I Was a Cocaine Kingpin's Ride-or-Die
Photos courtesy the author
The crack era of the 1980s and 90s was a uniquely vicious time in American life. With gun violence at historic levels, it was a free-for-all on the streets, with drug lords fueling an overdose epidemic on one hand and horrific gang violence on the other. In 1990, murders in New York City peaked at 2,245 for the year. Meanwhile, many politicians demanded more prison time for suspects, even those uninvolved in violence. African Americans were locked up at an unprecedented rate, thanks in part to the 100-to-1 crack to cocaine sentencing disparity.
Along with his longtime partner, Erika “Reika” Carter, Kevin Chiles, the founder of Don Diva Magazine and a former Harlem kingpin, was in the thick of it. Chiles was charged with operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise after the feds alleged he masterminded the sale of thousands of pounds of cocaine from 1987 to 1994. Carter ultimately avoided prison time, and Chiles has since married another woman. But in their time together, Carter saw both the spectacular highs and devastating lows of being implicated in the drug game in America. This is her story.
The Rooftop was the most popular skating rink in Harlem in the early-to-mid 80s. It was right down the block from the Polo Grounds. The guys would pull up in the flyest cars, jewelry, and fashion. Street guys from all over New York would make their way to The Rooftop to stunt, show off, and pick up girls. I loved to skate as a teenager and was there every Wednesday for ladies’ night.
My friends and I were well known by all the attendees and especially the DJs: Brucie B, DJ Hollywood, and Lovebug Starski (RIP). They used to call us “The Go Girls,” as we skated our asses off around the rink. Being in the spotlight at the rink, it was expected that dudes would check for me. It was there where I met my first love, Kevin Chiles (KC), in the summer of 1984. I was 15 years old.
KC never skated. He was quiet, in the cut, and very observant. I could tell he was getting money and on the rise, and one night, as I was getting off the skate floor, he asked if he could buy me a cup of Kool Aid. I thought that was hilarious and kind of corny, but cute. I liked that he wanted to get me off the floor to talk to me.
KC was sorta slim, up to date in fashion, and loved his Reebok classics. He was very soft-spoken, didn’t curse at all, and was super respectful. KC was sweet and knew how to talk to me—definitely different than most guys. He wasn’t loud like the other hustlers, thugs, and drug dealers. He had a sense of confidence about him, a can-do attitude that intrigued me.
After he bought me something to drink, he said, “I'm gonna come back and get you when it’s over.” He did come back, but I’d had prior engagements, so I ducked him. Still, KC was persistent and returned to the skating rink every week until I finally went out with him.
It wasn’t long before we were together all the time.
He would come pick me and my son up and take us to his aunt’s deli, L & N Deli, off of Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. KC was the manager: he went to the market, stocked the store, and assisted the customers. He took me there our first time hanging out, giving me the impression that’s what he did for a living. I later learned he was involved in the drug trade, moving kilos of cocaine, but he wasn't loud with it.
I remember he was driving a gold Quantum. Everybody on the street had their sports cars, but his car was just so unique. That was just him. Volkswagen made some with Audi engines at the time. It had gold rims with a boxey-kind of-look. There weren’t too many of those around. KC loved driving us around in that car. We were both teenagers looking for love, success, and adventure.
I’m Brooklyn-born, Harlem-raised. My upbringing was a little raw: At the age of 25, my mother had a husband, a boyfriend, and a significant other who was said to be my biological father. She was murdered when I was two. I found her dead in our apartment with her boyfriend. My siblings and I had to relocate to my aunt’s apartment in the Polo Grounds Towers, right across the street from Rucker Park. I went from being the youngest of four to the youngest of eight, in a house where space and unconditional love were spread thin.
My brother had a spot he hustled out of, and he kept me very close. I was able to watch and learn things that would later become of use to me. Shortly after, I found out I was pregnant. My aunt put me out. Being just 14 years old when my first son was born, I knew I had to provide for him by any means necessary. When I first got with KC I actually showed him how to cook crack, something that I learned from watching my brother.
A few months into dealing with KC, I met his parents, who treated me as their own. My son and I moved in with them at Academy Gardens in Soundview and we truly became a family. His mother always said that I was her daughter and KC was her son-in-law. She made me finish school, taught me about unconditional love—especially when it came to loving your own children—and showed me how to save and manage my money. It was a blessing living there. KC later ended up getting us our own apartment.
I was never involved in his criminal activity, but I knew what was going on in the streets. I dated street dudes before I met KC. When he came home, I would wake up and help him count the money. It happened so much I would tell him that I needed 10 percent for counting. It started out in the tens of thousands, but quickly progressed to hundreds of thousands of dollars at times.
Back then I didn’t have any reservations about the lifestyle. I didn’t know what my life would become. I was young and it was an opportunity to live a better life then the one I was living. I lived in the projects with my aunt and seven other kids. I was shipped between the Virgin Islands and the States. I had a newborn and was trying to provide for my child. Anything was better than my circumstances at that point. Kevin and his family provided me with a sense of family and love that I didn’t have, but of course needed.
Our son, Little Kevin, was born in February 1987. KC was excited, but he didn’t tell me that he had another baby with another girl. I was devastated, but KC showered me with diamonds and cars. I was one of the first people in the United States with a BMW station wagon, one of many vehicles, as I got a new one every year for ten years.
The BMW was black with chrome. It had the double sunroof that opened from the back and front. The interior was black leather and I had the chrome BBS wheels. I used to drive around the city like a boss, with my two baby boys and money to spend. I would shop until my heart was content, dropping tens of thousands on clothes, furniture, and household items.
KC lived through me. He was not boisterous, but I was. He was okay with it because it allowed me as his woman to speak for him. He got a thrill out of it. KC wasn't a partier. He wasn’t too interested in being in the mix. He would do appearances every now and again, though he preferred to stay out of the way. A lot of the hustlers from New York would attend concerts with their girls, something we’d do on occasion.
I went from being a young girl from the projects with a baby to the first lady of an empire. Side by side we ran businesses—legal and illegal—and started a family. KC loved the music industry and started his own record label, Big Boss Records. He was trying to create his own avenue. We had a store, Boss Sneakers, then we moved up the block between 7th and 8th on 125th and opened Boss Emporium. Until this very day, people still talk about the store being made to look like a street corner and the BMW parked inside. Our store had a pay phone too. Even though KC was hustling and doing his thing, we were trying to make everything legal.
There were always chicks coming for KC that wanted to be in my position. There was this one chick that slept with every hustler one summer. I saw KC in the car with this broad. I parked my car in the middle of the intersection in Harlem, jumped out—leaving the door open—and walked over to his car. I started screaming at him in the middle of the street. I made the girl get out of the car and went off on KC right there in the middle of traffic. That girl was lucky I didn’t whip her ass.
I was so pissed at him, I took his entire safe out of the house. The safe was upstairs—I pushed it down the stairs and broke every tile on the floor. I managed to get it in the car, but I threw my back out and was gone for two days while my back healed, holding his safe hostage. Can you imagine the fury that he felt? We laugh about it today.
Life has a tendency to balance out the highest highs with the lowest lows. You couldn’t live this type of lifestyle without some expected casualties, but we never could have imagined how great the loss would be. In 1989, KC's mother got murdered. That devastated me. I felt like I lost my mother all over again. Little Kevin was only two at the time, and she’d never get to meet her only granddaughter.
One evening in 1994, KC got arrested and charged as a drug kingpin. People knew, but nobody called me and told me. The next morning at the crack of dawn my phone rang and it was the FBI. I hung up on them. I thought it was a prank call, but it was really the FBI. They were like, “We have your house surrounded. Don’t try to flush anything. We turned your water off.”
When I opened the door they shoved flashlights in my face. They swarmed in with guns in hand. I remember yelling, “My kids, my kids.” Little Kevin had come to the upstairs railing and they got him. KC’s aunt and cousins were arrested as well. They told me to call someone to come and get my kids and threatened to call child services. It was a very hectic time.
Both KC and I were going back and forth to court. He was remanded to custody, but I was out on bail. During the trial, an informant testified against me, pointing me out in the courtroom. He stated that there were secret compartments in my cars containing guns that belonged to me.
KC was anxious to get me off the case. He told his lawyers, whatever time they were going to offer me, he would take it. So they removed me. I took a plea. They originally wanted to give me a felony, but I copped to a misdemeanor. Kevin didn’t want me to have a felony on my record.
KC had two mistrials, but his lawyer told him the government spent entirely too much money trying his case to ever let him go. They would continue to try until they got a conviction, and it would be the maximum penalty. In his circumstance that meant natural life. KC weighed his options and copped out to ten years.
The feds seized everything and KC's family took what was left. They took my jewelry, furniture, and clothes. I was fed up; I got my kids and got out of there. I moved to the Bronx to a one-bedroom. I let the kids sleep in the bed. I slept on the floor on a mattress. I was robbed two weeks after I was there, mostly losing my money and electronics.
My kids couldn’t understand how we went from a nice house to a one-bedroom apartment. Then they had to visit their father in prison for the next decade. Our lives completely changed. God stripped me of everything and I had to start all over again. There definitely wasn’t a whole lot of money left, but even with him being locked up he still provided.
Throughout the years I faced some hardships. My children and I had to move often. They experienced emotional trauma, and I was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Even still, when KC came home from prison, I had what he gave me, and I gave it right back to him.
While my children and I were all we had, KC and I remained very close. I was his best friend, ride or die, and his children’s mother. More importantly, I hold the memories of his mother. Our children are grown now at 28, 31, and 34 years old. We’ve lived to be grandparents, and 30-plus years later, our bond is still unbreakable.
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