Theft. Beatings. Murder. The true 


It's a hot day to look for drugs in Laredo, Texas. At 100 degrees, it's the hottest city in the country on this Wednesday morning, April 28, 1999. It's a lot hotter than Richmond, where the three Friend brothers started their journey three days ago. Eugene, Travis and Philip Friend have driven an empty 18-wheeler more than 1,700 miles to get here. It's been a tense trip, to say the least. For one thing, there was the close call with police on the way down. Outside San Antonio, Eugene had pulled the tractor-trailer he was driving into a weigh station, as required, but couldn't come up with the necessary papers and permits. A trooper issued a citation, but missed the bloody pillowcase.

Then there's the tension simmering among the brothers. A few days ago, a furious Eugene, 27, reamed out Travis, 19, for shooting the 10 mm pistol so poorly back at the swamp. Travis is upset with Eugene for getting involved with Charlene Thomas, whom he blames for their situation. As for Travis and Philip, they've never been the closest of brothers. ("Travis was always jealous of Philip," their mother says. "He always said I loved him more.") And Philip, 15, is seething that Eugene got him into "such a horrible thing."

There are also the murders to think about.

But despite all that, the Friend brothers are in this together. They're family.

Today, they're focused on finding a load of marijuana. It won't be too difficult, Eugene has been saying. At least that's what he's heard in trucking circles: Just go down to Laredo. You'll find a load, easy. Pays $20,000 for delivery to New York. Or maybe, Eugene figures, they can sell the pot in Richmond.

All Eugene really wants is $10,000 to get his 1991 maroon Cadillac Fleetwood back. So what if his girlfriend thinks he's obsessed with it? He loves that car.

Maybe, Eugene hopes, some of his money troubles will end with Laredo. He pulls the 1990 Peterbilt truck cab and the Fruehauf trailer it's hauling into the city. Travis and Philip, who have helped him stay awake during the long drive, are ready for his plan.

(courtesy Virginia Department of corrections)
Guilty: The Friends, clockwise, are mother Vallia, and brothers Eugene, Travis and Philip. The boys in this close-knit South Side family beat, robbed and murdered their way to Texas in the Spring of 1999. Vallia assisted them in a violent robbery.
Laredo is about as far south as you can go in the United States without hitting Mexico. They call it the Gateway City because it's a midpoint of manufacturing and trade between the two countries. More than 170,000 people live here, nearly all Hispanic. There are 18 Catholic churches, a civic center, a bowling alley and a country club.

A lot of drugs cross the border here, too. But the brothers' search for a trailer-load of marijuana in fiery Laredo is futile. After two days, the brothers still haven't found any drugs.

So a resourceful Eugene considers their situation and decides to find a legitimate load. He calls a truck broker in Virginia Beach, who locates in Texas a load of carrots that needs to be delivered to New Jersey. The brothers take the job.

They leave Laredo, pick up the carrots in another Texas town and begin their run. Eugene puts his black Adidas sneakers on the accelerator and points the tractor-trailer northeast on I-59.

To get this rig, they'd killed truck driver Samuel Lam in Virginia. His body is floating in a swamp. The body of trucker Leonard Cornforth Jr., a big, gentle cowboy murdered in Shockoe Bottom, is buried in Idaho. And John Cummings, a 62-year-old trucker from Georgia, is still recovering from a brutal beating.

But it's all about to catch up with Eugene, Travis and Philip. Their journey is about to end, as Philip might say. They finally will be separated. Soon Philip will dial their mother's phone number in Richmond, and Eugene's girlfriend on the other end will hear him say, "Are you sitting down?"

A few months earlier, things seem so different for the Friends. The family is living in a rented tri-level house in a cul-de-sac at 806 Bedrock Lane in Chesterfield County. It's much roomier than the apartment they left in the summer.

It's October 1998. The mother, Vallia (pronounced like "valet"), works at Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles in Richmond, answering questions by phone about the governor's car-tax refund program.

Vallia Friend loves her co-workers and proudly says she's good at her job — probably because she picked up so many customer-service skills during 18 years at Philip Morris. She's getting stars for good performance from her supervisors, too. She is a soft-spoken 47-year-old, about 5 foot 4, heavyset and so light-skinned it's difficult to tell she's black.

Her sons call her Mama. Federal prosecutors will call her "Ma Barker."

Vallia's youngest, Philip, is a 15-year-old freshman at George Wythe High School. He sports a wild, curly Afro that covers the top half of his ears. His brothers can't believe how much he loves to watch cooking shows on cable.

Travis, the middle son, is into rap music. While all the sons tower over their Mama, Travis is the tallest, at 6 feet 4 inches. He wears XXL T-shirts. He has lots of friends and is popular with the girls. As a baby, he used to cry all the time, his Mama recalls. But now he is dealing with his own baby boy, born recently to his girlfriend.

Eugene, the eldest brother, who already has three children with different mothers, is trying to hold down a job. Mama, who asks him for so much help keeping Travis and Philip in line, wants him to help her pay rent on the new house. He is a dark-skinned man with deep-set eyes, and wears a small mustache and goatee.

Currently, Eugene is shopping for a car. Mama's boyfriend, Shade McEachin Jr., who is married, has agreed to lend Eugene the money to buy one. On a car lot near Richmond Eugene sees what he wants — a maroon Cadillac. His face lights up, as Shade puts it, "like a kid wanting a little candy bar." Shade puts up the $10,000 for the car.

The love of cars runs in the family. Melvin Jones Friend, Eugene's late father, loved cars too. That's part of the reason Vallia Friend was so attracted to him when she was 16. He drove that '55 Chevrolet. It was fast and loud. He'd remodeled it himself, too, and repainted it yellow with a Woody Woodpecker on the side. He loved drag racing. "He just seemed fast and wild and older," Vallia recalls.

He was older, actually — 26 — but, at the time Vallia thought he was 19. She didn't find out the truth until just before they were married on May 5, 1971. She also found out he was a jealous man who didn't mind slapping her around when he lost his temper.

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)
Nighttime at Loving's Produce in Shockoe Bottom, where the Friend brothers and accomplices fall upon 49-year-old trucker Leonard Soren Cornforth Jr., asleep in his cab on an early morning in March, 1999. Loving's workers find Cornforth dead from gunshot wounds to the head and neck. Vallia says her boys had nothing to do with it.
So when she met Shade, 13 months after marrying Melvin, she didn't mind beginning what would become an on-again, off-again, 28-year affair. It didn't bother Shade, either, though he was married, too.

Melvin had caught her once with Shade, in 1981. Gun in hand, he burst into the apartment where they were. While Melvin was beating up Shade, Vallia made a run for the door. Melvin went after her, but Shade grabbed a gun and shot him in the thigh.

Eventually, the two no longer would worry about hiding from Melvin. He was diagnosed with leukemia on May 19, 1992. Vallia took care of him — she gave him chemotherapy injections, kept him on a mountain of pills and watched the catheter in his chest. She still loved him. But after months of suffering, and news from the doctors that he wouldn't get better, she made the decision that his life should not be prolonged.

In a quiet, traumatic moment that October, Vallia, her sons and Melvin's family members crowded into a hospital room at the Medical College of Virginia — the same hospital where Vallia was working when she met Shade. Eugene was 21, Travis was 13, and Philip was 9. Melvin died. They said goodbye.

It was a turning point, Mama says.

Some things got better. Some things got worse.

Before he died, Melvin had taught his logging business to Eugene, in hopes that his son would carry on the family business. But though he learned how to drive a tractor-trailer and operate the necessary machinery, Eugene can't seem to make the business work — he didn't have the contacts his father had, apparently.

Eugene managed to land a few jobs driving trucks, but by January 1999 he's unemployed. It's especially bad news because he can't make payments on the Cadillac he loves so much and drives everywhere.

After Eugene can't make a single payment, Shade takes back the car. Eugene is determined to raise the money to get it back. If only he can find an empty tractor-trailer. Then he can go wildcatting.

Wildcatting is a truckers' crime, a sort of truck hijacking. Sometimes truckers pull a trailer of logs only partway to the destination, then drive off in the truck's tractor and leave the trailer on the side of the road. Another trucker is scheduled to pick it up and finish the route.

But sometimes wildcatters will step in, find the trailers, haul them to some dealer and sell the load themselves.

That's what Eugene does on Feb. 16, 1999. He, his brother Travis and their cousin James "Pretty" Scruggs steal a trailer in Amelia County. They take it to the Pierce-Johnson Lumber Co. in Dillwyn and pick up a check for about $780.

No one is hurt — this time. But on March 1, the violence begins. In the end, Eugene's quest for car payments will result in a crime spree that will destroy three families.

It's hours before dawn on Monday, March 1, 1999. The weekend nightlife in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom is long gone.

Leonard Soren Cornforth Jr., a 6-foot-tall, 220-pound trucker with a barrel chest, pulls alongside Loving's Produce Co. with a 22-ton load of baking potatoes from Idaho.

At 49 years old, Cornforth has been driving trucks for only four years. He's also a rancher, and he loves the cowboy life. His CB nickname is "Maverick." He grew up on a farm. He likes to recite cowboy poetry. Sometimes, he announces rodeo shows. And he plans to learn how to be an auctioneer.

He lives with his second wife, Starli, on a 240-acre ranch in Aberdeen, Idaho. He has two children and six grandchildren.

Around 7 a.m., Loving's Produce workers are supposed to help him unload the slippery boxes of potatoes. Cornforth has bought a surprise gift for the workers: some work gloves with rubber grips. But until the help shows up, Cornforth decides to take a nap in his cab.

But the Friend brothers have spotted Cornforth's marine-blue Western Star rig. It looks perfect for a trip to Laredo. So, according to Travis' account, Eugene sets out to steal it with Travis, Philip and their cousin James "Pretty" Scruggs, along with Eugene's girlfriend at the time, Jackie Robinson.

Eugene drives them in a friend's car to the Loving's warehouse. He parks the red Buick Century behind Cornforth's truck. The men creep into the cab, while Jackie waits in the car. When Cornforth wakes up, Eugene and Philip begin beating him. He fights back. So Eugene, by Travis' account, tells Travis to take the gun from Pretty and shoot him.

Travis takes the gun and fires. One bullet rips through Cornforth's hand and into his head. Another one explodes through his neck and lodges into his backbone. Cornforth is still now. But the shots have reverberated in Shockoe Bottom.

Afraid they'll be caught by passersby, the Friends and Pretty Scruggs get back into the Buick with Jackie, and they drive home.

Workers from Loving's find Cornforth's body at 7 a.m., slumped between the truck's two seats. Along with the blood, the cab holds a pair of work gloves with rubber grips.

To this day, Mama says she doesn't believe her sons had anything to do with Cornforth's murder. Eugene calls the prosecutors' version "a made-up story." Travis signed a confession only to avoid the death penalty, Eugene and his mother say. There were no fingerprints, she says, and no gun was recovered.

(That doesn't convince Cornforth's widow. "I did nothing wrong, he did nothing wrong," Starli Cornforth writes in a note faxed to Style Weekly, "and yet he was murdered by Mrs. Friend's sons that she claims are 'good boys.' Good boys don't murder.")

A few days after Cornforth is killed, Eugene stops by the Cigarette Club, a discount tobacco store, in Southside Plaza. The shopping center is right by their house: You can cut through the woods behind their house, across Hull Street, and there's the plaza.

Inside the cramped store, just down from T Nails, Possee Fashion and $10 Fashion Discount, Eugene hears a Brooklyn accent and is smitten. It belongs to Charlene Thomas. She's skinny, with hair that's whiter than blonde, and is slightly older than Mama.

Mama can't stand her. She's not good company, she says. Travis and Philip can't believe Eugene is hanging out with her, either, and they make fun of her looks — "Where's your self-esteem, buddy?" they ask him, laughing.

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)
"It was just like a wolf pack come over me." Weary truck driver John Wesley Cummings, severely beaten, survives.
Mama and her lawyer, who refers to Charlene as "white trash," put much of the blame for what eventually happens to the Friends on Charlene. Prosecutors say that's nonsense, contending that Mama and Charlene became good friends. Mama is only angry with Charlene, they say, because she turned on them.

And Mama just can't believe her sons do what they admit to doing next. Sure they get into trouble. They are wild. They smoke marijuana. But she can't imagine it. They just aren't violent, she says.

Prosecutors say it shouldn't be too difficult for her to imagine. She was there.

It's Saturday night, April 10, 1999, and John Wesley Cummings has just crossed into Virginia from North Carolina on I-95.

He's no stranger to the route. Cummings, a 62-year-old trucker from Georgia, has been driving trucks since 1969. He makes good money, too — grosses at least $100,000 a year, he says. He bought his truck for about $50,000; the refrigerated trailer for another $16,000 or so. Tonight, it's full of produce bound for New York City.

Cummings is tired. About 10 minutes into Virginia, he pulls off at Exit 8, just south of Emporia. He parks in the lot at the Simmons Travel Center to catch some sleep.

But first, Cummings gets out of the truck to check the trailer. Suddenly, a pair of headlights are shining directly at him. They're coming from a 1991 Chevrolet conversion van, white with purple stripes, that has pulled up to the truck. Vallia is behind the wheel, her sons say. Charlene is in the passenger seat.

Cummings walks over to find out what's going on. "Do you want a date?" he recalls Vallia asking him. No, not really, he answers, and turns around to get back in the truck. Then, as Cummings describes, "It was just like a wolf pack come over me."

Eugene and Philip, who have been hiding in the back of the van, attack him. Cummings, an Army veteran, fights back. He's in the driver's seat now, kicking at Philip, fending him off, trying to reach for the aluminum baseball bat he keeps in the truck.

But the two brothers win. They force Cummings into the back of the truck. While Eugene takes the wheel, Philip subdues Cummings. He wraps duct tape around his wrists and ankles, then around his head, covering his eyes and mouth.

The truck is moving now. Eugene pulls onto I-95, heading north, while his mother and Charlene follow in the van.

As they drive, Philip continues to beat Cummings, a diabetic, with a B.B. gun he's told Cummings is real. He demands money. He kicks him. He warns Cummings: "If you make one mistake or don't cooperate with us, we'll put you in the freezer unit," Cummings recalls.

The caravan drives 25 miles to Exit 33, where they stop at the Davis Truck Plaza. Eugene unhitches Cummings' trailer, then drives back to the Simmons Travel Plaza.

At the travel plaza, the group spots a trailer full of logs waiting for pickup. Eugene decides to steal it. He hooks it up to the truck, gets back on I-95, and drives north to Dillwyn, Va., to sell it at the Pierce-Johnson Lumber Co.

By now, though, it's early Sunday morning. The lumber company is closed. So Eugene unhitches the trailer, leaves it outside the gate and drives to Exit 136, Zion Crossroads. He pulls over at a Citgo truck stop.

Eugene gets out of the truck. Philip asks him what they're going to do with Cummings. "He said he didn't care what he do," Cummings recalls Eugene, whom Cummings has termed "the driver," tell Philip, "the beater."

Philip turns to Cummings. "This is the end of your journey," Cummings hears him say. Blindfolded and bloody from the beatings, Cummings thinks he's about to die. But for a reason no one but the Friends understands, they loosen the duct tape from his hands. Even now, Cummings can't understand why. "I don't know," he says. "I have no idea."

(Eugene will explain later that he just couldn't bring himself to continue Cummings' misery. "I didn't even want to mess with him," he says. "I didn't feel right, you know, doing what we did to him. But it's just how it happened." Besides, he says, they only needed his truck for a few hours to steal the logs.)

Philip gives Cummings a warning: If he looks out the window of the truck, he tells him, he'll spray it with gunfire. Cummings doesn't look.

Eugene and Philip steal many of Cummings' belongings — six of his rings, a drill, a flashlight, a TV/VCR unit and a CB radio, among other things. They carry the stuff back to the van. There, Eugene finds a stray piece of paper and leaves a note on the steering wheel, telling Cummings where his trailer is.

(Later, prosecutors will point out that the handwriting matches samples from Eugene, and a phone number on the back of the paper is for the Union Camp Corp., a cardboard box company in Franklin, Va., that employs Shade, Mama's boyfriend.)

After he hears the van drive away, Cummings manages to find a razor blade in the truck that he uses to cut boxes. He gets the tape off his eyes, crawls to the driver's seat, and pulls the truck to the front of the Citgo.

He staggers into the front of the store. A female security guard almost passes out when she sees all the blood, then calls for help. The police come. After taking care of Cummings, police follow the note to find his trailer. They fill it with gas, which keeps the refrigerator going, and saves the load of corn, mangoes and mixed vegetables.

The next day, while Cummings is being treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center, Eugene, Charlene and Vallia will return with a trucker they've hired for $100, to pull the stolen trailer of logs into the lumberyard.

Eugene picks up a check for $1,455, made out to the Friend Logging Company. They drive to the Farmers Bank of Appomattox, where security cameras record Eugene and Mama cashing it. The Friends tell the trucker they've hired to tow the trailer back to Richmond.

But there's no way for Eugene to fulfill his plan to go to Laredo, prosecutors say. Sure, he has a trailer now. But there's no tractor to pull it.

More murder is in the air.


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