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Has D.C.’s most famous crack dealer become just another has-been?

The 11-year-old has no idea what I’m talking about. Straddling his beat-up freestyle bike near the corner of 4th and L Streets NE on an overcast July afternoon, the kid just shakes his head. So do his five pint-sized buddies, who stand in a circle, each one parked over a set of wheels. “What he look like?” the boy says.

It doesn’t take an anthropologist to know that the tall tales of 11-year-olds are the true barometers of society’s myths. I expected to hear this batch of Near Northeast youngsters tell me that Rayful Edmond III was 8 feet tall, had a limousine that stretched whole city blocks in length, and wore enough gold to crush an ordinary man. Instead, when I ask them about the District’s most infamous crack dealer, a man who made his headquarters just blocks from here, they just look confused.

For these kids, Edmond is ancient history. They were still in diapers in April 1989, when police hauled him off, along with 16 others, on charges of running the city’s largest cocaine-distribution organization. Older residents, of course, remember the days when Edmond would pull up to the corner store in a white stretch limo. Some of them even clam up, reflexively, when his name is mentioned. But far more of them talk about Edmond in the same matter-of-fact tone they’d use to talk about the local florist, or the local florist’s cat.

There are, of course, occasional echoes of Edmond, who is serving multiple life sentences on drug charges and is being held at a secret location within the federal prison system. When prosecutors indicted Kevin Gray and Rodney L. Moore earlier this year on charges of running one of the city’s most violent heroin- and crack-dealing operations, they noted that Moore had paid Edmond a prison visit in 1992 to arrange a drug deal. When Antoine Jones, 16, opened fire on a group of teenagers at the National Zoo last May, the old kingpin was in the background again. Jones, newspapers soon reported, was the son of James Antonio Jones, one of Edmond’s enforcers.

But then, Edmond was granted only a simple moniker, one that bundled him in with every other two-bit hustler: “notorious drug dealer.”

Just a few years ago, it seemed impossible to imagine that Edmond could pass from public consciousness. He was to D.C. what Al Capone was to Chicago: part real-life terror, part legend. During his 1990 trial on drug conspiracy charges, prosecutors dubbed him “the Babe Ruth of crack.”

The Washington Post called him a “drug tycoon” and said his organization was the “biggest” and “deadliest” in the city. Back when Edmond was the subject, every other word was a superlative. Even his name had an epic ring to it, which suited the multigenerational production of which he was the undisputed star.

Before their son got famous, the Edmond family was like many in Washington. Rayful Edmond’s mother, Constance “Bootsie” Perry, worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. His grandmother, Bernice Perry, owned a town house at 407 M St. NE, on a tree-lined block just south of Gallaudet University.

Little Rayful played his first game of basketball nearby, at the J.O. Wilson Recreation Center at 7th and K Streets NE. His jump shots later drew crowds to the No. 9 Boys and Girls Club, where he played tournaments with his team, Men at Work. Off the court, he hung around with Georgetown University basketball stars John Turner and future Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning.

Indeed, Edmond might have landed a college scholarship of his own, but he wasn’t interested in higher education. He had already found a vocation.

As a teenager, Edmond started in the business by collecting drug money for his father, who had worked in a government office and sold drugs on the side. But then, according to a tape recording the FBI made of Edmond’s mom during its investigation of Edmond, he “got too big” and “just up and went out on his own.”

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By the time Edmond was arrested, at age 24, he controlled between 30 percent and 60 percent of the city’s market for crack and cocaine. From his grandmother’s home, he built an organization that employed about a dozen enforcers toting Uzi submachine guns and 150 sellers who made as much as $5,000 a week each . With their help, Edmond and his family—including his mom, his siblings, and various other relatives—distributed up to 1,700 pounds of cocaine a month.

Edmond’s operation had so many customers that buyers would cause traffic jams around “the Strip,” the open-air drug market that Edmond operated on Orleans and Morton Places NE, right around the corner from his grandmother’s home. Edmond later estimated that his organization grossed more than $30 million over four years.

Edmond may have perfected the role of chief municipal outlaw, but he didn’t invent it. A long line of bootleggers, numbers-runners, and pre-crack dope dealers came before him. In the 1950s, for instance, James “Yellow Jim” Johnson ran D.C.’s biggest dope ring, peddling heroin in capsules for $2 a pop. Johnson created a furor when he testified before a Senate subcommittee that he had paid the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics Squad up to $20,000 in protection money.

But Edmond’s notoriety, unlike Yellow Jim’s, extended well beyond D.C.’s borders. In 1994, Ed Vulliamy, a writer for London’s Observer, gave the Brits a quick lesson in D.C. vernacular: “If someone who was once a hoodlum on the streets is now driving a flashy car and has a good-looking girl on his arm at a classy club, he is ‘rayfulling,’ has ‘rayfulled’ his way to the top through the only business likely to have got him there.”

When Edmond rayfulled his way into police custody, prosecutors managed to make his legend grow still bigger. William H. Murphy Jr., the Baltimore attorney who represented Edmond in 1990, argues that District Judge Charles R. Richey’s decision to try Edmond before D.C.’s first anonymous jury—even the judge, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys didn’t know the jurors’ names—in a courtroom protected by bulletproof glass ensured that the trial would be a spectacle. “Except for the quantities involved, it was a regular drug-conspiracy case that could have been tried under calmer circumstances,” Murphy says in a recent interview. “I tried a case in Baltimore with a defendant who allegedly was involved in more than 20 killings, and we didn’t have any of that.”

Of course, the details of Edmond’s posh lifestyle—from $12,000 in cash that littered the floor of partner Tony Lewis’ Crystal City apartment to Edmond’s own diamond-studded Rolex—didn’t hurt his celebrity status. Over the past decade, the Washington Post has run more than 300 stories about Edmond.

But if Edmond was a ruthless drug lord linked to 30 murders, he wasn’t a stingy one. At trial, witnesses talked about the $200 worth of flowers he bought for the family of neighbor Stacie Lanier when Lanier’s brother died, the cars he lavished on girlfriends, the free trip to the Super Bowl in San Diego on a chartered plane that Edmond gave to his employees.

Prosecutors and the press turned Edmond into Robin Hood, Al Capone, and Horatio Alger rolled into one. His well-spoken, even-tempered demeanor—the way he winked at reporters in court and showed up promptly to meet investigators—made it hard for anyone to buy into the notion that he was some badass motherfucker.

Instead, Edmond fell into another category: a case of great potential gone wrong. “But for the way he was raised and permitted to grow in our society, [he] could be running a major American corporation,” Murphy said shortly after his client was convicted.

“Edmond is one of the first to be that notorious at a young age. What’s unusual about his case is that people at his level in Los Angeles or Chicago were usually not very publicly visible, but Washington is much smaller,” notes William Chambliss, a sociology professor and criminology expert at George Washington University, who used Edmond as a case study in his classes up through the early ’90s. “Part of it was his personal style. He liked to be known, and he paid a price for it.”

Chambliss doubts whether the hero worship was ever as widespread as the Post made it out to be. “To say Edmond was a hero in his neighborhood is like saying the Gottis or the Gambinis are heroes to Italian-Americans,” Chambliss says.

“He isn’t as well-regarded as when he was running around,” notes Sgt. John Brennan, an MPD narcotics officer who helped bust Edmond. “Too much attention was paid to him by everybody. People think he ran an airtight operation, but he didn’t. It was a loose-knit, poorly run organization that our department was able to infiltrate. To us, Ray’s a criminal. All he did was hurt people.”

When Edmond’s empire went down, his family went up the river with him. Constance Perry’s tape-recorded words helped send her son away. But during her own trial on drug-conspiracy charges, Perry denied that $70,000 worth of improvements to her house came from her son’s drug profits. She even claimed ignorance of a $4,000 whirlpool in her basement—telling prosecutors that she was usually too tired from her government job to “go all around the house.”

Perry—along with a total of 33 other people—was convicted for being part of Edmond’s operation.

Edmond, meanwhile, occupied himself in prison by brokering $200 million worth of drug deals from a cell in Lewisburg, Pa. With phrases such as “You should meet my new girlfriend. She’s 6 feet tall,” Edmond would hawk 6 kilos of cocaine over prison phones as clueless guards stood by. He later explained his prison drug dealing, saying, “At the time, my mind-set was, I had to still have people look up to me and prove that I was still capable of making things happen.”

By 1995, though, law enforcement officials had caught on. Edmond agreed to become a government witness to win early release for his mother, who was serving a 14-year sentence. In 1998, after Edmond’s testimony helped convict 11 people, Perry walked out a free woman. And Edmond was put in witness protection. He’s in the slammer for life, but no one will say which slammer.

Edmond’s street credentials, though, tanked. “Some people want to kill him now. He put a lot of guys away,” says Sgt. Diane Groomes, who patrols Edmond’s old neighborhood.

Rayful Edmond III, the Babe Ruth of crack, had become just another snitch.

You can still buy crack a couple of blocks from 407 M St. NE. And if you look for some of the drug’s old users, you can also find folks who remember Edmond. In front of Blair House, a residential drug-treatment center on the 600 block of I Street NE, a group of men waiting to wash cars share their Rayful lore.

“In one minute, he and all his workers could sell 10, 20 kilos. One minute!” says James, 38, a lifelong neighborhood resident who says he used to buy drugs on the Strip. “I was in line one time, on Orleans, in line in the alley. You can’t have no short money, no $49. You got to have $50.”

“[Edmond] had a lot of parties, a lot of cabarets,” says Leon, 24, a hefty fellow in a sleeveless undershirt and camouflage shorts. What Leon knows about Edmond, he learned growing up around 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE. “He got young guys who wouldn’t normally be hustling,” he says.

James holds his hand out about 4 feet high. “Little kids like this,” he says.

“I looked up to him,” chimes in a smaller guy sitting next to Leon, who gives only his nickname, Bam Bam. “Hell yeah. I like the fact that he made money. He started small. Even if it wasn’t an honest job, he worked hard. I see why people looked up to him. He’s like Tupac or Biggie.”

“I think he was an all-around good dude who made some bad choices in life. We all make bad choices,” Leon muses.

James, though, paints a more sinister picture of Edmond. When Edmond picked up a bill here and there for neighbors who were short of cash, “there was always a catch,” he says. “If he paid your bills, that meant he wanted to hustle from your house. If he bought your kid sneakers, he wanted your kid to hustle for him.”

If there’s one thing that the three agree on, it’s that Edmond was popular with the ladies. “He had a lot of kids,” says Leon.

James elicits a couple shouts of “For real?” from his fellow car-washers when he adds, “I heard he was bisexual.”

“The government took all his money,” says Leon, succumbing to a wave of sympathy. “He had to pay all those people, lawyers—”

“What bills did he have?” James interrupts. “He lived with his grandmother!”

Today, Bernice Perry’s former home sits abandoned. So many steps have been removed from the rusting iron staircase at the three-story home’s main entrance that anyone attempting to climb them would simply fall through. There’s a gash through the front door, and the windows on the top floor are shattered. A stained-glass window on the second floor is the only remaining indication of any opulence.

Bernice Perry—who as far as anyone knows is alive and well somewhere—told police she never lived in the house while her grandson was using it to distribute cocaine. She was never charged with any crime. Residents around the Strip say they’ve seen a son of Edmond’s, about 15 years old, come around his dad’s old turf. “I got nothing to say about [Edmond]. He’s my man’s father,” says Tony, 19, a skinny kid with a black-and-white bandanna wrapped around his head who sits on the corner of 4th and L Streets NE. “He’ll always be known,” he says of his friend’s father.

Just as he says that, Antoine, 20, who is perched next to him, brags, “I never looked up to him.”

Only the older residents still fear Edmond. A retired cop, who has lived on the corner of 4th and M Streets NE most of her life and goes by the nickname Smiley, refuses to comment on Edmond. “I have to live here,” she explains.

“I can’t say something bad about someone who has such long arms,” says a teacher who had Edmond’s nephew as a student at J.O. Wilson Elementary a few years ago. The teacher, who refuses to give his name, now teaches in Maryland. But he remembers when grown-ups and kids alike worshiped Edmond as a hero—as long as he was doling out gifts. “People didn’t perceive him as a drug dealer. But people’s memories are short. It’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ kinda thing.” CP