“I sell weed, and maybe a little coke,” Jameel Wilkes was saying from the penitentiary. But is he New Haven’s number-one Tre Blood? No way, he insisted.
Wilkes—aka “Biggs,” aka “Big Homie,” aka “the highest-ranking gang member in New Haven,” according to federal prosecutor Dave Vatti—wanted to set the record straight.
He might be a large guy. He might go by “Biggs.” He might boast online about big-time gang activity.
But in reality, he claimed over and over again, he’s more like “Smalls” than “Biggs.” At least in the drug trade.
He wanted to communicate that point badly enough that he wasn’t waiting to tell his story to a federal judge or jury.
Biggs is one of the feds’ alleged top catches in “Operation Bloodline,” the historic sweep two weeks ago of 105 indicted alleged Tre Bloods gang-bangers accused of running the city’s deadliest drug-dealing and murder operation. (Read about that here.)
Biggs—whose approximately 350-pound frame attests to his nickname—swung back at the allegations against him in a wide-ranging phone interview held at the house of his girlfriend in New Haven’s Bishop Woods neighborhood.
Answering questions via the speaker on his wife’s smartphone Sunday evening, in a call made on a prepaid card (the conversation began with a prerecorded message from the prison), Biggs, who’s 33, admitted selling drugs in New Haven since his early teens living on Fair Haven’s Poplar Street. (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to hear excerpts from the conversation, illustrated with pictures from Biggs’ social-media postings.)
“Yeah, I mean, I do sell drugs. I tell them to their face. I’ll tell President Obama to his face,” Biggs declared.” I sell weed, and maybe a little bit of coke, not even making a day to day living out of it. I might have some this week, but I might not have any for the next two weeks, who knows?
Biggs insisted he’s never been the big player that prosecutor Vatti alleged when Biggs appeared in court on May 23 following the sweeps. New Haven cops similarly concluded that Biggs ranks high in the organization.
“Look at my charges!” Biggs said. “I haven’t had a felony in nine years! In a city like New Haven, that’s incredible. In a city like New Haven, I deserve a pat on the fucking back.” According to the state judicial website, Biggs got a one-year jail sentence, suspended after 30 days, for a 2007 felony third-degree burglary charge.
The feds and the New Haven cops who conducted “Operation Bloodline” were watching too many rap videos, and believing them, Biggs argued.
“Ever Heard Of 50 Cent?”
Indeed, Biggs and another top defendant, a rapper known as “Wylie Don,” put numerous videos and Facebook postings on the web bragging of criminal activity, and showing the faces of alleged associates, under the banner of the “Klean-Up Krew.” Investigators watched the videos, reviewed the pages, and used them as a starting point to link targets of the probe.
You can sample the videos Biggs produces at this YouTube page.
“All right, now, if you listen to any rapper, it´s the same thing. It´s a part of rap music. Rap music is basically art imitating what really goes on in the street,” Biggs argued. “Have you ever heard of 50 Cent? He even talks about his street music. But where does he live at? Farmington, Connecticut, mansion. Cut it out.”
The “money” video for investigators may have been “Addicted To Money.” Biggs and many other young men appear with popular rapper French Montana throughout the video in “Klean Up Krew” T-shirts. Biggs said he developed a relationship with Montana before the rapper hit the big time, and invited him to New Haven for performances.
Montana had “Addicted To Money” shot in the Farnam Courts projects and in the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood, the heart of Tre Bloods territory. In introducing Montana at the start of the video, Biggs also welcomes people to “New Haven, Connecticut. You come out here, you won’t leave, nigga.” He appears later in the video alongside the rapper.
The video—along with other of Biggs’ social-media postings—feature dozens of New Haven teens and young men identified as Klean Up Krew Members.
Biggs offered this take on that video and others in the interview: “What you see in YouTube is we go get a bunch of people from the neighborhood, give us ten dollars, we’ll give you a shirt, and we gotta show this day that day, come out to the show world. That’s really what it is. If you really look at the videos and pause them, we got females wearing our shirts, little kids, we even had some drug addicts that came out. We had dudes from all different gangs. I could point out Crips in our videos, maybe a few Bloods. Whatever! Its not no one particular gang, Klean Up Krew was never that. I’m not saying there might not have been a few Bloods in our video, I’m not saying there wasn’t a few Crips in our video; I’m not saying that. But me, per se, I know what I am. I can’t speak for what anyone else is. So when they call me a leader, to me that’s just this propaganda to get me more time, that’s what I see.”
The government calls the Krew a criminal subset of the Bloods gang. Biggs, who has worked as a music promoter for years in New Haven, calls it a group of rappers. He said three rappers formed it; two went to jail before he joined it.
“The whole New Haven know I’m not in a gang. You know whatta mean? My whole city, I go anywhere I want, I deal with people from every side of town. The sad part is the stereotype of the Dwight-Kensington area, I’m not even from this area. I’ve been from Fair Haven my entire life. Every charge that I’ve had ever since I was a kid has been in Fair Haven. I don’t even have no say-so [in] anything that goes on in the Dwight-Kensington side of town. So they label me as someone from that part of town, number one, that’s just wrong in the first place. You understand what I’m saying? They’re trying to label I guess Klean Up as, how you say, like a Blood set, a Blood faction. But where is this happening, where is the proof?”
Biggs noted that though the government identified him in court as the top dog among 105 indictees, he didn’t get the biggest charges. His indictment charges him with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute narcotics; and possession with intent to sell cocaine base. Biggs pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance.
In addition to watching videos, the government made extensive use of court-authorized wiretaps. Biggs said he isn’t trying to deny dealing actions on which the government has him cold. He said he’s not pretending to be an “angel.”
Rather, he wants to defend himself in the court of public opinion against the portrayal of him in court.
“They murdered me,” he said. “They made me look like the worst person in the fucking United States. I mean, I was shocked.
“You can’t just be a person from one side of town and just go to a whole other side of town and be the biggest, baddest motherfucker on this side of town. If they wanted to label me something like this in Fair Haven, I would be more willing to accept it. You are trying to make it seem like I control what goes on over there? Oh my god, man, I would have been in jail a long time ago.”
In the interview, though, he reserved his anger for New Haven cops, whose intelligence work launched the investigation, not for the feds.
“I don’t even blame the feds for all of this. I don’t,” Biggs maintained. “I blame the New Haven police. Because the feds come, like, ‘What are you guys doing, you let your city fall to shambles? And they come in, and all you do is give them a bunch of photos, and then that’s what we got, the feds taking all these people off the streets because the New Haven police told them so. At the end of the day it’s really sad, that then you gonna come put me as a ringleader. How? Where? A gang member! You go to my Facebook, for years I’ve been telling people, ‘I am not a gang member.’ If you know anything about being in a gang, you can’t just be denying being in a gang once you’re in it just for nothing. I’ve been denying it every 30 days just because I don’t want people to think that I am in a gang. You can go back as far as my Facebook will let you go and I say it: ‘I don’t have a problem with gangs, I’m just not in one.’”
Block H At Wyatt
Gang member or not, Biggs said he is locked up in what he called the “gang wing,” H Block of the federal Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I. An employee of the facility Tuesday confirmed that Biggs is indeed locked up there.
He doesn’t have access to the Internet, he said, so he can’t post on Facebook or Twitter. Someone posted a death threat on his Twitter account after his arrest, on May 29. It read: “wish you and that nigga Die slow like rats should! new haven to small real niggas will be HOME soon.” Biggs said he couldn’t have done that from jail.
A New Haven defense attorney who has represented defendants in federal drug sweeps—including the previous largest round-up, of the Newhallville-based R2 gang—echoed some of Biggs’ take.
The attorney, Diane Polan, argued that the feds magnify petty drug-dealing offenders into big players, using a combination of wiretapped phone conversations and draconian war-on-drugs federal guidelines. Polan does not represent any of the Operation Bloodline defendants. She said she has no knowledge of Biggs’ case in particular.
“If they have you have on a wiretap buying three eight balls, they charge you with conspiracy,” Polan said. “Under federal law you can be held responsible for what everybody in the case is doing. Under federal sentencing guidelines, your prior record is the main driver of how much time you do. They double the mandatory minimums, and you’re cooked.”
So facilities like Wyatt get jammed with low-level offenders (“I have a client trying to fight a wiretap case up there; he can’t even get a [private meeting] room for a week because there are so many people on wiretap evidence”) while other dealers quickly take their places on the street, Polan argued. Wyatt is a private facility kept alive with government contracts.
“It’s just heart-breaking what’s happening to these young people. Yes, they’ve done something wrong. They don’t deserve to go to federal prison for years,” Polan said. “It makes no dent on the street because they’re not dealing with the underlying issue of drug addiction. What’s fueling this issue is people addicted to crack. Urban people. Suburban people. Nobody’s dealing with that. You can’t get a treatment bed for people. This sweep is going to make no difference on the street until they start dealing with drug education, lack of employment, profits to be made on drug dealing.”
The critics are missing the point, responded one veteran of New Haven drug investigations. Local cops are not fighting a War on Drugs, he said. Rather, they’re pursuing the “broken windows” theory of policing and neighborhood stability: catching small problems before they get bigger and using whatever tools they have to restore order amid violence.
“I agree with the larger issue” about the need to address drug addiction, he said. Meanwhile, gangs are terrorizing neighborhoods, and people are getting killed. A lot of that violence stems from gang-connected drug dealing, he argued.
“People have been living with these guys on the stoops selling drugs, committing shootings. ... If you have a bunch of guys who are acting like a gang and selling drugs, should that be ignored? That will become something bigger. They create fear. When they walk around with their Blood paraphernalia and Klean-Up Krew shirts and guns in their waistbands, they create fear. People shouldn’t have to live in that environment. It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t fault me for selling a little drugs.’ It’s bigger than that.”
He also contested the idea that new dealers will simply replace the 105 people “Operation Bloodline” removed from Dwight-Kensington and Fair Haven.
“That’s an easy thing to say: ‘When they pull out Jameel Wilkes, there are two or three people to take his spot.’ That’s just not true. They haven’t made the connections over the years to do that. They don’t occupy the neighborhoods the same way.’ When you’ve got Klean-Up Krew, they essentially occupy the Tre almost as if they’re a standing army. There’s not enough people to replenish that. You pull 105 people out of an area, to think there’s another 105 people waiting to take over, it’s just not true. New Haven’s only so big.”
Biggs, meanwhile, said he’d rather be back in New Haven. He’d rather be back home with his girlfriend, who works in a medical office and is raising three children. (He’s not the father.) The two-story home on a middle-class street—one of two locations where Biggs was known to lay his head, and one of two locations the feds raided looking for him in last month’s sweeps—was immaculate Sunday evening when Biggs called. The children were upstairs while the conversation took place in the downstairs living room. In the kitchen, an array of photos showing Biggs with his girlfriend hung on the refrigerator door.
He was asked if he regrets having spent close to two decades dealing drugs.
“I regret the entire way I came up,” he replied. “It got to the point where it felt, like, ‘This is all we got.’ Right now, my later years, I can sit in the house, I got my girl to take care of me. Right now, I might go out make a little money [selling drugs] to pay for what I have to pay for, but I’ll be back home playing X-box every night.” He said he he loves X-box.
Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez contributed to this story, including editing the video.