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07.10.09

How a Rich Suburban Girl Became a Drug Kingpin

Ever since the murder of Rian Thal two weeks ago in Philadelphia, everyone wants to know how this girl from a wealthy suburb ended up a high-stakes drug trafficker in the city’s hip-hop scene—but it’s not as unusual as you might think.

In the early evening light of Saturday, June 27, four men barely disguised by low-drawn baseball caps casually strolled into a Philadelphia luxury apartment complex, took the elevator to the seventh floor, and shot up-and-coming club promoter, 34-year-old Rian Thal, in the head. Multiple surveillance cameras captured the seeming ease with which the killers performed. On their way out, one shooter nearly walked into a man carrying a piece of furniture, smoothly side-stepped around him, and slid anonymously out the door.

A sign reading “Under Constant Video Surveillance” is prominently displayed at the entrance to the apartment complex where this took place, and on June 27, those cameras paid off: Last week, 25-year-old Katoya Jones, seen in the video letting the killers into the building, was charged with murder and conspiracy. According to police, Jones, who also lived at the Piazza, is the girlfriend of North Philly drug dealer James "Poo" Wilson, 36, who masterminded the plot.  Wilson is still at large.

Click Image Below to Watch the Surveillance Video of Rian Thal's Alleged Killers

Katoya Jones, now charged with murder, appears to let a man in a white shirt into Rian Thal's building. He, in turn, lets two more men in. The three men then go up to the seventh floor, where they allegedly kill Thal in the stairwell to the left of the elevators.

The Piazza wasn’t meant for cold-blooded drug crimes. An 80,000-square-foot plaza ringed by clothing boutiques, art galleries and trendy restaurants, real-estate heavy-hitter Bart Blatstein dropped $500 million to make it not just an apartment complex, but an ongoing cultural event.

Nor was Thal the type of woman most people think of when they imagine a drug kingpin. A petite, blond, perpetually smiling product of an upscale Philadelphia suburb, her neighbors mainly remembered her as a cat lover whose drug of choice was nothing stronger than chocolate candy. Thal’s Twitter feed featured posts like, "Oh my god I am having a foodgasm, chocolate chip bread pudding!!!!!"

Yet when police arrived at her building, they found four kilos of cocaine in Thal’s penthouse apartment, along with $100,000 in cash. Newspaper reporters scrambled to her MySpace page, and found glamorous pictures of Thal out on the town with the city’s hip-hop and sports stars. She was big enough that the nightclub she promoted, Plush, had advertised a joint birthday party on July 18 for Thal and James "Kamal" Gray, a member of famed Philly hip-hop group The Roots.

Thal’s moneyed high gloss, it turned out, stemmed from her underworld involvement, which went back at least a decade. She was an improbable real-deal, big-time trafficker who had once been convicted of smuggling meth into the U.S., and, in a separate incident, was kidnapped and then released by another drug dealer, possibly as part of a disputed deal.

And now around Philadelphia, even as the details of the case are still unfolding, the question is on everyone’s lips: How did this white girl (in the hip-hop clubs, she was actually known as “white girl”) from the wealthy suburbs get to this level of the drug game in the first place? Having previously been in a similar position myself, let me try to shed some light on how someone like Thal could end up a big shot in that world.

It’s not as surprising as you’d think that someone like Thal, a reported casual coke user, would find herself being asked if she wanted to start participating in deals. I once knew a coke dealer—not a barroom nickel and dimer, but the kind of dude who could get you kilo if you needed it—and there were moments of opportunity when I, too, was asked if I wanted to get in on the game. Did I want to front five grand and go in on a niner? The question came up more than once.

So when I read about Rian Thal’s murder, I wondered how long ago it was that someone put a similar question to her. Did she want to get in on a brick? Would she mind if someone stashed a couple at her crib, along with some cash?

My friend didn’t typically deal in weight as big as Thal did—his usual deals were in the “4½ to 9” range, the two standard ounce measures that midlevel Philly coke dealers trade in. In the apartment above his corner store was the coke, usually right out on a desk next to a digital postal scale, a softball-size chunk we spent endless nights and days chipping pieces off to grind into powder and snort.

This friend ran with a crowd similar to the one Thal mingled with, and in this crowd he did business with a major coke dealer whose street name was “Real Roller.” Real Roller used his drug money to start a business promoting up-and-coming entertainers he knew from the streets in Philly (one of whom went on to tremendous success) until he died of a pancake-and-syrup overdose, which is the drug combination of codeine cough syrup and Xanax, not the breakfast food.

His funeral was an invite-only event for the regional street elite and entertainment-industry figures. My coke dealer friend was invited; he showed me the glossy flier invitation. Celebrities at the funeral (Allen Iverson, Beanie Sigel, Jay Z) purportedly knew Real Roller from his entertainment business. Or did they? It’s hard to say, and by my friend’s report there were a lot more drug dealers than entertainers or athletes at the service.

Point is, the two social ladders—the drug world’s and the entertainment world’s—are inevitably intertwined, and my friend, just another privileged white guy from the suburbs who started out a small-time user, had ascended them. Every now and then, he and I went out for hip-hop nights in Market Street clubs that were part of the same scene Thal worked in. When we walked in the door, heads turned, the shout outs came in waves, big men got up from their seats to throw enthusiastic hand slaps and shoulder bumps at my friend. He had become not only well known, but well respected in this crowd that ran thick with established drug suppliers.

Such, it seems, was Rian Thal. She was an influential figure, a girl who, through circumstances not as unlikely as you might think, became an apparent middleman for the Real Rollers of the drug world. Even though I was further removed from the top of the chain than Thal was, I got the same offer she must have: Did I want in? It’s easy to see how someone who liked moving with power players and climbing social ladders, who craved glamour and excitement, could easily say yes.

But it’s not all glamour and special access, as I learned one morning when I went to my friend’s store to get high. His car, a lightly used Lincoln, was riddled with bullet holes. He feigned nonchalance; just a couple neighborhood kids messing around, he said, nothing to worry about.

It suddenly dawned on me, something self-evident to anyone less drug-addled than I was: The world of high-stakes drug deals is no glamorous fantasy game. Any of those long nights I spent in that room above my friend’s store, the door could have been kicked in and both of us shot in the head for that coke sitting on the table and the money knot in his pocket.

I said no to my dealer’s offer to get in on the game because I understood that there is a certain amount of ruthlessness necessary to rise through the ranks of the drug world. If I had gotten in, I would have been an easy target, someone who obviously wasn’t cut out for the job, and who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

It’s easy to imagine Rian Thal’s killers felt the same way about her the day they slipped into the Piazza and turned out the lights on her.

Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer and social worker from Philadelphia. He blogs about his experiences on the frontlines of urban poverty at Phawker.com.