The aged hustler steps free with none of the power and riches he had commanded in his youth, just two duffel bags under his arms. The doors to the halfway house lock behind him.
Maurice King looks out from the gritty eastern edge of Baltimore.
A half-mile from here, he built his empire. In those destitute streets, he sported diamonds and furs. Back then, he thought nothing of a flight to Las Vegas to see a Sugar Ray Leonard fight or to stroll Beverly Hills and buy a woman an $1,800 silk dress. When he sat enthroned for a photo at the famed Odell’s nightclub, he was slim and sharp as a knife.
That photo was many years ago. He’s a grandfather now, 65 years old, thicker and grayer, too. He’s one of the last old kingpins to come home.
King had been the benefactor of a proud, working-class neighborhood — and the man whose heroin helped bring it to ruin.
“You were dealing in human misery," the federal judge said before ordering him to prison for decades. “The money came out of the pockets of poor black addicts.”
King paid the government 37 years for his crimes. Now he says he wants to pay back the community, or what’s left of it. He speaks of conquering the streets again — only the words on his lips are jobs, equality, education. Another word, too: amends.
The rain clouds hang dark and heavy above his head. He comes down the steps in a black tracksuit and moccasins. All these years later, he’s still wearing his trademark slippers in the street. This June morning, no entourage waits for him, just one woman.
In the parking lot, Robin Brown leans on her car door to smoke a cigarette and remember. She remembers how he drove her to high school in his black Datsun 280Z and she was the envy of all the girls. Later, they holed up in a D.C. motel to hide from federal agents.
He stows his two bags in her back seat. Driving off, she allows a moment of celebration.
The horn blasts once, twice, three times. A trumpet call across the city.
Peanut King is back.
From petty theft to prison
Before Baltimore earned its bleak reputation as a U.S. heroin capital, before its dope-fueled corners appeared on “The Wire,” before the little $10 gel caps pushed the body count past 2,200 over a decade — before it all came Maurice “Peanut” King.
In the early 1980s, the diminutive King — 5 feet 8, 140 pounds — reigned over the heroin trade of East Baltimore. Dressed in designer suits and bedroom slippers, he ascended from little Holbrook Street to oversee a drug empire federal prosecutors estimated at $50 million a year.
Today, it’s all too familiar in Baltimore: the corner boys hustling for $100 a day and a plate of Chinese takeout. Trace them back to Peanut King, the man who introduced Baltimore’s children to the drug game. He brought the heroin from the pool halls to the playgrounds.
Holbrook Street runs for five blocks beside Green Mount Cemetery. This proud, poor neighborhood of Oliver would be home to the city’s Black Panther Party. In the 1950s, there were few if any vacant rowhouses. There was McMillion’s grocery, the nearby drugstore and Arundel’s Ice Cream parlor. Neighbors hardly had a reason to leave. The children hopped the cemetery wall to play.
Here, Helen King, a young divorcee, was raising five children alone.
They called her youngest boy “Peanut” or just “Nut.” He was trouble already. As King remembers it, his run-ins with the law began by age 7 when an officer grabbed him by surprise at Sears for stealing candy. That day, he learned to stop and scan for a cop: his first lesson in crime.
Soon Peanut had followers. He went from stealing candy bars to groceries — the home refrigerator was bare, he says — to snatching bicycles.
The boy knew better than to steal from poor, black families like his own. He would ride the bus south to the white neighborhood of Little Italy or north past 28th Street in Charles Village to steal bikes.
He pedaled away one time, looking back — a white mob! Or so it seemed to him. He remembers the panic: pedaling wildly, the men at his heels. He jumped off, he says, ditching the bicycle to escape down an alley. His would be a life of close calls.
At home Helen King taught her three sons to say “sir” and “ma’am,” but the youngest kept climbing out the bedroom window. The police kept ringing her up: Get your boy at juvenile lockup, ma’am. She beat him, he says — he passes no judgment; it was a different time — but he carried on. By his teenage years, King had advanced from petty theft to burglary. He had gone from Clifton Park Junior High to the reformatory.
“From 7 to 16,” he says, “I probably was charged over 30 times.”
He picked up his first adult conviction at age 17. To this day, he maintains that he never robbed the deliveryman at gunpoint. The judge handed him eight years for armed robbery. King never forgot his mother’s words: She said the penitentiary was for everything else he got away with.
He stewed for three and a half years behind bars. King resented the cops and the courts. He dwelled on the disparity between black and white Baltimore. He read the classic 1960s self-help book by Og Mandino, the parable of a poor camel boy who rose to wealth and fame.
The title beckoned to him like a destiny. “The Greatest Salesman in the World.”
Rise of a street boss
By 1973, President Richard Nixon had declared his War on Drugs and formed the Drug Enforcement Administration. The White House estimated 10 tons of heroin crossed U.S. borders a year. Much of it — “China white” and gummy “Mexican mud” — flowed through New York to lucrative East Coast markets such as Baltimore. State health officials estimated the heroin reached 20,000 Marylanders, from junkies to GIs, businessmen “chippers” to high school partiers. The black market exploded.
Today, the power is fractured among crews, not a few ruling men. But this was the era of the street boss. Federal prosecutors locked up a succession of big names in the underworld: John “Liddy” Jones, Bernard “Big Head Brother” Lee, and the West Side giant “Little Melvin” Williams. Into these streets returned the embittered, 20-year-old ex-con King.
He came back in 1974 hungry for wealth and influence. King wanted fine cars, clothes and homes. He wanted money, lots of money — not to escape Holbrook Street, he says, but to lord over the establishment systems that he believed drove poverty and oppression there. The books in prison had given rise to his ambitions.
By 1979, he had established his rule over the heroin trade of East Baltimore. King speaks freely of the poverty of his youth and his vision today for a better future, but he’s brief about events that gave rise to his infamy. The story of those days rests at the National Archives at Philadelphia in six cardboard boxes with thousands of pages: police evidence, search warrants, trial transcripts.
That story rests, too, in the files of a retired Baltimore detective, another storied name. Gary Childs would help solve more than 60 murders as a homicide detective. In the summer of 1981, the 32-year-old sergeant was assigned to a narcotics squad. Flipping addicts, he heard of a rising East Side boss named Peanut King.
King appeared to make his living as a longshoreman and from snowball stands on Holbrook and Hoffman streets. Only the picture didn’t fit. He dressed in suits from the exclusive, downtown clothier Bernard Hill. Like Hugh Hefner in a smoking jacket, he carried himself with an aristocratic leisure; he wore slippers around town, a fashion statement born of a foot problem. He was a bon vivant of the streets, a man who drove a $25,000 stainless-steel sports car with gullwing doors that opened to the sky.
“One day, he’s selling lemon snowballs. The next, he’s driving a DeLorean,” Childs recalls. “We were like, man, the snowball business is good.”
Meanwhile, a new heroin had hit the streets of East Baltimore. Police found glassine bags stamped with designer names like “Honey,” “Fifth Avenue” and “Gold Rush.” They were chasing a shrewd business mind, someone branding his dope; they suspected King. In the old camper of a junk hauler, Childs hid and filmed the corners with a reel-to-reel camera, as if he were making a home movie. The cops had set out, they would say, to “crack the ‘Nut.’ ”
At 28 years old, King owned a corner grocery store on North Avenue and planned to open a ritzy nightclub on Reisterstown Road. He was a street boss with a stockbroker at Legg Mason. A portfolio of business deals cloaked his crimes.
King and his partner, Clarence Meredith, drove to casinos in Atlantic City and spent $20,000 and $30,000 on chips. They handed women $100 bills to play. Casinos comped dinners and hotel rooms: almost a whole floor for a Diana Ross show. They cashed out and drove back to East Baltimore with the money wrapped in Resorts International bands. The cash looked clean.
Back home, King turned heads at Odell’s, a club to be seen in. He wore a $6,000 coat of seal fur. The diamonds of his pinkie ring glittered M-a-u-r-i-c-e. He lit up smokes with a bejeweled Zippo. Everything about him had the sheen of wealth and elegance, even his women.
“When you’re Peanut’s girl, you got to uphold a certain image, dress nice and look good,” says Brown, the ex-girlfriend who would pick him up decades later. She worked in the deli of his grocery. “I never asked questions.”
King insulated himself with layers of money couriers, drug runners and street lieutenants. Forty people worked for him. By February 1982, he and Meredith opened a second grocery, this one on Greenmount Avenue. They partnered with Thomas “Joe Dancer” Ricks, an ex-con with a fearsome reputation as an enforcer. Prosecutors would speak of his willingness to “dust” informants. (Meredith and Ricks, who both served decades in prison for their work with King, declined to be interviewed.)
The three men registered themselves as KRM Inc. They outfitted the Greenmount store with a plush boardroom and an exotic new machine called an Apple computer. At the North Avenue store, they spent $185,000 to install a boxing gym upstairs with wall-to-wall mirrors and a steam room that made rain. A welterweight himself, King woke at 5:30 a.m. to work out and open up.
He was a man of contradictions: a drug boss who donated money to charity. King partnered with independent grocers to buy bulk fruits and vegetables and sell them at affordable prices. He sponsored youth basketball teams and threw block parties with hot dogs and steamed crabs. He gave cash to single mothers for groceries and rent. He brought their sons into a criminal underworld, yet printed T-shirts that read “King and Meredith’s Grocery: Let’s not forget the kids.”
“They [police] were steaming mad,” King says, with a chuckle. “ ‘How you going to talk about saving kids, mother f— —? And you’re on the other side selling drugs?’ ”
Worse yet, King recruited the neighborhood boys to deliver his dope, prosecutors would say. He enticed them with beepers and mopeds. King’s crew bought a fleet of 18 mopeds from a Highlandtown cycle shop. The teenage drug-runners sped through alleys too narrow for a patrol car to follow them. In poor East Baltimore, it was a way for a boy to fill his pockets with cash, even help Mom pay the bills. Some boys dressed like him, in slippers.
This was King’s grim contribution to the streets and the source of his notoriety: the man who opened the drug trade to Baltimore’s children. Today, he plays down this legacy. Those who became known as “Peanut’s children,” he says, were not so young and innocent.
By spring of 1982, police had been chasing the moped boys and flipping addicts for months. They still couldn’t touch King, not yet.
King didn’t want to antagonize cops, just make money and party. When Childs’ men left behind a police radio and the boys carried it off, King handed down an order: Give it back.
Police believed he ran the biggest heroin ring in Baltimore. His crew sold $70 bags known as “JB’s,” sometimes hundreds a day. They raked in an estimated $20,000 a day from one corner, more than $50 million a year, prosecutors would say. King had made it: the greatest salesman in the world.
But Childs and his squad devised a plan to topple the empire. They heard King’s crew sold heroin for food stamps to funnel through the grocery stores. So they enlisted a young woman just out of the police academy to pose as a government worker cheating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She partnered with an ex-con whom police nicknamed after a TV detective: Columbo. Childs filled their pockets with food stamps and sent them undercover.
In five weeks, the duo bought heroin more than a dozen times. They paid Ricks in the boardroom of the grocery store on Greenmount Avenue. In April 1982, they bought 100 bags from King himself.
The raids came at dawn.
Officers descended on six locations in Baltimore and Towson, including the grocery stores. They drilled open a safe deposit box at a bank. Search teams reported finding 4.5 pounds of pure heroin, a supply worth $6.7 million on the street. They found $300,000 in cash, a trove of furs and fine jewelry, and an arsenal of 11 guns, including an AR-15. The police commissioner called it the biggest bust in Baltimore’s history. And yet, King was nowhere.
He had made off with Brown, his girlfriend from the deli. They hid in a motel outside D.C., but police had reached Helen King: Where was Peanut?
“They had grabbed my mother. I got a little twisted up emotionally,” King says. “It was like, you’re going to hurt a lot of people.”
So he dropped off Brown at the movies. King didn’t tell her, just drove in to surrender.
The trial in 1982 lasted three weeks. Federal prosecutors blamed four murders on King’s crew, saying they waged war against rival “Kenny Bird” Jackson. But King was never charged with those killings, and he denies a hand in the violence. He got 10 years on a state handgun charge. His federal trial centered on drugs and money laundering. Prosecutors spoke of his greed, his exploitation of the addicts and the poor.
“Don’t convict this man because he had money,” his attorney argued.
King pleaded, don’t take my life away.
The judge handed down 50 years in prison, an unprecedented term.
It was the day before his 29th birthday; he would be eligible for parole at age 66.
A king’s welcome
Last spring, an old name rang out across the city. Rappers took to Instagram with a shoutout to an original gangster. On the radio station 92Q, an ad echoed the greetings: “Welcome home, Peanut King!”
To celebrate, King raised a glass on Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the city’s hottest rappers, Young Moose, wanted a photo with him. Other young men came up for selfies with “the king.”
His name still commanded respect. A boss is a boss, whether in the game or out.
King shopped for shoes and indulged in a pedicure. When they welcomed him back at an ’80s hip-hop concert in Cherry Hill, he appeared under the neon lights in a checkered sport coat of powder blue.
“Do you know who that is?” a woman whispered. “That’s Peanut King.”
To some who knew of him back in the day, he remains a figure who rose from poverty to wealth and class. They account for his crimes the way his attorney did long ago. “Mr. King comes from the ghetto; he tried to pull himself out of the ghetto.”
In June, Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor and state’s attorney, had just finished speaking at a community college crime forum when someone told him: Peanut King is here.
Schmoke felt a pang of nerves. Only three years apart, their lives had played out on opposite sides of the law. He had had no hand in locking King up, but he campaigned for state’s attorney on the case, praising the cops who put away the public enemy No. 1 for good, or so he thought.
Outside the auditorium, a silver-haired man approached Schmoke. The stranger offered a greeting. “I’m Peanut King.”
King had much to say. He planned a comeback, one built not on drug corners but rec centers. He had an assistant, a website and an Instagram page. Movie producers were calling. He envisioned a nonprofit and printed T-shirts with the name “King Renaissance.” The “i” wore a gold crown.
Could he really have changed? Schmoke wondered. Once Peanut King had seemed too far gone, at least by his prison record.
Five years into his sentence, authorities caught him speaking in code to buy $750,000 of heroin on the prison pay phones. They caught him locked away with a female guard to suggest, as they wrote the court, “sexual activity was contemplated, if not consummated.” Change came slowly, but there was time. Nothing but time.
Years passed at Leavenworth, Lewisburg, Allenwood, Fort Dix — too many prisons to remember. The courts had taken everything, even the house he bought his mother in Silver Spring. They auctioned his furs to women in the suburbs. But it was time that defeated him. The prison letters dwindled; the visits mostly stopped. His 30s, 40s and 50s, all gone. If he looked back, he felt he would lose his mind.
He read books, though. King studied psychology and went to college in prison. He learned terms like “thinking patterns” and “codependency.” He coached younger inmates in behavioral skills. When a popular New York photographer came and took his picture, King’s photo and public apology became a sensation online:
If I could go back in time and correct it, I would. But that’s what I have been trying to do for the past 34 years. I grew up in the Baltimore projects. Everyone that I knew had nothing. I was trying to improve my life with the information that I had at the time. I grabbed the wrong rope. I’m sorry if I caused generations behind me to go astray. It wasn’t my intention to bring pain to the community.
As a young man, King had ignored the misery brought by his heroin, even convincing himself he helped the community with his handouts and grocery stores. He played both sides: the good, the bad. You can’t play both, he says now. It cost him a lifetime behind bars. His mother died; his daughter grew up, moved on. Today, he speaks with remorse of the choices that cost him so dearly.
The neighborhood boys emulated King once. Now, he offers his life as a cautionary tale: Don’t let me be your future.
King knows he can’t set right the past, but maybe the future. He sees himself in the corner boys grasping for a lifeline out. He took the wrong rope, but there are other ways. He would show them, if they listen.
“I haven’t seen Peanut for 30-some years,” says Childs, the retired detective. "If he’s honestly turned the corner, if he’s really out there trying to help kids — I’m all for it.”
Schmoke, for one, has come to believe him. He’s helping King put down ideas into a proposal for grant money. King knows the language of the streets. Maybe the old boss can reach the boys today?
“I got the impression he wants to leave a positive legacy,” Schmoke says. “He’s searching for the best way to do that.”
In the five months since his release, King has found himself in an unfamiliar world, trying to make his way.
He went back to Holbrook Street at the first chance. He found a wasteland of trash and crumbling houses. Gone were McMillion’s grocery, the drugstore and ice cream parlor. Gone were the families, too, their rowhomes left to rot. City crews had knocked down his old house. King walked past the vacant homes, dozens of them. On one block, 15 of 19 stood empty. He saw boarded windows and collapsed roofs.
Weeds pushed up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Doritos bags blew around. The place was so desolate firefighters trained there. The wreckage of drugs, poverty, unemployment, disinvestment, even as volunteers try to bring life back. Prison had sapped his emotions; King just felt numb.
And yet, the neighbors still came back to throw their summertime block party in the empty lots. King had missed it for 37 years only to miss it once more, sick and laid up in the hospital. He was still the talk of the party. One man showed the scar on his right calf. The burn of a hot muffler, he explained, from riding a moped for Peanut King. He declined to give his name, but said proudly of his mark, “This is my signature.”
Here, King’s legend lives on. They speak of him as “Robin Hood,” the man who distributed cash for poor families to buy school supplies or pay the gas bill.
His heroin drew money into Holbrook Street — then drained money out. Addiction took hold of a community.
“People would stop working, lose their jobs and homes," says Bernard Corprew, a church deacon who grew up on Holbrook Street. "You began to lose block by block, a few houses on a street at a time ... ”
“This was one of the most beautiful communities you’ve ever seen,” Corprew says. “Drugs killed all of that.”
Today, the game alarms King. Heroin remains as prevalent as ever, but control is splintered among rival crews. The young men are quick to reach for guns. Since he went away, the homicide rate has nearly doubled. Dope is cheaper and dirtier, more dangerous. There are more ways to die.
King passed his driver’s test in October, but he has no car, nor house. He says only that he keeps an apartment in Baltimore. For business, he holds court at an entertainment agency in Charles Village. When he checked about his long-ago job as a longshoreman, King learned he owed 37 years of union dues. No matter, he aims to lead a renaissance.
His only surviving sibling, a sister, lives in New Jersey. His grown daughter declined to talk about him. “I did the time,” he says, “but 37 years, it tore her up.”
Last month, he brought Schmoke his plan to help prisoners transition back. He proposes a one-stop center with a universe of social services, from drug treatment to computer classes. King also wants to hold a 2,000-person summit, assembling the reformed “old heads” of his generation to stanch the killings.
In prison, he studied Nat Turner’s bloody slave rebellion. They hanged Turner within sight of a Virginia courthouse, only to tell his story in a courthouse display today. Maybe history, King says, will also judge him differently.
A few weeks ago, on a sunny, fall day, King rides up Harford Avenue and turns on North Avenue. There stands his old headquarters, the corner grocery: beige paint peeling, roofline rusting, a yellow awning torn. Not King and Meredith’s anymore, but Bernal Deli & Grocery.
From the sidewalk, King notices fingers of royal blue around the doorjamb.
“The blue is still there,” he says, pleased. “I had it painted, and wall-to-wall mirrors everywhere. This is 40 years later!”
The second floor held his steam room, sauna and boxing gym. They brought in the Jacuzzi through a hole in the wall. It must still be there; King wants to see. He wants to know that something survives.
Inside, bulletproof glass shields the cashier. Behind the glass, the shelves hold candy, tampons and cigarettes, not a vegetable in sight. The cashier immigrated from China; she doesn’t understand him.
“I built this store,” King calls, through the glass.
“This building, I built it in 1981,” he says, louder. “My name is King.”
She just looks at him.
“Upstairs,” he continues, “I built a Jacuzzi and steamer, and I don’t know if that’s still — ”
“You want to buy the store?”
“No, no,” he shakes his head. “That’s OK.”
King steps back from the window, falls quiet, turns to leave.
“It’s a whole new world,” he says, pushing out into the autumn sunshine.
The boys on the corner pay him no mind. They see a grandfather in warmup pants, with a limp. He has no headquarters, no entourage, just the title, Peanut King. It troubles him.
The name brings him authority in the streets, even the stature of an original gangster to command change. But in moments of reflection, he admits that sometimes he doesn’t want to go by Peanut King, just the name his mother gave him. Maurice.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.