- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

ATLANTA — Just out of college, Jamal Lewis was looking forward to his first NFL snap in the summer of 2000.

The star running back from Tennessee and the draft’s fifth overall pick had returned home to his middle-class neighborhood in west Atlanta to wait out contract negotiations with the Baltimore Ravens. However, it was the time Lewis spent that summer with his friends from the area of Bowen Homes, a public housing project four miles away, that has clouded the NFL Offensive Player of the Year’s future with memories of the past.

The crime-ridden housing project is at the center of a federal drug investigation that has ensnared Lewis with criminal charges that he tried to broker a cocaine deal only a month before reporting to the Ravens’ camp for the first time.

Bowen Homes residents say Lewis would sometimes hang out there but wasn’t one to mix with drugs.

“He just didn’t seem like he was that type,” said Barbara Allen, who has lived in the project since 1972. “I would see him out there occasionally playing ball. He was very quiet, real respectable.”

U.S. Attorney William Duffey has said the indictment against Lewis came out of an investigation at Bowen Homes that has been going on for at least four years, led to 30 convictions and helped dismantle a cocaine-trafficking ring. He has refused to elaborate or answer questions about the case, and a spokesman has declined to comment.

The sprawling, 650-unit Bowen Homes complex is a mix of dilapidated multilevel tan buildings with outdoor storage areas enclosed by concrete barriers. To deal with crime, officials plan to install video cameras that can read license plate numbers and put bulletproof covers over the lights to reduce vandalism.

“When I get home, I don’t go outside,” said Beverly Brown, 47, a Bowen Homes resident for 18 months. “I mind my own business.”

It’s very different from the nurturing home Lewis grew up in with his parents, John and Mary Lewis, and an older brother also named John.

“The father didn’t miss a practice, and the mother was very supportive,” said Mike Sims, Lewis’ football coach at nearby Frederick Douglass High School. “We kind of worked together as a team for the betterment of Jamal.”

Lewis, who gained the second-most rushing yards in NFL history last season with 2,066, grew up in a ranch-style house in the Adamsville section of Atlanta. The home is set off in the woods atop a long driveway, where a sign warns passers-by to beware of the two caged dogs guarding the property.

James Thomas, who lives across the street, said Lewis spent a lot of time at home with his father and enjoyed watching television. Another neighbor, Pamela Owens, described the young Lewis as “mannerable, kind of quiet. He didn’t have like wild parties. He was a quiet, nice kid.”

Thomas said Lewis was not someone who messed with drugs.

“I was definitely surprised when I heard what happened, especially now that his career is taking off,” he said.

Darren Myles, the running backs coach at Douglass when Lewis played there, said Lewis attended church with his family and followed the rules.

“He was popular, but he didn’t run with a rough crowd,” Myles said. “He never got in any trouble, never was suspended, never cut class, no trouble at all in terms of walking the halls or disrespecting the teachers or talking back to a teacher, nothing like that.”

Lewis’ brother still lives in the Adamsville home, Thomas said. No one answered the door on a recent day and repeated telephone calls went unanswered. Lewis’ parents, citing advice from lawyers, refused to comment when contacted separately by the Associated Press. A woman who identified herself as Lewis’ fiancee and answered the phone at an Atlanta home listed to Lewis also declined to comment.

Lewis has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in violation of federal law. If convicted of conspiracy, the 24-year-old could face 10 years to life in prison.

The FBI says an informant contacted Lewis on his cell phone on June23, 2000, to discuss selling cocaine to Lewis and childhood friend Angelo Jackson. The FBI says Lewis and Jackson later met the informant at an Atlanta restaurant. Both conversations were taped.

Jackson and the informant met several times more over the next several weeks, but Lewis was not part of any of those conversations, court papers say. Jackson also is charged in the case.

Attorneys for Lewis have accused the informant of trying to entrap their client in an effort to get out of jail time. They plan a vigorous defense. One of Jackson’s lawyers, Robert David Botts, said related charges against his client were dropped in 2001 and he doesn’t know why the case has been resurrected now.

“You’re looking at someone who thought the case had gone away,” Botts said. “Now all of a sudden he’s arrested on the street. I am trying to ferret out what there is. Apparently, we’re going to have to do that in court.”

Some of the FBI tapes recently were turned over to the defense, along with documents and phone records. Botts and Lewis lawyer Ed Garland refused to release copies of the evidence against their clients.

For people in Lewis’ old neighborhood and school, the timing of the charges seems suspicious since the supposed crime occurred nearly four years ago.

Sims, his former high school coach, said he was at Lewis’ Adamsville home for a party the day he was drafted. He said Lewis seemed entirely focused on the NFL. Sims, now a principal at an Atlanta middle school, said he counseled Lewis’ high school team on the importance of values and the pitfalls of drugs.

That’s why the drug conspiracy charges have caught so many people off guard, said Myles, the high school running backs coach.

“That would not be characteristic of the Jamal I knew,” Myles said.

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