The Story So Far: In their quest for money for, among other things, payments to Shade McEachin, their mother's boyfriend, on a maroon 1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Eugene, Travis and Philip Friend decide they need to acquire a tractor-trailer and drive it to Laredo, Texas.
Eugene has heard he can find a load of marijuana there, drive it to the East Coast and sell it for a small fortune. They can't afford a truck, so they decide to steal one.
But things don't go smoothly. The brothers botch an attempt to take Leonard Cornforth Jr.'s rig in Shockoe Bottom. Cornforth, asleep in his cab, ends up murdered. A few weeks later, they try again, joined by their mother, Vallia, and Eugene's new girlfriend, Charlene Thomas. They spot trucker John Wesley Cummings at a truck stop. Eugene and Philip attack him. Philip beats him near death. Finally they leave him, alive, at Zion Crossroads.
But the family's initial problem still isn't solved: They have Cummings' empty trailer but no tractor to pull it. Samuel Lam, 48, is a slight man
with a thin smile. He's been driving trucks for 20 years. The name of his trucking business, L & W Produce, is emblazoned on the side of his purple 1990 Peterbilt truck. It pulls a white 1998 Great Dane trailer. He and his wife, Matty, moved to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1960s. They became United States citizens, married in 1973 and had two sons.
It's Sunday, April 25, 1999, and Lam is heading north on I-95 from Florida, where he dropped a load of perfume and picked up a load of houseplants. He's supposed to deliver the plants to 16 different Kmarts in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
His wife is awaiting his return. Yesterday, he'd called her on his cell phone. He'll drive through the night to see her, he promised.
A little farther north, the Friend family is on the highway, too. They're spending the weekend looking for a lone independent trucker to hijack on I-95. Their mother, whom they call Mama, is driving the van. Eugene's new girlfriend, Charlene Thomas, is in the passenger seat. And in the back, with the brothers, sits Stanley Kirkwood, a friend of Philip's from high school. Stan has brought along his 10 mm automatic Smith & Wesson.
Lam and the Friends are about to meet.
On Sunday, around 5:30 p.m., Lam arrives in Caroline County, Va., where he refuels at the Flying J Travel Plaza off Exit 104. When he gets back on the highway, the Friends spot him.
Vallia pulls up beside him in the van. Charlene lifts up her shirt and shows her breasts. This, apparently, gets his attention. Lam pulls over at a rest stop three miles up the road. Vallia and Charlene walk over to the truck. Vallia kisses him. Vallia and Charlene suggest he meet them at hotel farther up I-95. Lam takes the bait.
In Spotsylvania County, he pulls off at Exit 126, a high-traffic area just outside Fredericksburg that's jammed with motels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants. He rents a room at the Days Inn, while Vallia and Charlene drive across the street to a Shell station convenience store. There, according to the cashier, Vallia buys two bottles of wine and a pack of Lifestyle condoms. She returns to the van and drives back to the motel.
The Friend brothers and Stan wait in the back. When Lam sees the women return, he walks over to the van. Philip is ready. He yanks open the van's side door and grabs at Lam. Lam pulls away and starts to run toward the motel's Southpointe restaurant. He is getting away.
The Friends panic. Vallia steps on the accelerator, drives out of the parking lot and onto the street. But Eugene stops her, according to Stanley Kirkwood: "No Mama! No Mama!" Eugene says. "You have to turn back around. He seen you.
We got to go back."
So they do. Vallia makes a U-turn and pulls back into the motel parking lot, where Lam is trying to get back to his truck. Before he can, the men leap out of the van and attack. Eugene knocks Lam unconscious, while Vallia pulls the van beside the restaurant so the diners can't see what's happening, Stan recalls.
The men drag Lam into his truck and push him inside. Charlene grabs Lam's shoes and sunglasses off the ground and throws them in the cab. In the back, Philip puts a pillowcase over Lam's head, binds his wrists and ankles with duct tape and begins to beat him. Stanley hears Lam ask over and over, Why are you doing this to me? Blood seeps through the pillowcase.
Eugene pulls Lam's truck out of the parking lot. The women follow in the van. They drive nearly an hour. They head to Lake Anna in Louisa County, but once they get there Eugene decides the lake is too shallow to dump a body.
So they turn south, drive down Route 522 toward Mineral and end up at Cuckoo, a little town where Route 522 crosses Route 33. They pass the intersection, drive 1ø miles south and pull off into a remote, wooded area.
Vallia and Charlene wait in the van. Eugene gets out of the truck and unhitches the trailer so he can maneuver the tractor down a narrow, rocky dirt road. Tree branches scrape against the paint on the sides. The truck bounces along the rutted road. Lam is moaning.
The men pull up to a swampy area surrounding a small pond, get out of the truck and drag Lam with them. They dump Lam on the ground. The four men stand in a half-circle around him a "huddle," as Stanley describes it.
They look down at him. Eugene speaks. Someone's got to off him, he says. Stanley takes out the gun he brought and lays it on the ground.
They stand there in silence, inhaling the air of this quiet spring night. It's pitch black, except for a tiny white light on top of a tower in the distance. Brush sticks out of the dirt. Lam lies in a mound on the wet ground.
Finally Travis picks up the pistol. He aims it at Lam from three feet away and shoots seven times. Stanley sees two flashes, "like fire."
The timing of some of what happens next is unclear. At some point, the pillowcase has been removed from Lam's head. Philip and Stanley, during the shooting or after, walk back to the truck and start rummaging through it for valuables. After awhile they hear Eugene and Travis arguing back at the pond. Apparently Lam isn't dead yet.
Somehow Lam has managed to crawl away into the dark when no one is looking. Slowly, he drags himself 112 feet into the night, farther into the swamp. The Friends can't see him anymore.
This triggers an angry argument between Eugene and Travis, Stanley says, because Eugene thinks Travis didn't want to kill Lam. He thinks Travis aimed poorly on purpose.
They start looking for Lam. Eugene and Travis hear some rustling in the underbrush. In the black night, they stop to listen for the sound of his breaths, then feel their way through the brush and around the swamp. But they can't find him. Finally, Eugene decides they'll just leave him there.
(Lam dies out there, alone in the dark water. His body will stay there for nearly a year as the FBI and special agents from the Virginia State Police search for it in vain. They finally recover his body, after striking a deal with Eugene for information, on April 13, 2000.)
When the men return in the truck to where Vallia and Charlene are waiting, according to Stanley, "Eugene is in an uproar, outrage, about Travis missing Mr. Lam."
Charlene recalls Eugene's fury, too. He gets out of the truck and walks over to the driver's side of the van, where their mother is sitting. "Oh, you think your son is so tough," Eugene yells at her, by Charlene's account. "He's not worth pussy."
Eugene opens the back of Lam's trailer. It's packed with houseplants. "It was completely full," Charlene recalls. She mentions that she'd like to have some of them. They can figure out what to do with them later. For now, Eugene hitches the trailer back onto the truck, and the group rides back to Richmond.
Vallia's in-laws don't hear anything when the caravan shows up at their house in Chesterfield, at 13340 Bradley Bridge Road. Here the Friends regroup. Philip burns Lam's credit cards in the yard.
Then they try to unload the plants from the trailer. It becomes apparent they can't possibly unload them all, so they put as many plants as they can into the back of the van, which Vallia drives back to her house. The van is so full that Stanley has to sit on Charlene's lap on the way.
Eugene, Travis and Philip stay behind with the rest of the plants in Lam's trailer. Eugene, Travis and Philip pile into the cab. Finally, they have a trailer and a tractor. They have what they need to go to Texas.
Before the sun comes up on Monday, April 26, the Friend brothers leave for Laredo to look for marijuana.At her home in Scarborough, Maine,
Matty Lam is worried. She hasn't heard from her husband today.
She calls his Nokia cell phone and hears a voice she doesn't recognize. Wrong number, the voice tells her. That can't be. She knows the number intimately she talks to Sammy nearly every day.
|Vallia Friend says she's "no Ma Barker." She's appealing her sentence of life in prison. Below left are (top to bottom) sons Eugene, Philip and Travis.|
In different cities, still unaware of each other and the ways they are connected, the families of the other truckers have questions, too. Starli Cornforth wonders if they'll ever find who did this to her husband, Leonard Cornforth Jr. And John Cummings, recuperating at home in Georgia with his family, wonders if he'll ever drive again.
So much seems unknown. But that's about to change.
Inside Lam's rig, on the way to Laredo, there's friction among the Friend brothers. They're trying to avoid talking about what has happened to them. Eugene tries to change the subject when it comes up. Travis argues with Eugene about Charlene.
Travis "was not happy about how things went down," Eugene recalls. "He was talking about how things just didn't work out right how things happened, how things went wrong."
Eugene tries to focus on the load they need to find. He needs $10,000 to pay off Shade McEachin and get the Cadillac back. He needs to get Mama off his back. He needs to help his brother Travis out of some of his money problems.
He keeps his eyes on the road.
On the way, the brothers decide Lam's trailer won't do because it still holds too many houseplants. So the brothers dump Lam's trailer at a truck stop and steal another one. They hook it up to Lam's cab. When they get to San Antonio, they visit a cousin who lives there.
Finally, they reach Laredo. But they find no warehouse full of marijuana. Somehow, the story Eugene heard about easily available truckloads of pot doesn't quite pan out. So, frustrated, Eugene calls a Virginia Beach broker to find him a legitimate load of merchandise.
It's Saturday, May 1, 1999, and they are on the road again, pulling a load of carrots, headed back toward home, going northeast on I-59. Once out of Texas the brothers travel through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
But before they get to Tennessee they run into trouble. They aren't stopping at weigh stations. An off-duty police officer has noticed. He's followed them from Alabama, and he radios his suspicions to state police.
By Sunday, they're driving through the northwest corner of Georgia, in rural Dade County. It's after 5:30 p.m., and Stan Hartline, on duty for the county sheriff's department, spots the truck, too. He calls in another deputy to follow the truck, which, for some reason, is swerving back and forth along the highway.
As Eugene recalls it, he isn't swerving at all. "I made sure I ran the speed limit," he says. "I made sure, like, all my lights was working, my signals, all that. I was precautious, you know? That swerving and stuff no, I wasn't doing no swerving."
He says a passing trucker takes note of a bunch of black guys driving such a nice rig. The trucker pulls over and radios police to tell them about it, Eugene says. He hears the call on the CB radio.
But whatever led to it, two Dade County police cars turn on their lights behind the tractor-trailer. One cop car pulls in front of the tractor-trailer. The other slides in behind it. Eugene pulls over. The police get out of their car and walk to the driver's side of the cab.
It's silent inside the tractor. Travis is asleep in the back, with Lam's cell phone nearby. Philip is in the passenger's seat, speechless. And one thought flashes into Eugene's head: Damn, they got us. We're caught.
They wait as the police call in the plates on the trailer. The police discover that the trailer has been reported stolen. The brothers start spinning stories. But the police arrest Eugene and Travis and take Philip, a juvenile, into custody.
That night, Dade County Sheriff Philip Street is at home with his wife and teen-age daughter when he gets the call to come in. He goes. And he and investigators start asking the brothers about the stolen trailer.
Between questions, Philip Friend makes a call to Mama's phone number. In Richmond, Charlene says, she's the one who picks up the phone.
Philip asks, "Are you sitting down?"
"Why?" she asks.
He tells her they've been arrested.In Richmond, prosecutors say,
Vallia has been busy. She and Charlene have sold some of the plants from Lam's trailer as Mother's Day gifts. Vallia also has pawned the rings that were stolen from Cummings; she's moved other stolen items from his tractor-trailer into a storage unit in South Richmond.
But when the call comes in from Philip in Georgia, Charlene says, Vallia drops everything. On Monday morning, after stopping for some cash, she and Charlene get in the van and head straight for Dade County, Ga., population 1,600.
There, investigators are learning that the Friends are more than thieves. The drug dogs find nothing, but Sheriff Street says his officers and the state police sense that something more is going on than a stolen trailer. "We got to finding things that didn't make good sense," Street recalls.
For one thing, the brothers' stories don't match up quite right. Then there's the Maine license plate, the bloody pillowcase and an out-of-place tank top emblazoned with the Champion logo.
(Later, the FBI will find Eugene's DNA on Lam's tank top. They'll also connect DNA collected from Lam's toothbrush to blood found on the knees of Travis' black jeans and on Philip's cargo pants and dark gray hooded Nike sweatshirt.)
Then, in the sheriff's office, the cell phone that Travis is carrying sits on a desk. Suddenly it rings. Investigator Jim White picks it up. It is the police in Scarborough, Maine, Lam's hometown. They're looking for Lam.
Mama and Charlene arrive in Dade County and pick up Philip, who isn't being held by police because he is a juvenile. They take him back to Richmond.
Soon, video of Eugene and Travis is on the local television news in Richmond, and people who know the Friends are shocked. They don't know what to think. A bank employee who knows Vallia falls off her sofa when she sees the footage. Gloria Herrera, a close friend of the family, is devastated.
And on May 18, Vallia, Philip, Charlene and Pretty go before a grand jury in Richmond. Charlene doesn't drive back with the group that day, because she decides to cooperate with prosecutors. She goes into witness protection in Fredericksburg.
Less than a week later on May 24 it's Philip's 16th birthday. Mama breaks down crying at a friend's house. "It would take a miracle for them to get out of this situation," the friend recalls her saying.
That summer, the FBI and state police intensify their investigation. They begin interviewing friends and associates of the Friend family. They arrest Mama on July 21.Today, Vallia maintains in a prison interview
that she's "no Ma Barker."
But David J. Novak, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case against the Friends, disagrees. "Mrs. Friend is nothing but a matriarch of a family of criminals," Novak says.
"This family is responsible for destroying the lives of three families the Lam family, the Cummings family, the Cornforth family, who represent everything that's good about America: people who would get up, go to work, work hard," Novak says. "The Friend family, by contrast, represents everything that's wrong with America." Novak credits the arrests to the FBI, the Virginia State Police and law-enforcement officials in Dade County, Ga.
The family of Leonard Cornforth Jr. is still recovering from his murder. "I have no pity or sympathy for Vallia Friend and her family," his wife, Starli, writes in a faxed letter to Style Weekly. "Justice was served at their sentencings."
John Wesley Cummings, the trucker who survived his encounter with the Friends, says he has lost hearing in one ear and sight in one eye. He no longer can drive a tractor-trailer, and says he's in terrible debt.
Prosecutors say the family of Samuel Lam is emotionally and financially devastated.
James "Pretty" Scruggs receives a five-year sentence for lying to the grand jury. Eugene's former girlfriend Jackie Robinson pleads guilty to obstruction of justice and receives a five-year sentence, although several court orders filed after her sentencing and sealed from public view may have reduced that time. Stanley Kirkwood turns state's evidence and receives a 12-year sentence. Charlene Thomas is in prison for a year. Although she cooperates with prosecutors, she violates the terms of her immunity agreement by buying drugs while under witness protection.
To avoid the death penalty, Eugene, Travis and Philip plead guilty to hijacking, conspiracy and murder charges. They are in prison for life.
Mama refuses to plead guilty. She is sentenced to life in prison on Feb. 13, 2001. Novak is a shark, she says, "but I respect him."
"He does his job well," she adds. "I think he does it too well, because I shouldn't have got life." Her lawyers argue that she was not present when Cornforth was killed, and there is no evidence to tie her to Lam's death. Charlene and Stanley, they say, are unreliable witnesses. She is appealing her sentence.
Mama's boyfriend, Shade McEachin, repaints the 1991 maroon Cadillac Fleetwood he bought for Eugene. Then he puts it up for sale.