By Sam Levin
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By Dennis Brown
The Lock 'Em Down Records bus sits on a set of bald Firestone tires beside a quaint white-shuttered house in East St. Louis. Even on a dismal, drizzly afternoon, nothing can dull the garish reds, yellows and blues that silhouette the likenesses of a half-dozen rappers painted on the vehicle's upper half.
Inside, the floor is strewn with cardboard toy boxes, remnants of the bus' last trip. That was more than a year ago, when Lock 'Em Down (L.E.D.) artists and employees collected more than $5,000 worth of donated toys and clothing from a Wal-Mart in north St. Louis County. After crossing back over the Martin Luther King Bridge, they made their way through the housing projects of East St. Louis distributing Christmas presents to families that otherwise would have gone without. It was the second time in as many years that L.E.D. spearheaded the holiday giveaway known as Toyz in Da Hood.
"It was like Santa Claus done came," recalls John "Dump" Bacon Jr., the label's 34-year-old founder and co-CEO. "The kids be excited. Everybody love the bus. Everywhere we went people was attracted to the bus."
Two months later, Bacon and other L.E.D. employees say, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration broke into and searched the bus. That same day agents raided at least fourteen other East St. Louis residences owned by people affiliated with L.E.D., including the white-shuttered house, home to the label's makeshift recording studio.
Though the DEA and federal prosecutors will not confirm that the bus and studio were searched on February 13, 2007, six months later, on August 15, DEA agents William Warren of Chicago and Jarad Harper of Fairview Heights filed complaints that detailed a five-year-long investigation of L.E.D. co-CEO Dewanzel "Jazz" Singleton. The documents, which draw on information gathered from wiretaps, informants, surveillance and police reports from multiple agencies, allege that between 2003 and 2007 Singleton purchased and sold more than twenty kilos of cocaine, and that L.E.D. was funded by its owner's drug operation.
Today Singleton faces a grand-jury indictment on charges of conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, a felony that carries a sentence of ten years to life. Free on a $5,000 bond, he is required to wear an electronic ankle monitor that restricts his travel to the state of Illinois and the city of St. Louis. A trial date has not been set.
Singleton, who has never been convicted of a crime in his life, has pleaded not guilty. He points out that the DEA has failed to produce any hard evidence: no cash, no drugs or paraphernalia. Despite being under heavy surveillance, he notes, he has never been seen conducting a single narcotics transaction. Though several DEA sources provided circumstantial evidence against him, not one claims to have purchased drugs from him or to have seen him sell drugs.
"If you caught me doing something wrong, then I can understand," he says during an interview at a downtown St. Louis restaurant. "OK, take me away, I got to pay my debt to society, that's the way it goes. But [they] haven't caught me with anything: no drugs, no money, no guns. Nothing."
If the DEA's version of events is true, then Dewanzel Singleton has led an improbable double life. And if he's innocent, Singleton is the victim of an equally astonishing string of coincidences, betrayals and poor judgment.
Dewanzel Singleton lives alone in an unassuming two-story brick house in a quiet suburban subdivision next to a country club in Swansea, Illinois. Inside, the décor is upscale but hardly ostentatious. A large flat-screen TV in the living room and an expensive-looking dining set provide the sole flashes of luxury. Singleton is seated in the kitchen, a small chessboard positioned on the table in front of him, its marble pieces abandoned midway through a game. Asked if he's any good, he smiles, revealing a mouthful of teeth capped in gold, and says he's still learning. The answer proves to be typically modest.
His wardrobe is heavy on polo shirts and designer denim. He drives a GMC conversion van. Twenty-eight years old, sleepy-eyed and about six feet tall with a medium build and light brown skin, he wears his hair in a closely cropped buzz cut, about the same length as his thin chinstrap beard. Simply put, it would be difficult for him to appear any more unassuming.
His laugh is a high-pitched chuckle that's instantly disarming. When friends, family and colleagues describe his personality, they use words like "kindhearted," "great person" and "lovable." Even Jarad Harper, the DEA agent who arrested him, describes Singleton as "cordial" during a brief phone interview, before declining to comment for this story.
The unmarried father of two hasn't always lived in the suburbs. (Singleton's children, ages twelve and nine, live with their mother.) He was born and brought up in the Edgemont neighborhood of East St. Louis, the easternmost portion of the city. It was his father, a security guard for the East St. Louis School District, who bestowed on him the nickname "Jazz," by which he is now almost universally known. His mother, who died in 2005, was disabled and stayed home and looked after him.
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