LOS ANGELES

Ricky Ross is in a hurry. It's almost 10 a.m. on a warm autumn day in 2010, and Ross has a conference call with Hollywood director Nick Cassavetes he doesn't want to miss. Cassavetes is going to help make Ross more famous than he already is, and richer, too -- much, much richer -- and that's important because Ross is used to being rich.

Ross grew "accustomed" to it, he says, back in the day, when he helped build one of the biggest cocaine distribution networks this country has ever seen, pulling down $1 million on some good days, and often more. He wore a bulletproof vest. He carried a 9 mm handgun. He took seriously his work as a crack kingpin. And then, one day, authorities busted "Freeway" Ricky Ross and sent him to prison for life.

But he got out -- that's another thing he wants you to know about him, that he beat the system that tried to put him down.

Ross, 50, is now a free man, smiling coyly and driving a beat-up blue Chevrolet Astro van down Del Amo Boulevard toward Carson, where he lives, and toward his conference call with Cassavetes, who Ross hopes will be the one to help tell his life story on the big screen. Last week, Cassavetes delivered a script for the movie to Ross.

But, he adds, thinking about it carefully, the only one who can really make Ross rich again, rich the way he once was -- when he could pay for a house in cash on the spot or dole out $25,000 a week to his five girlfriends -- is Ross himself. He's no victim.


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He has victims, though -- thousands and thousands of them.

America's "crack epidemic" began on the South Central Los Angeles streets Ross controlled with an iron fist and a seemingly endless appetite for domination. Within a few short years in the early and mid-1980s, crack -- a highly addictive, smokable and, most importantly, cheap form of cocaine -- had rocketed into virtually every big city in America, thanks in large part to Ross' particular business acumen.

Huge swaths of urban America were engulfed by violence and despair as the hunger for crack grew.

Oakland was one of the worst hit. According to a recent study released by The Rand Corp., between 1980 and 2000, Oakland ranked seventh out of 232 American cities with significant crack problems.

The end of 2010 marks three decades since the epidemic struck. Today, the impacts of crack's invasion are still apparent in many sectors of society: in America's broken families, in its overpopulated prisons, and in a generation of people whose growth and promise were stunted by the power of a little white rock.

Within a single generation, national homicide rates for young black males more than doubled, foster care enrollment rose and families fell apart. A steady course of African-American progress was essentially halted in its tracks as the crack epidemic escalated, peaked and, finally, in the late 1990s, began to subside.

Ross, sitting comfortably at the eye of the storm, became a multimillionaire selling "rock" to the "dope fiends" whose addiction fueled the epidemic.

Pusher man

The first time Ricky Donnel Ross saw cocaine was in the theater, watching the 1972 hit "Superfly," which depicted the life of Priest, a cocaine dealer trying to quit the streets -- but not before making one last big score. The high-rolling life of a drug-dealing gangster piqued Ross' interest.

He could have gone another route. He played tennis amazingly well. He was quick and clever and sprightly. Unlike so many of his friends, Ross had options. But he turned away from them.

That white powder and the life it promised intrigued him. One day a friend, a teacher, urged him to start dealing. So Ross looked around for opportunities. And what he saw -- what others might not have seen -- was a vast and untapped market in South Central Los Angeles, where he grew up.

Everyone told him his plan was impossible. Cocaine was too expensive; most of the black folks who lived there were too poor to afford it. But Ross made it work. He distilled the powder into rock, using an existing method developed in the late 1970s. He marketed his product to the gangs, Crips and Bloods, who ran the streets. More often than not, his customers paid him in $1 bills.

Ross was the man to see if you wanted to unload cocaine in L.A. His fame on the streets led him to Oscar Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan dope dealer with ties to the Contras -- a ragged band of mercenaries and ex-landowners trying to overthrow the Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua with the help of the U.S. Congress and the CIA.

By the early 1980s, Ross had heard that Blandon was trying to unload huge quantities of premium-grade cocaine. So one day, Ross says, he and Blandon both paid $60,000 to a broker who arranged for them to meet.

"I made all my money back that same day," he says.

Ross and Blandon were made for each other. Blandon had more cocaine than anyone could have wished for. And Ross had a mind for business that rivaled that of many CEOs.

"He just had so much," Ross says, "and the cheaper I got it, the cheaper I could sell it."

And sell it he did. Ross pulls his truck to a stop at 74th and Western avenues and points to a gated set of buildings, now shuttered, rusting and empty. This was Ross' "shop." From here he sold tires and wheels. He had a beauty salon and a carwash -- all of it a front.

"I was selling drugs all over the place out here," he says, and turns up the volume on the radio, from which Eminem is wailing about his marital problems. "This was state of the art. We kept cars full of money, or drugs, on all these streets."

The high life

Ross and Blandon made millions of dollars together. Blandon and his cohorts shipped the cocaine into the U.S. through Miami and then out to Ross, who started building networks to other cities across the country.

In the course of his rise, prosecutors estimate that Ross exported several tons of cocaine to New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and made more than $600 million in the process.

By 1986, Ross' crack empire had reached most of America's large cities. He has since earned a spot on BET's "American Gangster" series and was featured in "American Drug War: The Last White Hope," a documentary about the sordid history of America's war on drugs. Ross also earned the lasting enmity of scores of law enforcement officials across the country.

Ross ran his empire with corporation-like precision. If his employees had legal problems, he supplied them with a lawyer. If buyers wanted an early delivery, he made sure they got it. He gave some of his clients preferential rates. And because Blandon gave him such bargain-basement prices, he undercut his competition at every turn.

By the mid-1980s, Ross claims there were a few days when he made more than $2 million hawking crack on the streets. The San Diego DEA officials who would investigate, and convict, him a decade later refer to him now, in unusually understated language, as a "large-scale crack-cocaine dealer."

Ross didn't know what to do with all his money. He paid his mother and his girlfriends a weekly allowance. He bought cars and houses and motels and apartment buildings. He lost count of all the property he owned.

"Twenty houses, maybe 30," he says, "I don't know."

A few miles more and he stops the truck in front of a gold and white house with Greek columns on Hillcrest Avenue, a quiet street in Inglewood. At the height of his power, he bought this house from a liquor store owner for $250,000 in cash. And because the liquor store owner needed small bills to run his business, Ross paid him in $1 bills.

Downfall

Blandon and Ross made an odd pair. Blandon was Nicaraguan, well-to-do, disdainful of his poor black customers. Blandon hated the Socialists who had taken over his country. Sometimes he told Ross that he was helping the rebels out with the money he made selling crack. But Ross didn't ask too many questions. He was trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

"I always knew I was going to go to prison," he says. "I knew I'd made too much money to get away with it, there had to be a catch."

Ross did go to prison in 1989 on drug charges, but got out a few years later. By that time, he claims, he was out of the game. He wanted to run his hotel and fix cars.

But in early 1995, he claims he got a call from Blandon. Ross says the Nicaraguan told him he was in hot water with the wrong people, that he owed money, his life was on the line. Blandon needed Ross' help. Could he arrange a meeting for Blandon to sell one last shipment? One hundred kilos of premium stuff? Ross says he was trying to go clean, comparing himself to Priest, the long-ago hero of "Superfly," who agreed to go for one last ride.

Not so, says L.J. O'Neale, one of the prosecutors in the federal case that sent Ross to jail. O'Neale says it was Ross who reached out first.

"We weren't looking for him, he found us," O'Neale says. "He called (Blandon) and said, 'Can you give me a little bit (of cocaine) on credit?' We were blissfully unaware of him until he did that."

But the moment he shook hands with Blandon, the feds swooped in. Blandon became the government's key witness against Ross.

It's dark outside now, and Ross watches the streetlights as he shepherds a forkful of veggie burrito into his mouth.

"The last time I saw Danilo was when he testified in court against me," he says.

On a TV screen above him, the LAPD is engaged in a high-speed car chase. He nods toward the screen and laughs. That's what happened to him, he says.

"It was cold, what Blandon did," he says. "But that's how life is, if you let yourself be a victim."

Ross was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1996, but the sentence was reduced to 20 years on appeal on a legal technicality related to California's Three Strikes Law. He was released in 2009.

The Contra connection

Today, being a victim is the last thing Ross wants. For starters, there's no time. At 7 p.m., he has a meeting with a human hair wholesaler. Ross retails human hair from India to L.A.'s fashionable ladies. He doesn't make much -- $30 or $40 apiece -- but it's all part of his plan. After his conviction, the government seized all his assets. Ross was left with nothing.

His favorite book these days is "Think and Grow Rich," and that's exactly what he plans to do. He has a thriving trucking business. His music promotion website, FreewayEnterprise.com, is more popular every day. He gives talks to ministers about his journey toward reform.

As for the countless thousands of African-Americans and others whose lives were wrecked by crack, Ross shows no guilt.

"I'm responsible for everything I did," he says. "But if you ask me if I'm responsible for all these other people who used cocaine, I say no. I never took a gun and put it to someone's head and said, 'Use this cocaine.' The user is just as responsible for the problem as the seller."

Ross believes he was just a bit player in a much larger game. It's a game that Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, tried to tackle in a controversial 1996 series called "Dark Alliance," which broadly hinted that the CIA was using money gleaned from Ross' cocaine sales to buy weapons for the Contras fighting in Nicaragua. Webb alleged that the funds Blandon and another Nicaraguan living in the Bay Area, Norwin Menenses, made through cocaine sales were funneled to Nicaragua's FDN army, which was funded and supported by the CIA. Ross, Webb believed, was the unfortunate fall guy.

Arnold Perkins, the former director of Alameda County Public Health Department, agrees.

"The crack epidemic destroyed our community. Freeway Ricky was just an instrument," Perkins says. "The ultimate responsibility has to lie with us in the community."

The "Dark Alliance" series sparked investigations and outrage, but also controversy and tragedy after Webb resigned under pressure and eventually committed suicide in December 2004.

O'Neale, the federal prosecutor, calls the series "inaccurate," and pointed to the flaws that were eventually outlined by subsequent investigations in other newspapers.

Even Ross isn't entirely sure what to think these days -- that he was a bit player in a drama involving CIA agents and Central American rebels, or an enterprising drug dealer who took advantage of a bad situation for which countless thousands of African-Americans paid the price.

"I don't know what to believe anymore," he says. Perhaps it's a little of both.

Hollywood

Ross leans back in his chair. A friend of his has obtained tickets to an L.A. Clippers game. He watches silently as the players lean and fight for the ball. Suddenly, a Clippers player sweeps up high, grabs the ball on the run and dunks it hard. The crowd erupts in a roar. An elder, distinguished-looking man eventually turns around in his chair and looks up.

"Ain't you Ricky Ross?" he asks.

Ross nods, yes.

"How you doin', man? I heard you got out. How you doing?"

"I got a movie deal going," he says. "Nick Cassavetes directing, he's the Steven Spielberg of Hollywood, you know? We're just trying to figure out who's going to play me now."

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson and Twitter.com/oaklandeffect.