JUST WANTED TO SHARE A LITTLE HISTORY
Sometime in the past 15 years, Rafael Martinez chopped off his jheri curl. Perhaps that's not too surprising for a guy who is doing time at an upstate prison. Few hairstyles require more maintenance, and the average prison commissary isn't likely to stock rearranging cream and curl rods.
Then again, to anyone who has spent time flipping through his rap sheet, Martinez's current lack of a jheri curl is notable. After all, back in the early '90s, when Martinez was arrested, he was no run-of-the-mill criminal. Rather, he was the ringleader of the so-called Jheri Curls, one of the earliest, most violent, and best branded of the Dominican gangs of Nueva York.
During their reign over the cocaine trade in upper Manhattan in the early '90s, the Jheri Curls drove gold-painted cars and wore their hair in a uniform style: long, loose, and greasy. From the safe distance of history, that may sound quaint—a gang of dudes looking like a mid-'80s version of Michael Jackson. But the Jheri Curls were no joke.
One time, a girlfriend made fun of gang leader Rafael Martinez's limp. He responded, she later told authorities, by shooting her in the kneecap.
Others who crossed paths with the gang weren't even that lucky. A retired social worker named Jose Reyes objected to the Jheri Curls' selling drugs out of his building. He wasn't afraid to tell them. He got a bullet in the head.
On a hot summer day in 1991, Rafael Martinez's little brother Lorenzo set out for Queens to fetch some money, according to prosecutors from the New York County district attorney's office. It was two days shy of the Fourth of July, and life was good for the Jheri Curls. They were pulling in several million dollars a year in cocaine sales, and the Martinez brothers were living in a comfy house in Queens, a safe distance from the cesspool of their workplace.
After picking up the cash from his house, Lorenzo headed back to Manhattan. At the Triborough Bridge, the police pulled him over and searched his car.
To get access to his car's secret compartment, according to prosecutors, you had to proceed through an elaborate ritual: Turn on the car lights. Press the brake pedal. Connect two points under the dashboard with a coin. Only then would the chambers unlock on either side of the backseat.
But somehow the police seemed to know his car's secrets. They confiscated $22,500 in cash, a loaded .45-caliber automatic gun, a loaded .44-caliber revolver, and 20 or so rounds of ammunition.
That day, if Lorenzo hadn't been busted, he might have ended up back at one of the Jheri Curls' business headquarters, a six-story apartment building located at 614 West 157th Street. From the sidewalk, near the intersection with Riverside Drive, a long, barren courtyard led to the building's lobby. On either side of the courtyard, the building's near symmetrical wings rose up six stories, giving the overall layout a U-shaped appearance.
Two of the apartments in that building, like Lorenzo's ride, had supposedly been outfitted with all sorts of James Bond trickery, including secret trapdoors that concealed stashes of guns, drugs, and money. But the setup protected their business operations from the vicissitudes of the street. It was a buffer, with an elevator and a lobby.
Pauline Turner watched as the police robot rolled through the long, barren courtyard, approaching her building.
It was the early '90s, and Turner was living on the second floor of the Jheri Curls' building at 614 West 157th Street. From her window, she looked at the robot in disbelief. "There were ambulances and police cars," recalled Turner. "Here comes this robot. I said, 'What is this?' I still don't know. Nobody told us anything. I find out the next day that there was supposed to be a bomb in the elevator shaft."
Some 15 years later, Turner, now 85, widowed, and retired, still lives in the same apartment she moved into with her husband in the early '60s. Back then, Turner explains, most of the building, like the surrounding neighborhood, was Jewish. Turner and her husband were one of the first black families to make the building their home.
Over the next 40 years, Turner watched as whites gave way to black people, blacks gave way to Dominicans, and Dominicans gave way to Central Americans. Now the neighborhood is slowly turning white again.
What was the building like back in the early '90s when the Jheri Curls moved in? To hear Turner tell it, living next door to the drug dealers wasn't all that much different from living next door to anybody else. Just another group passing by in the halls. Plus the occasional bomb-sniffing robot. Plus the occasional shooting.
"They were quiet," said Turner. "I would be coming up the steps, they would help with my groceries. Very well-dressed people."
What annoyed Turner about the occasional outbursts of mayhem was the lack of communication about it from the police. Exhibit A: the murder in the lobby of a man thought to be a gang member.
The leader: Rafael Martinez
Now retired from the NYPD, James Gilmore thinks back to the days when the Jheri Curls cruised up and down West 157th Street in gold-painted Mercedeses and Jeeps and recalls the death threats they left for him back at the 34th Precinct or the charred corpse that cops found on a nearby rooftop or the automatic-weapon fire the Jheri Curls sometimes sprayed into the air. That era makes him think about Hurricane Katrina.
"People were afraid of them—the other drug dealers were afraid of them," recalled Gilmore. "They had a reputation that if you crossed them, or whatever else, you would be taken out. The residents in there were petrified about speaking about them."
"The silence between the residents and the police was reciprocal and ran deep.
At the time, Robert Jackall, a sociology professor at Williams College, was working on a book about the Wild Cowboys, another Dominican street gang in Washington Heights. During his research, Jackall tagged along with various police officers as they rolled through the streets of upper Manhattan. Seeing but not seeing, recalled Jackall, was a strategy not just for the residents of the Jheri Curls building, but also for the entire neighborhood.
"Snitches get stitches," said Jackall. "That was the maxim. You never stuck your nose in other people's business. Ever. And if you found yourself caught there accidentally, you made sure that other people would not cause any problems."
At the time, due to the thriving cocaine trade in the area, federal agents used to call Washington Heights "Miami on the Hudson." Local cops, who struggled to get neighborhood witnesses to talk about crimes they had seen, had another nickname for the Fort Washington section of Washington Heights. They called it "Fort 'Yo No Sé' " —"Fort 'I Don't Know.' "
During the salad days of the Jheri Curls gang, Rafael Martinez managed to invest a heap of savings in the Dominican Republic. The nest egg, prosecutors said, included three houses, a gas station, and two trucks. But Martinez never made it back to the Dominican Republic. Instead, in October 1991, five months after the murder of Jose Reyes, the state of New York threw Martinez a going-away party of sorts.
They arrested Martinez along with his brothers and some 20 other members of the Jheri Curls gang. The indictments, on numerous charges, were based in large part on the work of James Gilmore and the members of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force—a tag-team effort between the NYPD and the district attorney's office.
At a news conference the day of the arrests, District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau invoked the murder of Jose Reyes and accused the Jheri Curls of carrying out the shooting.
During the subsequent trial, the Jheri Curls came unraveled, testifying against one another. Assistant District Attorney Fernando Camacho had little trouble convincing the jury of their guilt. And Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder (who later ran against Morgenthau for D.A.) had little trouble handing out stiff sentence after stiff sentence. The murder of Jose Reyes, however, never resulted in a conviction. Lorenzo Martinez and a Jheri Curls member named Roberto Gonzalez were eventually acquitted of the crime (but were convicted of other crimes related to their involvement with the Curls).
Nevertheless, the rigorous prosecution of the Jheri Curls and later of the Wild Cowboys andYoung Talented Children gangs, eventually helped snuff out Dominican gangdom in New York, according to Jackall. In the mid '90s, just as reports of Dominican gangs in New York began dwindling, stories about the arrival of Dominican gangs began popping up in places like Hartford, Connecticut, said Jackall. In other words, the Dominican gangs eventually did what countless other aging groups have done in New York as they grew older, became more established, or just plain got sick of the hassles of the city: They moved to Connecticut.
All three addressed the court. At one point, Cesar disputed his convictions and noted that during his original trial several Jheri Curls had testified against him only after cutting deals with the prosecutors.
In turn, Assistant District Attorney Luke Rettler replied that testimony from fellow conspirators was often the only way to proceed in cases like that of the Jheri Curls gang, particularly in neighborhoods like Washington Heights, where witnesses had been intimidated and killed.
"Most people would never, ever testify against these defendants," said Rettler. "They so terrified the neighborhood."
Rafael Martinez's lawyer, Sara Gurwitch, acknowledged to Judge Eduardo Padro her client's long list of convictions stemming from his years with the Jheri Curls, including murder in the second degree, criminal sale of a firearm, and multiple counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance. All told, the convictions add up to 213 years in prison.
But under the drug-sentencing-reform laws of 2004, Gurwitch argued, Rafael Martinez deserves to have his time behind bars reduced. Instead of dying in prison, she argued, Rafael should be allowed to see a parole board sometime around 2053—about the time of his 85th birthday.