RAGS TO RICHES TO PRISON

From the archives: A royal downfall

How drugs turned Seneca’s shy hero and 1980 World Series slugger into just another number

pobley@thestate.comOctober 10, 2004 

For Inmate 01732-031, each day unfolds much like the day before.

There is the morning jog around the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary recreation grounds. A pair of stereo headphones allows him to take a mental peek at the world beyond the 30-foot concrete walls.

At noon, it's off to work as a clerk in the prison's recreation department, shuffling papers and filling out requisition forms.

There are three meals, which vary little from the ones he was first served 10 years ago.

At 8 p.m., it's back to the cell.

"After 10 years, I don't want to say I'm bitter," 01732-031 said. "But I am disappointed. Upset. It's a life that . . . well . . . it's boring. Nothing changes. Same food, same place, same cell."

But sometimes at night, 01732-031 can close his eyes and dream about that magical Oct., 24 years ago.

In that dream, he exchanges khaki prison garb for a gleaming white Kansas City Royals uniform and he relives a World Series feat that no one before - or since - has achieved.

On Oct. 14, 1980, a man named Willie Mays Aikens turned 26 and slammed two home runs against the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of the World Series. Four days later, he duplicated the feat, becoming the first player to have two multihomer games in the Fall Classic.

Should the dream turn sour, he could find himself in 1983, the year he became the first active player in major league history to go to jail.

On a dark and stormy night, the dream could become a nightmare.

Such nightmares always end in the same place - on Dec. 12, 1994, in a Kansas City courtroom before U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple, the man responsible for the numerical name change.

"The thing that's so disappointing is that you were a young man who pulled yourself to prominence in professional sports and you trashed it," Whipple said.

"How sad. You had the skills to go down in history, and now your history will be overshadowed by this."

Willie Mays Aikens, aka 01732-031, is in the 10th year of a 20-year, eight-month sentence following his conviction on federal drug and firearms charges.

Not once in the intervening years has Aikens disputed his guilt. He knew jail time was in the cards. But because the 64 grams of cocaine he sold was in the form of crack rather than powder, federal sentencing guidelines dictated he be sentenced as if he tried to sell 6.4 kilograms.

That's the difference between a handful and 61/2 bricks stacked two feet high.

"I used drugs. I didn't sell them, except for that one time," Aikens said. "Only serious dealers carry around 61/2 bricks. Who's more dangerous, me or the guy with 61/2 bricks?"

If he was sentenced for 64 grams, the jail time would have amounted to a little more than two years.

The mitigating circumstances surrounding Aikens' arrest fuel the debate over the validity of federal sentencing guidelines. His case blurred the line between routine undercover law enforcement procedure and entrapment.

"Willie got a really rough deal," said Margaret Love, a former pardons attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice under the first Bush and Clinton administrations.

"I don't think he was a bad person. He was just a drug addict," Love said. "When you read the government's account, he was plainly entrapped. Not only by the FBI agent, but entrapped as a victim of mandatory sentencing.

"Poor, poor Willie," Love said. "We've got to set Willie Aikens free."

GROWING UP WILLIE

Two weeks before Willie Mays Aikens was born in the tiny Upstate town of Seneca, New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays made his famous catch, snagging Vic Wertz's fly ball over his shoulder at the Polo Grounds.

But, contrary to what most people believe, that's not how Aikens got his name.

"I don't really know the truth," Aikens said. "But Willie was my uncle's name, and Dr. Mays used to work in the neighborhood.

"It's just a coincidence."

The Aikens family, which included a sister and mother Lucille, lived in the worst house of in the worst part of Seneca's poverty-stricken Bruce Hill community.

"It was a little shack," said Jerome "Cuda" Harris, one of Aikens' childhood friends.

"Just a terrible little shack," said Byron Reames, Aikens' American Legion coach.

"He lived in a shack. Really. A shack," said Tom Shaver, Aikens' high school basketball coach. "It had a dirt floor."

"Well, maybe not a dirt floor," Harris said. "But you could see the dirt through it."

If the ramshackle shelter was one strike, Aikens' stuttering problem and bad teeth should have been enough to strike out any hope of living a normal life.

But Aikens prevailed.

"He was a kind and gentle person," said Shaver, who today works alongside Reames at Seneca High. "You wanted to protect him."

"He was a piece of work," Reames said. "Kind of like a big ol' teddy bear."

"And he was an excellent student, too," Shaver said. "Good with the books."

"But," cautioned former Seneca High principal Harry Hamilton, "he had a very high temper. Oftentimes when someone made him mad, he stuttered, and when he got real mad, he couldn't talk at all."

Allowances were made for Aikens because he was so good at what he did, be it studying or playing sports. At Seneca High, Aikens was a standout in baseball and football.

As for basketball . . .

Shaver: "Well, you have to understand that Willie was a big boy."

Reames: "He must've weighed 220."

Shaver: "Nah, I'd say more like 240.

Reames: "Yeah, probably so."

"He was a tackle on the football team, weighed well in excess of 250 pounds," Shaver said. "But he could jump as high as anyone in the school. I wanted him under the basket, but he had a tendency to think he was a point guard."

Baseball was where Aikens' true passion emerged. A colossal slugger from the first day he dug in the batter's box, he was driving missiles into the red, clay bank beyond center field at Seneca by his freshman year. By his senior year, those shots were landing high in the trees beyond the bank.

Willie McNeil, Aikens' high school baseball coach, built a nurturing relationship with the shy teenager, often providing him with clothes when his mother's job at the Lucky Stripe drive-in couldn't pay the bills.

"Coach McNeil was almost like a surrogate father to Willie," Shaver said of the late coach, who died earlier this year.

Aikens agreed.

"No matter what I did in life, I always had him in the back of my head," he said. "He was the coach who first told me I had a chance to make it."

It was McNeil who arranged for Aikens to attend South Carolina State on a baseball/football scholarship after graduation. When S.C. State dropped baseball after Aikens' freshman year, McNeil helped Aikens catch on with a semi-pro summer baseball league in Baltimore.

It was there he caught the eye of California Angels scout Walter Youse. The Angels selected Aikens with the second pick of the 1975 draft.

"I wanted to make it so bad," Aikens said. "It all happened so fast."

Kansas City, Mo. December, 1993

When Ginger Locke pulled her car up to the two men standing in driveway outside a midtown home, she was looking for directions to a nearby street.

The larger - much larger - of the two men stepped forward and gave her the directions, then got in his car and drove away.

Locke followed the man to a gas station, where he stopped and pointed out that she missed her turn.

She smiled.

"My name is Willie," the man said. "Do you have a man?"

"Kinda, sorta."

Aikens wrote down his number and drove off.

During the next few weeks, Locke called Aikens four times and gave him her beeper number.

One day, Aikens paged her, and Locke told him a friend of hers had been arrested with "stuff."

"Oh," Aikens said. "You're into that."

She nodded.

"He told me he could get me as much as I wanted," Locke testified during Aikens' trial in May, 1994.

On Jan. 18, 1994, Locke went to Aikens' home to buy an eighth of an ounce of cocaine. Aikens pulled a plastic bag from his sock.

"You want it hard or soft?" Aikens asked.

"Hard," Locke answered.

Aikens cooked the cocaine into crack and sold it to Locke for $200.

A relationship was born.

"She told me she would give me some," Aikens said, talking about sex. "It was all about getting stoned and gettin' some back then."

HIGHS, THEN A LOW

From El Paso to Salt Lake City, everywhere Aikens went during his rocketship ride through the minor leagues, he became legend for his mammoth home runs.

Those exploits led to Aikens' call up to the Angels early in the 1979 season. California had the makings of a team that could break Kansas City's three-year stranglehold on the American League West title. There was just one missing piece.

That piece was set into place when Rod Carew broke his hand fielding a throw at first base.

Aikens replaced Carew and did so well that he became the team's everyday designated hitter when Carew returned, forcing the lead-footed Don Baylor to the outfield.

With all three in the lineup, the Angels sneaked past Kansas City and won the West by three games.

Aikens hit .280 with 21 home runs, but it was clear by spring training in 1980 that the Angels didn't have a permanent place for him. The Angels traded Aikens to the Royals for Al Cowens and Todd Cruz.

Settling in as the full-time first baseman, Aikens thrived in the Royals' lineup. Batting cleanup, he had George Brett hitting in front of him and Hal McRae behind him.

The Royals raced to a 97-65 record and breezed past the Yankees to reach the World Series for the first time.

History was waiting for Aikens.

So was his dealer.

Kansas City, Mo. January, 1994.

Ginger Locke kept calling on Aikens for crack. The first two times, Aikens had enough in his stash to accommodate her.

The third time was a problem.

"She was asking for more than I had," Aikens said, "so I took her to a guy she could buy it from."

Locke asked Aikens to make the deal, giving him the money.

That night when Locke went home, she reported to her superior at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

She had 36 grams of crack in her possession from the deals she had made with Aikens. She decided she needed more.

"The total wasn't over 50 grams at that point," Locke testified in 1994.

According to the court transcript, Kurt D. Marquart, Aikens' lawyer, pressed Locke further.

Did she know that 50 grams would result in a minimum 10-year sentence?

She said yes.

So Locke had sought Aikens a fourth and final time, giving him $1,200 to buy an ounce - 28 grams - of cocaine. When Aikens returned from making the deal, the cocaine was in its powdered form.

"I thought you told me you'd get crack," Locke said.

According to Locke's testimony, Aikens returned to the drug house, asked for crack and was refused.

The two went back to Aikens' house, where he cooked the cocaine into crack.

Locke filled out the necessary paperwork later that night, denoting at the end of the report that Aikens lived within 1,000 feet of a school, knowing that could lead to more prison time.

On March 1, 1994, Aikens was arrested and charged for selling drugs to an undercover officer.

Because a 12-gauge shotgun was found on the premises, he was charged for selling with a firearm.

Looking back, Aikens said he never saw it coming, despite being morbidly overweight at 308 pounds and in declining health at age 39.

"I was living in the world of drugs," he said. "There are no concerns about your health, your kids, your wife. It's all about girlfriends and pipes. Smoking the pipe.

"I thought I was good with the ladies. I didn't know what I looked like. I didn't look in mirrors - I used them to cut up the coke."

1983 BECOMES 1994

Painfully shy but rolling in more money than he had ever seen, Aikens found drugs during his first year with the Angels.

"I used during the World Series," Aikens said. "But it was just something I did whenever I got the chance."

In 1983, a FBI agent visited the Royals' clubhouse and warned the team they were tapped into a prominent drug dealer's phone and that calling him would be a mistake.

It was a warning shot that four players failed to heed.

Aikens, Jerry Martin, Vida Blue and Willie Wilson were arrested and charged with conspiracy to buy drugs over the phone, a misdemeanor.

The four were sentenced to 180 days in a minimum-security prison in Fort Worth. They were released after 90 days.

Aikens was undeterred.

"I never looked at it as something bad," Aikens said. "This was my first time, and I said to myself, 'This is a real prison?'

"I walked around holding a female hand every day I was there. That's no deterrent."

The Royals washed their hands of Aikens while he was in jail, trading him to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1984. He never played full time again.

Released in 1985, Aikens went to the Mexican League. During one amazing year at Puebla, Aikens batted a league-record .454 with 46 homers and 154 RBIs.

Blackballed by the major leagues, Aikens' disappointment turned to optimism when Japan League scouts entered into a bidding war for his services.

"Just think - I could have gone to Japan for the last six years I played and made $3 or $4 million," Aikens said. "And the fences are so short there. I would have torn it up."

Any possible deal was soon nixed when Aikens was unable to obtain a passport due to his jail time.

His last best hope for career salvation scuttled, Aikens drifted through the Mexican League for another five seasons, returning to Kansas City each winter for a full slate of drugs, sex and partying.

He had fathered two girls during his time in Mexico, but that didn't stop him from living the high life during the offseason.

There was no end in sight. Then one day, a woman named Ginger pulled up and asked for directions.

A NEW BEGINNING

During the 1994 trial, Aikens' defense team motioned for a dismissal of all charges due to "outrageous conduct" by police "setting him up."

That motion was denied.

Because he had sold more than 50 grams, Aikens had to serve at least 10 years with no possibility for parole. The firearms charge upped that number to 17 years without parole.

His earliest possible release is the spring of 2011.

The jury found Aikens guilty primarily because it didn't believe Locke was the first person he had sold drugs to, despite Aikens' insistence that she was.

"There are murderers who spend less time than Willie," said Love, who helped Aikens file for a presidential sentence commutation. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush declined his request.

"Mandatory federal sentences are about appearing tough on crime, and that's extremely shortsighted," Love said. "We're not talking about freeing murderers or rapists. We're talking about addicts who need help, rehab."

So for now, Aikens waits. Over the years, he renewed his relationship with daughters Lucia, 16, and Gretchen, 15, and their mother, whom he considers his common-law wife.

He has been clean and sober for 10 years.

A born-again Christian, Aikens welcomes each new inmate with a copy of the Bible.

Chess is his game of choice today.

On Thursday, he will turn 50. With his weight under control, he looks as if he just walked off the field.

"As long as I can stay in contact with the outside, I believe I still have a chance," Aikens said. "I have done a lot in my life, but the one thing I haven't done is be a family man.

"Being a father to my daughters and a husband to my wife. Yeah, that's who I want to be. I don't want to be a number again."

Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473

Editor's note: Some portions of the chapters were recreated from court transcripts and accounts published in the Kansas City Star

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