S2 E07: Who Killed Damion Lucas?
November 12, 2018
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A thirteen-year-old boy is murdered in a drive-by shooting. The Detroit police quickly apprehend a suspect. But the FBI is convinced that the wrong man is in jail — and that the real killers are escaping justice thanks to friends in high places.
Season 2 of Crimetown is available exclusively on Spotify. You can sign up and listen for free at spotify.com/crimetown. For a full list of credits, and more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
Season 2 of Crimetown is available exclusively on Spotify. You can sign up and listen for free at spotify.com/crimetown. For a full list of credits, and more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
COLEMAN YOUNG ARCHIVAL: I never thought I would see the day when I would stand on a platform and invite somebody to become a stool pigeon. I've had some unfortunate experiences with these finks.
DREW NELLES: It’s 1984. Public outrage about crime in Detroit has reached a crescendo. Desperate and out of options, Mayor Coleman Young calls on the city’s residents for help.
YOUNG ARCHIVAL: But now we invite people to fink in a good cause. Be a people’s fink. Put the finger on your neighbor. [laughter] If he's carrying a gun. If he's committing a crime. I say that because we have to do it. We have to point out the wrongdoer, if it’s a member of our family. If we are not willing to step up to the responsibility of identifying those who break the law, then the law will continue to be broken. Because by our silence, we are part of the crime. We’re condoning the crime.
DREW: Publicly, Coleman Young is asking Detroiters to turn in their friends and even their family members. But when it comes to his friends and family… It turns out that the mayor is a little more willing to look the other way.
LEON LUCAS ARCHIVAL: If you're related to the right person I guess you can do what you want to do, you kill who you want to kill. You can get things done in a certain city you know because you got that type of power.
DREW: Last time on Crimetown, we told you about Mayor Coleman Young's connections to Detroit’s drug world. Today on the show... the drive-by shooting of a thirteen-year old boy shows just how deep those connections go...
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: An amazing story of a disputed murder investigation, drugs, and suspected police corruption with the shadow of city politics over all of it.
DREW: I’m Drew Nelles. Welcome to Crimetown.
911 DISPATCH: Emergency, what’s the problem?
911 CALLER: Okay, the problem is on Mark Twain between Pembrooke and Chippewa. Somebody’s outside just firing a gun. Continuously.
DREW: April 29th, 1985. Just before midnight. Gunshots ring out on the west side of Detroit.
911 DISPATCH: How many shots have you heard?
911 CALLER: A whole bunch of them, sound like a dozen, bang bang bang all over the place.
DREW: The shots were aimed at a red-brick house on Marlowe Street.
VINCE WADE: All of the shots pierced the walls. It was automatic weapon fire.
DREW: This is Vince Wade, an investigative reporter. Inside the house were two brothers...
WADE: Damion Lucas was 13. Frankie was 11. So the boys tried to run to the basement to hide but they didn't make it that far. They got they got as far as the kitchen and Damion fell on the floor.
WADE: So there was this absolutely riveting 911 call from Frankie Lucas.
911 DISPATCH: Emergency Center. What’s the problem?
FRANKIE LUCAS: My brother on the floor dyin’. Please. I don’t know…
WADE: He's begging for help because his brother is on the floor dying.
FRANKIE LUCAS: Yes. I don’t know what to do. Please.
WADE: The operator tries to get the information from him and he tells her but he’s just wailing on the phone that he's so scared.
FRANKIE: Yes. He’s not moving, please.
911: Ok ok. Don’t, don’t bother your brother. Don’t touch him. Just wait for the police and EMS…
FRANKIE: Please hurry, please.
911: Ok. As soon as they can. They’re coming.
WADE: Now there's a lot of killings in Detroit. That's how it got the nickname the Murder City. But this one was particularly heart wrenching.
DREW: Vince Wade made a TV news series about the murder of Damion Lucas. You'll hear his reporting throughout the episode.
VINCE WADE ARCHIVAL: 13 year old Damion Lucas was dead on arrival at Mount Carmel Hospital. His uncle Leon Lucas had custody of Damion and Frankie. The boys had been orphaned when their mother died the previous year.
DREW: Here’s Damion’s uncle Leon talking to Vince Wade.
LEON LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Damion said, “Let’s go in the basement and hide.” And he didn't make it to the basement. He collapsed in front of the stove.
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: And Frankie said, “Uncle Leon, I tried to pick him up but he was too heavy,” he said, “and then I tried to wake him up and he wouldn't wake up no more.” And then he just bust out into tears.
WADE: When the homicide detectives went to investigate after Damion Lucas was killed, they interviewed the neighbors, which is standard procedure. And the neighbors told them about the big fight between LeKeas Davis and Leon Lucas.
DREW: LeKeas Davis was a guy from the neighborhood. And at first, there seemed to be a lot of reasons for Detroit homicide detectives to pursue him as a suspect.
WADE ARCHIVAL: He had been in a noisy fight with Leon Lucas the week before. He had threatened to kill Leon Lucas. Neighbors witnessed the incident. The night of the shooting neighbors saw a white car. Davis drove a white Escort. Davis was picked out of a lineup by a witness and his friends were vague about whether he was with them when the shooting occurred.
DREW: So, the police arrested LeKeas Davis for the murder of Damion Lucas.
ELLIOT MARGOLIS: I went to see LeKeas at the Wayne County Jail.
DREW: This is LeKeas Davis’s lawyer, Elliot Margolis.
MARGOLIS: He looked like a typical young man that was accused of a very serious crime, locked up in the Wayne County jail, which is not a pleasant place to be. You know he was obviously scared stiff. He he had never been in any trouble. And it just--the crime that he was charged with just didn't fit.
DREW: But there were other people Leon Lucas knew who did fit the crime. Here's Vince Wade...talking to Leon again.
WADE ARCHIVAL: So you started working in a business relationship selling heroin with Leo Curry,
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Exactly.
WADE ARCHIVAL: And with Johnny.
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: With Johnny. Mmhm.
DREW: Leon Lucas was selling heroin for drug dealer Johnny Curry and his twin brother Leo.
WADE ARCHIVAL: And they were getting their heroin from Willie Volsan, is that correct?
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Yes.
WADE ARCHIVAL: Johnny Curry told you that he was getting his heroin from Willie Volsan who is-
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Who is Cathy’s father, yes.
DREW: Cathy... as in Cathy Volsan. As you learned in our last episode, Cathy was married to drug dealer Johnny Curry. She was also Mayor Coleman Young's favorite niece.
WADE: Leon Lucas had scored some heroin from the Curry brothers and was going to sell it but got raided by the police. And so all of a sudden he was out the product that he was going to use to pay them back. So Leon Lucas owed the Currys some money.
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: And they called and said, Yeah we want our money and you know we don't want to hear no more s— about you giving us our money or whatever. And I just told him well I don't have it. He said we’ll be out to your house tonight and then you'll wish you had gave it to me.
WADE ARCHIVAL: This is the Monday that Damion got shot.
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Right, the Monday morning.
WADE ARCHIVAL: When that happened, you thought what?
LUCAS ARCHIVAL: Well, I automatically knew it was the Currys who was the conspirators in that.
DREW: Leon Lucas told the police what he told Vince Wade: he suspected the Curry brothers were behind the shooting. But the police already had Lekeas Davis in jail. And that's where things might have ended, if it weren’t for this guy.
HERM GROMAN: In the FBI we weren't going after street dealers. You know our philosophy was you know to cut the head of the snake off.
DREW: This is FBI Agent Herm Groman. In 1985, he was working a federal case on the Curry brothers' drug operation.
GROMAN: We got authorization to go up on Curry's telephones and start tapping his phones. Well immediately, we began hearing conversations about this shooting that had taken place on the west side of Detroit.
JOHNNY CURRY WIRETAP: But you know like Wyman *** up when he called over there and threatened them people, you know. Mmhm. That’s why I’m in the house right now just layin’ low.
DREW: This is Johnny Curry caught on that wiretap, a few days after the shooting. He’s talking about an enforcer of his named Wyman Jenkins.
CURRY WIRETAP: And I told Wyman, you know, he right now he got to stroke himself this one.
FUZZY WIRETAP: Yep.
CURRY WIRETAP: He got to weather himself out of this one, cause they went and done a dumb *** move by killing that little boy, man. That’s a little boy.
FUZZY WIRETAP: Yeah. Boy. Twelve years old?
CURRY WIRETAP: Eleven or thirteen, something like that. Thirteen.
DREW: Agent Groman now had Johnny Curry on a wiretap saying that one of his guys had “done a dumb move by killing that little boy.” Groman did some digging … and found out that little boy was Damion Lucas.
GROMAN: The police department had arrested another guy by the name of LeKeas Davis and charged him with first degree murder. And there was no indication at all that LeKeas Davis committed this murder. And I had information that strongly supported that members of the Curry drug gang actually did. We made sure that the homicide section of the police department got this information. And that basically was, "Hey you got the wrong guy and this is why we believe you have the wrong guy and this is who you need to be looking at." Well, they never pursued it. They continued to keep LeKeas Davis locked up. And finally it got to the point where I realized for whatever reason that nothing was going to happen.
DREW: So, Agent Groman took a look through Johnny Curry’s phone records from around the time of the murder.
GROMAN: So I ran down those telephone numbers and I found that there were certain calls that took place right after this homicide had taken place. One of which was to the home unlisted telephone number of one of the sergeants on the Detroit Police Department by the name of James Harris.
DREW: Jimmy Harris was the police sergeant who kept an eye on Mayor Coleman Young's niece, Cathy.
GROMAN: James Harris had worked directly as a part of the protection detail for the Mayor Coleman Young.
DREW: There was another call that got Agent Groman’s attention...to a close ally of Mayor Coleman Young: the head of the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division, a man named Gil Hill.
GROMAN: Gil Hill was a formidable political force in the city of Detroit who you may recall appeared in some of the Beverly Hills Cop movies as Eddie Murphy's boss.
GIL HILL IN BEVERLY HILLS COP: You know how much this little stunt of yours is gonna cost this city?
EDDIE MURPHY IN BEVERLY HILLS COP: I don't think cost is the issue here, sir. I think the issue should be my blatant disregard for proper procedure.
GIL HILL IN BEVERLY HILLS COP: You damn right, wise ass! The mayor called the Chief, the Chief called the Deputy Chief and the Deputy Chief just chewed my ass out! You see I don't have any bit of it left, don't you?
GROMAN: ...and a lot of people, police officers, prosecutors and so forth, were attached at the hip with Gil Hill.
DREW: Agent Groman suspected that Gil Hill’s homicide division was deliberately ignoring evidence against the Curry organization.
GROMAN: You know things began to make sense. I suspected that there was an unsavory relationship with the police department vis-a-vis the relationship of Cathy Volsan. And and so you know I kind of became hellbent in a way that I was going to try to resolve this and expose it.
GROMAN: I was kind of stuck with all this information. I knew who did the homicide. I knew that LeKeas Davis was locked up. And so I took a step to notify LeKeas Davis's defense attorney. Basically I met with him and I said, "You know we have information that your client didn't commit this homicide."
MARGOLIS: I was thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled. I, you know — aha! It was the biggest aha moment I've had in my career.
DREW: LeKeas Davis’s attorney, Eliot Margolis.
MARGOLIS: They contacted me and informed me of this exculpatory material with Gil Hill and the Curry boys being involved. One of their people actually did the shooting. And it was not LeKeas Davis who did it.
DREW: With this new evidence, Eliot Margolis forced the Detroit police to drop the case against LeKeas Davis. After ten months in jail, he was finally released.
DREW: Margolis thought it was all over, but then...
MARGOLIS: I received a phone call one night from Gil Hill. I had an unlisted phone number at the time. He contacted me at my home at about eleven thirty at night. I remember it was very late. And I thought it was most unusual, especially having an unlisted number and to be perfectly frank, I remember him being...drunk as a skunk, OK. And trying to convince me of how innocent he was. His whole conversation was just ranting and raving about how he was getting framed by the feds, by the FBI. And how he was totally innocent of any corruption. And on and on and on. And I listened. But I let him know that I wasn't concerned with anything but my client's welfare. I thought it was most odd, most strange this is a guy that thought that he was in a lot of hot water and was just looking out, reaching in all directions for help. This was a desperate guy.
DREW: Did you think at the time that he was corrupt?
MARGOLIS: After the phone call? Absolutely. Absolutely. That's not something that a that a confident individual would be doing.
GIL HILL ARCHIVAL: I’ve never made myself difficult to contact. And I think that’s a part of being a good investigator.
DREW: Here’s Homicide inspector Gil Hill speaking with reporter Vince Wade.
WADE ARCHIVAL: Let me put a question simply to you. As it relates to Cathy Volsan, Johnny Curry, did you, Gil Hill, provide them with any information that might have been construed as tipping them off?
HILL ARCHIVAL: Never. Never. They can say those things without being able to back them up, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
DREW: By the end of 1985, the FBI was certain that members of the Curry organization had killed 13-year-old Damion Lucas. But they couldn’t get the Detroit police to pursue the case…and the FBI started to suspect that Johnny Curry’s connections were the reason why.
GREGG SCHWARZ: Johnny was married to Mayor Coleman's niece. And so the word got around that there's no way anybody's going to take them down.
DREW: This is FBI Agent Gregg Schwarz. He and Agent Herm Groman had no jurisdiction in the Damion Lucas homicide, but they could continue to build their drug case against the Curry organization.
SCHWARZ: Well they had a number of different houses, a lot of different houses where they were selling the dope. And you would get different sources from narcotics division of Detroit Police Department and DEA et cetera to go in there and make buys. Of course, all of this, for me, the case agent, was a mound of paperwork.
DREW: Eventually, Agent Schwarz gathered enough paperwork for a warrant to raid Johnny Curry’s house, which, of course, was also the home of his wife, Cathy Volsan.
SCHWARZ: On the day that we did that search warrant, I found a laminated card. I found it in the in the kitchen and it was taped on the back door of a kitchen cabinet. And that card had the phone number of Gil Hill, and a number of other police officials with their private home phone number and their private cell phone numbers on that card.
DREW: Basically, it was proof that the Curry brothers had a direct line to the highest echelons of the Detroit Police Department.
DREW: I guess to just to delve into the implication a little more, it's that Coleman Young didn't want anything to impact his niece.
SCHWARZ: That's exactly right.
DREW: Including an actual murder investigation into her husband.
SCHWARZ: That's exactly right. Yup.
DREW: How did you feel? What went through your mind when you saw that?
SCHWARZ: Well I knew right away that these rumors that we had heard through some of the other sources out there turned out to be true. I mean why would your name be on that card?
JIMMY HARRIS: Johnny Curry would have never had my number because he didn't know me well enough to even approach me about my phone number.
DREW: One of the other names on the card that Agent Schwarz found was Sgt. Jimmy Harris...the cop whose job was looking after Cathy Volsan.
DREW: When they eventually made the raid, on the Curry drug house, they found a card with Gil’s number and your number.
DREW: Why — Why was your number on that card?
HARRIS: Because all of the mayor’s family had my card and my number.
DREW: So —
HARRIS: They had my phone number at home. They had the office number and they had my cell phone number and they had my car phone number on it.
DREW: So do you think Cathy put that number there or who put that number there?
HARRIS: Put what number what? I gave the card — I never gave Cathy a card of mine. Never. I gave her mother a card of mine. It was just a business card. If it was the card — I don't know what you know when they said they found a card with my number. That’s the only thing could have been a business card with my numbers on the back of it.
DREW: And did you have any knowledge of a cover-up of the Damion Lucas shooting?
HARRIS: I didn't know anything about the Damion Lucas case except what you knew and anybody else in the media.
DREW: After a series of raids, the FBI gathered enough evidence to indict Johnny Curry, his brother, and eighteen of their associates. They were charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Johnny says, he had no choice but to plead guilty.
JOHNNY CURRY: My lawyer he said, “You can’t be fighting the United States. It’s gonna say on the thing: You versus the United States of America.” That's what's on your indictment. The Unites States of America versus Johnny Curry. How am I gonna beat the United States of America? I said, “Fuck that.”
DREW: Johnny Curry was sent to prison to begin a 20-year sentence.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Our top story tonight at 6 o'clock: an exclusive target seven investigation into the tragic murder of a 13 year old boy...
DREW: Here’s Herm Groman, the FBI agent who caught Johnny talking about Damion Lucas on a wiretap.
GROMAN: There was an investigative reporter for one of the TV outlets in Detroit by the name of Vince Wade. And he did this compelling story. It was titled "Who Killed Damion Lucas?" And it started off with the 911 calls from Damion's brother pleading with you know for medical attention. You know it actually put tears in your eyes when you listen to this. And so I took a copy of that video and I played it for Johnny Curry in prison.
DREW: The FBI agent and the drug dealer sat in the prison visiting room and watched.
WADE ARCHIVAL: In a city with far too many murder statistics Damion Lucas became just another number. At the Wayne County morgue he became case number 34 73 for 1985. But to those who knew him he was a good kid with a budding interest in art.
VINCE: This is Damion Lucas holding one of his art posters that won a prize. This is Damion Lucas hamming it up like any other 13 year old kid.
ROSE JORDAN: He had a lot of talents. Liked his art. His art was his heart.
GROMAN: And I I'll never forget. Johnny says, "You know I got kids myself." He said, "That's tragic that that happened." And he said, "You know I'm not heartless. And I said, "I want to talk to you about how it was covered up." He said, "Well, I'll tell you everything about it.”
DREW: Johnny opened up. He told Agent Groman that when he found out his crew had been involved in a shooting, he was worried.
GROMAN: He said, "Yeah, you know, we were concerned there was you know this homicide was starting to bring some heat on our operation. So Cathy reached out and talked to Gil Hill, the inspector at the homicide section.”
DREW: Johnny said that a few days later he went to meet Gil Hill at the police station.
GROMAN: And he said, "I took ten thousand dollars, I had it in a briefcase and I walked into the office, Gil Hill turned up the radio. I opened up the briefcase I handed him the ten thousand dollars. And he said, “Tell your guys to lay low. Everything is going to be fine. Don't worry about it.”
DREW: We asked Johnny Curry about this meeting with Gil Hill.
JOHN WHITE: Was there a meeting at Gil Hill’s office?
CURRY: There was always a meeting at Gil Hill’s office, I’ll put it like that. I would go down to Gil’s office sometimes and said Gil, let’s go have lunch or something.
JOHN: But it seems like from what I've heard, correct me if I’m wrong, that you and Cathy -- you know this Damien Lucas situation, shortly thereafter you guys are at Gil Hill’s office. And you're giving Gil Hill ten thousand dollars.
CURRY: To do what?
JOHN: To keep the heat off.
CURRY: No no no no no. I don't have to keep the heat off of. At that particular time the heat was coming anyway.
JOHN: Alright, so--and, alright, so this story of you giving 10,000 dollars to Gil Hill, is that true?
CURRY: So you keep saying giving ten thousand dollars to Gil Hill for what reason? I might walk there and say, here is your Christmas gift. Not because no reason why, I might walk in there and say we brothers, like family here go take this and go buy you something. It might be like that but just for at -- give you 10,000 asking you asking you to do something for me, no. I don't say, here man, well let me know what's going on. No, that never happened.
JOHN: Okay. But did you ever give him a ten thousand dollar cash --
CURRY: I might’ve gave him 20, I don’t know.
GROMAN: And he said, "But that wasn't the only time I paid him bribe money." He said, "I paid him throughout the years. Sometimes I'd give him five hundred dollars. Sometimes I'd give him two thousand, tell him to take his girlfriend out for dinner." He said it was a regular thing. And I thought you know I think what I'll do we'll bring back Johnny Curry and we’ll immunize him on the homicide and compel him to testify in a federal grand jury about what happened and who he paid. So that's what we did.
DREW: A grand jury was convened and Agent Groman wanted Johnny to be the star witness.
GROMAN: I brought him back to Detroit and I remember I went into the Wayne County jail where he was housed before his grand jury testimony. I said, "Johnny, I just kind of want to go over what's going to happen in grand jury." And he said, "you know I've been thinking about this.” “I want to cooperate," he said, "but I'm not sure about these facts.” He said, “I'm not sure if I dreamed it or what." So he kind of had me and we really couldn't use him as a as a witness in this thing.
DREW: Johnny Curry is now out of prison. And he claims he had nothing to do with the murder of Damion Lucas. As for that wiretap of him discussing the shooting...
CURRY: The words that I said was, if anybody in my crew had anything involved in this, you don't do that. You don't go shoot up a house because it could be some innocent — not just kids bystanders or bodies in there and if you do that you bringing heat on my organization. They had me on tape with that. I say if somebody in my crew had something to do with it, it's going to bring heat down on my organization and I want it handled. But it had nothing to do with Johnny Curry.
WADE: The Detroit police feared the wrath of Coleman Young, if they pursued the truth as to who killed Damion Lucas.
DREW: Reporter Vince Wade.
WADE: They tried to frame an innocent man and the reason for that, I contend, is that if they actually pursued the true shooters it would have meant that the mayor's niece Cathy Volsan would be a witness in a homicide case. They know who did it. They actually know who the shooters were. But they've never been prosecuted. And they could be prosecuted but there's not the political will to do it. You know, it's this corrupt orbit that was around Coleman Young. I don't have any evidence that I was able to find as an investigative reporter that Coleman Young personally took money but he allowed people around him to do it and he didn’t give a damn as long as they were totally loyal to him.
COLEMAN YOUNG ARCHIVAL: We have to point out the wrongdoer, if it’s a member of our family. By our silence, we are part of the crime. We’re condoning the crime.
WADE: To this day, no one has been charged with the killing of Damion Lucas. It’s still an unsolved cold case.
DREW: But someone wasn’t ready to let it go: FBI agent Herm Groman.
GROMAN: There was an opening on the public official corruption squad. And you know I had all this information on the corrupt police officers and I thought this would be the perfect venue to pursue that. So I went up and talked with you know one of the bosses in the FBI office. And we sat down we start talking and I said, "Listen, I got this idea.”
DREW: Next time on Crimetown...Agent Groman’s idea.
Crimetown is Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier. This season is made in partnership with Gimlet Media and Spotify.
This episode was produced by Samantha Lee, Austin Mitchell, John White, Rob Szypko, and Soraya Shockley.
The senior producer is me, Drew Nelles.
Editing by Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. Additional editing by Ryan Murdock.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Sam Bair.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music by Kenny Kusiak, John Kusiak, and additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit music this week is “Keep on Rockin’ It” by EZB and DJ Los.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
The TV report on Damion Lucas’s murder appears courtesy of Vince Wade. Vince just came out with a book called “Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs.” Check it out.
Additional archival material courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
We’ve got a great website with bonus content for each episode like photos, videos, and newspaper clippings, as well as a full list of credits and a transcript. Check it out at crimetownshow.com.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaeffer, Mary Schroeder, Mary Wallace, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, Melissa Samson, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Bill Gray, Martin Torgler, Ralph Musilli, Evan Hughes, Rashard Cardon, Keith Terry, Kevin Greene, and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit is an amazing place, and we’re honored to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather. Oh, hey Alex!
GIL: I’m not taking any more of this shit from you. You know how much this little stunt of yours is gonna cost this city? The mayor called the Chief, the Chief called the Deputy Chief and the Deputy Chief just chewed my ass out! You see I don't have any bit of it left, don't you?
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