Complete BMF Series 

The reign of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family. A three-part series by Mara Shalhoup



Part 1: Hip-Hop's Shadowy Empire

"Big Meech" Flenory and the Black Mafia Family were hip-hop royalty. But investigators say they had a darker side.

Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory doesn't just walk into the club. He arrives.

The first sign he's coming: the cars. They coast to the curb like supermodels down a runway. Bentleys and H2s, Lambos and Porsches. And, when the crowd swells to full ranks, tour buses. In front of clubs from Midtown Atlanta to South Beach Miami, the streetlights bounce off the million-dollar motorcade, and it's blinding.

Next, the crew. As Meech likes to say, all members are family: "Everybody moves like brothers. Everybody moves as one." But as with any entourage, there's a definite hierarchy. Pushing into the crowd (if that was possible), you'd first find the guys hovering on the fringes, moving with a slightly menacing sway. Go deeper, and the vibe starts to change. Guards come down. Egos edge up. Keep going and you encounter a steady calm. The aura is one of jaded confidence and quiet control. That's when you know you've reached Meech. "All Meech did was walk in the spot," one woman posted on an SOHH.com message board, "and panties got moist."

Of course, his seemingly impenetrable cool can be challenged. There are some things Meech doesn't tolerate. And one of those things would take place on Nov. 11, 2003.

It would be "the big one," the very event that Meech -- as well as jittery Buckhead residents -- had long feared. Though for different reasons.

The Buckhead bar district had suffered in recent years from a spell of well-publicized violence. The most notable crime was the post-Super Bowl stabbings for which Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested (and, aside from a misdemeanor, acquitted). That was three years earlier, outside Cobalt Lounge.

About a block away, near the corner of Peachtree and East Paces Ferry, a nightclub of similar glitz and stature was earning its name. Chaos was one of the "it" clubs. Shaquille O'Neal and Eminem had partied there. And Monday's hip-hop night was the club's biggest draw. Hundreds of people would show up on what, for other clubs, was the slowest day of the week. At Chaos, the only thing slow about Mondays was the line.

On that particular night, you couldn't walk along the club's lacquered wood floors, you couldn't lean against its exposed brick walls or grab a seat on its minimalist leather sofas without catching sight of Meech's guys. Anthony Jones must have known that. Yet Jones, better known to the masses as "Wolf" -- and more importantly, as Wolf-Who-Is-P.-Diddy's-Former-Bodyguard -- did something that stood a good chance of starting an all-out war. Wolf got rough with his ex-girlfriend. And she wasn't just any ex-girlfriend. She was an ex-girlfriend who was hanging out with Meech's crew.

Even then, the crew was known as a force that shouldn't be crossed. And that goes double for Meech. He was rumored to have built a powerful empire with skills picked up 20 years earlier on the streets of Detroit. And he was fiercely protective of the "family" that helped him along the way.

Meech stepped in and told Wolf to quit fucking with the woman. Wolf's next mistake was to ignore the demand. But before Meech had much of a chance to react, club security stepped in, and Wolf was bounced.

Meech and his boys went back to doing what they were known for doing -- ingesting an obscene amount of champagne and spending an even more obscene amount of cash. It was only 1:30, after all, and the bar wouldn't close for another two-and-a-half hours.

Wolf, banished from the cozy confines of the club, stepped into the cool night and made his way toward the parking lot behind the building. He called his friend Riz, whom he'd known since they were kids growing up in the Bronx. And he began to wait.

[Deep background on the above section]

Toward the end of 2005, Debbie Morgan was finally getting her life back together. It hadn't been easy, but she'd found a distraction. Her goal was to open a restaurant on April 1, a little more than three months away. There were permits to obtain, gas lines to run, a counter to build, windows to replace, menus to print. On top of that, her daughter -- her baby, the youngest of four -- was pregnant. So she had that to think about, too.

The restaurant would serve the recipes Debbie grew up with in eastern Jamaica: curried goat, grilled plantains, barbecue tofu, jerk chicken. Like the food, the work was nourishing. And though the idea of making her deadline was starting to seem improbable, the countdown gave her a way to fill the hours. It offered an escape.

Debbie felt like she'd been aging lately, though it wasn't evident in her singsong lilt and sparkly black eyes. With her cropped hair and petite frame, she looked more like a pixie than an overworked restaurateur. But the past was weighing on her. She couldn't stop the constant loop in her head, the one that reminded her of what happened in the summer of 2004 to her son.

Rashannibal "Prince" Drummond was a sweet boy, a big kid who threw big parties. (His 22nd birthday celebration the year before lasted two days.) He was the type who tried to be everywhere all the time, wherever the action was. And on July 25, 2004, he and his friends wound up at a club in Midtown called the Velvet Room.

It was 4 a.m., and last call had come and gone. That left little for Prince and his friends to do but hang out in the parking lot. There was a fleet of high-end cars parked there that night, and a crew of guys climbing into them. One of the cars nearly ran over Prince.

From there, it quickly escalated to the part that Debbie tried to forget.

After she got the news about her son, she laid in bed for months. Through the haze of grief, bits and pieces of what had happened seeped in. Her nephew, who'd been with Prince that night, awoke from his coma three weeks after the incident. He remembered very little of what happened. Others were piecing together more.

Debbie would learn from investigators that they believed the men in the parking lot already had been attracting attention, and not just because of their fancy cars. Atlanta Police, DEA agents and Fulton County prosecutors had heard earlier rumblings about a crew and its alleged leader, Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory. There had been another incident, in Chaos' parking lot, eight months before. And by the summer of 2004, money that would later be traced back to the men had been confiscated in traffic stops from Georgia to Missouri to Texas -- first $140,000, then $425,000, then $720,000. Drugs linked to the crew were also seized: 17 kilos of coke in Flagstaff, Ariz., followed by 27 kilos in Crawford County, Ark., followed by a whopping 100 kilos -- with a street value of $9 million -- outside St. Louis.

Investigators reached the conclusion that the men responsible for what happened to Prince might not be mere street thugs. They might be part of something big, something organized, something called the Black Mafia Family.

[Deep background on the above section]

In the fall of 2004, two Atlanta rappers happened to brush shoulders at Walter's, a shoe store downtown. Gucci Mane was passing out CDs and offered one to an impressive-looking guy loaded with diamonds. Young Jeezy took the CD and complimented Gucci on his skills; he'd already heard some of the up-and-comer's tracks.

Though the rappers came from different territories -- Gucci from Atlanta's east side and Jeezy, by way of Macon, from the Old Fourth Ward -- they shared similar backgrounds. And both had been effective in channeling their street experiences into more professional ones.

Jeezy, however, was the bigger name. The 27-year-old had risen from Macon mixtape hawker to Atlanta hip-hop royalty. He was a street-level entrepreneur who had sold tens of thousands of mixtapes through his indie label, Corporate Thugz Entertainment. Around that time, he was busy flooding the streets with his record, Trap or Die. And thanks to a logo that likened him to a menacing snowman, Jeezy had cemented his ties to the street. (On the streets, "snow" is cocaine and the "snowman" a dealer.)

An affiliation with the Black Mafia Family didn't hurt, either. Jeezy wasn't shy about showing up on camera flanked by BMF members and saying things such as, "This is my muthafuckin' homeboy. It's love. It's family, dog," or dropping verses such as, "You don't want me to get the streets involved, better yet make a call and get Meech involved (yeah BMF)."

Though Meech had launched a record label earlier that year, Jeezy's affiliation with him stopped short of the label's roster. He would ink a deal with Def Jam Records instead. Thanks to the infusion of funds from Def Jam, Corporate Thugz Entertainment would be better equipped to cultivate Jeezy's own stable of artists, which included the rapper Slick Pulla, the group Blood Raw, and if all went according to plan, a trio from Macon called Loccish Lifestyle.

Gucci wasn't looking to join CTE's ranks when he ran into Jeezy at the shoe store. He'd already signed with Atlanta-based Big Cat Records. But that didn't mean the two rappers couldn't collaborate. The next day, Gucci showed up at Jeezy's studio with a track he'd been toying with, a song called "Icy." Jeezy laid down a few verses, and Gucci said he paid him for his work. It was a coup for the more underexposed artist to have a guy like Jeezy contributing to the track.

The camaraderie, however, was short-lived.

To say that someone is "icy" is to imply he's heavy with diamonds. The term applied to Jeezy that day at Walter's, and it applied just as much to Gucci when it came time in April 2005 to shoot the video for "Icy." On the set, he wore a blue-and-yellow, diamond-studded "Jacob" (as in a $50,000 watch designed by New York hip-hop jeweler Jacob Arabo) and a 37-carat pendant that spelled the words "So Icy" in $40,000 worth of diamonds.

"Icy" also happened to describe the hostilities that formed between the two rappers after the song became a surprise hit. In the spring of 2005, Gucci and Jeezy had a bitter -- and rather public -- falling out.

Gucci claimed that once "Icy" was hot, Jeezy wanted to use it on his soon-to-drop album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Jeezy's attorney claimed that was bullshit; Gucci was just looking to drum up press. As if to make his feelings on the matter abundantly clear, Jeezy released a "diss song" slamming Gucci -- and placing a bounty on his $40,000 necklace: "I want that muthafuckin' bullshit-ass icy chain," Jeezy sneered on "Stay Strapped." The title of the track doubled as a threat. If Gucci wasn't already carrying a gun, he ought to start.

Gucci was quick to fire back. In his response, "Round 1," which featured fellow Big Cat artist Black Magik, Gucci rapped, "Jeezy can't make a hit with a Louisville Slugger," "You're a thug imposter, you deserve an Oscar," and "Put a dress on, nigga, you Meech's bitch."

By then, however, Jeezy appeared to have turned his attention elsewhere -- to Loccish Lifestyle's Henry "Pookie Loc" Clark, Carlos "Low Down" Rhodes and Shannon "Luke" Lundy. Jeezy was interested in signing the group to CTE. The deal appeared to be moving along.

But in May 2005, when Luke and Pookie Loc headed to Atlanta from Macon to meet with CTE, one of them would be diverted. Something would go wrong. And an unwitting Gucci Mane would find himself back in the picture.

[Deep background on the above section]

To understand the story of Big Meech, you must first understand that the Black Mafia Family was two things: an alleged drug crew called BMF and a legitimate company called BMF Entertainment. And Meech was believed to be the leader of both.

At BMF's height, investigators in a half-dozen jurisdictions had reason to suspect that the crew was one of the nation's major drug-trafficking organizations, moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine a month. Federal prosecutors would estimate that BMF pulled in tens of millions of dollars annually -- at least $270 million since the organization got its start.

An enterprise of that size pretty much guarantees that its leader could have anything money could buy. But in 2004, Meech had his sights on new territory. He wanted to become a credible name in hip-hop.

In March of that year, an entity distinct from the alleged drug crew, a record label and promotion company called BMF Entertainment, was incorporated. With Meech as CEO, BMF Entertainment proceeded to throw some of the most opulent parties Atlanta has ever seen (replete with elephants, ice sculptures and painted, naked women). It bankrolled a $500,000 music video, "Still Here," by the label's sole artist, Bleu DaVinci. It published a glossy lifestyle magazine, The Juice, that featured Meech and Jeezy on opposite covers. And it built tight allegiances with rappers who benefited from BMF's ascent as much as BMF benefited from theirs.

BMF Entertainment was a legitimate business, trafficking a commodity that's unique to the hip-hop industry. It wasn't cocaine or records. It was street cred. Rumors of drugs and violence, and the buzz surrounding BMF Entertainment's parties, made BMF purveyors of the ultimate hip-hop fantasy.

BMF Entertainment had found its niche. And Big Meech had a new calling: He was the master marketer of hip-hop hype.

To keep the buzz going, though, BMF Entertainment had to constantly outdo itself. The parties had to be more resplendent, the crew's cars more expensive, the champagne more plentiful. And the money that paid for the ice sculptures and Bentleys and cases upon cases of Perrier Jouet obviously wasn't coming from record sales. In its race to keep up appearances, BMF Entertainment drew the wrong kind of attention.

Investigators quickly concluded that the company was more than an overexposed business with a shameless name. They were uncovering evidence that though BMF Entertainment operated legitimately, it was funded by the drug proceeds of the Black Mafia Family -- and that the family was more like an actual mafia than common sense would have you believe. After all, why call yourself a mafia if you're actually a mafia?

According to the feds, Meech and his brother Terry "Southwest T" Flenory (who allegedly held down BMF's L.A. hub) were the organization's dons. And the mob they ran was much like the ones in the movies. The Flenory brothers instilled an almost unshakable loyalty among the men and women who served them. A blanket of silence -- a true "mafia code", as one observer described it -- remained wrapped around the enterprise. Dishonor was the ultimate sin. And Meech was held up as a kind of demigod.

Yet Meech failed to take into account that investigators might find him as intriguing as those in the hip-hop scene did. The DEA had begun to suspect as early as 2000 that a crew that would later call itself BMF was moving mass quantities of coke through Atlanta, Detroit and L.A. And in the fall of 2003, local law enforcement began piecing together the crew's violent proclivities. Two months before Meech and Wolf crossed paths at Chaos, Atlanta Police investigated a home invasion that turned up some suspicious evidence.

On Sept. 7, 2003, two men were robbed in a townhouse off Boulevard by invaders who appeared to know what they were after. One of the men shot one of the invaders, which brought police to the scene. When officers arrived, they found a safe the size of a small room inside the townhouse. And in a tight passageway flanking the safe, they found a lone shoe and a single kilo of cocaine.

Detectives suspected that the safe had housed far more drugs -- probably not long before they arrived. And they believed there was a link between the men who lived in the townhouse and a previously unknown group called the Black Mafia Family.

Rand Csehy, a former Fulton County senior prosecutor who headed the BMF investigation for the DA's office, remembers thinking, "There's no way we have this black mafia running through the city." But the evidence he and other investigators would soon gather -- through the use of surveillance and wiretaps, and advanced by a couple of strokes of pure luck -- appeared to prove him wrong.

Within two years, investigators would link BMF to a group of unresolved killings and other violent acts. And many of those crimes weren't exactly low-profile. Among those affected were luminaries such as P. Diddy, Bobby Brown and Mayor Shirley Franklin.

One thing's for certain: All the allegations against the Black Mafia Family -- the accusations of drug-trafficking, the intimations of violence, the claims that BMF Entertainment was financed with dirty money -- have served the singular purpose of sharpening the BMF myth. The family might be dismantled now, but the myth lives on.

The brand has survived the product.

[Deep background on the above section]

It was after 4 a.m. and Chaos' owner, Brian Alt, was running the night's totals. Mondays at the club were good money. Customers were known to spend big on hip-hop night. It was an environment well-suited to Meech's habits.

Among Meech's distinguishing characteristics is his insistence that every guy in the crew be given his own bottle of Cristal or Perrier Jouet -- even when the crew numbers 50 or more. It's one of the obvious ways he builds allegiances, but it's not the only way.

Meech grew up far from extravagance, amid the scourge of crack that pervaded southwest Detroit. He and his brother, "Southwest T," allegedly joined the game early, working on the street level in high school and slinging $50 bags of crack. When Meech was 20, he was busted with several thousand dollars' worth of cocaine, for which he was sentenced to probation. For the next 18 years, though he was arrested several times, he would avoid another conviction.

In that time, he became a legend in the Atlanta and Miami party scenes. He was seen in a Cadillac one day, a Lamborghini the next, and not long after, a Bentley. He handed out pendants with "BMF" spelled in diamonds to members of his crew. He lived in houses where the monthly rent rivaled some starting salaries. And he took people with him.

It wasn't just to the after-parties at the Buckhead Westin presidential suite, either. Meech's relationship with his crew -- from his bodyguards to his promoters to his label's singular artist -- was rooted in seduction. There were VIP rooms and beautiful girls and all kinds of money to be spent on whatever you could imagine. And Meech would be in the middle of it, his hand resting on your shoulder like the father you never had, the one who lets you drive the car your real father could never afford, the one who takes you everywhere with him, wherever the business is. "I'm a good leader," Meech said a few years back in Miami. "So I got good people that follow."

The philosophy worked for him. His crew's loyalty was like armor. It very nearly made him impenetrable. The crew had his back, always.

The confrontation in Chaos' parking lot was no exception. When Meech and company poured out of the club in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2003, they found Wolf and his friend Riz waiting. Wolf had positioned himself in uncomfortable proximity to the Cadillac Meech had driven to the club. And he had a gun.

About three hours earlier, Alt's security team had given him a heads-up that Wolf had gotten aggressive with a woman, and the incident had escalated. That wasn't unusual; Mondays had gotten so charged that, unlike other nights of the week, Chaos patrons had to pass through a metal detector.

Alt believed he had diffused the situation. He had told Wolf it would be better if he left, and Wolf left without a fight. So when Alt got the news shortly after 4 a.m. that there was a disturbance in the parking lot, he knew it was bad, but he didn't think Wolf was involved.

There were gunshots outside. Lots of them.

Alt raced to the parking lot behind the club. When he got there, he found a bartender, a security guard and two off-duty medics attempting to keep the two men lying on the ground alive. One of the men made it to the hospital. The other didn't.

Riz was dead. A gun lay at his side.

At Grady Memorial, Wolf was rushed inside. He had suffered several gunshot wounds to the chest. Within minutes, he was dead, too.

Back at the crime scene, one of the officers working the double homicide, Atlanta Police Investigator J.K. Brown, got a call. The woman on the line had been transferred to him from 911. She said she knew who one of the shooters was. She saw him reach into the waistband of his pants and pull a pistol. By her estimation, he fired at least seven times. As she ran, she heard more shots. She said the people involved had a lot of money. They had a lot of drugs. And she told Brown that he didn't know what he was getting into.

She would not give her name. She said she was scared for her life.

Before the sun came up, police managed to pinpoint the suspect whom the woman had described. It turned out he was an easy catch.

In the early morning hours not long after the incident, two men showed up at North Fulton Regional Hospital. One of them had been shot in the foot. The other guy's injury was more serious. He'd been shot in the ass. And unlike his friend, he wouldn't be getting off so easily.

Atlanta officers picked up both men at the hospital and brought them down to police headquarters for questioning. After interviewing the man with the foot injury, police released him. They charged the other man with the murders of Anthony "Wolf" Jones and Lamont "Riz" Girdy.

Big Meech was in big trouble.

[Deep background on the above section]

Eight months later and four miles down Peachtree from Chaos, a flood of people was pouring out of the Velvet Room. While security guards were working crowd control in front of the club, Prince, his cousin and two of their friends were working the crowd out back. Or at least trying to. They were vying for the attention of some girls when a small motorcade of high-end cars started leaving the club. A Porsche SUV nearly backed into Prince.

Prince tapped the side of the Porsche. "Yo homeboy," he called out to the driver. "You hittin' me." The driver, a chubby guy with a goatee, jumped out. The rest of the crew was close behind. An eyewitness at the scene would later place Meech among them.

For the last few months, Meech had been waiting for the prosecution's next move in the Wolf and Riz case. He'd only just been cleared of house arrest. Under such circumstances, it's usually advised to keep a low profile. What happened behind the Velvet Room was anything but that.

Prince and his friends said they didn't want trouble. But the crew formed up anyway and started swinging.

A few minutes later, a chain of rapid gunshots rang out. One of Prince's friends dropped to the ground, rolling along the pavement toward the rear end of another friend's car. He couldn't see his friends, but he saw the crew running off in different directions. He jumped up and started chasing one of them.

That's when he noticed Prince's cousin on the ground. He stopped short and ran to him instead. Crouching close to his face, he realized that no, the cousin hadn't been shot. But he'd been beaten, badly. Both his eyes were swollen shut. His left eyelid and cheek had been cut. He was not coherent. And he would not wake up for a while.

Where was everyone else? He looked up, scanning the parking lot.

All he saw was Prince.

He started running, again, but before he could get to Prince someone grabbed him from behind -- club security. What took them so long? The fleet of luxury cars was speeding out of the parking lot by the time off-duty cops working crowd control made their way out back.

He started yelling for an ambulance and wouldn't stop. When the uniformed officers showed up, they locked him in the back of a patrol car. He was still there when the ambulance came.

The paramedics didn't even try to help Prince. They just put a sheet over him.

[Deep background on the above section]

Before Loccish Lifestyle had officially formed, its three members decided to test their talent. They came to Atlanta in 2000 for a freestyle rap competition at the Atrium. Low Down, Luke and Pookie Loc didn't even have a song ready, Low Down recalls, "just a beat from somewhere, and the name."

The group's name refers to a way of life on the streets of Macon -- a lifestyle that Low Down likens to that of the Crips. "We had good chemistry," he says. "That's probably what did it. We was all on the same tip."

The Macon trio that came to Atlanta without a song managed to take home the prize. They spent the next five years putting out two albums on their own and building their name on the street. Several of Loccish Lifestyle's tracks got heavy play on local radio and in the hip-hop clubs. The sound was moody and introspective -- and the lyrics unapologetic. "Trying to muse on how we're living," is how Low Down sums up the music. Loccish Lifestyle's single "Ridin' High" puts it more bluntly: "I'm gettin' high as I wanna be," "ain't no stopping me," and "don't blame me, nigga, blame the gang."

The group had been hustling for five years when Jeezy, whom they knew from his Macon days as "Lil Jay," wanted to make them an offer. Loccish Lifestyle wasn't big in Atlanta's hip-hop scene. But a deal with CTE might change that.

Yet Low Down was holding out. He wasn't exactly opposed to CTE's offer; he just wasn't yet convinced it was the right move. Luke and Pookie Loc were more enthusiastic. When the two of them checked into the Marriott Courtyard downtown in May 2005 to go over some details with CTE, they were eager to sign. But before the deal was official, Pookie Loc would be diverted.

He had been in trouble before. But as far as Low Down was concerned, Pookie Loc's past didn't make an impression against the daily realities that go with the lifestyle. "If you know him for being wild, I guess you could say he was being wild," Low Down says. "If you know him for being cool, he probably was cool."

As for what happened shortly after Loccish Lifestyle landed in Atlanta, Low Down expresses similar stoicism: "The situation is what it is. I mean, shit happens."

The situation would plot Pookie Loc against Jeezy's nemesis, Gucci Mane. And it would put Loccish Lifestyle's deal on indefinite hold.

On May 10, 2005, Gucci went with a friend to the Blazin' Saddles strip club down on Moreland Avenue. After a while, they decided to head with one of the strippers, a woman named Foxy, over to her house. They weren't there long when company arrived.

Five guys rolled in. One had a set of brass knuckles. Another had duct tape. Several had guns. Their intentions did not appear to be good.

The guy with the knuckles punched Gucci in the head. One of the other guys pistol-whipped his friend. Someone said something about killing them.

Gucci saw his chance. "Stay strapped," he'd been warned.

He aimed and fired.

[Deep background on the above section]

Part II of "BMF: Hip-hop's shadowy empire" – traffic busts in Missouri, wiretaps in Atlanta, and a double homicide with a connection to the mayor's son-in-law.




Part 2 of 3

Loyalty within the Black Mafia Family made the alleged drug enterprise nearly impenetrable. But one high-placed member would break BMF's code of silence.

On a dead-end street called Springside Run, five men dressed in black were making their way up one of the driveways. One carried brass knuckles. Another had duct tape. Some had guns. A neighbor doing yard work glanced up and thought it odd, a sight so menacing in broad daylight.

Inside the house, a rapper named Gucci Mane was hanging out with a stripper he'd met earlier that day. Gucci had wanted her to hear some of his tracks, so they decided to go back to her place. He was hoping she'd like one of the songs enough to dance to it on stage, a move that would generate some buzz.

He'd already created a good bit on his own.

It started with a track called "Icy." Gucci had written it, and a better-known rapper named Young Jeezy had laid down a few verses. But when the song became a hit, Gucci and Jeezy got in a spat over who was indebted to whom. Jeezy responded with a "dis song," "Stay Strapped," that put a $10,000 price on Gucci's diamond-encrusted necklace:

"I want that muthafuckin' bullshit-ass icy chain ...

"I got a bounty on that shit, nigga, 10 stacks ...

"So if he come to your town,

"And you just happen to snatch that muthafucker off his neck ...

"I'm gonna shoot you the 10-stack, man ...

"So I can cremate that muthafucker."

By all accounts, Jeezy wasn't one of the men who walked through the stripper's door on the afternoon of May 10, 2005. But he was connected to at least one of them.

The five men flooded the room. The one with the brass knuckles hit Gucci in the head. Another guy pistol-whipped his friend. At least one of the men drew a gun.

Gucci drew faster.

"All of a sudden I feel a pop, and fall to the ground ..."

-- Macon rapper Pookie Loc, circa 2000, recording with the group Loccish Lifestyle

The five men quickly got out of there. One of them, Henry "Pookie Loc" Clark, was separated from the others. He ran along Springside Run toward Columbia Drive. A middle school was up ahead. So was a cop car. He veered into the woods, stumbling, stumbling, falling.

"I try to move but constantly something is holding me down ..."

Five years earlier, Pookie Loc's group, Loccish Lifestyle, came to town from Macon for a freestyle rap competition at the Atrium. Without having written a single song, they took the prize. Dozens of recordings and two self-released albums later, Pookie Loc and band member Shannon "Luke" Lundy were in Atlanta again -- this time with the hopes of inking a deal with the label Corporate Thugz Entertainment. Pookie Loc was within a breath of success.

"I wake up cold and sweating, light flashing in my eye ..."

Three days after the incident at the stripper's house, DeKalb County Police got a call. Four men had shown up at Columbia Middle School to search for something in the woods. The incident report lists one of the men as Shannon "Luke" Lundy. It lists another as Demetrius "Kinky B" Ellerbee, who is co-owner, along with Young Jeezy, of Corporate Thugz Entertainment.

Luke told police he'd been at a video shoot in West End when he heard about a shooting on Springside Run. He said his friend Pookie Loc, who'd gone missing, knew a woman who lived there.

So they went looking for him.

"Realizing that I'm shot and real slowly I'm dying."

They found Pookie Loc there in the woods, dressed in black. Flies were swarming all around him.

[Deep background on the above section]

Let's get one thing straight: Young Jeezy has said on several occasions that he had nothing to do with the raid on Springside Run. Police have never named him as a suspect. And the only arrest that came of the incident was that of Gucci Mane, who was charged with killing Pookie Loc. (Those charges wouldn't stick.)

But there is some disagreement about what happened that day in May 2005. And it basically boils down to whether an organization with ties to Jeezy -- an alleged drug ring called the Black Mafia Family -- might have been involved.

At the time, BMF was well-known in Atlanta hip-hop circles as a crew that partied like celebs and dropped money like monarchy. The crew's reputation on the street was legendary. As with most legends, there was likely some truth to the lore, and quite possibly a false claim or two.

Neither Loccish Lifestyle's manager, Tarence Bivins, nor its third member, Carlos "Low Down" Rhodes, was in Atlanta at the time of Pookie Loc's death. But both Bivins and Low Down say they're positive BMF was not behind it.

"BMF had nothing to do with -- not anything, period -- the Gucci Mane situation and [Pookie] Loc," Bivins says. "That's not true, totally not true. You can quote me on that."

Low Down is equally unequivocal. "Basically, they're just using BMF as a prop," he says. "They're going to use BMF just so they can bring more heat."

Of BMF itself, he claims: "They are really hot anyway. I mean, they on fire. So I guess you can't add no more fire to it."

Yet Gucci's former attorney, Dennis Scheib, and his current one, Ash Joshi, are firm in their assertions that BMF is in some way responsible.

"Here's the situation," Scheib says. "Five guys came in. They were BMF."

According to Joshi, the DeKalb County district attorney's office was looking into whether BMF was behind the attack. The spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, Adora Andy, says she can't comment on allegations of BMF's involvement. "We did not investigate it," she tells CL. "The FBI did."

The FBI's Atlanta office declines to comment. "I wouldn't be able to discuss that," Special Agent Steve Emmett says.

But the feds have confirmed their involvement in other BMF probes. Since at least 2000, federal agents had been trying to make inroads into the elusive drug ring that would soon take the name the Black Mafia Family. The feds believed BMF operated out of an L.A. hub headed by Terry "Southwest T" Flenory, and an Atlanta one manned by his brother, Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory. Those two hubs, along with one in Detroit and St. Louis, were believed to be running huge cocaine shipments across the country in limos, RVs and other vehicles equipped with hidden compartments.

One local investigator estimates that in Atlanta alone, the organization claimed hundreds of members who subscribed to BMF's "theories on snitching" (to snitch is the ultimate sin) and reveled in "the fast lifestyle" that BMF membership afforded. "What surprises me about them is how organized they are," says the source, who asked not to be named because of his involvement in several open investigations into BMF. "Oftentimes you get people bragging, but they can't put their money where their mouth is. These guys couldn't run out of money."

The investigator says the amount of drugs and cash seized from the organization in a single bust often was enough to put an "above-level" dealer out of business. BMF suffered those kind of hits almost regularly. "That's just the cost of doing business," the source says.

And yet the busts did help investigators zero in on their target, "Big Meech" Flenory. Some of the trouble BMF members stumbled into -- including Meech's alleged involvement in a high-profile double homicide -- helped, too. But to really push the probe forward, law enforcement needed something that seemed all but impossible.

They needed to break BMF's code of silence.

[Deep background on the above section]

In the early-morning hours of Nov. 11, 2003, P. Diddy's former bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf" Jones, and his boyhood friend, Lamont "Riz" Girdy, were shot to death in a gunfight behind a Buckhead club. The suspect in the slayings, who'd been shot himself, turned out to be quite a catch.

The murder investigation itself, however, was underwhelming.

On the day of the crime, in what would later become a more significant statement than he could have imagined, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington told the press: "The real key is to have a witness come forward." There appeared to be a fairly self-assured witness in a woman who called 911 shortly after detectives arrived on the scene. Police said she described how she was in the club's parking lot when she saw a man she knew as "Meechie" fire a bunch of rounds. She even came to police headquarters later that day to give a statement.

The problem is, police have never revealed her identity, nor did they produce her at any of the hearings in the murder case that was brought against Meech. Essentially, as far as the murder prosecution goes, the woman is nonexistent. And the case against Meech is all but extinct.

Three weeks after the killings, Meech was granted bond -- an unusual move in a double homicide, especially such a sensational one. (The shootings were so high-profile that they were cited as the reason Atlanta City Council rolled back bar closing hours citywide.) The judge's ruling to allow bond pointed to the difficulty prosecutors were having in locating evidence to support the charges. Even now, more than three years after Meech's arrest, he hasn't been indicted.

"The bottom line was, he was a shooting victim in that shooting spree," Meech's attorney, Drew Findling, tells CL. "That became clear. That is clear. And that is the reason that there is no indictment in the case."

Yet Meech didn't walk away from the incident untainted.

Six days after the shootout, authorities -- including agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration -- armed themselves with a search warrant and headed to a sprawling home in a gated Lithonia neighborhood. Police believed Meech was living in the house, which belonged to his brother's girlfriend.

The warrant was issued in part to collect evidence that might link Meech to the Buckhead double homicide. But after forcing their way into the empty house, police and DEA agents found nothing connecting Meech to the killings -- nothing like, say, a murder weapon. They did find a few guns, though: an Uzi 9mm pistol in a nightstand drawer, a .45-caliber handgun in the master bath and a .40-caliber handgun in a guest-bedroom closet.

More importantly, they found "significant amount of records that ultimately were linked" to BMF and its alleged involvement in the drug trade.

Within months, a series of traffic stops on Missouri highways would bolster the feds' suspicion that BMF was moving large amounts of cash and cocaine.

[Deep background on the above section]

Five months later in Phelps County, Mo., Deputy Carmello Crivello spotted an RV on I-44, heading east toward St. Louis. Crivello flashed his patrol lights and stopped the vehicle for drifting across the interstate's fog line.

He asked the driver, a man named Jabari Hayes, to have a seat in the back of his patrol car. He ran a check on Jabari's license. It came back clean. Then Crivello started asking questions:

Where was Jabari from?

Tennessee.

Where was he going?

To visit family in St. Louis for Easter.

Where had he stopped along the way?

First in Georgia, then in Texas to see his cousins.

Where did the RV come from?

He'd rented it in Orlando but left the paperwork at home.

How much did it cost?

About $4,000 for the month.

How was Jabari employed?

He owned a valet company.

Why did he have three cell phones?

To separate business calls from personal ones -- and to keep his girlfriends from scrolling through his call history and finding out about each other.

Was he transporting any contraband?

With that question, the deputy glanced in the rearview mirror at Jabari, still seated in the back of the car. He saw that Jabari's hands were trembling. Upon closer inspection, he noticed a vein in his neck was beating faster.

"No," Jabari answered.

Jabari didn't mention that three weeks earlier, he'd been stopped just outside St. Louis driving a 1999 Lincoln Town Car. On that occasion, it was the DEA that had pulled him over. Agents brought in a drug dog. The dog alerted them to the likelihood of something suspicious in the car. And in a compartment behind the back seat, the agents uncovered stacks upon stacks of rubber-banded bills. Investigators would soon conclude that the money, totaling nearly $600,000, was BMF's.

Between that stop and this one, Missouri cops had busted two other men with BMF connections. Christopher "Pig" Triplett and Calvin "Playboy" Sparks were pulled over in nearby Florissant, Mo. -- and caught with nine kilos of cocaine.

But Jabari's second bust was the one that really caught investigators' attention.

As he sat in the back seat of Crivello's patrol car, a drug dog circled the RV, promptly sat down and started to bark. Crivello climbed inside and pulled three suitcases from the master bedroom. Opening them, he found 95 individually wrapped packages that held more than 100 kilos of coke. On the street, that's worth about $9 million. And like the cash that had been seized from Jabari a few weeks back, the 100 kilos were linked to BMF, too.

It was one of the largest coke busts in Missouri history, and it was a sign BMF might be slipping up.

The crew was getting noticed.

[Deep background on the above section]

On the evening of Sept. 14, 2004, investigators working with an inter-agency drug task force in Atlanta were listening to a wiretap they'd placed on a crack dealer named Rafael "Smurf" Allison. Smurf and a guy called "Bowlegs" were having a conversation that sounded like code talk for a drug deal.

Less than 10 minutes later, Smurf dialed a number and asked if "everything was everything." The guy on the line answered, "Yeah, everything is still everything."

The investigators, part of a federal program called HIDTA (for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), tailed Smurf as he left his neighborhood near Turner Field and drove to an apartment complex off Howell Mill Road. HIDTA agents believed the complex was home to Smurf's supplier.

And thanks to the wiretap on Smurf's phone, they believed they had the supplier's number as well.

Two days later, a Fulton County judge granted investigators' request to place a wiretap on the phone of the alleged supplier, Decarlo Hoskins. Within three days, agents got a bite. It sounded as if Decarlo was about to do a big coke deal with three men. He told them over the phone to meet him at "his spot." HIDTA agents took that to mean his apartment. They positioned themselves at the complex and waited.

Based on the information they'd received, they were looking for a gray Nissan Altima occupied by three men to arrive at the complex between noon and 1 p.m. After picking up the drugs, the men were supposed to head to the Georgia Dome for the Falcons game. Sure enough, agents watched as a gray Altima pulled into one of the visitor spaces at around 12:30. Two minutes later, a black Infiniti, allegedly driven by Decarlo, pulled into the space in front of it. One of the guys in the Altima hopped into the Infiniti. A few minutes later, he got back in the Altima, and both cars bolted.

The Altima headed down Howell Mill, the agents in slow pursuit. Traveling south toward Northside Drive -- maneuvering through the game-day traffic that snaked toward the Dome -- a HIDTA agent radioed Atlanta Police to request a traffic stop.

As soon as the patrol car flashed its lights, the guy in the Altima's passenger seat called Decarlo. He told him they were about to be pulled over. And he said that if police asked him to get out of the car, they'd gun it instead.

Keep it in drive, Decarlo warned.

An Atlanta police officer walked up to the Altima and asked the driver for his license. A moment later, one of the HIDTA agents approached the car on the other side. He told the passenger to quit talking on his cell phone and to step out of the vehicle. That's when the agent saw a Smith & Wesson .357 on the floorboard.

The men didn't drive away. They didn't put up a fight, either. And in the trunk of the car, the agents found a Louis Vuitton tote bag packed with seven individually wrapped kilos of coke, and another shopping bag containing two more.

Down at HIDTA headquarters on Juniper Street, the men refused to talk. But agents didn't need them to. HIDTA had enough evidence to take down their alleged supplier, Decarlo. When agents picked him up less than a month later and charged him with trafficking cocaine, Decarlo shared some interesting information.

He said he knew about a crew selling large quantities of coke up and down Boulevard. He'd known two of the dealers since the three of them were kids growing up in the neighborhood. And he'd be willing to let agents listen as he called and tried to arrange a deal with them.

He only knew the men by their first names: Jeffery and Omari.

A few months earlier, investigators from several offices, including HIDTA's, met at the Atlanta Police Department to go over a new initiative: target drug dealers in the Old Fourth Ward. Those at the meeting were told to be on the lookout for certain dealers' names and aliases, and the list included the nickname "O" or "O Dogg." O Dogg's real name, investigators were told, was Omari McCree. And he was believed to be a member of BMF.

HIDTA agents had a good idea of what they were on to when they told Decarlo to go ahead and make the call. Sitting in the HIDTA office, Decarlo dialed Omari's number. "If you have anything," he said, "I want to get two blocks." Omari's reply was succinct: He wasn't talking on the phone anymore.

But that wasn't exactly true. In the weeks to come, Omari would continue to talk on the phone -- just not to Decarlo. Because he had suspected, correctly, that Decarlo had been busted.

[Deep background on the above section]

The weekend after Decarlo's call, Omari wasn't doing the best job of avoiding trouble. He and his friend Jeffery Leahr -- the two were so close everyone assumed they were brothers -- were hanging out at hip-hop club the Atrium when somebody opened fire on the clubgoers. Four people were hurt. And DeKalb County Police suspected Omari and Jeffery were behind the shootings.

But after the two men were questioned, police let them go.

In the early-morning hours of the following Wednesday, DeKalb Police set up a roadblock outside a strip club called Pin Ups. They claimed the incident at the Atrium, as well as another recent shooting at a strip club called Jazzy T's, led them to believe the "safety checkpoint" would be necessary at that particular intersection -- although it wasn't particularly close to the site of either shooting.

Shortly before 5 a.m., the roadblock snared a Dodge Magnum that was leaving Pin Ups. Officers claimed the car smelled suspiciously of weed. The driver, Hamza Hewitt (who was once New York rapper Jay-Z's bodyguard and who was now believed to be Meech's), and both passengers were arrested. One of the passengers gave the name Ricardo Santos.

At the station, Santos was placed in an interview room. A police department employee who would later check on him was surprised to catch sight of a defiant act: The man was strolling back and forth along the wall, pissing on it.

When the man finally agreed to speak to investigators, he let slip his real name; an officer asked if his last name might be Flenory, and he corrected the pronunciation. Regardless, one of the cops already had recognized him as "Big Meech." After all, his pictures had been all over the papers the year before, when he was charged with the Buckhead double homicide.

Those close to Meech would later say that he suspected the shootings at the Atrium -- and Omari and Jeffery in particular -- were part of the reason he'd been hauled in. The charges stemming from the roadblock were minor, but the message was clear: BMF was under the microscope.

A day and a half later, Meech was bonded out of jail for giving a false name to police and carrying a fake license. That same day, Oct. 22, 2004, HIDTA agents initiated a series of wiretaps on Omari's phone. Over the next two weeks, the wiretaps would offer fragments of Omari's bit part in BMF's big picture. Nonetheless, the wiretaps revealed that not only was Omari a member of BMF's upper echelon, but that Meech was particularly fond of him.

The boss -- "Dude," as Omari and others called him -- didn't tell him that directly. Meech didn't tell anyone much of anything directly, at least not on the phone. But other people did. And the chatter was illuminating.

The conversations often referenced other names that investigators had linked to BMF: a high-ranking affiliate who went by "J-Bo," a rapper called Bleu DaVinci, and Bleu's younger brother, "Baby Blue." And on that first day of the wiretaps, agents heard several conversations referring to efforts to bond Meech out of jail.

Shortly after 4 p.m., a woman whom investigators believed was Meech's personal assistant told Omari that both of them needed to be careful about the flashiness of their cars.

"Look, I ain't tryin' to be no hater," she said. "I ain't tryin' to tell you what to do. But ... take your car home and just park it and don't be doin' no extra drivin.' You got pendin' shit. You know it ain't even worth [it], with what's goin' on."

A minute later, she called him back. "I can't even go pick him up," she said. "I don't even have nothin' I can go pick him up in. I need like a low-ass-key car, like a Honda."

For the rest of the evening, Omari would take calls about the Atrium ("I'm just callin' to make sure you was all right," one woman said. "I had heard some stuff, somethin' about some shootin' shit at Atrium"), about Meech's arrest ("They was sayin' they had got Meechie and some more niggas at the club," the same woman said), about something called the gate ("OK," another woman told him, "the gate is not open"), and about something else called the elevators.

"You gonna drive your car over there?" the woman believed to be Meech's assistant asked.

"To the elevators?" Omari responded.

"Yeah," she said. "Me and him definitely ain't comin' straight there."

Six hours later, after Meech had been bonded out, she called back with an order. It was 1 a.m.

"What up?" Omari asked.

"Your boss said have your ass at the elevator."

"He act like I did something wrong," Omari laughed, "but all right."

The woman laughed, too.

"He fillin' out paperwork right now," she said. "He ain't talkin' on no phones. He said he wants to see everybody at the elevator spot."

A few minutes later, Omari pulled out of his driveway in a silver Porsche SUV. HIDTA agents, who had positioned themselves outside of Omari's house, were listening to his calls and waiting for the one that might lead to Meech. They followed the Porsche as it turned out of Omari's neighborhood onto North Druid Hills Road, then onto Roxboro and from there to Wieuca. At that point, Omari started driving so fast that agents couldn't keep up. They lost him.

In the days to come, though, agents continued to gather intelligence. They learned from listening to Omari's calls that BMF insiders had started to suspect that Omari was bringing some heat to the organization. And Omari himself appeared to be concerned.

The woman presumed to be Meech's assistant made it clear to Omari that the boss had high hopes for him. Omari, in turn, said he was worried about the Atrium shootings. He told others that he was sketched out about Decarlo's bust, too. And he mentioned more than once that he thought he was being watched.

A few days after the meeting at the elevator, the woman called again, and this time it sounded like her mood had changed.

"Dude just asked me how [is] everybody," she said. "I'm tellin' him everybody cool, but motherfuckin' everybody gettin' an attitude. He's like, 'Shit, everybody just got to sit in.' You gotta take all of that energy that you're spending mopin' around and get on with your fuckin' life, O. You still in a good position right now, a real good position."

Judging from his reply, Omari was unconvinced that his position was all that good. "I appreciate all the care," he said a minute later. "I appreciate everything, for real, from everybody and whatever. But when it's all said and done with, or when it all comes to an end, if they want O, they comin' to get O. I'm still the one that's got to deal with it at the end of the day. I do. Maybe I'm preparin' myself for the worst."

[Deep background on the above section]

Omari did seem to be preparing. And the paranoia that accompanied his preparations was not unfounded.

A week later, he'd grown suspicious about a black truck that had been lingering in front of the house he shared with Jeffery. So he called a friend and asked her to have another friend run the tag.

A half-hour later, Jeffery called Omari with an idea that he thought might take some of the pressure off. Jeffery's girlfriend, Courtney Williams, was out of town, so Jeffery offered to bring the "clothes" to her apartment on Highland Avenue. Yeah, Omari said. Do it.

Jeffery took the "clothes" over there that day. But when he called his girlfriend the day after, she told him she wanted the clothes out of there. She was at the airport, she informed him, and she was only planning to be in town a short while before heading out again. So the clothes had to be moved, quick.

"I'm sick of this dirty business," Courtney told him. "So I'm just tryin' to figure out if you're goin' to be there within the next 30 minutes, because I'm about to go out of town."

"Well, can I keep your key while you're outta town?" Jeffery pleaded.

"Can you keep my key while I'm outta town?"

"Courtney, I need to keep those clothes over there for real, 'cause ... you don't even understand right now."

"You're right. I don't understand."

"Well, can I just keep those clothes over there, please? So can I just keep the keys until you get back?"

"I'm sorry. You can't keep my key."

"Courtney, can I please keep the key. Please."

"I already said no."

Courtney told Jeffery she'd take a cab over to his and Omari's place from the airport. Agents watched as a Peach Cab Co. taxi pulled into the gated subdivision and Courtney stepped out. Ten minutes later, she left Omari and Jeffery's house in a white Cadillac. A few minutes passed before Jeffery sped away from the house in the Porsche.

Agents, who were joined by the DEA this time around, divided into two teams and took off after the cars. The Porsche was driving wildly. Jeffery gunned it through a red light at Spring Street and North Avenue, and agents lost him.

Courtney was easier to keep up with. Agents followed her all the way to her Old Fourth Ward apartment. It turned out that losing the tail on the Porsche was no big deal, because a few minutes later Jeffery pulled up to the same apartment building. Both of them went inside. Shortly thereafter, the couple emerged from one of the apartments with a duffel bag. They climbed into the Porsche and headed toward the highway.

The agents pursuing them called in Atlanta Police. It was time for another traffic stop.

The cops caught up with the Porsche on I-75 at Pine Street. Investigators approached the SUV, guns drawn. In the backseat of the Porsche, in plain view, the agents found an open duffel bag. It was stuffed with 10 kilos of coke.

When Omari called Jeffery a few hours later, Omari knew something was up. Yet they continued to speak on the phone, despite Jeffery's insistence that it was a bad idea.

"Don't wanna talk right now," Jeffery said. "Bye."

"What?" Omari asked.

"Bye."

The line went dead. Thirty seconds later, Omari called him again.

Jeffery greeted him with a terse, "Don't wanna talk."

"Hey, what the fuck you talking 'bout?"

"Don't wanna talk, man. Listen to me, please. Just listen to me for real."

"You in trouble?"

"Don't wanna talk. Come on, for real. Please come on."

Omari tried Jeffery's girlfriend next. She could barely form the words around the tears.

"Hello?" Courtney mumbled.

"What you cryin' for?" Omari asked.

"He didn't let you know?"

"What?"

They had put Courtney and Jeff in separate patrol cars. A little while later, they took them to Courtney's apartment and, with her permission, searched the place. And then police let them go. It was an unusual move, but investigators figured Jeff and Courtney would keep talking on the phone, and that might yield even better information.

"Everything just went wrong, O," Courtney continued. "Just leave the house, all right? Are you at your house?"

"No."

"OK, well, as long as you left there you should be straight."

"Would you stop? Look, just tell me what happened."

"I don't wanna talk on the phone, you know what I'm saying? The fuckin' feds, whoever they was, just dropped out on us."

[Deep background on the above section]

Investigators would later claim the coke Jeffery lost was a front from BMF. After the bust, Omari and Jeffery owed BMF, big time. The two men were in debt to the organizations -- for more than they owned.

And then they went on the run.

Around the same time, another alleged drug dealer with ties to BMF disappeared. Tremayne Graham had been arrested six months earlier, in April 2004, on a federal indictment out of South Carolina. Graham and nine other suspects had been charged with distributing cocaine for the Black Mafia Family.

There are a couple of things about Graham's disappearance that caught people's attention. First, at the time that Graham jumped bond and ran he happened to be Mayor Shirley Franklin's son-in-law. Second, his disappearance came less than two months after one of his co-defendants, Ulysses Hackett -- who Atlanta Police say was considering turning state's witness -- was shot to death at 4 a.m. while lying with his girlfriend in her bed.

His girlfriend, Misty Carter, lived in the same complex as Courtney Williams.

Almost a year later, in the early summer of 2005, Graham, whom the mayor's daughter had by then divorced, turned up in southern California. After U.S. Marshals got a tip about his whereabouts, they followed him to a Subway sandwich shop, where he was arrested. Investigators then went to check out the house in Woodland Hills where Graham had been staying. Inside, they found $1.8 million and 250 kilos of cocaine, worth an estimated $25 million on the street. And they would come to believe that the drugs and money were BMF's.

Graham's arrest, along with the highway busts in Missouri and the wiretaps in Atlanta, were starting to bring BMF's reach and its inner workings into focus. Less than a month after Graham was tracked down, the heat BMF was generating became even more apparent. Gucci Mane -- the rapper who shot Pookie Loc -- was picked up in Miami on aggravated assault charges out of Fulton County. The charges had nothing to do with BMF. (Gucci was accused of beating a rap promoter with a pool cue.) But the agents who nabbed him on the Fulton County warrant -- members of federal agencies including DEA, oddly enough -- appeared to be less interested in the agg assault or even Pookie Loc's murder than they were in what Gucci knew about BMF. They peppered him with questions about the organization, questions that Gucci's attorney says he didn't know how to answer.

Around that time, however, investigators did track down someone who was willing and able to answer some questions about BMF.

Rand Csehy, who then headed the Fulton district attorney's investigation into BMF, didn't know how close he was until one day in June 2005, when he was helping Atlanta Police obtain a warrant. Police believed they had located the car of a BMF member near Boulevard, and they wanted to be able to search the nearby premises.

Csehy did his part and then left the scene. A few minutes later, he got a call. Police were arresting Omari McCree. He had been hanging out near the car. Csehy had walked right past him.

A short while later, an Atlanta Police investigator brought Omari over to the HIDTA office in Midtown. An agent handed him a confidential-source agreement form and told him that if he would answer some questions, the district attorney's office would be made aware of his cooperation.

Omari signed. And the agent started asking him questions.

"Are you familiar with BMF?"

"I learned about BMF back in 1999," he said. "They were not called BMF at that time."

"In 1999, whom did you know as members of BMF?"

"I knew of only Meech and Bleu DaVinci."

"When did you become a part of BMF?"

"In 2002, after meeting Meech's son at a birthday party in Florida."

"Have you ever heard of the elevator?"

"Yes."

"Where is the elevator located?"

"On Glenridge."

Investigators never were able to determine the location of the elevator, though it was clear from the wiretaps that it was a BMF meeting place. As for the next location the agent asked about, it too was described in the taps, and investigators already knew where it was. They'd staked it out before.

"Have you ever heard of the gate?"

"Yes."

"Where is the gate located?"

"Off of Roswell Road, near the Chevron."

"Have you ever purchased or obtained drugs from the gate?"

"Yes."

"How did you obtain the drugs?"

"I would call J-Bo, and then I would go and pick it up."

"Where would you pick it up?"

"At the gate."

"Would anyone be there when you arrived?"

"Yes, J-Bo."

"Who is J-Bo?"

"He works for dude."

"Who is dude?"

"Dude is Meech."

"Who is responsible for the drugs getting to the gate?"

"Dude."

"How much have you seen while at the gate?"

"About 50 keys."

"Would you be willing to show me where the gate is located?"

"Man, I ain't talking no more. These people know my family."

Omari's next words hinted at the fact that he thought he'd get off easier than he would:

"Will I walk?" he asked.

"No."

[Deep background on the above section]




Part 3 of 3

In the summer of 2005, the party would get out of hand for Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory and the Black Mafia Family. And the feds would be ready to make their move.

Editor's note: For more details about BMF, as well as notes describing the sourcing of the story, click on the "Deep Background" link at the end of each section.

Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory, CEO of BMF Entertainment, is seated at the head of a monolithic marble-slab table, watching the events unfold with untrusting eyes. A man in a white dress shirt, the only one in the room not wearing all black, starts his spiel.

"Yo, Meech," he says excitedly, leaning into the table, "I got the deal of a lifetime..."

In the expanse in front of the CEO, stacks of bills are piled to generous heights. To his left, his chief operating officer, Chad "J-Bo" Brown, maintains a stony silence. Flanking them at the table are two more men. And in the background, two scantily clad women and a guy wearing a T-shirt that says "Free Meech" barely make an impression against the shadows.

Meech quickly puts an end to the negotiations.

"Look here, man," he says in a low, raspy drawl. "The deal don't mean nothing to me, man." He turns to the guy to his immediate right. "I'm not even supposed to be talking to this dude." Turning the other way, to face J-Bo, Meech hollers, "Get Bleu on the phone. Somebody get Bleu on the phone, man."

Bleu DaVinci, the sole artist signed to BMF Entertainment (the "BMF" standing for "Black Mafia Family," though it might as well be an acronym for "Big Meech Flenory") answers.

"What up, dude?"

"Bleu, man, this man is interfering with my business," Meech says. His agitation is clearly starting to dissolve into hysteria. "You need to get down here and talk to this man," Meech tells Bleu. "I don't know why somebody let him in the room to see what's goin' on anyway, man."

"Alright," Bleu says. "Just let me, um, run down here and check on that little shipment I was telling you about yesterday, and I'll get down there in a little while. Just give me a minute."

Not long after, Bleu, loaded with chains and his braids tucked behind a black bandana, swaggers into the room, singing,

"Cause I'm a boss ...

"When I'm runnin' ..."

By then, the man in the white shirt is gone.

Bleu glances up to greet Meech. "What up, man?"

Meech is mumbling to no one in particular about the music, the money, the problem at hand. Motioning to Bleu, he says, "You cannot be havin' that music dude comin' up in here, seein' all this money like this, man. You gotta be able to separate the two. You can't do it. We cannot do it, man."

[Deep background on the above section]

What's going on in the room is not what it seems. Or maybe it is.

The two scenes -- Meech calling Bleu DaVinci and Bleu showing up at the secret location -- are bookends of a $500,000 video for Bleu's 2004 single, "Still Here." Directed by famed hip-hop videographer Benny Boom, bankrolled by Meech and with guest appearances by Brooklyn rapper Fabolous, California's E-40 and Bleu's protégé, an equal parts beautiful and frightening teenager called Lil Oowee, the video has all the cinematic appeal of well-done Hollywood. There is a story arc, sophisticated aerial camerawork of downtown Atlanta, a choreographed dance scene in a stylish warehouse and Meech leaning comfortably on a steel-colored Rolls Royce, taking in the dazzling production at hand.

It was brazenness at its best. Because at the time the video was filmed in 2004, Meech already had been implicated in crimes reminiscent of the fictitious deal that took place in front of the camera.

Since December of 2003, Meech had been out on bond for his alleged role in a high-profile double homicide behind a Buckhead club. Months later, investigators had begun to suspect that his recently incorporated record label, BMF Entertainment, was financed by an alleged cocaine enterprise called the Black Mafia Family. The feds also had intercepted a limo packed with nearly $600,000 and an RV loaded with 100 kilos of coke, both of which were believed to be the property of the Black Mafia Family. And they suspected that Meech was the CEO of the Atlanta-based label and the alleged drug-trafficking ring.

In fact, by the time the video was produced, local and federal investigators had been aggressively targeting Meech for several years. And Meech, in turn, had been aggressively flashing BMF's wealth -- practically in their faces.

On I-75 and on Peachtree Road, BMF Entertainment announced its message from the skies. Testaments of BMF's power were printed in white block letters on a black, 20-by-60-foot background. And the words alluded to Scarface, a frequent source of inspiration for the Black Mafia Family.

In the film, Cuban-born drug lord Tony Montana looks to the Miami sky and sees a message ticking across the side of a blimp: “The World is Yours.”

Likewise, the billboards BMF placed around town proclaimed, “The World is BMF’s.”

[Deep background on the above section]

In the summer of 2004, Meech rented out Westside mega-club Compound for his 36th birthday. The sprawling courtyard and ultra-modern lounge were adorned with 6-foot white neon letters that spelled "Meech," BMF's insignia carved in ice, half-naked models with painted-on bikinis and $100,000 in rented wildlife, including an elephant, a few zebras and a pair of lions. Revelers gawked as the big cats paced restlessly in their cage.

The grandeur of the party carried over to BMF's behavior in the clubs, particularly strip clubs. BMF members have credited themselves with inventing a phenomenon called "making it rain." They would toss fistfuls of money in the air. The bills would descend like droplets. And the crowd would go wild.

"A lot of niggas don't like to spend their money," Meech says on the DVD magazine Smack. "We love to spend money. Just a fool and his money won't part. When we go out at night, whatever we spend, $50,000, $100,000 in the muthafuckin' club, we can afford to do it, because we can't bring it all with us. Simple."

He meant that they couldn't bring it with them to the grave. But his brother, Terry "Southwest T" Flenory, was worried that Meech was generating so much heat in hip-hop circles that both brothers would wind up in that other place where wealth must be left behind: prison.

According to the feds, Southwest T had moved to L.A. in 2000 to be with his girlfriend and her children. Investigators believed he lived in a $3 million spread on Mulholland Drive. Nonetheless, he was the more understated of the Flenory brothers. He might, as the feds would allege, have been holding down BMF's West Coast hub, but he at least was trying to do so in relative obscurity.

At around the time of Meech's birthday party, Southwest T shared with his sister his frustration over his older brother's eagerness to be cast in the public spotlight -- and to hang out with a crowd that was no good for "the family." Southwest T told her about how he and Meech had always been partners, 50-50. And he thought Meech wasn't being mindful of their even split. Meech's excess -- a lifestyle that Southwest T had little to do with -- had the potential to bring the wrong kind of attention to both of them. He told his sister he didn't want to end up behind bars for years. He "couldn't do no 20," he said.

His suspicions were more well-founded than he imagined: At that particular moment, the feds were listening in on his call.

The conversation was among hundreds that DEA agents intercepted through six months of wiretaps on Southwest T's phones. They listened as he spoke about dropping some serious cash on Lakers tickets. ("You know what I'm saying, if you going with a group, you going to spend $50,000 to $60,000 to sit in the prime seats.") They heard him give the go-ahead on the purchase of an $159,000 Bentley. (He said he'd pay for it the following day with a check from his company.) And they became suspicious as he offered support to the brother of "Playboy," one of two men caught on a Missouri highway with coke allegedly linked to BMF. (When the brother told Southwest T he was worried that the other man busted during the stop, "Pig," would turn state's witness against Playboy, Southwest T told him not to worry; Pig would "live up to his responsibilities.")

And yet in the hours upon hours of conversations screened by the feds, the only significant mention of Meech was Southwest T's concern that his partying was getting out of control and could end in trouble. That wasn't exactly an investigative breakthrough. Despite Meech's flamboyance, Southwest T was proving an easier target than his flashier brother.

Within months, however, another series of wiretaps would help bring investigators closer to Meech.

In the fall of 2004, members of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office and an inter-agency drug task force began to shadow two alleged BMF members and listen in on their calls. Investigators later busted one of them, Jeffery Leahr, with 10 kilos of what they believed was the organization's coke. The other man, Omari McCree, went on the run, only to be picked up by police nearly a year later. Omari's 2005 arrest -- and an incriminating statement against Meech that accompanied it -- capped a summer of excess that led to a major blow against the Black Mafia Family.

Even in 2004, there's a good chance Meech saw it coming. But despite the obvious warning signs, he didn't play by the rules. During the champagne-soaked and bullet-riddled spring and summer of 2005, Big Meech Flenory and his crew refused to slow down.

[Deep background on the above section]

The season of excess would kick off with a two-week spate of violence, which allegedly was tied in one way or another to BMF.

First came a home invasion in DeKalb County in the early evening of May 10, 2005, that left one of the alleged attackers dead. The man who shot the invader, a rapper named Gucci Mane, had been beefing at the time with a better-known rapper named Young Jeezy. And Jeezy had ties to BMF. Gucci's defense attorneys would later allege that BMF was behind the home invasion. And the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office would say that the FBI was investigating BMF's alleged involvement.

The very next day, another crime would be linked to a BMF member. A regional fugitive task force tracked down an alleged drug trafficker named Deron Gatling at his girlfriend's house in Chamblee. Task force agents formed a perimeter around the house and announced their presence at the front door. Once inside, they found Gatling hiding behind a layer of insulation in the attic.

At that moment, seven shots were fired outside -- one of them narrowly missing one of the agents. Investigators would later claim that Gatling had called and placed a hasty hit on them.

Less than two weeks after that, BMF members were accused of a third violent act -- this one involving a big-name pop star at a Peachtree Street restaurant owned by New York music mogul P. Diddy.

The soaring dining room at Justin's, hung with floor-to-ceiling ivory drapes and a massive chandelier, was set on May 22, 2005, for a birthday party. Brooklyn rapper Fabolous, who had appeared in BMF rapper Bleu DaVinci's video, was in attendance. So was Atlanta's ubiquitous Bobby Brown.

The party was packed. And it was about to get interesting.

Brown's family sat down for dinner, after which the pop-star patriarch took the stage at the far end of the dining room. A few hours later, at around 1:45 a.m., Bobby Brown, his sister, his niece and two nephews made their way over to one of the restaurant's two lounges. As the two elder Browns found a seat at the bar, the younger ones mingled. A guy in the crowd bumped into one of them.

"That was disrespectful," Bobby's nephew, Shayne Brown, told him. "You need to say, 'Excuse me.'"

Shayne's cousin, Kelsey Brown, sensed that it was about to get bad. He stepped in. So did another guy, a frighteningly large friend of the man who bumped Shayne.

One of the two men told the cousins: "We kill niggas like you."

Bobby Brown, realizing what was going on, stood up on a chair at the bar. "What are you guys doing?" he yelled over the crowd. "That's my nephew."

The attack that ensued was brutal.

The family rushed over to pull Shayne away from the fight. By then, he was on the ground. And his blood was everywhere. Doctors would later say the stab wound to Shayne's face and neck appeared to have been the work of an ice pick.

Bobby Brown's niece ran after the attackers, who had made their way outside to the valet stand. She told police they took off in an SUV -- along with Fabolous, his manager and some members of the rapper's entourage. Before they were out of the parking lot, the niece was able to get the valet to write down the license plate number.

Bobby Brown grabbed Shayne off the floor and the family rushed him to Piedmont Hospital. The attacker had barely missed his jugular. Several of his nerves and muscles had been severed. His face was disfigured. And he would be left incapable of normal facial expressions.

Kelsey also had been stabbed in the neck, though his injury wasn't as bad. He told police he didn't realize he'd been cut until he saw the blood.

He and other witnesses also said they recognized the smaller of the two attackers. He went by the nickname "Baby Bleu."

When police filled out the paperwork several hours later, they seemed fairly confident about the identities of the suspects. They summed up the night's events as the case "involving Bobby Brown's Family and Members of BMF."

Within hours, Atlanta Police ran a check on the license plate number the valet had jotted down. It came back as a 2002 Cadillac Escalade owned by a 62-year-old College Park man. The following day, police interviewed the man's son, a 6-foot-7, 345-pound former nightclub security guard named Cleveland David Hall.

Hall told police that, yes, he'd been at Justin's the night before. But he claimed he didn't have anything to do with the stabbings. He said he actually tried to break up a fight. When he saw the blood, he decided to bolt with Fabolous, Fabolous's manager and several of the rapper's friends.

"Do you know any of the people involved in the altercation?" police asked him.

"No," he answered.

"Was Fabulous [sic] or any of his companions involved in the altercation?"

"No, nobody in my vehicle was involved in the altercation."

"Are you involved or affiliated with any type of gang in the City of Atlanta or elsewhere?"

"No."

Police weren't buying it. Based on the fact that Hall drove the SUV that a witness identified as the getaway car -- and that Shayne Brown identified a photo of Hall as one of his attackers -- Hall was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and party to a crime.

But within a month, the case against Hall fell apart.

Despite the fact that Hall was believed to have whisked away the alleged attackers; despite the fact that the investigation, at a month old, was still in its infancy; and despite the fact that a grand jury already had indicted Hall, his charges were shelved at the request of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office. The reason? "[V]ictims and witnesses in this case have been reluctant to come forward and cooperate with the State in its investigation of this case, therefore the State has insufficient evidence to proceed at this time."

Yet the case against Hall's co-defendant, "Baby Bleu" -- the younger brother of BMF Entertainment rapper Bleu DaVinci -- did remain open. And in addition to the DA's office, the feds were eyeing him, too.

[Deep background on the above section]

The fallout from the Justin's incident appeared not to have fazed BMF in the months to come -- that is, if there was any fallout.

At Young Jeezy's release party for his debut album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, which was held in July at Midtown club Vision, BMF members were spending money in a state of frenzy. BMF engaged in its trademark move of making it "rain" bills. Champagne was consumed at breakneck speed. And BMF flooded the stage to show Jeezy some love -- and perhaps to stake a bit of claim to the rising star who'd been like family to them.

It would be one of the last hurrahs for BMF's upper echelon, at least for a while: Within three months, dozens of alleged BMF members would be locked up.

On Aug. 3, 2005, Marque "Baby Bleu" Dixson was arrested at a concert at Centennial Park. The aggravated assault charges stemming from the Justin's incident were bad enough, but it appeared that Baby Bleu might be in some other trouble, too. According to a document filed by the prosecution the following day, "This defendant is not recommended for release [on bond] because the defendant has an outstanding warrant issued by FBI."

Within a week, one of the alleged BMF members whose phone had been wiretapped -- and who had named Meech as a major drug trafficker -- was scheduled to go to trial. But on the day the trial was supposed to start, Omari McCree entered a guilty plea instead. He was the first person the state of Georgia successfully prosecuted for a BMF-related crime. To date, the only others are Omari's co-defendants, Jeffery Leahr and his girlfriend Courtney Williams.

Omari was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and his plea agreement included some interesting language: "Defendant will not be named/charged in subsequent RICO indictment." Former Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Rand Csehy, who prosecuted Omari and his co-defendants and headed the office's investigation into BMF, tells CL he had hoped to bring a RICO, or racketeering, case against Meech and the Black Mafia Family. But the feds would act first.

A law enforcement source speaking to CL on the condition of anonymity describes Csehy as an aggressive prosecutor who was trying to quicken the pace at which charges against BMF were moving. It wasn't easy, the source says. "Once there is a crime, witnesses are adamant [about] saying, 'Yes, this is what happened.' And then once those witnesses learn that BMF was behind it, they go south. And that's been a big problem in prosecuting cases, that lack of witness cooperation. They know of the previous things that they've been involved in."

Over the past three years, there have been six unresolved Atlanta-area killings linked in some way to BMF.

On Nov. 11, 2003, Wolf and his boyhood friend, Lamont "Riz" Girdy, were shot to death in Buckhead. Meech was charged with two counts of murder. But the only witness who linked Meech to the crime never materialized. Police said she was too scared to give her name.

Three years after the crime, neither Meech nor anyone else has been indicted in the double homicide.

Meech's attorney, Drew Findling, says the fact that the state can't produce the witness calls into question her actual existence at the club, let alone her credibility. "There was never a name, no evidence that there was anybody accompanying her to corroborate her presence there. The whole thing was just comical."

On July 25, 2004, Rashannibal "Prince" Drummond was shot to death in Midtown. Two law enforcement officials say Meech and other BMF members were at the scene, and a third says investigators were "definitely" looking at the homicide as being linked to BMF.

According to Findling, however, the claims of BMF's involvement are highly questionable. "I've never heard anything about my client having anything to do with that until you asked me that question," he says. "And I would imagine his involvement would have been something that would come to light."

No one has been arrested in Prince's death -- though there is pending civil action. Prince's mother, Debbie Morgan, is suing the club where the killing occurred for failing to protect her son. The lawsuit does not name BMF or any alleged members.

On Sept. 5, 2004, Ulysses Hackett and his girlfriend, Misty Carter, were shot to death while lying in bed in her Atlanta apartment. At the time, Hackett was awaiting trial on charges that he and eight defendants -- one of whom was Mayor Shirley Franklin's son-in-law at the time -- were running cocaine for BMF. Police say Hackett was considering turning state's witness against them.

No one has been arrested in Hackett's and Carter's deaths, either.

And on May 10, 2005, the rapper Gucci Mane shot one of five alleged home invaders. Gucci was arrested -- and later cleared -- for killing his attacker. But none of the men who allegedly attacked Gucci have been arrested. Gucci's two defense attorneys claimed BMF was connected to the incident, and the DeKalb District Attorney's Office told CL the FBI was investigating those allegations.

But both Findling and two men close to the man Gucci killed have said it's all too easy blame the amorphous BMF crew for any of Atlanta's nightclub and hip-hop-related crimes. "I'm not going to sit and address BMF and the convenience of referencing it by defense attorneys," Findling says. "I don't really care about that."

While targeting BMF on allegations of violence proved challenging, there were other ways to try to take down the organization. As it turned out, going after BMF on federal drug charges would prove more fruitful.

[Deep background on the above section]

On the afternoon of Oct. 20, 2005, U.S. Marshals descended on a million-dollar mansion in a Dallas suburb. In the garage, they found a 2004 Bentley GT. Inside the house, they discovered a small amount marijuana and ecstasy, and nearly $700,000 in jewelry. Locked in a vault, they unearthed a high-velocity "cop-killer" semi-automatic that could breach a bulletproof vest.

And in one of the bedrooms, they apprehended Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory.

He did not put up a fight, nor did he say a word.

A week later, federal agents showed up at a home in the suburbs of St. Louis. Even from outside the house, they claimed, they could detect the smell of weed. They knocked on the door -- and heard a bunch of people running through the house, yelling about the police being outside.

They busted in and immediately came face-to-face with Southwest T.

Once the Flenory brothers were behind bars, an 11-count, 25-defendant indictment that had been filed in federal court earlier that week was unsealed. The feds waited to reveal the charges because, "the United States is apprehensive that there is danger of harm to potential government witnesses if the defendants become aware of the indictment prior to arrest."

A half-dozen other defendants alleged to be high-ranking BMF operatives were hunted down that week (most of them in far-flung hideouts). And the case, which would later grow to 13 counts and 41 defendants, including BMF Entertainment Chief Operating Officer Chad "J-Bo" Brown, "is probably the highest-volume drug conspiracy in this district, ever," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison has said.

The indictment, filed in the Flenorys' hometown of Detroit, charges the Flenory brothers under the rarely invoked "Continuing Criminal Enterprise" statute. A CCE case is similar to a racketeering, or RICO, one. Both are used to take down organized crime rings. The difference is that a CCE charge limits the scope of the allegations to drug trafficking. RICO on the other hand, encompasses a wide range of organized, criminal activity.

The indictment doesn't contain any allegations of violence on BMF's part. But evidence in the case paints BMF as an expansive cocaine ring that creatively laundered at least $270 million in drug proceeds in 15 years. It describes Meech's record label, BMF Entertainment, as being financed by the cocaine trade. And it suggests that he ran an illegal enterprise that fused an organized-crime network with a company that purveyed hip-hop hype.

The feds claim to have rounded up a minimum of 10 witnesses who can testify about Meech's involvement in the drug trade. "One witness comes to mind who says that he or she distributed multiple kilograms of cocaine for Demetrius Flenory," DEA Agent Bob Bell testified at Meech's January 2006 bond hearing. "And there's another witness who says that he or she witnessed cocaine being handed back and forth between Demetrius Flenory and others."

Later in the hearing, however, Meech's attorney Findling pointed out that there were several holes in the case against his client, including the fact that none of the witnesses who might testify against Meech had been named.

"The evidence at most establishes that the Defendant hung around members of the organization and benefited from their profits by living in fancy houses and riding in fancy vehicles," Findling said. "The alleged witnesses who were said to have seen the Defendant engage in illegal drug transactions have not been produced."

Findling said the feds could not cite a specific instance in which Meech was involved in a cocaine transaction. When it came time for federal Magistrate Judge Steven Whalen to rule on whether Meech should receive bond, it appeared that Findling's argument was persuasive.

"As far as linking any specific dangerous behavior or certainly threatening of witnesses [to] Mr. Flenory, I don't see it," the judge said. "Really in a lot of ways Mr. Flenory is his own worst enemy -- the magazine articles, the billboards, the big mouth, the lavish lifestyle."

A few moments later, Whalen summed up the case in language evocative of Findling's:

"There is a lot of evidence that he's sort of around this organization," the judge said of Meech. "His brother certainly is portrayed as a leader of this organization. And the defendant is a guy who I think is a beneficiary of the profits of this organization.

"But as far as what he actually did, that remains pretty ambiguous to me. And again, although there's probable cause, I don't think it's necessarily overwhelming evidence based on what I've heard today. And that's all I have to rule on."

Meech was granted a $100,000 bond with the condition he remain under house arrest in Detroit, in the custody of his mother. The U.S. Attorney's Office quickly -- and successfully -- appealed Whalen's decision.

But the issues the judge raised haven't been settled. Most significantly, witnesses still haven't been named. And it's unclear when or if their names will become known. More than a year after Meech and Southwest T were arrested, a trial date in the case has yet to be set.

But if Findling's statements from the January 2006 hearing are any indication, a defense will be raised that the evidence in the case points only to the myth of Big Meech, not his culpability.

At the hearing, Findling described some of the reasons why he believes the feds were drawn to Meech. And his description sounds a lot like those offered by friends and actual members of the Black Mafia Family.

"It is just the aura of Demetrius Flenory," he said. "It is the aura of homes, it is the aura of cars, the aura of money.

"The aura of rap."

[Deep background on the above section]

On a bright summer day in 2006, Bleu DaVinci steered his Dodge Magnum through a Southern California neighborhood, bringing the cameraman in the passenger seat up to speed on the goings-on within BMF Entertainment.

With Meech locked up, Bleu had taken over as CEO of the company that had once put all of its focus behind him. And after the feds came down on BMF, another unexpected event would push back Bleu's sophomore release, The World Is BMF's, Vol. 2.

In the early morning of March 9, 2006, Bleu's brother, Baby Bleu, who was out on bond for the Justin's stabbings, got into a fight with his ex-girlfriend at Buckhead club the Living Room. The fight quickly moved to a nearby parking lot. After it escalated, a friend of his ex-girlfriend shot Baby Bleu dead.

"After my little brother passed away," Bleu said, "my whole campaign for my album slowed down."

Despite the copious resources that were sunk into the video for Bleu's single, "Still Here," and into the advancement of his career, sales of his debut, The World Is BMF's, Vol. 1, were far from impressive. And Vol. 2 only did marginally better.

The two other Atlanta rappers commonly associated with the Black Mafia Family, though for different reasons, would see bigger payoffs. It was as if the success Meech wanted Bleu to enjoy was diverted -- in part to Young Jeezy, who had split from the BMF camp. And in a perverse twist, the BMF connection also was credited with boosting the career of Gucci Mane.

On May 24, 2005, Gucci posted bond on charges that he shot one of his attackers in the home invasion that allegedly had ties to BMF. Gucci's release from the DeKalb County jail happened to coincide with the release of his first album, Trap House. And the publicity from his alleged problems with both Jeezy and BMF gave his record some hype. That week, his single "Icy" debuted at a respectable No. 24 on Billboard's rap charts.

In October 2006, when he dropped his follow-up album (the aptly titled Hard to Kill), Gucci improved upon his debut performance. And in the song "Everybody Know Me," he alludes to his troublesome path to success:

"Whoever said getting cash was easy?"

"I got beef with BMF and I got problems with Jeezy."

As for Jeezy, his 2005 record, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, catapulted him to the uppermost ranks of hip-hop fame. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. And the press lavished him with praise. As the New York Times fawned, "Young Jeezy's sluggish rasp evokes both a ruthlessness no one can touch and a weariness no one can cure."

Jeezy's second album, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102, dropped on Dec. 12 to a mixed reception. But he's still a huge star. And though Jeezy is said to be estranged from the BMF camp, he contributed a verse to the recent remix of Rick Ross' "Hustlin'" that pays homage to one source of his "inspiration."

"I know Big Meech, the real Big Meech,

"It's over for you clowns, soon as my nigga hit them streets."

Whether Meech will see the streets again remains an open question: If convicted, he could face life in prison. Yet the feds' efforts to break up the Black Mafia Family have quelled the alleged criminal enterprise only to a point.

"They're not dismantled," says a law enforcement source, who estimates that BMF's Atlanta members still number in the hundreds. "There's still action, still activity even in the Atlanta area. They're just not as flamboyant as they once were."

Message-board chatter and online comments, including responses to the first two parts of this series, testify to the staying power of the BMF myth.

"Meech proved himself to be a credible guy to those in the industry as well as in the streets, which is why you will NEVER hear anyone speak ill of his name," one man posted on a SOHH.com message board. "The man was genius at diplomacy, and his ability to network amongst various factions is unparalleled."

As Meech himself says -- in a letter written in a St. Clair County, Mich., jail cell and posted on his MySpace page -- the game is far from over.

"As you can see they can lock up my body, but not my mind! The world is still BMF's. I'm still focused on my 'vision,' making my challenges temporary but my 'vision' permanent."

Regardless of how the federal trial shakes out, Meech will keep on commanding respect -- a respect that's unfathomable to some. His hustle, however right or wrong, will still be worshiped. And he will continue to be known as a man who came from little and wound up, for a time at least, with everything.

[Deep background on the above section]

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com

For updates to this story, check out CL's Fresh Loaf blog.

 

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