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Learning to hit a lick

Falicia Blakely was a 16-year-old dancer when she met a pimp 11 years her senior. Within two years, she'd be a prostitute facing the death penalty for three murders.

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This is the first in a two-part series. For the second part, click here.

 

AUGUST 15, 2002

Falicia stretched out on the floor of the apartment and, finally feeling ready for anything, pulled from her purse a .32-caliber Sauer & Son pistol [1]. Nobody seemed to care. Doc was on the phone. Ray and Pumpkin were playing solitaire on Ray's laptop. In front of the four of them, the sliding glass door framed a sky about to reach out and swallow the sun, to take the edge off the heavy August heat. Since the afternoon, when they began partying, the cover of clouds had lifted, loosening the morning fog and mist so that only broken fragments remained. And still no rain. It hadn't rained in weeks [2].

They'd kept it to tequila and weed for the most part, some ecstasy and blow for later. Falicia had shown up at Ray's hours ago, under the pretense of bringing him ecstasy pills [3]. But as always, it was expected she hang out when she delivered the drugs. With Ray she didn't mind. They'd been doing business for more than a year. She liked him. Unlike most men she knew, Ray had helped her out of more than one bad scene, had picked her up when she was in trouble, had listened to her rant when she was scared or pissed off. He was a welcome change [4].

She herself was easy to do business with. All long legs and slow curves, eyes like a sphinx and skin like bitter Godiva. She was only 18 - not that she let on - and full of fast talk, a little ghetto at times, but tinged with just enough girlish sass to disarm.

But not today. Something was different about her today.

When she and Pumpkin showed up at Ray's, around 2 p.m., he'd examined the goods and offered them a drink. Naw, Falicia said. I need some lunch first. He said he'd take her and Pumpkin by Chick-Fil-A. He had to stop at the bank, anyway.

That's when Mike first called.

"What you doing?" Mike asked her. "Is everything all right?"

"Fine," Falicia told him.

"Go on and stay there until you get about $500 from him. Where y'all at?"

"We're at SunTrust."

"Mmmm. What you all getting out of the bank? You know how Ray is. So you counting on what, five? A 'G'? Fifteen?"

"I'll call you back on that" [5].

After Ray and the girls went back to his apartment, it didn't take long for him to figure something was up.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked Falicia. "You need some 1800?"

She accepted, and downed the tequila with salt and a lemon. She had another. Her demeanor didn't change.

Mike called again. Falicia told him she'd just overheard Ray talking on the phone to some guy, Doc, who was on his way over. To Falicia, that meant the whole thing was off. To Mike, it made no difference. "Oh, that's better then!" he told her. "You get all that money, and then get up out of there" [6].

When Doc, a big guy with his hair in twists and a lumbering 265-pound frame, showed up, he and Ray went into the kitchen to pour drinks and season steaks for the grill. After dinner, once the sun went down, Ray was supposed to head to the clubs in Buckhead. It was his girlfriend's birthday. The girls, Falicia and Pumpkin, had other plans.

Falicia took a third shot of tequila, then a fourth. The four of them retired to the living room. A good hour passed before Mike's next call.

"Do you love me?" he asked. "I don't think you love me. Because if you loved me, you would have done it. We could have been gone by now, Mama. We can be gone by the time the sun goes down if you just do it and come on. Why you don't got no love for the game? What's wrong with you? You don't want me no more?"

"No, Mike. It's not like that."

Falicia stretched out behind the couch, on the floor by the stereo. She nudged up the volume. She wanted to distract the rest of them, to mask whatever conversation she and Mike would have next. She took out her pistol and started fiddling with it, messing with the clip, taking it out, putting it back in. "What the hell you over there doing with that gun, girl?" Doc turned around from his seat on the couch to face her. "Put that gun up."

"There ain't no bullets in here," she said - a sweet, incredulous voice. "The clip's right here."

Doc waved her off. He turned back around to make a call. He was talking to a guy called "G" [7].

Falicia's own phone rang.

"Listen here," Mike told her. "Get yourself together, pull that trigger, wipe everything down and come on. 'Cause you're just making it harder than what it got to be. Y'all got something going on that I don't know about? Well, if I make it over there, I'm going to kill all y'all. All y'all. It's a done deal. Because you don't love me like you say you do. You just wasting my time."

He hung up.

Doc was still talking to G. Ray and Pumpkin were playing on the computer, sitting in front of Doc facing the glass doors. All their backs were to Falicia. She called Mike. She watched her little Sprint phone, how when it rang, the face lit up green, and when someone answered, the seconds started ticking. Mike picked up. Falicia told him to listen. She set the phone on the back of the sofa, behind Doc. She watched as the seconds ticked and ticked.

She lifted the pistol to the back of Doc's head. He must have heard something; he spun around. "Oh, no," he said. He started to stand. Before he had a chance, Falicia fired a round into his right temple, crumpling him back into the sofa [8]. His cell phone fell from his hand; the caller was still on the line.

She kept shooting, five, maybe six, rounds, toward Ray [9]. Pumpkin hit the floor. Ray jumped up and stumbled across the room. He made it to the patio door, where he laid his hand on the glass. Outside, the sky was darkening [10]. The door was locked.

Ray turned back, reached for the loveseat and grabbed a pillow, clenching it to his chest. He dropped to his knees [11].

Falicia walked toward him, slowly.

"Stop screaming, Ray," she said. "Shut up."

He locked eyes with her. His pupils started darting back and forth.

"Ray?" she asked. His eyes stopped moving.

"I'm sorry" [12].

When he collapsed, a trickle of foam spilled from his mouth [13].

Falicia turned to Pumpkin. "Get the money," she said, motioning to Doc, who was bleeding from his head. Falicia handled Ray, pulling the bills from his pocket. She realized her phone was still sitting on the back of the couch. She picked it up.

"That's my baby," Mike told her. "You all right?"

"Yeah."

"Do me a favor before you leave. Just wipe everything down, and just get up out of there. Calm down."

The girls hastily filled a duffel bag with everything they remembered touching. A glass. A Coke can. A photo book they'd been flipping through [14]. By the time they made it outside, the sun had disappeared. The wall of clouds had reassembled, cutting short what was left of twilight. They climbed into the truck. Falicia drove. In the short ride up Buford Highway, to Clairmont Road and over to I-85, the swelling sky began to squeeze out rain [15].

"Every time it rains somebody dies, huh," Pumpkin said.

"Girl, what in the world just happened?"

"I don't know."

Pumpkin had the men's money in her hand. She was counting it [16].

FEBRUARY 3, 2004

The table in the DeKalb County Jail's isolation room is dirty, a soiled food tray its ignoble centerpiece. Falicia Blakely shuffles in, florescent orange jail scrubs hanging loosely from willowy limbs. Glancing at the table, she pokes her head back out the door. "Phyllis," she calls to an orderly. "Can you wipe this down?"

The room is walled in by glass, with views of an empty gymnasium on one side, the guards' control booth on the other. Falicia lives on the far side of the booth, in one of 16 cells that make up what's called a "pod." There are six pods, for a total of 96 cells, circling every control booth. And there are 20 such booths inside the jail's four septagonal towers, where 3,800 inmates stay. Falicia's pod sits on the fourth floor of the northeast tower, a region reserved for women. She is unique among them in that she's the only female resident of the jail against whom the DeKalb district attorney has ever sought the death penalty.

In the 17 months Falicia's been locked up, she's earned a sort of notoriety on the fourth floor, for obvious reasons. Multiple-murderers are scarce. Teenage female multiple-murderers are practically unheard of. Yet those who meet her are quick to point out that, outwardly at least, Falicia bears little resemblance to the Hollywood image of depraved killer. Her smile shows a row of porcelain teeth, perfectly aligned like white tiles. Her manicured fingernails are meticulously squared. Slender chin-length braids, which she sometimes ties up in a girlish ponytail, barely fray at the ends. Her face is clear, her eyes unclouded. Nothing about her fresh looks or plaintive demeanor suggests anything but a normal young adulthood. Only after she gets into the details does it becomes obvious she's much older than her years.

Born and raised on the east side of Jacksonville, Fla., an only child bounced between a single mother and weary grandmother, Falicia hit puberty young and ran with it. Before high school, she dated men three decades her senior. Her full breasts and long, lean frame (she was a track and field star in ninth grade) belied her barely pubescent age. She had no problem getting into clubs. Once inside, she learned how easy it was to make up for years of lost affection. Men flocked. They gave her money for virtually nothing [17].

She attracted her first sugar daddy at 14. Most of the men she only dated, luring them with sex but never bedding them. They in turn took care of her financially.

Falicia bought her own school clothes, put food in her grandmother's cupboard, paid the tab at the laundromat, covered the costs of her cousin's salon visits. Spending on others was a source of pride for her, as well as a source of petulance. No one ever could tell her what to do - not when she had so much control over their world and hers.

While men held the ticket to power for Falicia, they were not meant to wield power over her. Or so she thought. Odds were, though, it wouldn't be long before she met the wrong guy. The bad decisions would inevitably follow. For those decisions, she blames herself.

"When you're out there and you're living that fast life, you can never say what you wouldn't do. Growing up, I never wanted to hurt nobody and never wanted to wrong anybody. When I was coming up, I never thought I'd be sitting here because" - she takes a long, rare pause - "I took some peoples' lives. And it's bad enough it wasn't one. It was three."

The pause was her third in an hours-long exploration of her life and crimes. The first followed the sole question about her father.

She'd broken eye contact and gazed off toward the guards, sustaining a long silence. She turned back and said, "Who is Daddy?" It was the softest, possibly most sarcastic voice you've ever heard. "No, Daddy wasn't there. He struggled with a drug addiction real bad" [18].

The only other time she paused like that was after she was asked, "When did you meet Michael Berry?" It was the first mention of his name.

SEPTEMBER 1999-JANUARY 2001

Falicia's ticket to Atlanta showed up in her grandmother's mailbox a few days shy of her 16th birthday.

"I don't want to go," she said.

"Maybe it's best for you to go," her grandmother told her.

Falicia's mother had decided it was time she took responsibility for her daughter again. That meant Falicia would be sent to Atlanta, where her mother, who worked for a flooring distributor, had been transferred. Falicia was told to box up her things and Fed-Ex them to her mother's new home, and to get on the plane.

At first, it was quiet between them in their two-bedroom townhouse in the southwest corner of the city. Falicia was holding tight to a grudge, one that began with a conversation she tried to have with her mother more than three years ago. Falicia recalls walking into her mother's bedroom to explain she'd lost her virginity. Her mother rolled onto her boyfriend, mumbling, "Give me another year" [19].

"I bring it to you, and you ain't got enough time to talk to me about it?" To Falicia, it was the ultimate snub at the end of a long line of indifference. "Both of y'all are in the bed. Why y'all can't explain to me the goods and the bads about it?"

In Atlanta, she tried going to school but quickly grew frustrated; she'd have to repeat the ninth grade. She wanted to work instead, in part so that she could buy a new wardrobe of cold-weather clothes. Her mother had refused to spend the kind of money Falicia had in mind.

So Falicia dropped out, over her mother's protests. Nobody controlled her before. It wouldn't be any different now.

She picked up a job at the Taco Bell across from Greenbriar Mall, where she won a quick promotion from front register to drive-thru and met a customer who introduced her to a dive of a sports bar off Old National Parkway. It was a place where one night a week amateurs were allowed to striptease down to a flimsy costume. Falicia had no trouble duping the manager into believing she was legal. She was even hired on part time - until she met a man who told her that for a certain price, he'd get her a fake birth certificate and Social Security card. That meant she could get a driver's license that made her 21, which in turn would get her an adult dancing permit - and a ticket to the real clubs [20].

Within months, Falicia made the rounds of strip clubs best described as a groaning half-step up from the sports bar. She mostly frequented Dancer's Elite [21].

At Dancer's Elite, Falicia noticed that one of the girls, "Candy," had a tattoo on her breast of a man's name. "Michael Berry." Falicia soon realized he was a regular at the club. But she wasn't sweating him. He didn't interest her, wasn't her type. When she first talked to him, he struck her as kind of gay. His voice, she thought at the time, was too soft for her.

She'd been hooking up with someone else, anyway. He was in his mid-20s, an age the 16-year-old considered too young. But he did help her move out of her mother's place and paid her weekly tab at the Suburban Lodge. She got pregnant by him. And she got tired of him. She moved back in with her mother and gave Dancer's Elite

her notice.

On stage one summer night, a week or so before her going-away party, Falicia's stomach was threatening to give her away, her six-pack having slackened into a telltale swell. She was accustomed to pulling in $200 a night. Tonight, she was holding a miserable $20.

A bunch of men down at the left corner of the stage were looking at her, commenting on what they liked but holding tight to their bills. She was mad and about ready to step off the stage when one of the guys, in a yellow hat and shorts, handed her a wad of cash. Like clockwork, she lowered herself to her knees, to dance closer to him. As she did, she glanced at the bills he'd just handed her. She was holding a stack of twenties.

"I've been trying to get at you, and you've been ignoring me and stuff," Michael Berry told her. "Come holla at me when you get off stage."

He paid her $20 each for a bunch of lap dances. They normally cost $10. When she was sick of dancing, he paid her just to sit and talk, dropping twenties into her hand.

"Let me take you home and rub you to sleep," he said.

"I don't go home with people I meet at clubs." At the time, there was no going home with guys, no giving out phone numbers. She left this part of her at the club. It would be there when she got back tomorrow.

When she showed up the next day, so did Mike.

He convinced her to go out with him, but he was arrested on the night they'd made plans [22]. Mike called her collect from jail nearly every day. And then he sent someone to pay Falicia's mother's phone bill. He also sent Falicia a young guy, "Shy." Mike had told Shy to do whatever Falicia told him to. Shy drove Falicia to work, to run errands, to see the obstetrician. She did nothing for him in return. Mike was pulling strings, even behind bars. Falicia liked that. She assumed he earned his money, respect and command from selling dope. She didn't mind.

On Dec. 30, 2000, Falicia gave birth to a boy, Mikaele. Mike got out of jail a few days later but gave Falicia a few weeks with the baby before coming to see her. He immediately asked her to move out, to let him put her up somewhere. She refused. She wasn't ready. She went back to dancing. He brought roses, chocolate and a big cookie cake to Dancer's Elite. He bought her jewelry, bought her mother jewelry. The girls at the club swooned. "Oh, that man is so sweet," they'd say. "That man really loves you." A few weeks later, Falicia agreed to move in with him to an extended-stay hotel.

Before Mike, every boyfriend had been a neighborhood boyfriend, a school boyfriend or a sugar daddy. Mike was the first guy with whom Falicia felt both a commitment and a connection. Mike was a man, one who bought cases of diapers at Sam's Club and made her hair appointments.

Looking back, Falicia says, "He was buttering me. He was really investing. That's all he was doing. And I was sucking it up. He was sweet for a long time."

FEBRUARY 2001-AUGUST 2002

Mike had just picked Falicia up from a night of work at the club, not Dancer's Elite but Body Tap, a way better gig. Falicia could make two, sometimes three times as much money dancing there.

As Mike drove her home that night, she was rattling off the day's events, as usual.

Lately, Mike had been urging her to find a way to make more money. "Well, um, Mama" - he'd taken to calling her that - "you only make like $300 a night." To get out of Atlanta and get out right, to set up a life someplace where she could have his babies and be out of the clubs for good, she needed to do a little extra. "I'm going to need you to help me," he said. "You know, this is about me and you, me and you trying to make it."

Making it meant she needed to bring home at least $700 a night.

"How am I just going to bring home $700 a night just by dancing?" she said. "I ain't got it like that."

"I don't know," he told her. "You think about it."

It won't take that long, she told herself. Plenty of men had brought her propositions in the past. She'd gotten offers of as much as $500 for one thing or another. She'd always demurred. "Nah, I can't do it. I'm not ready for that."

But earlier tonight, thinking about what Mike had been telling her about the $700, she'd given a different answer to a man at the club. They didn't get far. She pulled him into the VIP room. He told her he didn't have a rubber. He said he'd go to the gas station and get one. He never showed back up.

As she explained all this to Mike, he slowed the car and pulled into a parking lot. "Well, that's my fault," he told her. "That means I'll have to start getting you some rubbers to put in your bag." He parked.

"Get out of the car, baby," he said.

She did. He came around to her side. He punched her in the face, hard. She spun, stopping herself in time to keep her head from crashing into the passenger window. She grabbed her face, to block him. He kept hitting. She started cussing. He hit harder. Then he opened the door [23].

"Get back in."

Falicia checked her bloodied lip in the passenger-side mirror. Mike put the key in the ignition and continued the drive home. He reached over and rubbed her shoulder.

"Mama, you know we trying to get this money. So why would you let somebody go?"

"Hold on, Mike. You tell me to protect myself, but when I tell you that the man didn't have no rubber, that's why we didn't date, I still get jumped?"

He promised he wouldn't react like that again. She figured he was just mad.

The next time a guy at the club asked for a date, Falicia played hard for his money. She grew comfortable finding men at the club who'd pay to sleep with her.

But she also began complaining to Mike that she wanted to see more of Mikaele, who'd been staying overnight at the babysitter's most of the week. So Mike brought in a nanny. Her name was Venus. She was his ex.

Mike, Falicia, Mikaele and Venus moved into a one-bedroom apartment at the Clairmont Lodge in Decatur. Venus took care of Mikaele and drove Falicia around. The women inevitably got to talking.

"He ever did you like that?" Venus asked Falicia one night when Mike wasn't around. She'd been describing how Mike once got so mad he filled a bathtub and held her under water, then beat her so bad she had to spend the night at Grady Memorial Hospital.

"Hell no," Falicia said.

Venus went on and on with the stories. Falicia got quiet. She asked a few questions. And she figured out that Mike recently had been with Venus and some other girls, too. Mike had girls working for him, girls on the trade. Falicia realized she was only one of them. Mike was their pimp [24].

When she confronted him about it, he comforted her. She didn't work for him, he said. They were in business together. "Me and you, we're hustling," he told her. "I'm your nigger and you're my mama. We're like Bonnie and Clyde."

Mike began coaching Falicia on the notion that men who paid her for sex had money to burn and that they'd inevitably slip up. There were other ways to meet the $700 nightly quota, he pointed out.

As work was winding down one slow night, with Falicia earning just $300, she noticed another dancer had been doing really well. The girl had just changed outfits in the dressing room and had stepped out. She'd left her locker open.

There had been times lately when Falicia didn't make her quota. Mike would take her out to the "track," a strip of dope and prostitution trade on Metropolitan Avenue. Barely clothed, baiting men with ecstasy pills and hoping they'd take a little sex with their drugs, Falicia had gained a new appreciation for making all her money at the club. It wasn't hard to reach into the locker and take the girl's cash - just the 50s and 20s, not the 10s, fives or ones.

It wasn't just relief Falicia felt when she gave Mike her night's earnings. She got an adrenaline rush. Falicia had taken $500 from the girl, on top of her own $300. She beat quota. Mike liked that. And Falicia liked Mike when Mike was up.

When he asked her to start bringing home other dancers from the club - telling her that two girls together can make a lot more than two on their own - she willingly added to the mix. Mike started setting quotas for several girls, and he put Falicia in charge. Sometimes Falicia would even partner with a girl and go out of town to make money.

Once, when they came back from Miami with less than what Mike expected, he jumped on Falicia bad [25]. Leaving him flashed through her mind. But afterward, Mike had a mink coat and a Coach pocketbook waiting for her. Perhaps to overcompensate, he showed up the next day with an even more over-the-top token: a champagne-colored Suburban. Despite the beating the day before, Falicia told herself she'd be stupid to bolt. After all, she had plenty of money and a man at her side. She had girls working beneath her, willing to do whatever she told them, whenever she said it. She was living like people live on TV. She was Mama and Mike was Daddy. She was 17.

When Falicia and her girls would hit the clubs, they'd hit them like a wave of money. They were well groomed and barely clothed. And Falicia had a purse full of dope for sale. They were irresistible.

But Falicia started drinking too much. Some nights she'd be too drunk to know what was going on. She was reeling in the clients, but the girls didn't always make their quotas. Sometimes their own appetite for drugs nearly wiped out their earnings. When they came up short, it was Falicia who had to make up the difference. When she didn't, which was often, she was beaten.

"Mama, you can handle Daddy's beatings," one of the girls told Falicia one night. Falicia slapped her.

"You're a thick girl, and you're taller than me," Falicia snapped. "And I'm way smaller than you. And you can't deal with him. So what makes you think I can deal with him?"

Things were slipping. Mike's next instructions to Falicia accompanied a pistol: Get all those men's money. Kill them if you have to. Start hitting those licks.

The week of spring break, Falicia went down to Florida, again with another girl, to make some money. While in Daytona, she got Mike a present. He'd been urging her for months to brand herself, literally, with his name. She'd refused. But because he'd been so antsy lately, so quick to strike, she wanted to appease him. She told the guy behind the counter at a tattoo shop exactly what she, and Mike, wanted. It would be in black cursive letters. "Michael" on the left side of her neck, "Berry" on the right.

But what Mike really wanted her to do in Florida was hit a lick. She failed. The way Orlando police described it, two girls in an SUV with out-of-state tags stopped to talk to a man, Frederick Calloway, in a restaurant parking lot. The girls asked him if he knew a cheap place to spend the night. All three of them ended up at the Villager Lodge, a horseshoe-shaped hotel wrapped around a pool, the grounds dotted with leaning palm trees. Calloway ended up with a gunshot wound through the neck and out the back of his head.

The two girls panicked, taking nothing from their victim. Police found Calloway hours later, semi-conscious and lying on bloody sheets. He lived [26].

When Falicia got back to Atlanta, Mike told her he liked the tattoo. But he also sprayed her with gasoline and lit a match, threatening to burn her alive. "You say that you love me," he told her. "But you don't do what I tell you to do. You didn't bring me the money" [27].

Again, he ordered her to kill a john. She refused. This time, he stripped her, tied her up and stuffed her in the closet. He poured rubbing alcohol on her and set her on fire. "You owe me your life," he told her. Next time she failed to do as he said, he promised he'd take what she owed him [28].

A few weeks later, a friend of Falicia's, Ray Goodwin, invited her, Mike and one of the other girls, Pumpkin, to a boat party at Lake Lanier [29]. Ray promised Falicia she'd be able to make some money. That would appease Mike, because if he didn't see an opportunity for the girls to earn, they wouldn't be allowed to socialize.

Falicia and Pumpkin did well. They met a few men, guys with money, entertainment industry types in some way connected to Ray, who worked as a photographer. One of the men Pumpkin ran into, though Falicia didn't recall meeting him, was named Claudell Christmas. Friends called him Doc [30].

However well the girls did at the party, though, they blew it a week later. Falicia, Venus and a third girl had a good night at the club, pulling in about $500 each. They were driving home, Venus behind the wheel, when Falicia dozed off. She woke to flashing lights. They had been speeding, and they had dope in the car - marijuana, ecstasy and both crack and powder cocaine [31]. They were in deep. Not only did they blow their drugs and money, they had to pay a bondsman to get them out of jail.

Falicia and Mike agreed: The girls were costing them. Mike was tired of their screw-ups, tired of slow hustling. He wanted Falicia to hit it big. "I'm ready to go, me and you. So you need to hit a lick, and we're going to leave the girls here."

But it didn't happen the way Falicia planned. She'd been expecting a stranger, a man she'd just met at a club with whom she'd never had dealings. When Mike was ready, though, the victim turned out to be someone who'd pulled Falicia out of some holes, someone she would call when Mike scared her, someone who knew what was up.

Ray was her friend.

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com

For the second part of "Learning to hit a lick," click here.

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