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As ever, awash in violence

Guns and drugs plague New Orleans, perhaps worse than pre-Katrina. One man from that world is dead, another accused of killing him.

February 15, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — THERE was talk, after Hurricane Katrina, about fresh starts for the people who had been mired in trouble here before the storm. Such talk wasn't enough to keep Mandell Duplessis away from home.

He was a seventh-grade dropout who had been dealing drugs since he was a teenager. Floodwaters destroyed his apartment and sent him packing for Atlanta.

But Duplessis, 24, could not resist the lure of the only hometown he had ever known. He would rap about it later, in recording sessions captured on a demo CD:

"Stressing on the phone with FEMA for hours

"While Nagin on TV, talking 'bout he need manpower

"I gotta head back to the N.O.;

"A-T-L too slow..."

He had partners in Dallas, he boasted, who could get him Ecstasy at wholesale prices. His shout-outs were to his old New Orleans haunts; his line of work was never in question:

"I'm a Einstein when it come to movin' that coke..."

So home he went, about two months after the storm, to his old turf, and his old career.

Months later, Duplessis was dead. He was found fatally shot Aug. 4 on the steps of a trailer in the working-class neighborhood of Gentilly. It made for a minor post-Katrina story, but a depressingly common one in a city with a homicide rate that was the highest in the nation in the last six months, and about 15 times the national average.

Like many of the residents swept up in New Orleans' latest wave of violence, Duplessis was young, black and versed in the drug trade.

So, too, was the man police accused of pulling the trigger, a convicted drug dealer named Garelle Smith. Though apparently strangers, their life stories were remarkably similar.

Both were products of a city plagued by deep-rooted problems that the flood could not cleanse away: neighborhoods awash in guns and drugs; an older generation laid low by the first wave of crack cocaine; a dysfunctional criminal justice system hobbled by reluctant and frightened witnesses; and, for many hardened youth, a belief that the only way out was the Hail Mary pass of a rap career.

And yet both men also seemingly shared a yearning to return to the world that made them, no matter how dangerous it was before the storm, or how ruined it seemed afterward.

Police, who had been looking for Smith for a month, finally found him Jan. 18, dismantling a barbed-wire fence ringing the abandoned and flood-damaged St. Bernard housing projects. The fence was up because housing officials plan to tear the complex down -- not only because it was damaged, but because it was considered dangerous, a failed social experiment.

To Smith, 25, it was also the place where his grandmother had raised him.

LIKE many American cities, New Orleans was hard hit by the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s, and Duplessis considered himself a victim: "I'm representing for the '80s babies brought up in the struggle," he rapped.

His mother was one of countless New Orleanians who spent a few blurred years addicted to crack until she found religion in 1993. Today, Nadine Finister, 46, tells her story, and her son's, with the same unvarnished candor Duplessis brought to his music.

"I ain't gonna sugarcoat it," she said. "He wasn't no saint. But what gives you the right to take another person's life?"

Duplessis was Finister's only child, the fruit of a doomed and fleeting relationship with an Air Force man whom she briefly married. The father supplied his son with a surname, but Finister said he was never involved in his upbringing. The young Duplessis was best known around his 7th Ward neighborhood as one of his mother's clan, and the kids took to calling him "Fenny."

His mother loved him, but she was too strung out to raise a child. So Duplessis moved in with his grandparents when he was in the second grade. They were working people, and their house was comfortable and cheery, on a block of pastel-painted cottages that resembled a box of petit fours.

This was the heart of Gentilly, historically home to many Creole families whose French surnames -- Duplessis among them -- had been on the rolls of New Orleans' working and middle classes for generations. Many were artisans -- bricklayers, masons and roofers -- who were fiercely proud of the city they helped build.

But by the early 1990s, neighbors felt trouble creeping onto their streets. A new, hard-living generation was making its presence felt, dealing drugs and exchanging gunfire. They were the children of broken families, a failed educational system and a gnawing poverty that settled over the city in the 1980s, when a key part of its economy, energy, had been hit hard by plunging oil prices.

Duplessis' mother sent him to a Catholic grade school until her drug habit ate into her finances. So he started sixth grade in a public school system that was considered among the nation's worst. Two years later, he dropped out.

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