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Larry Donnell ANDREWS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Contract killing - He was the inspiration for the character of Omar Little, portrayed by Michael K. Williams, on HBO series The Wire
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: September 26, 1986
Date of birth: April 29, 1954
Victims profile: Zachary Roach and Rodney "Touche" Young
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison for the two murders in 1987. He was released in 2005. Died on December 13, 2012
photo gallery

Larry Donnell Andrews (April 29, 1954 – December 13, 2012) was an American criminal and anti-crime advocate. He was convicted of murders which he committed in 1986. He was the inspiration for the character of Omar Little, portrayed by Michael K. Williams, on HBO series The Wire.

Andrews grew up in Baltimore, where he became a stickup artist. Andrews robbed drug dealers, but avoided involving innocent bystanders. After committing a double murder in 1986 for a local drug kingpin to support his heroin addiction, Andrews surrendered to the police. He began counseling inmates to avoid gang life, and continued his anti-gang outreach after his release from prison.

Early life

Andrews grew up in a housing project in West Baltimore. He was physically abused by his mother. At the age of 10, he witnessed a man being beaten to death over 15 cents. Andrews became a stickup artist who robbed drug dealers, but his code of ethics included never involving women or children.

Andrews was known to police for armed robbery and drug dealing in the 1970s and early 1980s in Baltimore. Local drug kingpin Warren Boardley convinced Andrews, needing to support his heroin addiction, and Reggie Gross to take on the contract killing of Zachary Roach and Rodney "Touche" Young. Filled with guilt, Andrews surrendered himself to Ed Burns, a homicide detective with the Baltimore Police Department. Working with Burns, he agreed to wear a covert listening device, which he used to implicate Boardley and Gross in the killings.

Andrews was sentenced to life in prison for the two murders in 1987. He was denied parole on his first attempts, but continued to study, ended his addiction to heroin, and helped other inmates with an anti-gang workshop. By 1998, Burns, his co-author David Simon, and the lead prosecutor who obtained Andrews' conviction together began to lobby for Andrews' release. He was released in 2005.

The Wire

While Andrews was in prison, David Simon sent him copies of the newspaper and Andrews gave Simon information about crimes taking place in Baltimore. Simon named Andrews a consultant on The Wire, an HBO show about crime in Baltimore. Simon used Andrews as an inspiration for the character of Omar Little, a stickup artist who never targeted innocent bystanders.


Andrews performed youth outreach after his release from prison. His foundation, "Why Murder?", attempted to steer children away from a life of crime.

While Andrews was in prison, Burns introduced him to Fran Boyd, who was the inspiration for the character of the same name on The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, which Burns and Simon co-wrote. Their first conversation came in January 1993, when Boyd was still using drugs. Andrews encouraged Boyd to get clean, and the couple married on August 11, 2007. Wedding guests included Simon and The Wire castmembers Dominic West, Sonja Sohn, and Andre Royo.

Andrews suffered from an aortic dissection. He died as a result on December 13, 2012 in Manhattan at the age of 58.


Donnie Andrews: an appreciation of the real Omar Little

"From what he told me, he had few epiphanies. His decision to transform his life came over many years, even decades."

Joan Jacobson -

December 17, 2012

If you know anything about Donnie Andrews, who died last Friday of heart problems in New York, it’s probably colored by the fictional character Donnie inspired: Omar Little from “The Wire,” the thief who terrorized drug dealers.

But having spent well over a year with the real-life Donnie as co-author on his memoir – the narrative of a brutal life, in the end redeemed – I found myself reflecting on the endless hours we spent together when I heard the news last Friday.

Donnie left behind his wife, Fran Boyd, one of the wisest women I have ever met, and a family that embraced him when he was released from prison 18 years after he committed murder on Gold Street in West Baltimore.

Donnie also left behind an unbelievable story of the detective who arrested him (Ed Burns), the federal prosecutor who imprisoned him (Charlie Scheeler) and the reporter who chronicled his life (David Simon). Today, each will gladly tell you they counted Donnie among their dearest friends.

While Donnie was in prison he counseled Fran long distance to get off heroin, as her life was being chronicled by Simon and Burns in their book, “The Corner.”

From there Donnie’s story was entwined with Fran’s and it was as much a story of redemption as it was a love story.

I spent long hours with Donnie in 2008 and 2009 co-authoring his memoir, until our HarperCollins/Amistad editor fired me, unhappy with the chapters I was producing after these sessions.

But for those many months I was offered a window into the life of a man who seemed so unrepentant for so long that it would take decades for a tiny kernel of conscience rolling around inside him to surface.

The stories he told me did not come easily, as there had been much pain in his life before he experienced any joy.

What He Saw, What He Did

I used to drive to Donnie’s Parkville home a few times a week and sit in his dining room, going over every aspect of his life that he would share with me.

Some days it was an illuminating morality tale. Some days it was torture getting just a few words out of him.

Fran had warned me that there were some incidents in Donnie’s life that were still raw and unresolved.

I could barely get him to tell me, for example, about his first wife who relocated after his arrest so she could visit him in his out-of-state federal prison. She was later murdered.

I could never get him to talk about his jump from a balcony at the Murphy Homes public housing project in West Baltimore.

I wanted to write about the real-life leap that was dramatically fictionalized in HBO’s “The Wire” by the Omar character. I wondered what else happened that day he jumped that kept him just shaking his head ‘no’ at me, without a word of explanation.

But there were many other stories that he seemed more than willing to tell in the minutest detail, like the murder he witnessed at the age of nine with his younger brother in a laundromat when their mother sent them to wash clothes in the middle of the night.

Or the touching memories of his sister Hazel, who was more of a mother to him than the woman who gave him birth.

Or the story of the murder he committed, a gory tale fraught with “what-ifs” that might have kept him from pulling the trigger that night in 1986.

With Donnie, I never knew what I would get when I knocked on his door. He might greet me with a welcoming grin, a look of annoyance, or complete silence. Once he was so irritated by my interruptions for details of his story that he let me know without a hint of tact that as a journalist I was certainly no David Simon.

“David never interrupted me,” he said. “He just let me talk.”

Rap Sheet Several Feet Long

There were days, usually after a pep talk from Fran urging him to answer my questions, when he would stay up all night painstakingly conjuring an episode from his early life.

When I’d check my email in the morning I’d find one or two typed pages, the result of six or eight hours of soul searching late into the night.

Maybe it was about the death of his sister from a botched blood transfusion, or the death of his best friend, who collapsed in his arms, bleeding from a gunshot. Or the time he and his brother, Kent, were serving time in side-by-side Hagerstown prisons. Their mother visited Kent and left him money, but she didn’t bother to see Donnie.

Donnie’s story was a labyrinth of complications you might expect from a wretched life turning an about face. His early life stories of parental neglect, drug dealing and gun wielding had a cast of characters that were both deadly and comical. The old print-out of his rap sheet was several feet long.

I kept three timelines of his life: a general one that ran 22 pages, a second of seven pages just of his parole attempts from federal prison and the last – just three pages – on his 11-year courtship with Fran while he was in prison.

From what he told me, he had few epiphanies. His decision to transform his life came over many years, even decades.

A Single Garment of Destiny

As a young man spending time in Maryland prisons, he read the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the works of other writers. He said the reading was crucial to maintaining his sanity in prison. But King’s message of peace had no immediate effect on his continued life of violence.

When he finally turned his life around, he embraced his new role with gusto.

He worked with young prisoners and, upon his release, established programs to lure kids out of the kind of life he once led. And most important, he led a life as a dedicated husband and father to Fran’s nieces and nephew and her grandson.

After his death Friday, I reread one of Donnie’s favorite King speeches:

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

I also came across a speech I heard Donnie give, years after his release from prison, to a school for juvenile delinquents.

“I’m 55 years old and spent 28 years in prison,” he told a packed cafeteria of stone-faced teenagers. “I took a life. I did a lot of things to a lot of people who looked like me. I did things against my own people: My sons, my daughters, my community. The neighborhood is now boarded up, destroyed because of what I did.”

With his conscience now miraculously in full bloom, he finally found redemption and embraced the message from King: Donnie and those troubled kids – and their entire world – were tied together in a “single garment of destiny.”


Donnie Andrews, inspiration for Omar character on 'The Wire,' dies

By Justin Fenton and Jessica Anderson - The Baltimore Sun

December 14, 2012

Like the television character he helped inspire, Donnie Andrews lived by a code.

In his earlier years when he was robbing rival dealers as a young hustler in West Baltimore — experiences that would later form the basis for the popular Omar Little character on the Baltimore crime drama “The Wire” — he vowed to never involve women or children in his crimes.

But after confessing to a murder and helping authorities bring down a crime syndicate, he took on a different mission: working to prevent youth from going down the same path that he did.

Andrews died Thursday following heart complications while in New York City, where he was attending an event as part of his efforts to promote a non-profit outreach foundation. He was 58.

“Donnie was truly a rare bird, a fierce street warrior who had been to hell and back,” said Sonja Sohn, an actress who worked with Andrews in youth outreach, “and lived not only to tell about it, but to transform that pain and darkness into the brightest of lights, infused with the love he had for youth and communities suffering from the injustices of that life, often times, unfairly doles out to those born with the short end of the stick.”

Andrews, whose full name was Larry Donnell Andrews, had been around violence most of his life, physically abused by his mother and watching at age 10 from behind a washing machine as a man was bludgeoned to death for 15 cents. He grew up in the housing projects of West Baltimore, where he was mentored by hustlers and drug dealers. He became a stick-up artist, robbing other drug dealers with a .44 Magnum.

“The word ‘future’ wasn’t even in my vocabulary, because I didn’t know if I’d be alive or dead tomorrow,” he told The [U.K.] Independent. “They had a bet in my neighborhood that I wouldn’t reach 21.”

In 1986, roped in by drug kingpin Warren Boardley and looking to support a heroin addiction, he said he took on a contract killing, teaming with Reggie Gross for the fatal, close-range shootings of Rodney “Touche” Young and Zachary Roach on Gold Street.

The former lead prosecutor, Charles Scheeler, said Andrews was different from other suspects: not only did he turn himself in, but he never angled for a lesser sentence. He simply confessed to the killing, which Scheeler said they had little evidence to convict him of otherwise.

“I prosecuted hundreds of people but this was the only person this happened to,” said Scheeler, who developed an unlikely friendship with Andrews even before his conviction. “Everyone else in his position has been ‘I will cooperate for less time.’ Donnie was ‘I will cooperate because I want to repent.’ I’ve never had anyone like that. He convinced me.”

Andrews also agreed to wear a wire with great personal risk — Edward Burns, a former police detective, said Andrews once went through three layers of bodyguards to get to a kingpin — and picked up conversations implicating Boardley and Gross.

“Donnie wanted change, more than he wanted to breathe air,” said David Simon, the former Sun crime reporter.

Though Andrews believed he’d receive a 10-year prison term, he was sentenced to life in federal prison. His first tries at parole were unsuccessful, but he availed himself of every opportunity within prison to make things right. He studied, beat his drug habit, and read the Bible.

Michael Millemann, an attorney who represented him in his fight for release, recalled meeting Andrews, who was still behind bars and had no clear path out but was counseling younger inmates. He talked about how, if he were to ever be released, he wanted to help children at risk.

“The day he turned himself in, I’d say from that day on, he became a counselor and a supporter to other people. The transition was day and night,” Milleman said.

While incarcerated, Burns, a co-author of the non-fiction book “The Corner,” helped connect Andrews with Fran Boyd, one of the book’s drug-addicted protagonists. They struck up a relationship, speaking on the phone daily. Boyd was as tough as they come, Simon said, and Burns’ hope was that Andrews could get through to her.

“She’s smart, and I knew she could get herself straight,” Andrews told the New York Times in 2007, “so I kept pushing and then I got hooked on her.”

Starting in 1998, Boyd, Simon, Burns and Scheeler were among those lobbying for his release. It happened in 2005, and he and Boyd married in 2007.

The Times featured their story on the front page, describing it as “a lengthy courtship that was as much about turning their lives around as it was about finding each other … a source of inspiration for the grittier parts of West Baltimore, where few people who end up on the corner using and selling drugs manage to break free, and even fewer return to make a difference.”

Simon had sent Andrews copies of the newspaper while he was incarcerated, and Andrews would call him with information about crime taking place on city streets. Simon made him a consultant on his HBO show “The Wire,” where Andrews was among the inspirations for the Omar, the drug assassin with a moral code who was based on several real-life stick-up men that Burns had encountered.

President Obama said in March that Omar was his favorite character on the show.

Andrews appeared on screen as one of Omar’s crew, and died in a shootout scene where Omar leaps from a four-story building and escapes. Andrews said that really happened to him — but he had jumped from the sixth-story.

On Friday, Michael Kenneth Williams, the actor who played Omar, wrote on Twitter: “R.I.P. to the original gangsta and a stand up dude.”

Andrews had spent recent years trying to ramp up work through his “Why Murder?” foundation, and he has been featured in documentaries about the drug war and in talks at Harvard University, where “The Wire” is taught in a class.

“He turned his life around. He patiently waited for 18 years and came out and became a remarkable asset to this community,” Scheeler said, mentioning he last saw Andrews a week ago when they were working together on the project to have greenhouses for the urban farming initiative in the Oliver neighborhood.

Said Simon: “On paper, he’s a murderer. We’ve constructed a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that.”

He was in New York with Boyd for a screening of a documentary, Simon said. Andrews died after suffering an aortic dissection, which begins with a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart.


Donnie Andrews: The road to redemption

In care and brutalised, Donnie Andrews never stood a chance. In with the street gangs, he was convicted of murder at the age of 32. Then, he read the Bible, met the creator of 'The Wire', and a famous anti-hero was born. Tim Walker meets Donnie Andrews

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Donnie Andrews saw his first dead body, lynched and hanging from a tree in North Carolina, when he was four years old. At 10, he watched from behind the washing machines in a Baltimore laundromat as an old man was bludgeoned to death for 15 cents. Physically abused by his mother, enticed by a life of crime, he earned his first long stretch in jail when he was 19. As an armed robber, he swapped holding up bars for a more lucrative and dangerous occupation: robbing drug dealers. In 1986, aged 32, he committed his first and only murder, a shooting carried out at the behest of a local drug lord.

I had always wondered, as I watched The Wire, where an iconoclastic anti-hero like Omar Little – the acclaimed television drama's ruthless, fearless, mercenary yet moral, Baltimore stick-up artist – could possibly have come from. Donnie Andrews is my answer. "When I first met David [Simon, creator of The Wire]," says Andrews, now 55 and a reformed man, "I told him a lot about my little escapades. Then I started seeing them on TV."

Thanks not to America's flawed prison system (where he spent almost 18 years for the murder), but to his conscience, force of will, and the support of friends like Simon, Andrews transformed himself. Today, he is head of security at Bethel AME, one of Baltimore's most prominent African-American churches; and he counsels young gang members, hoping to staunch the flow of murders in Maryland's largest and most violent city.

Softly spoken, nattily dressed and enjoying breakfast at a club in London's West End, Andrews is able to look at his past life with the clarity of distance. "That person was buried 15 years ago," he says. "I did it all and I lived through it, so now I think: why push my luck?"

Born in Carolina, Andrews moved to Maryland with his mother and five siblings in the midst of the struggle for civil rights. In Baltimore, he was given away to a carer called Miss Ruth. It was, he remembers, the best part of his childhood. But after Miss Ruth's husband suffered a heart attack, she was forced to return him to his mother.

"When Miss Ruth came back for me later, my mom said she wanted to keep me. I tried to be bad so she would give me back to Miss Ruth, but it just increased the abuse. She used to beat us with extension cords. By the time I was 13, I was on the streets with the gangs, hustling and staying alive."

West Baltimore's housing projects in the Sixties and early Seventies were dangerous for a teenager. Mentored by "hustlers" and drug dealers, as a young gang member, Andrews recalls how "the word 'future' wasn't even in my vocabulary, because I didn't know if I'd be alive or dead tomorrow. They had a bet in my neighbourhood that I wouldn't reach 21. Well, I'm 55 now. And the people who made the bet? They're dead."

Between his 16th birthday and his murder conviction 16 years later, Andrews was arrested 19 times. He spent six years in jail for armed robbery, another two and a half years for daytime housebreaking. His fights with prison guards meant he spent most of that time in solitary confinement. On the outside, like Omar, he preferred to work alone.

"When I was coming up, one of the biggest drug dealers in the city would always tell me a real man stands alone. I felt better working by myself. I only had a couple of friends who I was comfortable hustling with. They'd have to know anything I was going to do just by a look; when you're robbing people, it's gotta be perfect."

Also like Omar, Andrews's victims were fellow drug dealers. "I might get two or three hundred dollars robbing a bar, but from a drug dealer I could get two or three hundred thousand. I told Fran [his wife] about a time I went to rob a stash house and they wouldn't open the door. I yelled: 'If I've gotta come in there, something bad's gonna happen.' The window opened and they threw the drugs out. Fran saw the same thing on The Wire and she called David and said: 'So Omar is Donnie?!'"

He had a moral code, of sorts. "I would never mess with women... [and] I wouldn't give kids drugs. That's how the game got messed up: you've got mothers, grandmothers, children of five or six trying to sell you drugs now." Beneath Andrews's violent veneer, there was a conscience lurking. But it was only pricked when he finally killed a man.

After emerging from his latest spell in jail in 1986, Andrews found his neighbourhood under the control of a 25-year-old drug lord named Warren Boardley, whose operation was worth around $250,000 (Ł150,000) a week. During a shootout over territory that summer, Boardley had been shot in the foot by members of a rival crew, the Downer brothers. A friend of Andrews was shot in the same battle, and he found himself unexpectedly allied with Boardley, who was willing to pay handsomely for a hit.

On the night of 23 September 1986, Andrews and Reggie Gross, one of Boardley's henchmen, cruised the blocks surrounding Gold Street, a neglected terrace that was home to one of West Baltimore's notorious 24-hour drugs markets. When they came across one of the Downer gang – an acquaintance of Andrews known as Fruit Loop – Andrews managed to warn him off, saving his life without Gross's knowledge.

Their next target was not so fortunate. The gunmen found Zach Roach, another member of the Downer gang, sitting with a second young man, Rodney Young, outside a Gold Street house. Gross, carrying a machine gun, opened fire first – killing Young instantly.

"Once Reggie's Uzi went off, [Zach] jumped up and it was a spontaneous reaction on my part. I just fired and, as he ran up the street, he tripped and fell. I went to give him the coup de grâce and he looked up at me. I looked him in the eye and, before he died, he asked me: 'Why?' It was like I was frozen in time. I thought: why? This guy looks just like me. He could have been my brother, my son, my father. And why for drugs? Because somebody shot Warren in the foot? Why? It stuck with me, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I'm trying to figure out why to this day."

His payment, $5,000 and two ounces of heroin, did little to ease his guilt. The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) suspected him of the murder, but lacked evidence. One homicide detective who came knocking was Ed Burns. In early 1987, Andrews ran into Burns at the city court house. "Ed followed me to the parking lot and said: 'I can give you a second chance at life.' I was like, who does he think he is, God? But I thought about it. Even a fool wants a second chance."

Burns's partner made a strange suggestion: Andrews, he said, should read the Bible – specifically the story of Paul. The tale of a brutal tax collector's conversion moved him, as it was meant to. In August 1987, he confessed to the murder, then wore a concealed recording device to meetings with Boardley and Gross, where both implicated themselves in the crime. A prosecutor promised Andrews he'd be free in 10 years. "Donnie was remarkable," says David Simon. "He gave himself up when they had very little evidence against him. Ultimately, it was an act of conscience – and that doesn't happen a lot in police careers."

At the time a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Simon spent 1988 shadowing the city's homicide department. There he befriended Burns for his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a vivid and meticulous portrait of the period's crime epidemic from the point of view of those trying to fight it.

In 1989, on Burns's advice, he flew cross-country to the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix, Arizona, to interview Andrews for an article in the Sun's weekly magazine. "Donnie told me the story of the Boardley case as he knew it," Simon explains. "I was impressed that, when I matched it against the police files, it always checked out. After the article was published, Donnie just kept calling me. I realised that he was really being rigorous about making the most of his second chance."

Andrews had kicked his heroin habit in jail, trained as an electrician, taken up a college course by mail, and even begun to mentor some of the younger inmates. Burns, who retired from the BPD and briefly became a schoolteacher, would send him books. Simon, meanwhile, sent him copies of the Sun: "He'd see some small story about a shooting, then call me a few weeks later with very good information."

Andrews's rehabilitation is, Simon insists, utterly out of the ordinary. "The prison system in America isn't structured for rehabilitation," he says. "It's structured for warehousing ... I believe in the individual's capacity to change their own future. Systemically, though, we sure make it hard. It's a pretty lonesome journey."

In 1992, Simon and Burns had begun work on a new book together, chronicling the lives of a disadvantaged family caught in the crossfire of the drugs war. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood would be published in 1997 and turned into an HBO mini-series three years later.

One of the book's protagonists was Fran Boyd, a heroin-addicted woman with two sons from West Baltimore. The writers, says Simon, had come to love Boyd, and wanted to help her escape the cycle of addiction. "Ed had the idea of putting Donnie and Fran together via a phone call. He had no idea he was playing Cupid."

What followed began as counselling and became a four-year courtship. With each other's help – through phone conversations and letters – Andrews began to come to terms with his crime, while Boyd shook off her addiction. The pair didn't meet in person until 1997, but by then they were already in love, and turned their efforts to winning Andrews his freedom. The city prosecutor who'd promised him an early release reneged on that pledge, and it took a further eight years, until April 2005, before he was paroled.

His first job on release was in the writers' office of The Wire. Eventually, like many Baltimore locals, he found himself cast in the show – as one of Omar's crew. His character was killed in a shootout, from which Omar escaped by leaping from a fifth-floor balcony. "That really happened to me," Andrews chuckles, "but I had to jump out of the sixth floor. It was either lead poisoning or take my chances, so I took my chances. I did it without thinking. If I'd thought about it, I might have taken the lead poisoning."

Andrews and Boyd were married in 2007, and the congregation contained many of The Wire's actors. Simon was best man.

Andrews is still shocked by the decline of his old neighbourhood in West Baltimore. "When I came back," he says, "I actually had tears in my eyes. All the houses that once had families in them are boarded up. The drug addicts are like zombies. I try to do everything I can to rebuild; that's why I took the job at Bethel AME, and that's why I work with the gangs."

How does he persuade young gang members to respect him, to trust him, even to take his advice and step away from a life of violence? "It's like when I met David or Ed. 'Real' recognises 'real'. If you're real and you care about something, it shows. Your actions speak for themselves. When I first met Ed, I could tell he was the type of person that cared; he knew how the street was by working it for 20 years. And he proved it, by sticking with me the whole time I was in prison."

Some of the old habits of the street come in useful as part of Andrews's work. Others simply die hard. "I had a lot of friends who wore their guns in their belts and died because it's difficult to pull from there," he says. "I still always wear baggy shirts out of habit, because I used to keep my gun up my sleeve."



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