For most of his life, Gregory "Silk" Thomas was a pimp and a drug dealer. In the 30 years he has lived in Miami Beach, the 45-year-old ex-con has been arrested so many times that his rap sheet could blanket a good chunk of Ocean Drive. "Being exposed to the streets, I got involved in bullshit," Thomas says. "I was wild."
His last felony conviction came in 2004 for coke possession. After serving nearly a year in Miami-Dade's Turner Guilford Knight correctional facility, Thomas figured he was done fighting the law. He landed a full-time job as a maintenance man at 1100 Lincoln Center, the huge retail complex on the corner of Lincoln and Alton roads, earning close to $3,000 a month. "I didn't have to go back to the streets anymore," he says. "I was proud of what I had accomplished."
Yet despite Thomas's efforts to go on the straight and narrow, Miami Beach Police officers have made it difficult for him to shake his past. Thomas says he has become an easy target for the men in blue patrolling the island city.
Thomas is a tall black man with a thin goatee, a chiseled physique, and a unique style that stands out at Volpe Liquors, on the corner of Washington Avenue and 16th Street, where he likes to buy individual 16-ounce cans of Heineken, his favorite beer. He's hard to miss, with his brown-and-gray dreads popping out like palm fronds from beneath his nylon cap, gold grills fronting his top and bottom teeth, and a silver rope necklace with a pendant of Jesus carrying the cross. He speaks in rapid-fire cadences punctuated by the occasional "Ya feel me?"
On a recent afternoon, oblivious to the spring breakers strolling along the sidewalk, Thomas vents about his somewhat adversarial relationship with Miami Beach's finest. "The veterans who know me from back in the day congratulate me for turning my life around," he says. "But some of these younger dudes hear about my past and they want to use me to make a name for themselves." Thomas has been arrested a half-dozen times since 2005, mostly for inconsequential misdemeanors such as drinking alcohol in public. All of the charges were dismissed.
And then there are the peculiar circumstances surrounding Thomas's abrupt termination. This past February 15, Lincoln Center property manager Jeremiah Johnson fired him, Thomas says, after Walter Zimny, vice president of the New York realty company that owns Lincoln Center, received a phone call from an unknown person claiming Thomas was a thief. "Either Jeremiah lied to me," Thomas says, "or someone of official capacity who knows about my criminal record called Walter." Johnson declined comment. Zimny did not respond to a voicemail message requesting an interview.
Thomas was born March 10, 1963, in Marks, Tennessee. In 1977, he moved in with his uncle in Miami Beach. It wasn't long before he was out hustling. "I was pimping girls from the late Seventies to the early Eighties," he recalls. "After the Mariel boatlift, I got into drug dealing, started using cocaine."
If the government gave out frequent jailbird miles, Thomas would have earned a few free stay-out-of-jail passes by now. Between 1981 and 2004, Miami Beach Police arrested him at least 110 times on a variety of felonies and misdemeanors. He was convicted on 57 of the charges, including three felonies for assaulting a police officer. Yet Thomas walked on other serious charges, including two separate strong-arm robbery felonies. In 2002, a jury acquitted Thomas of felony battery on two Miami Beach cops.
Two days after his birthday in 2004, police popped Thomas for allegedly holding vials of crack cocaine on Washington Avenue. Two months later, he pleaded guilty to a felony count of cocaine possession. "I didn't have a choice," he says. "I didn't have a lawyer and I couldn't bond out." He served 10 months of his 12-month sentence.
During his bit, Thomas says, he sent money earned from his jail job to his now-late friend Jimmy Ray Jones, whose ashes Thomas keeps inside a cardboard box atop the armoire in his living room. "He set up a bank account for me and everything," he remembers. Shortly after Thomas's release, Jones became ill, Thomas continues. At the time, Jones was Lincoln Center's maintenance man. Before he died, Jones essentially bequeathed Thomas his job, persuading then-property manager Paul Radford to hire him. "I don't give credence to people's pasts," Radford says via telephone from his Denver home. "He told me he had a lot of problems but that he wanted to change. I believed him."
Radford says Thomas had keys to the building and an access code to enter the main storage room. "I had to have trust in him, otherwise I would not have kept him on," Radford recalls.
Still, Thomas could not shake off the Miami Beach Police. He was arrested four times in 2006 for drinking in public near Volpe Liquors. According to the 2006 arrest reports, Thomas was caught chugging Natural Ice, Ice House, and Steel Reserve on separate occasions. All four cases were dismissed. Thomas insists he wasn't pounding beers in the street. "And I only drink Heineken."
Although he has not been in the pokey for more than a year, police constantly pull him over, Thomas says. This past December 22, at 9:10 p.m., cops stopped him at 17th Street and Washington Avenue for driving with his high-beams on. He says, "They only pulled me over because I had a white dude riding in the back seat."
The white dude is Randall Lawrence, a personal trainer who that day was helping Thomas load exercise equipment into Thomas's raggedy, rusty Fleetwood Cadillac. "Initially it was peculiar that they stopped us," Lawrence says. "But it turned out to be routine."
However, Thomas seems to have good reason to be suspicious of the po-po. A homeless man who calls himself "Low-Key" claims he saw undercover police officers snooping inside the Caddy while Thomas was shopping at the CVS Pharmacy on Lincoln Road two weeks ago. "They asked me: 'Where Silk at?'" says Low-Key.
This past March 19, shortly after 5 p.m. and with New Times riding shotgun, Thomas again parked his Caddy in the CVS lot. Before he could step out, a uniformed Miami Beach Police officer approached the driver's side door. "Gentlemen, are you waiting on something?" the cop inquired. "Do you have your driver's license? Do you have any weapons in the car?"
An astonished Thomas cocked an eyebrow at the officer and handed him his license. "I'm just asking," the cop said. "You have a good day, sir."
Two days later, Thomas was standing with his homeless friend Richard Habersham at the entrance to an alley near the Meridian Market at Sixth Street and Meridian Avenue. Habersham relayed that a plainclothes detective recently had come looking for intel on Thomas. "He asked what Silk be doing," Habersham said. "Asked me if he was serving dope again."
After a few minutes, a Miami Beach cop pulled up and got out of his patrol car. "You need to be careful with him," he said, gesturing to the homeless man. "He's dangerous."
Thomas shook his head in disbelief. "Being in Miami Beach is like being in another country," he seethed. "The laws don't apply here. Probable cause? That shit's out the door."
Meanwhile, Thomas is without a job and growing more agitated every day. "Man, I'm broke," he says. "I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent." He believes the MBPB wants him committing crimes. "They want me out on the streets peddling dope. But I'm not going crawling down that hole again."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.