Berry Jr.'s past is not all sorrow and unhappiness. He says he worked hard to keep his family together after Yolanda Williams, the mother of four of six his children, wasted away in a spiral of addiction. Williams, in a separate interview, confirms this.
It was Berry who went Christmas shopping for the kids when Williams was too strung out to leave the house, or when she used money he gave her, intended for the gas and electric bills, to get high. It was Berry who enrolled the kids in school, then eventually sent them to live in New York for several years with his sister, Rose, while he tried to make Williams go through rehabilitation. It was Berry who gathered his family in the living room to laugh each Sunday, to sing along to Boyz II Men songs, to celebrate their love for one another.
"It was the happiest time of my life," Berry Jr. says. "I'll always remember how much fun that was. I would do anything for my family. I'd kill for them. But at the same time, I know I'm the one that hurt them the most."
Before he has to return to his cell, he carefully unfolds a letter his son wrote to him in sixth grade, shortly after Berry Jr. was locked up. It hurts to read it aloud, but he does so anyway.
"Dad: I love you from the bottom of my heart. I will keep my head up and look for the stars because I believe in miracles. Don't get in no trouble in there. Get knowledge and come home and teach me. I love you and will do anything to get you out of there. When you get home, please don't go back out on them streets."
Berry Jr. finishes reading. He folds the letter again and places it on his lap. Visiting hours are almost over. For several seconds, he does not speak. Sunlight pours through the window, but it stops several feet short of his chair.
His eyes are filled with tears, but he will not let them fall.
Mother: "I', an addict'
Most Sunday mornings, perhaps even on a Sunday morning like this, Yolanda Williams will sit in church and ask God to give her strength. The strength to stay clean.
It's been almost 10 years, she says, since her last high. But she still battles the urge to stick a needle in her arm, and suspects that she always will. Months ago, for the first time in years, she got the horrible, seductive urge that all former heroin addicts are familiar with. She could taste it in the back of her mouth. Her stomach did somersaults. It scared her. She couldn't understand. After all this time, why was her body still begging her to get high?
"I just went and prayed on it," says Williams, 39. "I went to my church on Mount Olive and prayed on it, every Sunday, until it went away. I talked to my neighbors about it, to my co-workers about it, and to my children. I'm an addict. I have to talk about it. It's part of my sanity. I don't care who knows. I couldn't understand why, after all these years, I was getting that taste again. Eventually it went away on its own."
Williams' voice, and her entire body, shakes when she tells this story. Tears slide down her face, until her daughter, Tanganyika, hands her a paper towel to wipe them away. Her son sits next to her, but his expression does not change. He stares straight ahead, chewing gum, staring at the wall. Berry has heard these stories before. He can remember going through much of it. It is difficult to listen to her relive so many painful moments.
Her round cheeks still bear faint scars from her days as an addict. At her lowest point, when she stopped caring how she looked and only cared where her drugs were coming from, she began to claw at her face with her nails. A nervous habit; she was constantly nervous. When her face scabbed over, she scraped and picked at the scabs. But the worst scars are the memories. And the shame that comes with them.
"Little Berry and I always been so close. He never wanted to leave my side," Williams says, still dabbing tears from her face. "Ever. So when he was real little, I'd go into the bathroom to shoot up, and I'd have to tell him, `OK, turn your back.' "
Sometimes, Berry Jr. would give his son money and tell him to go to his grandmother's house. Little Berry would give half to his mother. He knew she would buy drugs with it. He didn't want to see her in pain. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her.
Addiction's vicious hold
For as long as Williams can remember, drug addiction, and its fallout, has played a role in her life. Her mother, she says, dealt drugs. Her father used them. Two of her brothers, she says, were killed as a result of drug-related violence. She fell in love with a drug dealer, bore his children and got high from his supply. For decades, the Baltimore drug trade was a whirlpool, slowly dragging her or another family member into its deep, violent waters.
She stole, she lied, she took her kids with her into hellish neighborhoods where people walked around like ghouls, telling the kids to wait around the corner while she went to get drugs. She even staged a fake robbery at the house she and Berry Jr. shared, turning over tables, tearing apart her belongings and ripping down clothes from the closets, just so Berry Jr. wouldn't suspect she was the one who stole his money and drugs. When her family tried to send her to detoxification, she said goodbye to her children, who were to live with Berry Jr.'s sister in Montecello, N.Y. Williams slipped out the back door of the treatment facility seconds later, knowing it would be awhile before she saw them again.
It took a long time to get clean. But she can remember, vividly, when it happened. On Oct. 13, 1996, she says she was arrested trying to buy heroin on Towanda Avenue. She gave police an alias. After a night in jail, they released her. Less than 24 hours later, the same police officer arrested her again, she says. This time police ran all her aliases, as well as her real name. A probation violation, five years old, turned up. She was sentenced to a year in prison, and spent six months in Jessup. Prisoner No. 914346.
When she got out, Williams knew she had to stay clean if she ever wanted to get her children back. Little Berry missed her so much, he broke every rule he could think of, hoping his aunt would give up in frustration and send him back to Baltimore to live with his mother. Even when Williams had to stay in her mother's house, with no gas, no heat and rats slowly taking over, she didn't return to selling drugs. She knew she could make enough money by flipping a small package to pay the bills, but she wouldn't do it. Instead, a friend offered her a minimum-wage job at an optical center, and when she passed a drug test, she was hired.
James Berry III is in the fight of his life
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