rodney and Volante Smith, who were allegedly shot by mistake. Yet in pushing a capital case against Edelin, Lewis and Reno are flouting the popular will expressed by a majority of District of Columbia residents, who rejected the death penalty in a 1992 referendum and continue to elect local officials who oppose capital punishment. Edelin, who denies involvement in any of the killings, insists that he will not take a plea before his trial, expected to begin early next year. That will make him the District’s first capital defendant in more than 30 years.
Earl Edelin also sits in the D.C. Jail, as his son’s co-defendant, facing the possibility of life without parole. In the same indictment, prosecutors allege that he advised his son and other members of the 1-5 Mob on their criminal activities. They also charge that Earl Edelin, along with other gang members, stashed crack, guns, and drug money inside the offices of Project Reachout.
The long indictment against father and son even contains one melodramatic twist: After Tommy Edelin was arrested, in July 1998, prosecutors allege, he asked a friend to kill Earl Edelin, because he believed his father was cooperating with police.
In Southeast D.C., those who trusted Tommy and Earl Edelin have been trying to reconcile the uplifting image they have of the two men with the darker one prosecutors have presented.
“[Earl Edelin] brought a lot of joy in the community,” says Carter, whose grandson Marvin Drummond worked briefly for Earl Edelin at Project Reachout. “He gave kids toys and clothes. He gave their parents food baskets. Whatever else he did, I don’t know. The bad, I couldn’t see that.
“I saw a child who was not hungry at Thanksgiving. I saw a child who got clothes at Christmas. That’s the vision I have of Mr. Edelin.”
“It’s almost the height of duplicity. But [Tommy Edelin] did a lot of things for the community,” says Warren Davis, principal of the Village Learning Center Public Charter School, whose students used Edelin’s recording studio several years ago. “He always contributed, either his skill or his talent, particularly when children were involved. That’s the only side I knew. Then you start hearing things. It’s paradoxical. It doesn’t seem to add up.”
The interview room at the D.C. Jail is small and stuffy. Fluorescent light bounces off the dingy white walls. The only features that keep the place from being completely claustrophobic are two large windows. Behind one is the darkened control booth, where a large female guard sits surveying the scene suspiciously. Behind the other is the waiting room, where women and children sit in plastic chairs staring into space.
Crammed behind a square brown table is Tommy Edelin. He sits with his hands folded in his lap like a schoolboy minding his manners. Actually, he doesn’t have much choice, because his wrists are shackled. So are his ankles. But he betrays no hint of discomfort. He is soft-spoken and polite. The rare curse word that escapes his lips is followed by “If you’ll excuse my expression.”
Edelin is soft-spoken for good reason. His lawyers, James Rudasill Jr. and Pleasant Brodnax, are here to make sure their client doesn’t say anything that might damage his case. Because the indictment stretches back to 1985, Rudasill explains, Edelin can’t discuss much about his life after age 13. He can talk about his rap career, but he can’t offer specifics about where he lived in recent years. And even though Edelin has already publicly acknowledged, in a TV news interview, that he once hustled drugs, he can’t say even that much because his attorneys don’t want to give his would-be executioners any further ammunition. “I wish I could say more,” Edelin says, clearly frustrated. But he follows his lawyers’ advice and sticks to the distant past, or the present.
Just as he did in his old neighborhood, Edelin says, he has tried to help others while confined to jail. He began studying law so that he could aid in his own defense. But soon other inmates started seeking him out for advice. “I’ve seen a lot of brothers getting railroaded, forced to plead guilty because they can’t read,” he says. Edelin himself dropped out of the eighth grade. But he says he has made up for his lack of formal education through self-study. Family members say he often used to read the dictionary to learn new words. He impressed one jail counselor enough to be appointed as a representative on the prisoners’ grievance committee. “A lot of inmates look up to [Edelin] as an advocate,” notes Ernest Williams, a public health educator who works at the jail.
But Edelin no longer has much of a flock to minister to. In February, after prosecutors unsealed the charges against Edelin that carry the death penalty, Warden Patricia Britton moved him to an isolated cell in the Special Management Unitknown as “the Hole” among inmates. Special Management is reserved for inmates in high-profile cases, says D.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl J. Madden. Besides Edelin, Antoine Jones was in Special Management before he pleaded guilty last week to shooting into a crowd at the National Zoo last spring. Carl Cooper was also in Special Management, before he pleaded guilty in May to the July 1997 murder of three Starbucks employees in Georgetown. “When you walk down there, it’s like a walk of fame,” Madden notes wryly.
Edelin believes the warden has put him in isolation to punish him for his advocacy of prisoners’ issues. In the Hole, he no longer has access to the law library. He cannot go anywhere without an escort or the warden’s approval. Whenever he leaves or returns to his cell, he is cavity-searched. He estimates that for every 168 hours in a week, he spends 165-and-a-half hours in his cell. There, he says, he spends most of his time reading.
When Edelin wants a glimpse of what the future may hold, all he has to do is look outside his window. He has a perfect view of the Correctional Treatment Facility and the Congressional Cemetery. Inside the Correctional Treatment Facility are former friends, now government witnesses, who are expected to stand up in court next year and accuse him of being a cold-blooded killer. As for the cemetery, well, if prosecutors get their way, he will be in one soon enough.
So when Edelin looks outside, he tries not to stare at anything but the sky.
Tommy Edelin recalls that he was 9 years old the first time he found his mother, Cecelia McEachin, passed out in the bathroom with a needle sticking out of her arm. She had overdosed from heroin. He became hysterical, but having seen other dope fiends revived before, he says he knew what he had to do. He got ice, and lots of it. He put the ice under his mother’s arms and on her genitals. Covering her up in a robe, he hoisted her up and walked her around, hoping she would regain consciousness. He says when his mother finally came to, she promptly started cursing at him.
By the time McEachin gave birth to her only son, when she was 19, she says she was already using drugs. For years, she says, she thought another man was Tommy’s father. She and Earl Edelin, she says, had had nothing more than a one-night stand. And Earl Edelin had never bothered to find out whether McEachin’s son was his. So McEachin raised Tommy Edelin, then known as Tommy McEachin, and his two sisters by herself. When Tommy was about 6, the family settled into a small two-bedroom town house at 1744 Stanton Terrace SE.
As soon as the family moved in, a group of about 10 neighborhood boys jumped young Tommy. “They had to initiate him,” says his younger sister Tomeaka McEachin. “He had to prove he wasn’t no sucker. After that, he was cool with them.”
Over the years, Tommy’s friends would come to look up to him. He seemed a little more grown up than the restwhich was not surprising, given that he spent most of his childhood acting in the role of a father to his younger sisters. Potential father figures passed in and out of the children’s lives, but few lasted very long.
Sister Teisha Hines’ dad died of an overdose when his daughter was 8. Then there was “Pappa George,” a homeless white man whom Tommy’s mother and an uncle brought home one day. (“When he wasn’t drunk, he was like a grandfather,” Edelin says.) Pappa George lived with the family for nine years until he grew demented and started defecating all over the apartment. The family sent him to D.C. General Hospital and never heard from him again.
When Tommy was 12, Cecelia McEachin started dating Albert Ford. At 18, Ford was not much older than Tommy, so he didn’t try too hard to act as a father. Ford admits that at the time he sold drugs. On one cold winter’s day, he recalls, he was afraid cops would pick him up for having a gun, so he sent a petrified Tommy home with his .38 semiautomatic. A few months later, police arrested Ford on a murder charge, and he went to prison for 15 years.
After Ford came James Parks, a boxer. Parks says he met Cecelia McEachin while he was helping the teenage Tommy train to become an amateur fighter. He apparently taught the boy well: After one of Parks’ beatings sent McEachin to the hospital, family members say, Tommy and his friends jumped him. Parks is now in prison for life, convicted of killing another girlfriend’s mother.
“We weren’t what you call good role models,” Parks says of himself and McEachin’s other boyfriends, during a prison interview.
The conditions at home meant that Tommy often had to scrounge for ways for his family to eat. He would skip school to carry grocery bags for nickels at the Safeway, a 20-minute walk up Alabama Avenue, so that he and his sisters could buy food for a couple of days. Tomeaka McEachin tried to help her brother carry grocery bags once. “It was so cold, but Tommy was determined not to leave. He kept counting his change every five minutes,” she recalls. “My feet hurt. I cried. He told me, ‘Why don’t you stay home and be a girl and play with your doll babies?’” Once he had enough change, he bought a can of pork and beans and a pack of hot dogs.
“If I didn’t get food, who would get it for us?” says Edelin. “Nobody was taking care of us. We were looking out for ourselves.”
If Tommy and his sisters felt neglected while their mother was home, they were truly left on their own in 1984, when Cecelia McEachin went to prison for two-and-a-half years in 1984, on a robbery charge. After McEachin was sentenced, the judge allowed her to go home briefly to collect her things. Four U.S. marshals in trench coats then came to take McEachin to a federal women’s prison in West Virginia while her children looked on and cried.
While McEachin was gone, her sister, Frances McEachin, who lived across the street, was supposed to look after Tommy and his sisters. But Frances McEachin had her own kidsand her own substance-abuse problems, family members say. Edelin says that by this time, he had already stopped going to school and had begun stealing. He started by shoplifting perfume from the drugstore. He and his friends would then sell the bottles to their neighbors for half price. Soon, he was breaking into arcade games to steal the change inside.
When Cecelia McEachin came home, in 1987, drug-free and eager to be back with her kids, she found her home a shambles and Earl Edelin claiming to be Tommy’s father. McEachin, who says she never trusted Earl Edelin, was leery of his sudden interest in her son: “I didn’t see no good coming of that. Earl was too fast for Tommy. Tommy was just trying to grow up.”
“They called me ‘Baba Earl,’” Earl Edelin recalls fondly during a phone interview from jail. Students at the Roots Activity Learning Center, the private school on North Capitol Street NW where Edelin used to work, call all their male teachers “baba,” Swahili for father. But Edelin recites the designation with pride, as though it referred only to him.
Cecelia McEachin had reason to be suspicious of Earl Edelin. He had served six-and-a-half years in prison for armed robbery in the ’70s. Then, according to court records, in 1984the year he began to get to know Tommy McEachinhe was arrested on several minor charges, starting in March, when police picked him up for violating the city’s Bail Act. Earl Edelin received a suspended seven-month sentence and two years of probation. In October 1984, police arrested him again, for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He served a couple of months in jail but was allowed out on work release. In April 1985, cops caught him with a gun. He was charged but not prosecuted.
Despite his repeated run-ins with the law, by the time he walked into Tommy McEachin’s life, Earl Edelin was on his way to transforming himself into an educator. While he was incarcerated in the ’70s, he began studying early-childhood education. His teacher was Bernida Thompson, who had founded Roots, a respected Afrocentric private school. Earl Edelin’s wife, Henrietta Edelin, had been teaching at Roots since it opened. After his release, Earl Edelin started volunteering at the school, then became a teacher and later an administrator. Working with Thompson “gave me a sense of purpose,” he says. “I’ve been on a mission ever since.”
“He was an excellent teacher and administrator,” Thompson says. “He was committed to children, to families in our community. He is sincere, loyal, dedicated, and forthright….There is no way that Roots or any of the Roots families that know him would ever believe the allegations.” Thompson says Earl Edelin left Roots in the mid-’80s because of personal as well as legal problems.
In 1990, Earl Edelin applied for and got a job with the District’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA), which is part of the D.C. Department of Health. APRA officials will not confirm whether they knew of Edelin’s criminal record when they hired him as the director of Project Reachout, a drug-prevention program that targeted at-risk youth. M. Patricia Jones, the chief of APRA’s Office of Prevention and Youth Services, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, citing a department policy “not to permit employees to express their personal views and feelings to the media about personnel matters.”
Earl Edelin would have had to indicate on his application whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, according to Charles Meng, associate director of the D.C. Office of Personnel. But APRA officials say that such information is exempt from disclosure and did not release his application to the Washington City Paper in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. And if Edelin neglected to mention his past convictions, APRA officials were not required to dig further. Criminal background checks are not mandatory for APRA job applicants, according to Vera Jackson, director of communications and community relations for the Department of Health.
APRA officials also declined to release Earl Edelin’s salary, but the salary of a District employee in a comparable position is about $25,000 to $32,000, according to Meng.
“My mission was to prevent the use of drugs and their distribution,” says Earl Edelin. But he insists that he did much more: “I got more than 100 people jobs while I was over there. I fed 500 families every year.” During the summer, he specialized in organizing outings for kids. In a June 17, 1998, memo to Patricia Jones, Edelin laid out what by then had become a typical schedule of Project Reachout activities for the season. There were three trips to Adventure World, a basketball tournament, a picnic on the Mall, two trips to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, a trip to Cameron Water Park in Alexandria, and a retreat in Myrtle Beach.
The kickoff for this flurry of activity was the annual “Violence & Drug-Free Festival,” better known as “Tommy E’s Annual Celebration.” Tommy Edelin says he had been organizing the celebrations on his own. “Once my father got into play, we started doing it together,” Tommy Edelin explains. “He was helping me to offset my costs. He put together a contract and made his organization pay for it. Whatever Project Reachout couldn’t pay, I would pay. He provided the stage; I provided the entertainment.” In his memo to Jones, Earl Edelin estimated APRA’s costs for the 1997 festival at $4,520.72. The total the tab for the entire summer’s activities came to $20,000.
“I became a father to everyone,” says Earl Edelin, summing up his experience at Project Reachout. “My nickname was ‘Hood Daddy.”
One look was all it took. When Tommy McEachin was 16, Earl Edelin says he first laid eyes on the boy and realized he was looking at a familiar face. “He looked so much like my oldest son, Gerald [Edelin],” he recalls. After this realization, Earl Edelin says he decided to claim Tommy as his son, despite the cool reception his decision received at home. “My family was so shocked about that boy,” he says. Earl Edelin never took a paternity test, but over the years, no one has disputed the resemblance, which is there for all to see, from the shape of the face down to the trademark arrow-shaped nose.
Others might have been skeptical of a father who suddenly appears when his child is practically grown, but Tommy Edelin says he wasn’t at all suspicious of Earl Edelin. “I fell in love with him, I guess,” he says. “I wanted us to have a father-son relationship.”
Describing that relationship, Tommy Edelin says, “We’re more buddies than anything else. He is very supportive of me and my family. If it had not been for my father, I would not have gotten started in music. He taught me the importance of doing positive things.”
The two bonded quickly after the younger man was shot in a gang-related incident. At 17, Tommy Edelin got into an argument with a man in a hooded jacket as they were coming out of a go-go concert at the Panorama Room on Morris Road SE. Tommy Edelin now says he threw the first punch. His opponent drew a gun and shot him twice in the stomach. Edelin recalls that as he lay bleeding, the gunman started shooting into the crowd. Then he stood over his victim and tried to finish him off with a shot to the head. The assailant might have succeeded if someone hadn’t knocked him down.
At the hospital, he underwent four surgeries. The shot to his head hadn’t punctured his skull, but the bullet had left bone fragments on his brain. “I was lying in bed, bandaged. I couldn’t talk,” Edelin recalls. “There were rumors that I was brain-dead. My eyes were open, but people didn’t know if I was conscious.” He recalls seeing his father at his bedside, crying. “It was the closest I had ever felt to him,” Edelin says.
Edelin later found out the name of the man who had shot him. But he never told police, and he says he never retaliated. Friends point to his lack of retaliation as a sign of his nonviolent tendencies. The shooter ended up in Lorton Reformatory anyway, on another charge, Edelin says.
After he was shot, Tommy Edelin says, his father urged him to get out of Anacostia. He took his advice and, with his father’s help, he moved into his own place in the Maryland suburbs. The exact date, Edelin’s lawyers won’t let him say. All that he can say suggests that he spent the last decade in search of a career. He tried running a hair salon (it didn’t work out), boxing (he didn’t stick with it), and playing semipro football (he quit after two years). At 23, he says, he decided that what he really wanted to do was rap.
Not long after this epiphany, the son asked his father for a favor. On June 30, 1992, Earl Edelin signed on the dotted line below the words “I, Earl D. Edelin say upon oath that I am the Petitioner hereinabove, and the natural father of Tommy D. McEachin.” His affidavit was part of his son’s petition to amend his birth certificate and legally change his name. On that day, Tommy McEachin officially became Tommy Edelin.
Tommy Edelin’s face fills the television screen. He looks a little heavier than he is now, his cheeks a little fuller. Wearing headphones, he raps into a microphone. He’s in his recording studio in Clinton. The clip is from a warm-and-fuzzy holiday segment that WUSA TV Channel 9 aired in December 1995. As it opens, a reporter describes in a voice-over how Edelin grew up surrounded by drugs as Edelin is seen walking down a street. The camera cuts to a closeup of Edelin’s face. “Fortunately, I didn’t use drugs, but I was forced to sell them or do whatever I had to do…as a means of survival,” Edelin tells an off-air interviewer. But after he was shot, he says, he pledged, “I would do whatever it takes to make sure I never get shot or shot at again.” The reporter’s voice-over picks up again, describing Edelin’s efforts to recycle a bad childhood into a positive message through his music. “My responsibility is to help the community,” Edelin says. “I try to reach out to anybody who needs help.”
Yet it may have been Edelin’s foray into rap that led the law to him. Rudasill believes that the TV interview helped spark the investigation that put his client behind bars. Court documents indicate that shortly after it aired, federal and local investigators with the Safe Streets Task Force launched an investigation of drug activity in Southeast Washington called “Operation Clean Sweep.” According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Kyle Fulmer, informants tipped off government investigators that Tommy Edelin was allegedly the principal supplier to dealers around Stanton Dwellings and the nearby Congress Park apartment complex. In the eyes of law enforcement, Tommy Edelin wasn’t trying to launch a rap careerhe was trying to launder his drug profits.
According to the indictment, Tommy Edelin allegedly began acquiring large quantities of cocaine in the mid-’80s, just as crack was making its impact in D.C. He then allegedly enlisted his best friend, Thaddeus Foster; his father; and others to help him distribute it. As prosecutors tell it, Tommy Edelin “was the leader of the organization,” the 1-5 Mob, which grew to the point where he no longer had to work the streets. Members of his organization allegedly sold crack along 15th Place, Stanton Road, Alabama Avenue, Bruce Place, Congress Place, Robinson Street, Savannah Street, and Smith Place.
Sometime in 1992 or 1993, prosecutors say, Edelin allegedly used money he’d made off drug sales to open his recording studio, which was also the home of his record label, Drama City Records. The studio occupied the second floor of a small office building on Old Alexandria Ferry Road in Clinton, across from a lonely stretch of auto body shops and storage units.
As Edelin crafted rap lyrics about the perils of growing up among hustlers and dope fiends, he and the 1-5 Mob were allegedly at war with a rival gang, the Congress Park Crew. Prosecutors allege that on Nov. 21, 1993, a hit man, whom Edelin allegedly paid with cash and crack, killed drug rival Maurice “Reesy” Doleman. Then, on Dec. 13, 1993, prosecutors say, Edelin allegedly waited in a car while an associate, Bryan Bostick, allegedly got out and shot Rodney and Volante Smith, a 20-year-old and his 14-year-old sister, while they were sitting in their car on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Bostick allegedly mistook the Smiths’ car for one that belonged to drug rivals.
The bloodiest year for the 1-5 Mob, prosecutors say, turned out to be 1996. That year, they claim, members of the 1-5 Mob were responsible for four murders and several assaults, including a daytime drive-by shooting at a crowded picnic. Earl and Tommy Edelin were not present, but they allegedly encouraged the Aug. 18, 1996, killing of Damin “Day-Day” Jennifer, 24, an associate of the Stanton Terrace Crew, as Jennifer sat in his car at a stoplight.
On June 14, 1997, prosecutors allege, members of the 1-5 Mob ambushed and killed Edgar “Tweety” Watson, 19, after allegedly trying and failing twice before. At the time of the attack, Watson was coming back with his girlfriend from a prom in Greenbelt, Md. Two days later, Earl Edelin allegedly ordered a cooperating witness to murder two of Watson’s associates. By then, it appears, police had infiltrated the organization. According to the indictment, a few weeks after Watson’s death, Earl Edelin and a cooperating witness discussed the fact that someone in the organization was working with police.
A year went by. Tommy Edelin says he kept going to work every day at the studio. Ron Utley of the go-go band the Northeast Groovers, who helped produce some of Edelin’s songs, says that from all appearances, Edelin was focused on his music. He says that Edelin would pick him up at 8 in the morning and they would work on tracks until 8 at night. “He didn’t misuse women. He didn’t allow drugs or alcohol. He was a disciplined man,” says actor Tim Taylor, who hung out at the studio a few times.
But no matter how straight-laced Tommy Edelin acted around his friends, police weren’t convinced that he was making all of his income legally. And it wouldn’t be long before he gave them a reason to believe they were right.
On July 20, 1998, according to the January 2000 indictment, Edelin went over to 1660 Lanier Place NW and up to Apartment 519. Once he reached the apartment, Edelin allegedly arranged to buy 9 kilograms of cocaine and 1 kilogram of heroin. He didn’t know that police had wired the place for video and sound. When he returned on July 28, allegedly, to pick up the goods, police arrested him in the hallway.
Over on Good Hope Road SE, Cecelia McEachin was at a new home with a friend. She was having a relapse: She says she and her friend were smoking crack. She recalls they had just gotten done when police busted down her door. “They was asking me, Where was the guns and drugs? They tore up the house and handcuffed us. For four hours, they went through closets, pages of books. They found some crumbs of crack that we didn’t get a chance to smoke,” she recalls. “They said, ‘We got your goddamn son. We’re going to lock him up for life.’”
The day police arrested his son was the day the noose began to tighten around Earl Edelin as well. At 3:30 p.m., FBI agents arrived at Project Reachout, pulled out their guns, and told the only employee present to lie on the floor. After the agents handcuffed the worker, they searched the center for guns and documents. By 4 p.m., they’d left with a box filled with papers. The employee called Earl Edelin. Earl Edelin, however, didn’t call his supervisor, Jones. When Jones found out, she ordered him to come to her office immediately to make a full report. He didn’t show. She reassigned him to an office job at APRA headquarters.
After the raid, APRA officials began looking more closely at Earl Edelin’s expenditures. In a Sept. 29, 1998, memo to Earl Edelin, APRA Chief Administrative Officer Linda M. Holifield told Edelin he had violated the city’s Anti-Deficiency Act when he took about 80 kids to an amusement center in Greenbelt without authorization. Holifield told him he had to pay for the trip himself and noted, “This is not the first time you have been advised of the rules regarding the purchase of goods and services.”
“I’m not a procurement expert,” Earl Edelin says, in a telephone interview he initiated against the advice of his attorneys. He contends that APRA officials mismanaged funds that he needed for his program.
At Project Reachout, Earl Edelin left problems of a different sort for his successor, Walter Pinkney. “It has been an uphill battle for me in my attempt to bring stability to this site,” Pinkney wrote in a Sept. 28, 1998, report to Jones. “I have encountered strong opposition to change from some staff members as well as the community at large….Mr. Edelin is viewed by some of the community as a savior, as well as a father figure to some of the youth. There is a sense of allegiance to Mr. Edelin and not necessarily to the program itself.” Pinkney recommended that Jones close Project Reachout and open a new site in Ward 8 with new staff, or else “as a last resort, and with much anxiety and apprehension, I recommend a reassignment of Mr. Edelin back to Project Reachout.”
In October, Earl Edelin himself pleaded with Jones to send him back to Project Reachout. In a memo dated Oct. 5, 1998, he told Jones, “It is unfair to have me languish at APRA headquarters when my skills and talents could be best used working directly in the community with ‘at-risk’ youth.”
Jones decided to keep Project Reachout open, but she refused to let Earl Edelin return to the program.
Losing his job may have been the least of Earl Edelin’s worries. Prosecutors say that in the weeks following his son’s arrest, he was in more immediate danger of losing his life. According to court documents, police recorded Tommy Edelin allegedly asking an old friend during an August 1998 jailhouse visit to kill Earl Edelin because he allegedly suspected his father of working with police. Tommy Edelin didn’t know it, but his friend was already working with government investigators.
Tommy Edelin denies that he ordered a hit on his father or that he had any reason to do his father harm. “We have a beautiful relationship,” he says. Earl Edelin and his attorneys, Chris and Mary Davis, back up Tommy Edelin’s claim in court documents: “For unexplained reasons, the government’s technical equipment failed to audibly record the encounter Tommy Edelin had with the unindicted co-conspirator,” the Davises wrote. Without the tape, they noted that “only Tommy Edelin and the cooperator can provide testimony regarding the encounter.” Because Tommy Edelin denies ordering a hit, the allegation of attempted patricide hangs on the word of the government witness, who may be receiving lenient treatment in exchange for his cooperation. In court, prosecutors have dismissed father and son’s mutual denial as “self-serving.”
In the end, no assassin ever came for Earl Edelin. But the police did. In the early hours of Jan. 14, 1999, law enforcement agents collected him at his home in Forestville, Md., and quietly escorted him to the 7th District police station.
Police saved the major production that day for Tommy Edelin. After they brought him to U.S. District Court to receive his new indictment, which included the allegations that he had ordered killings from jail, they took him to the 7th District Police Station for rebooking. There, U.S. Attorney Lewis and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey were waiting for him, along with camera crews from multiple local news outlets. The District’s two top crime fighters were there to announce the successful climax of Operation Clean Sweep with the arrests of Earl Edelin and 11 other alleged 1-5 Mob associates. “A cancer has been removed from our community,” Ramsey declared. After the news conference, while police were taking Tommy Edelin from the precinct back to court, cameras mobbed him. “I hope the public doesn’t prejudge,” he told reporters. He called the allegations against him “a fabrication.”
Before prosecutors complete their damaging profile of him, Tommy Edelin is busily creating his own, more sympathetic self-portrait from behind bars. If the government sees him as a hardened, remorseless criminal, Edelin sees himself as a victim of an elaborate injustice.
“I started to read, and everything started to unfold,” he says during a jail interview in September. “I started to see America for what it really is.” Lately, in addition to a slew of Afrocentric texts, he’s been reading Behold the Pale Horse by William Cooper. The book is a manifesto for the right-wing militia movement, reportedly a favorite of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Edelin has no trouble buying Cooper’s prophesies that a secret government is implementing a “plan” to form “One World Government” to enslave us all. Edelin believes it is the plan that has brought him to this jail cell. After all, the war on drugs is part of the plan, too.
His perp walk at the 7th District police station only fueled Edelin’s belief that government officials have singled him out. Earlier this year, he filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Lewis, Ramsey, and Reno, alleging defamation. Edelin contends that the perp walk had no legal purpose and was intended only to parade him before the press and convict him in the court of public opinion. He’s seeking $10 million in damages. The case is pending.
Edelin says his predicament has inspired him to write a book: Silenced: The Victim of a Government Conspiracy, Part I. The cover illustration, drawn by a friend, shows him shackled in his orange prison jumpsuit, looking much bigger and broader and meaner than he does in real life. Over his mouth is a muzzle, and from his left eye falls a large tear.
The only character trait the government and Edelin seem to agree on is his talent for leadership. On the streets, prosecutors allege, Tommy Edelin recruited friends and family to run his drug organization; in jail, Edelin recruited friends and family to staff a publishing company, Prisoners Writes Publishing (PWP), that he set up. PWP’s purpose, Edelin writes in a brochure, is “bridging the gap between society and those of us who have been taken away from society and to spearhead one of the strongest and most profound literary movements ever.” The brochure, with the motto “The Struggle Continues From Inside the Concrete Jungle” across the front, solicits donations for printing costs. To keep PWP going, Edelin gives his sisters assignments each week, such as printing up more brochures or typing up letters. “I keep them busy so they know I’m OK, that I’m still alive, still fighting,” he says. “When I’m down, they’re down. I want them to know that I have a positive outlook, that I’m still functioning on a spiritual level.”
Edelin is also busy making plans for the future. “I’m confident I will be acquitted,” he says. Before his trial begins, he intends to marry Danielle Pannell, whom he has been dating on and off for several years.
“He has a lot of knowledge and wisdom. Even though he has no formal education, he makes you think. The things he writes are so deep,” says Pannell, 23, a quiet young woman with long wavy hair and pretty brown eyes. Pannell says she met Edelin through a friend. They dated while she was pursuing a degree in mortuary science at the University of the District of Columbia. She now works for McNeil Technologies, a hi-tech consulting firm in Springfield, Va. The two had broken up at the time Edelin was arrested, but they got back together after Pannell began visiting him earlier this year.
Edelin will soon be taking a new name as well as a new wife. According to Pannell, Edelin is in the process of legally changing his name to Men’ses D. Menes, after the first king of unified Egypt, who lived around 3200 B.C. Manetho, a 3rd-century-B.C. Egyptian historian, wrote that Menes ruled for 62 years before being killed by a hippopotamus, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Edelin has been reading about Menes in jail.
No matter what name Edelin goes by or what his future holdsexecution, prison, or freedomPannell says she is prepared to face life with him. “They don’t really know him,” she says of the prosecutors. “It’s like they have no hearts. They just want to put a person away.”
“What they were alleging happened during the time we were dealing with each other. He never exposed me to anything that made me think he was dealing drugs,” she says. “People have a conscience. If he was dealing drugs or into murder, you would think I would see some trace of it. But I didn’t see any trace of what they were saying.”
James Rudasill is sitting in his office on a warm October afternoon, surrounded by boxes, framed diplomas, and a brown plastic pot that contains the emaciated remnants of a plant. The mess, he explains apologetically in his deep, laconic voice, is due to the fact that his office is being renovated.
Rudasill, a former prosecutor, has been Edelin’s lawyer for eight months. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth appointed Rudasill in February after Edelin asked the judge to replace attorney Tom Abbenante, with whom he didn’t get along. Then, two hours after Rudasill picked up the files from Abbenante, someone stole them from his rental car, which he had parked on Michigan Avenue. Since then, Rudasill and Brodnax, his co-counsel, have had to re-create 15 boxes’ worth of files. Meanwhile, Rudasill notes unhappily, the lawyers for Tommy Edelin’s co-defendants, as well as the prosecutors, have all had two years to prepare for trial.
Rudasill is an accomplished attorney, having won acquittals for several murder defendants in the District. He recently tried a murder case opposite Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Quander Jr., who along with Stephen Pfleger and William Sullivan, is now prosecuting Edelin. The case led to three hung juries, and his client ultimately went free. Rudasill has had two other clients who have faced capital charges, but Edelin is his first client who is going to trial facing a death-penalty prosecution.
“In death-penalty college, they tell you each case will change you,” Rudasill says with a sigh, as if in Edelin’s case the prophecy were just coming true. He recently wrapped up his other outstanding cases, leaving Edelin as his sole pretrial client. But instead of unburdening him, the single focus seems to have made the enormity of trying to save a man from execution that much greater.
Rudasill’s challenge comes at an unlikely time and in an unlikely place. After all, his client is facing the death penalty in a jurisdiction that has no death penalty, and as more and more states are reconsidering the underlying fairness of capital punishment.
Over the past 10 years, prosecutors have used a combination of federal laws to go after local street crews. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), as well as statutes that give federal prosecutors more tools to go after alleged drug kingpins, allows authorities to target organizations, not just individuals, and patterns of criminal activity, instead of isolated crimes. As a result, they can build wide-reaching indictments that can include crimes a defendant committed over a period of many years, and try several defendants together before the same jury.
Federal drug and gun laws also carry longer mandatory sentences than local laws and give judges less discretion to adjust them. Fear of those mandatory sentences has proven an effective incentive for many defendants to cooperate with the government, often against their co-defendants. In Edelin’s case, there were originally 14 co-defendants altogether; now there are six. Some of the former co-defendants are expected to testify as government witnesses.
Most important, however, federal law gives prosecutors the most potent bargaining chip possible: the death penalty. In 1994, Congress greatly expanded the number of crimes that qualify for the federal death penalty. Today, 66 crimes can lead to execution, including murder involved in a racketeering offense, murder related to a continuing criminal enterprise, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shooting, and running a large-scale drug operation. Edelin faces two charges of murder related to a continuing criminal enterprise.
Death-penalty opponents argue that the federal government applies the death penalty arbitrarily and that whether a defendant faces capital punishment has more to do with geography and race than the actual crime.
During a jail interview in October, Edelin pulls out a Sept. 12, 2000, Washington Post article that he considers proof of the government’s capricious handling of death-penalty prosecutions. According to the story, a federal grand jury has indicted Boston mobster James J. “Whitey” Bulger, 71, and Stephen J. “the Rifleman” Flemmi, 66, for their role in 21 murders dating back to the ’70s, some of which were allegedly committed while Bulger and Flemmi were shielded from prosecution because they were government informants. The article goes on to say that because Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, federal prosecutors there will not seek capital punishment against them.
“If that isn’t bald-face hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is,” Edelin says.
Rudasill points out that even within the District, there are defendants facing similar charges, yet prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. For example, members of the K Street Crew in Southwest are currently facing a 101-count indictment that includes allegations of numerous murders, shootings, and kidnappings. But none of the defendants are facing the potential of the death penalty.
Justice Department officials are accustomed to hearing complaints that they do not apply the federal death penalty fairly. But they have steadfastly defended the integrity of the federal-death penalty review process, which includes several layers of decision-making. U.S. attorneys must send every case that involves potential capital charges to the attorney general’s Death Penalty Review Committeeknown inside Justice as the “Death Squad”for review, along with a recommendation. The committee then passes its own recommendation on to Reno, who ultimately determines what the government’s position will be.
Lately, Justice Department officials have begun to take another look at whether they are applying the death penalty fairly, after a study they released in September supported the arguments of their critics. The study revealed that 80 percent of cases submitted by U.S. attorneys for death-penalty prosecutions in the past five years involved defendants who were not white and 40 percent of those cases were filed in five jurisdictions: Puerto Rico, the Eastern District of Virginia, the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, and Maryland. Reno has since promised further review of the issue. But such analysis may come too late for Edelin.
In the government’s Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty, Quander laid out the reasons the government believes it should execute Edelin. Among them, Quander cited Edelin’s “long-term pattern of violent criminal conduct; his continuous efforts to obstruct justice and threaten or kill witnesses; his leadership role in planning and encouraging others to undertake criminal activities; his demonstrated low rehabilitative potential; and the lack of remorse for his criminal activities.”
If a jury finds Edelin guilty of the capital charges, the government will have to prove that Quander’s assessment of Edelin is true beyond a reasonable doubt in order to impose a death sentence. Edelin’s defense team will have a chance to show that there were mitigating factors to the crimesor that their client is not as awful as the government says. “Mitigation is the time to deconstruct the monster, the kingpin, the cold-blooded killer,” explains Rudasill.
Of course, Rudasill doesn’t concede that any of the allegations against his client are true. “I don’t think Tommy is evil,” Rudasill says. Even if the allegations against him were true, Edelin, he argues, “isn’t a child-molester. He didn’t stalk young women and kill them. He has compassion. If Tommy had had the moral support he needed growing up, he might be a lawyer right now.”
Rudasill doesn’t buy his client’s contention that some grand government conspiracy is at work. But in his own way, Rudasill does agree that the government has served his client poorly. “Where was the government when he was living in public housing? When his mother was in prison?” he says. “Now that the government wants to intervene in his life, it’s to end it.”
If, as prosecutors allege, Tommy and Earl Edelin were criminals preying on a community even as they were claiming to save it, there is little sense of betrayal among those who believed in them. Criminal indictments, no matter how long or how gory, have not displaced memories of Tommy and Earl Edelin’s generosity. It’s not that the Stanton Dwellings residents turn a blind eye to suspected drug dealers and killers. But they are skeptical toward their supposed protectors.
“The FBI has had the community under surveillance for years. There are cameras on top of the school, on top of a lightpost in the alley,” says Dionne Kingsbury, pointing over her head. “If [Tommy and Earl Edelin] were that dangerous, why did the police let them stay in this community for that long?”
Kingsbury is a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner who grew up with Tommy Edelin and his sisters. During the summer, Channel 9 ran a segment about how safe Stanton residents feel now that Tommy and Earl Edelin are behind bars. Kingsbury and Residents Council head Carter say they found the TV report laughable.
“They talked about Tommy. Then they cut to neighbors saying they feel safer,” Kingsbury says, dismissing the cut-and-paste job with a wave of her hand. “What’s changed? [Tommy and Earl Edelin] have been locked up for two years. The drugs are still here.”
“There’s no mob here,” Carter says, denying that anything called the 1-5 Mob ever existed. She says girls from the neighborhood who went to a go-go concert probably made up the name as a catchy way of telling people where they were from. When asked how a jury made up of their peers on Stanton Terrace and 15th Place would rule on the charges facing Tommy and Earl Edelin, Carter replies, “Not guilty.”
A few blocks away, Cecelia McEachin sits in the dark on a worn-out brown couch. Her two grandchildren are sprawled out next to her, looking bored while a movie plays on TV. They’re watching Tim Robbins crawl through a sewer while Morgan Freeman narrates his every move. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in The Shawshank Redemptionone of those rare prison movies with a happy ending: Robbins’ character escapes, and the cruel warden receives his comeuppance. But when Robbins emerges triumphantly from the sewer pipe into a cleansing thunderstorm, McEachin doesn’t smile. Instead, she sits transfixed. The suspense is certainly gone for her. Her daughter Hines says she watches the film over and over again.
“It just makes me sick,” McEachin complains. “They’re trying to kill my son, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
McEachin says she is now clean for good. She makes no excuses for her past drug addiction. “When I came to, I cussed him out,” she says, recalling when young Tommy rescued her from an overdose. “He saved me from death, and I was still dead,” she says. “He would ask me all the time to stop using drugs, even stop smoking cigarettes. I’d say, ‘I’m grown. I can do what I want.’ I didn’t pay them any mind. I didn’t know anything about raising any kids.”
McEachin believes the government is playing a cruel joke on her son, who she says gave up the drug business long ago. “He was in it for a minute. Then he started doing positive things. He realized it wasn’t worth it. He changed his life way before all this happened. I couldn’t understand when all this happened, but I know the government can do what it wants.”
She still blames Earl Edelin, at least partially, for her son’s predicament. “He talked Tommy into moving away. Tommy wasn’t ready to be on his own,” she says. “I still ain’t never felt better about it. He took him away from me.”
The last time she saw her son, he was sitting with Earl Edelin in court, their resemblance exaggerated by the matching orange D.C. Jail jumpsuits.
With his graying hair and large plastic eyeglasses, Earl Edelin didn’t look much like the gangster he is alleged to have been. Instead, he seemed small and old, slumped in his chair. Several times, he leaned over to listen to his son, who looked like a younger, more confident version of his father. In front of them, at a table, sat their four co-defendants with expressions on their faces that ranged from sour to grim. But Tommy Edelin and his father paid them no mind. As the hearing dragged on, the two traded whispers and smiles. After all, they had something the four men at the table did not. They had each other. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.