(HOUSTON, Texas) -- In the tight knit world of urban music, Houston rap star Andre "007" Barnes is viewed as a sensitive man. He's intelligent and well-spoken, friends say. And although music has been his ticket out of the ghetto, he's never turned his back on his old Fifth Ward neighborhood.
Barnes - founder of the 5th Ward Boyz - is a maturing artist, a devoted father to his preschool-age son. In the photo on his group's latest album, Barnes, with his receding hairline and plastic-framed glasses, could be mistaken for a professor or an aging choirboy.
Police, though, paint a different picture. According to their records, Barnes has illegally packed a weapon, resisted arrest and, in April 1994, killed a man who was trying to steal his Cadillac. The last case never was prosecuted because authorities determined Barnes' use of deadly force was justified under state law.
Two weeks ago, Barnes, 27, was arrested in connection with the October robberies of three Friendswood banks. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 60 years in federal prison and fined $750,000. He is being held in Houston's federal detention center without bond.
The arrest came just weeks before the planned release of the newest album by the 5th Ward Boyz, "Recognize Tha Mob," and of Barnes' solo debut album, "Tomorrow Never Dies."
"This was so surprising," said Dewey Forker, CEO of Barnes' label, Underground Records, and proprietor of the Lyons Avenue record shop Barnes listed as his home address. "Nobody knew. There were no signs. It was just surprising when they popped the news on TV."
Forker, whose company formerly was associated with Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records, said he met Barnes nine years ago when the vocalist brought him a demonstration tape.
"I liked the way he rapped," Forker recalled. "I liked his lyrics and his voice and the different stuff he'd say."
The group's other members, Eric "E-Rock" Taylor and Richard "Lo Life" Nash, could not be reached for comment regarding Barnes' arrest. His attorney, Michael L. Laviage, denied a request for an interview with his client.
Forker said the group routinely rehearsed at his record shop, and he knows all the members well.
"You would like him," Forker said of Barnes. "He was a real sensitive guy."
Forker said Barnes is the father of a 3- or 4-year-old son and looks after his two younger brothers, ages 12 and 15. "He's a real role model to them," Forker said. "He was really devoted to his grandmother, too. He lost her a couple of years ago."
Although he no longer resided in the Fifth Ward, Barnes remained committed to the largely African-American neighborhood northeast of downtown.
"The 5th Ward Boyz would have barbecues or free concerts," said Forker. "They'd do a number at charity functions to help get a crowd."
Several fans remembered the group sponsored basketball camps for local youth.
"They give back the best they can," added Lary Hale, who broadcasts as The Chatter Box on KTSU-FM. "They try to encourage up-and-coming musicians to be the best they can be. You see them around, and you just feel a positive vibe."
Mack Kimbrough, a 5th Ward Boyz fan who said he met Barnes while hanging out on the corner of Lyons Avenue and Schweikhardt Street, praised the artist for his willingness to mingle with fans.
"He gives out new albums and T-shirts. Barbecue, all the beer you can drink. . . . I love him," Kimbrough said. "I love him for the things he's done."
The group's presence in the Fifth Ward contributed to a loyal following among urban music fans. While their five albums never approached the 1 million-plus sales of those of the better-known, Houston-based Geto Boys, the 5th Ward Boyz toured nationally and recently completed a European tour.
Andrew Chong, publisher of Insite, formerly Urban Beat, a local magazine chronicling hip-hop culture, described the 5th Ward Boyz as a "mid-level group" in terms of popularity and influence.
"They have a good underground community following," he said, adding that the group members were "stabilizing and maturing" as artists.
"It's a straight-up, hard-core rap group," he said, noting that the lyrics contain the explicit sex and violence some listeners find objectionable.
The group's most recent release, "P.W.A. The Album . . . Keep It Poppin"' in 1999, features extreme profanity and graphic descriptions of sexual perversions.
"From a certain perspective, I think they are simply singing about their environment," Chong said. "White kids from the suburbs sing about falling in love, taking drugs or whatever. These rappers from the Fifth Ward are singing about what they experience. Its not like they say, 'Let's go out and write some lyrics degrading women.' "
Police said Barnes' celebrity worked against him when officers, following leads developed from informants and other sources, distributed fliers bearing his photo in areas he was known to frequent.
"He may have been a victim of his own fame," said Houston detective Ken Wiener, who assisted with the investigation.
"It was ironic. People wouldn't even read the handouts. They'd just look at the photo and say, 'Oh yeah, man. That's 007 with the 5th Ward Boyz.' This was his area, and he was very, very well known."
Friendswood Police Chief Jared Stout said a man matching Barnes' description robbed three Friendswood banks - Hometown Bank, Guaranty Federal and Bank One - of an estimated $8,000 in early October. In each instance, the man gave the teller a note threatening to kill her if she failed to surrender cash.
All the robberies took place shortly after noon, when the banks were lightly patronized, and, in each case, Stout said, the robber was careful not to leave fingerprints. Although he claimed to be armed, he never displayed a weapon.
"He was a fairly imposing individual, and people did what he said," Stout said.
Barnes is 6 feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds.
"He had confidence approaching arrogance," Stout said of the robber. "He looked like he was bulletproof with no fear at all, which is good street skills."
In at least two cases, said Friendswood Detective Eric Price, the robber fled with an accomplice, who waited in a car while he robbed the bank.
Price said Barnes was identified after a witness provided a partial license plate number from the getaway car used in the second robbery.
"We ran that partial number 400 ways and finally came up with the name of the owner, who was one of Barnes' associates," Price said. "We set up on her and watched her and finally developed a list of names of possible suspects, including Barnes. We got photos of all of them, and Barnes matched the image on the bank's security videotape."
Price said neither of the possible accomplices, a man and a woman, has been arrested.
Barnes surrendered in the company of his lawyer on Nov. 3.
"Everyone is saying that he just surrendered," Price said. "But the heat was on him. We were close to catching him, and he did what he knew was in his best interest."
Barnes' first encounter with police occurred in April 1994, when the rap artist - staying at an aunt's apartment in the 4600 block of Sherwood - was awakened by the shrieking of his Cadillac's burglar alarm. Upon investigating, he found two men in the vehicle, one desperately trying to start its engine.
Barnes yelled at the men, then, retrieving a .380-caliber pistol, fired four shots as they ran from the scene. Homicide Sgt. Ken Williamson said at the time that Barnes told officers he thought he had missed the men. He then drove the Cadillac to a nearby car wash, where he vacuumed out the broken glass, before returning to bed.
The would-be thieves ran to an area convenience store, where one collapsed from his wounds. He later died at Ben Taub General Hospital.
In October 1995, the district attorney's office referred the case to a grand jury without charges. The killing was not a crime, the grand jury found, because state law allows citizens to protect their property with deadly force after nightfall.
In other incidents, records show, Barnes was sentenced to two 20-day sentences in February 1999 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges for carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest. Those charges stemmed from episodes in July 1998 and November 1998, respectively.
Underground Records chief Forker said he is uncertain what impact Barnes' recent arrest might have on the group's commercial fortunes. "Recognize Tha Mob," scheduled for release in mid-December, will be Underground's first release as a newly independent label.
"I imagine it could be pretty damaging to his career," he allowed. But, he said, Barnes' possible imprisonment wouldn't necessarily destroy the 5th Ward Boyz.
"We have 50 or 60 songs on tape," he said. "We have enough for another two or three albums."
On the streets, at least some fans expressed defiance in the face of the rap star's latest legal troubles.
One, Michael Nelloms, complained that the news media unfairly exploited Barnes' woes.
Kimbrough suggested Barnes should record additional songs "straight from the cellblock" and ship them to record shops in the Fifth Ward.
"We're going to stand by the music," Kimbrough vowed. "We're going to stand by the man."
(iSyndicate; The Houston Chronicle; Nov. 19, 2000) Terms and Conditions
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