"My son was killed by the Black Mafia Family."
Those nine words, spoken by a grieving mother one morning in 2004, started journalist Mara Shalhoup on a trail that, more than five years later, has led to the publication of BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family.
When Shalhoup, then news editor at Creative Loafing, first met with a distraught Debbie Morgan over breakfast at Thumbs Up Diner, she was only hazily familiar with the crime group. Morgan herself knew little, just the names of a few people involved with the organization she blamed for her son's murder. But after a records search at the Fulton County Courthouse, Shalhoup uncovered the tip of an iceberg. Each new document revealed a criminal enterprise so vast, it even reached into the Atlanta mayor's home.
Originating from an award-winning three-part series that ran in Creative Loafing in December 2006, Shalhoup's book tells the story of two brothers from Detroit, Demetrius and Terry Flenory. Children of modest, church-going parents, the brothers pulled themselves out of rampant poverty by dealing cocaine. They eventually built their small Detroit operation into a national, wholesale cocaine empire known as the Black Mafia Family. "To keep up with the flow of drugs and cash, the Flenory brothers would have to employ a network of several hundred couriers, distributors, and money-launderers in nearly a dozen states. The brothers, in turn, had the smarts and stamina to manage a network of that size," Shalhoup writes.
By the time Morgan tipped off Shalhoup, BMF had cornered the market for wholesale cocaine in Atlanta. A billboard towered over I-75 and Peachtree Road proclaiming, "THE WORLD IS BMF'S." Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory had become a fixture in Atlanta's hip-hop scene, promoting BMF as a record label and showing up in videos for Young Jeezy and Bleu DaVinci. At the same time, feds were listening on wiretaps, setting up surveillance teams, and building the case that would eventually topple BMF's empire.
Shalhoup's book mirrors the scope of that enterprise and investigation. As her research built over the years, she developed a color-coded index card system to keep track of the hundreds of names connected to BMF. "I had them all up on this wall with double-sided tape on the back of them. I would sit there looking at them, constantly moving them around," she says. Shalhoup was searching for the right way to weave the story, to put bit players such as Jacob "the Jeweler" Arabo or local prosecutors into the larger context. As a result, BMF encompasses a vast narrative without losing small moments.
Shalhoup is adept at re-creating events in real time. When she revisits a night in November 2003 at Buckhead's club Chaos, the scene progresses in vivid, precise detail and glimpses the aura of ego Meech and his crew carried. The events that led to Morgan's son Prince's murder in 2004 are retold moment-by-moment in a gripping, frustrating story of needless death.
Shalhoup relates her writing style to the gravity she felt as a young crime reporter in Macon and visiting families after a murder. "This is probably the one time your life is going to be in the newspaper and I'm sorry this is the one time," she recalls saying. "But I think I was compassionate enough to do justice to the story."
That sense of fairness permeates BMF. Even Big Meech, an easy target to mythologize or demonize, emerges as a complex, vulnerable character in Shalhoup's portrait. When she interviews him at a Michigan jail in 2008, his hair let down in kinky waves, it's a far cry from the boisterous ego of his club presence. Meech talks longingly of his past, saying, "Man, I sure do miss it," while looking away from her gaze. At this moment, it becomes clear that Meech was not only a mastermind of the Black Mafia Family's dreams, but vulnerable to them as well.
BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family by Mara Shalhoup. St. Martin's Press. $24.99. 320 pp.
Full disclosure: Shalhoup is currently editor in chief of Creative Loafing.