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.

Next, Nebbitt got shot trying to get crack with no money ("You know crack dealers — they like you to have money," he inserts dryly) and couldn't risk getting medical treatment. "If you're connected, you've got doctors that will see you, but otherwise the guys have to nurse you back," he explains. "It's amazing, but they do take good care of you. You won't get chicken soup, but they'll check the wound." Nebbitt's best connections were at pharmacies, so he got some antibiotics, "kinda washed (the wound) out, snorted some heroin for the pain and limped around the house." The minute the wound healed, he got himself arrested again, for possession of heroin.

The turning point was a rain-slick highway. Already high on heroin and crack, Nebbitt was wanting more, and he took his girlfriend and baby with him to get it. On the way downtown, right where interstates 44 and 70 meet, the car hit the median and spun. Nebbitt remembers getting his baby girl out of the car and immediately heading back across the dark viaduct, through a strobe of headlights, to find the drugs he'd dropped in the process. "Jackie was hollering and crying, "What are you doing?' but I didn't care about my life, I just wanted to find the drugs. Didn't even understand what she didn't understand about that."

Cox still shudders, remembering that night. "He went to get drugs from a cousin, and I'm so naive, I'm thinking we're just seeing cousins. We were in a little orange Datsun and my baby was in the back, asleep, and we spun around and hit that metal piece in that little bitty car. I could see all these cars speeding by like God just held out his hand and said, "Go on by them.'"

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.'"

Sobbing mad, Cox started walking, but Nebbitt says he convinced her to get back in the car, which was "torn up but still running. We made it home. I was high out of my mind, didn't realize the seriousness of it." Long pause. "The next morning, I got up and saw the car."

Scared shitless by the realization that he could have killed them all, Von Nebbitt called his mother. "That's the first time I really asked anybody for help," he adds. "August '93."

The Fifth Alias

Underwood says that day in August was the happiest day of her life. "I was getting ready for work, and he called and said, "Mama, if you don't help me, I'm gonna die.' So I called in to work and went to him, and we started making phone calls."

Anticlimax: A man who doesn't have health insurance or independent wealth isn't eligible for a residential program. And a heroin-and-crack addiction isn't cured with drive-through treatment. After calling every program in the phone book, Nebbitt and his mother made a desperate decision: Nebbitt would become his cousin, Tony Davis, who received Medicaid.

The arrangements went smoothly. Then, the night before he entered residential treatment, an old dealing buddy came by, offered drugs and asked him to kill somebody the guy thought was turning state's evidence on him. Nebbitt's "no" closed the door to his former life. But at the time, he didn't realize it.

"My thinking when I went in was not correct," he confesses. "I wanted to regroup, but I didn't want to totally stop. And I had a lot of resentments: Blamed my girlfriend, said she wanted me to stay on drugs so she could run everything. Blamed my friends for making it available to me. Never looked at I was the one goin' to get it from them, and Jackie needed to run the damn house because I was worthless."

His big sister saw the rationalizations coming. "I used to tell him he was lucky because he had intelligence," muses Taylor. "Other guys on the street can't even dream high. But then when he was strung out so bad, he had too many answers. I told him, "You living like a fool. Maybe if you quit being so smart, you might get some help.'"

After sleeping through the first day of rehab, Nebbitt refused the pain meds and toughed it out. "I kind of wanted those days not to be high, so I could remember them. And those pills were worse than the heroin for sedating me. My parents called and said they'd come to see me, and I didn't even remember."

What did penetrate was the voice of a young woman, a relapsed crack addict who dogged his steps every day, drilling him to "read this book, look at this, do this." Turned out he'd been in prison with her brother, who'd gotten murdered right after he got out. "She gave me this address for round-the-clock meetings and gave me this man's name. "You expect me to just go in this building and ask for this guy I don't even know?' I took his name never intending to do any of it. But it was on my mind."

At the end of his five-day stay, Nebbitt went to his parents' house instead of heading back to the high-risk North Side, where Cox lived. ("I'm not sure she would've taken me back anyway," he confesses.) That evening, the phone rang: It was the young woman he'd never expected to hear from again. "She went right to work on me: "Did you call those people? I know where a meeting is in 30 minutes — you got access to a car?'" He hung up and didn't go. She called back. "Why are you still there? The meeting's starting." Sighing, he asked his stepdad to drive him there.

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