First of a six-part series.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. On many Sunday nights, you'll find Conway pastor Belton Platt at Redeemer in Mission for Christ Church in west Charlotte. There, he stands before worshippers, Bible in hand, preaching with such passion that he's sometimes hoarse by the final amen.
Many listening from the pews are hurting, beaten down by heartbreak, hard times and bad decisions. He urges them not to give up. If they want proof of God's redemptive power, he says, they need only look at him. If Belton Lamont Platt can transform himself, anyone can.
“Thank you for accepting me back in Charlotte, “ he tells visitors one evening. “They wanted me out of Charlotte. In fact, they threw me out of Charlotte, right on the prison bus.”
Back then, Platt was the cocaine dealer named Money Rock.
Raised in public housing, he says he believed drug dealing was his best chance for success. He worked hard, and he became very good at it. Money Rock first made news in a 1985 shootout that marked the start of a violent era in Charlotte's drug crime.
He became a major dealer. In poor neighborhoods, people smoked his product. In nightclubs and mansions, they snorted it. He seemed to have it all - women, cars, jewelry. Still, the bigger he got, the more damage he did, the more he struggled to live with what he had become.
That was the contradiction of Money Rock. He saw himself as a good man, even while trafficking in kilos of cocaine. He'd put a gun to your head if you crossed him, but if you were broke, he'd pay your rent. He became a rich man, but what made him happiest was handing out cash or buying shoes for kids in Piedmont Courts, the public housing project where he sold his first cocaine.
Why is he telling his story? He says he regrets the damage he caused and he wants to mend the city fabric that he helped destroy. He wants to keep other young men from following his path.
Part of his motivation is also personal. Three of Platt's sons are dead, a fourth is in prison for murder. If he'd been around when they were growing up, if he'd been there for them as a father, their fates might have been different.
He can't bring them back. But maybe, he says, he can keep someone else's son alive.
Money Rock went to prison in 1989. When he got out in 2010, he was the Rev. Belton Platt. Since his release, he has focused his talents on his ministry. He leads a church in his home of Conway, and preaches in Charlotte regularly.
Platt is 49 years old. Though he has spent more than a third of his life behind bars, he looks better now than when he went to prison. He's at least 50 pounds lighter than he was when he was shipped to Atlanta's federal penitentiary - not slender, but not the rotund fellow who appeared in U.S. District Judge Robert Potter's court.
He's a lot more educated, too, thanks to all the community college classes he took in prison. He has been happily married to his second wife for 10 years. His brow furrows with consternation while discussing his past, but he also smiles easily.
In many ways, the traits that helped him succeed as a drug dealer serve him as a minister. His warmth has always drawn people to him, even now, when he explains that he's a felon. When he pursues a goal - whether it was when he was selling coke or now that he's building a church - he is unrelenting. If he has a fault, as dealer or minister, it's a tendency to over commit, to say yes to everyone who needs his help.
Platt's family called him by his middle name, Lamont. Growing up, Lamont knew almost nothing about coke - had never even seen it - until he started dealing. As a teenager, he didn't smoke cigarettes or do drugs. He wouldn't even sip champagne on New Year's Eve, his mother says.
His mother, Carrie Graves, was well-known in Charlotte, an activist who worked for voting rights and social justice issues, speaking out for the poor, hauling her kids to marches in Washington, Birmingham, Atlanta.
His father, Alphonso Platt, was mostly absent. But when he was at home, in Platt's early years, Graves says he physically abused her, repeatedly sending her to the hospital. A childhood memory: Platt, about 5 years old, hears his mother screaming. He looks into his parents' bedroom and sees his father holding her down on the bed, stabbing her. She managed to escape, fleeing to a neighbor's house. Her wounds required about 50 stitches.
Graves divorced his father in 1971. By then, she had moved her children from the Cherry neighborhood to Charlotte's newest public housing apartments, Dalton Village, on Clanton Road near West Boulevard.
Money was tight after that move. The family relied on public assistance. Kids teased Platt because he wore cheap Converse knock-offs. His response was to fling the shoes onto an apartment roof so he wouldn't have to wear them.
He also learned to make his own money. At Myers Park Elementary, he used lunch money to buy candy, turning a profit by reselling his Now & Laters and Blow-Pops to wealthier classmates. Platt, the third of five children, became a go-getter, a kid who seemed likely to succeed.
He became the family protector, too, says Donna Brown, his oldest sister. The boy who watched his father abuse his mother would fight in a second if he thought someone was being bullied. “He was always the type of person, “ she says, “who wanted to take care of everybody.”
When his mother remarried, Platt joined a Boy Scout troop led by his stepfather. Platt earned enough merit badges to become a Life Scout, one step away from Eagle. He also learned to shoot guns, a skill that would come in handy later.
He might have become the county's youngest black Eagle Scout, if only he hadn't discovered basketball - and girls.
“The girls, the girls, the girls, “ says his mother, shaking her head. Long before he was Money Rock, girls were drawn to him, charmed by him. When he was a kid, they'd appear at the family's screen door. Is Lamont home? they'd ask.
He became a father just after his 17th birthday. Eventually, he would have 11 children. Eight were boys, including two named Belton Lamont after their daddy. The 11 children had seven mothers.
He met his first wife, Delores, when they were in 10th grade at West Charlotte High. They married after dropping out of high school, and Platt supported them with a janitorial business, mopping floors and cleaning the grease from grill hoods of Hardee's restaurants. He'd clean five stores a night, he says, earning about $30 per store. That was good money for a young man, but not enough for Platt. Back then, he says, he believed all it took to be a good father was being a good provider. That's one reason he wanted to earn bigger money.
Around this time, the early 1980s, he reconnected with his father, who offered some of the first advice he'd ever given his son. He suggested that he sell cocaine.
Cocaine had grown in popularity in Charlotte for nearly a decade, particularly among affluent white people.
The Charlotte News reported in 1977 that cocaine was used socially “in the legal and medical community, in retail sales, insurance, real estate and finance.”
Snorting coke became commonplace among young partiers who danced to disco music at Charlotte's favorite nightclubs, places such as the Scorpio, The Roxy and the futuristically named 2001.
Yes, it was illegal, but many people saw it as innocuous, “a nonaddictive stimulant, “ as the News called it. In the News' story, a 30-something Charlotte professional named Paul dips a straw into a tiny mound of white powder, then lifts it to his nose and inhales. “Cocaine, “ Paul says with a smile, “is probably the most sociable drug in the world.”
You'll be a millionaire
Alphonso Platt, Lamont Platt's father, bought half an eight ball, a little less than 2 grams, using $150 of his son's savings. In a Piedmont Courts apartment, he taught him how to price it, how to bag it, how to make it go further by adding mannitol, a sugar alcohol.
You'll be a millionaire within a year, Platt says his father assured him.
Platt examined the white powder in the plastic bag.
Nobody's going to pay $25 for that little bit of stuff, he told his father.
Alphonso looked his son in the eye. They'll buy it, he said.
At first, he made amateur mistakes. He'd give some guy cocaine to sell, and the guy would return empty-handed, claiming he'd tossed it when police came after him.
But when it came to business, Platt was, as his father suspected, a natural. He began selling the cocaine himself and hired salesmen he trusted. He kept financial records in his head. He switched out cars to keep from being tailed.
Platt came from a long line of entrepreneurs. His maternal grandfather, a chauffeur, helped balance the family budget by running numbers out of his house in Cherry. One great-grandfather sold moonshine and ran a barbershop in his backyard, an arrangement that allowed customers to sip bootleg liquor while waiting for haircuts.
As a boy, Platt also saw plenty of examples of poor people who used ingenuity to pay the rent. Some, like his stepfather, did it legally, by starting a commercial janitorial business. Others ran liquor houses out of their apartments or sold clothing they'd shoplifted.
None of these jobs came with sick days or pensions. If you didn't hustle, you didn't eat. Platt never forgot his father's admonition: Move, son. If you sleep, you get beat.
Before long, Platt was selling larger and larger amounts - $50 bags, $100 bags, an eighth ounce, a quarter ounce.
The money was flowing. He made hundreds of dollars in a day. And then thousands.
About this time, he got his nickname. As a teenage disc jockey at Skate Palace on South Boulevard he'd been Monty Rock, a play on Lamont. Now, as he accumulated big cars and women, as he donned gold jewelry and track suits, people called him Money Rock.
Why was he so successful? For one thing, he says, he never used. Dealers who used ended up diluting their product to feed their habit. Also, he found a top-quality source.
The market for cocaine was expanding in the mid-1980s as crack, a solid, cooked form, gained popularity, especially among poor people. Crack gave those who smoked it a powerful, short-lived high. In 1985, a gram of powder cocaine sold for $100. You could get a crack rock for $10.
Cocaine delivers energy and euphoria. But the high is fleeting and the drug creates a psychological addiction. Crack cocaine produces such a craving that addicts may steal, kill and prostitute themselves to get it. As the list of high-profile cocaine overdose deaths grew, any vestiges of the drug's benign reputation disappeared.
But Platt says he found it easy to rationalize his career choice. As he saw it, white people had robbed black people of so many things, he was justified making a living breaking the system's laws. He was an entrepreneur, not a gangster. If he didn't sell the stuff, someone else would. With his new income, he could support his family and help people in his community - a family who needed rent paid, a single mom who needed groceries. Money Rock loved being a benefactor.
What he didn't consider, not at first, was that by selling in poor neighborhoods, the people he was hurting were his own. The rise of cocaine and crack in Charlotte brought a rise in violent crime. The drugs tore apart families and probably spread HIV, as crack users engaged in unprotected sex.
Piedmont Courts was once home to many working-class families and elderly residents. By the time Money Rock arrived in the early 1980s, its 1,000 residents were mostly unemployed single mothers and their children.
Some drug dealing - marijuana, heroin - had long been part of life in Piedmont Courts. But cocaine brought in more dealers. By 1985, users came from miles away to cruise the complex's main street, nicknamed Hollywood Boulevard. They queued up to dealers like customers at a fast-food drive-thru.
The development, at 10th Street and Seigle Avenue, had been around since 1941, when it opened as one of the city's first two public housing projects. At that time, it accepted only white people. That changed in the early 1960s, when Charlotte began bulldozing several black communities as part of the federal urban renewal program aimed at eradicating the nation's worst slums and relocating residents to better housing.
Charlotte's first urban renewal project was Brooklyn, the heart of the city's black community. Also known as Second Ward, the neighborhood was a mix of black-owned businesses, churches, middle-class homes and slumlord-owned shanties. It lay to the south and east of Trade and Tryon streets. Today, the area includes the county courthouse, The Blake Hotel and First Baptist Church.
Local governments saw urban renewal money as a way to transform their downtowns with commercial and government development. But the slum clearance program also destroyed cohesive neighborhoods, dispersed residents and sometimes left them worse off than before. Despite pleas of black leaders in Charlotte to replace housing in Brooklyn, Charlotte moved out more than 1,000 families without building a single new housing unit.
Urban renewal helped Charlotte expand its uptown, but it also ended up increasing segregation, racially and economically, says Tom Hanchett, a historian for Charlotte's Levine Museum of the New South.
Many middle-class black families who owned homes in Brooklyn opted to buy in new black neighborhoods off Beatties Ford Road in northwest Charlotte. Brooklyn's poorest families were pushed into rentals and public housing, often in working-class white neighborhoods such as Villa Heights and Belmont, where Piedmont Courts was located. When they began moving in, neighborhoods quickly turned from white to black, and poverty became more concentrated.
Multiple dealers worked in Piedmont Courts, but once Money Rock moved in, they struggled to compete with his strategies. Often, he worked midnight to 8 a.m., making sales while other dealers slept. To boost his market share, he offered free samples and saturated the place with high-quality, well-priced drugs.
He became the Wal-Mart of cocaine.
As his business grew, so did animosity between him and another drug dealer, Louis “Big Lou” Samuels. On Nov. 29, 1985, Money Rock was told Samuels was threatening to kill him. The next day, he decided to confront Big Lou.
About 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30, Money Rock and several of his men, all armed, went looking for Big Lou. They found him on Hollywood Boulevard. There, the two men traded words and shoves. When William “December” Hamilton, a friend of Money Rock's, tried to break them up, Charles Locke, Big Lou's man, shot December in the thigh.
Gunfire exploded from multiple directions. With bullets flying, Money Rock dragged December behind his car, then he shot at Big Lou with the .45 automatic he'd pulled from his shoulder holster.
“It was crazy. It was worse than a war zone, “ Bernard Torrence recalls. Torrence, one of Money Rock's men, was standing near Money Rock and Big Lou as they began fighting.
When police arrived, Money Rock was trying to hoist December into the back seat of his Cadillac Seville so he could take him to the hospital. Police charged Money Rock with felony riot and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon, inflicting serious injury.
'Nobody saw anything'
Violence in Piedmont Courts usually didn't attract much notice in Charlotte. But a daytime shootout was more lawlessness than the city would tolerate.
Mayor Harvey Gantt appointed a task force. Police stepped up patrols. The Observer published days of front-page stories.
Big Lou was among those injured, and Money Rock was pretty certain he'd been the shooter. But Big Lou wasn't in a legal position to take the stand and testify against his rival.
That was one of many difficulties prosecutors encountered. Assistant District Attorney Shirley Fulton got little cooperation from people in Piedmont Courts.
It was like a liquor house murder, she recalls, “a room full of people, and nobody saw anything.”
Numerous witnesses testified, including Sabrina White, who was 14 and pregnant when she was shot in the arm and leg. But none could - or would - say who shot whom. One afternoon, with the trial recessed, Fulton happened to look out the courthouse window. She spotted Money Rock getting into his car, along with a shooting victim. She couldn't believe it. Her defendant seemed to be giving one of his victims a ride home.
Fulton ended up relying mostly on circumstantial evidence, including nearly $13,000 in cash that police found in the trunk of Money Rock's Cadillac.
In closing arguments, she told jurors that if they voted for acquittal they should tell victims such as Sabrina White she would just need to learn to deal with cocaine and street fighting.
Money Rock listened closely. He wore a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit, a cluster diamond ring on his finger, a diamond stud in his ear.
To avoid questions he didn't want asked, he didn't testify. So his attorney offered no evidence in his defense.
That was OK with Money Rock. He was certain he'd get off.