California drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross shows that you can play the game and survive. His story shows the hypocrisy of the government’s war on drugs, while also shining a light on the struggles of growing up in the ghetto. Above all, it’s about learning from mistakes and bettering yourself. “I used to think that I was born to be a drug dealer.”
Life isn’t fair, but some lives are more unfair than others. Born in Troup, Texas, on January 26, 1960, Rick Ross quickly found out about the fairness of life. When he was 5 years old, he and his mother moved to South Central, Los Angeles, where they lived from day to day. She was his entire world and he grew up wanting nothing more than to be able to take care of her.
Her brother could get violent and crazy at times. Even with young Ross in the house. The screaming and fighting got to him, but it was the sounds of gunfire that hit him the hardest. Still only 5 years old, he witnessed his mom shoot and kill her brother in self-defense. The bloody scene caused him to dislike violence.
Though he went to school, Ross, like most future crime bosses, had difficulty paying attention. It didn’t help that he went through his entire school career without being able to read or write. Luckily for him he found an outlet at Susan Miller Dorsey High School’s tennis team. No matter what reputation tennis might have on the streets, he enjoyed it.
If only that was enough. His illiteracy made him ineligible for a college scholarship so he was forced to find another route to get by.
“I’m gonna be running L.A.”
“They say that everyone has a purpose in life,” Ross says in the documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. “At one point I thought that selling cocaine was my purpose. I used to think that I was born to be a drug dealer. I thought it was my job to keep everybody high. And get as many people high as I could.”
In the end, it was all about finding an identity. When he went to the movie theater and watched Super Fly, he began seriously thinking about dealing drugs. He had never seen such a successful black man. Hanging around Figueroa in Los Angeles, he knew a lot of pimps and hustlers and began making plans.
Ross heard about cocaine and bought $50 bucks’ worth of the potent drug. It sold immediately. He then got his friends together to convince them of the lucrative business. They pooled their money and got a bag worth $300 dollars to sell on the corner. Again, it sold like water on a scorching hot summer day in the middle of the desert.
One day, he discussed his blossoming coke operation with his tennis teacher, who hooked him up with some of his own drug connections – these were the 1980s after all. His connections were people from Nicaragua, a war-torn country in Central America, who had access to copious high-quality quantities of the white powder.
Powder which by now had evolved into a rock. It was called crack and more potent than powder cocaine. You smoked it and away you went. Ross’ crew called it “Ready Rock” and it, as they themselves said, put them “on a whole different level.”
“I’m gonna be running Los Angeles,” Ross remembers telling his associates back then. “I wanna be powerful, be strong, be respected. I want people to say: ‘Man, that dude makes things happen.’ I’m on a fast track. I ain’t getting high, I don’t smoke. And I just kept moving up the ladder. Until I got to Blandòn.”
Danilo Blandòn was a high-level drug lord from Nicaragua who handled business in the United States. Once Ross and his crew linked up with Blandòn, the price of a brick of cocaine went down substantially. He also schooled them in the business, teaching them about the product, guns, and security.
Supporting the Contras
Unbeknownst to Ross at that time, Blandòn wasn’t just a drug boss. He was much more. He was a financier of a covert war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This contra-revolution was fought by several groups of rebels who joined forces. They were labeled Contras and were supported by the United States government led by President Ronald Reagan.
He authorized the CIA to help the Contras with funding, weapons, and training. During the campaign to win back their country, they violated many human rights. Around 30,000 people were killed during this civil war. After word of the gruesome acts reached the United States, by 1985, congress cut off funding and military support for the Contras.
This did not sit well with the contras. Nor did it with President Reagan. His administration began illegally funding them by covertly selling weapons to Iran. It was a huge scandal which became known as the Iran-Contra affair and resulted in felony convictions for several members of President Reagan’s administration.
In November 1986, one month after the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Blandòn walked on drug charges against him and applied for permanent residence in the United States. Meanwhile, he continued his cocaine trafficking and sent the money he made back to Nicaragua where it was used by the Contras to wage their vicious war.
Ross was doing his part, selling a million dollars’ worth of cocaine a day. “My only goal in life was get as rich as I could, as fast as I could, so I could get out the game,” he says about that time.
The reasons for this are obvious. Drug bosses never have a happy ending. It’s prison or death. When corrupt cops tried to catch Ross by planting drugs on him, he decided he needed a break. Not from the drug business. Just a different scenery perhaps. He left Los Angeles and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, from where he set up franchises of his crack cocaine empire in cities across America.
He did not discriminate, if you put up money, he sold you product. He sold to everyone, anywhere. From the Bloods to the Crips. Ross made it snow and rain for everyone. From the United States to Nicaragua.
But as his success grew, so did his profile. He became a well-known kingpin. Authorities turned up the heat. Other gangsters opted to become an informant and share intel about “Freeway Ricky.” By the fall of 1988, Ross was standing at a construction site overseeing one of his properties when he noticed police. He made a run for it as bullets flew by.
Police caught him hiding in a closet in a house. Their dog bit him in his leg. When he kicked the dog, the cops beat him to a pulp. The high life had come to an official end.
It would’ve been a fitting end for a life of crime, but life isn’t fair or balanced. It’s crooked. As Ross already knew. He also knew about a bunch of crooked cops and was willing to testify to help send those fellas off to prison. His testimony helped his own case as well. From photos of the injuries he sustained during his arrest to the story about drugs being planted, it all managed to sow doubt in jurors’ minds. His case ended in a hung jury. He would only serve 4 years in prison and was released in 1992.
Once out, he returned to the streets to do community work. He’s a changed man, he claimed. Until one day he got a phone call from his old pal Blandòn. He’s in trouble and needs help. Could Ross help him move 100 kilos of cocaine?
It’s the ultimate dilemma. Like Michael Corleone said: “Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in.” To quote another line from that movie trilogy: “They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Confronted with a friend in need and the prospect of an extremely profitable drug deal – Blandòn offered Ross cocaine at $10,000 per kilo – Ross contacted a friend to discuss the offer. Months went by. Ross and his friend were unsure. Both had left that life and weren’t eager to get back in. Until they finally decided it was too good an offer to turn down.
They got together $300,000 and set up the meet with Blandòn. As the pair handed over the money, they were quickly surrounded by federal agents. Blandòn had made a deal with the DEA. In return for a sentence reduction, the Nicaraguan would lure his old pal into a deal so authorities could lock him up and throw away the key.
In 1996, a jury found Ross guilty. He was sentenced to life without parole.
Though he got life without parole and found himself surrounded by steel bars and concrete, in his mind Ross remained free. He got life, but he didn’t accept life. Inside, he cleaned cells for $7 bucks. Inmates got a kick out of seeing the drug kingpin do that. Ross could care less. He had bigger things in mind. He studied. Beginning with the alphabet. Now in his late 20s, he was finally learning to read and write.
All day he read and studied. He started reading faster. Then it became fun. “Why was I afraid?” he later recounts about his fear of picking up a book and learning to read. Sure, young kids can be ridiculed by others for their love of books or reading, but what does that do? How can things change if you keep your mind small?
“Going with the flow can be dangerous,” Ross explains. Older drug dealers would tell him: ‘Oh homie, you shouldn’t be playing tennis. That’s for sissies. This is what you should be doing.’ Ross: “Yeah, I made a lot of money. I made more money than I thought I could spend. But they didn’t tell my I’d do 20 years in prison. Didn’t tell me I’d be away from my family. That my kids would grow up without a father. I didn’t know about all that. I didn’t know that in order for me to drive a big car with big wheels on it that somebody else’s kid had to go hungry.”
He realized this too late. But he kept on reading, kept on studying. Then he read three magical words that set him free: Continuous criminal spree. He was handed a life sentence under the infamous “three strikes” law, but according to the court, the judge could not count Ross’ previous convictions in Ohio and Texas as separate crimes instead of a single conspiracy.
Ross challenged the use of the “three strikes” law in his case and the court agreed. His sentence was overturned and reduced from life without parole to 20 years. On September 29, 2009, he was released on federal parole.
"My name is my name!"
Outside, he came home to a changed world. One in which someone else had gotten rich off his name and reputation. A former prison guard by the name of William Leonard Roberts II had made it big as a rapper under the name “Rick Ross” and presented himself as a Florida cocaine kingpin.
“Freeway” Ross filed a suit against the hip hop artist in 2010, demanding $10 million for appropriating his name. The court battle lasted three years, until in 2014 a judge ruled in favor of William Leonard Roberts II. The rapper’s action is protected under the First Amendment, the verdict read.
In the underworld your name is everything. Ross worked hard and risked a lot to build his name. Not just in a world filled with killers and drug lords, but simply in a neighborhood filled with other boys named Rick.
“Growing up in South Central there were a lot of Ricks so I stayed by the freeway and they started saying Rick that stays by the freeway,” Ross said during a radio interview. Later police and media gave another spin to it, claiming it was derived from his high-priced real estate investments along the Los Angeles Harbor Freeway. “But at first, when it started, it was just the guys in the neighborhood. You know there was a Fat Rick, a Skinny Rick, and a Rick stay by the Freeway.”
A man’s name is not just his name. It’s his legacy. “Freeway” Rick Ross continues building that legacy with new legitimate business ventures and speaking engagements at schools and prisons about the dangers of the drug world.
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