The Tragedy of Richard III The Tragedy of Rudy Williams


Now is the winter of our discontent. Right now.

Now is the winter of women claimed by stray bullets as they walk to corner stores, the winter of another year in which Baltimore records more than 300 slayings, the barren season for a police department that justifies paralysis by spending thousands of dollars to study its problems, as if the problems weren't obvious to any sergeant with five years on the street.

So have we set the stage for the last act of this fine morality play, this drama that bears the unlikely title of "Linwood Rudolph Williams." At first glance, our piece seems Shakespearean in its perfection, as cruel and as blood-soaked as any of the great tragedies. And our villain, too, is strangely reminiscent of one better employed by the Bard, and to more dramatic effect.

"I am determined to prove a villain," declares the King Richard III at the beginning of the play that bears his name. "Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels and dreams. . . ."

This is Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, the hunchbacked usurper who manipulates and destroys whomsoever he touches, then loves himself the more for it. This is King Richard, so "rudely stamp'd" by nature, that he glories only in power and death and strife, until at last, a valiant Richmond leaves him gutted and bleeding on Bosworth Field, saving England and bringing the War of the Roses to its close.

"I have set my life upon a cast and I will stand the hazard of the die," shouts the usurper king, aware that his last moments are at hand. "A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse."

In our account, Linwood "Rudy" Williams, 37, reaches the end of his play calling for neither sword nor steed. No, at his own climax, Linwood Williams stands in a sterile courtroom on West Lombard Street on Tuesday, convicted of federal drug conspiracy charges, demanding a new trial and a different judge. This is, after all, 1992.

"To Your Lordship of this Great Star Chamber of Injustice," declares Williams in his remarks to Judge Frank A. Kaufman. "By no stretch of anyone's imagination did I receive a fair trial, nor an honest or decent one. Because God has given me the sense, dignity and courage to decline the government's perverted plea bargain of 35 years and the strength to stand up to this persecution, your end has been from the very beginning to put me in prison for life."

A fine soliloquy, as venal as that offered by Richard to his troops at the edge of the Bosworth marsh, where Richmond and his followers are vilified as "base lackey peasants whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth."

Nice talk from a guy who executes his closest advisers and orders boy princes suffocated in their sleep. But King Richard has little on Linwood Williams, for whom murder was not simply the means to any end, but rather a defining act. And like the villain king, he has a sociopath's gift for matching evil deeds with self-righteous obscenities:

"We shall overcome, without a doubt," Williams told the judge, wrapping his crimes in the language of civil rights. "And in 1993, I'll be free."

The words left Judge Kaufman cold. Life, no parole, he told Williams.

To the uninitiated, this drama might seem to little more than the decades-old story of any large-scale drug trafficker. These men rise and fall with the seasons, an endless cavalcade of inner-city gangsters who take hold of some ghetto corners and manufacture evil until a federal indictment swallows them up, clearing the streets for more of the same.

Not so. Linwood Rudolph Williams was unique -- a villain of a classic kind -- and his passing in federal court last week deserves special note. In Baltimore's drug trade, some men feel they are forced to kill; others kill because it serves their interest. // Linwood Williams killed because he is Linwood Williams, as elemental a force of nature as Baltimore's underworld has ever seen.

Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, was born deformed, a hideous creature "so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them." Linwood Williams has no such deformity, though for such a terrifying force, he is oddly constructed.

Rail thin and little better than 5-foot-3, Williams seems utterly incapable of the details that comprise his career. He is proof of an old prison-tier adage that says the only measurement that matters is the eighteen inches between a man's head and his heart.

Early in his career, when Williams was doing time for a 1971 manslaughter at Hagerstown, he was badly beaten by an East Baltimore inmate in one of those Eastside-Westside struggles that periodically develop inside Maryland prisons. The other Westsiders asked the diminutive Williams if he needed help.

"No," said Rudy, "I'll handle it myself."

And he did. After months of waiting for his moment -- months of patient, buried rage -- Williams caught his prey unawares and carved him to within an inch of his life, then beat the attempted murder charge on a technicality involving jury notification, according to federal prosecutors.

Others took notice. The story of the prison stabbing -- the cold, calculating manner in which Williams had waited out his moment -- marked the man when he returned to Baltimore's streets. Williams was a candidate for elevation, but not within West Baltimore's traditional drug organizations -- he was too violent, too intense. Even among this city's organized drug figures, Linwood Williams was regarded as an unstable element.

"He didn't come up through the organizations," says one city detective. "He was outside of them. He carved out his own place in that world, and he did it in such a way that everyone was forced to acknowledge him."

Adds Katherine Armentrout, who prosecuted Williams in the current case: "People were in absolute fear of him. Many of those who we talked to said they would never deal with Rudy. They steered clear."

Williams -- like the hunchback Richard -- never built alliances, but instead practiced manipulation on a grand scale. More than any other narcotics figure in recent memory, Linwood Williams survived and flourished by feeding off human weakness.

"Woe, woe for England!" cries the duped Hastings as he is led to the block, to be executed on orders of the man who he helped to the crown. "Not a whit for me. For I, too fond, might have prevented this."

"Come, lead me, officers to the block of shame," declares Buckingham, who risked allegiance with Gloucester only to follow Hastings to the tower. "Wrong hath but wrong, and blame is the due of blame."

Fine words written for men who realize -- albeit belatedly -- that they have foolishly served the same evil that devours them. Hastings, Buckingham, Clarence, Anne, the child princes -- the body count in Shakespeare's tragedy is testament to Richard's false and subtle trickery, his penchant for proving other men weak and corrupt.

So, then, where are the words for Curtis "Wimpy" Manns, who took Williams into his own drug organization, then ended his career as a corpse in Baltimore County, with partner and friend Williams as the prime suspect? And what speech preceded the deaths of Raymond Butler and Kevin Howell, murdered one after the other in October 1984? In those cases, Williams was acquitted in trials in which state's witnesses were threatened and refused to testify.

Are there words for Gerald Gray, who died last year of a drug overdose in the Baltimore City Jail only days after he began talking with federal prosecutors about testifying against Williams? And where is the soliloquy for Jackie Williams, who for years did his brother's bidding only to die of AIDS linked to IV-drug use while awaiting trial in federal court? When Rudy Williams appeared in court, family and friends crowded the benches; Jackie came to court alone.

These are human beings destroyed by service to one man, and the list of the dead goes far beyond them. Some of the murders that authorities attribute to Williams and his minions were straight business propositions.

Glenn "Little Glenn" Alexander didn't want to see his own North-and-Pulaski drug ring consumed by Williams' larger organization. He resisted Williams' arguments, but later got into a van thinking he was driving to a drug deal with Namond Williams, Linwood's nephew; the county police found his body inside the vehicle, which was parked at the edge of a county cemetery.

And yet other murders had nothing to do with money or power. One victim, a business partner to Williams, was found dead in lower Park Heights two years ago. Soon after, a security guard at a North Avenue grocery was murdered after he had quarreled with Linwood William's wife.

Federal investigators were later told by those who worked for Williams that they were often so intimidated that they rarely, if ever, missed organization meetings for fear that they would be unable to defend themselves if, in their absence, Williams' wrath turned toward them: "Divide and conquer," says one investigator. "If Rudy's in a room with two people, he'll ally himself with one person and then isolate the other. He built a whole career on that."

Almost all of the murders went unsolved. In a city where witness protection is little more than an occasional promise, no one who ever met Williams could be convinced to testify against him. And every charge that did make its way to court -- drug possession, weapons violations, murders -- produced manipulation of a different sort.

When Williams was caught straight-up in a car with an automatic weapon, he had one of his lieutenants take the charge, telling police that the weapon was his. When Williams fled from a Northwestern District officer during a carstop, leaving his jacket, a package of cocaine and his own birth certificate, another minion surfaced to perjure himself.

"He uses people. He used me," says Donald "Frog" Nelson, who testified in state court that the cocaine belonged to him, not to Williams, that he was the one wearing Linwood's jacket and carrying Linwood's birth certificate.

For law enforcement, the acquittal in that 1988 case was the final insult. The prolonged federal drug conspiracy probe that followed was very much a grudge match, a battle as pitched and premeditated as the one fought in the marshes of Bosworth Field.

In the end, a group of federal drug agents and city homicide JTC detectives traced Williams and his organization back to sources of supply in Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil and Israel. Arrayed against Williams were pages and pages of surveillance transcripts, along with the testimony of Donald Nelson.

"I'm ashamed because of how I let Rudy use me to do so much damage to my community," says Nelson, who told the jurors that he once helped carve a man half to death in service of Williams' nephew. He now resides in a federal prison. "The real problem isn't all Rudy, it's that I let it all happen, that I let myself be used by people like Rudy."

Buckingham or Hastings would recognize such words. So, too, would the men who trusted Linwood Williams and are no longer here to witness his fall.

On the night before the battle in the Bosworth swamp, the ghosts of Richard's victims visit his tent, urging his despair and death.: "Is there a murderer here?" asks the villain king, awaking. "No. Yes, I am. Then fly. What, from myself. . . . Alack, I love myself."

Perhaps there were ghosts who visited Rudy Williams before last week's sentencing, but if they did, it's fair to suggest that their curses had little effect. Rudy Williams, too, loves himself, but like most real-life villains, he lacks the strange self-awareness of Shakespeare's dark character. Still, he played his part to the end.

Cited for contempt more than a dozen times during his trial ("F--- you again, judge"), Williams used his last statement from the defense table to challenge the legitimacy of the court, to portray himself as some kind of folk hero, some shining example of black manhood pursued by a malevolent white government. At the end, Williams -- like Richard refusing to flee his losing cause -- shouted for a different justice, without understanding the word's meaning.

And there the parallels end.

For in Shakespeare's version, Richmond declares that "the bloody dog is dead" and offers amnesty to the traitors. The civil war ends, the houses of York and Lancaster are reconciled, and England finds peace.

In our world, the war that rages is not between different royal factions, but among ourselves. For money and not for crown, the bodies still fall in West Baltimore, the medic sirens still wail, and the $10 capsule remains the cornerstone of our secret economy. True, Linwood Williams has passed -- and that, given the damage he caused, is notable. But others already stand on his corners.

"If you do sweat to put a tyrant down," Richmond tells his soldiers on the battle's eve, "you sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain."

& But not here. Not now.

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