The family

Mar 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory and his younger brother, Terry "Southwest T," started as street-level cocaine dealers working out of their family home on Detroit's southwest side in the early 1990s. With business genius, luck and the unquestioned loyalty of associates, they morphed into the Atlanta-based "Black Mafia Family" organization, which the federal officials who eventually laid the family low call one of the biggest cocaine operations ever out of the Motor City. The case of drugs, money, music and murder are now the subject of a book-length account. 

In Atlanta, Meech sought a "legitimate" career in the music business with BMF Entertainment, his hip-hop label, which signed the artist Bleu DaVinci and was associated, for a time, with Young Jeezy. Success in music would justify his lavish lifestyle and legitimize showing it off. Law enforcement would leave him alone, his thinking went.

The more reclusive Terry eventually moved his branch of the family business to Los Angeles, where he received massive coke shipments. "Product" would move on to Atlanta, Detroit and St. Louis via private jets, tricked-out limos and the U.S. mail.

The Flenorys' organization included a loyal army of employees and associates that included the son-in-law of an Atlanta mayor and others with ties to sports stars, musicians, successful businessmen and celebs.

Like many such empires, BMF eventually crumbled under the weight of lengthy federal and local investigations and internal strife; high-profile shootings, murders and other crimes focused unwanted attention on the BMF members.

While the bulk of the operation and investigations were in Atlanta, the indictments, pleas and sentencing were handled from federal offices and courts in Detroit, a symbolic nod to the city where it all started.

The Flenory brothers are now serving 30-year prison terms for their roles in BMF. In all, about 150 associates have been convicted and are serving hundreds of years, all told, in prison.

In 2006, Mara Shalhoup, then-news editor of an alternative weekly newspaper in Atlanta, Creative Loafing, where she is now editor in chief, published a three-part series that earned her a Journalist of the Year award from the Atlanta Press Club. In 2007, Metro Times ran the second installment — the most Detroit-centric — as a cover story.

Shalhoup started her book as the series came out and continued to report on the "family" until the brothers' sentencing in 2008. BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family, is being released this week. 

Shalhoup talked to Metro Times about her book, BMF and the case's significance. 

Metro Times
: How did BMF become a story for you?

Mara Shalhoup: Meech was doing this heavy promotion around Atlanta, using billboards, so I was very familiar with them as a hip-hop entity. Then I got a call from a woman whose son was killed by BMF. Her son had delivered papers for Creative Loafing, so she had some sort of vague connection. It was a kind of random call, but she was talking about a high-profile killing that I recalled. Still, I thought, "This organized crime ring called Black Mafia Family killed your son?" That sounded crazy, but I started checking. At that point, it was in the court file but hadn't been reported. I was in the course of research when the indictments were issued.

MT: A couple of the chapters involve interviews with Meech in prison, but why didn't you incorporate his voice more throughout the book?

Shalhoup: His voice wasn't in there as much because in the facilities you get 30 minutes per visit, and he only got a few visits a week. They don't let you bring in tape recorders, so I only had handwritten notes, which is not my preference. The time I got to spend was limited, but I wanted to use a lot of what he told me as scene setting.

MT: And Terry never talked to you?

Shalhoup: I tried to reach out to him through his attorney, but they put me off.

MT: To what extent was Meech's big-spending lifestyle his undoing?

Shalhoup: You need to have that kind of excess and flash to make it in that world, but if you're showing that much of it before you have legitimate earnings, you're a magnet for the feds. Wrangling with that ended up being a big problem for him.

MT: Why did you take such a matter-of-fact writing style in the book?

Shalhoup: I didn't want to glamorize the cocaine scene. I didn't want to glamorize the police either. I was trying to do more like an observation of those worlds without taking sides in them.

MT: Could a BMF happen again?

Shalhoup: I'm hearing these rumblings of claims of a new BMF in Detroit. There are people who are active but not in the same organized, kingpin, highly structured kind of way BMF was. People are claiming to be BMF on the street level in Detroit, which makes sense because the Flenorys came up from the street level in Detroit. They were never street-level in Atlanta. They were never the guys on the corner selling in Atlanta. They came in here at the top. So in Detroit, there's a lot of their network, further down the chain of command. It arguably could happen again. It has a better chance of happening again in Detroit than in Atlanta.

Excerpt from
BMF: The rise and fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family
by Mara Shalhoup
St. Martin's Press, $24.99, 304 pp.

At its height, the Black Mafia Family (BMF) had distributed several thousand kilos a month. But compared with the Mexican cartels, a couple thousand keys was nothing. One of the cartels in Atlanta had 16,000 kilos seized. The feds also accumulated $22 million of the cartel's cash, setting a record for the amount of drug money confiscated from a single crew in the city. As one federal officer put it, the Mexican cartels "could wipe their feet on BMF." In the end, the dismantling of the Black Mafia Family in Atlanta was merely the eradication of the middleman, an opportunity for Mexican cocaine importers to extend their ever-expanding reach.

The situation was a bit different in Detroit, BMF's second-largest distribution hub. In the Flenorys' hometown, BMF, as a brand, had trickled further down the food chain, to mid-level and street-level dealers who claimed allegiance to the crew. Those dealers held the same positions that Meech and Terry occupied more than a decade earlier. (Atlanta had known BMF only as the city's top players; thus Atlanta's lower-tier guys, while in awe of the BMF, had less personal connection to the crew.) The young Detroit dealers clashed over who would step into the Flenorys' void. It stood to reason that every Detroit dealer aspired to be the next Big Meech or Southwest T. But the battle to succeed BMF's top players was messy and unorganized. While the myth of BMF was still strong, the organization itself — the cocaine-processing labs and fleets of tricked-out limos and handsome stash houses and piles and piles and piles of cash — had withered away. BMF's army of couriers and distributors had fractured, and the lieutenants who'd directed them were AWOL. It was no surprise, then, that no successor emerged. There was no real infrastructure to inherit. One of the only tangible signs of the Flenorys' fading empire were three spray-pained letters — B-M-F — that graced highway overpasses in Detroit.

Detroit was where Meech and Terry's cocaine enterprise started, and Detroit would be where it came to an end. By the fall of 2007, nearly all the defendants who'd been indicted along with the Flenorys had pleaded guilty. (Another 23 had been charged in a second Detroit indictment, most of whom eventually would plead guilty as well.) Charles Flenory, Meech and Terry's father, fessed up to a money-laundering charge, and New York's Jacob "the Jeweler" Arabov admitted to lying to federal agents. Both men received less than three years in prison. Almost everyone else received far stiffer sentences — the longest of which went to Meech's second-in-command Chad "J-Bo" Brown. J-Bo, who pleaded guilty in the summer of 2007, refused to cooperate with the feds. He got 15 years. Ultimately, a mere five of the 40-plus defendants indicted with the Flenorys, including the brothers themselves, were still standing when the November 2007 trial date approached.

Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]