Brandi Davis, 36, grew up around the drug game in Detroit. As the daughter of a big-time dope man, she lived a privileged childhood and adolescence, attending private school, driving a BMW, and going away to study in Atlanta. But it was as a college student—when she dated Deron "Wonnie" Gatling, a power player in the iconic Black Mafia Family (BMF)—that she started on a path toward her own notoriety.
By the 2000s, BMF was among the largest urban drug empires in American history. Davis had hung out around the stepson of another BMF figure, Terry “Southwest T” Flenory, and got to know his brother Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory shortly after arriving in Atlanta in the summer of 2000. Gatling, meanwhile, was BMF's St. Louis crew chief and a close advisor to Big Meech. After Gatling went to prison in 2005, Davis made a decision that changed her life forever: She stepped foot into the drug game herself, a business she’d always been around, but had never been fully involved in.
Along with family and friends, Davis began organizing 25-kilo shipments of cocaine from Chicago to her home turf of Detroit. Then, in 2008, Davis and her dad were arrested, she said, after a close female friend and a boyfriend flipped on them. She served almost eight years in prison; meanwhile, her dad’s health failed him shortly after his own early release. Since she got out in 2016, Davis has published a book chronicling her journey, The High Price I Had To Pay 4, started a lifestyle and female-empowerment brand called FreePrettyGirls, and was cast in season three of the BET reality show, From The Bottom.
VICE talked to Davis to find out what it was like to become a major gangster in a criminal underworld traditionally dominated by men. This account has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I had a privileged childhood. I grew up in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. My dad’s business, which I really didn’t know anything about until later, afforded me a lot of nice things early in life. He showered me with gifts. I went to private school. My sister and I both got brand-new cars when we turned 16. My dad bought us fur coats and designer clothes. I had my first Rolex when I was in tenth grade. I didn’t know exactly what he did for a living, but I knew we weren’t wanting for anything.
My mom had four beautiful sisters. They all dated drug dealers. These guys laced them with lavish gifts and took care of them just like my dad took care of my mom. It was the norm. I thought men were supposed to take care of women like that. Seeing how my mom and aunts were treated, that’s what I expected when I started dating. My dad further reinforced this by telling me to never lower my standards. If a man couldn’t do what he did for me, there was no point talking to him.
When I got to be about 16 years old, I finally realized what my dad did. Hanging out with friends as a teenager, I heard guys talking about him. He had a good reputation in the streets. When I'd go places, I'd see how people treated me when they found out I was his daughter. That, in itself, attracted me to the lifestyle.
I went to Catholic School and stayed in the suburbs, but I always dated drug dealers. If they wanted to talk to me, they had to come at me the right way. I expected them to look out for me and buy me things. They recognized who my dad was and knew that they had to treat me a particular way.
I was surrounded by the lifestyle. I grew up down the street from Marlon Welch. His mom was dating “Southwest T,” Big Meech’s brother. His mom had a Benz, and they were always dressed fresh, kept new cars, and lived the same way we did.
I was around Big Meech and Southwest T from a young age, but I never knew they were as big as they were when I was a kid. Once I moved to Atlanta and went to college, that’s when I really began my friendships with them, and saw what level they were moving at. Everybody looked at them like these drug kingpins, but I looked at them like my homies. They were "get money" dudes. Detroit is a hustling town and I was used to being around those kind of dudes. Meech and his crew ended up doing it on a whole different magnitude, but it still felt normal.
I didn’t sell drugs back then, but I would help count money and move money around. It wasn‘t out of the ordinary, it was just how I grew up. I’d get paid for my services like anybody else. A little cash never hurt.
I met my son’s father, “Wonnie,” around Thanksgiving 2000. One night, “Pig” Triplett, a BMF member I knew from back home, called and was like, "Come on, sis, we’re going to Magic City." On our way, Pig told me we were going to pick up one of his homeboys. That’s how I was introduced to Wonnie. We just kicked it and shot the shit the whole night. At the end of the night, he asked for my number and we were together every single day after that.
Wonnie wined and dined me and spoiled me like my dad used to. When we got serious, he started paying my bills. He bought me a Porsche, he moved me into a half-million-dollar house in Atlanta. We traveled. I had money at my disposal. I was only, like, 20 years old and it was a whirlwind romance. But it didn’t last.
Wonnie was indicted out of St. Louis in 2004 and went on the run. Around May 2005, Wonnie came to Atlanta, even though I told him I didn’t feel like it was safe. I was three months pregnant and he wanted to see some friends. One early afternoon, we were in bed sleeping and the US Marshals showed up in my front yard. Wonnie went up to my attic and I was scrambling around the house, trying to get all the jewelry out of sight.
My nerves were shot, my mind going a million miles a minute. I knew this was probably the end of the line. Wonnie was facing about 20 years. I was just looking at him, like, Damn, it’s all come down to this. I can’t even explain the looks we had on our faces.
They finally ran up into the house with their guns drawn and I threw my hands in the air and let them know I was pregnant. They were asking where Wonnie was. I said, “I just woke up, I don’t know where anybody is.”
I was taken outside and handcuffed. While I’m sitting out there and they’re searching the place, I heard gunshots. I’m thinking they found Wonnie and killed him. My heart instantly dropped. I thought he was dead. Then, bullets started whizzing by and I hit the ground. The SWAT showed up, the helicopters were flying around, but the shooter got away.
They kept asking us who we called over to start shooting at them. They were threatening us, saying we’re all going to jail for attempted murder on a federal agent. Wonnie got hauled away and I was arrested for possession of the marijuana they found in the house. That was the worst day of my life. I was pregnant and my son’s father was going away.
I moved back to Detroit and in with my parents. Wonnie ended up dying in prison from an asthma attack just over a year later. My son was nine months old. I went into a deep depression and started neglecting my duties as a parent. I partied every night. My mom eventually took me aside and said "Look, bitch, you've got a son. I know you're going through what you're going through, but you can't keep living your life like that." She was absolutely right, so I pulled myself together.
I started dating a guy from Chicago named Justin Turner. I knew him from a while back and he came in and swept me off my feet. I was vulnerable. I missed being taken care of by a man.
Justin peeped the kind of people I was around and one day he cut into me: "If I have some coke brought down here, can you move it?”
I was like, “Probably, yeah.”
That’s how fast it started for me getting involved with selling drugs.
Somebody dropped me about 30 kilos of cocaine and in a matter of days, I got rid of it. After that, it became a routine thing. We were moving, like, 60 keys a week. I brought in my dad and my stepbrother and we were off and running. My father actually tried to steer me away from that life. He didn't want me to go down that road, but I didn’t want to hear it.
I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I picked up the money and plugged people with other people. It wasn’t like I was on the corner selling crack. I convinced myself I'd be ok. Even if we get caught, I’m thinking the man takes the beef, the woman never goes to jail.
We got busted in a sting set up by one of my drivers. She got caught with 27 kilos on a drive from Chicago to Detroit and agreed to set us all up. I went to make a five-kilo pickup and before I could even turn on the ignition to the car, I was swarmed by police.
While I was fighting my case, Justin got into some trouble and gave up my dad and I to the feds. My problems went from state to federal. The state dropped my possession charge and the feds stepped in and included me in the conspiracy with my dad. We both pled out and I got sentenced to ten years.
One of the most painful things to emotionally endure was when my dad and I were sentenced on the same day in court. The judge commented that this was a sad day for our family because not only was my mom losing a husband to prison, she was losing a daughter too. To see my mom crying—and for her to have to go through that—was a tremendous blow.
My dad was sentenced to eight years. He got sick in prison and was let out on compassionate release before he died. I ended up doing seven and a half.
I feel a lot of regret for what happened. I look at my friends that I went to college with, and I see them with thriving careers, they're married with kids. I look back and I think that could've been me, but I chose the streets instead. I missed a significant part of my early life in prison—the majority of my 20s and the beginning of my 30s. I think about the heartache and pain that I've caused my family. I look at my son and what I did to him. He didn't have a mom or dad for those years. That's something I deal with every day.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.