A West Side Story:
From Crime King to Mentor

New York Times April 28, 2003



Willie Lloyd's signature pimp walk has noticeably less bounce and drag than in the early days when, as king of the Vice Lords, a notorious West Side street gang, he had the look of the devil in his eyes and a reputation around here as a bad man.

Upon his release from a downstate Illinois prison on a winter day in December 1992, a posse in a convoy of limousines met him at the prison gate, and he rode home, adorned in mink and leather, all the way back to his West Side fief. That's the Willie Lloyd most people know.

But Mr. Lloyd says he has taken on the role of quasi professor, mentor and lecturer, including an unpaid job at DePaul University here that entails taking sociology students on a tour of his old haunts on the city's impoverished West Side.

He is also collaborating with staff members at the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention based at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. Staff members at CeaseFire, a component of the project, say Mr. Lloyd is involved in their "gang mediation" efforts, though unpaid, and is working to persuade young men to put down their guns, to stop the killing.

Mr. Lloyd, who was last released from prison in 2001, said he hoped to earn a legitimate living working as a consultant, maybe even to speak at colleges and universities nationwide, billing himself as a former gang leader with a Ph.D. in thug life.

"I try to point them to a viable organization that can help them take on the challenges of life, to try to steer them toward employment," Mr. Lloyd, speaking in an interview, said of the young men he is trying to reach. "I tell them drugs only brings about temporary solutions, but in the end it brings about disastrous results."

Problem is some people around here, not the least of them the police, have trouble believing he has changed.

"For this guy to be a mentor, that's a joke," said one law enforcement official who was long familiar with Mr. Lloyd and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Lloyd merely wants "to cloak himself in legitimacy," the official said. "Trying to use this guy as an example is obscene. I don't think anyone is fooled."

Such skeptics point out that Mr. Lloyd, 52, was convicted of killing a police officer, that he has spent most of his adult life behind bars and that he reportedly found a way even behind prison walls to run his gang.

In 1994 the United States attorney's office argued for an increase in his sentence on a federal weapons conviction, saying in a petition to federal court that as "king" of the Vice Lord Nation and "chief" of a sect of the gang called the Unknown Vice Lords, Mr. Lloyd "has overseen and directed a vicious criminal organization" and that he and his gang "recruited members through intimidation, dealt drugs, extorted money from drug dealers for the right to sell drugs." The petition also said that the gang had "violently punished those who disobeyed them and trafficked in illegal arms."

Despite Mr. Lloyd's preaching his gospel of peace, most around here know only the other Willie Lloyd.

Indeed, it is not unheard of for gangs to cloak themselves in religion or to assume the guise of a community organization while conducting business as usual. But neither is it unheard of for gang members to become civic leaders, to depart from the error of their ways.

Mr. Lloyd, a wiry man, insists that he has changed since his days on the throne of the Vice Lords' kingdom, whose tentacles reach across the Midwest. Mr. Lloyd now says, "I have abdicated my position."

But is he on the up and up?

"I don't think I honestly have any way of knowing," said Dr. Gary Slutkin, who founded the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention. "I have no reason to disbelieve it because he presents himself wonderfully.

"People like him and everyone else need continuous encouragement and support to continue to do something positive," Dr. Slutkin said, noting a recent report by the Urban Institute in Washington that showed that Illinois had released 30,068 inmates from prison in 2001 with 52 percent of those ex-offenders going to live in Chicago. "If we're not helping them, nobody's got a chance."

Mr. Lloyd makes no excuses for his sins and says he understands the doubters.
"What I have done in the past, I anguish over certain acts," Mr. Lloyd said. "I have my remorse, but I am very determined to do something good out here in the streets. I can only attempt to make up for the past by giving my life for what I believe in now."

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Lloyd, wearing a black suit and lime green shirt, strode along 16th Street in the neighborhood where the Vice Lords claim the "Holy City," an area it is known to rule by force. On this afternoon, the corner quickly filled up with young men who paused from their street pharmaceutical sales to greet him with a handshake, a hug and the salutation "chief."

Mr. Lloyd explained that "chief" is a term of respect earned in his days of old. But he spoke to the young men about the hope of legitimate jobs, ending the violence and about coming to see him at a West Side church where he holds mentoring sessions once a week.

Asked whether Willie Lloyd had changed, the band of young men, who were dressed mostly in black and surrounding him as if he were a celebrity, laughed.
"It's much better to see him like this than the way he was before," one young man said, laughing as he referred to Mr. Lloyd's days as a gang leader.

Once, when rivals riddled his car with bullets, though it was his 18-month-old son and two adults and not himself in the car, Mr. Lloyd said he assembled a band of gang members to retaliate. The police foiled the plan and he was arrested. Although his son escaped injury, Mr. Lloyd said the experience as well as his last stay behind bars led him to change.

Still, some people are cautious about aligning themselves with Mr. Lloyd.
Greg Scott, the DePaul professor for whose classes Mr. Lloyd has been a guest lecturer, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Robin Florzak, a university spokeswoman, said Mr. Lloyd had spoken to DePaul sociology students twice this academic year. But Ms. Florzak wanted to "clarify that Willie Lloyd is not a DePaul professor" and that the sociology courses for which he spoke "10 to 30 minutes" were on street gangs and drug trafficking.

What is not debatable is that Mr. Lloyd is an anomaly, an admitted gang leader who, despite two attempts on his life, has made it to middle age in a violent world where an early grave is the usual end.

Mr. Lloyd said he became involved in the Vice Lords at age 12, drawn by "a longing for brotherhood." He still wears the scar, running from his left eye almost to his jugular, that he got in a gang fight as a teenager. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1971 slaying of a Davenport, Iowa, police officer. Most recently, he served eight years in prison on a federal weapons conviction.
Since his release in 2001, he said, he has started an organization called Against All Odds to get young men out of gangs and into jobs. Mr. Lloyd said he had spoken at a few schools and hoped to publish a memoir titled "Willie Versus Willie."

He said he was certain that skepticism about the new Willie Lloyd would linger, and that time would tell. But it is not clear that time is on his side.
"If I go out into the streets and am confronted by one of my nemeses of old or one of the lunatics of today, I go quietly and confidently that God has felt that I have done all that I need to do at this time in service for my community and for Him," Mr. Lloyd said.

Outside the church where his mentoring group meets, Mr. Lloyd, now a grandfather, stood at the curb for only a few moments when suddenly, almost inconspicuously, he was flanked by two men studying the streets for signs of trouble.

Mr. Lloyd explained with a smile that ex-presidents still needed protection and that his occasional bodyguards were simply one of the last vestiges of an aging former kingpin.

Copyright 2003  The New York Times