EPISODE NINETEEN: FROM THE ASHES
DREW NELLES: All right, let me just get some levels on you.
CHARLIE LEDUFF: Can I smoke?
DREW: No, you can’t smoke inside, unfortunately.
CHARLIE: Why not? The fuck?
DREW: It says right on the thing.
CHARLIE: Oh dude, really?
DREW: Come on, man. I’m going to get a bad Airbnb rating…
JOHN WHITE: It’s February 2018. One of our first trips to Detroit. We’re sitting in our run-down rental house in the North End, with a guy named Charlie LeDuff.
DREW: What do you do?
CHARLIE: As little as possible.
DREW: [laughs] Alright.
CHARLIE: I'm a reporter around town. Doing a little bit less of it these days. I kinda, kinda took a break out of disgust.
JOHN: Disgust? What is it about this town, man?
CHARLIE: Corruption’s always been here as long as long as we've been here. Antoine Cadillac paddled in here in 1701. Sold liquor to the Indians, which was against French law, making him the first dope dealer in Detroit. The mayor of 1930, Charles Bowles, was hooked up with the Klan and the mob. He was the first mayor in the history of the United States from a major city removed from office. Then you had Kwame, of course, Kwame Kilpatrick, swinging contracts, kickbacks, na na na na na na, and doing a world record almost three decades in prison for it. See, Detroit was great and always corrupt. But there was so much money, you could wallpaper over the maggots. Now that they took the wallpaper away, it’s just fucking maggots coming out of the wall.
JOHN: For the year and a half that we’ve been working on this season, Charlie has been one of our behind-the-scenes guides to Detroit.
JOHN: It’s beautiful. What is this, a Fleetwood Cadillac, circa, ’78?
JOHN: ’77. Aw man, I was close!
JOHN: We pile into Charlie’s car so he can show us around the city.
CHARLIE: We were rollin’ man and we were the heart of it. Look at it. The roads are fuckin’ breaking apart. You ever seen roads like this? Never!
JOHN: There’s one particular sight that Charlie wants us to see. He slows down as he drives us by a lot on Gratiot Avenue.
JOHN: What are we looking at here, what is this?
CHARLIE: We’re looking at was supposed to be the new Wayne County Jail and it’s the Wayne County Fail.
The Fail Jail. The skeleton of an unfinished building. After years of delays and cost overruns, construction on the jail halted. About $400 million dollars had gone into it—all for nothing.
DREW: And so where did the 400 million go?
CHARLIE: Contractors. Contributions to politicians. Trade unions got some jobs. People got paid. People got paid. The citizens got fucked.
DREW: And what’s the significance of the Fail Jail?
CHARLIE: The fuck you mean, what’s the significance? The significance is, it’s failed, we’re bankrupt, the children’s schools suck, there’s no work here, and we just shit away 400 million dollars that we don’t have. And all the dudes that are responsible for this probably had steak and Bordeaux for lunch.
JOHN: This season, we’ve told you stories of a great American city plagued by racial conflict, crime, and corruption… and how all that led to the 28-year sentence of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Today… we’ll share a little bit of what we’ve learned from our time in Detroit...and take a look at what might be next for the Motor City.
It’s the final episode of Season 2.
JOHN: I’m John White. Welcome to Crimetown.
JOHN: Here he is. Hello?
PRISON BOT: You have a prepaid call. You will not be charged for this call. This call is from -- Kwame Kilpatrick -- an inmate at a federal prison. To accept, dial five now -- [BEEP]
JOHN: Hey Kwame.
KWAME KILPATRICK: What's going on John, how you doing?
JOHN: I’m all right, man. How are you?
KWAME: I’m all right, I’m all right.
JOHN: Good. Good. So is this it? Is this our swansong?
KWAME: Yeah, this our swansong. We had a great run.
JOHN: Well, all right, let’s go out in a ball of fire.
JOHN: I started talking to Kwame Kilpatrick about a year ago. He calls a few times a month.
JOHN: You guys gonna watch the Super Bowl? I’m just curious.
KWAME: Yeah. You know that’s big and so, I still like football so definitely watching it. And they’ve got a big thing here today, they fed everybody hot wings and chips.
JOHN: Not bad. Not bad. [laughter] I’m going to have the same thing.
KWAME: Yeah, see there you go something similar. [laughs]
JOHN: According to Kwame, this stint in prison has its blessings...
KWAME: You know, one of the blessings I think of when I came here to prison I call it a blessing, is all [beeping] cellies — I’ve had two lifers. I've had a guy with 57 years. My last cellie had 35 years and been in 20. So it's hard to have self-pity when you hear some of these stories of guys that have been here since they were 18, 19. I have lived a lifetime -- two or three lives since I was 18 and 19. When you hear about a young man, 15 years old, has already been in juvenile a few times. Guy who lost both his parents, his mother killed herself in front of him, [beep] can’t be like oh woe is me.
JOHN: Most days, Kwame keeps pretty busy. He’s a worship leader in church, he sings in the choir, and he’s taking some classes.
KWAME: The name of the class is business law. The first day I was there, trying to sit in a corner in the back and uh --
JOHN: That’s not like you, man.
KWAME: Well that’s like me now, I try to get out the way because they try to point you out all the time. But, uh, the instructor, he kept referring to me, I was dead quiet in there. You know, uh, but, I answered a couple of questions because he asked me to help clarify. And so he asked me to help him and so then, yeah. Last week asked me to come up there. So now I’m actually gonna teach the first part of the class.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Kwame Kilpatrick, round two? The former mayor of Detroit wants a new trial. Team Kilpatrick lays out the reasons they believe he was not treated fairly during the trial...
JOHN: When Kwame first arrived in prison, he started appealing his case... with no luck.
KWAME: Whatever reports that people want to buy into and believe, whatever they want uh, to, to have, I'm just going to let them have it. Because for me, the important thing is to be restored back to my family, to my mom and dad, my, my sons, my community, and preferably be a help to young people and all people out there in the world.
JOHN: And back in 2015, Kwame saw an opportunity. An old friend of his was visiting his prison. An old friend...who just happened to be the President of the United States.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: President Barack Obama is paying a visit today to the same prison where ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s currently locked up. It’s interesting to see how similar these paths once were. 7 Action News takes a look at the rise of one man and the fall of the other …
JOHN: Barack Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison — El Reno Correctional Facility, in Oklahoma.
KWAME: We’re looking out the window. We see the presidential motorcade coming up the back. And I see the Secret Service gather around him, and then I saw President Obama step out of the car.
BARACK OBAMA: Hello everybody, thank you... [camera shutters]
KWAME: And I’m in a cell, and watching the presidential motorcade outside of a barred window. It’s a heck of a thing in my life.
JOHN: President Obama was there to promote prison reform, in an effort to undo decades of zero-tolerance sentencing that disproportionately affected young black men.
OBAMA: We have to reconsider whether 20 or 30 year life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems. These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made. That’s what strikes me: there but for the grace of God.
JOHN: As part of his visit, Obama sat down with a group of inmates.
OBAMA: How y’all doin?
INMATE: All right, how are you doing sir?
OBAMA: All right...
JOHN: But there was an inmate Obama didn’t talk to...
KWAME: I knew that it wouldn’t happen. I really had no fantasy, but I did have an emotional moment because it’s a very depressing moment in the tale of two lives. One of a guy who I believe made good decisions, particularly good family decisions, and he was chosen to do something, I believe, that was beyond any — his own imagination at the time and he did it well. And then it’s the difference between making bad decisions, particularly bad family decisions, and where you can end up.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: The president commuted the sentences of 330 people today, the most ever in a single day, but Kilpatrick was not one of them...
KWAME: I filed a clemency like 30,000 other people, Obama, uh, personally knew about my clemency application, I don’t know what kind of information he received, but it was clearly erroneous and he didn’t give it to me. He dissed me. He definitely dissed me. He could have let me out of prison. He just decided to not do it.
JONAS KILPATRICK: It’s too much time, there was no crime. He’s trapped inside, while they minimize what he did for the city, ain’t asking for your pity, don’t just sit and look pretty, stand and do something with me. Uh. 28 year injustice, black fathers sit in cells...
JOHN: This is Kwame’s youngest son, Jonas. Last year, Kwame’s family and supporters launched a campaign called the Free Kwame Project to petition the court for re-sentencing.
JONAS: His family awaits so give the mandate to vacate the 28...
JOHN: Kwame and his family believe his sentence is too long...and motivated by racism.
KWAME: What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to be less black? Was I supposed to be less soulful? How about if I was born 20 years earlier and I never heard of Run-DMC or Biggie or Pac? Or should I just sound more like a white guy when I talk? “Hey guys, how are you? How’s everybody doing?”
JOHN: This sentiment is something you hear a lot around Detroit...
MAN 1: I don't want to make it like a race thing, but that's what it is. If he was white and in the same predicament, with these same circumstances, the punishment wouldn't have been as harsh.
MAN 2: I think the young man can be rehabilitated. And I don’t think he should have to throw away his life... he could come out here and do some very positive things.
MAN 3: That’s just a lot for anybody, 28 years, that’s like he killed somebody or something, like murder.
JOHN: Do you think the 28 year sentence is too much?
CHARLIE: Yeah, 28 years is too much...
JOHN: Charlie LeDuff, the reporter from the top of the show, understands both sides of the public debate about Kwame’s sentence.
CHARLIE: But do I believe Kwame Kilpatrick’s a crook? 100 percent. 100 percent. Did the media portray you that way? Hip hop guy, thug, the HNIC? Yeah. They did. Oh yeah they were happy, going to bump into you in the Navigator and the earring and the Kangol hat and the wide lapels. Sure. No doubt about it. That’s what we do in Detroit. We haven't solved this serpent, this riddle, called race. You tell me where in America we have. But you did it. There's no question about it. Were you a bad person? Were you a bad mayor? You’re damn right. You earned your way to the pen, dude. I would stop fucking around if I was you. Don’t be blaming everybody else. I would admit it and then maybe somebody can have mercy on you. And you might get out of prison before you die.
KWAME: I lied about an affair. And once I lied about that affair that was actually happening, everything else was believable.
JOHN: I'm just wondering you know if there's a part of you that I don't know that that owns some of that -- you know what I mean? Like you made mistakes and was it -- and the only mistake that you made was was cheating on your wife, was that the --
KWAME: Well, that was the only criminal mistake I made. Absolutely. Without question. There were thousands of mistakes made, hiring some individuals I hired, making some of the decisions on strategy that I made. But they want to say, what, that I extorted people? So I don't know how -- people say own it. What do you want me to own?
JOHN: By this point, I’ve spent hours of my life talking with Kwame. In those conversations, I’ve seen his intelligence, his charisma, and his sense of humor. I’ve actually come to like him. But I've also interviewed people involved in his federal case, and seen overwhelming evidence that Kwame accepted bribes and kickbacks as mayor. He’s refused to provide me with any evidence that disproves his guilt, and every time he insists on his innocence, it sounds like another excuse.
KWAME: Once you have an adulterer and a cheater who lied under oath, um, anything now is believable. And those people who supported me in the city, it provoked them to be quiet. And so the city was looking for a savior. A black editor in Detroit wrote an editorial that said I think it's time for a white mayor. That editorial couldn't be printed in any other major city in America without an uprising. But in Detroit it was fine because of the plantation mindset that persists among blacks and whites, that to be white is better or smarter or it's a good thing. They could be mayor in Detroit just because they’re white. The young guy was corrupt and horrible and he was an adulterer. So we need a white guy. It's time for a white mayor.
JOHN: [beep beep] Kwame, I just want to say thank you. And if this is the last time, good—goodbye. I didn't want to you know for all this to happen and time to pass and not say I appreciate you opening yourself up to us.
KWAME: Well I thank you John. Uh, it has been the first time that anybody has ever heard any other perspective. And I appreciate you at least showing a different side. And I hope that one day we'll meet face to face, I can shake your hand --
JOHN: I do too, brother. I really do.
KWAME: -- and have a cup of coffee in New York. [laughs]
[BEEP BEEP BEEP]
DREW: All right, I’m recording now. Wait, was I supposed to stay…
JOHN: You are gonna take exit 4A.
DREW: Oh yeah, shit.
JOHN: To I-94 East. Sorry man.
DREW: Time to change lanes...
JOHN: It’s late 2017. Crimetown senior producer Drew Nelles and I are on our first trip to Detroit.
DREW: All right, so where are we going right now, John?
JOHN: Uh we’re going to the...Solomon Temple? Let me get this right. Where are we going...
JOHN: These days, Detroit is changing. For one, Kwame Kilpatrick was right: a few years ago, the city elected its first white mayor in forty years. Mike Duggan.
ARCHIVAL: Detroit’s voters destroyed the theory that a white candidate could never win there, easily electing Mike Duggan as mayor. Duggan won over an electorate that’s 83 percent black. Detroit hasn’t elected a white mayor since 1970.
JOHN: Duggan has been credited with reviving Detroit—overseeing the so-called "Motor City Miracle." And as we drive through the city, I can't help but notice that parts of it are looking good. Companies are moving back in. Billions of dollars are being spent on infrastructure. There are hip bars and boutiques and condos.
JOHN: You know, lots of little cafes, restaurants popping up, Detroit Pistons just moved back in to town…
JOHN: But most of that change is happening in the downtown and midtown core of the city. A lot of the people benefitting — and a lot of the new residents moving in — are white. And huge swaths of the city, where black people live, are still neglected and impoverished.
DREW: ...so much of the city basically turning back into, like, field and forest...
JOHN: As we leave downtown, we drive past the empty lots and vacant houses that have become Detroit’s public face.
JOHN: Turn right onto East State Fair. Sorry.
DREW: That’s okay.
JOHN: I’m not really navigating very well, man.
JOHN: Then, we arrive at an old church…
CHOIR: Lift every voice and sing...till earth and heaven ring...
JOHN: It’s another mayoral election year in Detroit. The vote is tomorrow, and we're at a campaign rally for one of the candidates. Someone with a familiar name in Detroit politics.
COLEMAN YOUNG II: Well, listen, we all know, but for those of you who don’t, my name is Coleman Alexander Young [applause]. And I’m running for mayor of the city of Detroit!
JOHN: Coleman Alexander Young ... the Second. The son of Detroit’s first black mayor. And the theme of the rally?
YOUNG II: Take back the Motherlaaand!!!
JOHN: “Take back the motherland.” That’s what Coleman Young the Second’s supporters were hoping to do: beat Mayor Mike Duggan...and get a black man back in city hall.
REV CHARLES WILLIAMS: So they’re kicking us out of our houses, gentrifying our neighborhoods and our communities, and what are we going to do, roll over and play dead? No, we’re gonna stand up, fight back. Because we got to get this white racist mayor out of here!
ADOLPH MONGO: We’re gonna take back our city, we can’t give it up. They done took everything. And I’m glad that we’re gonna send a message to these white supremacists.
JOHN: Coleman Young II’s campaign manager is also a familiar name: Adolph Mongo. The political consultant who created that infamous lynching ad for Kwame Kilpatrick.
MONGO: This is the motherland. This is the motherland. Black power! Black power! Black power! Black power! Listen, this young man...this was his legacy. His daddy was a bad man… his daddy didn’t take no stuff from nobody!
JOHN: As I look around the rally, I realize something: Detroit is right back where our story started.
YOUNG II: To my father, the Honorable Coleman Alexander Young [scream] who beat back STRESS, and if you didn’t like it, you could hit Eight Mile Road. We are taking this city back!!! [APPLAUSE]
ARCHIVAL: Four more years for Detroit mayor Mike Duggan. It may be the biggest margin of victory in 20 years in the mayor’s race. He beat challenger Coleman A. Young the Second by a margin of more than two to one.
MIKE DUGGAN: Well thank you, Detroit! … Uh, you know...through all of the different kinds of attacks, I have been treated by nothing but warmth and kindness from Detroiters in every neighborhood of the city. I am just so appreciative! [applause] ....
JOHN: Duggan defeated Young on the strength of downtown Detroit’s revival. But not everyone is buying into Duggan's “Motor City Miracle.” Again, reporter Charlie LeDuff.
CHARLIE: I do have in my possession federal documents that show Duggan has been or had been, however you want to legally state it, been a subject of a massive federal corruption probe with this demolition program//He's fighting rabidly to beat it off.
JOHN: That’s right. There is yet another federal corruption investigation underway in Detroit.
HUEL PERKINS: There is certainly the appearance of some sort of collusion --
DUGGAN: Absolutely not!
PERKINS: Not that I’m accusing you of any wrongdoing --
DUGGAN: Absolutely not!
PERKINS: But there is the appearance --
DUGGAN: Absolutely not!
PERKINS: -- that three big companies were contacted before the bidding process was even opened...
CHARLIE: Can I have a cigarette? Is that cool?
JOHN: Aw, it’s nice out.
CHARLIE: Alright! Comeback City!
JOHN: Back at our rental house in Detroit’s struggling North End, we step out onto the porch with Charlie … so he can smoke.
CHARLIE: Look around!
DREW: And what are we looking at?
CHARLIE: We're looking at a bunch of houses that are, got plastic hanging from them and burn marks and porches are falling in and it's like a broken mouth, one tooth’s messed up. One works, one doesn't. And then if you look, the house next to that, there's no windows. And you’ve got a demolition pit here to the right of you. It's a big hole.
DREW: And this probably used to be a house too, right?
CHARLIE: Every lot you see was a house. Every inch was a home. There were two million, two million people.
JOHN: In a city that’s gone from almost two million people in the 1950s to less than seven hundred thousand today, there are a lot of empty lots and abandoned houses. Tearing down those homes is big business. That federal investigation Charlie mentioned? It’s looking into possible kickbacks from city demolition contracts. And for Detroiters, all those vacant homes aren’t just an eyesore. They’re a reminder of everything the city has been through.
CHARLIE: This’ll suck the soul out of you. No human wants to live next to this. No. None. It's a very big deal and these things are very old. That's lead paint on there. That's asbestos in the roof tiles. It's a health hazard. It’s bullshit.
JOHN: We stand on the porch with Charlie, listening to the snow drip off the roof. Not far from the demolition pit we’re looking at, there’s a home that’s obviously still lived in. It has a barbecue and some satellite dishes. And there, sitting on the lawn...is a kid’s tricycle.
CHARLIE: That's key here. That's key. The kids are the what, not, are not 300 feet from that hole. If that was your kid, you’d be pissed as a motherfucker. You would. You’d be looking out that window every day going, motherfucker. Would you not? [drags on cigarette] And two blocks away is the main artery, Woodward. And about six blocks from there or less is the beginning of the new miracle, Midtown. But, I don’t see no money getting here. Drip drip drip. But you know, we’ll make it. We're always going to be here.
DREW: Yup. What’s the city motto on the seal? Rise from the ashes?
CHARLIE: Rise from the ashes.
JOHN: Thanks everyone for listening to Season 2 of crimetown. Keep an eye on our feed -- we’ll be dropping some bonus episodes and other updates soon.
JOHN: Crimetown is Marc Smerling and, me, Zac Stuart-Pontier. This season is made in partnership with Gimlet Media and Spotify.
It’s produced by John White, Rob Szypko, Soraya Shockley, and Samantha Lee.
The senior producer is Drew Nelles.
Editing by me and Marc Smerling.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Kenny Kusiak.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Check them out at detroitsoundconservancy.org
Thanks to our amazing studio musicians: Kent Crawley, Aisha Ellis, Ian Finklestein, Gregory “Greco” Freeman, David Lee Spradley, Brandon Williams, Larry Fratangelo, Takashi Iio, and Ufuoma D. Wallace.
Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music this season by John Kusiak, Kenny Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin, and Bienart. Additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit track this week is a very special cover of “Politicians In My Eyes,” by Detroit Soul Ambassador Melvin Davis. Produced by Drew Schultz at D&S Productions.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Archival footage courtesy of WXYZ.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
Rob Szypko runs our website and it’s great full of bonus content like photos, videos, articles, and documents for every episode this season. Check it out at crimetownshow.com.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Mike McKay. Mike’s widow, Sonia Brown, runs a charity in Detroit called Auntie Na's House. If you want to donate, you can find a link on our website.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaeffer, Melanie Maxwell, Mary Schroeder, Bob Schedlbower, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, Mary Wallace, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Melissa Samson, the Detroit Historical Society, Brendan Roney, Austin Mitchell, Ryan Murdock, Kaitlin Roberts, Allie Delyannis, Jeff Risk, Jackson Kusiak, and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit is an amazing place, and it's been an honor to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather. Do I believe he’s a crook? 100 percent. 100 percent.
DREW: OK John, what are you reading?
JOHN: So Drew, I just got an email from Kwame Kilpatrick. “Hello John, we get 15 minutes per phone call,” so I asked him, you know, how long, if we can make a phone call to him and how long we get -- “I would love to do an interview with you.”
DREW: Love is in capital letters.
JOHN: Love, all caps. Um, “So looking forward to working with you!!!!” Four exclamation points. “Send weekend party pics to Kwame Kilpatrick. Just send them…” What?
JOHN: I have no idea what that means.
DREW: You sure you said nothing about --
JOHN: I added a few lines but nothing about a party.
DREW: [laughs] weekend party pics?
JOHN: Ah, I’m sure he would appreciate that.
DREW: Ahh, oh boy...