Early's Release

A Son's Story Speaks To A Saintly Councilwoman's Aching Heart … And Vast Reach

Much has been alleged about Cleveland Councilwoman Fannie B. Lewis' final wishes. The Bible-thumping vibe at her cozy yellow bungalow on Star Avenue had shifted to one of respectful visits at her bedside from a coterie of loved ones. Everybody huddled close for some heat from that dying torch. But whom she endorsed to carry on her work is a trifle of local history compared to what was really weighing on her mind.

She couldn't rely on prayer or patience any longer. She was determined to flex the political muscle she'd built up in a final bid to free her firstborn from the prison in which he'd grown old serving time for a murder conviction.

Some of those closest to Lewis say it was one of her greatest regrets, what happened to Early Dupree. The $150 she sent her son every month to pad his prison account, the bus trips she organized for families of convicts - it couldn't satisfy her need to connect with her oldest son.

"This haunted her a little - it can't help but be the case," says former Glenville Councilman Bill Patmon, whom Fannie counted among her best friends. "She loved her family as dearly as I've seen any mother or grandmother."

Early had always been unfinished business. By the time Fannie got to him, he was already letting the streets of Cleveland be his guide. No one could tell him what to do. She just knew he was a different man now.

In February 2008, before her sickness confined her to bed, Fannie enlisted a close friend (who asked to remain anonymous because of her position with the city) to help. "She asked me, 'Will you help me get my son out?' She said, 'You're my last shot,' like she knew." One of her favorite sayings was "When you're fighting, you don't look to see what you pick up to hit a fellow with. You just pick it up and hit him." She was still fighting.

As Fannie grew progressively more bedridden with arthritis, her friend went about enlisting Fannie's family to show the parole board that a support network was ready. She also quietly asked influential friends to write letters or sign on to somebody else's in support of Dupree's release. It likely would have stayed quiet if not for an exhaustive diatribe against sentencing disparities sent to Scene from an imprisoned serial rapist. In a section on cronyism, he named some of the folks Fannie had allegedly aligned in her son's favor: late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. State senator turned gubernatorial advisor C.J. Prentiss. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.

In all, six letters arrived in support of Dupree's early release, and four in opposition. Letters regarding parole hearings are not public record. Fannie's ally won't confirm the names of those who gave their support, except Tubbs Jones. Prentiss maintains she wasn't involved. Jackson's spokeswoman offers no comment. Council President Martin Sweeney openly admits to offering his wholehearted assistance. "It's a mother and her son," says Sweeney, summing up why it wasn't a hard decision.

Fannie found out in June that her efforts had won her son a recommendation for parole. Patmon was among the first people she told: "One of the most joyful moments during her illness was when she got word that Early might be free. She glowed. She seemingly came back from her illness. She said, 'Thank God my boy is coming home.' I remember how she clapped her hands like she was at a church pew and smiled and talked in terms of 'I'm going to get out of this bed' and 'I'm going to be better.'"

The reunion was not to be. Fannie Lewis died on August 11, 2008, at age 82. Dupree faced the parole board in October and was released on December 4 after serving 23 years of a 30-to-life sentence. Ten people went before the board that day; he was the only one going home. The big sign is still there by the front door, visible from the Superior Avenue Save-A-Lot across the street. "COUNCILWOMAN FANNIE B. LEWIS. WARD 7." Early Dupree answers the bell with a face full of shaving cream, smiling apprehensively beneath basset-hound eyes. A few equally droopy cornrows sag to his shoulders. He's thin and shows every one of his 63 years, but a fat white mustache caps an easy, youthful smile.

It was a lucky guess that Lewis had willed the house to her oldest of five (though $30,000 is still owed on the mortgage). He leads me through the small foyer and living room coated with "just some" of his mother's accolades, past a giant photo of her holding her heart and flashing that big squinty-eyed smile, into a dining room equally crammed with plaques and pictures of bipartisan handshakes. He sits down and explains how he's torn between keeping it all in and letting it all out. He rattles off the names of some fellow convicts who were still waiting in vain for parole. The serial rapist was one of them.

A call comes from Fannie's advocate, who corralled the push to get him out. It's one of several calls he gets each day from his mother's old friends or family in Detroit who put together a wardrobe and set up a small trust. She encourages him to tell his story. He agrees to think it over, misses an appointment to meet the next day, then finally agrees over the phone to a meeting along with the advocate. He's shaven now, sporting a crisp FUBU jersey, and agrees that starting at the beginning would be easiest.

Memphis, July 15, 1945: Early Dupree is born to Fannie and an estranged father, who'd go on to name two more boys "Early" with two other women. The family makes a decision that Early and older sister Mildred will be raised by Fannie's mother, while Fannie and her new husband Carlee migrate north, to escape the blatant segregation of Jim Crow and have three kids of their own.

Dupree remembers how he and Mildred would sneak down to the river to watch the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses. Still, at 16, he didn't want to come to live in Cleveland when his mother extended an invitation; he didn't get along with Carlee. But Mildred, who had gone north a year before, sang the praises of the bustling city, and his grandmother urged him to leave the South behind. "I sometimes think about how life would have gone if I'd stayed," he says.

Not long after reaching Lake Erie, nearing his 17th birthday, Dupree ran off, just like Mildred had right after he got there. He lived in cars and abandoned houses, and sank into the street culture. His mother "did all she could to come and find me, whatever I was doing, and entice me back to the house," he recalls, "but I didn't want to go."

At 19, he had his first foray into the system, when the mother of his 16-year-old girlfriend complained to police about their relationship. He spent six months in the workhouse for statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. When he got out, he started stocking shelves at a grocery and rented an apartment, and the two moved in together. A few years later, in the summer of 1966, the Hough riots occurred. Fannie Lewis sprung to action as a social-service activist, urging calm, keeping an open line of communication with the National Guardsmen. Dupree's girlfriend was busted for looting. Fannie bailed her out.

The national climate, the condition of her neighborhood, the troubles of her children in this unpredictable city - it all weighed on Fannie. In 1971, she started running for Cleveland City Council, while working her way up as a neighborhood activist. Dupree was charged that year in two armed robberies, convicted of one. The next year, his mother and Carlee parted ways.

In 1979, when Fannie was gearing up to begin her nearly three-decade service on council, Dupree made more visits to the courthouse, this time for stealing credit cards (he claims the cards were provided by his prostitute-girlfriend's father) while he was out on bail for an armed robbery that netted him $42, as well as separate charges in a theft of thousands in office equipment.

"At this point, I regret doing all that," he says. "My shortcomings in life had nothing to do with my mother. If I would have followed in her footsteps, I would have been next to the Pope by now."

In 1985, Fannie was making a name for herself on council with brash words and kept promises. Dupree, now middle-aged and a little wiser, was released from prison. Lewis helped him get a maintenance job. He repaid her by never telling anyone who didn't know better that he was her son. And when she asked him to make morning visits to his sister Cynthia's house at East 85th and Superior to help her get his nephews off to preschool each day, he eagerly agreed.

The work day was almost done on May 9 - the same day Council President George Forbes was set to host a banquet called "The New Day in Hough" - when Dupree got a call from his older sister Mildred, telling him to get to Cynthia's house fast. When he got there, Cynthia, then a 24-year-old single mother, was alone, crying, with a black eye. She explained how she and her best friend had been frightened when her friend's estranged common-law husband showed up at the house with three others and booted down the door. The friend ran off and called Mildred, while Cynthia allegedly took the brunt of the group's anger.

After Dupree had arrived, they came back. With Cynthia upstairs, Dupree tried to play it off, but more fighting ensued. Dupree claims that one of the assailants flashed a gun. And then it was quiet; the men drove off again.

Dupree was furious. A few hours later, he, Cynthia, another man and Dupree's 18-year-old son, Ronald B. Smith, were parked outside a house on Birchdale Avenue, knowing the perpetrators were inside. According to court records, the fight sparked anew in a nearby parking lot, and numerous witnesses testified that Dupree drew his gun, stated, "It's little, but it gets the job done" and shot one of the men in the head.

"I had just come out of prison," recalls Dupree. "And being on the street, staying out on the street, I wasn't afraid of anything. So when I encountered them in that parking lot, it didn't bother me. Nobody wants to take anybody's life though. What I wanted was for them to leave my sister alone."

According to news coverage, police arrested Dupree's son and his sister Cynthia for the crime, hoping Early would come forward. He went to his mother's house and told her what he'd done. "She said, 'Oh no. If I can't be safe in my own house, where can I be safe?'" he recalls. He turned himself in, and Cynthia and his son were released.

Dupree says it wasn't his gun but won't offer any details: "I did the crime, I served the time." In a statement to police, he explained "that he was just angry at the other guy, and I pulled a pistol and shot the first guy."

Fannie Lewis was assigned two police bodyguards after a series of death threats.

The week of his trial, Fannie managed to keep her game face on. She was featured in a Plain Dealer story about finally supporting Democratic Governor Dick Celeste after having first supported Republican James Rhodes; Celeste had blown off her invitation for a tour of Hough. Then, just days later at Early's sentencing, Fannie was clearly back in mother mode, noting how Early had gone to help his sister.

"I'm just numb right now," she told the PD, but "life must go on. Fate deals us some hands that are pretty hard to abide by."

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. But, combined with separate charges he faced at the time for forgery and robbery, Dupree ended up with 30 years to life.

As Dupree counted away the days in prison, Lewis went about the day-to-day struggle of making Hough a better place. "Fannie's mansions" and other new developments gradually transformed whole sections of Ward 7. The "Fannie Lewis Law" brought affirmative action to the city's bidding process. But until the end, just as important to Fannie was the most minute detail of every constituent's complaint.

"Fannie was phenomenal and unique in that she believed truly in working for people," says State Senator Shirley Smith, a longtime friend. "That was her motivation, to make sure the quality of life got better and each person was treated equal in the system."

Adds Patmon, "The reason I loved and cherished her - and still do her memory - is that she was one who might not get it right 100 percent of the time, but her intention was wonderful, was right, every time. That was part of her life's work. She was always considerate of those least able to help themselves."

Another close family friend says she lived according to the concept of "agape" - Jesus' unconditional love for sinners and saints alike. Dupree says she needed that approach to deal with what the world threw at her. Dupree says he knew his mother had tried through the years to get him free, but he didn't have much hope. Few were ever released. He was awestruck when he learned that he would be.

"I really think my mother would be really proud of me now, that she would have known how I'd changed," he says. "She left me this" - circling his eyes around his mother's longtime office/home - "and if I do something negative, everybody's going to know that Councilwoman Fannie Lewis' son committed some crime again and is going back. I realize it now: I'm an ex-con, and I'm Fannie Lewis' son. I'm not part of the recidivism rate any more. I'm not going back. That's out."

Though some may see his parole recommendation as a result of cronyism, others wholeheartedly deny it.

"If that had been the case, that Fannie was the reason he got paroled - well, she was Fannie Lewis all the years he did time too," says longtime friend James Draper, who served as Cleveland's safety director under Mayor Jane Campbell and represented Dupree in his murder trial.

But even Dupree admits it couldn't have hurt: "It probably did help a little, having my mom being who she was. But if it really mattered, I'd have been out a long time ago." He motions to photos on the dining room wall, his mother shaking hands with Presidents Bush and Clinton. "You think with all these presidents and all the people she knew that I would have been in for as long as I was if she really had any pull at all?"

"She just wanted to see her son before she died," he finishes. "She didn't get to, but that's what her final wish was."

On the day he was released late last year, the house on Star Avenue was crammed with family and friends, eating fish and chicken and catching up. Dupree imagines his mother looking down on such gatherings, or even when he's alone in the old house.

"I just picture her looking down and being happy that I'm finally home," he says.

So many things are foreign to him now about the old neighborhood and the world. The Internet is still a mystical realm. He answers the cordless phone with the eagerness of a teen. He wonders where he will work, how to keep the utilities turned on, whether he can keep the house out of foreclosure. He wants to fix up the neighborhood where he can - like his mother. He'll start here at home.

If you walk around Hough and talk to enough people about Fannie Lewis, you come away with a feeling that people truly believed in her daily fight to make the neighborhood better than it was yesterday. She reigned over an imperfect family, says Dupree, but whose family is perfect?

"My mother, there was never any doubt that she loved all her children," he says. "That's the way she was. She stood for everything that's right. That's how everyone felt about her. And that's how she could do all of what she did around here. We - and I mean everybody - we believed in her. I would love to have sat down and just talked with her before she was gone. That's what everybody else got to do."

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