©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Star (2008)
NOTE: This two-part story about Omaha native Clyde Waller is based on interviews I conducted with him. Waller described to me a multi-faceted criminal life whose sheer scope makes much of what he said he did difficult to confirm. Given Waller's underground world and urban legend character, I do not purport the story is entirely factual. Rather, it is an interpretive, as-told-to account that, whenever possible, uses Waller's own words. Make up your own mind.
Part I: Clyde Waller's Education in The Life
Long before you meet living urban legend Clyde Waller, you hear the stories. When you finally talk to the man, he confirms a criminal past of mythic dimensions.
He describes growing up fast on the mean streets of post-World War II Omaha, where next door to each other his father ran Count's Pool Hall and his uncle the after-hours Count's Joint in south O. His dad and uncle had legit businesses, but always had some extra action going on the side, from moving bootleg liquor to boosted merchandise. Young Clyde soaked it all in.
Dodges came naturally to him as a kid. He resold comic books and costume jewelry for a profit. He supplied his mom with handkerchiefs he'd cut into swatches for her to crochet. Then he peddled the doilies on the street, at school, wherever. On his first train ride he hustled the sandwiches he packed to hungry GIs, for whom he spent the rest of the trip running errands, earning cold hard cash in tips. "I kind of had a hustling quality about me as a child," he says.
When not looking for an edge, he roamed many a haunt. His south O hangouts included the banks of the Missouri River, the stockyards, Ak-Sar-Ben race track, Riverview Park, Playland Park and the Chief and Roseland theaters. When his family moved to the north side, he was a regular at the Crosstown roller rink and Reed's Ice Cream stand. Downtown, he took in show after show at the Tiverly, Brandeis, Omaha and Orpheum theaters. He swears the movies' glamorous portrayals of crime only reinforced his own way of life.
In the early 1960s the high school drop out led more or less a straight life. He ran errands for patrons at a hotel and worked as a janitor at the old St. Joseph's Hospital. He even joined the Naval reserves. All that conformity ate at him. Just as the Vietnam War was about to grow hot, active duty called. When he went AWOL before his Navy hitch began, he fled to Kansas.
When he felt the heat was off he came back to Omaha a few weeks later, got married and started a family in the Spencer Street housing projects. But the MPs caught up to him and he soon found himself on the USS Procyon, a supply ship, bound for Nam. To teach him a lesson, he says, "they shipped my ass out with no basic training or nothing." He reported for duty in his fly duds. The Navy proved a rude awakening, but some things never changed, as he soon found the angles in this bad situation to do a handsome trade in black market Naval stores.
Back stateside in the mid-'60s, he settled in Oakland, Calif., where he fell in with a proverbial den of thieves. They used the Color Me Natural barbershop on 98th Avenue as a front for their illicit operations. With its juke box and its hip cutters, the place was a gathering spot for people in "the life."
“Gamblers, hustlers, pimps, dope dealers, you name it, they come through there. And some of it rubbed off on me,” he says. He learned the “honorable” craft of barbering along with less reputable pursuits, like how to pull off various frauds. He helped design West Coast scams that bilked companies and individuals alike. His crew staged accidents they then collected disability insurance settlements on or they filed false discrimination lawsuits defendants gladly settled out of court. The gang found ways to embezzle or otherwise redirect monies from private financial accounts.
“I always had some game going...running one scheme after another. Then we got into drugs. We were selling weed, cocaine, heroin and every damn thing else. So we were living on easy street. We got a nice barber shop and we’re selling drugs and driving Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah, livin’ on top of the world. Living way beyond the means of cutting hair,” he tells you.
His first marriage failed. He married again, only to see it crumble as well. Besides the children from his two wives, he fathered more with other women.
He’s captivated you with his tales over the phone. This natural storyteller’s rich, profane language is just what you expect from an old-school gangsta. He sounds like the real deal, too -- a man wise to the ways of the wicked. When he comes to Omaha for an August family reunion, the legend doesn’t disappoint. He looks the part of an outlaw with his world-weary slouch, muscular arms, graying pony-tail, stylish clothes, Ray-Ban shades and gold bling-bling that drapes his ears, neck and wrist. You imagine Samuel Jackson or Terrence Howard playing him if his story ever finds its way on screen, which it just might. It’s one of the reasons he’s in town.
You sit down for lunch with him in the Old Market and he spills out details from his story in loud, expletive-laced riffs that you’re sure will turn heads, but don’t. It’s easy to see how he could manipulate people to his advantage with the way he seduces you into feeling you’re the only one in his gaze at that moment. There are glimpses of a compulsive man whose hunger for more gives him a desperate edge.
No matter how much he made, it was never enough. Too many middle men cut into the profits. Especially with coke. “So we devised a way to bring it up out of Bogota,” he says matter of factly.
He purports to, in the '70s, being perhaps the first African-American drug lord with his own direct connection to the Colombia cartel of Pablo Escobar. Of being made “a godfather” by a Colombian family. Of being a big-time supplier. "I never dealt drugs directly. I never sold $50 worth. I sold no less than $50k in drugs," he says. "But I never got away from the haunt of it." Of how, in the '80s and '90s, he made San Francisco and Hawaii his new bases of crime, running drugs, pulling scams, laundering and counterfeiting monies. How he breached monetary security walls. How his graft finally caught the attention of state and federal authorities. How federal judge Henry Fong called him “the most serious threat to the American monetary system.” How he cut a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to tell the Secret Service's Fraudulent Crimes Division “all” he knew in exchange for himself and two brothers not serving any part of a stiff sentence.
His ego was hurt when the government doubted that he, a lone black man, could mastermind such sophisticated criminal enterprises. In a warped way, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of racism.
The key to his rackets was having the smarts to see and slip through what he calls “the blind door.” He refers, for example, to a period when in-transit credit card transactions are exposed to spying crooks who, by using devices and/or inside information, tap the WATTS line and pilfer accounts when no one’s aware. Poof, it’s gone. He intimates that his Omaha connections gave him access to figures with knowledge of the systems that made Omaha then, as now, a telecommunications-telemarketing hub.
“The blind door is the door you open that no one ever thinks about,” he says. “Nobody’s even conscious it’s there and that’s the one I use, and it makes me invisible. Man, there’s a blind door to every damn thing. There’s a part where nobody sees nobody, and that’s where I come in. I figured out when it was. And unless I tell you I did it, you’ll never know how I did it.”
He says he kept right on stealing even while in the employ of the Secret Service. He says he only escaped the distasteful world of informant by making himself an addict and thus a degenerate nobody wanted anything from anymore. That his life only found meaning once he stopped looking for an edge. He talks with pride about making himself clean and sober and raising, alone, his two sons with ex-wife Lola.
Millions in ill gotten gains passed through his hands, he says, as he never intended on accumulating wealth. Others speak of his generosity in sharing what he made.
Trina Smolen, a Phoenix, Ariz. writer he worked with to turn his story into a book and a screenplay, was a jobless single mother in Hawaii when Waller adopted her and her little girl in the late 1980s. She speaks of his "big heart" and his "Robin Hood quality." She says, "He paid for operations for people. If somebody needed to make a rent payment, a mortgage payment, bail kids out, he was generous that way." She also says he and his second wife Lola shared a coke habit and that his "criminal enterprise" employed dozens of people and raked in loads of cash.
“I‘d just make it and spend it, give it away, just (expletive) it off,” he says. “Eighty-ninety thousand dollars in the trunk of my car. And after awhile it became a burden. The money was not only illegal, the s___ was heavy. Then I had to hire people to count it. Then they stole a little bit. I was going through misery.”
He’s seen it all, done it all, short of killing. That’s where he says he drew the line.
“I stayed away from guns...murder. I didn’t want to be involved in nothing like that. I did it my way by not allowing anyone in with these tendencies. And it worked. I’m walking here a free man,” he says on a walk in the Old Market. “I did something right. But I really should be either dead or in a penitentiary for the rest of my life.”
Violence was all around him growing up, first in south O, then in north O. On the south side, young Clyde navigated an Eastern European immigrant turf dominated by rough and tumble men who drank and fought hard. He saw gun play and knife fights. He once came upon a frozen corpse in the snow. He developed street smarts to fend off pervs and other predators. When his family moved to the near northside, things only got worse. The Wallers lived across from the Apex Bar, commonly known as “the bucket of blood” for all the stuff that went down there.
“I witnessed a lot of violence. I witnessed people getting shot, people getting cut. I was paranoid from the time I was 7 until I was 33 because I knew what people would do to one another and the extent to what they would do. That made me go the opposite direction. It kept me from it because to me it was ugly.”
From the time he was a little kid, he learned how to talk his way out of any jam, even practicing his lies in the mirror. He learned too that being on the make was a way of life. Hanging around his dad and uncle’s places he learned to hustle suckers with words, cards, dice or a pool cue. He could take you any way he chose.
He knows he comes off a braggart, but he insists baring the darker side of himself wears on his soul.
“It’s only because of the way I tell the story it sounds glorified, but it actually hurts to tell the story. The emotions are still there. When I leave you I will be literally worn out,” he insists. “I want people to understand I not only have remorse about what I’ve done, I wish I had done something else. I’m telling this story because it needs to be told. This story will answer a lot of questions to a lot of people somewhere, somehow.”
Ego played a big part in his getting caught up in the whole drug scene. Circumstances too put him in a position where he could be a player, a somebody. He said coming of age the way he did, amid shrewd black men who lived large from vice, he developed a distorted view of the world and a corrupt confidence in himself. Magnifying this was a loving father who told Clyde “you can do anything you want to do” and a police department, not far removed from the corrupt old Dennison political machine, that got a piece of the action.
“In the back, my father always had a card game going on. When the police would come in my older brother would take ‘em back to my father who would hand ‘em an envelope and they’d walk out. I’m not saying this to offend people, but I was taught something the average black child today don’t get instilled in them. When I went on my three-decade odyssey I was not inhibited by white people or their laws. I was free -- up here,” he says, rapping his temple with a finger, “and that’s why it was so easy for me to do it.
“I could have been anything. It’s just very unfortunate that at the time I chose to express my talents...coke was a recreational drug and everyone was doing it...doctors, attorneys, politicians, sports greats,” he says. “I actually stuck the needle in some of these arms. It put me on the same level with them. They, and I’m not lying, envied me. Ain’t that a b_____? They envied me. I done something they would never be able to do. They made me think what I was doing was important and, of course, I believed ‘em. I felt important.”
End of Part I.
Omaha's Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Part II: The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Clyde Waller
The way Clyde Waller tells his life story of dodges and deceptions, it's a riveting saga. He has a way with words anyway. That, combined with his urban slang, and his Old School G appearance makes it easy to believe he's seen his share of hell. You don't doubt for an instance his street cred. But still...
Can his tale really be believed when so much of it must be taken on faith? Author Trina Smolen of Phoenix, Ariz. has known Waller for years. Up until a year ago or so she was writing a book and a screenplay about his life. But he parted company with her when he felt she wasn't being authentic to his experience. What she did write about his various criminal scores and enterprises was largely based on extensive interviews with him. Her chapter summaries for the book Blind Door read like the narrative from some arresting crime fiction.
Family and friends either have direct knowledge of Waller’s larceny or anecdotally confirm he was into some kind of heavy stuff. Had to be. Why else would a barber from Oakland, Calif., by way of his hometown of Omaha, be hauling ass on repeated trips to South America just as the cocaine trade came of age?
An Omaha cousin who got caught up in Waller's dealings on the coast describes going to the L.A. airport to meet Clyde on one of his return flights from Bogota. The cousin, who lived above the Color Me Natural shop in Oakland Clyde operated out of, asked him, "Where is it?", meaning the drugs, whereupon Clyde told him, "You're holding it," referring to the large radio he'd handed his cousin. Clyde explains he gutted most of the radio's insides to hold the stash of cocaine, leaving just enough wiring to let it still play. Good thing, Clyde says, as customs agents tried the radio. It played, just barely.
Then there was the "lavish lifestyle" that didn't jive with cutting heads. "So they knew I had money," Waller says. "I even paid doctor, hospital, pharmacy bills, down payments for homes and college tuitions for family and friends."
Omaha actor-director John Beasley grew up with Waller and his brothers here and says it was common knowledge Clyde's "always been into something. We used to hear these stories about him. We used to wonder about him." Therefore, he believes what Waller says may be true. "The reason I don't doubt it is I remember years ago when I'd ask his folks, -- 'How's Clyde doing?' -- I'd hear, 'He's a barber out in Oakland, but he's got some kind of scheme going on.' Or, 'Clyde's been in Hawaii or South America again.' I knew cocaine was involved. I'd hear tales back."
Waller's only sister, Larceeda Jefferson of Dolton, Il., said while never involved with Clyde's misdeeds she learned of them from her brother or others as they played out. "You can trust it, it's true. He did everything he said and then some probably...At the time I had mixed emotions. I didn't feel like he failed anybody in what he was doing, I just felt like he wanted something and he wanted it so bad he didn't care how he got it. He's always been that way. He's still that way now, except he don't do that (crimes) anymore. He still has that pie-in-the-sky attitude that one day he wants to be somebody. I don't know who he wants to be. It was all a matter of survival for him. He survived the best way he found."
He involved select family and friends in some of his criminal pursuits. At the very least a cousin and two brothers. Indeed, his ex-wife Lola, the mother of his children, got sucked into “the life” of a drug runner and addict. But mostly he kept that world a secret, a pattern he began in childhood.
“It’s like I was living in two different worlds,” he says, “but I never let those worlds meet. That made my life not only paranoid, but hard.”
Some official documents allude to his life off the grid and just how far his assorted mischief went, but nothing concrete. Otherwise, all you’re left with is Waller’s own claims of criminal exploits. All you have is his word. The irony doesn’t escape him. That a man who owns up to making and losing a fortune through elaborate deceptions raised to high art should be trusted that what he says now is how it was then. The past tense is deliberate, for Waller says he’s gone straight for the past dozen years. He says he’s paying taxes and following both the letter and spirit of the law. He recently opened a barber school in Oakland, where he’s widely seen as a mentor in the community. A 2004 Oakland Tribune feature paints him so.
He’s telling his story, he says, as the final piece in his recovery. Then again, you must take some of it with a healthy dose of skepticism when he says things like, “See, I come off to a whole lot of people as slow-witted, dumb. But that’s my game. That I’m just an old country boy from Omaha. That I ain’t going to hurt you,” he says with a smile, adding, until you realize “I’m going to take your house.”
He’s a master at taking people into his confidence for his own devices. He says he “learned” a long time ago “the average person is constantly looking for something for nothing, and I used that against them.” Could his spill-the-guts confessional be another “blind door” to some pay-off? But why would he risk the sterling rep he enjoys today by spinning a false story?
If this is a con, it’s hard to say how he’ll benefit unless a book deal gets inked or until the movie rights are sold. At one point, Waller and Smolen said major publishers had expressed interest in the outline for the manuscript. John Beasley''s convinced enough by Clyde and his story that he’s bidding to acquire the screen rights for his company, West O Films. Beasley’s currently preparing to mount a feature film on football great Marlin Briscoe, an Omaha native Beasley and Waller grew up with.
Waller knows how improbable it all seems. He says it seemed that way to him too as he was living it. From the moment he made his first trip to Colombia in 1978, it all unfolded as in a dream.
“I used to sit there at night looking up at the stars, saying, ‘You this little (expletive) from Omaha, Neb. down here in the (expletive) jungle.’ And I did it willingly. It wasn’t like the army sent me down there. I did this s___ on my own. When I first got there, I was actually crying. I’m saying, ‘(expletive). man, I’m back in Vietnam. What person in their right mind would even put their ass in a situation like this?’”
Bogota was as scary and foreign to him as Vietnam had been. The surreal nature of it all sank in as soon as the plane landed in a militarized airport.
“Guns everywhere. Dogs. I couldn’t speak Spanish for s___. I took a cab to the Hilton and they put me up in the Presidential suite. I wouldn’t come out for three days. I was crashing on the floor, freezing from the high altitude climate.”
He called home, desperate he’d made a terrible mistake. He told his wife Lola, “’Baby, I’m coming home. I gotta get out of here.’” She calmed him down, reminding him he “hadn’t done anything” yet,” he says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, man, but there was a time I couldn’t even think about it.”
An African-American looking for a major drug connection in Bogota made him an object of suspicion, at least in his own mind. It was weeks before he met the young man, Foris, who would initiate him into the drug culture or “lifeline” of Colombia.
Before Foris and his people could trust Waller, they tested him. Having him hole up in the hotel for 30 days only disoriented him more for what came next.
“What they do is they take you out in the jungle and they leave your ass out there,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was out there for and that’s what be getting you. Brother, you just go crazy. You just lose it. And that’s what they’re looking for -- to see how fast you can get yourself back in control. At first I thought maybe they’d given me some kind of drug because I went out and pitched a b____. But I got under control in like 10 or 15 minutes and I passed the test.”
Another test he says he passed came in the presence of Pablo Escobar himself, only Waller asserts at the time he didn’t know who The Man was, only that he was an associate of Foris’s. Escobar came to the home of Foris, bodyguards stationed outside. Waller recalls Escobar as quiet and carefully “observing me.” The men whiled away the night drinking beer and smoking PalMals stoked with coke, each measuring their manhood by how much they could consume.
“They wanted to see how strong I was,” he says. “The next morning they were laying on the floor and I was stepping over their asses, still drinking, still smoking. The final result was, ‘I was a helluva black American.’”
Clay, as he was called there, lived with Foris, his wife and their extended family. His immersion in the coca culture brought him deep into an alternate reality. “It’s a world of it’s own down there,” he says. “See, everything down there is opposite here.” His acceptance in this underground gave him cachet but that didn’t mean he still wasn’t afraid. “I was always thinking they was trying to kill me,” he says. When told how the drugs were carried out -- in small plastic bags to be ingested and then expelled -- he was sure of it. “I thought they was crazy.”
Now he needed a sign of trust. It came on a road trip to Cali. “The police stopped us. Foris tried to bribe the cop and he took our asses straight to jail,” he recalls. Drug convictions bring stiff penalties in Colombia. “Down there if they caught you with a zig-zag in your pocket you’d do 30 years,” he says. “Any paraphernalia, you go to prison. If it’s coke, you never get out.” It’s why Waller made a decision while stewing in jail. “I sat there and thought, ‘If this man (Foris) get our asses out of this, then I know I can put my life in his hands.’ And he got us out of it. That’s when the trust came in. After that, I didn’t have to ask no more questions.”
Smuggling smack out of the country was a crucible of logistics and rituals and mind games. When Foris brought Clyde his first shipment, he avoided it for three days. “They said, ‘It belongs to you now.’ I did not touch it, I walked around it, I tried to ignore it, I even tried to act like it wasn’t there,” he says. “It was a helluva an experience.” As prep for each trip Foris’s wife communed with spirits to protect Waller on his mule run. “She’d come out from a closed room and say, ‘Clay, it’s time to go,’ and I knew it. I’d just get up and go. And it happened like that seven times. She always told me, ‘Everybody around you will help you.’ I didn’t know what she meant. But it happened just like she said. Everybody around me helped me...”
Once, when carrying into the U.S., he says he saw that drug-sniffing dogs were on duty. “I knew this day I might have a problem,” he says. Rather than panic he seized the moment when he sized-up a young girl aboard as someone special. He was right -- she was a diplomat’s daughter. By insinuating himself into her entourage, neither his body nor luggage was searched.
He refers to the Zen-like “control” and presence of mind it takes to complete a drug run. “Pure control,” he says. “You have to be able to do it or go to prison. It got easier and easier. I was like an actor on the set getting ready to do his part...go into his character. You have to be able to live your cover.” He could have easily “lost it” on his first run if not for how he’d steeled himself. Going over “every scenario that is possible” in his head. “What it boils down to is thinking logically,” he says.“That first trip of mine, man, they made us sit on the plane for two hours before we could get off of it (in Miami). They turned off the air, we were sweating. All I could see outside was dogs and federal marshals.”
He nearly began tripping, until he reminded himself “they don’t know I’m coming through here with this unless I tell them.” In order to not betray any tells, he says, “you have to have the ability to take that fear away from you. I was always able to surmount it and get over it and get past it without being shaken. Nobody can teach you that. And when you get out you are so mentally exhausted.” He says making runs with someone else, as he did with Lola, is even harder and riskier. He had to “maintain” her and himself to avoid a slip. He says the two of them would assume fake identities, once even posing as missionaries. “We couldn’t do it the same way every time. We had to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very creative.”
Waller says he came to know the major drug routes and was courted by crime organizations, including a group he calls “the black mafia.” But he kept the drug business a sideline to his financial chicanery, eventually setting up base in Hawaii, where the feds finally closed in. Busted, he faced serious jail time. Rather than do time, he cooperated.
By the time he walked away from it all, he says he was spent from the pressure of being a user and being used. It's why he "allowed" himself to get hooked.
"A way of paying penitence. The more hooked I became, the more my importance diminished -- importance to the authorities and to the dealers. I never let anyone know that I was using. Only Lola knew and my brothers. But my concentration on 'the game' was waning, just like I wanted it to do. I made a conscious decision to do this. I couldn’t handle being in charge of so many other people's lives and welfare -- 15-20 people depending on me to feed their kids -– not including the users who were depending on my product."
Sealed documents contain the threads of some of his criminal escapades. He and Smolen tried gaining access to those records without much success.
If things go the way he wants, his story will break big -- as a book, a film, a play. He'll be immortalized as an American Gangster. He's fine with that, although he's concerned his sons, the new women in his life, Ruby, and the young men and women he mentors at his barber school will learn disturbing things about him they don't know.
The old life is not completely out of his system. Although he swears he's mostly gone legit he acknowledges he's still got some action going on in his capacity as a kind of liaison or procurer who can, for a price, get you anything you want. No questions asked.
Every one who reads or sees his story will have to make up their own mind about this living urban legend. Perhaps he says it best:
“Man, I’m telling you it’s so heavy and deep it’s almost like this s___ was a dream.”