FRESH OUT OF JAIL, CRUISING THE BACKWOODS of his East Texas youth, Freeway Rick was hungry. For a veggie burger.

“A what?” the Dairy Queen girl said.

“A veggie burger,” Freeway Rick said. “Just like a hamburger, but without the meat.”

The Dairy Queen girl, a white teenager with dishwater hair, scrunched up her nose. “I don’t know,” she drawled. “Nobody’s ever asked for one of thay-ehm before.”

Freeway Rick smiled patiently, running a hand through the tidy mop of dreadlocks he had grown behind bars. He was lean and compact, petite even, no more than five feet seven and 145 pounds. “Take a hamburger bun and put everything on it, you know what I’m saying?—lettuce and tomatoes and onions and pickles and cheese—but just no hamburger. A meatless burger. I know you can do it.”

The Dairy Queen girl kept shaking her head, as if this were the weirdest thing ever to happen in a temple of the Belt Buster and the Blizzard, especially here, deep in the bogs of Smith County. But to Freeway Rick—a native son who grew up to become one of America’s most notorious drug dealers, rising from the street curbs of South-Central Los Angeles to the Fortune 500 of crack cocaine—it was just another stop on his road to reinvention, another chance to retool his gospel for success. “People make choices that they don’t even know they made,” he said. “They let their environment control them, instead of controlling their own environment. Right now, I don’t eat meat. I’m exercising my choice.”

His veggie burger arrived. He liked it so much he ordered another. “See, we got to reeducate ourselves,” he said later in the car, launching into what would become a familiar monologue. “When I was selling drugs, I never sat down and analyzed what I was getting into . . . if it’s benefiting you or not benefiting you or if it’s pleasurable right now, is it gonna be painful in the future? I was lured by a false mirage. Something that looked like it was there, but it wasn’t really there. I was going after something that was nothing. But everything’s changed. I’m not the same person no more. I’m in control of my life now, you know, choosing the roads I go down. People that don’t know me now, in five or ten years when they meet me, they’re gonna say, ‘He never sold drugs; I don’t believe this is the same guy.’ Because that ain’t what they’re gonna see in me. They’re gonna see this businessman, who walks around with his suit and tie on, you know, who speaks proper. I’m gonna be one of the hottest commodities around.”

It was 1994, and I had just met Ricky Donnell Ross, better known by his quintessentially Southern California moniker: Freeway. The day before, L.A.’s most mythic dopeman had walked out of the Smith County jail, free on parole. Now we were sitting together in the back of a black Cadillac, knees and elbows occasionally knocking, while his brother drove us around the tiny farm and lumber communities between Tyler and Kilgore—the town where Rick was born into a family of sharecroppers and servants 34 years before. It was his homecoming. It was my first trip to Texas. I was, then, the gang reporter for the Los Angeles Times, working on a series about the ravages of crack. Rick, whom I had known by reputation, was one of the main characters—a tireless entrepreneur who, for the better part of a decade, had literally put ton after ton of cocaine on the streets of America. He slashed prices, gave the stuff away, even fed it to one of the mothers of his own children. No other drug dealer of his generation was considered more prolific: elusive, cunning, ambitious, shrewd, a multimillionaire by the time he was 25. Yet as toxic as Rick’s enterprise was, there was also something transcendent about it—a stepping-stone to the power and wealth that his Bible-trusting parents never believed they could or should attain. Here was a product of the Piney Woods, born under the reign of Jim Crow, transported to Watts on the eve of the 1965 riots, herded through an urban school system that failed to teach him to read, who then refused, in the most defiant way possible, to accept his station in life. In a few short years he went from illiterate dropout to CEO of his own coast-to-coast conglomerate, turning a $250 investment into a $1-million-a-week empire that would have made Horatio Alger proud had it involved widgets instead of cocaine. Freeway Rick was a living testament to the drug trade’s economic logic. Less an immoral thug than an amoral capitalist, he was intent on seizing his share of the dream, by any means necessary. Instead, he got busted in 1989, losing five years of his freedom and—he insists—practically all of his ill-gotten gains.

To greet him when he got out of jail, well, that was like scoring an interview with the devil himself—a journalistic coup, I thought, worthy of a flight from L.A. to Tyler. In the weeks before he was to be paroled, I tried to get word to him, bouncing from one source to another—ex-druggies, Bloods, Crips, friends of friends—until finally I met a former member of his crew who passed along my name and number. Rick called collect to say that yes, he would talk. As I stood waiting outside the Smith County jail, I knew I wasn’t the only one trying to score.

His agenda, my agenda, our perceptions of each other’s sincerity and motives—those questions have haunted me ever since that soupy August afternoon four summers ago, when he walked through the jailhouse doors and smoothly twisted my hand into a soul-brother shake. From that moment, we became joined, launched on a journey that, I suspect, has yet to reach its final stop—from author and subject to seducer and betrayer, friends, enemies, the white professional and the black convict, fellow seekers on an unfolding quest to determine whether indeed this amazingly gifted and destructive man, Freeway Ricky Ross, has the power to control his own fate. Or, for that matter, whether any one of us does.

The day after Rick was paroled, he thrust a dog-eared paperback into my hands and announced: “That’s my new hero.” If you were expecting The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Soul on Ice, then you underestimate the degree to which Rick sees himself as a champion, not a victim, of the American way. Freeway Rick’s jailhouse inspiration was none other than Anthony Robbins, the fire-walking human-empowerment guru whose best-selling bible, Awaken the Giant Within, promises to help you “take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical, and financial destiny.” It was a perfect match. Rick is foremost about money, after all, not violence. He does not come across as a malicious being. He was essentially saying: If I can just refocus my considerable skills on a more constructive hustle, I can uplift my community and still make a bundle. With the nation’s prisons full of drug offenders, a disproportionate number of them black, his scenario was tempting. Rethink the crack crisis as an economic phenomenon rather than a criminal one, and you can start to see your way out of the morass.

As skeptical as I tried to be, I had to admit that Rick played the game well. For the next week, as we tooled around East Texas together, he was unfailingly thoughtful and attentive, never defensive. He broke down and cried at the mention of his five natural-born and two adopted kids (and their four mothers) as we sat on the sagging porch of his abandoned childhood home, just outside the no-stoplight town of Troup (population: 1,814). He invited me to watch a four-hundred-pound hog get barbecued in the Chapel Hill back yard of his uncle James, whose twin lumberjack sons had gone to prison for selling Rick’s drugs. Over veggie burgers in Overton (and later, over sweet-and-sour tofu back in Los Angeles), he laid out his plans to produce rap records, promote prize fights, and open his own community center, the Freeway Academy. I knew it sounded crazy, but was it any crazier than the ski vacations to Aspen, the fourteenth-row season tickets to Lakers games, the dragster, the powerboat, the tire shop, the towing company, or the eighteen-unit Freeway Motor Inn that he had purchased in his high-rolling days? Whether he had been evil or simply misdirected, the youngest child of Annie Mae and Sonny Leon Ross had a way of making things happen—a drive, a vision, a con man’s charisma that had nothing to do with being realistic.

“It’s like I’m playing in the Super Bowl, and the game is tied and I have the ball on the one-yard line,” he told me. “If I get it across the line, I’m a star. If I fumble, well, according to how bad I fumble . . .”

He broke into laughter. I told him that if he fumbled even once I would be all over his case.

“I already know everybody’s watching,” he said. “Which is a good point for me. See, I have the opportunity to make or break me. Nobody else controls this but me. I don’t have a cop controlling it, the judge is not controlling it, the city is not controlling it, the county, the government . . . that’s one thing that I’ve learned: I’m in control.”

MAYBE YOU CAN SEE WHERE THIS IS HEADED. I obviously recognized it as a possibility but never imagined that it would happen so soon. Six months after we sat in that Dairy Queen, Freeway Rick was back behind bars, snared by the feds in an undercover sting. In the fall of 1994, while I was still writing my article about his quest for redemption, he was making collect calls to one of his longtime connections in Nicaragua. They finally settled on a deal—one hundred kilograms of cocaine for $170,000 down—and met in a Denny’s parking lot near San Diego. Rick had been set up. His old supplier, a 43-year-old Managua native named Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, had been released from jail just three weeks after Rick. Now he was wearing a hidden microphone, poised to earn a $40,000 reward. An army of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration swooped down. Rick peeled out in a truck, crashed it, dove out, and tried to run. “What a goddamn fool!” I shouted when I got the news. I was yelling at him, but I might as well have been yelling at myself.

Rick called from jail, crying entrapment. But you took the bait, I insisted. More than a few friends used the occasion to remind me that he was a liar and a creep. My disappointment, though, was soon dwarfed by a far more explosive turn of events, a scandal that would thrust Rick into the world’s headlines and join us together again, only this time as heated adversaries. The new story was this: that the Central Intelligence Agency had introduced crack to America’s black neighborhoods in the eighties to secretly finance the contras in Nicaragua, that Blandon  had been a key figure in that operation before getting a sweetheart of a deal and turning on Rick as an informant, that Rick was the victim of a racist plot. “Basically, I was selling drugs for the U.S. government,” he told me later in a phone call from jail. “They exploited me, and they made me exploit my community.”

All hell broke loose in August 1996 when the San Jose Mercury News published its controversial “Dark Alliance” series, which purported a connection between Blandon and both the Nicaraguan rebels and the CIA. Angry rallies erupted across the country. Airwaves and computer lines sizzled with conspiracy theories. Black leaders paid jailhouse visits to Rick, greeting him as if he were a political prisoner and demanding congressional hearings. The CIA vowed to investigate itself. Although I had become a national correspondent by then, assigned to the L.A. Times’ Houston bureau, I was flown back to Los Angeles to help sort through the allegations and make my own pilgrimage to Rick’s cell. I made an effort to greet him sympathetically, hoping he would recount his early forays into the cocaine trade—dealings that I knew, from our previous conversations, had nothing to do with the Nicaraguans. Rick obliged. Then I skewered him with his own words. As part of a three-day series on the origins of the cocaine epidemic, I wrote that Blandon’s tenuous ties to the contras already were severed by the time he met Rick, that Rick already was a big player by the time he met Blandon, and that no evidence could be found to link either of them to the CIA or a scheme to poison the ghetto. The two appeared to be nothing more than a couple of greedy drug dealers, using each other to enrich their own coffers.

Rick called me one more time, in a rage. He was about to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and my story—which revealed that he had been introduced to cocaine not via some Latin American cartel but by one of his own homeys from the ’hood—had just blasted his only hope for leniency.

“You played me—” he shouted.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I retorted.

“—just like the government played me.”

“If anyone did any playing, it was you who played me!” I was angrier than I knew.

“You walked in here with a smile on your face, pretending to be my friend, just like Danilo.”

“How dare you compare me to him!”

“Then you turned around and stabbed me in the back!”

We went on hollering, then hung up on each other for more than a year.

During that time, I thought a lot about my relationship with Rick, about the fact that I even had a relationship with a drug-dealing felon. I found myself replaying our conversations—dozens of them, from East Texas to Southern California—checking them for signs of mutual deception, for hints of genuine compassion. The issue was kept alive for me by a slew of blistering articles, including one in the Columbia Journalism Review, that accused me of being inconsistent in my reporting on Rick. They argued that my early coverage in 1994 built him up as the “Wal-Mart of cocaine,” then my later coverage in 1996 deflated him as just another pusher in “a cast of interchangeable characters.” These critics, most of whom thought the L.A. Times had been too quick to dismiss the CIA story, wanted to show that my work was as flawed as the work I was assailing—even though the Mercury News later backed off its original claims. (I let most of the attacks slide, but my response would have been this: Rick was huge, probably the biggest retailer of his day. Still, he controlled only a small percentage of the entire crack market. The Mercury News wanted us to believe that the Nicaraguans used him to open “the first pipeline” between the Latin American cartels and South-Central Los Angeles. I tried to point out that cocaine was flowing in from a variety of sources and that it was being marketed by a variety of competitors, despite Rick’s undeniably large contribution to its spread.)

To the extent that, in print, I was less generous to Rick, it probably had something to do with the disheartening change I saw in him. Two years earlier, when we had just met, he was on top of the world, the architect of his destiny. He never made excuses. He never blamed “the system” for his plight. He had become a big dope dealer because he had wanted to. He had worked his butt off; now he was going to do the same for a legitimate buck. I liked his cockiness, his sense of self. If it was all an act, it was being performed with sensational flair. Then, not long after I met him, he seemed to become someone else. Suddenly, his entire crack-dealing career was the fault of the CIA, or the Nicaraguans, or some other mysterious co-conspirator. Poor little Ricky Ross was far too vulnerable a creature to fend off their sinister hand. “I feel now just like the slaves, when they used to hang them for nothing,” he lamented.

I did not care so much anymore if Rick was playing me—I knew he had to have been, if not as the dreamer in 1994, then as the pawn in 1996. But I was curious to know which Rick was the real Rick. What did he really believe and when did he believe it? Did he honestly think he was in as much control as he first claimed? Did he truly consider himself as lame as he later insisted? And if I found an answer, now in 1998, could it possibly permit me to see him in a redemptive light again or would it force me to dismiss him as a hopeless case?

TO GET TO WHERE RICK IS TODAY, you need to go back to East Texas. His mother and father were both born of the Depression, Smith County natives with roots in the soil. Each grew up tilling the white man’s land, renting what they could not own, and paying their debt in crops. They grew corn and squash, peanuts and peppers. When that was not enough, they took in laundry, scrubbing and ironing the white man’s shirts. They attended Negro schools and drank from Negro fountains. They learned to use the back door, to lower their gaze, to say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” even if others called them Sonny and Annie Mae long after they were grown. “My daddy always told me one thing: As long as you black, you better act like it,” said Rick’s 68-year-old father, a former Army cook who still raises hogs and sings in the Galilee Baptist choir near Tyler. “Act like black people’s supposed to act,” he added. “I don’t care where you go. That’s the way you gonna be treated.” As a young man, Sonny Ross dabbled in contraband himself, brewing moonshine under cover of the East Texas pines. “If you’re poor and ain’t got nothin’, naturally you want to make you a little money,” he said. But one too many run-ins with the liquor man persuaded him to stop selling corn whiskey at $25 a gallon. “He said, ‘Shorty, I’m gonna get you.’ So I quit. You can’t beat the system.”

He decided to try his luck in Los An-geles, ending up on the graveyard shift at an all-night gas station in South-Central. Early one Sunday morning, two women walked in and stuck a gun to his head. “They took sixty-eight dollars and sixty-seven cents,” he recalled. “I never will forget that day.” It was 1959, a year before Rick was born. “I said to myself, ‘This ain’t the town for me. I’m goin’ back to Texas. I just can’t cut it in California.’”

His wife, the former Annie Mae Maul-din, left him five years later, taking her own gamble on L.A. It meant separating the children from their father. But she wanted Rick, then four, and David, who was almost eight years older, to live in a place where they could hold up their heads. “I didn’t want them to come up the way that I come up,” she said. Raising the boys on her own, though, was a struggle: She cleaned office buildings, labored as a gardener, scrounged for canned food in the ashes of the 1965 riots. For a time, she moonlighted for an ambulance-chasing lawyer, listening to a police scanner and hustling up accident cases. “Mom would jump up from the table, still eating, and go chase a wreck—the same thing I would do when I started selling drugs,” Rick said. Finally, she went “on the county”—welfare and food stamps. “Ricky never did like that too much,” she recalled. “He’d always say, ‘We can have a car wash’ or ‘We can have a rummage sale.’ He was always the brains, the dreamer, ever since he was born.” Sometimes, during summer vacations, she would take the boys to visit their cousins, the Mauldins, in East Texas. She remembers the time Rick ran into a grocery store for an ice cream, only to be ordered out by the white shopkeeper. For her, it was a painful vindication: “I knew I couldn’t go in there, but he didn’t know any better.”

Rick did not merely shrug off the limits of his parents’ world, he bashed through every obstacle. He wanted cash in his pocket—not later, but now. He wanted to be admired—it mattered little for what. “I couldn’t understand sometimes where he was coming from,” said his brother, David, now in his mid-forties. “Like, ‘What do he see that I don’t see?’ He had a plan for everything.” Rick was a shoplifter by 10, using decoys to distract the security guard at a South-Central five-and-dime while he grabbed armloads of candy bars, shoes, and watches. As a teenager, he earned spending money from the pimps on the neighborhood “ho stroll,” knocking on motel doors and warning tricks that their time was up. He stole bicycles, then cars, stripping and rebuilding them outside his mother’s house by the Harbor Freeway, which is how he got his nickname. When Rick was 20 or 21, an old friend who had been away on a college football scholarship returned home, sporting gold, bragging of women, and flaunting a $50 rock. Rick had never seen cocaine before: “I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I knew I didn’t want the life my mother lived—welfare, no car, waiting till the first of the month to have milk and cereal. I knew there had to be something in the world I could do, something that I could be the best at.”

Rick’s ascent to the highest echelons of the crack business was swift, based on age-old economic axioms, albeit warped to ominous extremes. To get his foot in the door, he and his best friend, Ollie Newell, a.k.a. Big Loc, stole a car, sold the rims, and bought a $250 bag of cocaine from a vocational school auto-upholstery teacher. By breaking it into smaller rocks, they got a $500 return on their investment and then continued to “double up,” turning the $500 into $1,000, and so on. As with any product, the unit price dropped as the volume increased. Other dealers knew this as well, but they did not always share Freeway Rick’s all-consuming passion to rise to the top. “You called me at twelve o’clock at night, I’d go,” he said. “Another guy, he might be with his girlfriend: ‘Oh, I can’t come tonight.’ You call Rick, Rick’s getting up. It’s just good business. One guy, he be sitting there smoking a cigarette. He can’t do nothing until he finish smoking that cigarette. Rick don’t smoke cigarettes. Rick can move right now. He don’t have a beer can in his hands or a bottle of liquor. That’s the only difference between me and most of my friends in the drug business—my discipline.”

By the mid-eighties, Rick was crisscrossing the country, buying and selling as much as two hundred to three hundred pounds of cocaine a day. He had a network of beepers, cell phones, and walkie-talkies, synchronizing a crew of fifteen to twenty henchmen via his own private channel. He wore a bulletproof vest and took target practice at a firing range with his 9-millimeter Browning. Back in the neighborhood, he had a cook house with a restaurant-quality stove, a money house with currency-counting machines, a retail house with an underground escape tunnel leading from a closet to the street, and a party house with NBA-caliber basketball hoops, a cook, and a maid. He had piles of uncounted cash; once, he took an entire day to tally the $2.8 million that lay on his living room floor. He even had his own police squad, the Freeway Rick Task Force, an elite team of Los Angeles cops whose sole mission was to hunt him down, lock him up, and throw away the key. “My momma would always say, ‘You can’t outthink the white man,’ and there I was—I felt like I was beating the system,” Rick said. “I really thought that, ‘Hey, this is it, my blessing.’ I felt this was the American dream.”

His mother ran the motel. His brother opened a sporting-goods store. “I was the cow of the family,” Rick said. He pretended to be Superfly, just one deal away from going legit. He sponsored his own semi-pro basketball team, named Easy Money. He bought new backboards for the neighborhood courts. The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks even gave Rick a plaque, expressing its “deepest appreciation for your generous donation.”

In his zeal to share the wealth—or, maybe, to remind himself just how far he had come—Rick eventually ventured back to the pine forests and rose fields of Smith County, a place that had changed in the previous three decades, though perhaps not as dramatically as he had. There he reunited with his cousins, Jesse and Johnny Mauldin, now 41, the children of Annie Mae’s older brother, James. They hauled pulpwood for a living, a grueling and often dangerous job (one of their younger brothers would later die in a logging accident). Rick suggested a more lucrative line of work: “I came down and did their research for them, sold their first rock for them, showed them how to cook it, you know, ‘Do it like this, do it like that,’ because they didn’t know nothing. They got all of my training for free.”

Soon the twins were styling—identical brick homes, matching Jaguars in the driveways, a diamond stud in the left ear. By 1988, the year the police busted their Tyler cocaine ring, the Mauldins “were pretty heavy, the heaviest we knew of in this area at the time,” said Sergeant Danny Green, a Texas Department of Public Safety investigator who worked the case. The twins got forty years each but were released after four. The Twelfth District Court of Appeals ruled that defense lawyers had been improperly barred from questioning members of the all-white jury about their feelings toward blacks. Before the trial had even begun, state district judge Bill Coats was accused of revealing his own improper views. During a conference in his chambers, he observed that Jesse Mauldin was holding a briefcase for his lawyer, the noted San Antonio drug attorney Gerald Goldstein. Then, according to an unsuccessful petition to have the judge recused, Coats allegedly smirked: “Everyone should have a nigger to carry their bag.”

Rick went down a year after his cousins, with indictments in Tyler, Cincinnati, and L.A. He could have been nailed for life. But in a turn of the tables worthy of Hollywood, six of his pursuers from the Freeway Rick Task Force also happened to be facing a mess of indictments for their alleged role in a massive corruption and money-skimming scandal that shook the L.A. County Sheriff’s narcotics bureau to its core. At the U.S. attorney’s invitation, Rick testified against the rogue officers and served just four years in the federal pen. Then he went to Tyler and did an additional nine months for conspiring with his cousins. The Smith County district attorney’s office had hoped for a longer term but was content in knowing that Rick now had his second drug conviction—and would be gone for good upon receiving his third. “You didn’t have to be a fortune-teller and look in a crystal ball to tell that Freeway Ricky was destined for failure,” David Dobbs, the chief felony prosecutor in Tyler, recently said. “He’s very engaging, very gregarious, a very likable person on the surface. But it’s a complete facade in terms of who he really is. He’s a master at the art of deception.”

AND SO IT WAS THAT RICK WALKED OUT of the Smith County jail on August 31, 1994, looking more like a skinny college kid than a kingpin in his green Guess? jeans and shiny white Nikes, a toothy smile bursting from his jet-black beard. An ex-girlfriend once explained her first glimpse of him this way: “I was expecting this big, six-foot-five, fire-breathing asshole, and instead, here’s this little, tiny guy with big, bright eyes and dreadlocks.” As someone who had spent the previous three years writing about gangs, I did not exactly think of myself as putty in his hands. I had interviewed plenty of bad guys who claimed to be decent at heart, just a little twisted by their environment. There may be some truth to that—I believe that the line between right and wrong gets blurred when survival is at stake—but I also came to believe that change is a long struggle, one that depends less on sincerity than on concrete alternatives to the identity and respect found in the underworld. It seemed that every time I got hooked by a redemption tale, the protagonist let me down. Some of my sources—guys I had shared beer and barbecue with—ended up getting killed by their slipups. Others got locked up for killing. I did not want to make the same mistake with Freeway Rick.

I suppose the easy answer is that I did, that I was swayed by his sureness and charm, by the notion that a drug dealer really could be just like any other businessman, if only given the chance. Although I never vouched for the legitimacy of his pie-in-the-sky projects, my stories did give him a platform by which to promote himself (just as I suspect this one is doing, to some degree, now). L. J. O’Neale, the assistant U.S. attorney who later put Rick away for life, believes that I got scammed from the start. He feels certain that Rick was plotting his return to the drug business and that, by writing about his supposed turnaround, I provided him with a convenient cover. “At the very least, it was insurance,” O’Neale told me—a public record of Rick’s good intentions, to be offered in his defense, if and when his nefarious self was exposed.

Rick, of course, denies this, insisting that he genuinely believed he would never deal drugs again and that, if he had wanted to, he never would have spent so much time palling around with me, detailing his rise in the crack trade on hour after hour of tape, posing for color photos. “That ain’t the way I sell drugs,” he said. “It’s easier for nobody to know nothin’ about me.” If that is the case, then Rick would seem to be at least as guilty of self-deception as he is of deceiving me. After our first meeting in Texas, we spent a month together in Los Angeles, surveying his old haunts, scouting out young tennis players (Rick had been a high school star before dropping out), and visiting the broken-down theater that was to be the focal point of his comeback as a community leader. By the next month, October 1994, he was on a pay phone, calling Nicaragua collect. The calls continued into 1995—his old supplier, Blandon, had the bills to prove it. He also had tape recordings; Rick can be heard discussing price and quantity in a voice that is anything but reluctant. When asked by his lawyer to explain this apparent willingness to do business, given his pronouncements to the contrary, Rick never sounded more vapid. “It was just something that just . . . just came out of me,” he testified at his 1996 federal trial in San Diego.

After being convicted and sentenced to life without parole, Rick had the gall to concoct a self-styled lawsuit, seeking more than $5 million in damages each from Blandon and O’Neale, as well as from Attorney General Janet Reno, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, and a roster of other federal agents. He called himself an “innocent bystander” whose civil rights had been violated by those officials—“at his weakest point psychologically in his life.” Come to think of it, his entire seventeen-year criminal career had been a government fabrication. “At no time was Mr. Ross his own person,” Rick wrote about himself. In short, the war on drugs was so corrupt, and the U.S. authorities were so complicit, that nobody should be convicted of selling dope. The government’s rebuttal was merciless. “Ross is making one last-ditch effort to escape liability for his crimes, and is reckless of the consequences,” O’Neale wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Just as Ross poured the poison of drugs into his community for his personal advantage, now he is pouring in the poison of hate and disturbance for his own advantage. The United States suggests that Ross knows well that the tale is false, but cares not what ills its spread causes, so long as it pays Ricky Ross to spread it.”

The thing that struck me most about Rick’s newly purported powerlessness was how closely it mirrored the religion of his parents. Sonny and Annie Mae Ross are both fervent believers that God has a divine plan for each one of us, that it is vanity for a mortal to presume he commands his own fate. “In my life, a lot of things have changed, but you know who changed it? Not mankind. The good Lord did,” his father said. “We just pilgrims traveling through this barren land.” His mother, now 69 and living in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson, put it this way: “You don’t have nothing to do with your life. The way has already been planned for you.” That may help explain why she allowed herself to share in Rick’s wealth, despite knowing that his money was tainted. Besides putting her in charge of the motel, Rick spent $50,000 remodeling her old house by the freeway and even donated new pews and an air-conditioning unit to her church. “You know how I feel? What’s to be will be,” she said. “This was his life. It had been cut out for him. It was the special plan that God had for him to go through.” And why would God want Rick to sell drugs? Although they live 1,500 miles apart and rarely speak, both parents told me, in separate conversations, that their son was being girded for a higher calling. “Ricky will preach before he dies,” his mother said. “I already preach,” he fired back when I told him, several years ago, of her prediction.

I WAS THINKING ABOUT RICK AND HIS FAMILY when I went to interview him earlier this year at the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, about three hours north of Los Angeles. Except for a brief exchange of letters to arrange for the appointment, we had not communicated since our 1996 blowup on the phone. As the road weaved between towering coastal bluffs and the vast Pacific sea, I considered how Rick, for all his vision and moxie, really was a product of his environment, how he had not traveled so far from the fatalism of that vacant yellow shack on FM 346. Yes, our legal system is predicated on the notion that we all have free will, that everything comes down to a choice. But those choices are never made in a vacuum. They are not scientific equations. They cannot escape the histories—of a family, of a people, of a place—that shape every one of our lives, histories of which we are not always even conscious. It is quite a feat to master those forces, to carve our own destiny, to transcend all the demons of our past. If we could, would that be true power? Or would that be the greatest self-delusion of all?

“Right now,” Rick announced when he saw me, “I might be more freer than I ever was.”

This time, I had come prepared for a confrontation, to force Rick to define himself once and for all. But he was already on to a new incarnation, pulling the rug out from under me before I could even try to pin him down.

“Bodywise, I’m confined,” he went on. “But we’re all confined, in so many words, you know what I’m saying? . . . I’m reading a lot faster. I’m writing a lot better. I’ve matured a little more. My mind is growing. My dreams are huge now.” And what about his bout with victimization? “I guess I was feeling sorry for myself, you know, ‘Oh, man, how did this happen?’ I cried when I was in court, you know, ‘Wah-wah, boo-hoo, this and that.’ I mean, I was down. I was in shock. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I’m like the Energizer Bunny now. I’m amped. I can’t wait till the door is open every morning and I can get a book and read and stuff. I want to become as knowledgeable as I can in as many ways as I can. I think I’m the one who’s going to bring my whole community up.”

He said he was taking classes in contract law so he could negotiate his own entertainment deals. One of his companies, Freeway Entertainment, was selling a screenplay. Another of his inventions, Freeway Records, was producing a rap album. With the help of his erstwhile running buddy—Ol’ Newell, who was paroled last year from federal prison—Rick was also writing an autobiography. He was launching his own line of clothing. He wanted to handpick the next congressman from South-Central L.A.

He was still inmate #05550-045, locked up for life, no chance of parole.

“It’s gonna be a wild story,” he said, flashing one of his movie star smiles.

“It’s already a wild story,” I replied.

“The wild part hasn’t even started yet,” he insisted.

That same crazy rap again, selling confidence, tailoring his hustle to whatever hurdles stood in his way. The vibe was pure Anthony Robbins, positive thought, unlimited power. I knew, because I had begun reading Awaken the Giant Within, looking for the keys to Rick’s head. Despite its smooth-talking tone, I found that I liked the book, its rejection of self-pity and its celebration of possibility. Rick’s track record was not so good. He had sabotaged himself and caused his community irreparable harm. But fools sometimes turn into visionaries, Robbins likes to point out, especially if they do not fear making more mistakes. Few great leaders were ever “realistic” at the outset. Instead, they created their own reality—sometimes relying on imaginary or even distorted ideas to get where they wanted to go. Rick never forgot that lesson.

“I might be fooling myself,” he said. “I think like that sometimes. That’s possible. But I got the right to do that. I can do whatever I want to with myself. This is America. We can dream. That’s one thing they didn’t take from me. They didn’t say, ‘You can’t dream no more, Freeway Rick.’”

I had my old Rick back. He was a lost cause. I never liked him so much.