The Dirtiest Player
Exclusive update: Philly D.A. to take fresh look at Harrison case
a prayer in the city, four words long: I ain’t seen nothin’.
It was a lie, of course.
Robert Nixon had seen everything. He had seen more than enough to put a rich and famous man, an NFL superstar, in prison. But this is what you tell the police unless you’re a fool. You can’t go wrong if you say you ain’t seen nothin’, and you can go very wrong if you say otherwise. And as far as Robert Nixon is concerned, what happened to the fat man with the Muslim beard is proof.
Nixon didn’t know the fat man with the Muslim beard when the fat man was still alive—that is to say, before he was perforated with bullets. But he’d seen him around. More than a year before the murder, Nixon stumbled upon the fat man lying in the street, in front of a water-ice stand, getting the crap beaten out of him by Marvin Harrison and Stanley McCray, one of Harrison’s employees.
It was a scene* to make anybody stop and watch. Broad daylight in North Philadelphia. April 29, 2008—a Tuesday. The corner of 25th Street and Thompson, about seven blocks north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the steps Rocky climbed. A block of brick row houses, a church with a rubbed-out sign, a Hispanic grocery, a vacant lot. In one sense, the presence of a future Hall of Famer at this seedy vortex of the city—Harrison, eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts, then at the tail end of a thirteen-season career and a $67 million contract—was incongruous. Especially given that Harrison, who is usually described as “quiet” and “humble,” was noisily stomping the fat man in the face and gut.
To Nixon, the fat man looked semi-conscious.
After several minutes, Harrison and McCray walked away. The fat man slowly picked himself up. Shouting epithets, he staggered to his car. Nixon watched as Marvin Harrison got into his own car, parked to the west of the fat man’s. The fat man put his car into reverse. Thompson Street is one-way going east. The fat man backed up the wrong way until he was smack in front of Chuckie’s Garage, a car wash Harrison owns. The fat man was now blocking Harrison, who was trying to drive away.
Nixon saw Harrison get out of his car and exchange words with the fat man. He couldn’t hear the words, but he could see the gestures of threat and counterthreat. The fat man stayed in his car. He called somebody on his cell. Harrison got back into his car and called somebody on his cell. After a minute or two, Harrison got out of his car for the second time.
Marvin Harrison is six feet tall and 185 pounds. He has a neatly trimmed mustache and the body-fat content of an Olympic swimmer. He became the dominant wide receiver of his era not by outleaping or outwrestling defenders but by exploiting an almost supernatural talent for getting open: for feints, fakes, jukes, dodges, bluffs, stutter steps, sudden bursts of sick speed. But at this moment, Nixon says, Marvin Harrison did not run. He stood on the sidewalk and calmly raised his wiry arms. In each hand, Nixon clearly saw, was a gun.
“YOU A BITCH-ASS NIGGA!” Nixon heard the fat man scream at Harrison. “YOU AIN’T GONNA SHOOT. YOU AIN’T GONNA SHOOT. DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO.”
Nixon was across the street and thirty yards away when Harrison started shooting. Pop pop pop pop pop pop—a great staccato gust of bullets. Steadily, Nixon says, Harrison unloaded both guns into the fat man’s car, stippling the red Toyota Tundra with bullet holes as the fat man ducked in his seat. Eventually, the fat man sat up and sped off, heading straight toward Nixon’s position as Harrison darted into the street and continued to shoot.
Now Nixon was in the line of fire. He turned and ran. He ran as fast as he could with his belly and his smoker’s cough as bullets slivered through doors and lodged in walls.
Behind him, unbeknownst to Nixon, a bullet ripped through the fat man’s hand. Another bullet shattered the glass of a car containing multiple adults and a 2-year-old boy. The adults instantly bailed, abandoning the little boy in the car, the glass flowering into razor-sharp petals and bloodying the boy’s eye.
And yes, Robert Nixon was also hit. Once, in the back. He didn’t realize it at first. Too much adrenaline. Then he scraped his left hand against his right shoulder. He felt a hole in his black T-shirt. His fingers came back stained with blood.
By this time, Marvin Harrison and the fat man had both fled. But Nixon needed to retrieve his car, which was parked on Thompson Street. As Nixon sprinted back to the scene of the crime, the police pulled up. An officer spotted Nixon running and thought he might be the shooter. Hey, c’mere. The officer patted him down for weapons. Nixon was clean.
The officer didn’t notice Nixon’s gunshot wound, and Nixon didn’t volunteer that he’d been shot.
I ain’t seen nothin’.
The smart call.
So the officer moved on.
*Re-created from interviews, court filings, and police reports, and told through the eyes of Robert Nixon.
marvin darnell harrison was not supposed to be this guy, the black athlete with a gun. Insecure, obnoxious, prone to acts of catharsis—that was Terrell Owens, Michael Vick. But Marvin?
Marvin drank juice.
He was a worker. Marvin was the guy who never wore his gloves in practice because the gloves were sticky and made catching balls easy, and he wanted to practice the hard way. He was the neat freak who sat with his back to the press at a locker that would make a drill sergeant swoon. Marvin, who juked my repeated requests for an interview, was the perfectionist who evolved an ability to communicate almost telepathically with his quarterback, Peyton Manning, but barely at all with mere English. If he left any trace of his existence in the league, it was only in the record books: second (to Jerry Rice) in all-time receptions, third in all-time one-hundred-yard games, first in receptions in a single season. Through all this, his teammates claimed they didn’t know him in the slightest. “He’s like Batman,” linebacker Cato June told Sports Illustrated.
Think about the discipline it would take to make a living as an elite star of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut without ever once being truly seen. In this sense, Harrison’s football career is not only historic; it’s also a sort of miracle. The dude skipped like a flat stone across a rancid pool and emerged, twelve years later, dry as a bone.
And when he stood up and looked around, he went right back to the place his heart had always been, the place he had never really left: Philadelphia, the city of his birth. His family was large and close, and although some members had been violent criminals, his inner circle struggled to protect him from those influences. His uncle Vincent Cowell was a respected anesthesiologist at Temple University Hospital. His mother, Linda, and his stepfather, Anthony Gilliard, were modest businesspeople who worked hard and fed needy families when they could. (Just like Marvin did: In 2006 at Thanksgiving, he donated eighty-eight turkey dinners to the poor of North Philly.)
They had taught Marvin to value family above all else, certainly above mere dollars. Yes, he had splurged on a couple of large purchases—a house for his mother in a leafy enclave of Montgomery County, and for himself a four-bedroom, five-bath 7,600-square-foot stucco home in Jenkintown, a quiet village to the north—but otherwise he was so conservative about money (he favored low-risk mutual funds, according to a 2006 newspaper profile) that if you started asking Philly people about Marvin Harrison, one of the first things you heard about the man was that he was, well, cheap. Whenever you went looking for Marvin, you tended not to find him sipping Venti lattes in Jenkintown. You found him on the streets of North Philly, tending to the unpretentious businesses he was either too detail-oriented or too stingy or too authentically modest—toosomething, anyway—to let other people run: his car wash, his sports bar, the soul-food kitchen he had bought for his aunt and his mother, and more than a dozen rental and investment properties he had snatched up at bargain prices.
From up high, Marvin appeared to be a millionaire athlete like any other; at street level, he was a businessman cobbling together a mini-empire in the hood. It was an iconoclastic way to reconcile his money with his roots—a tricky thing for any athlete flung from poverty into wealth. Many simply flee to suburban McMansions. Some, like Allen Iverson, go the other way, keeping questionable company and giving shout-outs to “my niggas back home.” But Marvin didn’t run and he didn’t flaunt. He just sort of hid. His life was exquisitely controlled—an extraordinary man’s attempt to become a ghost in his own story. For a long time, it worked. And then, for reasons that go well beyond Marvin Harrison—reasons having to do with race, class, jealousy, politics, and the problems of American cities—it didn’t.
“fuck you,” the fat man said. “Fuck the bar, and I’ll fuck you up.”
It was mid-April of 2008, two weeks before the shooting. The fat man, a.k.a. Dwight Dixon, age 32, was standing with a friend at the front door of Playmakers, Harrison’s bar, demanding to be let inside.
Playmakers is about a half mile southwest of 25th and Thompson, on a side street of a gentrifying neighborhood; a block to the east is North Star Bar, where you can see indie bands like the Mountain Goats. From the press coverage of the Harrison case, you’d think Playmakers was some kind of ghetto shithole. But once you get past the bouncers and their pat-downs, you find yourself in a warm, upscale black bar. There are two pool tables and an old-school Galaga arcade console. The walls are covered with framed jerseys (Donovan McNabb, Jerry Rice) and photographs (Charles Barkley, a Negro League baseball team)—but no Harrison jersey, no Harrison photos. Who needs memorabilia when you’ve got the hero himself? Odds are good that if you go to Playmakers on a weekend, you’ll see Harrison adjusting the thermostat, checking the taps, peering out the front door.
Or if you’re Dwight Dixon, you get to watch him pat you down, and pat your friend down, and lay a hand on something gun-shaped and concealed on your friend’s person, and tell you both to get lost.
Dixon—everyone called him Pop on account of his size—was not welcome at Playmakers, Harrison made clear that night in April. And Pop was not the sort of person to let this insult slide. Three hundred pounds of swagger squeezed into expensive Gucci and Polo shirts, he was a finely tuned instrument for the detection of disrespect. “I call him a straight-up hustler,” says Fishay Bryant, one of Pop’s cousins. “Like, he didn’t take any handouts. He was very proud.”
Pop saw himself as Harrison’s equal. After all, they’d both grown up in the same North Philly neighborhood. They knew each other as kids. They’d both been born in the city’s worst modern hour—when it was grimy and vegetal, when it stank, when gangs ruled the neighborhoods, when the old industries were dying and the white ethnics were hightailing it to the suburbs, when the notorious Black Mafia was flooding the streets with heroin of unprecedented potency and the newly elected mayor was a skull-cracking cop who promised to be so tough on crime he’d “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” And they both had chosen to hawk their products—car washes and liquor for Harrison, drugs for Pop—in a part of the city that remained, even in April 2008, profoundly fucked.
If Harrison had moved to some better place, Pop would have understood. Hell, Pop wanted to leave Philly himself. Dreamed of it. Took his girl on vacations every weekend he could—Texas, Florida, California, Arizona. They flew Southwest. Super-saver fares. But Harrison had stayed, digging his roots deeper and deeper. In 1994, Pop had gone to state prison for dealing crack. When he came out six years later, he was a Muslim, but otherwise he was the same prideful Pop—and Harrison was still there, a king among paupers, distributing small-scale charity to needy supplicants beneath the media’s radar, his wealth creating a gravity that warped the physics of the neighborhood. “Everybody sucks up to him, and I don’t,” Pop told a close friend. “I’m gonna see you in your place of business, and I’m gonna buy drinks.”
A week after Pop was barred from Playmakers, he drove to Chuckie’s and demanded a car wash. He was denied. That Friday he went back to Playmakers. He was turned away—again. The next Tuesday was his confrontation with Harrison. Harrison describes it in detail in his statement to police:
I walked down and asked him why he was continually threatening me and coming to my businesses and harassing my employees. He said, “I’m a grown man, I can do and go wherever I want and say what I want…and like I said, I will fuck you up and fuck your bar up…NOW WHAT!” He put his hands up and swung at me. He grazed me on my left shoulder and chin. I swung back and I missed. We wrestled and threw punches a little bit…I then walked up the street back to my garage, I guess like five minutes later he backs up the street to in front of my car wash. Gets on the phone and is saying, “get your guns…you know what you gonna get STAN [McCray]…I’m gonna fuck you up MARV…you ain’t no Gangster.” I told him that I wasn’t a gangster but that he couldn’t keep coming back to my place of business and threaten me and start trouble. He drove off down the street. I was inside the garage. I heard gunshots like right after that.
three years before Marvin Harrison was born, there was another man on the streets of Philly who faced a similar sort of fight-or-flight decision. His name was Marvin, too.
Marvin Greer was a 16-year-old gang member. He lived in a high-rise housing project in South Philly. On January 15, 1969, Greer and three friends spotted a boy from an enemy gang. The boy ran. Greer and the others chased him. When Greer caught up to the boy, he pulled out a four-inch pearl-handled knife. He stabbed the boy in the back, killing him, and threw the knife into the sewer. He pled guilty to second-degree murder.
About five years later, in 1974, Marvin Greer died suddenly at age 22; there was no mention of his death in the newspapers, and the cause remains a mystery. Before he died, Greer fathered at least three boys with different mothers. (Back then in Pennsylvania, juvenile felons were furloughed for good behavior, affording them a certain freedom of movement.) The eldest boy was Marvin Harrison.
The next was Markwann “Coots” Gordon. From 1995 to 1997, Gordon participated in a string of seven armed robberies in Philadelphia. According to a 1999 account by Kitty Caparella, the dean of Philadelphia’s crime reporters, Gordon was one of “the Philadelphia Mob’s two top associates in the African-American underworld,” an enforcer with the Junior Black Mafia. Gordon is currently serving 140 years in a federal prison in White Deer, Pennsylvania.
After Gordon came Marvin “Back to Back” Woods. On September 3, 1991, when Marvin Woods was 17, he was playing in the championship game of a schoolyard hoops league when his coach took him out of the game, subbing in another boy. Woods got angry. He left the game. When he rode back on his bike, twenty minutes later, he was carrying a Tec-9. He sprayed his substitute with bullets, killing him, and rode off. Marvin Woods is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Pennsylvania.
So those are Marvin Harrison’s half brothers. In more recent years, Marvin Harrison’s cousin Lonnie Harrison, age 41, has been convicted of robbery, drug possession, and possessing an illegal firearm. And in 2000, another cousin, Isa Muhammad, was murdered in the aftermath of an eight-man shoot-out that also wounded a 10-year-old girl. The police described the murder as a revenge killing.
None of this proves, of course, that Marvin Harrison shot Dwight Dixon and Robert Nixon. It just shows that he has a strikingly violent family history. It also suggests that Harrison’s NFL career is an even greater triumph than commonly understood. He was able, for all those years, to reject the logic that claimed the life of his cousin and the freedom of his father and his half brothers—the same street logic that allows only one sort of response to a challenge like Pop’s.
After the shooting, Pop got a ride to Lankenau Hospital, five miles west of Chuckie’s Garage. The hospital staff called the cops, as they’re required to do when they see shooting victims. The cops arrived and asked Pop for his name.
Malik Tucker, he said. It was one of his many aliases: Demetrius Bryant, Swight Dixon, Donte Jones, Dwight M. Mobely.
The cops asked how he’d been shot.
Pop said that he’d been robbed at 62nd and Lebanon—again, several miles west of the shooting.
Soon, the cops at the hospital got a call from the cops back at 25th and Thompson. A red Toyota Tundra full of bullet holes was being towed there. The person who had called the tow truck was Pop’s girlfriend.
The cops now knew that Pop was lying. They told him he’d better come clean. Pop grinned and told them to fuck off. The mood around Pop’s hospital bed was relaxed, jovial; the cops had a professional appreciation for the purity of Pop’s bullshit. “You know who shot me,” Pop said, toying with them.
Why didn’t Pop blurt out the truth? He might have been scared. To be a witness in Philadelphia is no small thing, even if you’re a 300-pound drug dealer. In December The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that thirteen witnesses or relatives of witnesses have been murdered in the city since 2001.
But there are two other theories. The most likely one is that Pop lied to the cops because he had shot back at Harrison with a gun of his own. If this was true, then Pop was potentially on the hook for an attempted murder charge, same as Harrison. No gun of Pop’s has ever been found, but casings were recovered from three types of guns: a five-seven, a nine-milli-meter, and a .40-caliber. And two fired nine-millimeter casings were found in the cab of Pop’s truck.
The second theory is that Pop lied to the cops simply because he didn’t want them to get in the way. He was planning to resolve the dispute himself, in his own fashion.
the police kept Pop in custody overnight to give him time to cool off and rethink his story. The next day, Wednesday, they began gathering evidence. Acting on a tip, they plugged Harrison’s name and DOB into a state database of gun licenses. A long list of guns came up, including two Fabrique Nationale (FN) five-seven pistols. The cops already knew that some of the casings recovered at the scene came from this type of gun.
The five-seven has been described in newspapers and on ESPN as “custom-made” and “a collector’s weapon.” Wrong. A five-seven is a lightweight, low-recoil, high-capacity, semiautomatic tactical pistol made by a Belgian arms manufacturer. NATO uses it for peacekeeping missions, and the ersatz jihadist Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly used it to massacre thirteen at Fort Hood. So it’s not unique, but it’s hardly your average urban drug dealer’s piece; the Philly officer who recovered the casings, which have a distinctively long and skinny shape, had never seen anything like them before.
Later that day, about a dozen plainclothes and uniformed officers, including several guys from the state attorney general’s Gun Violence Task Force, drove en masse to Chuckie’s Garage in search of the five-seven. Harrison seemed to know they were coming. He was lounging in a cheap aluminum beach chair before a full-size cardboard cutout of himself. He looked serene. A detective asked him if he was carrying a gun. Yes, he said. He swung his right foot up onto a pool table—he had bruised his left knee the previous season and had trouble bending over—and the detective reached down and removed, from an ankle holster, a loaded .32-caliber handgun.
But the .32 was irrelevant. It had nothing to do with the crime. At this point, a lieutenant disappeared into the car wash’s office along with Harrison and Anthony Gilliard, Harrison’s stepfather. Fifteen minutes later, they emerged. Gilliard said, “Detective, I know what you’ve come for. It’s right over here.” Gilliard led the detectives to a filing cabinet. In front of the cabinet was a trash bucket. Behind the bucket, lying on the floor, was the five-seven. It, too, was fully loaded: nineteen bullets in the clip, one in the chamber.
This was suggestive, but not necessarily incriminating. Harrison still had a number of plausible alibis, even if the gun hammer were to exactly match the markings left on the recovered casings (and ballistics tests would eventually prove that five of six casings did match). For instance, Harrison could have been acting in self-defense—maybe Pop had barged into the car wash with his own gun blazing. Whatever the alibi, Harrison was under no obligation even to provide one; he wasn’t under arrest.
But then—and even the cops couldn’t figure out why—Harrison answered questions at the Central Detectives Division for about an hour, accompanied by his lawyer, Jerome Brown, and his stepfather. When it was over, he signed each page of a typed seven-page statement: a single M for “Marvin,” its points like the peak of a crown.
In the statement, excerpted here for the first time, Harrison admits that his fight with Pop took place “five to ten minutes before” the shooting. He says that immediately before he heard the gunshots, he was “sitting in the doorway of my garage.” The detectives ask him if Pop had a gun that day. Harrison says “no.” In his own words, then, Harrison establishes his motive, puts himself at the scene of the crime, and eliminates any possible self-defense defense.
The real doozy, though, is that Harrison admits to continuous and unbroken custody of the gun.
q. When was the last time you or anyone else fired your FN 5.7-caliber handgun?
a. Probably the day that I bought it.
q. What day was that?
a. In 2006 or 2007.
q. Where do you store this weapon?
a. In a safe at my home in Jenkintown, Pa.
q. Today, you had it at the car wash? Do you know how it got there?
a. I brought it today, twenty minutes before you came.
q. Are you saying that the 5.7-cal handgun that you own was in the safe at your home up until today, when you decided to bring it to your shop in the 2500 blk. of Thompson St.?
That “yes” is the sound of a trap snapping shut. Harrison says his gun hasn’t been fired since 2006 or 2007. That’s impossible. Fresh casings exist, so the gun had to have been fired. But by whom? Harrison says he doesn’t know. All he knows is that the gun couldn’t have been lent or stolen, because it was locked away the whole time in his suburban safe. Only it couldn’t have been in the safe, either, because it had to have made an appearance at the corner of 25th and Thompson.
Harrison’s story makes no sense.
on may 2, three days after the shooting, Robert Nixon contacted the police. It went against his instinct, but he felt he was out of options. He was scared.
According to Nixon, who spoke to me in November—his first interview with a reporter—he was scared because he had been contacted by intermediaries of Marvin Harrison. The intermediaries offered to pay for surgery to remove the bullet. And if Nixon stayed away from the police, he says, they might also compensate him. He was ready to make a deal: “I really wanted it to be over.” Then, according to Nixon, he was summoned to a meeting in West Philly—specifically, in the woods across from the Philadelphia Zoo—at 2 a.m. Nixon shut off his phone. The next thing he knew, news of the shooting was all over the papers, and his voice mail was filling with threats: “You think you slick. We gonna kill you.”
There was no way for Nixon to know if the threats were serious, he told me. That was the problem. Nixon was a low-level hustler. He was overweight and shuffling, with eyes hidden behind heavy glasses and a low, scratchy voice. Even his transgressions were small-time: weed, cough syrup, pills. He was a nobody, and he knew it. But now he had a Very Important Bullet in his back. The gap in wealth and stature between Marvin Harrison, a pillar of the community, and Robert Nixon created an inherently unstable situation. Harrison wouldn’t have to say a word for something bad to just&happen. “The streets pick it up,” says Malik Aziz, a North Philly activist who spent ten years in jail for dealing drugs. “Some a-hole, he’s puttin’ pressure down there? You’d be surprised how many people would take care of it, just on general principle.”
On May 3, then, Robert Nixon sat down with detectives and prosecutors at the office of the Philadelphia district attorney and gave a formal statement. He told them about the fight in front of the water-ice stand, Harrison and his guns, and the aborted meeting at the zoo. Afterward, he was placed in protective custody in a downtown hotel, and detectives started to kick the tires on his story.
There were a few discrepancies. For one thing, Nixon claimed that Harrison had two guns—same as Pop had eventually claimed, despite his initial stonewalling—but the neat, even spacing of the recovered shells along the street convinced the cops that the shooter had been gripping a single gun with two hands on the stock, keeping it steady. Then there was the tale of the zoo meeting. According to one source close to the investigation, it didn’t happen the way Nixon claimed. It wasn’t Harrison’s people who asked to meet Nixon at the zoo at 2 a.m. It wasNixon who asked them, in a ploy to suss out their intentions; thugs from North Philly never go to West Philly, and vice versa, so Nixon only suggested the meeting spot in West Philly because he thought they’d never agree. When they said yes, that’s when he knew he was in trouble and panicked. (Nixon denies this.)
The cops, however, saw these as minor flaws in a largely truthful tale. The crucial story beats were 100 percent verifiable. Through hospital records, detectives verified that Nixon sought treatment for the bullet wound on May 1. They talked to the cop who had originally patted Nixon down, and the cop remembered him, placing him at the scene. Overall, Nixon’s story proved “incredibly consistent,” according to one detective who interviewed him multiple times. It also matched up well with the statements from the other witnesses. “They all had different pieces of the same story,” the detective says. “And here’s a case where you don’t need to believe anybody.” You have a gun. You have casings. You have ballistic tests. You have Harrison’s own words. You have probable cause for an arrest warrant.
But the prosecutors saw the case differently. They had been burned before by witnesses who changed their stories between the interview and the trial. (Their last big case against a Philly athlete, a 2002 gun charge involving Allen Iverson, blew up when a key witness recanted his story.) During “balls-out fuckin’ arguments” with cops, the Philly prosecutors fixated on the criminal records of the witnesses and slight discrepancies in their statements. They thought it would be hard to win the case on the backs of such blatant pieces of shit.
Piece of shit is a versatile bit of law-enforcement slang. It can mean something as specific as “hustler with a record” or it can mean something rounder, like “person who won’t cooperate with us” or “person who lied to us” or “person who will not be trusted by a jury.” All of the witnesses, for various reasons, could be grouped under this same heading. Nixon was a piece of shit. Pop was a piece of shit. The father of the wounded boy was a piece of shit. McCray was a piece of shit, albeit an intelligent piece of shit, because he never signed a statement. And Harrison, although he had no record, was a piece of shit, too. The prosecutors and cops were in agreement on the piece-of-shit front; the only difference was that the cops believed that there were degrees, with Robert Nixon being what one of them called “the least piece of shit.”
The cops also thought it was wrong to drop the case just because a piece-of-shit famous person might be guilty of shooting a piece-of-shit unfamous person in a piece-of-shit part of the city. If prosecutors required every witness to have a pristine record, one detective says, “most of the cases in the city wouldn’t be solved.” None of the cops doubted for a second that if Harrison was a plumber or a UPS driver instead of a famous athlete, he’d have long since been arrested. “Everybody has their career-anticipation light on with this,” says veteran Philadelphia detective Michael Chitwood, now a police chief in Florida. ” ‘If I go forward with this and this guy’s found not guilty, I may not get promoted’… and I just think that’s wrong.”
In the end, though, it wasn’t the cops’ call. It was Lynne Abraham’s. After investigating the Harrison case for more than eight months, the veteran Philly D.A. called a press conference on January 6, 2009. A diminutive woman with frosty white hair, Abraham has built her career on making life miserable for “punks with guns.” Toughness is her brand. But at her press conference, at which no detectives were present, she spent much of her time impugning the credibility of the witnesses who had cooperated (Nixon, Dixon) and lamenting the ones who had not (the father of the 2-year-old boy, who never spoke to police; anyone else who may have seen the broad-daylight shooting). The case would not be going forward, Abraham said, due to “multiple, mutually exclusive, inherently untrustworthy, and sometimes false statements by the people present.” (Abraham declined to be interviewed for this story.)
As for Nixon, he was back on the street. The D.A. had apparently forgotten to pay his hotel bill after a month, so he wandered off.
“i’m gonna get Lynne Abraham if it kills me.” This is Pop’s mother, Pearl Bronson, a middle-aged woman wearing gray Nikes and her braided hair back in a bun. “I truly believe that because Lynne Abraham did not arrest that son of a bitch, my son is dead,” she tells me, eyes aflame. “Just like she pulled the trigger herself.”
On January 28, three weeks after Abraham’s press conference, one of her deputies prosecuted Pop for making a false report to the police. It was surreal, carnivalesque—like when Dick Cheney shot his friend in the face and the friend apologized for getting in the way of Cheney’s bullet. The judge imposed six months’ probation. Pop was already on probation for another case, and the conviction meant he had to go to jail; he was briefly handcuffed, then immediately released pending appeal.
Before that day, Pop seemed willing to let the system give him some measure of justice. He was suing Harrison in civil court for damages. Pearl overheard him one night talking on the phone; he mentioned Harrison’s name, then said, “I’m gonna let it go, let my lawyer take care of it.” But to be shot and prosecuted? Especially while Harrison walked the city a free man and the street was abuzz about how Pop had been punked? They were laughing at him. He told a friend, “He’s not gonna run me out of my neighborhood.”
Pop made it a point to eat breakfast every day at the Chopstick & Fork, a diner on 28th and Girard, half a block from Playmakers. Pop didn’t live anywhere near the Chopstick & Fork. Even to sit down over some eggs and pancakes was an act of defiance.
On July 21, 2009, according to surveillance video captured from a nearby convenience store, Pop emerged from the Chopstick & Fork and walked to his car. He looked over his shoulder, then got into his car and made a phone call. Three minutes later, a six-foot-tall man in a black hoodie and white sneakers ran up to the driver’s side and shot Pop multiple times through the window. Then the man sprinted around the hood to the passenger side and shot Pop again. The shooter fled.
Pop spent the next two months in Hahnemann Hospital, a tracheostomy tube jammed into his windpipe, able to communicate with his family only by blinking. He died on September 4, 2009.
According to multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation, the primary suspect in Pop’s murder was initially Lonnie Harrison, Marvin’s cousin. Acting on a tip, police searched Lonnie’s apartment, looking for a gun. The apartment was a tiny room above Deborah’s Kitchen, the soul-food restaurant on Girard run by Marvin’s mother and aunt. But Lonnie hadn’t been living there for a year. There was no gun or any other evidence to tie him to the murder, and no witnesses have ever come forward to identify Lonnie or anyone else as the shooter. On the convenience-store video, the shooter’s face was obscured by shadow, making a positive identification impossible.
The cops recovered a second surveillance tape, but it, too, was inconclusive. It came from Playmakers. This tape, according to police, showed a man crossing in front of the bar on 28th Street just below Girard. Detectives felt certain that it was the same man they had seen on the convenience-store tape: the shooter, walking toward the scene of the crime. But just as the man got close enough to the camera to bring his face into focus, the tape went blank—and skipped the next three minutes. “There are no coincidences,” says one police source. “For the previous hour, that camera picked up every movement, and then it happens to go blank just at that moment?”
in indianapolis, when Marvin was still playing football, he ate most of his meals at a small cluster of fast-food joints off the highway. There was a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, a sub shop, and a Chinese buffet. “This is me, right here,” he once told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber, who was riding shotgun in his car. “If Wendy’s has a long line, I go right across the street to Mickey D’s.” He smiled, rubbed his hands. “That’s how it works.”
The Kolber clip is on YouTube, and it’s an amazing thing, because you get to see Marvin in a rare affectionate mood. He’s talking about the perfect order of his world, from his mealtime routine to the way he keeps his favorite snack foods secreted around his condo. “Pillsbury Doughboy,” he sighs, hefting a tube of cookie dough in the freezer. “Me and him get along just fine.” Everything is in its right place. He seems so happy.
How, then, did such a careful man end up making such a mess? What happened to him back home in Philly?
It’s a sunny afternoon in November, and I’ve gone to see a man I hope can give me some answers. I’m sitting in a white room in a prison I’m not allowed to name. I’m not allowed to name the prison because the man I’ve come to interview says he fears his fellow inmates might assault him if they knew he was the guy who snitched on Marvin Harrison.
Robert Nixon’s jeans are scuffed. His hands are folded in his lap. His glasses give him a sort of professorial, beatnik vibe—a pudgier version of Cornel West. He calls me “sir.” In fact, Nixon is deferential to the point of meekness until the moment I ask him about Pop’s murder. Does he think it was meant to send a message to any other potential witnesses? “Are you kidding?” Nixon says, startled. “Do you think it was a message?” Nixon shoots a look to his attorney, Wadud Ahmad, a powerfully built black man who is sitting in on our interview, and the two of them explode into howls of laughter, as if I just asked the dumbest question in the history of white people.
Nixon is here on a misdemeanor drug conviction. Perversely, he says he’s glad for. “That’s probably the best thing that happened to me. That’s how fucked-up my life is with this. [Jail is] the safest place for me.” Nixon says he would move himself and his family to another city if he could afford it, but he can’t. He’s now suing Harrison in civil court, claiming damages from the shooting. Nixon’s civil suit is only one of several dangling threads in Marvin Harrison’s life. There’s also the civil suit filed by Pop, which is still alive even though Pop is not. If the lawyers in the two civil suits get a chance to depose Marvin Harrison, Harrison’s words could, in theory, be used against him by prosecutors down the line. In January, Lynne Abraham stepped down after almost twenty years, making way for the incoming D.A., Seth Williams, a young, passionate reformer with a grassroots political base. (Williams, who is black, has not commented on the Harrison case.) Harrison could avoid the depositions by settling the cases. As of press time, though, he hadn’t done that. Nor had he announced his definitive retirement from football, though no team has demonstrated much interest in his services, given his declining stats and aging knees.
Say this for Marvin Harrison: He tried to be his own person. He succeeded on a level that most of us can only dream of reaching. But he either never realized or flat-out denied the destabilizing effect of his presence in a poor and desperate part of the city. Much as he insisted that he was a normal working person like any other, he was never going to be seen that way. He was always going to be a target for the hopes, resentments, and ambitions of other people, a reality that rippled and swirled around him in unpredictable ways. And the proof is still there, scattered across the city, for anyone who cares enough to look.
“Can I see it?” I ask Robert Nixon.
There in the prison, Nixon pulls up his shirt. I spot it immediately. A dark bruise, oval-shaped. Remarkably clean-edged. Dark-bordered and slightly lighter in the center. Six inches from his jugular. I press my index finger into the bruise’s soft center. I can feel the bullet. So close. So lightly embedded. As if I could pop it out with the slightest scrape of my fingernail. Not a hustler’s tale, not a prayer uttered and revoked, but a truth awaiting a seeker.
jason fagone profiled quarterback Tim Tebow in the September issue.