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.
"He was pretty quiet — he had to be, 'cause my uncle didn't play. He had pretty strict parents, but they was real, real good people," says John Bacon. "As a little kid, he always used to wear his pants real low. You know how people 'sag' now? He used to sag without sagging. It seemed like he was the first person to start the trend."
When Singleton was seventeen, his father died. He dropped out of high school and became the family breadwinner, working at and eventually buying into the ownership of a car wash in East St. Louis. He says he earned his GED in 1998 and found his professional calling in March of 2000, when he paid about $7,500 to purchase a duplex on Page Boulevard in north St. Louis.
"I had a friend who sold rehab projects. He said he could sell me the building and get some people to get me a loan on it at the same time," Singleton recalls. "One side was terrible, but the other side was pretty livable. What he told me we could do is fix up one side of the unit, get it appraised and maybe take a loan out on it and then I could finish the other side. I got the building, I turned it around, did a little paint, some minor things, a little drywall. It appraised for $60,000. I couldn't believe it. I got an 80 percent loan, refinanced it and got $40,000 out of it. From there I just started investing."
Over the next six years, Singleton bought and sold at least fourteen properties, nearly all of them in St. Clair County, Illinois, and nearly all of them out of foreclosure, according to court files and documents from the St. Clair County Recorder of Deeds. In 2005 he began making the purchases under the name of a company he formed and registered with the Illinois Secretary of State, Singleton Investments Inc.
In 2002 the financier for a performance by Byron Bacon, who goes by the nom de rap Spoke, backed out. Spoke's brother, John "Dump" Bacon, ponied up the dough for the show, set up a basement recording studio, and a record company was born.
Bacon says it was he and Spoke who coined the name Lock 'Em Down, as well as the label's motto: "Takin' over da streets." "It's like we wanted to take over the streets and music. We wanted to lock the city down and be the hottest," Bacon says. "Be the hottest label in East St. Louis or the hottest label in the metropolitan area."
Two years later, despite having signed several artists, Bacon was nowhere near achieving his goal. Aware that his cousin's real estate business was booming, he talked Dewanzel Singleton into joining L.E.D. as co-CEO.
"When I had it, it was kind of limited," Bacon says today. "When Jazz came along, we started traveling."
After Singleton joined the company, L.E.D. artists and employees began to perform and attend conferences out of town, traveling as far as Atlanta and Denver. In 2006 they went to Miami for The Source magazine's hip-hop awards. That was also the year they scored an invitation to the exclusive Hip-Hop Power Summit in the Dominican Republic, where they spent a week rubbing elbows with the genre's biggest names and most influential tastemakers.
Locally, L.E.D. made a name for itself by hosting extravagant parties and promotions. There was the "Chocolate Party" at Plush in downtown St. Louis, complete with chocolate fountains, chocolate martinis and a chocolate-brown carpet leading up to the entrance of the now-defunct club. On Labor Day weekend of 2006, Lock 'Em Down was the title sponsor of an old-school hip-hop concert on Laclede's Landing co-headlined by rap pioneers Slick Rick and Kurtis Blow.
"They always had something going on. They did a lot of things in the community and they just stayed in front of the eyes of people," says DJ Sir Thurl of St. Louis hip-hop station 100.3 The Beat. "They're more organized and set up than a lot of people. These days anyone with a studio in a basement can call themselves a label, but there's very few that are organized and out there actually doing anything."
L.E.D. also emerged as one of East St. Louis' leading service organizations. In addition to the Toyz in Da Hood program and other charity functions, they organized back-to-school picnics in 2005 and 2006, handing out school supplies and food. In May 2006 they supported the East St. Louis mayoral campaign of Alvin Parks, registering voters and canvassing door to door.
"I thank Lock 'Em Down for all the things they allowed me to do and say. They encouraged the whole rap community to engage young people and to take advantage of their lives," says deputy liquor commissioner Walter D. Hill, a Parks appointee. Hill had done promotions work for L.E.D. in 2003 and 2004 and represented the company at the Hip-Hop Action Summit in 2003, at which he delivered a speech and met with Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, then-director of the NAACP.
"We make it a point to make the community a part of what we do," says L.E.D. vice president Marceo Haywood, who also volunteers as a football coach at East St. Louis High School. "When people hear 'taking over the streets,' they take it in a derogatory or negative manner. It has nothing to do with what people think it has to do with. 'Taking over the streets' is being a part of your community."
In early 2000 Singleton began taking trips to Chicago with a childhood friend, LaKeith Cross. Singleton says once or twice a month the pair would drive north to attend lavish parties hosted by Cross' cousin, Martin Caldwell. "We'd take carloads sometimes and go up there and party and whatever the case may be. That was pretty much it," Singleton says.
More than a year earlier, on August 25, 1998, Caldwell had approached the Chicago Police Department with an unusual problem: His mother had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. But before an investigation could get under way, Caldwell decided to pay the $100,000 ransom out of his own pocket. Hours after he did so, his mother was freed. End of story. But not quite: Chicago authorities were curious as to how Caldwell had been able to produce so much cash on short notice. The DEA was alerted and a probe initiated.
Details about Caldwell's life began to emerge. He had a history of drug-related arrests and was a high-ranking member of the Conservative Vice Lords, a powerful west Chicago street gang. According to court documents later filed by DEA agent William Warren, in July 2001 an informant told the Chicago DEA that he'd bought about a kilo of cocaine a week from Caldwell for about five years, ending in 1997. The agents set up a sting, providing the informant with $2,700 to be used to buy 4.5 ounces of crack. They recorded telephone conversations leading up to the drug deal, then videotaped the exchange. Hoping to build a more wide-reaching case, the DEA orchestrated two more buys in July and August 2002, including one in which an informant wore a wire.
On October 15, 2003, Warren filed his complaint and Caldwell was arrested. On the eve of his trial in May 2006, facing life in prison if convicted, Caldwell pleaded guilty to selling multiple kilograms of cocaine, crack and heroin, and to possession of a firearm by a felon. He forfeited $2 million in cash and seized property.
In exchange for his cooperation in other cases, Caldwell was sentenced to fourteen and a half years in federal prison, where he now resides.
Miles Davis grew up in East St. Louis before moving to New York at age eighteen to attend Juilliard and jam with Charlie Parker. While living in the city, Annie Mae Bullock met her future husband Ike Turner in an east-side bar called Club Manhattan. The great Peetie Wheatstraw, a pianist widely regarded as one the most influential blues musicians of all time, honed his chops in the clubs of East St. Louis. These days, however, most of the folks in East St. Louis interested in blues, jazz and rock & roll are old enough to have seen the those artists perform in their prime.
"Hip-hop is the only music where I'm from," says L.E.D. co-CEO John Bacon, who graduated from East St. Louis High School in 1991. "The people don't really listen to nothing else."
But while its neighbor across the river has produced several hip-hop superstars (most notably the multi-platinum selling artist Nelly), East St. Louis has yet to see any of its homegrown hip-hop talent blossom in the national spotlight. L.E.D. aimed to change all that.
In October 2005 Bacon and Singleton signed Young Beano, who had a single called "Skip 2 Da Lou" that had caught on as a regional club hit. Beano says it was Singleton who approached him about joining the label.
"He was just a cool person. He was down-to-earth. And I knew he was going to do what I needed him to do, and that was push the music," recalls Beano, who explains that his stage name is an acronym for Born Eternal Angel No Other. "They didn't really offer me nothing real dramatic, but I knew they had what I needed at the time, and that was a team and money."
Shortly thereafter, Beano (given name: Joe Vence) recorded "Money Snap," a song ostensibly about going clubbing after receiving an income-tax refund. As its title indicates, "Money Snap" fits squarely in the genre of snap, a downtempo style of Southern hip-hop that's tailor-made for dance clubs, which is where the song quickly became popular.
"You can do a dance to it. Everybody can sing along. He's not rappin' too hard, he's understandable. You can relate to what he's saying, I mean everybody trying to get that money. It just works," sums up DJ Charlie Chan Soprano of Hot 104.1, who spins at several area nightspots. "You can still play it now [in the club] and they love it. It's a classic record."
L.E.D. paid several thousand dollars for Beano and another L.E.D. rapper, Dun Deal, to appear on the cover of inBox Magazine and DVD, an East St. Louis-based pay-for-coverage magazine. They booked concerts throughout the region and rented out the now-defunct downtown club Dreams for a record-release party.
"They'd give me two or three hundred dollars to throw out into the crowd when I performed 'Money Snap,'" Beano says. "I'd never really traveled with my music, I was basically just in St. Louis," he adds. "What I owe them for was taking my music to different cities and getting new fans."
Says Singleton: "I'm hands-on. I'm involved with everything except for production. I promote, I look for talent, I finance. Starting off [Lock 'Em Down] was basically trying to help family members. The more involved I got in it, the more attached I got to it. I got to love it."
According to DJ Sir Thurl of 100.3 The Beat, at its peak "Money Snap" received nearly 50 plays per week on his radio station. L.E.D. produced two remixes of the song, one featuring members of Nelly's crew, the St. Lunatics. Eventually, major record labels came calling.
"They had a record that was bubbling. It was huge regionally in St. Louis and it spread a little bit outside of St. Louis. I thought the record had a shot," says Al Lindstrom, the CEO of ALMG, a national promotions and management group that works with several major labels and represents artists R. Kelly and Timbaland, among others. "I offered to work the record nationally for them. And they just disappeared. They just never came back. I told them what the cost would be to do the project, and it never happened. They just disappeared."
Ask anyone involved with L.E.D. what happened to Beano and they're quick to blame the DEA investigation.
"That hurts Beano," says Shondale "Diesel" Rounds, L.E.D.'s president. "They say, 'I don't want to fuck with him because he's got all that going on.' Other artists, like T.I. for example, he has a criminal history in his past. It's behind him. People in the industry see this and say, 'He's got it in front of him and we don't want anything to do with it.'"
Singleton admits that he suspected Martin Caldwell was involved in some sort of criminal activity but says he thought it best to keep his head down and not ask questions when he and LaKeith Cross visited Chicago.
"I noticed he had a lot going on," Singleton elaborates. "We'd party all the time. But like I say, you don't just go and ask people [that]. That's not normal. I knew somewhat [that he was a gang leader], but Chicago's west side is known for Vice Lords. But I'm not the type of guy to ask questions. Stuff like that can get you in trouble."
Though Singleton may have been unaware of it at the time, trouble is precisely what he got.
On the afternoon of September 21, 2002, DEA agent William Warren was listening in on Martin Caldwell's phone calls, several of which involved Dewanzel Singleton. According to court documents, Warren heard Singleton tell Caldwell that he wanted to "go an extra one," which Warren took to mean "purchase an additional quantity of cocaine." Singleton asked Caldwell if "it was lovely," which Warren interpreted as "asking if the cocaine [Caldwell] had was of good quality."
Three days after that, agents picked up on another call from Singleton to Caldwell. "I know they know what's up with that lick, man," Singleton said. "The girls all look alike...we ain't found no new girls yet," Caldwell replied. Warren again inferred that the two were arguing about the quality of cocaine.
On October 4, Singleton called again. "Singleton related the last time they had lunch, that 'One of them steaks was medium rare' or 'at least his was,'" Warren's statement reads. "[Caldwell] asked Singleton what happened to it and if he 'put an eat on it.' Singleton related that he still had 'a bite' just to let [Caldwell] 'fuck with it and see it.'
"[Caldwell] and Singleton were discussing the poor quality of a kilogram of cocaine," Warren notes. "Singleton was talking in coded conversation with [Caldwell] and referring to cocaine as steak."
Responds Singleton, who requested and received copies of all the documents the DEA filed: "That's a bunch of garbage. I'm always talking slang. One of the conversations, if my memory serves me correctly, I was actually talking about some girls and I was with my baby's mom, who is crazy, and I'm talking coded with him so she wouldn't understand what I'm talking about. But it's like every time I talk slang [the DEA says] I'm talking about the quality of the drugs."
In early 2003, Singleton says, he became wary of associating with Caldwell. In January of that year, Singleton and some friends had driven two cars to Chicago — his Chevy Impala, and a red GMC Jimmy that belonged to Caldwell. Singleton says Caldwell had agreed to let him use the SUV while Singleton got an alarm and stereo installed in his Impala.
That's not how the DEA tells it. Warren states that on January 15, 2003, Fairview Heights DEA agents got a tip that Singleton was in Chicago and planning to drive the Jimmy back with a load of cocaine. They alerted their colleagues in Chicago, who spotted the vehicle parked in front of Caldwell's house. When Singleton left, the DEA contacted the Illinois State Police, who pulled Singleton over for a traffic violation. Singleton, who was accompanied by two passengers, permitted the officers to search the vehicle. They discovered a hidden compartment that opened electronically. It was empty.
"The DEA agent approaches me, and he's talking about all these drugs that were in the car and this hidden compartment, and he knew everything about the car," Singleton recalls. "I said go ahead and search the car. It was Caldwell's truck, I didn't even know the hidden compartment was in the vehicle.
"At that point I just stopped dealing with Caldwell completely, period," Singleton says. "Because I felt like he was trying to set me up, or that the DEA was all over him. I didn't want any part of it."
The Chicago run-in was not Singleton's first brush with the law, however. Although he has never been convicted of a crime, he's had his share of close shaves, all of which DEA agent Jarad Harper lays out in his statement. The first came in December 1999, when Singleton was the passenger in a 1990 Chevy Caprice that was stopped during a "roadside safety check" near Springfield, Illinois. Police found 70 grams of cocaine in the armrest of the rear passenger door. Singleton and the driver were arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, but the charges were eventually dropped. Singleton says he didn't know the drugs were in the car and that the driver successfully argued in court that the stop and search were discriminatory. (A court clerk in Sangamon County verifies that Dewanzel Singleton was fined $55 for a seatbelt violation and says the county has no record of any criminal charge. The clerk suggests that the record may have been expunged.)
On October 31, 2002, Singleton gave DEA agents permission to search a room he was renting at a Motel 6 in Caseyville, Illinois. They found what Harper describes in his complaint as "[a] large mixing bowl and a large scale...consistent with being used by drug traffickers to weigh drugs for distribution." Singleton says he used the scale to weigh out marijuana for personal use. At any rate, when the DEA found the items, they were clean.
On June 3, 2003, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol stopped a rented Lincoln Navigator in which Singleton was one of five passengers. The troopers found $189,000 in cash stuffed in socks that were concealed in a rear door of the vehicle. Everyone denied ownership of the cash. The officers confiscated the money but sent the travelers on their way.
L.E.D. is not a record label in the traditional sense of the term. While more than a dozen local rappers and singers have been signed to deals with the company and its subsidiary, L.E.D. Reggae, neither entity has recorded a single full-length album. The organization focuses on recording, releasing and promoting singles, with the hope that a song will catch fire and become the hip-hop equivalent of the lotto jackpot: a radio hit that leads to a major-label deal and a multimillion-dollar recording contract.
"We'll burn a copy of a song out of our studio and take it to certain DJs, take it to the radio personnel. They'll try it. And if it's hot, if they like it, they play it for us," John Bacon explains. "But we never really took it to record stores. That was our next step."
In his statement, DEA agent Harper questions how, given the lack of revenue, L.E.D. was able to pay its bills. He claims the company was "financially supported by suspected illegal drug proceeds."
L.E.D. vice president Marceo Haywood scoffs at the notion, saying the company didn't have much overhead to cover. "It's not a monetary thing," Haywood contends. "It might cost you a tank of gas, but you can be outside the club passing out fliers, instead of inside it. A lot of the stuff that people look at and say, 'Wow, how did you do it?' — it wasn't necessarily money. You just have to think outside the box. A lot of events that you hear about as ours, they weren't ours. We were just there."
Adds Bacon: "Some of [the money] was generated by the label, but a lot of time it came out of our pockets."
Much of that funding came from Singleton's real estate profits.
Because Singleton only filed taxes twice between 2001 and 2006, it's hard to say how profitable his ventures were. The two years for which he did file, 2004 and 2005, his adjusted gross income is listed at $27,000 and $64,000, respectively. Singleton Investments was formed in 2005. The company did not file taxes that year and his return for 2006 was improperly filed, resulting in $1,600 in penalties, which Singleton has since paid.
Of the fourteen homes he bought and sold over the past eight years, documents on file in St. Clair County show that Singleton frequently grossed more than $50,000 per transaction. One home he purchased in November 2005 was resold in December 2006, grossing more than $87,000. Those numbers do not include expenses such as building materials, which Singleton likely incurred.
Singleton's court file includes a financial analysis undertaken by R. John Schuster, an agent with the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southern Illinois, a state drug task force. Schuster, a former IRS investigator, estimates Singleton's real estate transactions generated an income of more than $383,000 between 2003 and 2006, while the value of his assets — including the $189,000 seized by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol in 2003 — increased at least $859,000 during that time.
"First it was about Lock 'Em Down. Then they came in to see how I was living, how I was making my money. They went crazy over my real estate company," counters Singleton. "To talk about how it's funny I quadrupled and quintupled my investment — if that's the case, they should lock the appraiser up. I was surprised too. I actually went out and had a cocktail when I found out about [some of the appraisals]."
Singleton's claim that he stopped dealing with Caldwell after DEA agents pulled him over in January 2003 isn't entirely accurate. On August 22 of that year, Singleton transferred to Caldwell the title of a property he owned on State Street in East St. Louis. In return, Singleton was to become manager of a restaurant, called Chubb's, slated to be opened on the site.
"The building was vacant, and [Caldwell] had the idea that he wanted to bring one of those Italian beef restaurants — the Subway-type things up in Chicago — down to East St. Louis," Singleton explains. "It sounded good. I agreed to it. It started OK, but then things wasn't really working out, so I just told him I wanted to get out of the business and he could pay me whatever he feels is right. But he never paid me. He ended up going to jail."
In fact, only two months and a day after the title for the property was transferred, Caldwell was arrested.
Two and a half years later, on May 10, 2006, Caldwell agreed to a deal with federal prosecutors. According to DEA agent Warren's statement, Caldwell told prosecutors that LaKeith Cross introduced him to Singleton in 2000, and that his cousin and Singleton were "partners in the drug business." Caldwell said that at least once a month between 2001 and 2002, he supplied the pair with two to five kilos of cocaine at a cost of $21,000 per. He said that the time Singleton was stopped for driving the GMC, they'd noticed DEA agents watching Caldwell's house and decided not to go through with a transaction. In the plea agreement, Caldwell also asserts that he often referred to cocaine as "girls" when talking on the phone.
"It's kind of like he's in a situation where he couldn't breathe and they came in and brought him oxygen to tear me apart," Singleton says of Caldwell's agreement to testify against him in exchange for a reduced sentence.
The statute of limitations for federal drug crimes is five years, meaning that if the DEA wanted to use Caldwell's testimony involving Singleton and the wiretaps in court, the agency had until September 21, 2007, to make an arrest. They beat the deadline by five weeks.
According to court documents, DEA agents learned on January 3, 2007, that a man named Robert "Big Rob" Bethea, a friend of Singleton who occasionally worked as a driver for L.E.D., had rented two rooms at an Econo Lodge in Caseyville, Illinois. The DEA believed Bethea was a high-level cocaine dealer working for Singleton. The rooms, agents learned, were to be occupied by a man named Jeremy Malone, described in Harper's statement as "a money courier from Dallas."
At 6 a.m. on January 6, Malone left the motel and got behind the wheel of a Ford F-350. He sat in the parking lot and waited for nearly two hours before Singleton arrived driving a rented white Dodge Magnum. Malone slipped into the passenger seat of the Dodge, and the DEA watched the pair drive to Bethea's house in Centreville, then return to the motel.
Just after 4 p.m. that day, several hours after Singleton and Malone parted ways, St. Louis County police pulled over Malone in the F-350, which he had been driving with several large truck tires rolling around unsecured in the truck bed. Malone eventually gave police permission to search the vehicle. In the center console, the officers found a .22 caliber pistol and what appeared to be "a partially opened birthday present." Upon inspection, the "present" contained what officers described as "a very large amount of U.S. currency." In the back seat police found two similarly wrapped boxes, each containing large stacks of cash. The money was later totaled at $642,499. DEA agents arrived and read Malone his rights.
Malone told the DEA that Singleton had given him the money in Bethea's driveway. Warren writes in his statement that Malone "suspected Singleton was a 'drug dealer,' who had given him 'dirty money.'" The DEA confiscated the cash and pistol, gave Malone a receipt for the seized items, and set him free.
On February 13, the same day L.E.D. staffers say the DEA searched their tour bus, agents exercised a search warrant for Singleton's house in Swansea. In a wastebasket in the kitchen, they found a copy of the receipt they'd given Malone.
How, Singleton asks, if the DEA was watching him and Malone the entire time they were together, did they miss the exchange of such a large amount of cash?
"You had the whole thing under surveillance, but all of a sudden when it came time for the transaction, you don't see anything?" he asks. "It says we came and parked — and it's like you ran out of tape. Then you pull him over at four in the evening. You done skipped six, seven hours."
As for the receipt found in his trash, Singleton says the people to whom Malone was taking the gift-wrapped cash claimed Singleton had sold them out to the DEA. Singleton, who says he didn't know Malone had been stopped, was incredulous. When Malone's boss began issuing threats, Singleton says, he demanded proof that the money had been seized. "They were claiming that I was supposed to have set this guy up," he explains. "I'm telling them I don't know what they're talking about. So it got to the point where they want to fax me over a letter. They faxed me over the letter, showed me what they were talking about, and I threw it away."
The DEA also arrested LaKeith Cross, alleging that he and Singleton were "partners in the drug business." Cross remains in federal custody in Chicago, where the case will be tried. In addition to wiretap conversations and accounts from DEA sources, the evidence against Cross includes a DEA search of Cross' mother's house in East St. Louis on September 9, 2003, where agents found more than $140,000 in small bills hidden in the basement and a blue Dodge Caravan with a hidden hydraulic compartment that opened by simultaneously pressing the defrost switch and a button beneath the driver's seat.
Singleton says he and Cross grew up in the same neighborhood and are "close friends," but that Cross was not affiliated with Lock 'Em Down and that Cross is "innocent of what [the DEA] is trying to charge him with."
Cross' attorney, Vanessa Antoniou, declines to comment on Cross' association with L.E.D. She says she is considering whether to file a motion to suppress the searches of Cross' mother's house and the minivan.
Singleton's attorney, Lorilee Miller Gates, says the crimes of which her client is accused happened years ago and notes that the arrest came just before the statute of limitations was to expire. "[The evidence] is all quite old," says Gates. "It smells stale. If it's such a fabulous case, why not bring it when it's fresh?"
If L.E.D. turns out to be little more than an outlet to launder ill-gotten gains, it would hardly be the first operation of its kind. To cite just one example, 26 members of an organization called the Black Mafia Family, which produced the chart-topping rapper Young Jeezy, are currently on trial in Atlanta, accused of running a violent nationwide cocaine syndicate worth $270 million.
The prevailing sentiment in the St. Louis hip-hop community, however, is that at the very least, L.E.D. was a legitimate producer of music.
"I doubt very seriously [that they were a drug front]. They were out there doing a lot of activity concerning the industry and entertainment," says DJ C-Note, who spins at the popular East St. Louis nightspot Club Casino.
Every L.E.D. artist and employee interviewed for this story claims to have been shocked upon learning that Dewanzel Singleton had been arrested.
"Believe you me, if I did [know that was going on], I wouldn't be right here right now," says rapper Dun Deal. "I'd be like, 'Give me a motherfuckin' house.' It's always been about the music with me."
Singleton and several others feel they were targeted specifically because they were involved with the record label, making them a high-profile target for the DEA.
"It's to a point where I regret I even did this with Lock 'Em Down," Singleton says. "Because I actually believe in my heart, had I not been working with Lock 'Em Down, I wouldn't have never heard nothing about this five-year-old charge."
"It was fun doing the music," says L.E.D. founder John Bacon. "It was a lot of fun. You go places, you meet people. I think we was probably having a little too much fun and we got somebody else's attention."
Even though Singleton is the only L.E.D. employee facing charges, all of the company's projects are on hold. For one thing, Singleton's assets are frozen. And last February, when the DEA conducted its searches, almost all of the contracts, equipment and documents pertaining to the label were seized, making it nearly impossible for the partners to continue business as usual.
In the interim, the white-shuttered house that once served as the company's recording studio has been reduced to a charred, hollow shell. Vacant since February, the building has since been twice set afire.
The tour bus, which still sits silently on the same corner in East St. Louis, has been damaged too. Visible through the windshield are dangling red and yellow cords that once powered a TV and DVD player. The vehicle's registration expired in June, and it's unlikely anyone from Lock 'Em Down will be renewing them anytime soon. They'd have a hard time even if they wanted to: The registration and title are still in the name of Martin Caldwell's uncle.
It was Caldwell, Singleton says, who gave him the bus as a gift.
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