August 9, 2007
By IAN URBINA
BALTIMORE, Aug. 2 — Donnie Andrews was a stickup man with a .44 Magnum who robbed drug dealers and was sentenced to life in prison for murdering one of them.
Fran Boyd was a heroin addict who shoplifted to get from fix to fix, passing her stupors in the shooting gallery and stash house that once was her middle-class home.
Their separate stories of decline into drugs and violence are nationally known: Mr. Andrews was the inspiration for the character Omar Little, a ruthless thug who stalks dealers on the HBO series “The Wire.” Ms. Boyd was the protagonist of “The Corner,” an HBO miniseries that chronicled her fall into addiction.
But the story of their shared redemption is less widely known. On Aug. 11, they are getting married after a lengthy courtship that was as much about turning their lives around as it was about finding each other. Over a decade in the making, their union is a source of inspiration for the grittier parts of West Baltimore, where few people who end up on the corner using and selling drugs manage to break free, and even fewer return to make a difference.
“Donnie and Fran are a street version of Cinderella and Prince Charming, but when they fell in love they didn’t have any magical dust in their eyes,” said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. Church here, who will perform the ceremony. “They also show us something about salvation, since now they’re using their skills from the corner to pull other people through.”
When Mr. Andrews and Ms. Boyd met more than 10 years ago, each was a prisoner — although only one was behind bars — and each began helping the other get free. Ms. Boyd, 50, has been clean for more than 10 years, in large measure, she says, because Mr. Andrews, 53, saw her through the worst times, using all he earned in the prison factory to make daily calls to her. When another man was living with her, when she was too high to make sense, when she screamed at him to stop calling, he called anyway, all the while gently nudging her to get her life back.
“Yeah, she put on a routine, being all tough,” said Mr. Andrews, his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame enveloping the 5-foot-4 Ms. Boyd in a bear hug. “But who was home every single day waiting by that phone at 4 p.m.?”
The first time they saw photos of each other was two years into their relationship. “By that time, it was too late for us,” said Ms. Boyd, who was introduced to Mr. Andrews over the phone by the police officer who arrested him.
Ms. Boyd spends her days now walking her old haunts, persuading addicts to go into rehab and working with a local hospital’s H.I.V. prevention program, when she is not home raising the three nephews and nieces she rescued from their troubled home.
“I don’t have many heroes left,” said David Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun who co-wrote “The Corner” and created “The Wire.” “Woody Guthrie and Fran, I guess — and I’m not so sure about Woody.”
Mr. Andrews has come a long way, too. Though he still runs with gang members, these days it is as an antigang outreach worker for the Bethel A.M.E. Church. He served 17 years in prison and was released in 2005 after Ms. Boyd and many of the people responsible for putting him behind bars convinced a judge that he had been rehabilitated.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Mr. Andrews was known for his drug dealing and daring robberies. But in September 1986 he did something he had not done before. To pay for his worsening heroin habit, he took a job from one drug dealer to kill another, and things did not go as planned.
“My gun jammed,” Mr. Andrews said. “So the guy was lying on the ground, and it gave him a chance to look me in the eye, and he said, ‘Why?’ ”
Nonetheless, he went through with the killing. But he said he could not get the man’s image, the sound of his voice and that question out of his mind. The guilt and shame were too much, he said, and months later he went to the police, turning himself in to Edward Burns, a Baltimore homicide detective who later became Mr. Simon’s writing partner.
In 1987, Mr. Andrews was sentenced to life in prison.
When Mr. Simon met Ms. Boyd in 1992 while working on a book, she was a 90-pound skeleton with bags under her eyes.
“When you’re in the drug scene, all your worst nevers come true,” Ms. Boyd said, describing things she had never thought she would do: stealing from her family, swapping sex for drugs and watching her son De’Andre McCullough start using and dealing at age 15. As Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon were finishing research for their book, also titled “The Corner,” Mr. Burns one day got to bantering with Ms. Boyd: “You think you know it all?” Ms. Boyd recounted him saying. “Well, I got someone for you.”
Mr. Andrews, who was already counseling drug addicts in prison, began calling Ms. Boyd.
“She’s smart, and I knew she could get herself straight,” Mr. Andrews said, “so I kept pushing and then I got hooked on her.”
At the same time, Mr. Andrews began leveraging his ties to the street to help Ms. Boyd’s son escape the world of drug dealing. After a morning of selling drugs on the corner, Mr. McCullough said, he would sometimes return home to find the phone ringing.
“Donnie would be like: ‘I heard you pushing blue tops today and homeboy grabbed your stash a couple hours ago,’ ” he said, alluding to the blue-topped plastic vials that crack used to be sold in. “He knew everything that was going on.”
Mr. McCullough now does odd jobs, working in security and producing aspiring rap artists.
Mr. Andrews was also using his street knowledge inside the prison, starting an antigang workshop, mentoring “young knuckleheads” the prison unit manager sent his way and advising law enforcement officers on gang issues.
As a reporter, Mr. Simon began calling Mr. Andrews in prison regularly to get the background story on each day’s crime news.
For Ms. Boyd, it was fits and starts. She went into rehab but slipped back into her old ways not long after Mr. Simon and Mr. Burns finished their manuscript in 1995. But Mr. Andrews, Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon would not leave her alone, she said, and in late 1996 she stopped using once and for all and began doing antidrug outreach soon after.
Aside from the birth of her grandson, Ms. Boyd said she was also motivated to turn her life around by a sense of mission to get Mr. Andrews out of prison.
Starting in 1998, Ms. Boyd, Mr. Simon and Mr. Burns began lobbying for Mr. Andrews and in subsequent years attended his parole hearings. Even Charles P. Scheeler, the lead federal prosecutor who won Mr. Andrews’s conviction, eventually championed his release after watching his transformation in prison.
“Donnie is a complete anomaly: he’s a convicted murderer who turned himself into a decent human being,” Mr. Scheeler said.
In the book about Ms. Boyd’s life on the street, the authors say two axioms ruled the corner: “Get the blast,” or the high, and “Never say never.”
Although they both still work the corner, she and Mr. Andrews have left the first axiom behind, but they know better than to forget the second.
“No, it’s not a happy-ending story,” Ms. Boyd said, “because we’re just getting started.”