Saturday, April 4, 2009
After serving a prison sentence for misappropriating funds from a federal government grant, Jeff Fort, the founder of the Blackstone Rangers (later the Black P Stone Nation) returned to Chicago in 1977 and began rebuilding his criminal empire, ingeniously disguising its purpose behind that of a religious and community organization, the El Rukns.
Fort was also at the head of a gang-owned property holding company, the El Pyramid Real Estate and Maintenance Corp., which owned a building previously located on this lot at 6417 S. Kenwood Ave. Fort's made the building his home and personal headquarters, occupying an apartment on the third floor, from which he directed the gang's massive drug operations, as well as its other criminal businesses.
The building was originally constructed in 1925 as the Kenrose Hotel, with 150 rooms, most rented out to long-term apartment tenants. As the rooms were studios, the majority of the Kenrose's guests were adult singles and divorcees; thus, the Kenrose was frequently in the newspapers for various love triangles gone bad over the years.
In 1949, an expert con man named William Carlson moved into the hotel, and soon began charming the young women with claims he was a retired Marine colonel and a war hero. Eventually, he proposed marriage to two different lucky girls (ignoring the fact that a warrant for his arrest on child abandonment charges had already been issued by Mrs. Lulu Carlson, his real wife, who lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin). After absconding with several thousands of dollars from his new lovers' bank accounts, he was apprehended and imprisoned.
The very same year, another true gentleman, Henry Benson, checked into the Kenrose while in Chicago attending his sisters' funeral. Benson's wife in Flushing, New York, had recently left him, taking the children with her, so while in Chicago, he telephoned an old girlfriend in town, Miss Dorothy Stone. The two went out on the town for a long night of drinking before returning to Benson's room at the Kenrose. There, an argument began about one of Stone's old lovers, at which point Benson took off his shoes and beat his drunken girlfriend into unconsciousness. He then climbed into bed and slept off the hangover. When he awoke and found Miss Stone still on the floor where he left her, he washed the blood off her, tucked her into bed, and casually told the hotel clerk a physician might be needed as he checked out. Miss Stone died a few hours later, and Benson went to prison on murder charges.
So the building had a long history of criminal activities, but nothing like what arrived after the Woodlawn neighborhood's economic deterioration in the 1960s. In 1969, the Kenrose burned, though apparently there was enough of the building left to continue occupancy as an apartment building. During a 1970 "back-to-school" parade by the Black P Stones, the Stones' major rivals, the Gangster Disciples, opened fire with a shotgun, wounding three marchers, including one who lived at the old hotel. Two years later, Fort was in prison for misusing money from a government grant intended for community development the Stones had received.
(Pictured: Black P Stone back-to-school march along 63rd St., in August, 1970)
By 1981, Fort was out of prison, and his El Rukn gang controlled vast stretches of Southside drug territoriy. The gang's specialties were two drugs known as talwin and pyrabenzamine, commonly known as "Ts and Blues", which when combined and injected, produce a similar sensation to heroin, though at a substantially lower price than that drug, making them attractive to denizens of the economically depressed neighborhoods where the gang operated.
With their drug earnings, Fort led the gang into prostitution, protection ("street tax"), and labor racketeering, as well as real estate and politics. The El Pyramid Corp., which ran the real estate operations, was known for intimidating building owners into selling at below-market rates. It is not known if this was the case with the old Kenrose building, however. Fort, who demanded his followers call him "Prince Malik," and who paraded around town in a long fur coat adorned with heavy gold jewelry, bragged to the media that the police would never put him in jail.
In 1981, however, events took place that would eventually lead to Fort's downfall. Fort ordered a hit on the leader of another gang, Willie "Dollar Bill" Bibbs. Bibbs' gang represented competition for the Rukns, and, moreover, he called his gang the "Stones," impinging on Fort's "copyright" on that name for criminal operations. Fort sent Earl Hawkins, a top Rukn lieutenant, to organize the killing. "Shoot anybody that's out there! No, my brothers, I'm not a madman," Fort told Hawkins before a group of El Rukns. "Let's do it!" In June, 1981, Bibbs was shot by Hawkins and another Rukn outside a 43rd Street bar.
Police traced the shooting to Hawkins, and in October of that year, they entered the building at 6417 S. Kenwood with a warrant for his arrest. When the police entered the hallway where Hawkins was holed up with Fort, Fort sprinted down the hall and threw a 9 mm pistol and $8,000 in cash down a stairwell. The Rukn leader was arrested on weapons charges and harboring a fugitive. After a lengthy legal fight, Jeff Fort agreed to plead guilty and received a 90 day sentence in County jail.
While serving his sentence, evidence collected at his home during subsequent raids was used to indict Fort on federal narcotics trafficking charges, which eventually led to his imprisonment at Bastrop, Texas. This did not stop Jeff Fort from leading the Rukns, as he continued to hold sway over the gang by telephone from prison. For years, police knew that Fort was continuing to run the gang through an elaborate and intricate set of codes he used in telephone conversations with his generals back in Chicago, but law enforcement was unable to crack the code.
That is, until 1986, when Earl Hawkins was sentenced to death for his murderous role in the El Rukn gang, including his killing of Willie Bibbs. In return for his life, Hawkins turned state's witness against his former boss, and explained to investigators the meanings of Fort's complex coded statements. When interpreted, Fort's own words implicated him in a number of contract murders, as well as, fantastically, a plan to commit terrorist acts in Chicago on behalf of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Though the plan didn't get far, it revealed for the first time to the public the level of sophistication in the Rukn organization, and the grand ambitions Fort held for the group.
With Hawkins' testimony, Jeff Fort, still imprisoned in Texas, was convicted in October 1988 for ordering Willie Bibbs' murder, and placed in isolation where he could no longer communicate with the Rukns in Chicago. Eventually, in 1995, he was moved to the Colorado SuperMax prison. Without Fort's leadership, the El Rukn gang crumbled, and the name fell out of use around 1990.
The old Kenrose building, already falling apart, was demolished during the early 1990s, and in 2001, a group of small, but attractive single-family homes was built along Kenwood Ave. on the lot where Jeff Fort directed the El Rukn criminal empire.