Aubrey Williams had a bad feeling the day Tye disappeared. The whole 848 crew did. Although the six YouTube stars had spent years playing hustlers on their popular crime drama, in real life they were responsible adults with steady jobs and dependents, storytellers riffing on a bloody version of the West Bronx neighborhood they called home.
"We connected with a lot of people, because the stuff you see in the show is the stuff you see in everyday life," Williams, the show's award-winning director and cinematographer, told me. "Whether you’re in the projects, whether you’re in the neighborhood, we connected with a lot of people."
Morris Heights is a neighborhood where murder memorials still cause strangers stop to cross themselves, but drug deals are so workaday that lookouts smile when they ask you to step out of their line of sight. There have been about a half-dozen killings in the precinct since January, out of roughly 40 so far this year in the Bronx, according to NYPD data. Still, it was stuff the 848 crew saw, not stuff they lived. These were parents, grandparents.
In the parlance of the city’s tabloids, they were taxpayers.
Tyrone Fleming was a taxpayer par excellence. 40 and a native of Bushwick, he had spent his adult life in Morris Heights, and was about as close to the cold-blooded killer "Tye Banga" he played on 848 as Cynthia Nixon is to Miranda Hobbes. A single father of two, he'd made a career at Con Edison, a job that had him in uniform around sunrise most days, friends recalled. What little time he could spare from his kids and his girlfriend he devoted to the series, which was set to premiere its third season last Wednesday, the same day he went dark.
"Six or seven in the morning we'll be in a [Facebook Messenger] group chat and he'll say he's at work," Williams explained of their normal routine. But this time was different: "His job reached out to his mother earlier in the day because he didn’t come to work, so she reached out to his girlfriend, and his girlfriend reached out to us. Everybody’s trying to reach out to Tye and couldn't nobody get an answer."
For his character, that might be normal. But this Tye was a taxpayer.
"He's never not showed up for work," explained Betty Davis, the actress who plays gangster moll Egypt the First Lady on 848. "People might watch the show and think [we’re criminals], but this is not who we are. Tye Banga works for Con Edison. I'm a single mom. We work outside of this, but we do this because we know that we have talent and we want to create a platform for people around us to understand that it’s possible."
And they had worked hard. Mail carriers and group-home managers by day, the crew were relentless promoters and fundraisers by night, filling their Instagram accounts with party flyers, 848 merchandise and teaser trailers.
Besides, anyone who knew Tye insisted he'd never have a beef with anyone.
"A big giant teddy bear, the piece of cake to my piece of pie," his sister Tiffany Tucker told me while she wept outside his apartment on University Avenue last week. "We were so proud that he did this TV show. It had started getting reviews, getting awards. They put so much blood sweat and tears into this," there was no way he would blow off the series premiere. By the time his girlfriend and his mother tried to get inside his first floor apartment late that Wednesday afternoon, Williams was already home, preparing to launch the first episode on YouTube.
"I literally was getting ready to upload it and I got the phone call," Williams recalled. When he raced to the building, he said, he found Fleming face down in a pool of blood just inside his apartment door. "He was lying on his stomach. There was blood everywhere. To see your friend, somebody that you grew up with done dirty like that, it's shocking."
"I still can't believe that it's real," Davis told me through sobs. "I can’t even explain because I never thought this would be happening to us. I never thought this would be a call that I would get, that my brother got stabbed in his back in his own home."
In fact, though initial reports suggested he'd been stabbed to death, a spokesperson for the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office told VICE it was later determined that Fleming was shot. According to Bronx prosecutors, he was gunned down in his home just after midnight on Wednesday, following what police would call only a "dispute." (For context, about 100 out of last year’s 297 NYC killings were listed as some form of dispute in the NYPD’s supplementary homicide report.)
Meanwhile, the man the NYPD has since arrested and charged with Fleming's murder, 24-year-old Jonathan Jackson, was also charged with felony possession of an assault rifle, though the medical examiner's office could not immediately confirm whether that was the type of weapon used.
"It could have been a situation that went left," Williams mused when we spoke. Like the rest of the 848 crew, he was at a loss to explain how his cuddly costar might have ended up dead at the hands of a real-life gangster. Davis, meanwhile, said none of them had ever heard of the kid from West 174th Street currently cooling his heels on Rikers. But she couldn't shake the feeling that Tye’s murder was some sick form of life imitating art.
"It's just mind-boggling that it was the day that we were all going to celebrate," she told me. "It's such a shock to all of us, because this is not who we are. When we're acting it's different, but this is really real life."
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