Photo by Stan Carroll
Journey's end: Sidney Porterfield is on death row at Nashville's Riverbend prison for a killing two decades ago. Porterfield, 66, began his violent journey at age 15, on a path paved by family tradition.
For 'Porterfield Posse,' Crime Is The Family Business
The Self-Proclaimed Posse And Their Kin Have Passed Their Legacy Of Violence Down Through Generations And "Turned Crime Into An Art"
By Marc Perrusquia
Friday, October 30, 2009
Sidney Porterfield stares at his visitor and grins. He's a small, ghost of a man, frightening with his shaved head and shackled wrists, yet feeble in his white smock and pants, in the uniform of the condemned.
This is death row, and Sidney's here for a grisly slaying, a contract murder involving $17,000, a tire iron and a savage beating.
"No,'' he says, shaking his head. "I didn't do it.''
Yet, there's so much he cannot deny. Armed robbery. Car theft. Prowling. It's all in the file he clutches, a manila folder containing his legal papers and his long rap sheet.
His life of crime -- beginning at 15 -- may have been inevitable.
When Porterfield rained 21 blows onto the head of a Bartlett man, as the jury found, he did more than commit the ultimate criminal act -- he took part in a family tradition.
Over seven decades, Porterfield and several members of his extended family have been a violent, drug-peddling, thieving scourge on Shelby County. They've been involved in at least 14 shootings, four murders and countless break-ins and assaults.
In all, 407 arrests.
From an uncle who killed a man in a fight in 1947 to the self-named "Porterfield Posse,'' a batch of drug-dealing cousins now working the neighborhoods in South Memphis, crime has infected three generations and threatens a fourth, a fresh-faced group showing up in Shelby County Juvenile Court.
"They have turned crime into an art,'' said Albert Wesson, who was robbed and shot in the chest by one of Sidney's cousins. He survived after running up $600,000 in medical bills.
Theirs is an extreme case that portends a national epidemic. The cycle of intergenerational crime, fueled by poverty, domestic violence and poor parenting, is chewing up one generation after another in some urban communities.
U.S. Justice Department surveys show nearly half of the nation's inmates have relatives who've been incarcerated. In Memphis, nearly two-thirds of all juveniles charged with delinquent offenses have siblings who also have criminal records.
Police brass and justice officials recite a rote list of Memphis "crime" families, those regularly through the revolving door at 201 Poplar -- the Bovans, the Bobos, the Rawlses -- who add significantly to Memphis' monumental problem with repeat offenders. None are more prodigious than the Porterfields.
"It's very sad,'' said Hilarie Drake, a former Juvenile Court counselor who worked with Sidney Porterfield's cousins when they were children. She responded to so many complaints that, a decade later, she still recalls the family's case file number -- 53765.
"They just don't know anything else,'' says Drake, startled as she is updated on Sidney's cousins, a batch of eight brothers she knew as children in the 1990s.
Randy is dead. He was murdered awaiting trial for robbery.
His brother, Timothy, is still in a wheelchair, accidentally shot in the neck and paralyzed when he was 10. Steven is in prison for selling drugs. So is Raymond, for car theft, and Antonio, for shooting a robbery victim in the face.
Aaron, James and Issac are such regulars at the Shelby County Jail that employees know them by their first names.
Sidney Porterfield, their 66-year-old cousin on death row, knows better than anyone the story of the family's self-destruction.
It starts in cotton fields around Millington, where the Porterfields survived for more than a hundred years as sharecroppers and laborers, and winds through the streets of North Memphis, where the family moved in the 1950s and spun apart. It was there that Sidney and his first cousin, James Porterfield Sr., father of the "Posse," learned to throw dice, to fight and hustle, to crawl through windows in the middle of the night.
For the Porterfields, crime became a lifestyle, a family trade passed from one generation to the next.
"It flowed from the father,'' Sidney says.
It's May 2005 and a muscular undercover narcotics officer with a head full of dreadlocks is rapping on the side door of a "Posse" home near Southland Mall.
At least two of the Porterfield brothers are selling Dilaudid -- a powerful prescription narcotic -- out of the home, but it's their middle-aged mother, Elfriede, who answers as undercover surveillance captures the transaction.
"How many do you need?'' Elfriede asks nonchalantly.
"Four,'' says the undercover cop, handing over a crisp $100 bill.
After months of buying drugs from the Porterfields and carefully recording the transactions, police arrested Elfriede and sons Aaron and Steven, winning convictions against each.
Yet earlier this year, Aaron and Steven, both 34, were back on the street. This, despite more than 60 career arrests and a dozen felony convictions between them. Steven, who once shot a robbery victim in the chest, got probation.
Elfriede Porterfield, 63, is free too, despite nine felony convictions.
"It's a total injustice,'' said Paul Sherman, coordinator of the Memphis Police Department's undercover unit. "They're a menace to society. It just doesn't make any sense.''
Their freedom stems from a state policy favoring probation for midlevel felonies -- the latest in a long string of legal breaks involving everything from plea bargains to uncooperative witnesses.
At the Porterfield home, Elfriede stands in the doorway and suspiciously eyes a visitor who came to see what she has to say about it. Six junked cars sit in the driveway, along with a rusting refrigerator and a stack of worn car tires. Her son, Timothy, 30, motors down the street in a wheelchair. With two misdemeanor convictions he is the only one of her eight sons without a felony.
"I went through a lot of prejudice,'' explains Elfriede, frail and hooked to an oxygen tank. She is German, an immigrant who married an American serviceman and followed him to Memphis, then divorced him in 1970. It was around then she met James Porterfield. Together, they had nine children, eight of them wayward sons who would form the "Posse." The ninth, a daughter, does not have a criminal record. Being biracial, the discrimination came from all directions, Elfriede said.
Still, she has no clear answer on how her children would find so much trouble in inner-city Memphis, how little Antonio would come to stick a gun in a man's face and pull the trigger or how Randy would soften up reluctant robbery victims with a good mauling by his Rottweiler.
"They'd be on the corner trying to make friends,'' she recalled, "then the next thing you know they're selling drugs.''
Asked about Sidney, the condemned cousin, her blue eyes register cold recognition.
"I met him,'' she nods.
She knows some of the story of how cousins Sidney and James, her late husband, moved from the country and found trouble in North Memphis. Before he died of cancer in 1999, before he fathered the "Posse," James too was a young street thug, running with Sidney, wounded in a gunfight and arrested more than a dozen times.
Elfriede isn't versed in family history. But she's clear on James: the fights, the abuse, the threats to kill her.
"He just liked to run the street and be with his friends.''
Yes, Sidney Porterfield says, he recalls the day James was shot. It was 1960, outside a pool hall in North Memphis, the aftermath of a fight.
"Normally, what leads to a shooting is a fist fight,'' he explains with a wide smile.
This is a rare exchange. Over his two decades as a condemned man, Porterfield has shunned the media. He sat by quietly as his co-defendant, Gaile Owens, also on death row, gained national attention recently as one of a handful of women nearing execution. A jury condemned them both in 1986 after finding she offered him $17,000 to murder her husband.
"They made up my confession,'' says Porterfield, whose case is on appeal. "They had no physical or forensic-type evidence to tie me to anything.''
But he isn't here to talk about that. He invited a reporter to Unit 2, the squat and dreary building housing death row at Nashville's Riverbend prison, because the topic was his family.
Like a perky tour guide, it's a role he seems to relish.
"I just couldn't stand it,'' he says, recalling life in the country, before his family moved to Memphis in the 1950s.
Sidney and James grew up around each other in the countryside around Lucy, south of Millington, where their families chopped cotton and were locked into sharecropping, a feudal system that kept many African-Americans in a form of servitude for decades after slavery ended.
For more than a hundred years, the Porterfield family worked the north Shelby County fields around Lucy and Kerrville, laboring for the big landowners, picking cotton, planting soybeans, surviving on the few chickens, pigs and cows they owned.
One of the earliest records of the family in Shelby County appears in the 1880 Census. Henry Porterfield, great-grandfather of Sidney and James, was listed as a farmer. The census-taker's scribbling reveals only that he was 39 -- born in Tennessee around 1841 -- and had a wife and six children.
Life for the Porterfields was dominated by white landowners, and over the decades little would change. Sidney, born in 1943, recalls living with 11 siblings in a shack with no plumbing or electricity, attending second-rate schools and brooding as his father, Sidney Sr., drove a tractor for dirt wages.
"He worked from sunup to sundown,'' says Porterfield who left home at 15 and moved in with a sister in Memphis.
Mechanization was pushing sharecroppers off the land, and Porterfield's family seemed to find nothing but misery in the city. A maternal uncle was killed in a nightclub. Sidney's little brother, Raymond, was shot and killed at 17 escaping from jail after stealing a car.
Even on the farm, the Porterfields couldn't escape trouble. In 1947, sheriff's deputies drove out rural Pleasant Ridge Road and arrested Sidney's favorite uncle for murder.
"That's him," Sidney says, getting excited as his visitor displays a jail mug shot of Henry Porterfield, grandson of the original Henry. "He used to pick me up.''
Sidney recalls he was just a small boy when his Uncle Henry would drive him over the Tipton County line, into Quito, where the two would spend long afternoons in a juke joint.
Uncle Henry drank moonshine.
As Sidney tells it, Uncle Henry only killed the man, his daughter's boyfriend, after learning she'd been beaten. "He took offense to that," says Sidney, recounting how his uncle shot the younger man with a .22 rifle.
Crumbling records in the county archives show Henry Porterfield was charged with first-degree murder. In a time of swift justice, a jury convicted him of manslaughter 22 days later. He spent the next five years as an inmate in prison and the remainder of his life as a staggering drunk on the streets of Memphis.
In Memphis, Sidney worked as a cook and mechanic, even tried vocational school, but found bigger money robbing store clerks.
"You never get ahead working for someone else,'' he says.
His cousin, James, six years older, struggled too. Like Sidney, he was a country kid loose on the Memphis streets.
"Once I started roaming the street,'' Sidney recalls, "I ran across James a lot.''
Elfriede manages a wry smile when she speaks about James. Sidney doesn't have it all right, she says. Yes, James was trouble. But unlike Sidney, who dissolved into robbery and murder, James kept some balance.
Locked up a dozen times, mostly for drunkenness, gambling and petty theft, James kept a job as a shipping clerk most of his adult life.
"He'd go out and party, but he'd go to work every day,'' Elfriede says.
Yet, there's no denying his bad side. Public records show Elfriede once got a protection order against James. Another time, while being sentenced for welfare fraud in 1989, she told a judge of her dire circumstances, having nine children and no money, forcing her to move back in with the abusive James.
"I thought I wanted him,'' she recalls in her doorway, "but then I didn't.''
With James in and out of her life, Elfriede and the kids struggled, as a 1992 court report shows. When a court-appointed special advocate visited Elfriede's home that August, junked cars lined the front yard as a stream of young men with digital pagers flowed in and out.
Inside, the home smelled of a theft ring. Car tires, televisions, bicycles and electronic products lined the walls. Two of Elfriede's teenage sons had just been arrested for firebombing automobiles. Two other sons showed advocate Mike Warr recent gunshot wounds they'd received.
"I felt only a small tactical nuclear weapon might effectively resolve the many problems I witnessed,'' Warr wrote Juvenile Court in a plea to get the Porterfield boys into a mentoring program, the latest of many resources the court invested in the family.
May Taylor, a police neighborhood coordinator, was worried too, having watched "Posse" members steal from the elderly and assault youths, and with few consequences.
"Something must be done before someone is killed,'' Taylor warned.
The fact that Albert Wesson wasn't killed was a miracle. Wesson was shot months earlier, in November 1991, by Elfriede's son, Steven, in a robbery. Wesson was walking to a liquor store where he worked when Steven, then 16, jumped him with a .44 Bulldog revolver.
"He showed no emotion,'' Wesson recalled. "It was business to him.''
Wesson actually died that day and was revived on the operating table. In one small measure of satisfaction, Wesson squeezed out two shots from a pistol as he fell, hitting Steven in his rear-end as he turned to run.
The shooting was a part of a well-worn path for Elfriede's sons.
Stopped by a patrolman, Aaron fought the cop, wrestled his gun away and fired -- but the chamber was empty.
Robbing a man, Antonio shot the victim in his face. He survived.
Settling a score, Issac drove by a house and fired 12 shots into it.
He missed every time.
Their luck ran out in 1998 after Randy and Aaron were charged in a robbery. Armed with guns -- and a Rottweiler -- they brutalized a man. Months later, awaiting trial, Randy was shot as he sat in a parked car. An autopsy shows he was hit in the neck, arm and side. His murder remains unsolved.
On her door stoop, Elfriede listens to her visitor's questions. She had once written to a judge, fearful that her sons were inner-city misfits who acted out "to prove their blackness,'' worried that her older children were corrupting the younger.
Now, she just looks and shakes her head.
"Don't believe everything,'' she says.
In the living room of her bare apartment, Shuntavia Newsom, 29 and surviving on food stamps, surveys her six children, ranging from an infant to age 12. They are Elfriede's grandchildren -- the great-great-great-grandchildren of farmer Henry Porterfield.
"My little ones look to the bigger ones,'' she says.
Given father Issac's history -- he has some 35 arrests on his record -- does she expect trouble for the children?
"I hope not,'' she says. Then, with a shy grin, "I can't tell right now.''
Juvenile Court records show at least five of Elfriede Porterfield's teenage grandchildren have been before the court already. Recently, a 15-year-old grandson was charged with assault; a granddaughter with carrying a weapon to school; another grandson with possession of a handgun.
Researchers are only beginning to understand the dynamics that lead children to follow parents and older siblings into crime.
They do know that risk rises as factors such as poverty, domestic violence, negative peer pressure, poor parenting and unhealthy living conditions are added. Statistics suggest that volatile mixture occurs with regularity here.
Juvenile Court records show 64 percent of Shelby County youths charged with delinquent offenses have at least one sibling who's also been charged with a crime.
"Kids are easily influenced,'' said Richard Janikowski, a University of Memphis criminologist. He said the Porterfields provide an extreme example of what happens to kids surrounded by risk factors. "You've got a cauldron where this kid is bubbling up in a family that is giving every antisocial re-enforcement there is.''
Breaking the cycle is a daunting, and costly, proposition. Yet, given the alternative -- states are spending $50 billion a year to imprison offenders -- it's a challenge worth taking on, said Oregon social scientist J. Mark Eddy.
"Unless we stop the pipeline into the problem, we can't solve the problem,'' said Eddy. His early intervention studies found that resources like parent coaching can help steer children of at-risk families away from crime.
As for Elfriede Porterfield, she sees a different future for her grandchildren.
"They're going to have a better life,'' she says, nodding to a granddaughter in the driveway. Her hope is Lermedria Malone. At 20, Lermedria has no arrest record. She's looking for a job and hopes to study computer graphics.
She claims no fear of the family legacy.
"Just stay away from all of the wrong people. People only do what they want to do. That's how I look at it.''
-- Marc Perrusquia: 901-529-2545