Kelvin "Shorty" Wallace had been on an ugly run for more years than he cared to count.
In August of 2010, Shorty, then 49, was selling dime bags of heroin at Augusta and Keeler—selling so he could buy his own bags. "I had a customer, a white guy," he says. "I'd been knowing him for about a month or two, right? So we exchanged phone numbers. He come by one morning—'I need six [bags] right quick.' So I come outside and I serve him six.
"Later he called me and said he's in a hotel on Mannheim and something. He said he'd just got a settlement, and he was smoking crack with a whore. He said, 'I been smoking crack all day, I'm geeked up, I can't come out there, man—would you bring the shit to me?'" Shorty understood: his customer needed more heroin to tame his crack high.
The hotel was a Comfort Inn near O'Hare, in Des Plaines. "At first I tell him, 'Hell no, I'm not gonna come way out there,'" Shorty recalls. "And I hung up my phone, right? But he kept calling me back. He said, 'I'll give you $325 if you bring me ten bags.'" Damn, Shorty thought: $325 for $100 of dope! A warning bell was clanging, but Shorty wasn't listening. "I was fiending, man—the amount of heroin I did that day wasn't enough, I needed more." He had more heroin, but it was to sell and not to dip into. "I was working for some young guys, and they'd bust your head if you did that," he said.
"So I'm like, 'Well, shit, that sounds good.' He said, 'I'll pay for the cab—I'm gonna send the cab right to you.'"
Shorty was living with his mother in her small apartment on Kildare, around the corner from where he'd been dealing. "I thought he was bullshitting, right? Then, honk, honk, honk—I look out my window, there's a cab right there. So I jumped my dumb ass in there with the ten bags, and when we get to the hotel, he's in a car in the parking lot with another guy. He said, 'This is my friend, he's the one that got the money.'" Another tipoff. "But I'm fiending, you know, so I ain't thinking about it, and I get in the car.
"The guy gives me the money. Crisp bills! I'm talking about crisp! That's like giving a dope fiend raw dope. I could just imagine how much dope I was gonna buy. So I hurry up and give him the bags. Man, when I stepped out the car, it looked like I had killed the president, there were so many goddamn guns." Guns held, of course, by cops.
His customer "couldn't even look at me," Shorty recalls. "I said, 'You set me up for this shit—for ten bags?'"
Shorty was charged with delivery of a controlled substance. He spent the night in the lockup of a Des Plaines police station. The glassine bag he'd given the undercover officer was sent to a lab. It contained nine thumbnail-size bags, each of which contained a tiny aluminum foil packet, each of which contained an off-white powder. The powder tested positive for 2.5 grams of heroin. After a bond hearing in Skokie the next morning, Shorty was taken to a familiar place, the Cook County Jail at 26th and California. He already was dope-sick by then, and his vomiting and diarrhea went on for days.
On a May afternoon 20 months later, Shorty's in the living room of a nondescript brick three-flat on a dead-end street in south-suburban Calumet City—a recovery home for addicts enrolled in a program called "It's About Change."
A few days earlier, someone from a drug treatment agency had picked Shorty up at the jail and driven him to an office on the north side. Then Shorty's case manager had driven him here. Shorty was elated on the ride to Calumet City. He's been to prison a half-dozen times for drug crimes, and he knew he could have easily been sent away again this time. In 2009, however, a new Illinois law provided for the creation of special treatment courts for military veterans charged with nonviolent crimes. Shorty's brief stint in the army in the early 1980s was nothing to brag about—he was hooked on booze and pot when he enlisted, and by the time he was kicked out he was fond of quaaludes as well—but that tour still qualified him for veteran's court.
Shorty is five-foot-three and heavyset. Small ears make a large face look even larger. He has a head of gray fuzz, a thin mustache, and gapped teeth. He's animated in conversation, and his deep voice has two volumes, loud and louder. In a swearing contest with Mayor Emanuel, Shorty would win. He's especially partial to "motherfucker," which he often uses in referring to himself; his stories tend to be self-deprecating.
"He's charismatic and he makes you want to help him," says Steve Herczeg, the public defender who represented Shorty in veteran's court. "As confident as he is in the way he talks, he has doubts, too. He's very humble and understanding of his plight, and what he's cost himself in terms of time and liberty and embarrassment."
Judge Larry Axelrood, who gave Shorty probation and still presides over his case in veteran's court, says: "It's hard for a guy to come out of the lockup and win over a courtroom full of people used to dealing with convicted felons and drug addicts and alcoholics. But Shorty's special. He has a magnetic personality and a gusto for life. If he can convince a roomful of cynics that he's serious about changing, we're going to give him the opportunity." (Judge Axelrood spoke about Shorty and his case with Shorty's permission.)