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Hip-hop's shadowy empire

"Big Meech" Flenory and the Black Mafia Family were hip-hop royalty. But investigators say they had a darker side. Part 1 of 3

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Editor's note: For more details about BMF, as well as notes describing the sourcing of the story, click on the "Deep Background" link at the end of each section.

Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory doesn't just walk into the club. He arrives.

The first sign he's coming: the cars. They coast to the curb like supermodels down a runway. Bentleys and H2s, Lambos and Porsches. And, when the crowd swells to full ranks, tour buses. In front of clubs from Midtown Atlanta to South Beach Miami, the streetlights bounce off the million-dollar motorcade, and it's blinding.

Next, the crew. As Meech likes to say, all members are family: "Everybody moves like brothers. Everybody moves as one." But as with any entourage, there's a definite hierarchy. Pushing into the crowd (if that was possible), you'd first find the guys hovering on the fringes, moving with a slightly menacing sway. Go deeper, and the vibe starts to change. Guards come down. Egos edge up. Keep going and you encounter a steady calm. The aura is one of jaded confidence and quiet control. That's when you know you've reached Meech. "All Meech did was walk in the spot," one woman posted on an SOHH.com message board, "and panties got moist."

Of course, his seemingly impenetrable cool can be challenged. There are some things Meech doesn't tolerate. And one of those things would take place on Nov. 11, 2003.

It would be "the big one," the very event that Meech -- as well as jittery Buckhead residents -- had long feared. Though for different reasons.

The Buckhead bar district had suffered in recent years from a spell of well-publicized violence. The most notable crime was the post-Super Bowl stabbings for which Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested (and, aside from a misdemeanor, acquitted). That was three years earlier, outside Cobalt Lounge.

About a block away, near the corner of Peachtree and East Paces Ferry, a nightclub of similar glitz and stature was earning its name. Chaos was one of the "it" clubs. Shaquille O'Neal and Eminem had partied there. And Monday's hip-hop night was the club's biggest draw. Hundreds of people would show up on what, for other clubs, was the slowest day of the week. At Chaos, the only thing slow about Mondays was the line.

On that particular night, you couldn't walk along the club's lacquered wood floors, you couldn't lean against its exposed brick walls or grab a seat on its minimalist leather sofas without catching sight of Meech's guys. Anthony Jones must have known that. Yet Jones, better known to the masses as "Wolf" -- and more importantly, as Wolf-Who-Is-P.-Diddy's-Former-Bodyguard -- did something that stood a good chance of starting an all-out war. Wolf got rough with his ex-girlfriend. And she wasn't just any ex-girlfriend. She was an ex-girlfriend who was hanging out with Meech's crew.

Even then, the crew was known as a force that shouldn't be crossed. And that goes double for Meech. He was rumored to have built a powerful empire with skills picked up 20 years earlier on the streets of Detroit. And he was fiercely protective of the "family" that helped him along the way.

Meech stepped in and told Wolf to quit fucking with the woman. Wolf's next mistake was to ignore the demand. But before Meech had much of a chance to react, club security stepped in, and Wolf was bounced.

Meech and his boys went back to doing what they were known for doing -- ingesting an obscene amount of champagne and spending an even more obscene amount of cash. It was only 1:30, after all, and the bar wouldn't close for another two-and-a-half hours.

Wolf, banished from the cozy confines of the club, stepped into the cool night and made his way toward the parking lot behind the building. He called his friend Riz, whom he'd known since they were kids growing up in the Bronx. And he began to wait.

[Deep background on the above section]

Toward the end of 2005, Debbie Morgan was finally getting her life back together. It hadn't been easy, but she'd found a distraction. Her goal was to open a restaurant on April 1, a little more than three months away. There were permits to obtain, gas lines to run, a counter to build, windows to replace, menus to print. On top of that, her daughter -- her baby, the youngest of four -- was pregnant. So she had that to think about, too.

The restaurant would serve the recipes Debbie grew up with in eastern Jamaica: curried goat, grilled plantains, barbecue tofu, jerk chicken. Like the food, the work was nourishing. And though the idea of making her deadline was starting to seem improbable, the countdown gave her a way to fill the hours. It offered an escape.

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