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.

He learned to shoot in alleys and practiced in the basement, firing into big thick pieces of wood. "It'd always go through and bust the bricks, but my mother — at the time she wasn't at home." Next, he and his friends from the neighborhood "broke out a window at a costume-jewelry store. Wasn't even real jewelry. We'd steal just to have money in our pocket." Nebbitt, a gifted artist since his toddler days, also stole stained-glass windows out of somebody's garage, deciding they didn't need something that beautiful in their garage.

Junior year, one of the older guys he admired, now a drug dealer, bought seven cars at a repossession auction and gave him an Audi. Shortly thereafter, Nebbitt dropped out of high school and started dealing in earnest — T's and blues, a mix of stimulant and a morphine-based pharmaceutical. The action sped to a blur.

"We didn't believe in stopping for the po-lice," he recalls, hitting the first syllable hard. "It got to be a game: Pull over, never cut the engine, but let them walk up to your car before you skid off. That'd give you a half-block jump. We'd throw fake pill bottles from the window, and they'd stop to get 'em. Right turn, right turn, right turn, and then swerve the car to block the street and get out and run.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Nebbitt with his mother, Ernestine Underwood: "I was getting ready for work, and he called and said, ®Mama, if you don't help me, I'm gonna die.'"

"They always took the car, but we'd run to a pay phone and report the damn thing stolen. Mostly it was in a girlfriend's name anyway." If the police caught them, "they'd go back and count every stop sign, give us multiple tickets. One job I applied for, you needed a valid driver's license, and I thought, "Oh, man. "How did you get 15 tickets in one week?"' When you're runnin' from the police, you don't stop."

In June 1981, the game changed: Nebbitt found himself under arrest, suspected of one of the murders popping around him like a video game. The warrant was refused for lack of evidence, but he ended up on probation for carrying a concealed weapon. Shaken, he and the older guy he'd hero-worshipped in the 'hood, who was also in trouble, jumped bond and headed for Tampa, Fla.

Nebbitt was arrested again in Florida, caught red-handed driving a stolen car filled with stolen blue jeans. Charged with grand theft auto and grand theft in St. Petersburg, he spent a month in the local jail, and then they surprised him by releasing him on bond. "Guess they didn't do a real good check showing that I had charges pending in St. Louis."

Not sure where else to go, he came back to his mother's house in St. Louis, stayed low, started back hustling and made a lot of money. Then he surprised the Florida judge by showing up for his court date. He returned to St. Louis on probation, turned himself in and ended up serving only a couple of months. "So I was back in St. Louis, 20 years old, free again, made it out of all that stuff."

The illusion lasted almost a year. And then he tried to buy tires from a guy who'd stolen a car. "I'm so stupid, I told him to bring the car over where we were," he groans, "instead of going over there and getting the tires. We were out back looking at the tires, sayin' how nice they were — I was gonna pay for them — and the police came." Nebbitt's friends ran, but he just stood there, innocent for once. He was charged with tampering and sent back to the workhouse.

"There's this gigantic room with 50 people," he recalls. "You don't have any defensible space. There's a lot of fighting, and at first I was really into that, the stupidity of it." It'd sound better to say he fought because he was scared, but he wasn't. "Most of the people I grew up with had been in jail before me. People would say, "Oh, that's so-and-so, he from out west.' You don't have to be raped or let anybody squeeze you for money, because somebody from out west is gonna ride with you. And when you come in, you are greeted: "Hey, what's up, Von?' It was almost like a reunion."

Magic Tragic

Nebbitt came home from prison on Halloween 1982, and his first child was born that night. He was 21, snorting cocaine regularly and dealing for a living, and his son's mother, Diane Mims, had accepted the fact. "I brought the money home," he shrugs. "I don't think she really liked what I did, but she never said, "Don't bring that money into this house.' Neither did my family."

From T's and blues, Nebbitt moved to heroin and cocaine. His old partner "was in federal prison, or I would have hooked up with him in a heartbeat — because he wouldn't have killed me. Any time you got that in the drug business, it's important." He found an old high-school buddy to hustle with, and they worked the streets themselves for a while. Then they hired a few guys and started moving up, and Nebbitt started snorting heroin. "When we mixed it to sell, we'd just put a little bit aside" — uncut, pure, giving him what's called a "dealer's habit." He would've denied it; he was convinced he wasn't addicted. Still, he hid the using carefully: "I didn't want it to get on the streets that I was using heroin, because then you are not going to be as effective or efficient as a dealer."

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