First published in The Record, June 28, 2017
For fast-talking ex-con, redemption comes slowly
Everybody in the Black Mafia Family drug cartel believed Karream Sheard was the smart guy.
Sheard believed it, too.
No one asked Sheard to sell cocaine, and he rarely carried a gun. Instead, when the cartel's leaders decided their 250 lieutenants needed real, state-issued driver's licenses to match their aliases, Sheard got it done. When the cartel's boss, Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory, wanted forged documents to purchase a fleet of armored Lincoln Navigator limousines or a Gulfstream IV jet or a $2.4 million mansion in Miami, he asked Sheard.
“People knew I wasn’t a street dude,” said Sheard, 41. “I was the smart dude. Anything you can possibly think of, ask me and I can do it.”
Sheard’s intelligence lifted him high, and then it sank him low. After his arrest in 2005, he left his four-bedroom house in a wealthy Atlanta suburb for a bunk in a federal prison. Now he lives in a basement apartment in Paterson, where drug dealers shout all night beside his bedroom window and addicts urinate on his front step.
He is humbled. He is rebuilding. It is slow work. He has a night job at a local food company, and this month he received an associate’s degree from Passaic County Community College, where he studied robotics and won a scholarship to study aerospace engineering with NASA. This fall he will enroll at New Jersey Institute of Technology for a bachelor’s in engineering.
Sheard once spent 17 hours straight counting cash. He flew first-class to party with rappers and drug kingpins in Miami and Beverly Hills, and so many millions of dollars passed through his hands that he lost track. Now he earns $26 an hour. He pays $750 a month to rent an apartment that occasionally floods with raw sewage.
Sheard still thinks he’s pretty smart. The problem is that his brain moves so quickly, and it brought him so much shame, he doesn’t entirely trust it.
“The temptation is always there” to return to the fast money of a criminal life, Sheard said. “I’m one thought process away from making a big mistake.”
A pastor turned cartel fixer
Sheard was born in Montclair and grew up in East Orange. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and after high school he lived in the church’s Brooklyn headquarters and pastored at a Kingdom Hall in the Bronx.
By his early 20s, though, Sheard was lost. He met a woman, left the church and lost his job. His older half brother, William Marshall, invited him to Atlanta, where Marshall sold cars.
They visited a strip club. Sheard loved it.
“I was square as a pool table and twice as green,” Sheard said. “There were eight girls dancing around me. It was sensory overload. I fainted! I swear! I was like, ‘I’m moving down here.’ ”
Sheard moved in 1998 and worked under Marshall in the special finance office of a Chevrolet dealership, selling cars to people who lacked the credit or cash traditionally required for a loan. Many times, Sheard said, they won bank approvals using fake documents forged by another dealership employee.
Sheard hated selling cars, so he tried forgery. He created fake documents for car salesmen and mortgage brokers, charging $40 per pay stub, $100 per license, $300 for three months of bank statements. In 2003 Sheard and Marshall expanded by founding Xquisite Empire, a company that used the names and credit histories of straw buyers to purchase luxury cars on behalf of drug dealers.
“I’m making $5,000 a month, cash,” Sheard said. “Boom. That’s all I’m doing.”
Their new clients led them to Demetrius and Terry Flenory. The brothers had founded Black Mafia Family, or BMF, a trafficking organization that moved at least $250 million in drugs and controlled the cocaine trade in Atlanta, Houston and other southern cities, according to documents filed years later in federal court. The traffickers needed cars for their employees, plus limousines for moving large quantities of cocaine.
Sheard and Marshall started buying cars for BMF. Gradually their responsibilities grew. Marshall became the cartel’s chief financial officer.
Sheard became the fixer. He forged documents to purchase cars and houses for BMF members. He paid off employees inside several state motor vehicle agencies to obtain 250 driver's licenses, each with a fake name.
He also handled emergencies. When the DeKalb County police impounded a cartel limousine with $2 million in cocaine and cash inside, Sheard manufactured notarized documents and retrieved the vehicle from the impound lot.
“I got used to dealing with high-pressure situations and staying calm,” he said.
Sheard was compensated for such risk. He bought a brick house on an acre of wooded land. For his wife’s 35th birthday he spent $30,000 on gifts, including a mink coat, a wallet and handbag from Chanel, and boots from Christian Dior.
“Money was not an issue,” Sheard said.
Meanwhile the FBI and DEA were leading an investigation that ended in a nationwide bust in October 2005. Sheard was arrested while visiting family in Hillside, in Union County. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, all felonies, and was sentenced to 30 months at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
His mother visited monthly. During one visit, Sheard promised to become an engineer and turn his life around.
“I didn’t want my mom to see me that way, as the scam guy,” Sheard said.
In March 2011, his mother died. He was in prison and couldn’t attend her funeral.
“I beat myself up for it,” he said.
A fast man rises slowly
When he was released 10 months later, Sheard vowed to keep his promise to his mother. He enrolled at Passaic County Community College, but failed several classes trying to juggle school and a full-time job.
“I felt like I was behind, so I need to do this as quickly as possible,” he said. “That was a mistake.”
He left school for a year, returned, and found his footing. He joined the robotics team, and this spring won a competitive scholarship to travel to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and build robots for a simulated expedition to Mars.
“He took on a natural leadership role,” said Russell Gambino, an adviser at the college. “The other students looked up to him.”
This is Sheard’s life now. He has a stable job and a plan to transfer to NJIT in the fall. In two years he’ll graduate and look for an employer willing to hire an engineer with a felony record.
“I’m fighting for one more shot,” he said.
Other days are hard. Sheard won’t get his bachelor’s degree until he’s 43. He used to buy mansions for leaders of the national drug trade. Now he lives in a falling-down house surrounded by street-level dealers and addicts.
“I hate it,” he said of the neighborhood. “It’s killing me.”
These are the times when Sheard’s brain tells him: Why not speed things up? He could leave tomorrow. His old clients still call him. He could forge some documents, earn thousands of dollars a week, leave Paterson and buy a nice house anywhere he wants.
Then he takes a breath.
“Even though my brain may process things fast,” Sheard said, “I need to make sure I get it right.”