In “Sucker Punch” (3/27), the judge who presided over U.S. v. Reuben Bell was misidentified. His name is Judge Reggie B. Walton.
Reuben “Ratman” Bell lies proud in his casket, eyebrows raised in mock humility, sleepy eyelids now permanently closed, lips pursed, a soft glaze rising from his cheeks. His left hand holds his right atop the folds of one of his prized double-breasted Versace suits. Immense flower arrangements are shuttled in, one after another, while mourners attempt polite smiles, but the weight of death nonetheless pulls the room down a dark shaft of despair.
The morning of Wednesday, Feb. 11 is wickedly cold. Oblivious to mourning inside the Straightway Church, in Capitol Heights, Md., sparrows chirp, trucks bang and clang by on Kenilworth Avenue, and a police siren blares somewhere in the haze of distant blocks. A red jeep containing early mourners parks and reparks six different times, unsure of where to be.
The pews fill quickly, and chairs are brought into the room to accommodate the overflow as the three worlds of Reuben Bellworlds that battled for his soulsoftly collide in the small room.
In front sit his family, heads down, arms around each other, babies wailing knowingly. Bell’s mother huddles with her two daughters and her surviving son, along with their spouses and children. Bell’s fiancée clasps hands with their small children.
As they sit in sorrow, Bell’s family is approached by the men he met through boxing, from gyms and management and promotional organizations. They are smooth but serious men who know pain in its many incarnations. Bell’s manager embraces his mother and sisters and fiancée. His two trainers offer a few kind words. Other fighters can be spotted here and there, sporting fine clothes and sunglasses and bruises along with pretty-boy slickness.
Lastand late on general principlea third posse enters, the unholy warriors of Bell’s other life. There are dozens of homeboys from the streets of Prince George’s County and D.C. who arrive reeking of recently stubbed-out blunts; a family member in a back pew fans away the sweet stench with a funeral program. One homeboy covers his head with a hood, his face with shades, and struts through the receiving line, past Bell’s corpse, down the aisle, and out. Others hover in the back, dressed down, backs against the wall. Pagers beep.
Five cop cars cruise the streets outside, circling, hovering, watching.
It is this last group, D.C.’s least desired and most wanted, who ultimately gained possession of Bell’s life. It could have turned out differently. Much differently.
“[Bell] had everything he wanted,” says his sister Yvette. “He didn’t need moneywe gave him money all the time. He didn’t have to do everything he was doing in the street. He had a silver spoon. That’s what really hurts me about it. He had everything better than we did. He didn’t have to be in the street…”
Bell was not born to become one more mark in a column full of black men destined to die cheap. He had more than any kid could want: a warm and caring family, a happy home, natural talent, and a wealthy patron helping him harness his thunderous punch. Beyond those substantial inheritances, he had palpable charisma, beauty, and an unfathomable ability to escape the repercussions of his boneheaded ways.
At the end, it seemed Bell was beginning to understand that he couldn’t act the thug and still attain the greatness he thought was his for the taking. But before he could leave the gangstas behind and return to the arms of his family and chosen profession, a hand reached out from his past and wasted him in a torrent of gunfire at the Washington Hospital Center. There, in the antiseptic lobby of a hospital, Bell found out that lifeand deathcan hit you with a punch you never see coming.
They all spoiled him, the infant Yvette lovingly called “Sh’boy” while she played with the long curls of his baby ‘fro.
“He was so cute,” she says with a remorseful smile.
Before his family knew it, “Sh’boy” had become “Man,” the little man with a big sense of himself, headstrong past all doubts.
“Don’t call me [Sh’boy] anymore,” he instructed Yvette.
He remained the life of the party, exalted for his Michael Jackson imitations, his jumps off the refrigerator à la Elvis, all the while dressed to the nines and parading around “like a little Fonzie.” At night, he and sisters and brother would lie in bed, taking turns singing. Bell’s voice was horrible, but the sweetness they knew lay within him more than made up for it.
A close family. “All of them stuck together. They helped each other out,” says his mother, Gloria Bell, 51.
Bell came of age amid the unsung majority of urban African America: families with jobs, mortgages, and college loans. He grew up in a middle-class home in Palmer Park, in Oxon Hill, Md., a house owned by his mother and father. Like many of her neighbors, Gloria is a churchgoing, stern woman who wouldn’t tolerate nonsense but never shorted her children on love. Her husband, Reuben Bell Sr., worked long hours for decent pay transporting sheet metal.
Reuben Jr. was the baby brother of three siblings who doted on him. His sistersYvette, 31, and Tiwon, 28spoiled him without end. Gloria stayed at home with the children until she and Bell Sr. split; Bell Sr. moved back to his boyhood home near Rocky Mountain, N.C., while Gloria started at the job she still holds today, as a pieceworker for a dry cleaner. Yvette is a mail handler for the post office; Tiwon works in day care.
Bell was blessed with an older brother who could stand as a role model for just about anybody: Walter, who joined the Army immediately after graduating from high school, who became a Green Beretwho eventually went to college, became an engineer, and moved hundreds of miles north to begin a new life with his bride.
After she and Reuben Sr. split, Gloria started working full time in 1981 and would come home spent and fall asleep exhausted. Young Bell, for his part, would hit the streets. Not the relatively quiet streets of Palmer Park, but those in nearby Glass Manor, a poor neighborhood of Oxon Hill where Bell and his buddies would hang out on “the hill.” Around that time, Man became “Ratman” when a girl named Florence noted his fondness for cheese. The name stuck.
Born into the lap of an abidingly decent family of regular working people, Bell somehow decided he didn’t fit, that he was meant for more.
“He would say, ‘Man, I’m in the wrong family. I’m supposed to be rich.’” Tiwon says. “He would ask us, ‘Where you want your home at? What kind of car do you want?’…He would always tell us what he was going to do for us” when his money train came in.
Nikki Edwards, who also lived in Oxon Hill, set her sister Monique up with the local boy known for his ever-present baseball cap, room-filling attitude, gorgeous face, and fighter’s body. Monique and Bell hit it off, but Bell never stuck around for long. He was busy becoming a thug.
On New Year’s Day 1989, at 1:15 a.m., Bell and three other boys put on ski masks and attacked a man at gunpoint, stealing his white Gucci tennis shoes, red coat, and five bucks, according to police reports. The victim called the cops, and within the hour, a P.G. County police officer stopped a vehicle matching his description at the intersection of Wheeler and St. Barnabas, in Oxon Hill. A .32-caliber Derringer sat under the rear seat of the car, a pair of white Gucci sneakers in front. The boys were hauled in, but the charges were eventually dropped. Bell had just turned 15.
According to a Prince George’s County police officer, Bell was fast becoming an integral part of
a group called the Glass Manor Crew, named for
the neighborhood where they hung out. The officer says the group dealt drugs, and Bell was a leader of the pack. “He was well known among us [even before he became a boxer],” he says, “as a person always suspected as carrying a gun, and affiliated with drug activity.”
Bell started to gain notoriety for other reasons as well. From his time in the streets, he knew he could hit. While the rest of the boys on the corner would talk and talk about how bad they were, Bell backed it up. People began to keep their distance from the small man with the huge punch. When he was 14 or so and hanging out in southeast D.C., he ran into Jim Finley of the fabled Finley’s Boxing Gym, only a few blocks away, and started asking him about the ring.
“He thought he could become a pretty good boxer based on his experience on the street,” Finley says. A year later, Bell came in. Finley was unimpressed. “He was no different from any other fellow,” he says. “There’s quite a bit of difference between a boxing program and fighting in the streets. But he stuck with it.”
Finley thought Bell was a punk from early on. “He was wearing this huge parka jacket with 101 pockets, and he had taken it off and put it down somewhere. I needed the space, so I picked it up. It was rather heavy. And that wasn’t a pack of cigarettes in there.” Finley inspected Bell’s coat and “found a gunit looked to me like an automatic.”
But where Finley saw a gun with a hood attached, Barry Linde saw potential. Linde, 63a tan, ponytailed, wealthy retired real-estate developer with a girlfriend half his agewas up in Finley’s one day, working out in an effort to cure a heel spur. A Harvard and Wharton grad, Linde had boxed a bit himself, back in the old days at the Georgetown Police Boy’s Club. He first spotted Bell one day in the fall of 1993, right before Bell turned pro, and thought “he had obvious God-given power.” Linde and Al Scott, a personal trainer who was working with Bell, later discussed the possibility that Linde would manage Bell’s career.
But Linde was concerned about Bell’s street life, and it took a month before Bell was able to convince him that he was ready to leave that foolishness behind. “I don’t want to have any part of something I don’t understand or know how to deal with,” Linde remembers thinking. “A fighter can’t be two places.” He knew Bell had been incarcerated.
“He convinced a rather naive me that he was through doing anything criminal anymore and he wanted to become a world-class boxer,” Linde adds. “I believed it. He may have believed it, too.”
Signing Bell was Linde’s first step in forming Hard Corps, an exclusive boxing team plucked from sweaty gyms that eventually included North American Boxing Federation (NABF) welterweight champion Derrell Coley, NABF junior welterweight champion Reggie Green, and heavyweight up-and-comer Corey Sanders. Hard Corps provided Bell with training, equipment, and access, in exchange for a piece of the pie down the road.
Except for one key element, Bell looked like a contender. “My strong belief is that he would have been a pro,” says Scott. “He had a good chinyou didn’t see nobody chop himand power in both handshe had the ability to box or slug. But his big problem was conditioning. He liked to hit the streets a lot and go out to clubs.”
According to Scott, Bell’s innate slugging ability was enough to take him a long way. “He made it all the way to the eastern qualifications for the Olympic games,” Scott says. “He knocked everyone out except for the last guy, who kept away from him.” One of his many KOs came just 12 seconds into a fight.
The sheer power of Bell’s punch got him a bout in June 1995 with undefeated contender Paul Vaden. The winner would get a shot at the International Boxing Federation (IBF) junior middleweight title against Baltimore’s Vincent Pettway. Broadcast on the USA network live from Atlantic City, the fight was Bell’s first glimpse of the big time.
“I knew it was going to be a close match,” says Vaden. “He was a talented fighter. To be so short, he had to have talent….He hit me in the second round with a nice overhand right, and it woke me up.” But in the end, Vaden says, his “experience and stamina and hand speed took over.” Vaden won handily and went on to beat Pettway.
Linde says that Bell lost to Vaden not because he was outmatched by a better fighter but because he had been lazy and unwilling to train properly. “I was very upset,” Linde says. “He should have won the fight. I gave him holy hell about it.” Bell later admitted that two weeks before the fight he’d been out drinking.
Vaden, too, saw something that day that made him concerned for Bell’s future, but it wasn’t inside the ring. “I’d heard stories about his background,” he says. “In the fight in [Atlantic City], he had a lot of his friends up there, [who] came to the fights. His friends were kind of semirowdy, probably with a gangster background. I have homeboys, but I just don’t hang around them all the time like he was.”
In the end, getting away from his boys was the tougher fight for Bell.
“It’s one thing to come off the streets, and it’s another to change the whole cast of characters,”
Monique Edwards, Bell’s fiancée, clings to a beat-up, wrinkled photograph. In it pose four young African-American boys, probably around 14 years old. Their faces beam with confidence and promise. Three are now dead. The other’s in jail.
The dead are Bell, Arthrone “Southeast” Williams, and Garland Baskerville. Bell was shot, Southeast died in a car accident not long after he was acquitted of homicide, and, in July 1996, Baskerville’s bullet-riddled body was found slumped in a car parked on 7th Street NE. The fourth is James Henry Fowler, biding the rest of his time in the Maryland Department of Corrections Annex in Jessup, doing life for a double murder.
These were the young men Bell’s sisters call his “so-called” friends. “They used him,” Tiwon says.
“Man looked at James [Fowler] like a brother,” say his sisters. But they also say Fowler was no good, a manipulator. “They would get in trouble,” attests Yvette.
More often than not, Bell spotted a hustle and charged right for it. According to court and police reports, in November 1991, Bell and a friend were arrested in Oxon Hill for possession of 18 pieces of crack cocaine and a loaded .32-caliber gun. In October 1993, two Prince George’s County policemen found a baggie of 1.6 grams of pot on Bell, who immediately fled the scene. There were a September 1994 charge for destruction of property, a July 1995 charge for assault with a dangerous weapon, another July 1995 charge for theft and felony threats. According to the Washington Post, Bell spent time in a juvenile detention center for assault and armed robbery. He also did two years in a Maryland state prison for cocaine possession and weapons charges. Although boxers dating back well before Sonny Liston have mixed the fight in the ring with the battle out on the streets, few have gotten into scrapes with the law as steadily as Bell.
The police record, begun in his early teens, continued on and on even after Linde and Scott and othersincluding legendary boxing promoter Lou Duva, the manager of Evander Holyfieldwere working overtime on Bell’s behalf. Linde and others did everything they could to dim the allure of street life. The $7,500 per fight Bell accrued wasn’t enough to support him and his family, so Linde paid bills to help Bell concentrate on boxing. He paid Bell’s rent; he even helped out with groceries every now and then. And there was more to look after once Bell had a son with Monique, Maurek, born on Jan. 7, 1994.
But Bell had other needs that Linde couldn’t hope to meet. “He had very expensive tastes,” says IBF flyweight champion Mark Johnson, who knew Bell from Finley’s. “He tried to have the finer things. Maybe he was moving a little fast.”
“Versace, that’s all we wear,” says Monique. “I buried him in one of his Versace suits.”
So how did Bell afford what his sister Yvette refers to as “a billionaire’s tastes”?
“That’s a good question,” says Linde. “He didn’t make enough from fighting to support himself, which is why I paid his rent….Obviously, he was not off the street. But I really thought he was.”
There were clear signs every step of the way that the talented Bell never really gave up on thug life. At 2:30 a.m. on July 24, 1995, Bell was playing in a fire hydrant near the 600 block of Virginia Avenue SE, horsing around in the water with some young guys from the ‘hood, the kids he called his “fans.” His fiancée and baby were at their home a block away as Bell ran in and out of the fireplug’s spray. But his fun that night kept getting interrupted by a car that kept driving by, reportedly spooking Bell.
“I don’t like it when people scare me,” he said, a witness later testified. Bellthe story goestold one of his young charges to go get his gun.
In the car was Jon “Boogie” Buchanan. There had been a run-in between Boogie and one of Bell’s young buddies, allegedly one of the errand boys for Bell’s drug-dealing business.
Whatever plans for mayhem Boogie may have had got turned around after he pulled into a nearby parking lothe was shot eight times at close range with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. At 3:14 a.m. Boogie was pronounced dead. One week later, on Aug. 1, 1995, police arrested Bell for first- degree murder.
According to Scott, his trainer, when the cops came to arrest him at Finley’s Gym, they waited for Bell to walk up the stairs and put on his gloves to box before they cuffed him. “They were afraid of getting hit,” Scott says.
A grand jury indicted Bell on Nov. 29, 1995. Bell spent 1996a year that should have been his boxing primein jail, awaiting trial.
“If you told me he beat somebody to death, I could go for thathe was a street fighter,” says Scott. “But to shoot somebody? I don’t know. I’m not claiming him to be no angel. Anyone who knew Ratman knew that.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office painted Bell as an out-and-out menace to society with a big ego problem. Prior to the shooting, one of the more bizarre U.S. Attorney documents described a scene in which “the defendant, donning a bikini-panty bathing suit, was exhibiting his muscle-intensive body to any and all observers in the immediate area as he played in the water spouting from a fire hydrant. While he was frolicking in this urban waterworld, clearly displayed on his right bicep was a tattoo depicting the words R-A-T underscored by 2 dangling boxing gloves. Rat, or Ratman, is the defendant’s self-ordained nickname. Boxing, along with drug dealing, is his game.”
The case was assigned to Judge Reggie B. Watson. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Gansler says that Watson wrongly excluded evidence that was essential to the prosecution’s case. While Gansler planned to argue that the clear motive of Boogie’s shooting was “a drug dealer’s efforts to declare control over his turf,” Watson excluded evidence that Bell was a drug dealer. The case came down to the dubious testimony of Bell vs. the dubious testimony of three young witnesses, any one of whom, defense attorney Michele Roberts argued, might have been responsible for the murder.
Roberts also trotted out Bell’s boxing future, to great success. “This is the biggest fight of Reuben Bell’s life,” she said to the jury in her closing arguments. “The United States against Reuben Bellwhat could be more serious? There’s no question about it. Beats Las Vegas. Beats Atlantic City.”
Gansler says the prosecution had its work cut out for it. “You had someone here who was a local hero, and the jury did not want to believe that he did what he did….Michele certainly didn’t shy away from using Reuben Bell’s boxing career to his advantage, and she did it effectively….Between Michele and the rulings, it gave the jury an out.”
Aurore Bleck, foreperson of the jury that acquitted Bell on Feb. 27, 1997, after only two hours of deliberation, says the jurors were unsure as to whether the guilty party was Bell “or the other guy, the teenager who took the gun, and we just couldn’t figure out who….Afterwards some of us stayed after and talked to the prosecutor, and there was stuff they didn’t admit that if we had heard we would have voted to convict….We were horrified that we let him out on the street.”
“I’ve seen you fight,” Judge Watson told Bell after the jury let him go. “I know you had a promising career….You need to stay in the ring and stay out of other places that can get you in trouble. Good luck to you.”
Roberts is ambivalent about her success in getting Bell acquitted of first-degree homicide. “There are so many of these guys who literally have no one,” she explains, describing a homeless client whose mother is on crack and whose siblings are in jail. “Bell had an embarrassment of riches: family, friends not in the life, friends there in court, rooting for him, showing support….I would get phone calls every day from someone….You have no idea the pressure I was under from [fiancée Monique, mother Gloria, sisters Tiwon and Yvette]. He was a kid who had a lot going for him….A lot of my clients don’t have anything to fall back on….” She sighs. “He just blew it. He really blew it.”
Her voice trails off: “I guess I should have lost the case.”
After Bell skated on the murder charge, one of his first stops, according to Yvette, was church, where he went “and asked God for forgiveness.”
Bell still believed he could box his way out of trouble, but it was going to be a long road back. While pumping iron is a way of life for many jailbirds, Bell got fat and out of shapehis weight ballooned from 154 pounds to 170 in prison. Linde, Scott, and Langley made him run three miles every day once he was at large to get back in fighting form.
Family friend Anthony Ransford says he used to run with Bell, and he noticed a real change in his attitude once Bell got out of prison. “When he got acquitted he told me himself that God gave him a second chance to make money with his hands….After he got acquitted, he would just stay in the house.” But Ransford notes that this transition didn’t come easy for Bell. The money he earned with his fists couldn’t begin to compare with what he earned from working the street.
And in spite of what he was saying to his handlers, Bell hadn’t forgotten those who had testified against him in his murder trial; on two separate occasions, he was questioned for threatening
witnesses. “That’s the guy who testified against me; I should kill his ass,” Bell supposedly said in a downtown building, pulling out a 9mm pistol, according to police.
The corner still had a tug on him as well. On April 15, 1997, Bell was arrested for trespassing at Sunrise Gardens, the main hangout for the Glass Manor Crew. He resisted arrest, according to police.
“Bell was [still] part of the Glass Manor Crew,” an Oxon Hill police officer says. “I personally saw him two days before he got killed, hanging out on Marcy Avenue….He was walking with [another individual] who has done time in Lorton….I don’t think he was rehabilitatable….His lifestyle was that of the kind of person who doesn’t appreciate the consequences of his actions.” When he wasn’t hanging with his boys, his training continued. He worked harder than he ever had, an hour and a half every day, working on the bag, shadow boxing, jumping rope, punching his trainers’ mitts.
Linde set up a September fight against Simon Brown, three-time IBF welterweight champion, with the winner to go on to fight Bernard Hopkins in January 1998 for the crown. “The [pending] Brown fight inspired him to get in better shape,” says Linde, noting that Bell’s attitude and conditioning improved immensely once the Brown fight had been secured.
A pre-fight Post profile of Bell opened with the observation that “Reuben Bell knows his story is about second chances.” “Second chances” understates it big time; Bell blew opportunities by the dozen. But no matter how many doors slammed shut, regardless of the number of bullets he ducked, nothing seemed to faze Bell until after he got out of jail in February 1997. It’s possible that, after having mentally prepared himself for 35 years to life on the murder charge, Bell was starting to appreciate that eventually, his luck might run out.
“It’s fight time in Maryland!” the announcer yelled on Sept. 12, 1997, at the Pikesville Armory in suburban Baltimore. Broadcast live on Fox Sports Network, Bell strode out as a man born to box, a showy crowd-pleaser. Wading into the crowd, a black bandanna tied around his face like an Old West stick-up man, a skull-and-crossbones flag hanging from the back of his trunks, Bell was street and ring in one taut package.
He insisted on the bandanna despite Linde’s objections. “I just couldn’t talk him out of that stupid thing,” Linde says. The skull and crossbones (as well as a similar tattoo on his right bicep) was a tribute to two older kids from the neighborhood who’d believed in his boxing and ended up dying young. Bell strutted onto the stage in silver trunks with black trim, with 13 wins (and 10 KOs) and only one loss to his name, “$$$$” on his belt, “SHOW ME” on the right leg of his trunks, and “THE MONEY” on the left.
In the other corner stood Brown, older and more experienced, with a record of 47 wins (including 34 KOs), six losses, and three championship belts. At 5-foot-10, Brown was two-and-a-half inches taller than Bell, and his reach extended significantly beyond Bell’s. But Bell had time on his side: At 34, Brown was 11 years older than his cocky opponent.
The first two rounds were decent if run-of-the-mill boxing; Bell was knocked down for the first time, but he bounced right back up. In the third, Bell came alive, all over Brown, boppity boppity boppity, solid shot after solid shot. Brown started to really hit back as Bell forced the action, nose to nose, chest to chest. The heat was intense; few fighters can continue at that pace for a full 10 rounds.
Would it pay off? Whomp. In the fourth, Bell knocked Brown to his knees. As Bell raised his arms triumphantly, Brown got back up. So Bell went at him again, keeping Brown against the ropes. Foom. Foom. Foom.
“Bell has changed strategy and now thinks he can knock out Simon Brown!” an announcer yelled, excited.
But in the fifth, the referee stepped in suddenly and called the fight. The crowd and the announcers sat in a murmur of confusion.
“Why?” asked the announcer. “Why is the fight over?! This is an unbelievable chain of events….Reuben Bell actually quit! He quit the fight!…What I thought was that Bell was giving as well as he was getting!…He’s not cut; he’s not bleeding….I had him winning the fight up until that point!”
In the corner stood the boxer, backlit, drained of all strength, his faced twisted in anguish, holding his right hand, which he claimed was broken. The referees announced a TKO by Brown. The three refs had had the fight in a dead heat until that point.
“He ends up with a broken hand and a dream that ends, at least for tonight,” said an announcer.
But Bell hadn’t broken his hand. In his dressing room, Bell confided to Linde that the real reason he had had the fight called was that he was totally drained. His hand hurt, no question, but mainly he was tired.
“He felt bad,” says Linde. “He had panicked. He had never been at that level….If he’d sucked it up, I think he’d have won the fight.”
Linde says that Jim Finley, the man who had introduced Bell to boxing, never looked at Bell the same way after the Brown fight. “He’s the kind of guy who thinks, ‘You just don’t quit a fight,’” Linde says. “And Jim felt that Bell quit in that fight.” Finley now says that Bell’s skills were “nothing great. I didn’t see any potential there. It’s all been blown way out of proportion as if he was the second Sugar Ray Robinson.”
But Bell had made at least one fan. “Usually, when you get a young kid like that without a lot of fights, they don’t have as much as he did,” says his opponent, Simon Brown. “But he came out and [fought] like a champion.” The Jamaican-born Mount Airy resident went on to fight Bernard Hopkins, losing to him in a seven-round TKO broadcast live on HBO on Jan. 31. Bell “show[ed] me more than even Bernard Hopkins did,” says Brown. “I told him, ‘Don’t let this fight discourage you in any way. God has blessed you and allowed you to not do some time for something you were accused of doing.’…I told him, ‘Stay on the right track and good things will happen to you.’”
After the Brown fight, Bell spent a few weeks in Lancaster, Pa., working with a conditioner. “He really got a lot out of it and felt that if he could get into that type of conditioning, with his innate punching power and skills he could be a real tiger,” says Linde.
But throughout December and January, Bell complained that he was having trouble going to the bathroom. Finally, at 6:00 a.m. on Jan. 4, Monique dressed the kids and dragged her fiancé to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his rectum. Bell saw the illness as the same as any other thing that came for him: He would fight and win, simple as that.
The prognosis was good. After a few weeks of shrinking the tumor, the doctors would remove it. By March, in all probability, he could continue with training, a task he seemed ready to tear into once he had dealt with the cancer.
“We were watching the Hopkins-Brown fight” for the IBF middleweight title, Linde says, recalling the last time they were together. “He asked me, ‘If I could get in that kind of shape, what do you think? Hopkins is a good boxer, but not as good as I am.’”
This time, Bell vowed to leave the streets of D.C. behind, both literally and figuratively. Once the cancer had been vanquished, he was going to buy bunk beds and move with his family to Lancaster to train steady, away from all the city craziness. That was the plan, anyway.
“If somebody told me to drop every friend I had, would I do it all of a sudden?” Linde muses. “It would take some time, it’s pretty hard to change your friends….The Washington area wasn’t good for him. Most of his buddies, if they hadn’t been involved in criminal activities, they certainly were around it.”
Promoter Lou Duva was interested again. “I was about to start becoming his manager with Barry,” says Duva. “He could have been a champion…”
“It was all he talked about,” says Monique. “The belt, the belt, the belt.”
On Thursday, Feb. 5, Bell got up to head out to his appointment for radiation treatment at the Washington Cancer Institute at the Washington Hospital Center. On Thursdays, Bell had two appointments: one for the daily dose of radiation and another for a weekly meeting with his oncologist.
“A little [after he left], Washington Hospital calledI saw who it was on caller ID,” says Monique. They wanted to know why Bell was late for his appointment. “This is, like, at 11:00,” Monique says. “I said, ‘He’s already there.’ She said, ‘OK.’”
This wasn’t so unusual; Bell had been late for his radiation appointments on two other occasions. Monique went back to sleep.
Bell finally showed up. Though he was late, his oncologist agreed to see him anyway. In the examination room, a nurse drew Bell’s blood to check the progress of his treatment. Afterward, the doctor gave Bell a brief synopsis of how he was responding to the radiation therapy. Bell was then to go downstairs to Radiation Oncology.
“Let me get your discharge papers ready, so when you come back I have everything ready for you,” a nurse said to him.
Bell turned to his left, toward the elevator and stairwell. Behind him hung quilts bearing images of hands and hearts and flowers. All around were the soothing, homey touches of the Cancer Institute lobby: deep-blue furniture, salmon-speckled tile, dozens of lush, green plants, and a grand piano.
Bursting from the quiet of the waiting room, a man suddenly charged Bell, his outstretched arm holding a gun. “It looked like a metal finger,” went one account. The gun began exploding, rapidly, one shot after another.
Bell and four others fell. The man stood over Bell, shooting him several more times at point-blank range. His work done, the assassin walked calmly out the front door, got into his carparked right off the front entrance cul-de-sacand drove away.
There was a moment of macabre peace, and then the hospital erupted anew, this time with the medical staff scrambling to treat the trauma in their midst. The injured lay on the bullet-chipped tile floor, bleeding, while technicians, doctors, and nurses worked on them. A nurse immediately ran over to Bell and vainly searched for a pulse. She initiated CPR. A surgical resident happened to have a pocket oxygen mask with a one-way valve, which he thrust onto Bell’s face. There was so much blood they couldn’t even tell where the bullet holes were, but within 30 seconds they had restarted a pulse in the man with a franchise on endless chances.
Emergency crews rushed in; Bell was put on a stretcher and whisked out the front door and into an ambulance to the MedSTAR shock-trauma unit in the rear of the hospital; it was faster to drive him around to the back than to gurney him through the endless tile of the halls. The others hittwo employees, another patient, and a volunteerseemed stable, having mainly been grazed by bullet fragments. (In an odd twist of fate, one of the wounded patients was the aunt of Bell’s trainer Leonard Langley.)
Monique says that only five or so minutes after she received the call from the hospital wondering about her tardy fiancé, her mother called. “What are you doing?” she asked her daughter. “You need to turn on the news, ’cause someone got shot where Man was going.” Monique turned on the television and began trying to call the cancer institute, but the line was busy.
Finally she got through. “I asked if Reuben made it to his appointment,” she says. They took her name and number and told her they’d call her back. But it was a homicide detective who called Monique soon after. “He was like, ‘You know what happened, right?’ I was like, ‘What? Was it him?’ He was like, ‘Yes, it was him. He’s, like, gone.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’”
Bell was pronounced dead at 12:19 p.m. in the MedSTAR shock-trauma unit, Feb. 5, 1998.
The funeral home had to work extra-hard to repair Bell’s face. Educated in “restorative art” at the University of the District of Columbia mortuary science department, the mortician took pride in the mourners’ inability to detect Bell’s gruesome face wounds. “We do good work,” he says, well versed in how to cover up a bullet hole. “We handle our share [of bullet wounds],” he says. “This is Washington, D.C.”
Even though Bell spent most of his days walking a line just this side of mortal chaos, everyone he knew was floored that he finally ran out of chances. Right there in the hospital. No more “Sh’boy,” no more “Man,” no more “Reuben Bell, rising middleweight.” How had his past found him in the waiting room of a hospital, they all wanted to know. There was no shortage of potential enemiesfamily members blame the media for reporting on Bell’s daily treatments.
The trouble that eventually caught up with Bell may have started with a roll of the dice three years earlier.
In April 1994, Bell’s friend Fowler was playing dice with 22-year-old Keith Antonio Smith and some others. Fowler, one story goes, pulled a gun on Smith. Smith left with his friends. “We’ll be back,” they yelled.
They were. The next day, someone shot up Fowler’s car, with Fowler and others in it. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Soon after, Tomar Locker, a 19-year-old Maryland public school bus driver, was sitting in a Mercury Topaz with his girlfriend, 17-year-old high school honor student Keisha Cragg. Cragg, also from Oxon Hill, worked tirelessly at both school and after-school jobs, and her future looked bright.
Until Smith approached them in the car, where they were passing the time paging through a high school yearbook. It is unclear if Locker and Smith were friends, but after that day Locker no doubt wished he had never even heard Smith’s name. Suddenly, two men burst out of nowhere, coming at Smith with .45-caliber semiautomatic pistols. They opened fire. Smith was killed outright; Cragg and Locker, in the wrong place at the wrong time, were seriously wounded.
Cragg managed to drive the Topaz to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Her boyfriend was admitted to the hospital with three gunshot wounds to the chest. His condition was grave, but he survived. Cragg wasn’t so lucky. Flown by chopper to Washington Hospital Center, she died soon after.
Fowler was convicted of the murders of Smith and Cragg, sentenced to life in the Maryland Department of Correction Annex in Jessup. Alleged accomplice Southeast Williams was acquitted, but later killed in car crash. Locker testified in both trials.
In newspaper accounts, Bernard Grimm, Williams’ attorney, referred to Bell as the “enforcer” of their gang, and intimated that Bell, not his client, might have been involved in the shootings of Smith, Locker, and Cragg.
The suspicion that Bell played a part in those killings may be why, on Monday, Feb. 23, the police apprehended Locker in South Carolina for the murder at the hospital. The cops had found Locker’s fingerprints on a newspaper in the Washington Cancer Institute lobby and had been tipped off to his whereabouts. On Monday, March 23, he appeared at a preliminary hearing in D.C. Court.
It’s unclear if Bell was involved in the shooting deaths of Smith and Cragg; Bell’s family speculates that Bell’s friendship with Fowler was enough to make him a mark. “Tomar knew that Man was tight with James,” Yvette says. “He knew they [hung] on the hill together,” adds Tiwon.
Some attribute Locker’s motive to a combination of revenge and jealousy. “You see someone who was on TV, this boy fighting Simon Brown,” speculates one of Monique’s cousins. “‘He thinks he all that.’ He starts tripping. He felt like his girlfriend had died. ‘I can’t get the person who did it, so I get the person who was his friend, Reuben Bell.’”
It’s odd that, with all the legitimate animosity against him from years of unsettled scores on the streets, Bell may have died in an act of vengeance for a crime in which he played no role.
Like every hardhead who came and went before him, Bell may have thought he was invincible. His mother knew better.
“Every night when the phone used to ring, I was worried,” she says of the times when Bell was alive. “‘Walk away,’ I used to tell him. All the time. ‘Walk away.’”
“But he never walked away,” says Yvette. CP