Going back to the 1970s, the Desire Housing project saw some of the darkest chapters in the criminal history of New Orleans. The geographically isolated complex – demolished after being flooded during Hurricane Katrina – was a hot-bed of drug trafficking, with turf usually protected at gunpoint.
Within that hard-edged neighborhood, one tight-knit family with deep roots in Desire, the Smiths, found themselves caught in a vicious spiral of violence almost beyond comprehension.
The killing started with Calvin Smith, the fourth of seven siblings. Calvin was on a football scholarship from Tennessee State University when he was gunned down during a school break in 1978.
Gilbert, fifth oldest, was next. Jailed at age 17 on a cocaine conviction and behind bars when Gilbert was killed, he was murdered in 1988, shortly after his release.
“The first time we were separated was when Gilbert went to the penitentiary at 17 years old,” said Ben Smith, the oldest sibling. “And just like we said, we'd never be a family, we'd never be whole again. Because before Gilbert got home, Calvin got killed.”
The surviving four brothers felt like marked men, and for good reason. Gilbert, draped in gold chains and sporting rings on every finger, was known as one of Desire’s biggest drug dealers. He was wanted attempted murder when he was killed.
“After the death of my first brother we went out into the streets, and that's how it all started,” said Tyrone Smith, third oldest.
“We lived the life,” Ben said, “the drug life. We sold drugs to support our habits. And we just got caught up in that drug culture.”
In the years after Calvin and Gilbert were murdered, the family seemed to be trapped in a cycle of violence with no escape.
Tyrone Smith was cleared of two murders, but convicted of a third and sentenced to life. Ben was cleared in three murders, but got hit with a 25-year sentence for selling crack cocaine. The youngest brother, Kenny, was tried and acquitted in a separate murder.
“We know when we were out there, it's us or them. And that's the way we lived. Once the hope is gone, it's just us against them,” Tyrone said.
“I think it is remarkable. I think their story is fascinating. It feels like it's ripped from the headlines,” attorney Kelly Orians said.
Their story was chronicled in the early 1990s in a front-page Sunday story in The Times-Picayune. The unflinching article featured a raw jailhouse interview with Ben shortly before he was shipped to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he would be reunited with his brother Tyrone.
As bleak as things were the Smiths, that period marked the beginning of a dramatic turnaround.
When Ben arrived at Angola, he found that a seismic shift was transforming Tyrone. Inside prison he went from reading the Bible to preaching it.
“I knew God had a plan and a purpose for my life,” Tyrone said. “I remember when my Mom came and visited and she was crying. But I told her, ‘God does everything for a reason and God’s going to work this out.”
It wasn’t divine interview, but court intervention that provided Tyrone a break. After nearly five years behind bars, his conviction and life sentence were thrown out.
Tyrone Smith had been wrongfully convicted.
“I knew I didn't do that one,” he said. “But I did a lot of other things that I knew I was paying for that.”
It took another decade, but Ben followed his brother to freedom in 2003.
That's when the truly amazing part of this story begins.
Tyrone Smith is now known as “The Rev,” pastor of Next Generation Original Morning Star Church, a Baptist congregation near his old turf in the Desire neighborhood. Flooded during Hurricane Katrina, Tyrone has brought the church back to life.
“I took over the church with seven members. A struggling church. And now we're up to about almost 400 people,” he said before one recent Sunday morning service.
Shy and soft-spoken most of the time, Pastor Tyrone Smith is transformed when he preaches. Backed by a choir and church band, Tyrone belts out inspirational gospel to an enraptured congregation, filling the entire pulpit as he paces and gestures.
“It’s not me,” he says, “it’s the holy spirit.”
Tyrone built up the church with men from an organization called the First 72, a non-profit which provides housing, job contacts and a wide range of other services for inmates fresh from prison. The name refers to the critical first three days after an inmate is released from prison.
The co-founder and director of the First 72: Ben Smith.
“I always was an activist. I was a community leader before I went astray,” Ben explains.
Ben’s efforts are helped by his old political contacts and connections. As a young man, after studying sociology for two years at Southern University at New Orleans, Ben helped establish the Democratic Organization for Voter Education, or DOVE.
Despite more than a decade behind bars, Ben picked up where he left off after he was released.
He began by driving to Angola for parole board hearings on behalf of inmates he knew. Then, as some were released, he helped them get back on their feet.
“Before we had the transitional house, the First 72 was basically Ben's van,” said Orians, legal advisor for the non-profit. “It was Ben picking you up from the front gates of Angola in the middle of the night, driving you to get your first meal, driving you to get a pair of clothes so you could see your family for the first time.”
Now the First 72 operates a transitional house near the Orleans Parish Prison and offers a wide range of job and counseling services.
It has grown into one of the most successful prison re-entry programs in the country. Of 148 clients who have passed through, the recidivism rate is zero.
“We haven't lost one guy. Not one person,” Ben said.
He attributes the success of the First 72 to the fact that it is a re-entry program run by former inmates.
“You see, I’m not in authority,” he said. “I go to these guys getting out of prison and they can relate. I give them something good. I give them something positive.”
“All of our board members were incarcerated,” Orians said. “In fact, most of them were incarcerated together…Ben and the entire team when they came home, they were helping each other. You were sleeping on their couches. You were getting rides in their cars. Their mothers and sisters were cooking you food.”
“They knew what to do organically because they had been living it,” she said. “They idea that this would become a non-profit organization, that came later. This was just community. This was just the right thing to do.”
While Ben and Tyrone show the powers of redemption, they are constantly reminded by prison letters and collect phone calls from Angola that their job is not complete.
Kenny, their youngest brother, is now serving 25 years for a 2004 killing in Kenner. Ben and Tyrone are confident that, someday, he’ll get his homecoming.
When he does, he'll have a bed and a Bible waiting for him.