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.

"I listened to the people tell their stories and thought they were all lying. Had no drugs for 12 years? Everybody I knew was on drugs. I thought, why would they come to a place like this just to lie? Only people I believed were the ones like me, who said they'd just gotten out of rehab a day or two ago."

Shedding Tony

During the meeting, Nebbitt recognized the man his friend had described, gathered his nerve and approached. "He told me to write this big list of everything I was powerless over. I'd just gotten control of using the bathroom the day before! So I took him the list and he said, "That's not enough; write more.'"

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.'"

Meanwhile, Nebbitt started hanging out at the recovery club. Says it was because they played a lot of dominoes, and he loves dominoes. But meanwhile, his "clean time" was lengthening. "I was also attending the day treatment program at Alexian Brothers," he adds, "but fraudulently. They were saying, "The way to stay sober is to stay rigorously honest,' and I was saying, "I'm going to be honest — my name is Tony Davis.'"

He started liking the people in the program, caught himself starting to sign his own name a couple times. The tension broke when he went to see the parole officer for the pre-sentencing investigation. "I'd been clean for maybe 40 days, and I was really thin-skinned. Every time I brought up a topic in my life, I'd cry, and she'd look down at my file like I was this master criminal and then look up at me crying and try to figure it out. So I told her about the detox. She said, "Well, we need to get this information so it can be part of the investigation,' and I said, "Uh ... I don't think it can be part of this investigation.'"

When he explained, the officer said, "You're going to have to tell these people the truth, and if they file charges, you're going to have another case. And you're going to get a bill."

The next morning, Nebbitt walked into the billing department of Alexian Brothers and blurted, "I lied and used my cousin's name, and I've come to tell the truth so I can get a bill." The woman looked at him in disbelief, recovered, printed out the bill and, with it, handed him an application for financial assistance. The detox was entered into Nebbitt's record. Alexian Brothers later forgave the bill. And the parole officer gave him a card for treatment at BASIC, which turned out to be "a great experience. They were black-male-centered and hardcore, and that's what I needed, because I was a big manipulator."

The manipulation's necessary, he now realizes, "to keep that entire reality alive — keep people not knowing, and get the drugs. See, if I set up a date to hang out with you, I have to be in on the planning, because if I let you do it, I know you are not gonna fit two visits to the drug house in there. Not gonna go over to Kenny's and get two buttons and then after the movies go to the crackhouse."

By now he'd also contacted his public defender, Earlyne McCalister Thomas — who'd had his case for months — and told her his real name. "He said his conscience got the best of him," recalls Thomas, who's now in private practice. "I just said, "OK, anything else I need to know?'"

The two became good friends, with Thomas soon offering extralegal advice about girlfriends and life strategies. When she saw how shaky Nebbitt was about his upcoming sentencing, she asked him, "Do you ever go to church and depend on God?" He answered, straight-faced, "I believe in God; I just don't think the state will show any mercy." So Thomas took him to her church, West End Mount Carmel Baptist.

"The minister taught about putting your foot on Satan's neck instead of just letting him do what he wants with you," recalls Nebbitt. "So I went down and made my testimony, and when I finished, all the fear and intense worry (he pronounces it "weary,' doubling the meaning) had lifted."

"The day of court, though, it revisited," he adds ruefully. "They put us last on the docket, so I sat in that courtroom from 9 until about 3 p.m. in sweaty-hands fear, knowing this was the moment." The first few cases he watched, Frawley sent the offenders to prison, one for 10 years. "This guy's kind of hard-nosed," he thought queasily. "But he was patient, he did hear people, so I did think at least he would give me voice."

That afternoon, he walked out of the courtroom provisionally free. Recovery would now be his all-consuming project and goal. He never became a professional recoverer, though, never took the past and wove it into a new all-consuming identity. His sister wouldn't let him.

"When he was going to therapy, he'd come to me and say, "Edna, they were saying that because Mama was drinkin' and she was not there.' I said, "Von, this is life. Our mama got married young; she got divorced; she was running and she couldn't handle it. But she loved you. I'm sorry you didn't have her bakin' brownies and goin' to PTA, but what she had to go through ...

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