Wednesday, November 27, 2013
When he called and left a message on the New Directions phone a few days ago, I knew who he was, the moment he said, Latif. His name means "subtle," which he was during his main career, which he has at last forsaken.
"With God's help," he said.
In 2004, my sister Ellen and I were installing a display case at the Abington Free Library.
"Guard my purse," I said to Ellen.
It did no good. With his practiced hands, he stole the wallet and extracted my credit card. He was with two accomplices. I confronted them in the stacks and told him to change his wicked ways. I told the same thing to the young woman and man who were with him.
He returned the credit card. Latif told me he always leaves the money in the wallet. People do not notice that anything's been stolen if the money's there.
And usually they have more than one credit card so it takes a while to notice and by then Latif and his friends have spent tens of thousands of dollars.
I wrote up the story of meeting Latif in the 2004 Compass.
I was lucky to get my credit card back. But the man did not change until he went to prison.
Latif, who is really Thomas Williams, just got out of prison on Sept. 17, 2013. He was incarcerated on July 4, 2006.
He's staying at a halfway house in North Philadelphia.
I sipped on my decaf at the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble Coffee Shop where we met.
Thomas spent a total of TWENTY YEARS in prison.
"Was it terrible being in prison?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I deserved it."
Name any prison in PA and Jersey and the man has been there.
The best prison of all, he said, was Bucks County Correctional Facility where "they treated you like a king." He said the food was great.
His goal now in life is to become a chef.
There's a culinary institute in Philly he'd like to attend. He visited and they thought he would be a good candidate. I read the letter he wrote on Why he wants to be a chef. Extremely well-written. The man can write.
The school costs $24,000 a year for four years, I believe. They'll give him a loan. He's 47 years old.
Said Latif, "I thought white-color crime - victimless crimes - didn't hurt anyone. But I was wrong."
He was never violent but was a proficient thief and pickpocket. He began as a teenager. He ran with a bad crowd.
The shocking thing is that Latif was from a well-to-do family who wanted for nothing.
He grew up with money.
He has two children. At 18, a one-evening affair produced his oldest daughter, who is a 49-yo PEDIATRICIAN at CHOP.
He now has his first granddaughter Tamia, who is about 3. He showed me her pic on his parole-mandated cell phone.
"I'm a criminal genius," he said at the table, looking around the crowded room. He said he could go into any store, watch who was entering, and know immediately if they were there to steal.
"You watch what they carry inside the store."
Latif would like to give presentations to Macy's and other stores on how to foil thieves.
He told me how the Barnes n Noble coffee shop was the perfect place to steal credit cards. He used to stick out his umbrella, grab someone's backpack, get a couple credit cards out, and no one would be any the wiser.
OR at a store, he would reach into the waste basket behind the counter and get receipts. Then he would activate the credit cards, call the banks and thru an automated message would learn how much money he could spend.
He would have accomplices waiting for him in a getaway car when he bought Rolex watches, fur coats, expensive jewelry ($20,000).
He would sell the stolen items at cheaper prices to a list of people who were waiting for his stuff.
He would open new accounts in the names of the people whose cards he had stolen. He reeled off the occupations of people whose cards he had stolen
Stuff! I said. "Dyou want all those riches today?"
I believed Latif when he said he did not. This is one man who changed his life.
Still, in prison, his head was stuffed with his criminal actions.
"The whole time I was in prison - 20 years - I kept the phone numbers of the credit card companies inside my head," he said, touching his head and telling me the phone numbers of AMEX and Discovery.
I told him Sarah's pocketbook was stolen in Paris, by a salesgirl at Morgan et Toi. It was sitting there in the fitting room.
Never leave your purse or backpack on the back of a chair. Too easy to take.
"My backpack is on the floor under the table," I said, "How's that?"
"You should keep your foot on it at all times," he said.
Latif kept busy in prison. He earned certificates in, among other things, web design.
He showed me stacks and stacks of notebooks he wrote. One volume was called "Memoir of a Lunatic."
Don't quite know what the title meant but he told me all the famous people he met in prison, just reeled them off, serial killers like Gary Heidnik, who was executed, and famous mobsters.
Latif knew them all, rubbed shoulders with them in the exercise yard or at meals. Some of his friends were executed. Others died by natural causes.
"Ten of my friends died in prison," he said.
When someone dies, they ring a bell. "That's how you know they died." No one should be treated that way, he said.
He was doing pushups and a friend of his had a heart attack right there next to him and was taken away. Latif never knew what happened to him until the next day.
The bell rang.
"No one should be treated that way," he said.
We all know prisons are rife with corruption.
Inmates are strangled by guards or beaten to death. The guard calls out, "Stop resisting" and then clubs the person to death.
He saw the face of his friend, who lived, and he was barely recognizable.
If an inmate wants sex with a female guard, he pays for it.
Let's say Lola is the guard and Sam wants the sex.
Lola's friend will meet Sam's friend at, say, Barnes and Noble. The friend will give Lola's friend $300. This is also the way drugs are brought into the prison.
Latif had no interest in drugs in prison or now.
I told him about my article about the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. When they got home, they wanted to eat pizza.
Latif is a meat and potatoes guy.
His sister Phyllis took him to the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia
where he dined on prime rib - a $56 meal, thanks to his sister Phyllis, who was the only one who visited him in prison.
In fact, I talked to Phyllis earlier today. Latif wanted me to meet her via phone. She was his sole support and encourager.
I gave Latif a poinsettia to take home but he gave it back.
"We're not allowed to bring anything into the house," he said.
"Oh, I suppose you might have drugs in there," I said.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Latif will be penalized by staying out beyond the appointed time, so he'll stay inside at his North Philly rehab. I reckon he'll do a little writing.
"Would you accept something from me?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "I'll buy my bus pass with it."
He also wants to buy his grandchild a gift. He only works 2 days a week as a cook but has put his application in everywhere. He listed all the city jobs he applied for, part of the mayor's program to find ex-felons jobs. Here's a Federal program, endorsed by Eric Holder.