L.A.’s most famous dopeman was doing life. I was writing his obituary.
It was a bright January morning in 1998, early into Ricky Ross’s sentence, and I had driven up the California coast, past Santa Barbara and over the Santa Ynez Mountains, where vineyards and seed fields meet razor wire and gun towers, to the federal prison in Lompoc. Originally a World War II disciplinary barracks, the compound became a maximum-security penitentiary after Alcatraz hit obsolescence; Lompoc was “the New Rock.”
He had grown up on 87th Place, where it dead-ends at the Harbor Freeway, which is how he earned his nickname: Freeway Rick. It was not uttered in awe, at least not in the beginning. To be poor and illiterate in the shadow of the 110 was to be a junky-ass freeway boy.
Later, when he emerged as the first crack boss of the cataclysmic 1980s, after he went from slanging $25 rocks to wholesaling $1 million loads, that moniker sounded like a Southern California joyride: slick, agile, unfettered, one step ahead of the law. Freeway Rick got so rich so fast, he began to think of himself the way a charismatic preacher might, as if God had put him on this earth to sell cocaine. It took some psychological acrobatics to ignore the sickness he was spreading, but he was good at that, too. In Rick’s mind, he was creating wealth, lifting up his community. The “Chosen One” was the phrase he used.
Rick was led to the visiting room in a khaki jumpsuit and plastic sandals. He is half the size you would expect, five feet six and 150 pounds, with dancing eyes and an electric smile and, at the time, a playful mop of mini dreads. He had no tattoos—none of the badges of the Blood-Crip civil war that had tripped up so many of his generation—and no patience for getting high. He had become a vegan, which in prison meant a lot of oatmeal. Everyone who has ever met him says the same thing: How could this curious little dude have mastered a business that is supposed to be all malice and excess?
“Right now,” he announced, “I might be more freer than I ever was.”
Rick’s voice is a blend of South-Central street and East Texas sticks, steeped in humor and hyperbole. He had begun to adopt the rosy aphorisms of the get-rich genre—what the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve—and he was testing them out, gauging their plausibility. I had known Rick to be animated and self-promotional before his arrest, sour and self-pitying after. Now here he was a three-striker, no possibility of parole, and he seemed to be more buoyant than ever. Maybe denial was his only prayer. Rick had plans to produce a mixtape, to launch a clothing line, to stage prizefights, to film a biopic, to show all the naysayers, the cops and prosecutors and moralists and cynics, that they had thrown away the key too soon. Adversity would make him that much stronger. Like the Mandela of the war on drugs.
Photograph by Bettina Monique
“It’s going to be a wild story,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “it’s already a wild story.”
“The wild part hasn’t even started yet,” Rick said.
I was shaking my head, marveling at the audacity, the futility of Rick’s ambition. He was inmate #05550-045. He was going to die behind bars.
“This is America,” he insisted. “We can dream. That’s one thing they didn’t take from me. They didn’t say, ‘You can’t dream no more, Freeway Rick.’ ”
Reckless, relentless, irrational optimism—Freeway Rick was the godfather of crazy hope. America was built on big, unrealistic dreams, at times even criminal dreams. We celebrate outliers and risk takers; we glorify comebacks and reinventions. But Freeway Rick had been granted a second chance. I had witnessed him blow it. He was being warehoused in Lompoc because America was, indeed, telling him that we had had enough of his dreams. He could no longer be trusted to dream.
Freeway Rick, the lost cause, went right on dreaming.
At the wheel of a battered Kia, its windshield cleaved by a deep, persistent crack, Ricky Ross navigates the freeways of his youth, the 10 to Crenshaw, the 91 to Carson, the 110—the route that eventually grew so wide, his mother had to sell their home—to Long Beach, taking calls on a BlackBerry, its screen also cracked. He has customers across L.A., but he is struggling to maintain inventory, to tap a pipeline that will keep up with demand. He is waiting on a shipment, 160 kilos, that may or may not make it across the border in the next month. A lady in Inglewood wants $10,000 worth, but she needs guarantees, on purity and weight, that Freeway Rick is unable to give.
“Growing pains,” he says, shrugging.
These are not the boom years, that inconceivable decade when Rick frolicked in snowdrifts of cash so colossal, he needed a crew with currency-counting machines to tally his millions. The Freeway Rick of 2013, his balding head shaved clean, his beard flecked with gray, his probation officer a constant thorn, is a kingpin on a shoestring. He is trying to get rich again—well, he knows he will get rich again—but for now he lives like a monk. He wakes before dawn. He eats once a day. He needs no caffeine to charge up, no alcohol to wind down. His wardrobe is all gimmes, a USC hoodie of late. He bought the Kia for $1,500, intending to flip it for a profit. But the mileage proved too good.
“My game has elevated,” he says. “The time I spent in jail was probably the most valuable time I spent in my life.”
This feature was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine