Buried secrets 

Ken Creslaw paces the living room of his house on Hazelton Street on Detroit’s northwest side. He is antsy, can’t sit still. He gets like this recalling the day he watched his deranged grandmother pump a slug into the chest of his brother Ricky.

It happened right here, in this house.

Ken is a burly guy who favors black T-shirts, boots and jeans. But he’s not as tough as he looks. For years he had flashbacks and couldn’t sleep without sedatives. He buried the pain so deeply that he can barely access it. The past weighs on him. And he knows it.

“I’m a psychological mess,” he says. “I’m a good dude, but I’m a mess.”

Ken hasn’t told his story in any detail since he and his brother Larry told the cops what they saw on a frosty winter day in 1969. Ken was 11. Larry was 14.

Ricky was 16, the firstborn. He was a spirited, likable teenager. He had big dreams.

Ken wonders how Ricky might have turned out.

Hell, he can’t help but wonder how he might have turned out if his grandmother, Volla Winfrey, had not cut Ricky down.

The killing sent the family into a tailspin.

Ken did hard time for firearms possession and selling drugs. He doesn’t fault anyone for the choices he made. And he knows he is lucky compared to his brother Larry.

Larry turned into a real bad ass. He’s serving three life sentences. He killed two people, right out there on Hazelton Street.

Nobody did any time for killing Ricky.

There was no trial. Grandma went free. Ken and Larry suspect that their late father, a Detroit detective, had something to do with keeping his mother-in-law out of jail.

The family said the killing was an accident. That’s what Bill Lesniac was told. He was Ricky’s friend and still lives in the neighborhood.

“There was no trial. Nothing like that happened,” says Lesniac. “It was like Ricky never existed, I guess.”

The Creslaws

Six days before Christmas in 1969. Modest brick homes with icy porches line Hazelton Street. It is late afternoon and the Creslaw boys are home from school.

Ricky corners Kenny in the hallway. He tickles his little brother and wrestles him to the floor. Kenny giggles and tries to break free. He is big for 11 years old, but not strong enough to escape Ricky’s grip.

Larry laughs as he watches from the living room. He normally would help Kenny take on their big brother. But Larry is on crutches for a broken leg. Yet even on two legs, Larry is no match for Ricky. Ricky’s almost a man. He plays baseball, hockey and earned a varsity football letter at Redford High School.

Ricky is a typical product of the culture of the 1960s. He drives a blue Volkswagen bug. He loves Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf and plays guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band. Tickling notwithstanding, he’s a good brother.

Kenny worships Ricky, wants to be like him. Kenny wants to be a musician. He covets his brother’s record collection. He wants to play sports and ride a Harley to California like Ricky plans to do. Ricky got the idea from a favorite movie, Easy Rider.

Their father, who patrolled the streets on a Harley Davidson for the Detroit Police Department, turned the boys on to two-wheeling. Chester Creslaw loves motorcycles and bought motorized scooters for his sons. Ricky has been saving to buy a Harley Davidson since he was 14, when he started working for a lawn-care company. He also spends his earnings on Christmas gifts. He’s bought Kenny a hockey stick and puck and baseball glove; the packages are under the Christmas tree.

Ricky is a bit of a paradox. He’s a serious, quiet kid with a steady girlfriend. And while he likes rock music and motorcycles, the revolutionary times, the anti-war movement, have not captured his fancy. He’s an all-American boy. He and some pals have already enlisted in the Navy and plan to fight together in Vietnam.

Once they’ve finished school, they’ll ride their motorcycles to California together. Then they’ll go off to kill commies.

In some ways, Ricky has been a surrogate father to Larry and Ken since their father moved out. Their parents divorced after dad had a two-week affair with a 15-year-old babysitter — whom he would marry years later.

Yet the boys remain close to their dad, who’s stationed at a nearby precinct and often visits them. Kenny frequently calls the precinct to talk to his dad and the other officers. Dad wants Kenny to be a cop and is crestfallen when he learns that his son is colorblind and can’t distinguish between red and green traffic lights.

It doesn’t bother Kenny. He has no interest in being a cop. He’s really into music and wants to be a radio disc jockey. He records songs from the radio and introduces them to his pretend audience. Ricky and Larry get a kick out of the homemade tapes. Their mom, Patricia Creslaw, saves them.

Patricia is crazy about her sons but can’t give them the attention they need. A registered nurse, she often is tired and stressed about money. Patricia is at work when the boys get out of school, so she’s arranged for her mother, Volla Winfrey, a tough Kentucky woman who lives on Detroit’s east side, to look after them till she gets home.

Grandma is beyond comprehension. Ma Barker’s got nothing on her.

She drinks too much and talks to herself. Her hearing aid whistles. Furthermore, she’s imbued with the gun culture of her upbringing. She keeps a gun with her. She’s crazy, and the boys know it all too well. She whacked Kenny in the head with a butter knife on his birthday because she thought he’d cussed at her. She brandished her .38 and pistol-whipped Larry with it.

Patricia, who was abused by her mother as a child, does not heed the boys’ pleas to be freed of Grandma.

Grandma always was a mean drunk, says Arlene Flagg, Patricia’s cousin. Flagg says when Volla was a girl, she’d steal money from old people. She once jammed a fork in her husband’s forehead at Thanksgiving dinner.

Ken and Larry Creslaw’s grandmother and parents aren’t here to tell their sides of the story. They’ve all passed away. They were preceded in death by Ricky.

The shooting

On Dec. 19, 1969, Grandma is home with the boys, watching soap operas in the living room. She reeks of whiskey.

Larry sits with her and laughs as Ricky tickles Ken on the hallway floor. Grandma shrieks at Ricky. Larry assures her that his brothers are playing. She ignores him and heads for Ricky. She tries to smack him, but he grabs her hand. You aren’t going to hit me, he says.

Grandma orders Ricky to his room. He slams the door shut. Larry and Kenny are told to go to their room.

Larry sees Grandma pull her .38 from her purse. It’s wrapped in a handkerchief. She heads for Ricky’s room. She’s got her gun, Larry shouts. Ken follows her to their mother’s room and watches Grandma load the gun. Kenny cries, Grandma, please stop, please. She orders him to his bedroom. He is afraid to argue and obeys. He’s 11. He doesn’t believe she will shoot her own flesh and blood. He and Larry crack their door to keep an eye on Grandma.

They see her kick open Ricky’s door. Ricky turns as Grandma fires. The slug enters his right shoulder and rips through his aorta and both lungs. It lodges in his chest.

Larry and Kenny burst in. They smell gunpowder. Ricky slides against the wall and crumples to the floor.

Grandma walks away, muttering to herself. Her hearing aid whistles. Ricky holds his chest with his hands and gasps for air and stares at his little brothers.

You’re going to be OK, Ricky, they assure him. Kenny puts his hand on Ricky’s back to comfort him. Blood gushes onto the floor.

Larry tells Kenny to hide. He fears that Grandma will also shoot him. Kenny doesn’t listen. He goes to the kitchen to call the police. Grandma hits him on the head with the butt of her gun. Don’t you call the law, boy, she warns. Kenny tries to make her understand that Ricky could die. You shot Ricky, Grandma. You shot Ricky.

I did? Let me hide this gun, she says. Kenny follows her. She goes to the basement and places the gun in a pickle crock.

Kenny calls the precinct. The cop who answers knows Kenny well and thinks he is joking. I’ll call your dad if you don’t stop making prank calls. He hangs up twice before realizing that Kenny is telling the truth.

Larry is in the bedroom with Ricky, who is bleeding profusely. An ambulance arrives and rushes Ricky to the hospital. He’s DOA.

Grandma goes to the hospital as well. When the police show up, she collapses. It’s termed a heart attack, but she recovers.

As expected, cops are swarming over the Creslaw house. Grandma’s dog, Smokey, takes refuge under her ’64 Rambler, where it barks and growls and resists all efforts to restrain it. One cop pulls out his gun and takes aim at the dog. Kenny is on the front porch, crying, begging the officer not to harm Smokey. Another officer intervenes, shouting, Don’t you think these kids have seen enough?

Kenny and Larry are taken to the 1st Precinct. Investigators tell the boys that Ricky will recover.

They tell the officers exactly what they’ve witnessed. They separate the boys and ask them again to describe what happened. Their stories don’t vary. They are asked again and again to provide their accounts. They sign written statements.

The officers contact their mom at work. She gets on the phone and tells the boys not to talk or sign anything.

Too late. Kenny tells his mom everything is going to be OK, Ricky is alive, they got the bullet out. No, Kenny, she says, Ricky is dead. Kenny sobs and hangs up the phone. He yells at the officers, You lied, you lied. A tear rolls down one cop’s face.

Their dad arrives at the precinct. Kenny watches as the officers shake their heads and whisper to him.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office could not produce any documents pertaining to Ricky Creslaw’s death. They might have been purged. Yet it’s possible the prosecutor’s office had no records. The Detroit police would have had to bring charges against Winfrey and ask prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant. It’s not clear if that ever happened.

Metro Times requested all police records regarding Ricky’s death from the city Law Department three weeks ago. Nothing turned up.

However, Metro Times did locate one Detroit police sergeant’s account of the shooting. That document was in a file maintained by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The day Ricky was shot, the sergeant wrote, “From the statements of the witnesses, it appears that an argument developed this afternoon between Richard Creslaw and Mrs. Winfrey (Richard’s grandmother). Richard went into a rear bedroom. Lawrence and Kenneth ran into another bedroom, heard a shot and then found Richard lying in the bedroom. …”

If Winfrey ever had been charged, the prosecutors might have been able to make a first-degree murder charge. A few days before the shooting, she’d told her niece, Arlene Flagg, during a phone conversation that she intended to kill Ricky if he pestered Kenny. Flagg tells Metro Times that Winfrey said, “I won’t let him do that. I’ll kill him before I do that. I have a .38 in my hip pocket.”

Though she knew her aunt had a mean streak, Flagg didn’t believe her. She’s always carried a gun and was given to idle threats.

After investigators are through with Kenny and Larry, their dad takes them home. He makes Kenny clean up Ricky’s blood.

Larry

The first time Larry drops acid is at Ricky’s funeral. He is 14. Crowds of crying kids, including the whole Redford High football team, mourn Ricky.

Larry is a wreck. Months after the funeral, Larry’s mom sends him to Hawthorn Center in Northville, a psychiatric hospital for children and teens. He spends five months there. The public schools don’t want him. He already has been held back two grades and can’t read or write. Now he’s agitated. Larry fights with kids at Hawthorn. He meets with a psychiatrist. They never talk about Ricky. Larry avoids the subject. It’s a dark secret.

His mom takes him out of Hawthorn. He starts seventh grade, but skips school and doesn’t finish the year. His parents have no control over him. He’s running wild. His dad uses his connections to keep him out of jail when he’s arrested for breaking and entering.

Unlike Ricky, Larry is small, an easy target. Ricky used to protect him. But with Ricky gone, Larry must fend for himself. Weary of being bullied, he starts using chains and knives for protection.

His dad can’t save him all the time. Larry spends six months in jail after he’s convicted of smashing a party-store window to steal beer. By the time he’s 16, Larry spends most nights in bars. He uses Ricky’s driver’s license to get in. His life is booze, drugs, motorcycles, guns and girls.

When he is 19, he goes to jail again for fighting with his mom and Ken. The police send him to Northville State Hospital for three days because he threatens to kill himself. Court records cite “extreme agitation and violent irritability.”

Bad as things are for Larry, the worst is yet to come.

Another shooting

It’s Oct. 4, 1977. Cops have surrounded the Nugget Restaurant on Grand River near Telegraph. Larry is inside.

Ken is outside the restaurant, in the back seat of an unmarked police car. The police have brought Ken along to help them get Larry. Ken sees a black truck pull up. Men with high-powered rifles get out. The last one to exit wears cowboy boots and a safari hat. Ken listens to him and the commanding officer discuss how they are going to take down Larry.

They’re after him because he’s shot three people — two of them fatally — and fled to the restaurant.

Larry wears jeans and a leather jacket. He has no shirt and is barefooted.

Inside the diner, he can’t see Ken or the cops or the man in the safari hat. But he knows it’s only a matter of time. When he arrives, he calls his mom and tells her he’s at the restaurant, unarmed. When he hangs up, he takes a seat at the counter, orders a cup of coffee and waits.

He confides to an elderly man that the police are after him. He tells him that he’s going to jail and offers the old man his switchblade, his only valuable possession. The old man takes the weapon. He and the other patrons are clueless. It’s dark outside. They can’t see the cops and sharpshooters. They don’t know that Larry shot three people. And they don’t know that the police plan to shoot him.

One of Larry’s victims was a friend.

The two party together all day and into the night. They wind up at a bar, where Larry threatens a guy with a gun. The guy’s sister stands between Larry and her brother and tells him he’ll have to shoot her first. He backs down. No one is hurt.

But Larry’s friend is angry. At about 3 a.m., the friend and three other guys show up at the house on Hazelton. All four grew up with Larry and Ken. One of them hits Larry in the nose with a tire iron when he opens the door.

Larry goes outside. He cracks a joke to ease the tension. It doesn’t work. The four guys surround him in the street. Larry panics and shoots one in the head. When his friend comes at him, he gets it in the head too. A neighbor hears the gunshot and runs toward Larry to see what is happening. He shoots the neighbor in the face and stomach.

He heads inside the house and tells Ken to call an ambulance, then splits. He winds up at the diner.

The sharpshooter looks across Grand River through the scope of his rifle. Ken watches from the unmarked police car. The officers act as though Ken isn’t even there. The sharpshooter leans on the car hood and calculates with pad and pen the likelihood of hitting Larry. Satisfied, he spits on the bullet and loads it in the chamber. He tells his commander he can’t miss.

The commander wants to let him shoot. But Larry is sitting too close to a restaurant employee. He gets Ken get out of the car to call the diner from a pay phone. They want him to tell his brother to move away from the employee.

They don’t know that he has already watched one brother die, that he’s not going to let another get shot. When they hand him the phone, Ken shouts into the receiver, Larry, get down, they got sharpshooters on you.

Cops tackle Ken. Get this piece of shit out here, the commander says.

Larry hangs up the phone and returns to his seat in the diner. Another man sits down and orders toast and coffee. He listens to Larry talk to another patron about the shootings. It’s clear Larry isn’t going to put up a fight. After about 20 minutes, the newcomer shows Larry his badge and arrests him.

Larry pleads guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder and is sentenced to life in prison for each shooting with possible parole in 10 to 12 years. The terms are to be served concurrently.

He has been in prison for 25 years when he talks with Metro Times.

“It’s a painful place to grow old,” says Larry, who was recently transferred from a maximum-security prison in Standish to the Ryan facility in Detroit.

He is slight, with narrow shoulders. Long, thinning hair frames his face.

Two weeks after he was sentenced, his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter. She’d had their first child two years before that, but the baby was given up for adoption. Larry does not know where he is.

Larry met his second child just last year. She writes and sends photos of his 1-year-old grandson.

Ken visits when he can, giving him money for cigarettes and toothpaste. When Larry was housed in the Upper Peninsula’s Marquette prison, Ken visited a couple times a month.

“Ken has always been loyal,” says Larry. “That’s one thing I’m grateful for.”

When he talks about the crimes that landed him in prison, his voice quiets and his face darkens. He’s had a lot of time to think.

For a long time, he says, “I thought my dad could get me out of anything.”

He knows he destroyed lives, including the parents of the young men he killed.

“I always wanted to apologize, but what can you say?” asks Larry. “I didn’t want them to think I was seeking absolution. I know what it felt like to lose my brother, and I know there was no peace I could bring, and saying sorry wouldn’t help them.”

Since he has been incarcerated, Larry has taught himself to read and write. He studies Buddhism.

“I do believe in karma,” he says. “You reap what you sow.”

Ken

Ricky’s death casts a pall over everything for Kenny and Larry. The neighborhood shuns them. Their playmates are not allowed in their house and they are not welcome at theirs. As he gets older, Ken befriends rejects and drug addicts who cut class and ride motorcycles. He doesn’t know how to relate to anyone else. He doesn’t have a single date throughout high school.

When he is 13, Ken sells weed out of his mother’s basement. When he is 18, he is caught selling hashish. If he stays clean for a year, which he does, it doesn’t go on his record. He manages to graduate from Redford High School in 1977.

He gets into selling cocaine and other hard drugs. He buys a Harley and joins a motorcycle club. He wears leather vests and boots and always has a wad of cash in his pocket. Ken throws lavish parties. He rents suites at the Westin Hotel in the Renaissance Center. To entertain his friends, he sells raffle tickets for a dollar. The winner gets a pound of weed.

The party ends in 1988, when he is busted for selling cocaine, LSD and PCP. He is sentenced to five years and serves about three at a federal penitentiary in Minnesota.

He writes Larry and his parents. His parents don’t visit because of the distance.

His dad dies of cancer in 1989, while Ken is in prison. The police department sends him off with a Harley Davidson brigade.

When Ken gets out, he works at a sheet metal company, earning decent wages.

His grandma dies in 1991 of heart failure.

Soon after she killed Ricky, Grandma gets born again and preaches fire and brimstone to anyone who will listen. She sobers up, buys two homes in Brighton and converts one into an adult foster care home for handicapped men. Ken and his mother bury her in Kentucky.

In 1994, Ken is arrested for carrying a gun, which is illegal for felons. He is sentenced to five years, but he gets another year tacked on because he fights with another inmate and puts his eye out. The target of his wrath had been picking on an elderly friend of Ken’s. Ken is put into solitary confinement for 34 months.

While there, his mother dies of heart failure. There is no one to claim her body for 11 days.

The house

Eight years after his mother’s death, Ken still can’t bring himself to unpack her belongings. Or dispose of them. The boxes are full of memories he wants to avoid. They sit in the garage and a bedroom of the house on Hazelton.

After Ricky was killed, “We should have moved,” says Ken.

He knows some of his neighbors from when he was a kid, but he keeps to himself. He lives a quiet, solitary life.

When he got out of prison, he borrowed money from friends to go to trucking school. He thought it would suit him since he could work alone. It gave him a steady income for a while, but he’s had difficulty getting a full-time job. When employers find out he did time, they won’t hire him. Job-hunting terrifies him.

“I’d rather get into a fistfight than go to a job interview,” he says.

His confidence is shot. He’s always felt that he wasn’t good enough, especially after the neighborhood and relatives turned their backs on him and Larry after Ricky’s death.

“It’s kind of a lonely existence,” says Ken. “I don’t want any sympathy. I’m sure there are a lot of people in my situation.”

He pets his cat, Dudey, whom he and a friend rescued from a trash bin. Ken has a soft spot for vulnerable creatures. He feeds her well.

Ken cooks to relax. He bought a blender to make salsa. He would like to have his own mobile kitchen and sell barbecue ribs and chicken at festivals. He did it years ago and loved it.

“I wouldn’t mind putting in 18 to 20 hours a day into something that’s mine,” he says.

On the wall there’s a photo of him in prison with his buddies.

“Some of the most honorable people I know are incarcerated,” he says. “I miss a lot of these guys. But I hate to go back and see them.”

On the other wall is a photo of Larry.

Ricky’s photo is buried in his mother’s photo albums. Ken thumbs through them. He finds a certificate that Ricky earned when he was a safety crossing guard in junior high school. Ken stares at the certificate and the photos of his family.

He says, “When Larry and I are gone, there won’t be anyone left to remember Ricky.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at (313) 202-8015 or amullen@metrotimes.com

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