Category Archives: Crime & Politics

“Goldman Sachs Rules The World”

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If you missed this, the “Goldman Sachs Rules the World” quote consumed the Twitter- and blogo-sphere the last couple of days. But it turns out the real lesson here is how easy it is to get your face on television.

Drugs, Drugs, Drugs

I wrote this piece on the Top 10 Drug Corners in Philadelphia—a sequel—over the summer. The project was typical of what I think we’ll be seeing in journalism’s future—a long, investigative project made possible by a grant, in this case from the J-Lab at American University.

It was also a collaboration among publications, picked up by Philadelphia Weekly and edited by Jonathan Valania at Phawker (Phawker = Gawker in Philadelphia. Get it?.)

Here’s an excerpt, the first bit of the lede, with a link at the bottom for the rest.

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In 2007, I wrote a cover story for this publication called “Top 10 Drug Corners,” which ranked the city’s most depressing and dangerous drug corners like Philadelphia magazine ranks pizza or bars or bikini wax salons. After all, when you strip away all the blood and guts and stray gunfire, drug dealing is, at heart, competitive retailing of a rare and precious commodity: Feeling good. There is, of course, a huge market for such a commodity, especially in places that are inhospitable to legitimate business and industry. Which is why the drug trade always seems to flourish in places where angels fear to tread. Philadelphia, one of the poorest major cities in America, has many such places.

In many of the city’s neighborhoods, the opportunities for gainful employment are so scarce and hopelessness so abundant that a vacuum has been created—and nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. With no noise of legitimate enterprise to fill the air—no rumble of a truck toting freight, no murmur of conversation from shoppers mingling on the sidewalk—the most prevalent sounds arise from the underground economy.

“Wet, wet, wet.”
“Xannies!”
“Suboxone!”
“Oxy!”
“Greenies!”

“Dope?”
“You smokin’ that crack?”
“What you need?”

Eight different come-ons, from a vast collection of different Philadelphians—white, black and Latino; young, middle-aged and graying. And all these offers speak to the same basic truths: Philadelphia is awash in the narcotics trade. And like all illicit economies, the drug trade begets a brutal gangsterism whose stock in trade is violence—on an industrial scale. The statistics are as astonishing as they are appalling. “We’ve had 16,000 shootings here in the last 10 years,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Reed. “Sixteen—THOUSAND!”

That averages out to four Philadelphians being shot every day, or one citizen every six hours. Since 2008, more Americans have been murdered in Philadelphia than killed in Iraq. In other words, we have the equivalent of an undeclared shooting war raging semi-visibly in the city’s most desolate and depleted neighborhoods. And Philadelphia is hardly the exception to the rule. Rather, depressingly enough, it is the rule.

As a result, the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia are cut off from the most basic aspects of personhood that the rest of us take for granted. They live in constant fear of seemingly random violence, which, sustained year after year, has created an increasingly common mindset—which some would call cynical and others would call being realistic—that the powers that be either cannot help them, do not care to help them, or, even worse, somehow profit from their suffering.

Read the rest, here:

News-gate Threatens to Consume Us All In a Fiery Ball of Corruption and Deceit

The arrest, this past weekend, of Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of The News of the World, shook me up pretty good.

As a reporter, I kept expecting to see a firewall of sorts erected at some point. I’m not naive enough to think journalists are above the same bad behavior as everyone else. But this sort of systematic chicanery goes beyond any previous newspaper scandal of which I’m aware. In short, I expect the occasional writer to go all Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair and just start making stuff up. Sad as that might be, those guys were rogue elements, victimizing their own editors and colleagues as well as the reading public. The News of the World scandal is the exact opposite, involving a conspiracy among professional journalists to act as spies and thieves. I mean, I can imagine the CIA hacking into—and deleting—the voice messages of a murdered schoolgirl, and also attempting to hack the phones of 9/11 victims. But a newspaper?

That is some hardcore anti-social behavior right there.

I look forward to seeing this unfold. But it doesn’t take a fortune teller to surmise that working for Rupert Murdoch might be harmful to a person’s ethics. Or is being ethically challenged an aid to being hired by him? We’ll have to wait and see. But the future looks  something less than bright for Rupert. If you see him in shades, in fact, it’s probably so we can’t see him crying.

David Carr writes in the Times:

“As Mark Lewis, the lawyer for the family of the murdered girl, Milly Dowler, said after Ms. Brooks resigned, ‘This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.’

“Well put. That organization has used strategic acumen to assemble a vast and lucrative string of media properties, but there is also a long history of rounded-off corners. It has skated on regulatory issues, treated an editorial oversight committee as if it were a potted plant (at The Wall Street Journal), and made common cause with restrictive governments (China) and suspect businesses — all in the relentless pursuit of More. In the process, Mr. Murdoch has always been frank in his impatience with the rules of others.”

Brooks was considered Murdoch’s protege. Now she’s being held on charges of illegally intercepting communications and organizing improper payments to police officers. If the charges are true, she didn’t just get her hands dirty. She climbed all the way into the poison pool, till the toxic waters bubbled right up over her head. The worst scandal in the history of the newspaper business, bar none. And that doesn’t even begin to describe how far this might ultimately reach.

 

My So-Called Career

Jim Beasley from Philadelphia Magazine.

Here is one from the archives for you—a piece I wrote for Philadelphia Magazine a few years back on James Beasley Jr., the son and namesake of one of Philadelphia’s most famous trial lawyers.

This piece was republished in the Best American series under the moniker Best American Legal Writing. Not exactly a hot seller, but the editor was Dahlia Lithwick, from Slate, which was, like, a total turn-on for me.

Anyway, here’s the lede and you can see the rest after the jump:

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WHILE HIS OLD man worked, the Kid usually spent the day screwing up. He skipped school. He chewed tobacco in the back of class. He learned Spanish like a knucklehead, retaining little more than that cállate means “shut up.” His path seemed set from the time he was 12 years old. He was forced to repeat the seventh grade and was asked to leave Penn Charter in 10th.
Meanwhile, the old man was a legend, humping cases as a plaintiff’s attorney in city courtrooms. He won multimillion-­dollar verdicts with regularity. And he did it with a Spartan’s dedication to combat. While the Kid complained about serving 45 hours of ­summer-school detention for being a no-account fuckup, the Legend put in 45 hours by Thursday afternoon. Then he kept right on working. He outshone opposing attorneys, wrestled control of the courtroom away from presiding judges, and ran roughshod to victories.

The Philadelphia Lawyer is a hoary cliché now. But it has been invoked as a compliment and a pejorative, a means of describing an intellectual strong man who twists not metal, but facts. Whatever. A Philadelphia Lawyer is suspect until he’s needed. Then, he’s your best friend. And the Legend was the ultimate Philadelphia Lawyer.

The Legend was so great, he excelled even at recreation. He raced cars. He jammed himself into the tight little barrel of a World War II fighter plane. He cheated death, pinwheeling through tight corkscrew spirals like a Top Gun pilot. But his performance suffered at home. When the Kid finished last in his first motocross race, the Legend said, “What’s the matter with you? I won all my races!”

The Legend was lying. Right to his son’s face. But the Kid wouldn’t learn that until years later. So instead he figured that somehow, everything had gone wrong. Somehow he was born a loser to a father who always won. And when the Legend’s headlights hit the front window, long after dinner each weekday night, his children fled before he could reach the front door. Two daughters and the boy bounded up the stairs rather than see their dad — tired, ­inebriated, and always on the lookout for someone or something to criticize.

In his mid-20s, though, the Kid did something that might have seemed unthinkable to the boy he once was. He decided to become a trial attorney. “Don’t,” the Legend warned him. “People will always compare you to me.”

The Legend was right. But miraculously, so was the boy. The courtroom is where he belongs. And watching him work now, as a man bearing the legacy of the Philadelphia Lawyer, is an opportunity to see how the nature of being a lawyer in this town has changed.

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See the rest here:

 

A Different Kind Of Straw Man Argument

Here is a story I can’t believe is almost eight years old—both because I’m amazed at the passage of time, and because I’m sure the phenomenon of “straw purchasing” I document here is still a major source of illegal firearms. This ran in September, 2003, in Philadelphia Weekly.

 

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When Lauretha Vaird responded to a bank alarm in Feltonville, she was greeted by a slug from a .380 semiautomatic handgun that tore through her liver and the arteries leading to her heart.

She fell facedown on the floor, where she made what one witness termed “a crying type of sound, a hurt sound.” Vaird was the first female police officer in Philadelphia’s history to die in the line of duty.

The trajectories that brought three bank robbers, a few tellers and Vaird together on Jan. 2, 1996, resulted in a closely observed trial. Two of the culprits received life sentences, while the shooter got the death penalty. But one crime associated with Vaird’s murder went pretty much unpublicized and unpunished.

The handgun used to slay the 43-year-old officer–a nine-year veteran of the force and a single mother of two–was obtained through a “straw purchase.”

Generally, only people involved in the criminal justice system or the gun industry know the term, but a straw purchase occurs when one person buys a gun and either gives or sells it to someone who can’t legally buy firearms himself. In straw purchases, criminals and juveniles usually end up with the weapons.

Most investigators say straw purchasers are responsible for about 50 percent of illegal gun-trafficking investigations. Drug dealers, robbers and scallywags of every stripe enlist people without criminal records to walk into gun stores, fill out the required paperwork and pass the background check they can’t pass themselves.

Usually, the straw man earns less than $100 per transaction–so no one’s getting rich here. But sometimes money doesn’t matter. Girlfriends and wives often break the law for the bad guys they love, risking a third-degree felony conviction and a seven-year jail sentence to keep their man fully armed.

As might be expected, the phenomenon provokes heated debate. Antigun networks want gun manufacturers and gun dealers to take more responsibility for stopping straw purchasers. Pro-gun groups say it’s law enforcement’s job. And police tread a kind of middle ground. They point out how difficult it can be for even a conscientious dealer to detect a smooth straw purchaser but allow that gun sellers play a significant role (See “A Legal Solution?” p. 28).

The issue of straw purchasing holds a certain urgency in Philadelphia. Handguns are by far the most prevalent weapon in homicides here. And rightly or wrongly, America’s best-known gun control group has singled out Philadelphia’s most prominent gun shop for criticism.


The Brady Campaign, named after Jim Brady, the press secretary who was shot in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, plays yin to the National Rifle Association’s yang. This past July the group took a particularly controversial step and released a list of what it terms the “Ten Worst ‘Bad Apple’ Gun Dealers in America.”

Colosimo’s Inc., at 933 Spring Garden St., was fifth on the list, angering the shop’s irascible seventysomething owner, Jim Colosimo.

Reached by phone in Florida, where he was on business, Colosimo talked for nearly half an hour but refused to answer questions until he could speak to his lawyer. Colosimo never called back or returned further calls.

Suffice to say, Colosimo believes he’s always gone beyond the requirements of the law to establish that his customers are on the up and up, so his shop’s appearance on the list–after 50 years in the business–pained him.

The signs out front suggest Colosimo’s serves law enforcement first and foremost.

One reads:

“WHOLESALE DISTRIBUTORS
COLOSIMO’S INC.
POLICE EQUIPMENT”

To see the rest, click here.

And What Will a Jury Say?

From Philadelphia Magazine

The Feds better ramp up their indictments. After looking over the initial allegations federal prosecutors have made against reputed Philadelphia mob boss “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, well, something’s missing: Most notably, violence. The 70-page indictment, downloadable here, details a spectacularly ho-hum list of crimes involving illegal betting, poker machines and loansharking, but no tales of homicide or even a busted kneecap.

I’m not going to condone law breaking. But… I wrote a story about the Philly mob in the summer of 2009, in which federal law enforcement confirmed to me, strenuously, that an indictment against Ligambi’s mob was coming by fall. Two years later, this is the best they could do?

There is talk that more charges are coming, Maybe federal officials will ascribe a body or three to its allegations against Ligambi. But at the moment, this prosecution looks threadbare and, at this point in Philadelphia’s history, entirely inappropriate.

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Ray Lewis Says: No Football? More Crime!

There is a common affliction, in which people who claim expertise in one world believe this qualifies them to talk about anything else that comes up. Lately, Stephen Hawking has been the latest victim of this, a theoretical physicist who now opines on seemingly everything, including the afterlife and space aliens.

But Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis is now talking like a criminologist, telling ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio that crime rates will rise if the NFL lockout goes into the season.

I thought for a moment he might be talking about his fellow players, who do seem to get up to more mischief when there aren’t games to be played. But no, he was talking about all of us out here.

So…what’s the connection?

Why would there be an uptick in crime without football?

“There’s nothing else to do,” Lewis said.

I think Lewis will be shocked when it turns out, if there is no football, that the poor besotted masses out here will, in fact, find other things to do.

Brunch, anyone?

In the meantime, you can be sure Deadspin will run with this…

On the Avenue

I spent much of my time, the past few weeks, walking the streets and byways around Philadelphia’s notorious corner at Kensington and Somerset. Mumbled come-ons of “What you need, what you need,” from the junkies who serve here, cover a wide range of illicit products and services: prostitution, pills, clean needles, and—just off the avenue, in the ramshackle streets nearby—harder stuff like PCP, crack and heroin.

As one user told me, with no little pride: “This here is the number one drug spot in the U.S. of A.! Ain’t no one else got nothin’ like this!”

Indeed, this strip is unique—a narcotics and human clearinghouse sitting right under the steel blue tracks of an elevated train, which allows customers to get in and out without the hassle of finding parking. As they descend the stairs from the tracks to the street, they even find hosts—or more accurately, the hosts are standing there waiting for them, like the bottle blondes in any of Philly’s high-end restaurants—who can direct the consumer to what they need.

The “human” aspect of this clearinghouse was made plain all-too recently. The Kensington Strangler, a serial killer who preyed on the prostitutes that patrolled the strip, left their bodies lying, like so many used needles, in the open air.

I had wondered if the Strangler might be the thing to get this avenue finally and firmly cleaned up. Perhaps the shame associated with hosting perhaps the single most lawless area in any part of the country would rouse the city’s politicians, and convince them to allocate the resources necessary to scour away what is now a 40-year build up of crime and decay. But of course, it didn’t.

I’ll be filing much more on this in the very near future.  But in the meantime here is a further link to a story I did on this topic some years ago.

A Tip O’ the Cap

Jeff Deeney, from Philadelphia City Paper

Here in Philly, we have who I would expect is one of the best street reporters in the country. His name is Jeff Deeney, and yes, in the interests of full disclosure, he is a good friend of mine. I was a fan, though, before we were friends—and no less an authority than Tina Brown at the Daily Beast likes him, too.

Here is a piece he published last week through the Beast, on the resurgence of PCP, this time as a liquid additive to cigarettes. As usual it’s a remarkable amalgam of street lingo, poetry and straight reporting:

“Nelly, a former wet user, explains in his gruff voice that he started smoking wet when he was ‘a young bull’—an up and comer in the West Philadelphia drug scene,” writes Deeney. “He first got into the drug while hustling crack almost 10 years ago when he was in his early twenties, and kept smoking until he was nearly 30. He says that for years prior to smoking his first dipper, he consumed a heavy daily diet of potent blunt-wrapped weed, the same stuff that most Philly dealers smoke from sundown to sunup while working the corner. Bored with his usual weed high, Nelly saw wet as a change of pace.

“‘I got tired of weed and for a minute wet was cool, it was something new, it was a good way to escape.’ Getting high on PCP, however, was nothing like smoking pot. ‘Smoking wet is another level,’ Nelly says about the drug’s powerful dissociative effect that far surpasses the intoxicating power of even the most high-grade designer marijuana. His eyes widen in disbelief when he recalls the wild hallucinations. Wet users describe having extensive conversations with inanimate objects that come to life, or even stepping outside of their own bodies and spending the night hanging out with themselves.”

So enjoy yourself some Deeney, including a piece on The Kensington Avenue Strangler and the murder of suburban drug trafficker Rian Thal. And another, on why we got it all wrong about flash mobs. I could go on forever, posting links to Deeney’s stuff. But this should get you started.

Remember That Night

Osama bin Laden, from ABC news.

The blogosphere and the Twittersphere and the entire social media landscape are all, well, atwitter with critiques of people’s reactions to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Should we have cheered?

Was it appropriate to chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” at a baseball game?

What about the crowds—college students, mostly—who went racing to the White House?

One thing is sure: We are either having a hard time handling this national security success; or we are having too easy a time questioning how other people are handling it.

I myself heard about the news along with everyone else. I heard there was going to be an emergency national security announcement from the President, turned on CNN and waited. A friend in the media texted to tell me the smart money was on the death of Osama bin Laden. And I started hoping he was right. And, well, how about we stop right there for a second?

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