As a drug lord in South Central, Los Angeles in the mid-80s, Freeway Ricky Ross earned hundreds of millions of dollars by franchising crack outlets like McDonalds – becoming one of America’s biggest and most infamous drug dealers in the process. Freeway's budding collegiate tennis career was cut short due to his inability to read, which led to him diving headfirst into the drug trade. When he first started selling cocaine, a kilo cost upwards of $45K US, but with the Colombian Cartels pumping tonnes of yayo into L.A., the wholesale price dropped to $10k. Enabling hustlers like Freeway, to not only flood the City of Angels but to ship the cocaine out-of-state, through the Crips and Bloods street gangs, jumpstarting the Reagan era, nationwide crack epidemic.
From the ghettos of South Central, Freeway Ricky Ross oversaw an empire that generated $3 million a day at its height. His ascension to L.A.’s most prominent crack kingpin had a catch to it, though. Unwittingly, Freeway was used as a CIA pawn, playing in the Iran-Contra, a game much bigger than he ever anticipated. His cocaine supplier, Oscar Danilo Blandon, was a Nicaraguan drug trafficker raising money for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), a Contra group sponsored by the CIA. San Jose journalist, Gary Webb documented this story in his groundbreaking book, Dark Alliance – the release of which would ultimately lead to his mysterious death.
"At the height of my career I was doing 100 keys a day, some days I did 200 keys – so you figure at $15,000 a kilo that’s a million five"
After serving multiple stints in federal prison as a result of his misadventures in the drug game, Freeway got the life sentence the feds gave him overturned on entrapment and police corruption issues. Out in the world now and still hustling, but legitimately this time, Freeway is a pop culture legend. Since 2009, he’s been crisscrossing the country doing book signings to promote his novel, Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography and t-shirt line, “The Real Rick Ross is NOT a Rapper”. The self-proclaimed “Mayor of the Ghetto” even had his documentary, A Crack in the System, nominated for an Emmy. Despite losing his battle to stop the rapper Rick Ross from using his name and flaunting his former lifestyle in his rhymes, and a Spring 2016 traffic stop in Northern California, where cops confiscated $100K US in cash, things are looking up for the former L.A. crack king. Penthouse sat down for a chat with the gangster legend to take it all in.
You were making three million dollars a day at your height, that’s insane. How did you reach that status in the drug game and how did you manage a multimillion dollar cash business like that back in the 80s?
When I first started in the drug business, I didn’t know what cocaine looked like. I didn’t know what it smelled like. I didn’t know the colour, and I didn’t know how to weigh it. I didn’t know anything, but I had a desire to be Superfly. From that desire came everything else – the wisdom, the knowledge and the experience. I got to the point where I could look at a kilo and tell if it was short. I could tell by smelling it if the coke was good or not. I learned how much a kilo sold for in different parts of the country. I’d just go through there and find the guy that was pushing the weight and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
I never wanted my guys to get caught with a lot of drugs, so I set up a system. I knew that the less drugs they got caught with, the better it was in court. They’d get less time, it was easier to get a lawyer to win their case, and the police wouldn’t be as concerned with really hammering them. What I did was I’d only have my guys take maybe two ounces at a time to certain houses, and then I’d have another guy that would go by and every 15 to 20 minutes, pick up the cash and resupply them. At the height of my career I was doing 100 keys a day, some days I did 200 keys – so you figure at $15,000 a kilo that’s a million five, and then there’d be days that I took in three million and some change.
With all that illegitimate cash around what did you invest your money in? Were you trying to go legit?
I owned a motel, and I was in the process of building like three more. I owned body shops, custom tires and wheels shop, a junkyard. I owned about 30 houses at one time and a few apartment buildings. I financed a record company and took care of my family. To me, it’s all about helping your family out. I didn’t get into the drug business to floss and stunt. I got into the drug business because I couldn’t get a job. I was uneducated. I couldn’t read. I didn’t have any skills other than tennis. Tennis was the best skill that I had, and after that door was slammed on me, I was looking for another way to get out the ghetto.
You eventually left L.A. because it got too hot with the Freeway Ricky Ross Task Force gunning for you. The police eventually caught you for the first time in Cincinnati, but due to corrupt cops in L.A., you were able to get out of a life sentence, right?
I would have probably got a life sentence from that case as well, but what happened is that they had the crooked cops. It’s funny how it worked out. When Cincinnati started investigating me, they called L.A. and L.A. said: “If you’re investigating Ricky Ross, you’ve got to talk to the sheriff of the Freeway Ricky Ross Taskforce.” Little known to Cincinnati was that these cops were all corrupt. I had a RICO Act [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act, a United States Federal law designed to deal out large penalties to those involved in organised crime] case in Los Angeles, but that indictment was squashed behind those corrupt cops. L.A. didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but Cincinnati, along with Texas, felt that they’d rather take me to trial and let me lose then squash their indictment. Cincinnati ended up giving me a sweetheart deal – 10 years, and if L.A. indicted the cops and I testified against them, they’d drop it down to five years, so that’s what happened with that first case.
This was before the Rampart scandal shocked the nation in the late 90s. Nobody knew what was going on out there corruption-wise, but you knew firsthand what LA cops were capable of. Explain?
There would be a certain amount of drugs in particular houses, and the cops would raid them and say they found half-a-key in the house. But we never kept half-a-key in any house. I’d get on my guys and be like what are you doing? Bringing other people’s dope into my house? But my guys would be like, “Nah – there was nothing in the house”. We were sold-out when they came. Some guys would be like, “Man, I flushed everything down the toilet, but the cops found drugs.”
It kept happening to too many people, so we figured out that the cops were planting drugs. I went to my lawyer, and he showed me how to hire an investigator to investigate the cops. I hired an investigator. He went around and dug up all the dirt on the police – that they were beating people, planting drugs and guns. Eventually, when the cops got me indicted, I also got them indicted. Fair is fair.
"If they told Bill Gates tomorrow that if he kept Microsoft open, he would go to prison, he would quit. But drug dealers know that they can go to jail, and they don’t quit"
When you got out you hooked back up with Oscar Danilo Blandon, your cocaine connection, except this time he wasn’t selling drugs for the CIA anymore, he was trying to set you up and get you back in prison?
Danilo called me almost the same day I got out, saying he wanted to see me, that he wanted to help me. I’m thinking about what I always heard about the game – keep your mouth shut when you go to jail, and your people will help you get back on your feet when you get out. I’m doing badly – my money is low and I’m figuring that he’s out to help me. But he was recording the whole conversation, trying to set me up.
I thought I had a slam dunk case because you can hear him pulling me in on the tapes and you can also hear me saying, “I ain’t doing nothing, I don’t know nobody, I just got out of prison.” But as far as entrapment goes, that doesn’t matter because they can target you, even if you’re not selling drugs you can be a target. This means they can come persuade you to do a dope deal if they think that you have some type of connections in the drug business. I was never fronted a hundred kilos in my life. That’s a million dollars’ worth of drugs. Before, I’d always paid cash, but now he wants to front it to me. It was a set up the whole way.
After Danilo set you up you got a life sentence, and as you’re sitting in prison, knowing that you’re there under dubious circumstances since the government entrapped you, you start researching your case to get back in court?
I’m in prison. My lawyer doesn’t think I’m ever going to get out again. I just won a lawsuit from the cops for letting a dog bite me up while I was handcuffed. I had $60,000. My lawyer told me to take the $60,000 and put it on my commissary because I had a long time to do. He thought I was never getting out. When you have a life sentence, people bury you. But I didn’t give up. I started researching my case.
Basically, I had to teach myself to read. My cellmate and another convict helped me. They spent all their time helping me learn how to read so I could fight my case. I started reading the newspaper first. It went from the newspaper to law books to eventually finding the issue that got me out. I studied entrapment all day and all night and finally got my sentence down to 20 years. When the crack amendments passed, I got out.
You’ve lived the life that gangsta rappers and Hollywood movies portray. What has being a drug dealer taught you about succeeding in business and about life in general?
If you can be a drug dealer, you can do anything. I mean, you take a guy like Bill Gates. If they told Bill Gates tomorrow that if he kept Microsoft open, he would go to prison, he would quit. But drug dealers know that they can go to jail, and they don’t quit – they keep dealing, they keep dealing and they keep dealing until they actually go to prison. So when you have to live under those types of pressures – you know, when I sold cocaine every day, I knew that could be the day they kick my door in. Or that could be the day that I walk out of my house, and some guys are in my bushes trying to rob me, or the day that I might have to shoot somebody because I used to have my pistol in my pocket too. Sometimes I had to wear bulletproof vests. So when you’re living under those types of circumstances – there's a lot of pressure – a lot of pressure that most businesses don’t go through.
You’ve been touring the country to promote your autobiography, your t-shirt line and talk to young people and show them the errors of your ways. What can people learn by reading your book or listening to you talk at your public speaking appearances?
I’ve been selling my book. It’s doing well. My goal is to sell a million copies, hand to hand. My t-shirts are doing well. I’ve got some new designs I’m getting ready to come out with, some of them are going to be marijuana related with marijuana sayings on them. I'm enjoying different avenues and different aspects of business. I’m still doing my motivational speaking, even though it slowed down after my arrest up in Northern California.
I hope that I can continue to have success. I’m going to continue to work hard and learn as much as I can and teach as many people as I can, and hopefully, more people will pick up my book. One school teacher in Detroit told me that they need to have my book in every school because it's anti-gangs. That’s what she got out of it. And different people have been getting different things. I’m just excited that I’m experiencing the success that I am. I was nominated for an Emmy award for my documentary, A Crack in the System. I’m working on a couple of TV series and shooting some documentaries. Just grinding and enjoying life.