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The call came in the middle of the day. They normally did. And once I heard his voice, I knew it would be far more interesting than sorting through my notes about Miami's latest bureaucratic squabble.
His voice was husky and animated: "It was Memorial Day weekend in 2001 and we were on South Beach, on Washington between Fifteen and Sixteenth streets. He's staring at all these people crowding in there and he says " (here the caller's voice shifts to imitate a high-pitched Middle Eastern accent) "' Imagine, one bomb. Boom! All these people dead! It would be glorious! Glorious!'"
The caller was allegedly quoting Mohammed Atta, the Saudi Arabian ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers.
There were a lot of allegedlys in his story, which he revealed to me in a series of conversations during March and April of this year. I would often find myself exhausted from trying to keep up with his rambling narratives. He wove a tale involving terrorist cells and black-market explosives, and alluded to an al Qaeda member at large in the U.S. He believed another terrorist attack would take place in Miami.
He enticingly offered to let me view Atta's suicide tape, which he said was in a duffel bag he'd stolen from Atta shortly before the September 11 attacks.
After each installment, I'd review my notes to see what I could verify. Certain details checked out. No proof positive, but enough intriguing specifics in police reports, court records, and other public documents to whet the appetite of any reporter. Each call inched me closer to a predicament I'd never faced: Would there come a point when my responsibilities as a U.S. citizen would trump my professional role as a journalist? A point when I'd feel obligated to contact someone in law enforcement?
In hindsight I wonder if I willed myself into a suspension of disbelief. If this story were true, it might be vital to national security. Yet how likely was that? Not very. Of course, I wouldn't write anything until I had irrefutable proof namely, Atta's suicide tape.
The interaction between journalists and anonymous sources is always a kind of dance, often initiated amid mutual mistrust. A source doesn't know precisely how his information will be used, and risks having his identity revealed. A reporter tries to determine the source's motivation while verifying information. Journalists know they're being used; they simply need to ensure that the manipulation doesn't affect the facts. My secret caller never asked for money or any other form of compensation or consideration only that his story be told accurately. He contacted me, he said, after deciding he wanted his story in New Times.
He called himself Mr. Black and claimed to be a "high-level general in the Folk Nation," an alliance of outlaw groups from around the country, the most dominant member of which is the notorious black street gang the Crips. He made sure I knew he wasn't in Miami; he would mention various places in the South from which he was supposedly calling North Carolina, Georgia, Tampa. "At the very tail end of this thing it's going to get ugly," he told me on March 2. "There's too much compilation of too much shit. It ends with you or me or a whole lot of other people dead. What do I get out of this? I guess at the end of the day you got to put your own spin on it."
Was he delusional? He certainly didn't soundcrazy. His conversations tracked. He peppered his stories with precise dates and locations.
Mr. Black was raised in New Orleans. The outlaw life, he claimed, was in his bloodline. His great-grandfather had been a gangster in Chicago and had faced down Al Capone. "My paternal grandfather adopted me back in Louisiana when I was like ten or eleven. He'd been in prison, racketeering charges back in the Fifties. He did time in Alcatraz. He died in '85. When he died, because of who he was, I became that person."
He said he started out as a member of the Rolling 60s Crips, and he claimed to have been instrumental in forging a 1991 truce between the Crips and their archrivals, the Bloods. "Let me tell you where I'm coming from," he said. "I could give a shit about the United States government. I don't vote. I don't use my Social Security number for shit. Here's my thing my oath, my code, my people: It's all about the sovereignty of the Louisiana Territories. Everything is based on that. That is the bottom line."
In contrast to other narrative details, he was vague about his own criminal activities. At one point he mentioned he was a "money man," raising cash for people who wanted to buy guns or drugs. He spoke French as a result of his New Orleans upbringing, so he often did business in Canada. That is where his circuitous journey to Miami began. In 2000 Mr. Black was in Toronto to conduct business (which he wouldn't describe) with a Chinese organization called the Hai Wop Sing. At some point he ended up in jail (he wouldn't say why), where he noticed that incarcerated Chinese gang members clustered around an Iranian named Monsour Ahani. "From the way I saw it, Monsour Ahani was most likely a paid assassin. You could tell by the way he moved when he was in a fight. He used Angolan jiujitsu. He knew way too much to be a schmuck." For some reason this Iranian was protected by Chinese gangsters inside jail.