'Jim Brown' Is Still Dead, Isn't He?

Outside the Kingston courthouse, lawyer Tom Tavares-Finson smiled sarcastically behind his racing-driver sunglasses last week. A coroner's inquest had just given up trying to decide how and why Tavares Finson's client, the "don dadda" (father don) of West Kingston's gangland slums, died. "If you believe Jim Brown just burned to death, by accident, in his jail cell, you'll believe in the tooth fairy," said the lawyer. "The only thing I can tell you for sure-and I saw the body-is that Jim Brown is dead."

And so, it would seem, is Lester Lloyd Coke, as Jim Brown was identified in dozens of U.S. and Jamaican police files. Still, on walls all around Kingston, the graffiti say FREE JIM BROWN, the alias he rode to the top of the Jamaican capital's drug -fueled slums. To his friends, Brown was a hero who rose above the despair of Jamaica's ghettos. In Kingston's slums, he was a key enforcer for former prime minister Edward Seaga's Jamaica Labor Party; Seaga himself called Brown the "protector" of Kingston's poor, and helped lead the don dadda's funeral. But to local police-who had tried, and failed, to pin 14 separate murder charges on him-- Brown was the most influential of the city's gangland bosses. When he mysteriously burned to death late last month in a maximum-security cell, Brown was within days of being extradited to face U.S. murder and drug-racketeering charges; suspicions ran high that he was silenced because he knew too much.

Guns swept into Jamaican ghetto politics in the mid-1970s. That is when Kingston's worst slum areas---places with names like Concrete Jungle, Dunkirk, Trenchtown and Jim Brown's own Tivoli Gardens-were carved into so-called "garrison constituencies," controlled, Chicago style, by shifting hierarchies of local bosses for both leading parties. Jamaican involvement in the 1980s cocaine boom increased the power of the bosses. "The dons have their own power base now, their own money and their own guns," says Kingston sociologist Carl Stone, "while the politicians still need them and the votes they control." In his farewell speech to Parliament last week, Prime Minister Michael Manley warned against the dangers of "political tribalism." But talking later with reporters, he also conceded that the dons are not going to disappear, so long as politicians fail to do anything about the slum conditions that breed them.

Jim Brown in particular made himself larger than life. Starting with the alleged 1984 rub-out of seven Labor Party defectors, he built the image of an untouchable. Nominally a construction contractor, Brown, U.S. lawmen say, ran the Kingston end of the Miami-based Shower Posse, notoriously violent East Coast-based Jamaican drug-distribution gang. He burnished a Robin Hood image by using the proceeds from local drug sales, stolen passport rings and protection rackets to dole out everything from community centers to school money for kids and burial suits. And there was a lot of burying to do. Jim Brown's oldest son 24-year-old Mark (Jah T) Coke, apparently slain by rival drug traffickers, was buried on the day Brown himself died; a daughter was shot and killed last year. "They pay such a terrible price and yet no one even tries to stop it," says Msgr. Richard Albert, an American priest who has worked in Kingston's slums since 1976. "I did a funeral where one of the guy's girlfriends comes along with a flower arrangement in the shape of an M-16. You can't go on glorifying killers."

But last week's open verdict on Jim Brown's death may only fuel his myth. It is hard to explain how a jail cell could suddenly burst into deadly flame. Or why it took at least 15 minutes after the first alarm until his cell door could be released. Or why it took nearly two hours to get him to a hospital that is minutes away. During the inquest, one prisoner broke down and claimed he had been pressured to cover up for wardens who deserted their posts as Brown's cell burned. The only certain thing is that the body was Brown's. Though the face and chest were badly burned, the fingerprints were clear. The assumption in Kingston is that friends in the Shower Posse decided that he would be a better dead myth than a live witness in Florida.

In the Baltimore Bar on Jim Brown's ghetto turf, a man with a bullet-scarred nose drags on a ganja pipe and says: "When the time is right, there'll be another don dadda. There always is."Up at the fashionable Wyndham Hotel, where heavyweights of the ruling People's National Party lined up last-minute support for Manley's successor, deputy party leader P. J. Patterson, Brown's lawyer is sitting near the bar. "They say Jim is in Panama. Or is it Peru?" he smiles. "Well you can say this: Jim's very amused, wherever he is. That's the kind of guy he is." Outside on the street, a cabdriver says: "He's still dead, isn't he?"