A Brewery’s Anti-Violence Mission, Complicated by a Killing

Around this time, according to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Bobby, whose given name is Kejuan Smith, was “communicating with subordinate gang members on a daily basis” about drugs, guns, and extortion. That August, law-enforcement officers raided a home where, they believed, Smith and other Bloods were planning a hit on a rival; they seized thirteen guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and a bulletproof vest. (“Whenever I would go to a house where he was,” Taylor told me, referring to Smith, “there were always guns all over the table.”) Smith was later sentenced to nearly thirty years in prison.

This was, perhaps, a sign that Taylor’s approach was just as crazy as Boyle had suggested. But Taylor had better luck with other recruits, including Cory Wrisborne, a “fully leaded gang member,” in Ben David’s words, who, in high school, got good SAT scores despite also getting into serious legal trouble. He attended graduation wearing an ankle monitor, David recalled.

Taylor wanted his recruits to get not just job training but lessons in relationships, housing, and finance—“You’d be surprised how many people have never heard the word ‘budget,’ ” he told me—and he got help from a woman named Khalilah Olokunola, whom he hired in September, 2017. Olokunola grew up in New York and did time for drug charges before moving to Wilmington, where she created an event-planning business and later coached other female entrepreneurs. She became TRU’s chief people officer.

One of Taylor’s next hires was a Blood named Victor Dorm, who had recently been released from prison. “He said he wanted active gang members,” Dorm told me. “Kinda spooky.” But Dorm was impressed that Taylor “wanted to be friends, not just business partners,” and he began working as a trainee in the Untappd office while Taylor planned next steps. One afternoon that October, police and federal agents surrounded the office. “They come in, guns out, and they’re, like, ‘Where’s Victor?’ ” Taylor recalled. Armed agents approached the sales team. “I was proud of them,” Taylor said. “They didn’t stop selling. They just pointed upstairs.” Dorm was arrested on federal drug charges. He is currently serving a twenty-year sentence.

A little more than a century ago, Wilmington, a port city on the Cape Fear River, was home to a flourishing Black middle class. In 1898, one observer called it “the freest town for a Negro in the country.” After the election that year, white supremacists, in what is known as the Wilmington coup, killed more than sixty Black people in the streets; two thousand others subsequently fled the city. Many of those who stayed attended a school called Williston, which was among the first accredited Black high schools in North Carolina. But the state closed Williston in the nineteen-sixties, following desegregation orders. Protests erupted; eight Black students and two organizers, the so-called Wilmington Ten, were convicted of arson and conspiracy after a white-owned business was firebombed. (Decades later, all ten were pardoned.) “When we lost Williston, we lost everything,” Lewis Hines, Jr., who graduated in the school’s final class, told me. “Then, eventually, came the gangs.”

In most American cities, poverty and violent crime go hand in hand; in Wilmington, the rates of both are significantly higher than national figures. In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, many boys and young men join gangs, and a number of these gangs are involved in the drug trade. But the gangs are looser, more fractured outfits than many outsiders realize, encompassing subsets and including members who flip from one set to another. According to people who study Black street gangs, only a fraction of members are typically involved in criminal activity. Often, shootings that are characterized as gang-related are, at bottom, personal disputes. As a longtime Wilmington police officer put it to me, “The majority of our stuff is over females.”

Koredreese Tyson, known as Korry, was born in 1992 in New York City. His mother, Carol, who grew up in Wilmington, moved the family back to her home town when Korry was two, and they eventually settled in Creekwood, an east-side neighborhood divided from the wealthier downtown by railroad tracks and an open lot. These days, the sidewalks in Creekwood are periodically dotted with memorials to the young dead. “There go one right there,” a lifelong Wilmington resident said on a recent visit, pointing to flowers in front of a small brick home with bikes in the yard. “There go another one,” he added. “We out east.”

Most of Wilmington’s gangs claim an affiliation with the United Blood Nation, an East Coast offshoot of the Bloods, but in Creekwood the rival Gangster Disciples predominate. Tyson joined the G.D. when he was around fourteen. Shortly afterward, he was arrested with three fellow-members after one of them shot and killed a twenty-two-year-old who had been dealing drugs on the city’s north side. “They went into a house over here through the back door,” Kevin Tully, a Wilmington police lieutenant who worked the case, told me during a visit to the street where it happened. The victim fled, and was shot in the back. Tyson, Tully said, wasn’t the triggerman; he pleaded guilty to robbery and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to just under six years. He got out in four, but soon went back, for violating probation. He was released about a year later, then went to federal prison for possession of a firearm by a felon. “He was like a cop magnet—wherever he went, bullets were flying,” Tully said. Tyson’s family and friends felt that the police had begun targeting him.

Koredreese (Korry) Tyson with his mother, Carol, in June, 2021.Photograph courtesy Carrie Hernandez

Tyson had taken the street name Thug. He had long dreadlocks, dyed blond at the tips, which he often wore pulled up on top of his head. “He was a ladies’ man,” Carol told me. “Always grinning and joking.” Several people described his charisma and playfulness. Some mentioned a catchphrase of his: “Ain’t no secret,” he would say. While he was in prison, he earned a G.E.D. and began reading more, Carol said. He also became a “big homie” within the Gangster Disciples, according to multiple people. (By the time he was killed, the district attorney’s office believed that he was the top-ranking member in North Carolina.)

In December, 2017, not long after Tyson was released from federal prison, Ben David filed a permanent gang injunction against more than twenty Gangster Disciples. The controversial, preëmptive strategy is comparable to a restraining order. “You guys can still have Thanksgiving together, you can still work together,” David said, explaining its enforcement. “But, if you’re basically terrorizing a neighborhood like Creekwood, I’m going to put you in jail for that—just that, just hanging out on the street corner.” The state chapter of the A.C.L.U. decried the injunction as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, its exception for work left an opening for Taylor: he hired several of those named, including Tyson, who started at TRU before the year was out.

Shortly after he was hired, TRU held a “Black and White Party”—an educational, interracial mixer, featuring short, speed-dating-style conversations. Tyson and two other TRU employees gave an interview about it to a local TV station, fielding awkward questions about gang life from a bemused white interviewer. (A former TRU employee told me that doing press was required. “You go talk to the media, then you get paid,” he said. Taylor denied this.) “We call ourselves Growth and Development,” Tyson told the interviewer, referring to the G.D. “We represent educational, economical, political, social development, and unity.” He added, “The reason that we do commit crimes, most of the time, is because we don’t have the opportunities that others have.” He welcomed the chance, he said, “to make money by helping this brewery out.”

The TRU Colors brewery is a fifty-five-thousand-square-foot former textile mill that sits among housing projects on the city’s south side. The building, which Taylor bought in October, 2019, for around a million dollars, required extensive renovations, and now boasts a café, a recording studio, and a taproom. Previously, TRU Colors operated out of a century-old two-story house that Taylor owned on Red Cross Street, a few blocks northeast of downtown. The house didn’t offer a lot of space, but there doesn’t seem to have been much to do at that point, at least when it came to beer. Two former employees told me that, for a long time, the company was essentially home-brewing, trying to get the recipe right. (I asked Taylor recently how much he knows about brewing. “I just know enough to be dangerous,” he said.)

In the meantime, Taylor focussed on job training and branding projects, including a line of apparel. “It was an experiment,” he told me, looking back. He said that he wrote a manual on “how to be a kick-ass drug dealer,” trying to convey basic business-school concepts, such as the lifetime value of a customer. He also created an apprenticeship program: recruits who completed TRU’s instructional course—now called Disrupt-U—got paid by TRU to work for local construction companies, with the aim of eventually giving them full-time jobs at TRU Colors. In the spring of 2018, Taylor flew five hires to Silicon Valley to hear the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, at the invitation of a self-described leadership expert and Robbins “facilitator” named Gina Kloes, whom Taylor had met in entrepreneurial circles. Before the event, Kloes had the group break wooden boards with their bare hands. Later, Taylor said that Robbins was helping him “create what I would consider a ‘Tony Robbins for the hood.’ ”

As part of Disrupt-U, the recruits did ropes courses and went skydiving. A former program manager for TRU said that it was powerful to see tough young men “admit they were afraid,” but found the tone of the instruction awkwardly paternalistic. Nagging employees about car payments and bedtimes was “not what I signed up for,” the program manager said, adding, “I cannot make this man save money because George thinks it’s tacky for his employees to live with their mom and have new Jordans every month.”

“Good news, folks. We’re about to turn left.”

Cartoon by Julia Suits

Tyson’s first formal title at TRU Colors was director of affiliations—as in gang affiliations—a role that seems to have been loosely defined. Khalilah Olokunola told me that it entailed having “ongoing conversations” and putting on “unique events.” Arrion Williams, Bri-yanna’s sister, who knew Tyson for years, said, “I remember when TRU was downtown, me and my friends would go to the Dixie Grill and Korry would be in there, and he’d pay for all our food. It’s like they get paid to do nothing.” Taylor later scrapped this role, and put together a “street team,” whose task, he said, was to “help defuse violence at the point where it’s about to happen.” These employees were meant to intervene when things got hot among the gangs. Taylor asked his son to oversee the team. Tyson became one of its leaders.

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