Menace With Morals
On the night of April 6th, 1987, all was right in the world. Flashy fighter Sugar Ray Leonard, returning to the ring after a three-year retirement, upset blue-collar middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. It was a lucrative win for the underdog, but with that win, a Queens, New York, drug organization was also supposed to strike pay dirt. And for their loss, there would be hell to pay. Four nights later, a group of high-level lieutenants in one of New York's most notorious drug gangs met in a Queens basement awaiting a phone call from their imprisoned boss. One in particular had been instructed to place a $50,000 bet on Sugar Rayâ€”a 3-to-1 underdogâ€”and failed to do so. As the minutes passed, they shifted
anxiously in their seats, tension splayed on each man's face. The call came in. The penaltyâ€”shoot yourself, or be shotâ€”was equal parts kind and savage. The lieutenant opted for the former and was promptly handed a rowning semiautomatic 9mm. With the phone line stillopen, he cocked the gun and fired a single shot into his thigh. He winced in pain, bleeding profusely and yelling expletives. Gun still in hand, the man grabbed the phone to confirm his boss' satisfaction. Upon approval, he hung up and raced to nearby Mary Immaculate Hospital. The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to none other than the incomparable Lorenzo "Fat Catâ€ Nichols.
Waiting in the visiting area at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains, one is struck by the stark contrast between the idyllic surroundings and the utter desperation of life behind prison walls. Clinton is Fat Cat's most recent home in a 21-year-and-counting tour of New York's federal prisons, most of them maximum security, where he's serving time on three counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance and criminal possession of a weapon. Due to the size and privacy of the visiting areaâ€”a breezy square room with open windows allowing in noise from the yard, and a Plexiglas wall offering views of other inmates and guardsâ€”we can safely presume we're not really in a visiting room, but rather the sort of enclave used for attorney-inmate conferences. The tall, wiry guard assigned to oversee our meeting is lost in thought, but takes a break from staring out the window to proffer a bare-bones description of life in Nichols' unit: 22 hours a day lockdown in a single-man, 8-by-6-foot cell; three showers a week; twice daily deliveries of hot water.
After the brief chat with the guard, the seemingly interminable wait continues. The sight of Nichols, when he finally does appear, is startling: Sporting a cleanly shaven head and gold-wire-framed spectacles, he has the physique of an NFL running back not even his baggy green prison jumpsuit can conceal. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Nichols says it's "Bizâ€ now, not Fat Cat. "I don't want people to think I changed my name,â€ he says. "Biz has always been my name. I just don't like to use Fat Cat 'cause that's a name I had as a kid; I'm not comfortable with that as a 48-year-old man.â€ Regarding his current circumstances, Nichols shrugs. "They don't affect me,â€ he says. "This is jail. If you can't do this you shouldn't be doing crime.â€ True, a life of crime and its attendant punishment is the only one Nichols has known, from his pre-teen days of robbery and weed dealing to his days as a fearsome gang member earning stripes for serious offensesâ€”assault, armed robbery, attempted murder.
At the height of New York's crack era, Fat Cat reached Son-of-Sam statusâ€”dominating headlines and becoming the stuff of local lore. Despite being incarcerated for much of his reign, Nichols, with the inventiveness of a business maverick and the command of an ancient warlord, ruled what was then the largest street-level drug ring in the Big Apple. Still, in the 21st year of his sentence, Fat Cat's name remains relevant. In December, BET ran an hour-long Fat Cat episode of their American Gangster series, and last year, Ethan Brown's Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler was a critically acclaimed bestsellerâ€”though 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Nas, Fat Joe and Ghostface have been invoking New York gangsters Fat Cat, Supreme, Prince, Montana, Pappy and Pretty Tony for ages. And though rappers seem to love the bravado and fearlessness of the crime-boss lore ("New York streets where killers'll walk, like Pistol Pete And Pappy Mason, gave the young boys admiration,â€ raps Nas on God's Son's "Get Downâ€), Fat Cat's version of the story is far less glamorous.
In a slight Southern drawl that hints at his roots, Nichols recounts the bare bones of his earliest days. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on Christmas morning, 1958, Lorenzo was the fourth child to join the Nichols family. His mother, Louise, worked long hours as a nurse's aid, cleaning bed pans and assisting the staff at a local hospital; his father John was a factory supervisor. Because they were a two-job family, they could afford a nice home in a good neighborhoodâ€”not quite picket fences and apple pie, but a brick home with a lawn nonetheless. Still, violence was a large part of Nichols' early life. One time his mother and father's fighting got so vicious it resulted in his father taking a slug in the buttocks, he says. If his childhood was a foreshadowing of things to come, this was perhaps the moment that defined it. "I was too young to remember the details, but I was told my pops put his hands on her during an argument and she went for her gun,â€ Nichols says nonchalantly.
The youngest of four and the only boy, he received special attention from the many women in his family, especially his maternal grandmother who raised him when his mother left town for New York City. "One time Mama spit in a white cop's face after he called her a nigger,â€ he says. "Then those white boys wore her ass out and ran her out of town.â€ Growing up around his grandmother, Nichols had his first exposure to illegal activity. "My grandmother was known for selling bootleg liquor and running card games,â€ remembers Nichols. "To me it seemed pretty normal.â€
Though his siblings were older than himâ€”his eldest sister is 22 years his seniorâ€”their daughters were his peers, providing him his first unofficial crew. "Even though my cousins were girls, they were rough,â€ he recalls. "I remember a time some boys bust my head wide open, and my cousins made me show them who did it and beat the boys, their sisters and then their mamas when they tried to get involved.â€ Clearly, the rough-and-tumble life came early.
He visited his mother and her new boyfriend, Amos Coleman, in Jamaica, Queens, every summer, but Nichols preferred Alabama. "I loved my mother at the time and I loved her till the day she died, but my grandmother was who I wanted to be with,â€ he says. Though she would later be heavily implicated in her son's crime outfit, Louise's newfound stability meant the time was right to send for her son. "They told me I was only going for the summer, but when school started I knew what it was,â€ he says with a laugh. He quickly befriended his new neighbors, Todd and Lance Feurtado, and the slightly older Michael Mitchell, who everyone called either Mr. Black because of his leadership skills, or just plain Black. So strong was their bond that to this day, Nichols considers the Feurtados and Black the brothers he never had.
**To read more about Fat Cat's reign, pick up the Mar/Apr '07 issue of KING. On newsstands now!Â