Sympathy for the Devil

Six years ago, a St. Louis judge took a hell of a risk. He let Von Nebbitt go free despite years of drug dealing and stealing, weapons offenses and parole violations. One of them has learned a lesson.

Stealing Gumby at the Strip Mall

Straight for six years now, Nebbitt has a full-time job organizing programs for kids in public housing, and he's applied to several doctoral programs in social policy and social development. Friends and family say he's stayed warm and real — instead of adopting a stiffly righteous persona, he simply transformed himself from a popular, easygoing drug dealer into a popular, easygoing reformer too honest to repress his past. Still, he's nervous about baring his life in the media. "You look at that pre-sentencing report, it's gonna portray a monster," he warns. "I was the sort of person no one really wanted in society. I was sick and tired of the cycle — incarceration, try to do a little hustling, get strung out on drugs, incarceration. But I didn't know what the hell else to do. And — this was the critical piece — I had just fuckin' burned all my bridges out in the street. I'd gotten bad on the crack and the heroin, and I was pretty much doing whatever it took to get it. Guys who'd trusted me, I was burnin' them. And in the alternative market, people get killed for that."

In other words, the game was up. He'd gone into rehab thinking he'd buy himself some time, clean up and — a dark corner of his brain whispered — regain some trust on the street. But the longer he was straight, the more he bought into it. Slowly he felt a self re-emerge that he hadn't known since childhood.

Jennifer Silverberg
“It didn’t start out bad,” he explains. “Started out pretty good. Up to maybe age 5, I had both parents, and we lived in a nice house, had a bicycle and a fish tank.”

"It didn't start out bad," he explains. "Started out pretty good. Up to maybe age 5, I had both parents, and we lived in a nice house, had a bicycle and a fish tank." His dad drank the peace away. After the last big fight, his mom took the three kids; left the well-kept, whiskey-fumed house; and went to live with her mother in the ghetto. Von's aunt had moved home, too, with seven children. Her husband would overdose on heroin in the alley. Von's dad would lose his job, his car, his home and his mind, dying delirious in the attic of his sister's house.

"I started kindergarten out west, around Goodfellow and Martin Luther King," continues Nebbitt. "At that time, the Wellston shopping center was up and running. That's where I started my delinquent career, stealing Gumby at the strip mall." He'd bend the green rubber figure into his pocket and head to the schoolyard, where his older brother hung out with the other "big boys. They'd be smokin' weed and drinking, and they'd let me puff a bit and drink a bit. And I started likin' it."

So how do beer and pot make an 8-year-old feel? "Made me kind of not feel," he replies. "Not care about the situation at home."

Home was now 11 people crowded into a hot, rundown bit of house in what even a little boy could see was "a terrible neighborhood." But that wasn't the biggest problem. Von's mom, having left her alcoholic husband, had gone to work in a nightclub and started drinking herself. "She'd always said things were messed up because my father drank," recalls Nebbitt. "Then she started coming home zonked. I remember one time, she'd got another boyfriend and come home just to get clothes. I just wanted to kind of hang out with her. I can remember walking down the alley crying, following her." He shakes his head. "She was movin' kind of fast at that time.

"I did a lot of stupid things, too, though, that probably influenced her drinking," he adds quickly, slicing into the mood. "Smoked weed, sold it, later had guns in the house. That was not cool. She said to stop, but I figured she was doing her thing, and didn't care much what I did."

Today, Ernestine Underwood is remarried, sober, churchgoing and contrite. "For a while I was kind of lost there," she admits quietly. "I went out into the world for a while. Von used to get so mad at me. He hated it when I drank." Years later, she married an upstanding bread-baker named Milton Underwood — a man Von had first met when he was 14 and respected immediately. "He never approved of anyone I dated until then," recalls Underwood. "One day, Milton was over helping us lay carpet, and Von said, "Mama, who is that? Are you two ... together?' I said, "No, we're just friends.' And he said, "That's somebody I really could call Dad."

Almost Like a Reunion

Today, Nebbitt says Milton Underwood "taught me everything I know about being a responsible man." Unfortunately, Underwood wasn't yet his dad during "the crazy years" at O'Fallon High School. "I went to get high and peddle joints, or sleep," says Nebbitt. The only class he never cut was art. The only teacher who ever cared enough to challenge him was Miss Payne, the social-studies teacher.

Were the others intimidated by the young, sleepy-eyed dealer with the tight group of friends (most now dead or in federal prison)? "I don't think I scared 'em," he says slowly. "My mother taught me how to respect, so I never cursed or anything. I think they just figured some were going to fall through the cracks and I was one of them."

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