Gun violence in New York these days is relatively mild in comparison to the record-breaking bloodshed of the early 1990s. That was a rough era in which the city’s annual murder rate exceeded 2,000, thanks in large part to a proliferation of violent gangs battling for turf in which to sell drugs. Among them was the Sex Money Murder (SMM) crew, one of the city’s most notorious drug gangs who went on to serve as some of the founding members of the east-coast Bloods.
Headed by “Pistol” Pete Rollock, who became a sort of twisted deity in American crime lore, SMM rose off the back of an epidemic of crack, chaos and killing to export its brand of gangster culture from the Bronx’s Soundview housing project across state lines. The gang’s inner core imploded in a blizzard of bullets and betrayal, but SMM is still operating today, in towns and small cities up and down the east coast, from strongholds like Newark, New Jersey, to Georgia.
Until now, relatively little has been known about the inner-workings of the crew that became a template for the modern, east coast street-gang scene. But the forthcoming bookSex Money Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood, and Betrayal dangles exclusive insights into the gang’s origins, offering a fresh perspective on street violence in modern-day America—and the battle to end it. I spoke to the book’s author, British investigative journalist Jonathan Green, about the men behind SMM and the evolution of gang life in America's largest city.
VICE: What made SMM stand out in New York’s larger street-gang world?
Jonathan Green: They set a new benchmark for violence. The violence around New York’s late 1980s crack epidemic gave birth to a homicide epidemic in the city. Out of that grew some really violent crews who had been born and raised in these extremely dangerous, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Soundview in the Bronx was one of the most notorious, alongside places like Brownsville in Brooklyn. So the SMM guys grew up used to gunfire and murder from a very early age.
Pipe, one of the two former SMM lieutenants I spoke to for the book, was only 11 when he carried out his first shooting. I’ve spent time on assignment in the favelas of Brazil and the killing fields of Colombia and it was amazing that in New York City these boys were born into a life that was just as dangerous.
...street crews like SMM were more dangerous than the mafia in a way, because they were so much quicker to shoot.
What was also unusual about SMM was its leader, "Pistol Pete" Rollock. Usually the violence gets delegated, but he really didn’t mind carrying it out himself. So his reputation spread in the clubs and through the music. People saw him as this dashing guy at the head of this very violent clique.
When the United Blood Nation on the East Coast was formed in the mid-1990s, SMM were considered so formidable and notorious that these founders of the Bloods wanted them involved because it gave this new organization a whole violent edge.
How did SMM sit with other crime gangs in New York, such as the old-school mob?
SMM modelled themselves on the Italian mafia, although you can’t compare their power. Street crews and their petty beefs are very different from major organized crime and the Bloods are nowhere near as powerful as the mafia, although they are more prevalent. But Pistol Pete and the others had a fascination for Italian organized crime. They saw it as being very glamorous, but also a poke in the eye of authority. Yet street crews like SMM were more dangerous than the mafia in a way, because they were so much quicker to shoot. Personal slights would escalate into a murder. If the mafia rubs anyone out, it’s generally about money or business. With SMM it would take nothing.
Were the SMM really one of the first crews to set up sophisticated drug-dealing lines out of New York?
They were one of only crews in the Bronx at that time who were going “out of town,” as they called it back then, to sell drugs. Other crews stayed in their neighborhoods. Pipe and Pistol Pete were going up to places such as Kingston, New York, setting everything up there. When they got arrested, they fell back to the Bronx and started sending out the youngsters. They stayed off the radar to look for other places to open other franchises. The further out of New York they went, the more the drugs were worth, and the less gang violence there was. Crews could make a lot of money with minimum aggravation—they went down the east coast to Virginia and North Carolina among other places. People heard of SMM through music and they adopted the name like a franchise.
What’s interesting is that when they started going to places like Buffalo in New York or Springfield in Massachusetts, they not only exported drugs, but Blood gang culture. In 2013, Newburgh, a small city in upstate New York, was one of bloodiest strips in America for some time because the Bloods had come up there to sell crack and the gang culture took hold. This is how all these small towns all over America start to have a gang problem.
For the book, you spent five years hanging out with two of SMM’s former top lieutenants, Pipe and Suge, both extremely violent men who were feared in the Bronx in the 1990s. How did that go day to day?
Very often we would meet up and I wouldn’t ask them anything, just hang out, play music, and chat about stuff not related to the book. Pipe was very guarded. He’s the big OG, not the sort of guy who is used to trusting anyone. He reminded me of an old mafia godfather. Suge was very voluble, he speaks a million miles a minute, and is extremely volatile. He will make you laugh but if anything is on his mind, things can turn very fast. If you were to meet them in a bar I’m sure you’d be on edge a bit. They were in the higher echelons of a major crew, and they carried themselves accordingly.
You’ve alluded to music more than once. How was or is SMM involved in New York’s music scene?
In the early 1990s, hip hop on the east coast was [still] in its [relative] infancy, while famous crews like SMM were ascendant, and the two worlds mixed and fed off each other. The rappers Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, raised in Bronx, used the exploits of the gang to drive their music, and [Pistol] Pete gets a mention on one of Nas’s songs. If you were a young, up and coming guy at the time, you would head down to Mecca, New York’s biggest hip-hop night, where everyone, the gangsters and the musicians such as Sean Combs and the models, hung out.
What was the relationship between SMM and the local community in Soundview? It seems like it was hot and cold.
It was a very complicated one. In the first place, most people in the neighborhood were scared of them, so they weren’t going to talk badly of them, as there could be retaliation. Because they supplied all the drugs in the neighborhood, and a lot of people in Soundview at the time were using them, they were dependent on the gang to get their drugs. SMM was huge, it had so many members, especially when Pipe was running it, so, in a way, they were the community. Then when the gunfire starts and you get kids hit in the crossfire, people start to take a stand.
The big turning point was the murders of two fellow SMM members at an annual Thanksgiving football game in the Bronx in 1997, on Pistol Pete’s orders. Everyone was there watching this game with their kids and the bullets started to fly. Enough was enough. People felt SMM had turned on their own neighborhood. So these long-held conspiracies of silence about not saying anything to the police really broke down.
New York in 2017 had the lowest number of homicides in decades. How did police get a handle on gangs such as SMM?
The NYPD flooded these areas. In the Bronx, federal investigator* John O’Malley, the NYPD’s Pete Forcelli and the federal prosecutor Liz Glazer took so many of these violent crews off the street and sent so many ring leaders away—that obviously helped to bring some kind of peace. This was aided by trends in drug use: people stopped smoking crack as much as they were in the 1990s. SMM were formed in 1991 and it took the police ten years for most of the leaders to be taken off the streets. There is no way that would happen now because the NYPD has a hold of the city. Now, most of the crews are caught within a year or two.
Have the gangs changed or adapted?
The big thing with gangs now is they all turn on each other. In SMM in the 1990s, although they were all in it for self-interest and money, there was at least some sense of a code of loyalty to each other. It took a while for Pistol Pete to order the Thanksgiving murders and inevitably turn on his own crew and for others to start snitching. But now I hear about Blood sets that are warring with each other all the time, even killing each other in their own sets. There is no loyalty whatsoever to each other. You hear about that code of omerta and no-one snitching anyone out—it’s a complete myth. The fact of the matter is they are snitching each other out all the time. When they end up facing 40 years no parole, these guys are more than happy to turn on each other.
Is there a modern-day gangster legend in New York like Pistol Pete?
I don’t think so, because drug dealing crews now have such a short run, there’s hardly any time to build up a reputation before you end up in handcuffs. Also, it was interesting to me how people still lionize the mafia and yet crews like SMM hold little romanticism to the outside world—they are just seen as a menace to society. Maybe in the same way that The Godfather is still huge, but New Jack City never crossed cultural lines that much. Occasionally, you hear about guys in the Bronx who are able to last a few years—they hang out with small time rappers, get mentioned in a song. But now police are looking at social media and rap songs so much, who’s talking about what, that if they get any sense you are looking for publicity, then they are on you. That was Pistol Pete’s major downfall. He loved the spotlight, he was a very charismatic dude, you can see why these young guys followed him. In the end he just became too murderous but also, too well known.
You’ve reported on violence before. What shocked you in writing this book?
The level of violence and the lack of respect for human life. But looking back, how close this dangerous world was to where I was living in New York at the time: just a mile away from where people are sitting in Starbucks, this crazy gang violence is going on, just bubbling under the surface of everyday life. It was all going on in the background, I just never knew it, because I wasn’t involved.
What is SMM’s legacy?
Well, it’s a terrible one. It’s just violence. Because SMM were on the street for as long as they were, Pistol Pete has this Robin Hood reputation among young guys in projects, who really don’t know the reality of this world. If you talk to young Bloods in the street now, they’ll revere SMM and have no idea of treachery and how they all turned on each other.
Pipe told me people enter these gangs because they want the brotherhood, but he said they don’t understand that the very brothers pledging their lives to you are the very ones who will murder them or snitch them out.
At the end of the book, you talk about the intergenerational element in all this; how Suge’s son is being arrested while O’Malley, the main cop’s son, is becoming a detective. Was this a pattern you saw?
It’s what drove the book: this perpetual cycle. Unless society can find a way of breaking it, it will keep on going. If your dad is in a crew, very often the son goes straight into the family business. With Pipe, his grandfather was involved, his dad was, and him. So you have to give credit to him, Pipe, that he’s tried to break the cycle. He’s worked hard to turn his life around and hold down a steady job, because he doesn’t want his kids becoming involved in that stuff. And that’s enormously difficult as a felon with background like that, so I think you have to give him props there.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Green's book, out next month from W.W. Norton, here.
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*Correction 04/19/2018: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested O'Malley was an FBI agent. We regret the error.
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