It’s Hard Out Here for a Player
In late 1999, 22-year-old Anthony Vital and James Hawkins were penned up together in the Douglas County Jail. Friends since they’d met as teenagers in Lawrence, both young men were also aspiring hip-hop artists. So when they found themselves locked up together, the two friends pounded out pages of lyrics to stave off boredom.
“We had nothing else to do,” Hawkins says. Sometimes he and Vital would write in their cells. Sometimes they’d compose at a large metal table in the jail commons. They’d write alone or together, and then they’d compare notes, combining fragments into full raps.
Vital, who went by “Clacc,” was serving 10 days for violating his probation from a 1997 home burglary. Hawkins was also doing time for violating his probation. Both men were Lawrence transplants — Vital was from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Hawkins was from Los Angeles.
They sounded good together, and Vital got excited. He and Hawkins started dreaming up plans of gathering a posse when they got out. They even knew who they needed to talk to — Hawkins’ cousin Richard Thomas and Thomas’ buddy Tyrone Spates. And Vital had heard that Lawrence promoter Keith Loneker, then 28, was looking to put together a serious hip-hop outfit. Hawkins knew it was nothing official yet, just talk. But both he and Vital were enthusiastic. “That’s what’s up. That’s what’s up,” Hawkins told Vital.
Three months later, in February 2000, Vital and Hawkins started working with Loneker, Thomas, Spates and three others, writing and recording furiously. A year passed and then, in the summer of 2001, the seven-member Da Bomb Squad put out its debut, Timz Up! Loneker’s label, Lock-N-Load Records, released it. Though Vital was the group’s youngest member, Loneker considered him one of the most talented up-and-coming local artists. “Clacc was the best writer in Lawrence,” Loneker says.
Vital could flash a quick, easy smile. Friends describe him as shy and soft-spoken. But above all, he was known for a hard-driving commitment to his art. It was difficult to get the seven Da BombSquad members to agree, Hawkins recalls, except on one thing. “Everybody wanted Clacc on their song,” he says. Vital’s voice, he adds, was smooth as silk: “People was like, ‘You got Nelly on your album?'”
The group enjoyed good times. Loneker says the debut “did well for a local release.” Da BombSquad took a tour in the fall of 2001, through Colorado ski country. They had sold-out shows at The Granada and at Tremors, and a jampacked gig at Abe & Jake’s Landing when they opened for Tech N9ne.
Still, holding a seven-member group together proved impossible. One of the seven left to pursue reggae. Another burned out completely. By 2002, Da BombSquad had downsized to four members: Vital, Hawkins, Thomas and Spates. A year later, the foursome dropped off Loneker’s label and signed to Hawkins’ imprint, In-The-Middle Entertainment. In 2003, Hawkins and Da BombSquad released I Got Work, and things looked bright for their sophomore album.
Within two years, the record sold 3,000 copies. But it wasn’t enough to recoup the group’s burgeoning expenses. An ambitious tour schedule that shuttled Da BombSquad from Nebraska to Colorado to Texas sapped the four rappers’ profits, leaving little for CD promotion or investment in new equipment. Money grew scarce, and Da BombSquad members had to start paying out-of-pocket for things like lunch on tours. Compounding the problem, Hawkins now straddled two worlds: He maintained his membership in Da BombSquad but also acted as manager of the label. In 2005, during a tour of South Padre Island in Texas, an argument broke out before a show about how much time Da BombSquad members were supposed to devote to hustling CDs on street corners and at gigs. Thomas and Spates thought that kind of promotion was the responsibility of the label. Hawkins fired back that that attitude was the reason for the group’s financial woes. Vital tried to stay neutral, but the squabbles took away his enthusiasm. Da BombSquad went ahead and played the show, but things remained unsettled.
By the end of 2005, Thomas says the “inner turmoil” had frozen the group’s progress. So Da BombSquad “took a break for a while,” he says. Thomas, Hawkins and Spates — tired of the hassles and drama — gradually moved on to solo projects. Though the four always intended to revive the group, that never happened. Vital increasingly found mixing business with art to be a soul-sapping misadventure, and he ceased commercial recording. “Business just took it out of him,” Thomas says. “The old Clacc was gone.” Though Vital kept penning pages of lyrics on his own, he never recorded a song with Da BombSqaud again.
Then, on October 15, 2006, Vital’s bullet-ridden body was found in a field west of Lawrence.
A week later, members of Da BombSquad found themselves gathered together once more, this time at the Warren-McElwain Mortuary. And there, thumping one more time through loud-speakers, they heard Vital’s voice, urgent and driving as he rapped his own funeral. The rap was a number he’d authored, and the one his buddies love best, preserved on the group’s second record.
The song’s title: “Hold On.”
On October 14, Vital got a phone call from Major Edwards Jr. Edwards was someone who’d always been on the outside of Da BombSquad’s clique. He asked Vital out for drinks and then picked him up in his 1988 maroon Ford Thunderbird a little after 9 p.m.
Vital’s wife of four years, Kristie Vital, watched her husband step inside the car.
“I love you,” she told her husband from the doorway. “Just be careful. Call me later, OK?”
“OK,” he answered “I will.”
Kristie had reason to worry about her husband going off with Edwards. In 2005, Edwards was charged with beating three men outside the Lawrence bar Last Call. Those charges are still pending, but court papers filed in August 2006 by James Rumsey, an attorney for Edwards, claimed that Edwards had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking legal and illegal drugs to “try to self-medicate.”
Thomas says Da BombSquad sometimes hung out with Edwards simply because they’d grown up together and knew each other’s families. He suspects that Edwards, who often talked of trying to put out his own rhymes, may have been jealous of the success of Da BombSquad and its former members. “As BombSquad members, everyone pretends they’re our friends,” Thomas says. “There’s jealousy for what we got and what we did musically.” Loneker agrees that the Lawrence hip-hop scene is small and the pickings are slim. Consequently, he says, there’s a heavy dose of “competitiveness and territorialism.”
In the months before Vital’s death, Thomas said he’d heard rumors that Edwards was plotting against all of the former members of Da BombSquad. “We were told Major Edwards was plotting to get us all.” But nobody thought it was more than talk. “He was supposed to be plotting to get all our asses…. But when we saw him, he was cool. You know, we even smoked a blunt with him.”
The week before Edwards arrived to pick up Vital that October night, Kristie says, Edwards had been calling her husband continually, badgering him about a lost cell phone. “I just felt like something wasn’t right,” 36-year-old Kristie says. Edwards claimed that the phone was buried in the crack between the seats in Vital’s ’97 Lincoln Continental. Vital checked, but Edwards kept calling. Edwards eventually found the phone in somebody else’s vehicle, but the pestering didn’t stop. “The next week it was something else he was accusing Anthony of, something like picking up some money when they were hanging out one night,” Kristie says.
She told her husband to stay away from Edwards when he was flipping out like that. Vital told her: “It’s no big deal. It ain’t nothing.”
Despite her misgivings about the man, Kristie didn’t think much about Vital traipsing off with Edwards. Her husband loved to party — maybe a bit too much, some friends say.
Loneker recalls that Vital once came knocking at five or six in the morning, looking for a place to crash. Loneker — seven years older than Vital — confronted him. Vital just smiled and said, “I know, cuz.” He kept going out night after night.
Hawkins, the cellmate whom Vital collaborated with before Da BombSquad was a reality, says Vital would often be the one who wanted to keep partying when everybody was done. Other times, Spates says, Vital would be the voice of reason. “We would be getting high or something, and he would have everybody sitting there ready to put the blunt out, like he’d be saying ‘There’s demons in y’all!'”
Vital’s carousing also got him in trouble. In 1997, Vital and six friends wanted to scare an acquaintance named Damien Williams during a spat over a girl. So they barged into his house dressed in ski masks. Williams called the cops, and Vital admitted, after he was arrested, that he had brought a shotgun with him. He received 36 months’ probation after he pleaded guilty to aggravated burglary, criminal threat and conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary. While on probation, Vital continually broke curfew and tested positive for drugs, which landed him in jail with Hawkins.
After her husband left with Edwards, Kristie went out with her sisters. Vital didn’t return home. The following afternoon, two sheriff’s deputies and a chaplain came to her door.
At around 9 a.m. on October 15, farmer Gary Tilley was pulling out of his driveway and onto U.S. Highway 40 when he saw something in the grassy ditch beside his gravel drive. Tilley’s house stands a quarter-mile from the road. There’s no mailbox, and the driveway is blocked by a large, rusty gate. Tilley peered into the ditch and found the mangled corpse of Anthony Vital.
When Kristie told detectives that her husband had left Saturday night with Major Edwards, cops went looking for him. Edwards had already left town.
An ex-girlfriend of Edwards’ told police that she had bought him a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. As a convicted felon, Edwards isn’t allowed to own a gun, so police put out a warrant for him on firearms charges.
A week later, on October 22, police picked up Edwards in Verona, Mississippi, a woodsy suburb of Tupelo. They found him holed up in the Bailey Motel, a dingy 11-room outfit with a sign full of burned-out bulbs.
Meanwhile, on October 20, a 46-year-old inmate at the Douglas County Jail named James Neal Williams had called the police tip line. He claimed that he knew who killed Vital.
Williams had been in the county jail since police stopped him in September 2006 and charged him with having 4.4 grams of crack on the floor of his backseat. He said fellow inmates Carlos Green and David J. Brown had confessed to him that they had been there when Vital was killed.
Brown was being held on unrelated aggravated battery and robbery charges. Green faced a charge of criminal possession of a firearm. They shared a pod at the jail with Williams, and after Williams made the call to the tip line, he agreed to wear a wire to record their conversations.
Much of what Williams said to police has not been released publicly. But on December 6, 2006, Williams sent a 44-page, handwritten statement to reporters, law-enforcement officials and Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin. The statement claims to detail what Williams told police, including the fact that, in exchange for his cooperation, Williams demanded his drug charges go away. “I’m not a drug dealer,” Williams wrote. “I’m a user.”
Williams claims in his statement that he had operated as an informant for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office three weeks before the murder. In an unrelated drug-trafficking investigation, he had given police the names, dates, places and codes used by Lawrence cocaine dealers. Detectives then drove him around while, from behind tinted windows, he pointed out residences that were doubling as drug-smuggling stations.
After Williams agreed to help with the murder case, detectives arranged for him to become a cellmate first with Brown and then with Green. Williams’ statement claims that his conversations with his new cellmates were recorded for the detectives. Both Green and Brown, Williams says, gave detailed accounts of what happened the night of the murder.
According to Williams, Green and Brown were the other two men in the car when Edwards picked up Vital from his house. The foursome then drove around southwest Lawrence smoking wet — cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid. Edwards suddenly assumed a leadership role, telling Green, who was driving, where to go. Edwards, who was sitting in the front seat, turned around abruptly and slammed Vital in the temple with a .38-caliber revolver, nearly knocking him unconscious. They stopped the car, and Edwards dragged Vital out and began beating him, pistol-whipping and kicking him to the ground. Edwards then ordered Green and Brown at gunpoint to get out and join in the beating. While they were beating Vital, Brown and Green feared that Edwards might turn on them next.
When the beating was finished, Edwards told the other two to hoist the bloody body back into the vehicle, according to Williams’ statement. Vital wasn’t moving, and they couldn’t tell if he was breathing. Edwards drove the Thunderbird west on Sixth Street to the edge of Lawrence. The three men hauled Vital’s body into the ditch by Tilley’s farm. Then Edwards fired four shots into Vital’s torso with the .38-caliber.
High and dazed, they stumbled back to the car. Edwards tossed the .38-caliber off the North Lawrence bridge, claims Williams in his statement. Then they spent the remaining early Sunday-morning hours at a nearby strip club called Allstars.
Brown and Green were unclear about Edwards’ motivation for attacking Vital, Williams writes. Williams says Brown told him that Edwards was simply mad at Vital. But Green claimed it was because of “a concert gone bad,” according to the statement.
Within a week, however, Williams felt bad about his betrayal. He told Brown that their conversations had been recorded. “Honor among thieves,” Williams called his actions.
After authorities learned that Williams had told Brown about the recording, they rescinded their offer of a plea deal for Williams’ drug charges. On November 16, police charged Williams with obstructing an officer.
Williams entered a guilty plea on January 11 to that obstruction charge. Then Williams convinced Judge Martin to grant him a furlough to visit his sick girlfriend in the hospital. On January 12, he didn’t report back from his temporary leave. Williams had skipped town.
Important as Williams may seem to the investigation, the accuracy of his testimony remains in question. Lawrence Police Department Detective Chris Thomas wrote in court papers: “The story Williams told did not exactly match the facts already known through the investigation.” In different interviews, Williams changed how many times Vital had been shot. And Williams claimed in one interview that there was a fourth person involved in the shooting. Williams said he had been holding on to that detail in case he needed to cut another plea deal.
Meanwhile, Edwards’ firearms charges were sent over to federal court, where he faces at least five years in prison if convicted. In March, Edwards asked Judge Carlos Murguia to find him unfit to stand trial because of his bipolar disorder. The judge rejected his request, and Edwards’ trial on the gun charges is scheduled for August 6. In January, a jury found Brown not guilty of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery charges. Green pleaded guilty to the firearms charges on March 16 and received a sentence of time already served.
But still, no one has been charged with Vital’s murder.
Kristie Vital’s apartment is a modest first-floor space in southwest Lawrence, just off Iowa Street. The day she talked to the Pitch was warm, so she opened the front windows, allowing a steady breeze to stir through the room. Outside on the front patio, Kristie’s sister entertained her daughter with a plastic tricycle and a couple of dolls. Sitting on the living-room couch, Kristie tearfully recounted her last day with Vital: how he washed her car, how they went over to his mother’s house for his mother’s gumbo. Even when the chaplain and the police officers told her what had happened, she didn’t believe it until she saw Anthony’s bruised, swollen face a few days later at the funeral home.
Still, Kristie has remained patient, refusing to jump to conclusions about who did what to her husband. “I’m going to let the police sort this out, let them take the time they need.” As she said this, she began to choke up. She turned her head away, in the direction of the open windows. “I sure want some closure or something someday,” she said. And then, a bit more hopefully: “Someday the truth will come out.”
She talks with detectives nearly every week, hearing the latest on the investigation — at least what they will tell her, which, she admits, “isn’t all that much.”
Kristie takes solace in memories now. Her wall is adorned with a T-shirt that reads “Anthony Vital, R.I.P.” Da BombSquad’s second album, I Got Work, sits on the DVD player. She and her younger brother, Justin — one of Vital’s best friends — have between them more than 300 bulging notebooks filled with Vital’s unpublished lyrics. “He scribbled lyrics on everything,” Kristie says with a laugh. “Napkins, coasters, anything you can think of.” In one rap, written just two months before the murder, Vital seems to be speaking to those he left behind:
To my little bro keep your head up the game is twisted
Just like the world is wicked catch the boat man don’t miss it
When it rains it pours don’t get washed up on the shore
Bow your head and pray to the Lord
Because He’s the guiding light through the dark tunnel of life
Don’t worry if I die tonight because I’m happy where I’m headed.
“That was Anthony,” Kristie says.
Kristie insists on showing off the photo collages she made for the funeral, collages that now decorate her bedroom. They flash pictures of Vital with Da BombSquad members, with his mother and stepfather, with his niece and with her. Kristie smiles as she points out Vital with a microphone and a mischievous grin. She lingers over a photo of Vital looking over his shoulder, the same picture police used in press releases following his death.
“All I can do is wait,” she says. And, then again, “All I can do is wait.”