“BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family”
By Mara Shalhoup
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $24.99
7 p.m. Tues., March 2. Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 8, Atlanta. 404-522-0655, www.eyedrum.org.
1 p.m. Sat., March 13. Barnes & Noble, 3685 Market Place Blvd., East Point. 404-349-0359, www.barnesandnoble.com.
By Steve Weinberg
Atlanta journalist Mara Shalhoup set herself a difficult task when she vowed to write a book about the cocaine distribution enterprise known as Black Mafia Family, run primarily by brothers Demetrius and Terry Flenory.
The brothers grew up in Detroit but settled in warmer climates during the 1990s. Demetrius, better known as “Big Meech,” used Atlanta as his base. Terry, the younger brother, chose Los Angeles. Already savvy entrepreneurs as 20-somethings, the brothers understood that operating their illegal empires from geographically separate headquarters would make detection and arrest tougher for law enforcement agencies.
In Atlanta, Big Meech maintained a high profile, not only in the illegal narcotics trade but also in the more-or-less legitimate hip-hop music realm. As a result, Shalhoup experienced no trouble finding out about the superficial activities of her book’s primary character. Terry “Southwest T” Flenory kept a lower profile, but Shalhoup could track him, too, up to a point, through law enforcement arrest reports, court documents and media coverage.
For Shalhoup, digging successfully below the surface would constitute the challenge. She wanted to know how the brothers operated their businesses, why they decided to make their fortunes illegally, how they found such loyal soldiers to serve as combatants on the criminal side of the drug wars.
Given the high degree of difficulty, Shalhoup has written a strong book. The primary challenge for readers is keeping track of all the criminals and the law enforcers. Shalhoup in her “cast of characters” section lists not only the two Flenorys but 19 associates, supplemented by five law enforcement personnel. The fact is, the book covers the exploits of far more than 26 characters. Many disappear for dozens of pages before re-emerging. Furthermore, the organization of the chapters and sections within the chapters might be transparent to Shalhoup and her editor, but it often baffled me. I kept reading because the topic is fascinating. But following all those characters and trying to decipher the narrative arc made my brain hurt.
My brain pain lessened when reading about Big Meech. Despite his campaign to spread harmful narcotics and his murderous tendencies, he is a somewhat sympathetic guy, mixing self-awareness with a huge ego, treating his underlings like family and exhibiting sincere interest in developing meaningful hip-hop artists.
Shalhoup scored an interview with Big Meech after his incarceration — as the “fall” in the book’s subtitle suggests, law enforcers eventually got their man — with his quotations adding perspective to the sometimes overheated law enforcement documentation.
Atlanta-area readers will feel special kinship with Shalhoup’s reporting, as she describes night clubs, hotels, homes and neighborhoods (especially Boulevard, the Bluff and Bankhead) frequented by Big Meech, his gang and the consumers of their illicit product.
The Black Mafia Family became entangled with Atlanta politics, too, especially through BMF associate Tremayne “Kiki” Graham, son-in-law of Mayor Shirley Franklin.
The relatively brief but nonetheless insightful profiles of Atlanta law enforcement officers give welcome alternative perspective to the story. Shalhoup won useful access to Jack Harvey, from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration Atlanta office; Bryant “Bubba” Burns, an Atlanta police detective; and Rand Csehy, a Fulton County prosecuting attorney, among others determined to cripple the Black Mafia Family. When practical, the law enforcers cut across troublesome jurisdictional lines because Atlanta had achieved the dubious honor of being designated a “high-intensity drug trafficking area.”
The task force assumed the burden of dismantling “drug trafficking organizations — the kind that, due to lack of resources, typically evade most big-city police departments — and cut short the reign of violent career criminals,” according to Shalhoup. “To that end, task force agents were given luxuries that cash-strapped police departments coveted: high-tech wiretapping equipment, fleets of undercover vehicles, and, most important, unimpeded time.”
All that equipment might suggest an unfair battle, with law enforcement easy winners. That did not turn out to be true. The Black Mafia Family earned plenty of revenue to foil law enforcement efforts through their own high-tech devices, not to mention bribery, fast cars and especially deadly firepower.
Crime could not pay the Flenory brothers forever, though. After being arrested, each ended up with a 30-year prison term. Another 100 or so defendants linked to the Black Mafia Family ultimately pleaded guilty or found themselves convicted and out of circulation. Whether the long-term impact will mean a less beset urban area remains to be seen.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.