If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick.
He didn't make the drug and he didn't smuggle it across the border, but Ricky Donnell Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived. He was a favorite son of the Colombian cartels, South-Central's first millionaire crack lord, an illiterate high school dropout whose single-minded obsession was to become the biggest dope dealer in history.
Working around the clock, taking the age-old axioms of good business to ominous extremes, he transformed a curbside operation at 87th and Figueroa into the Wal-Mart of cocaine. While most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than 500,000 rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars.
"You know how some people feel that God put them down here to be a preacher?" asked the 34-year-old ex-con, his hands clasped as if in prayer. "I felt that he had put me down to be the cocaine man. That's how my environment had twisted my mind and molded me. I was so flipped out that I believed I was the Chosen One."
To run an organization of that magnitude, Ross says he relied on a personal staff of 15 to 20 henchmen, most of whom were paid $1,000 a week to serve as bodyguards, lookouts, drivers, money counters, crack cookers--even garbage men, whose only task was to dispose of incriminating evidence. Day after day, they'd pick up million-dollar shipments in armed convoys of inconspicuous cars, one of which was always poised to speed off as a decoy. An $18,000 system of walkie-talkies, linked to a private channel, kept their movements synchronized.
Back in the neighborhood, Ross had dozens of buildings scattered about to conceal his operation, including a warehouse with police scanners and iron bars, a cook house with digital scales and a restaurant-quality gas stove, a money house with a one-ton safe and currency-counting machines, a rock house with an underground tunnel leading from a closet to the street, and a party house with a satellite dish, NBA-caliber basketball hoops and a maid.
One day in 1986, Ross laid all his money on the living room floor and, after hours of furious tabulation, found himself staring at a $2.8-million mountain of cash.
His enterprise grew so large--and so completely unfettered by police pressure--that Los Angeles authorities eventually recruited an elite squad of detectives for the sole mission of shutting Ross down. So zealously did the "Freeway Rick Task Force" hunt its quarry, however, that the officers were accused of crossing into the underworld themselves, allegedly planting cocaine on suspects and lining their own pockets with illicit cash.
Their 34-count federal indictment, a case that became part of the worst corruption scandal in local law enforcement history, gave Ross an unexpected bargaining chip when he was finally arrested for smuggling cocaine to Cincinnati in 1989. In exchange for testifying against the cops who once stalked him, crack's dealer to the dealers walked out of prison in September after just five years.
Now back home, living under his mother's roof in Carson, Ross remains unrepentant about the destruction his exploits have wrought. He sees himself not as a villain but as a slave to his own consuming addiction--to the adrenaline rush of closing a multimillion-dollar deal, to the manic life of a high-stakes trafficker.
"I did this all day long, 24 hours a day . . . just like the smoker," Ross said. "When I couldn't do it, I was sick, I'm talking about sick . Psychologically, I'd be crushed."
Although he has no dearth of skeptics predicting a relapse, Ross says he wants to redirect his energy--and rebuild his fortune--by constructing a South-Central arts and sports complex for the next generation of potential crack dealers. It's not so much a moral epiphany as a pragmatic adjustment. Having determined that the drug trade is a no-win proposition, he's simply looking for a safer game with better odds.
Most police officials are dubious about Ross' motives, suspecting him of trying to buy a veneer of respectability, like so many Mafiosi who have used legitimate ventures to conceal illicit gains. What authorities don't doubt is Ross' ability to insinuate himself back into a community he once exploited, to seize any opportunity that will give him the upper hand.