They Got Sammy
From the porch of Toby's Market, Sweetcakes can all but see his neighborhood vanish like the swampland it once was. "That house right there," he says pointing across a small municipal park. "A black family owned it for like 40 years. Now a Spanish couple's buying it. This is going on all the time. This community's disappearing. This is a struggle, big-time."
Sweetcakes is mourning Seminola, the traditionally black neighborhood in the middle of Hialeah. From its origins as an outpost for escaped slaves and fugitive Seminole Indians to its history in the segregated South, Seminola's legacy has been one of struggle. Seminolans have struggled with racism, the police, unemployment, drugs, and one another. And now, to hear Sweetcakes tell it, they strive not to disappear.
On good days the place can be as easygoing as the country crossroads it once was. "Like a hick town with a little store in it," one resident observes, though it is no town and it's far from hicksville.
The "little store" he refers to is Toby's, a dog-eared building sitting on a worn bit of sidewalk across from a grassy athletic field on West Fifth Avenue. Toby's serves as the unofficial neighborhood center. The blue paint on its walls is chipped. The front porch lists to the left. A couple of 55-gallon drums turned into barbecues rest in back. On a recent afternoon groups of men sit on the porch and cluster on the sidewalk. One man in dusty jeans leans against a pickup truck, chatting with a stocky fellow whose deep brown skin, as impenetrably dark as coal, is offset by his white T-shirt. "At the canal they catchin' specs," the big man says, the gold teeth in his mouth glinting like sparks. Two rigged fishing rods lie in the bed of his truck. Holding up his hands, he adds: "This big."
Toby's is where the men of Seminola have always come to learn valuable things: news and sports tips, which horses are running fast at nearby Hialeah Park, where to get a cheap muffler. They learn which couples are breaking up and where the jobs are. They also hear who has just been arrested, who has just been sentenced, and who is looking for a little action.
By most accounts the brightest man to step off the porch in a long time is the store's former owner, Sammy Wilson. Slim, with salt-and-pepper hair and a short beard like a used Brillo pad, Wilson grew up in Seminola and lived there until he bought himself a little condo in Carol City. But he visited the porch almost every day of his adult life. He'd park his red Honda Civic by the curb, unfold the newspaper on the steering wheel, and pore over the events of the past day with a critical eye, itching to challenge the implied conclusions contained in the pages.
"Sammy, he's one of the brightest black guys to come up in Seminola," says his cousin Bobby. "He had what we call book sense and street sense."
"He always enjoyed a good brain fight," says his friend Sweetcakes. "He knew the law, and when people in the neighborhood got wronged he'd step up for them."
With a near photographic memory and an aptitude for math, Wilson's innate talents might have lifted him off the raggedy porch if his life had been different. But it's unlikely. He felt too comfortable here. In an odd way, Wilson cared too much about Seminola to leave. He cared about it not in a rah-rah civic sense but in an us-against-them, we-may-be-dirt-poor-but-fuck-with-us-and-you'll-see-what-we're-made-of way. So instead of getting a job, Wilson visited the porch. And eventually he made a name for himself.
Wilson became a sort of patron saint for the fallen. He set out to defend the rights of drug dealers and convicts. He was famous for filing brutality and harassment complaints against the Hialeah Police Department. He brought in the American Civil Liberties Union to stave off what he said were indiscriminate police searches and attacked mismanagement of a government program set up to provide jobs for the unemployed. And he became a one-man relief effort for his buddies in the system. He racked up thousands of dollars in phone bills taking calls from inmates who needed help, and he sent money and care packages to them and their families.
But Wilson was an unrepentant drug dealer himself. Ever since he was a kid in a segregated Dade County hustling dollar joints, the narcotics marketplace was the one constant in the ghetto's uncertain economy. "I've got to tell you, Sammy Wilson is one of the most likable people I've ever met," recounts Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "He was a very smart guy. He could have been anything he wanted. But he was there to do wrong to the community."
Wrong or right, it beat trying to find work in the white world. But such employment is unstable. Now there's an empty spot on the porch at Toby's Market.
"They got me this time." Sammy Wilson says it matter-of-factly after ordering lunch at Joe's Seafood on the Miami River late last year. His shoulders are slightly rounded, like a boxer with bad posture. Wilson is sporting a red and blue tracksuit and one of his floppy knit caps that, he notes, a lady in prison makes for him in a variety of colors. He talks in a quick rasp. The "they" to whom he refers are the police. Wilson was caught with two kilos of cocaine in his house. The admission comes just as a waiter arrives with crackers and fish spread. Wilson continues, explaining that he brokered a deal between a friend and someone else. The friend, he says, set him up. Because of prior convictions, Wilson is facing 30 years in prison. He is 49 years old, has prostate cancer and degenerative eye disease, no health insurance, and $30,000 in credit-card debt. What goes unsaid is that he figures he'll die behind bars. "I'm going to fight it," he declares. "What else can I do? Even if they offer me 15 years, it's still as bad as 30."
The waiter stops by with the grouper chowder. Wilson dips his spoon into the broth. "The hell of it is, if it had been any other guy, I probably would have known," he says about the snitch. "But this guy was like family."
He was on painkillers at the time because of his cancer treatments. The drugs made him groggy. "Otherwise I would have known," he says. "All that talking on the phone. I was breaking all the rules."
Then he leans back and lets the five decades of anger and resentment he's distilled into a dark wit seep out. "Hell, they didn't have to resort to this trickery. This motherfucker didn't have to set me up. All they had to do was call me up and say, We got some room in jail; we gotta put some niggers in it. You want to come back?' I would have gone back."
Although Hialeah officially was founded in 1925, "there were blacks there long before whites moved in," notes historian and Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Back in the mid-1800s, when Hialeah was nothing more than Everglades swampland, a mixed alliance of escaped black slaves and their offspring, along with a community of Seminole Indians dodging the marauding U.S. Army, lived together. In the Third Seminole War, which ended in 1855, both groups fought against the army. Afterward they lingered on to farm. Despite attempts to move them out during the Twentieth Century, "a small band of them remained until the very end," Dunn says.
Hialeah may have transformed from white to predominantly Latin, but the twenty-block section known as Seminola has always belonged to the city's blacks.
Sammy Wilson didn't descend from that early gang of desperadoes -- his mother's family came from Georgia. But for all the reckless defiance with which he's lived his life, he might as well have.
And to hear him talk, the old days when Seminola was black and the races didn't mix suited him just fine. "We had a better time back then than we do now," he reminisces. "I mean, you never lived until you been a nigger on a Friday or Saturday. Them was the good old days. You didn't have the bullshit with the police. They just said, Them is Negroes; let them take care of themselves.' There were no robberies. Nobody locked their doors." Life was simple. Wilson and his two brothers and two sisters grew up in a wood-frame three-bedroom house. His mom cleaned planes for Pan Am. His dad lived in Detroit. "Growing up we just went from season to season," he recounts. "You know, football, basketball, baseball. That's the way it went. We used to beat the shit out of the white boys." He pitched and played first base on the Miami Springs Senior High School team.
"I'm the one who thinks integration hurt blacks more than it helped them," he rasps. "Oh yeah, blacks have lost a lot of their morals since they started hanging around white folks. Like respect for elders. Back in the day, blacks was more happy than they are today. They didn't have much. They didn't want much. Now they coming into the mainstream, and they getting all in debt."
He and his neighborhood buddies didn't get jobs -- there were none in Seminola, and white people weren't hiring blacks elsewhere. The only employment available was busing tables or cutting lawns. Without cars it was hard to get even those jobs. Especially if you were a surly teen.
"It was real racist back then," Wilson points out. "Every once in a while it would make you think. But it's not like you could do anything about it." So he and his friends found other ways to make money. Beginning in the sixth grade, pitching pennies against the wall, they learned to gamble, eventually graduating to the corner pool hall. "That was everybody's meeting place," he remembers. "I was a pool shooter. I'd shoot the lights out of anything. I was a real hustler." In the backroom they'd play craps. "That's how I got hooked on gambling. I bet any goddamn thing. I bet I could piss farther than you. It wasn't no big-money games. If you won $60, you won something." Then you'd scoot over to Burger King and buy everyone a burger.
When he was about sixteen years old, Wilson discovered another way to augment his income. "My first transaction? You mean the first time I sold drugs? That was a long time ago. Probably about 1966 or '67. It was just a little pot deal. Everybody used to sell pot in matchboxes. I'd buy an ounce for $15 and break it down and put it in matchboxes and sell it for $5 a matchbox. You could get six and a half matchboxes out of an ounce. You'd make $35. If you got it on Friday, you'd be done with it by Sunday morning."
Back then drugs were a black thing, but when white people started stopping by to cop, it meant more money and more heat from the police.
In 1971 Hialeah cops charged Wilson with marijuana possession. The records of the arrest have been destroyed, but Wilson once described the circumstances to a newspaper. Someone, he said, "gave me $50 to go buy $20 worth of drugs." He was sentenced to two years probation.
He asserts he never smoked the stuff himself. His rush was gambling.
Sammy Wilson wasn't just hooked on gambling; he was good at it. Given how he grew up, random luck made as much sense as anything else. He took a job selling tickets at Hialeah Park, the horseracing track next to Seminola, and set about on a life trying to beat the odds.
His introduction to the high stakes came in the summer of 1975, when a 24-year-old Wilson traveled to Las Vegas with some friends from the track. He took $700 with him to the craps table. "I left with zilch," he remembers. "I had to learn how to play."
That he did. His first big Vegas hit came in 1979, when he raked in $45,000 playing craps and blackjack. "Then I was like, Ohhhhh, this is a good game, how long this one been around?'" he says. That set in motion a frenzied rush when money poured in and out of his life. In 1980, according to an Internal Revenue Service statement, Wilson took in $300,000 in gambling winnings and reported $300,000 in losses. In 1981 he reported winning $485,900. And so on. Wilson cautions that it looks better than it is. "You didn't necessarily make $300,000 just because it went through your hands," he explains. "And it wasn't that I was good; it was that I bet big, so when I hit, I hit big. Naw, I never thought of quitting while I was ahead. You can't quit. The day you lay off is the day they pay off."
When he had cash, he lived large. He bought a black BMW 320i. He traveled: Amsterdam, Paris, Italy. He has snapshots of himself by the Eiffel Tower in bell-bottom pants. One thing stands out in the photos: He's always alone. Wilson never married. "When you're gambling, it's chicken today, feathers tomorrow," he quips. "That ain't no way to bring up a family. I'm telling you, I'm selfish, selfish, selfish. And I'm no one-woman man. I get tired after a while."
In 1983 he bought Tony's Market, which was renamed Toby's after one of Wilson's brothers who died. (Wilson's sister runs it today.) He never talked about why he bought the store, which, according to local lore, has been continuously operating for 100 years. Even today police posit that it was simply a needed cover for his street narcotics sales. But friends say Wilson owned the market out of pride; he wanted to preserve one of Seminola's landmarks.
What energy he decided to expend on people other than himself went mostly toward confronting the Hialeah Police Department, which was aggressively attacking drug sales in Seminola. As a result cops would stop black men outside the market and make them show their ID and sometimes photograph them before ordering them to move along. Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez defended his force, telling newspapers at the time that he ordered the sweeps in response to the burgeoning drug trade. "Police ask people who are wandering around, loitering, to fill out field-interview cards," Martinez told the Miami Herald's "Neighbors" section in 1986.
This riled Wilson. He developed a political consciousness of sorts. The cops may have wanted to clean up the drugs, but, as the saying goes, even a drug dealer got a momma. Many of these men were Wilson's friends. He thought their rights were being violated. And he knew his way around the law. For instance after his conviction for marijuana possession, Wilson appealed to the governor's office for executive clemency. The governor's office complied, restoring Wilson's rights as a citizen.
When the police started clamping down, Wilson started piping up. In 1984, while the cops were trying to disperse a crowd outside a store across the park from the market, Wilson jumped up on a picnic table and, according to a newspaper article, yelled: "You ain't going to tell us what to do! This ain't South Africa!" Police charged him with disorderly conduct. He beat the charge.
In fact over the next few years he'd be charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and drug possession. Judges either dismissed the charges, or had them reduced to the time he served while waiting to appear in court. "They were just trying to run me out of town," he believes.
Mayor Martinez responds wearily to Wilson's decades-old allegations: "Nobody was trying to run him out of town, and nobody's rights were being violated. Sammy was just trying to create a diversion for the problems he created."
Wilson believed the cops were after him because he had targeted Donald Scott, president of the Hialeah Seminola Community Development Corporation, as an enemy of Seminola. "He was trying to sell out the community," Wilson asserts. "The mayor needed a black figurehead, and he appointed Scott." (A long-time civic activist, Scott was an ally of Martinez, who appointed him head of the CDC.)
Wilson claimed Scott was taking money meant to create jobs in the community and squandering it. He held meetings outside his store denouncing Scott, otherwise respected in the black community. Scott in turn dismissed Wilson, telling a newspaper: "I do not feel these people are interested in helping the community."
Even as he confronted Scott, Wilson didn't miss a chance to tweak the cops. In 1987, after a state law was enacted allowing residents to carry firearms as long as they were openly displayed, Wilson strapped a holstered 9mm Beretta around his waist and stepped outside. Police promptly charged him with possession of a firearm by a felon. Wilson became the first person in Florida prosecuted after the law went into effect. But Wilson again embarrassed the cops. His clemency had restored his right to bear arms; the charges were dropped. The day after he was exonerated Wilson slung an enormous Colt Python revolver around his hips. "I let the motherfuckers know I knew the law," Wilson says. "The law was the gun had to be in a holster. I was a law abiding-citizen."
No gambler's luck holds out forever, and when Sammy Wilson started to lose, a lot was at stake. By 1986 he owed the IRS $85,000. The government garnisheed his wages from his job at the track.
As Wilson knew too well, there were other ways to make money. He won't talk in anything but generalities about his drug dealing, possibly to protect others who were involved. But he asserts that it was less nefarious than the public perceives. "It's not a drug underworld, not really," he says. "You turn around and might do a deal with somebody here, and you got three people you got to cut in. Shit, most of the deals have more slices than a pizza, and you don't get nothing."
He estimates he did his first cocaine transaction around 1986. "I put some people together. Somebody that used to live here come up and said what he was looking for, and I put him together with somebody and the guy throwed me a few dollars." He dealt only in "bricks," a kilo or more.
"It wasn't like I was doing it for a business," he adds. "People would come around and see you hanging on a corner and start asking questions, and someone would say, He knows everybody; try him.' This would happen like three or four times a year." The most he would make on any given deal was about $15,000 to $20,000. The least? "Oh, about zip."
The casual nature of the business is not how Hialeah police described it in October 1989, when they busted Wilson and ten others, including his half-brother Anthony Etheridge, after a yearlong undercover investigation in which agents made a series of purchases. Authorities labeled the market the "nerve center" of a "sophisticated" drug operation that sold as much as $75,000 per week in powder and crack cocaine. "We believe we have effectively dismantled the Sammy Wilson-Anthony Etheridge organization," Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños said at a news conference.
For the man who had logged so many harassment complaints against Hialeah officers that Bolaños refused to accept any more of them, nabbing Wilson must have seemed like an early Christmas. "Mr. Wilson may have thought he was some kind of community activist," recalls Hialeah Lt. Mark Overton. "But he's basically a narcotics trafficker. That's all there is to Mr. Wilson. His motive for filing the harassment complaints was to intimidate officers to stay out of his drug hole."
"I got caught breaking the law," Wilson reflects. "Bam, I got caught. But they never would have been focusing on me unless I was focusing on him [Donald Scott]. But I don't cry wolf. Like I said, they got me."
His nemesis, Scott, wasted no time delivering the coup de grâce. The CDC negotiated to buy the market. The sale never went through.
Wilson, meanwhile, was sentenced to twelve years, of which he served seven. He claims to have made the adjustment easily. After all, he is a man of routines, and prison is a place of routines. "In prison the only change for me was you can't come and go when you want, and you can't eat what you want," he recounts. "When you go in and look around, hell, it looks like a family reunion. I know other people commit crimes in Florida other than black people, but you can't tell from prison."
Prison didn't shut him up. He harangued the system into enforcing its no-smoking policy in the dormitories and wrote letters to newspapers about the unsuitability of work camps for those serving long sentences.
He was first diagnosed with cancer while behind bars. And it was during his incarceration that he became close friends with Rickey Brownlee, an Opa-locka drug dealer serving five years for selling narcotics. "My partner Rick, I tell ya, I'd take ten bullets for him right here, right now," he says. "I mean that's how much love and respect I got for the man." Their friendship would continue, with mixed results, after both were freed.
In 1997 prison officials released Sammy Wilson, a changed man in a changed world. "When I came back [to Seminola], I thought I was Rip Van Winkle. I thought I had slept through a revolution. All these Cubans. You couldn't hardly walk through nigger town. A lot of families I grew up with was gone."
After prison he also felt like a stranger in his home. "It soured me. Some of the same people I was trying to help turned their back on me. Prison made me ... not bitter ... but less caring."
Wilson spent most of his time alone, watching ESPN and CNN. He still visited the porch at the market but kept to himself, reading the paper. One of his friends, Sweetcakes, says some people were angry at Wilson for "messing with the Cubans," who locals believed brought the heat down on Seminola. Wilson also spent hours on the phone with inmates all over Florida. He has boxes full of letters from prisoners, most seeking help.
Many of those missives are from inmate #814277, Tommy P. Moore, who wrote from the Holmes Work Camp. From a May 2, 1997, letter: "One thing for sure and that is I am and has always been a man of my word because ... a man's word is his bond, so Sammy if I tell you I am going to do something for sure you can count on it.... All I ask is for you to have things ready for me when I call you and I will be down there."
There are other letters from Moore, thanking Wilson for small favors, photographs sent, people contacted. "I see where you said your phone bill was $465 and that's why I call just once a month," Moore noted.
And Wilson hung out with Brownlee, who had left prison in 1993 and was running a restaurant and grocery store in Opa-locka. By the time Wilson got out, the DEA already was deep into a covert investigation of Brownlee and his businesses. Wilson's friendship with Brownlee would cost him.
The Drug Enforcement Agency busted Brownlee in 1998. Wilson wasn't implicated in that arrest, but later, when federal agents heard Wilson talking to Brownlee in prison, helping take care of business matters with his lawyers, the U.S. Attorney's Office subpoenaed Wilson to testify before a grand jury that was further investigating Brownlee for money laundering. Wilson invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. So Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Dewaard sought a judge's order granting Wilson immunity. He couldn't hide behind the Fifth Amendment anymore. Wilson still refused to testify against his friend. So the feds threw Wilson in the federal detention center in downtown Miami for a year on contempt-of-court charges.
"I ain't never told on anybody in my life," he says. "And I wasn't about to start then. My reputation is stand-up."
Being a stand-up guy is more than just a moral code for men like Sammy Wilson. It means you don't have to watch your back in and out of prison. One thing about the war on drugs: It has created a culture of Judases in the hood. The first thing cops and prosecutors do when they nab someone with drugs is try to get them to give up other people, a kind of law-enforcement pyramid scheme.
That's what happened when the Alachua County Sheriff's Office pulled over Wilson's prison buddy Tommy Moore on August 12, 1999, in Gainesville and found a large amount of cocaine in the car. "Moore indicated to investigators that he wished to cooperate," an affidavit by one of the investigator's states. He cooperated by giving up Wilson. Moore told police that during the past two years he had made one trip a month to Wilson's home to pick up a minimum of a kilo of cocaine.
On December 12, 1999, Moore called Wilson on a recorded telephone line while investigators listened, and asked for a "deuce" -- two kilos. "Wilson advised Moore that it was a good time to come and that Moore was going to love it' [cocaine]," the affidavit states. The price would be $22,000. Moore arranged to drive down to Miami on December 29.
At 12:30 p.m. on December 30, Wilson met Moore outside his home. "It was just like Elian," Wilson recounts. "He pulled up, and they pulled up right behind him. Had to be 30 or 40 of them. A whole SWAT team was there, plus detectives plus green-and-whites [county police cars]. They put us both on the ground, like I didn't know this was a setup. They're so stupid."
As soon as a handcuffed Wilson was put in the back seat of a police cruiser, a detective asked him if he wanted to make a deal. "They kept asking me, do I want to cooperate? No, I want an attorney." Inside his house the cops found two kilos on the kitchen floor. He was released on a $50,000 bond.
"There's no doubt about it, it was me on the phone," Wilson confesses. "But what I'm telling you is this guy twisted my arm. I'm not saying I was no fucking angel, but I'm telling you I was not selling drugs. I just brokered the deal, because, like I said, I knew him."
September 26, 2000. Wilson awaits sentencing. As the latest capture in America's war on drugs stands before Circuit Court Judge Barbara Levenson, it's clear these are pretty scrawny pickings for the government. At 49 years old, Wilson is hunched over in pain from his cancer, his eyes clouded with cataractlike growths that threaten to blind him soon. He's broke and doesn't have enough good luck left to win a coin toss. Even the prosecutors agreed to give him a deal. Wilson pleaded guilty in exchange for a ten-year sentence. He faced 30 years. The judge gives him a couple of weeks to see an eye doctor.
In the days leading up to his incarceration, Wilson becomes more reclusive than ever. "Aw, fuck it, I'd rather die and be reincarnated as a goddamn white French poodle in Coral Gables than come back as a nigger," he fumes. "Ain't nothing but a world of trouble for a nigger." He hasn't been able to pay for his radiation treatments for some time. He has no insurance and sporadically was using his credit card, incurring a tremendous debt. Now, depending on the pain, he'll stay in his chair or in bed most of the day. "Right at this moment," he says, "I need $20,000 worth of medical treatment. That's the biggest change. I don't have to worry about my medical bills." [Governor] Bush is going to have to pay for it now."
He hasn't told his family yet. He plans to call them from jail. "My problems are my problems. I don't want to be a burden on nobody," he explains. "They know wherever I go I'll be okay. I'm a survivor wherever I go."
It's hot on Toby's porch this late afternoon. Sweetcakes, in shorts and a floppy hat, has taken refuge in the shade. "This community is vanishing, drifting away. We don't have a plan. We don't have a community leader. We desperately need one."
No, he says, Sammy Wilson was not thought of as a community leader. Maybe he could have been. "Sammy spoke for his self," Sweetcakes says. "Sammy's thing was if he saw someone wronged, he'd step in and tell them they was being wronged. When they come around here with those gung-ho Jim Crow tactics, Sammy was going to speak up. He wasn't really a leader. He was a good friend. I'm going to miss him. If I could do some of his time for him, I would. He'd never turn his back on you."
As if on cue, Sweetcakes turns his back, and slouches down West Fifth, his hat low over his eyes to fight the glare of the slowly setting Seminola sun.
Get the Weekly Newsletter