Long before it became a tranquil middle-class neighborhood scattered with pride flags, the area around 7th Street and Orleans Place near Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington was a 24/7 open-air drug market that police generally avoided. And Rayful Edmond was the undisputed boss.
In the 1980s, Edmond was believed to have controlled about a third of the city's drug trade during a devastating crack epidemic that led to a surge in homicides and destroyed thousands of lives. Enforcers armed with Uzi submachineguns protected the territory and Edmond's operation was linked to at least 30 murders, although none was ever pinned on him.
"All over the city, he was known as THE MAN," said George Madison, a 54-year old retired security guard, who grew up across town but recalled that everyone knew the kingpin.
Edmond was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison. But federal prosecutors are now seeking his release, citing his years of assistance in helping authorities convict other dealers. In an unusual move, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has asked Washington Attorney General Karl Racine to solicit community opinions on whether Edmond, now 54, should be set free and whether he should be welcomed back to the city.
The prospect of Edmond going free has dredged up intense memories of a crime-ridden Washington that was the per-capita murder capital of the country, a status hard to picture now amid an ongoing construction boom and an influx of affluent, mostly white newcomers.
"The emotions are incredibly fresh," said Racine, who is organizing a string of town hall events on the topic. "I really did not expect some of the feelings that were articulated to be so raw and passionate."
At a recent event in southeast Washington, a half dozen people spoke, with opinions split on the prospect of Edmond's release.
"If the state feels that he's paid his debt to society, then I can live with that," said May Lewis, who attended but didn't speak publicly. "But I do hope he doesn't return to Washington to live. That might be too much for a small community like this to handle."
At the time of his arrest, Edmond, then 24, was a household name in a city that was a smaller, closer-knit place than now. His family-run operation was estimated by law enforcement officials to be moving up to 1,700 pounds of cocaine per month and making more than $1 million per week.
Madison, the retired security guard, recalled Edmond's reign with ambivalence.
"There's two sides: On one side, yes he flooded the streets with drugs," he said. "But at the same time he did help people in the community. He bought school clothes for kids and gifts at Christmas."
Edmond lived a high-profile life, sponsoring local basketball tournaments and taking lavish trips to Las Vegas to attend boxing matches. Racine, the attorney general, said he grew up in the same generation as Edmond and may have unwittingly played in basketball tournaments that were partially sponsored by him. He said the tales of Edmond's generosity in the community were commonly heard about urban drug lords and Mafia dons alike.
"People who engage in wrongdoing that is profitable often do practice some sort of largesse within the community," Racine said.
People talk about how Edmond tried to befriend members of the Georgetown University basketball team, including star center Alonzo Mourning. That ended when John Thompson, the famously intimidating Georgetown coach at the time, summoned Edmond to his office and ordered the kingpin to stay away from his players.
Edmond's trial was marked by unprecedented security measures; jury members were kept anonymous for their protection. He received a sentence of life without parole and was sent to a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. He continued to run a drug distribution network from inside the prison, and when he was caught, Edmond received an additional 30-year sentence. That seemed to change him.
He began cooperating with authorities. Federal prosecutors, in their motion to reduce the life sentence, say Edmond has helped jail dozens of other drug dealers, break up distribution rings and even taught prison authorities how to better prevent trafficking inside the prison system. The federal prosecutors say their counterparts in Pennsylvania are considering requesting a similar reduction, based on Edmond's cooperation.
His assistance has already resulted in the early release of his mother, Constance "Bootsie" Perry, who was sentenced to 14 years for her part in her son's operation. It has also prompted authorities to put Edmond under witness protection and remove his name from the Bureau of Prisons public records.
Mary Cheh, a D.C. council member who teaches law at George Washington University, said she recalls Edmond's arrest and trial. From a legal perspective, she said, prosecutors wouldn't have made the request if Edmond's assistance hadn't been substantial.
"It's extraordinarily distasteful, but occasionally prosecutors do need to do this," she said. "You make deals. It's unsavory but sometimes it's the only way to get things done."