The Black Mafia Family
Mara Shalhoup chronicles the rise and fall of Atlanta drug kingpin. An excerpt from her new book.
Demetrius Flenory, better known in many Atlanta circles as “Big Meech,” spends his days and nights in Jesup, Georgia, where he is an inmate at the federal medium-security prison. His scheduled release date is twenty-two years from this month. Almost 3,000 miles to the west, Meech’s brother, Terry, is serving a similar stretch at a federal prison in the chilly Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California.
Illustration by Roberto Parada
For nearly ten years until their arrest in 2005, the Flenorys ruled Atlanta’s drug trade. Calling themselves the Black Mafia Family, Meech and his crew hid in plain sight. They subsidized rap stars, filmed videos, hosted outrageous parties at local nightclubs, and even took out billboard advertising. But they largely escaped any media scrutiny until Mara Shalhoup, now editor-in-chief at
Creative Loafing, took a call one day from a woman whose son was gunned down outside the now-defunct Velvet Room in Midtown in the early morning hours of July 25, 2004. The woman was convinced the shooter was a member of the Black Mafia Family. Shalhoup started digging, and the three-part series she wrote on BMF led to a book that comes out March 2. BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family is an exhaustive account of how a criminal empire was built, its extravagant trappings (including a Lithonia mansion called the “White House” that served as, among other things, a lab to process cocaine), and how police ultimately dismantled it.
In the following excerpt from her book, Shalhoup explores how the Flenory brothers, who grew up in Detroit, gained a foothold in the local cocaine trade in the true Atlanta way—not through violence, but through a keen business sense.
In prior years, a crew called the Miami Boys was responsible for most of the cocaine funneled into Atlanta. But in the early nineties, the feds caught up with the crew, and with the Miami Boys extinguished there was an opening in Atlanta’s drug market for a new ruling class. As it was, the city’s top-level distributors were buying their coke from various sources, often scrapping with each other over territory and pricing. In the disorder, Meech and Terry saw an opportunity. Rather than strong-arm their way into the trade, as the blood-thirsty Miami Boys had done, Meech and Terry entered the market in a businesslike manner; they sat down with Atlanta’s major cocaine dealers and offered them a better price: $17,000 per kilo. The brothers were able to undercut the competition because they had access to such a vast supply. And so it made sense to move the kilos at a lesser price, even if the profit margin was lower, because it served to choke out all rivals—who, unlike the Flenorys, didn’t have nearly as deep a well from which to draw.
And so Atlanta, with its web of highways and its easygoing drug market, turned out to be a good choice for Meech. But Atlanta would become attractive for another reason, too. Less pressing than the business of setting up the drug enterprise, but closer to Meech’s heart, was the fact that starting in the late nineties, Atlanta began to blow up on the national hip-hop scene. Rappers were flooding the streets with mixtapes, a phenomenon that allowed music to flow straight to the people—and helped build a quick buzz around new talent. The “tapes,” which usually took the form of CD compilations, were played at clubs and on the urban radio stations, were handed out at shows and on street corners, and were sold online and in underground music stores, all without the interference of a major record label. The mixtape culture brought a new immediacy to hip-hop. Artists could keep fans up-to-date on allegiances and feuds with other rappers. They could respond to each other’s attacks and counterattacks with freshly pressed verses, released within days rather than the months it takes a label to press a traditional album. The mixtape culture would soon catapult Atlanta rappers such as Jeezy, T.I., Lil Jon, and Ludacris—as well as the terms “Crunk” and “Dirty South”—to superstardom. It also helped change the face of the city.
In the late nineties, Buckhead’s clubs were booming with the bass of homegrown tracks such as OutKast’s “Rosa Parks,” followed a few years later by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’ “Get Low.” The scene was almost unrecognizable from a few years earlier, when Buckhead, though still debaucherous, was a far whiter place. Ironically, as blacks were enjoying increasingly more influence in the glitziest of all Atlanta neighborhoods, many of the city’s traditionally black neighborhoods were hemorrhaging residents. Across Atlanta, an intown renaissance was under way, spurred in large part by the demolition of an eventual dozen public housing projects, all of them torn down to make room for “mixed-income” (read: whiter and wealthier) communities. The two forces—the whitening of intown Atlanta and the darkening of Buckhead—weren’t exactly at odds. The influx of young up-and-comers from the suburbs and from far-off states, coupled with Atlanta’s soon-to-crest hip-hop wave, was reshaping the city as a more upscale and glamorous place, less like the forlorn Detroit to which the Flenorys were accustomed and more like the sparkling Miami and L.A. to which they aspired.
But as the city slowly morphed, forcibly displacing some down-and-out residents, several pockets of urban blight remained. The biggest of them comprised an area called “the Bluff,” off the old Bankhead Highway on the west side. On the east side of the city, the most concentrated center of poverty could be found along the corridor flanking the thoroughfare called, simply, Boulevard. While other intown neighborhoods sprouted independent coffee shops and $400,000 condos, the drug trade flourished in the Bluff and on Boulevard, making the influx of crack and powder cocaine all the easier for the Flenorys to control. And control it they did, from the safe distance of several unassuming stash houses in upscale Atlanta neighborhoods.
For Meech’s bigger vision to work, he actually needed both Atlantas: the one embodied by Boulevard and the other by Buckhead. Thanks to the cocaine distributors who thrived in the drug districts such as Boulevard, Meech raked in the kind of money that laid the groundwork for another endeavor, one that necessitated his presence in the Buckhead clubs. At first, he cut a shadowy figure there, almost blending into the backdrop except that he struck clubgoers as something exotic, a light-skinned, ever-so-slightly thuggish figure with chiseled features and braided hair, watching the crowd with an air of authority. He seemed to always be around, solitary and unassuming and yet, when you look at it in retrospect, most certainly plotting something—and imagining the day, not too far in the future, when the spotlight would be focused on him.
At the same time, Meech was gaining a sinister reputation in some of the city’s seedier corners. Those who knew him, if only peripherally, knew the rumors about his dark side. There was one incident, back in 1996, when he was arrested at one of the city’s most popular watering holes for both rappers and ballers, a place where new tracks were dropped to gauge the crowd’s reaction and, subsequently, where many a career took a boost or a nosedive. The scenery wasn’t too shabby, either, depending on your taste. Magic City, directly across from the Downtown Greyhound station, boasts Atlanta’s finest selection of buxom, all-black strippers, capable of gravity-defying, seemingly unnatural feats. From the finely polished bumpers of H2s and Lambos in the parking lot to the equally well-buffed curves gracing the fleet of women inside, Magic City was a place you came to show off. In 1996, Meech wasn’t quite ready to expose the full potential of his wealth. He hadn’t reached full potential yet. But he was able to prove that he was a badass. One February night, he was taken out of Magic City in handcuffs, having been accused of throwing a bottle at another patron and slicing his neck. And still, Meech was allowed back inside the Downtown club.
The Magic City agg assault charge was dropped a month later. It had been filed under one of Meech’s aliases, Ronald Ivory, the name on his Georgia driver’s license, and authorities hadn’t yet caught on to the ruse. Two years later, he was arrested again in Atlanta, during the raid of a suspected drug house; that time he fell back on one of his earlier Michigan aliases, Rico Seville. After he was charged with felony obstruction and misdemeanor marijuana possession (the raid was pretty much fruitless), he was released. Soon thereafter police discovered a match between Rico Seville’s fingerprints and Ronald Ivory’s, and the DEA helped draw the connection between Rico, Ronald, and Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory.
And then, it seemed, Meech disappeared from Atlanta. Over the next few years, some of the few hints that law enforcement gleaned to his whereabouts came from confidential informants and a minor arrest. In 2000 he was charged with DUI in L.A., and he identified himself using a recently issued California driver’s license in the name of Aundrez Carothers. Again, his fingerprints gave him away, but not until after he was released. A year later, an informant told agents in Atlanta that Meech was making regular trips across the country in a white van—loaded with up to 200 kilos of coke. According to that informant, Meech made the trip from L.A. to Detroit, where he’d typically drop off half the load, and then to Atlanta, where he’d deliver the rest. The following year, a third informant heightened the profile on Meech. He told the DEA that the kingpin from Detroit was a vengeful killer who vowed to “whack” anyone who cooperated in an investigation against him. And in 1997, Meech’s name was mentioned in connection to the Atlanta drive-by killing of the federal informant Dennis Kingsley Walker.
Meech’s low profile didn’t last. In 2003 he was back in Atlanta, bigger and more visible than ever. He descended on the strip club circuit with newfound rigor, religiously showing up on Monday nights at Magic City—and purportedly finding himself banned from another club, 24K, after getting into a fight with one of the dancers. This time around, he was almost always in the company of a large crew, and the crew was throwing around fistfuls of cash. The outings were among the first obvious displays of allegiance to Meech and the mysterious organization he’d created. Wads of dough aside, the crew members weren’t exactly difficult to pick out of the crowd. Proof of their affiliation was even less subtle than the blue bandanas favored by Crips, the L.A.-based gang with whom Meech’s crew was loosely affiliated, or the red ones worn by rival Bloods. Meech’s entourage wore black T-shirts printed with three letters, ones that might have puzzled onlookers at first. Yet within months, in circles not only in Atlanta but in Detroit, L.A., Miami, and New York, the abbreviation “BMF” would become synonymous with the Black Mafia Family—as well as a particular brand of partying that bordered on the absurd.
The letters were not only displayed on members’ shirts (or, in some cases, tattooed on their forearms), but were also spelled out in diamonds hanging from their necks on platinum chains. At first, the medallions were modestly sized, perhaps an inch tall and a couple of inches across. (Referring to the diminutive carat count of one of those early chains, one crew member said in a whisper, “BMF.”) Over time, however, the medallions grew, as if along an arc drawn by BMF’s growing dominance in the cocaine trade.
It was worth it to see those three diamond-studded letters—B-M-F—grow bigger and bigger with each passing pendant. It was an honor to bestow increasingly massive medallions on their most loyal associates. And it was a source of pride to see others gawk at the sparkle that hung from the crew’s neck. Most onlookers could only fantasize about the wealth that made such a thing possible.
One of those onlookers was a man hired in the spring of 2003 to remodel the White House. Over a period of six months, the contractor built a granite wall, installed new cabinets and kitchen appliances, and laid a limestone floor in the basement, among other tasks. The bill for his work came to about $200,000, and all of it had been paid by a man called “Pops”—typically in cash installments between $7,000 and $9,000.
The contractor soon learned that Pops was Charles Flenory, the father of the man who owned the house. Pops’s son, Terry, supposedly was an investor in several Atlanta nightclubs. Thus the explanation for the stacks of bills seemed reasonable enough; after all, nightclub owners had access to large amounts of cash. But the contractor’s bank wasn’t buying it. He was warned by bank officials that his deposits looked suspicious, as if he or his client was trying to avoid the $10,000 [federal] reporting requirement.
Soon after the warning, the contractor was witness to other curious goings-on at the White House. Once, he saw several men crashed out on the basement floor, sleeping alongside piles of guns, money, and platinum medallions that spelled “BMF.” He later asked one of the men what “BMF” stood for, to which the man replied: “It stands for the Black Mafia Family. If you haven’t heard of us, you soon will.”
Others who visited the White House in 2003 recall seeing more than just guns, cash, and bling. Throughout the summer, Doc, the Flenorys’ CFO, stopped by to pick up his weekly shipment of cocaine: ten kilos. High-level manager “Freak” Green typically oversaw the White House and, by extension, its cache of drugs. But on other occasions, BMF’s upper echelon—Slim, Texas Cuz, or Terry himself—would be on hand to dole out the weekly supply. Even A.R. [Boyd, an upper-level manager for Terry], who was fairly new to the organization, was privy to some major transactions at the White House. No one asked him to turn his head when, in the basement of the house, he laid his eyes on a hundred neatly stacked kilos.
A.R. also was close enough to Terry to tag along with him while he checked out an investment opportunity: a car dealership and customization shop called 404 Motorsports. The slick showroom was located on the southern fringe of Buckhead, just north of a seedy row of strip clubs on Cheshire Bridge Road. The business, with its polished floors and $100,000 whips, was impressive—as was its co-owner, Tremayne “Kiki” Graham. Kiki’s shop had sold tricked out rides to megaproducer Jermaine Dupri and Atlanta Brave Andruw Jones. And Kiki, a sinewy, six-foot-five Clemson University graduate, was the equivalent of local royalty. The seemingly gentle and soft-spoken giant was married to the daughter of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
One of Meech’s first orders of business as an unfettered man was to celebrate his thirty-sixth birthday. It was not an intimate affair. In June of 2004, he rented an entire megaclub, Compound, on Atlanta’s industrial west side. The 25,000-square-foot space included two ultramodern buildings, one with a dance floor ringed by plasma TVs, the other featuring a VIP loft with an elevated bed and movie projector. The club’s sprawling courtyard, which could accommodate nearly 1,000 people on its own, was anchored by a forty-foot reflecting pool and Zen rock garden. Compound was the epitome of posh, Atlanta’s destination for celebrity birthdays and parties thrown by the likes of Porsche and GQ. But Meech’s birthday party blew those others away.
The courtyard was adorned with six-foot-tall white neon letters that spelled “M-E-E-C-H.” BMF Entertainment’s insignia was carved in a massive block of ice. Half-naked models wore painted-on bikini tops—and might have been the focal point, if not for the $100,000 in rented wildlife. (The party’s theme, according to printed invitations, was “Meech of the Jungle.”) The club’s patio was graced by an elephant, an ostrich, a few zebras, and a pair of lions. Revelers gawked as the big cats paced restlessly in their cages.
Meech was making up for lost time, and he was promoting his label hard. In Terry Flenory’s eyes, however, a lifestyle like that was sure to attract the attention of the feds, and he was right. In a van parked outside Compound, two men kept as close a watch on the party as they dared. One of them, DEA Agent Jack Harvey, knew more about BMF than any law enforcement officer in Atlanta. The other, the Atlanta Police Department’s Detective Bryant “Bubba” Burns, was doing his best to catch up with Harvey’s knowledge of the crew.
Had Meech been aware of his uninvited guests, his likely response would have been: Bring it on. Meech felt safe from harm—protected by a crew that he believed would never turn on him, and insulated by a business acumen that hadn’t failed him yet. He figured he’d discovered the recipe for invincibility: Don’t keep the company of snitches, don’t sell to the feds, don’t talk on the phone, and don’t put anything in your name. Simple.
But to Terry, it wasn’t as straightforward as that. Terry’s crew was separate and distinct from Meech’s, and by the time Meech’s birthday rolled around, neither boss had much of a say in what the other did. It wasn’t as if Terry could come in and squash the partying and the flaunting and the lifestyle geared toward grabbing attention. The people doing the partying were answering only to Meech, and Meech was encouraging the debauchery. All Terry could do was sit back and hope that the partying didn’t spiral too far out of control. In the meantime, he kept the reins tight on his own crew.
While Meech was planning his birthday blowout, Terry was busy handing out orders to his trusty managers, distributors, and drivers. Unlike Meech, Terry did issue orders over the phone, but he tried to keep the language vague. Speaking to one driver in June of 2004, Terry said to go ahead and deliver the “pants” (cocaine). Later, the driver asked whether he was supposed to hand over a “dime” (ten kilos), to which Terry answered yes. As for the destination, Terry said not to take the pants to “A-World” (Atlanta), but to go there and pick up some “mail” (drug money). Of course, the team of federal agents cycling through the calls could clearly see that something was up—and as a result, Terry was drawing at least as much unwanted attention to BMF as Meech was.
The growing divide between the brothers meant that Meech had to start operating on his own turf. Meech needed a network that, aside from the connect, was separate from Terry’s. The brothers already had their own, distinct crews. With the exception of “Doc” Marshall, who crunched BMF’s numbers for both brothers, Terry and Meech did not share employees. What Meech really needed were some properties of his own, to serve as stash houses. He quickly amassed three in Atlanta. One was a handsome, traditional home that sat far off the road on a wooded lot. The house was in a residential part of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Buckhead, and it was called “the Gate,” after the iron security gate that Meech had installed at the foot of the driveway. BMF associates from out of town often stayed there, but the real purpose of the house was to have a place to receive cocaine shipments from California. High-ranking managers broke down the arriving shipments into smaller loads and handed them over to the distributors. Meech seldom if ever showed his face at the Gate.
Two other houses also served as temporary shelter for the big shipments, and few distributors were allowed there. In fact, only the most trusted insiders could visit those locations. One was a brick home in a sterile Atlanta subdivision. It was dubbed “the Horse Ranch.” The other, a classy townhouse, was called “the Elevator,” because there was a small glass elevator in the home.
Unlike the White House, investigators were completely in the dark about the Elevator’s whereabouts. But while Meech’s living arrangement was shrouded in secrecy, his dominance in Atlanta was no mystery. Local cops and federal agents couldn’t help but speculate about what Meech was thinking, but one thing was clear: He was advertising his presence in a way that got everyone talking. At several Atlanta intersections, including ones at I-75 and at Peachtree Road, Meech announced his intentions from the sky. The testament of his power was printed in white block letters on a black, twenty-by-sixty-foot expanse. The words were a nod to Scarface—a frequent source of Meech’s inspiration. 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 that Meech placed around town declared, “The World Is BMF’s.”