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Sto­ry by RAN­DY FURST • Photos by DAVID JOLES • Star Tribune

Two men, shot and killed in the past two weeks in sepa­rate in­ci­dents in Min­ne­ap­olis, were me­mo­ri­al­ized at fu­ner­als in a North Side church.

A 68-year-old man was there to of­fer com­fort to the griev­ing fami­lies and coun­sel the vic­tims' young male friends a­bout the fu­til­i­ty of re­tal­i­a­tion. Once a lead­ing per­pe­tra­tor of vi­o­lence and a promi­nent fig­ure in the Vice Lords, he has the ex­peri­ence to back his ad­vice.

"I feel a sense of re­spon­si­bil­i­ty," Sha­rif Wil­lis said qui­et­ly, sit­ting on a bench last week in the small park­ing lot out­side New Sa­lem Mis­sion­ary Baptist Church. "There are young peo­ple who are hurt and sad and want to strike out. All it will do is cause more hurt and you end up in the peni­ten­tia­ry. Who's going to take care of your kids, your moth­er? Do you think your girl is going to wait 10 or 15 years?"

Wil­lis knows a­bout peni­ten­tia­ries. He's spent near­ly half his life in pris­on — for armed rob­ber­y in Il­li­nois in the 1970s, for mur­der in Min­ne­ap­olis in the 1980s and for weapons and drug-re­lated charges, also in Min­ne­ap­olis, that put him behind bars for 23 years un­til his re­lease two years ago.

Dur­ing a high­ly vol­a­tile era of tit for tat gang-re­lated shoot­ings in the early 1990s, Wil­lis be­came the Twin Cities' best known gang lead­er, hailed by lib­er­al lead­ers as an anti-vi­o­lence re­form­er, re­viled by some in the po­lice de­part­ment who doubt­ed his mo­tives and sus­pect­ed he had links to the mur­der of Min­ne­ap­olis po­lice of­fi­cer Jer­ry Haaf, al­though he was nev­er charged.

Wil­lis has dis­tanced him­self from his past as a rank­ing mem­ber of the Vice Lords, al­though he says he has met with local gang lead­ers sev­er­al times "to de-es­ca­late situa­tions that could lead to more vi­o­lence." He said he wants to re­deem him­self from his past ac­tions.

"I've been try­ing to stop peo­ple from kill­ing each oth­er," he said.

Wil­lis ac­know­ledg­es that re­form hasn't come eas­i­ly. Pa­roled from pris­on in 1989 on a mur­der con­vic­tion for shoot­ing a man dur­ing a dis­pute over a craps game, he be­came the lead­er of a con­tro­ver­sial move­ment in the early 1990s called Unit­ed for Peace. It brought together ri­val gangs in an ef­fort to stop shoot­ings in Min­ne­ap­olis. The move­ment col­lapsed af­ter Wil­lis went to pris­on on new charges for hold­ing sev­er­al peo­ple at gun­point in­side a north Min­ne­ap­olis gas sta­tion and pos­ses­sion of crack cocaine. Willis main­tained his in­no­cence, claim­ing the charges were a set­up.

At least some old­er po­lice of­fic­ers are skep­ti­cal of Wil­lis' re-e­mer­gence. They con­tin­ue to believe he was in­volved in the 1992 am­bush shoot­ing death of Haaf, an e­vent that shook the city. Haaf, 53, was on a cof­fee break at the Piz­za Shack in south Min­ne­ap­olis when two Vice Lords mem­bers walked into the res­tau­rant and fired at Haaf multi­ple times, kill­ing him and an­oth­er pa­tron. Three peo­ple were con­victed of the crime, in­clud­ing a neph­ew of Wil­lis, but Wil­lis was nev­er ar­rest­ed or charged. He in­sists he was not in­volved and didn't con­done it.

But John Laux, the re­tired Min­ne­ap­olis po­lice chief who pre­sided over the depart­ment when Haaf was killed, still thinks Wil­lis was im­pli­cat­ed.

"Some peo­ple re­form; I don't be­lieve he is one of them," said Laux. "I just be­lieve in my heart of hearts he was guil­ty then and he is guil­ty now."

Re­tired po­lice Lt. Mike Sauro was one of the first two of­fic­ers to ar­rive at the shoot­ing. "I find it hard to be­lieve a bunch of under­lings would go out and de­cide to do it," he said. "May­be he didn't plan it, but he didn't stop it eith­er."

The Haaf mur­der hangs like a cloud over Wil­lis and makes it hard­er for him to get sup­port, says Jim Nel­son, one of Wil­lis' clos­est friends. Nel­son was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Change Inc., a drop-in cen­ter and al­ter­na­tive school that was the base for Unit­ed for Peace ac­tiv­i­ty.

Since his lat­est re­lease two years ago, the ef­fort to re­vive the peace move­ment has been slow. Wil­lis is old­er and lacks street con­nec­tions, as well as the back­ing of the McKnight and General Mills foun­da­tions that he had on the first go-round — al­though he is try­ing to re­connect. What kind of role Wil­lis can play in Min­ne­ap­olis to­day re­mains un­clear.

"I still have that stig­ma," he said.

But he con­tinues to have big-pic­ture ideas, in­clud­ing open­ing an in­ner-city youth drop-in cen­ter and hold­ing a gang peace sum­mit. He par­tici­pates in a men­tor­ing pro­gram, spon­sored by the Stairstep Foundation and led by com­muni­ty lead­er Al­fred Ba­bing­ton-Johnson, that en­cour­ag­es form­er gang mem­bers to work with youth. He col­labor­ates with the Rev. Jer­ry Mc­Afee, the promi­nent min­is­ter at New Sa­lem Mis­sion­ary Baptist Church.

He is try­ing to get peo­ple in­ter­est­ed in cre­at­ing a pro­gram to help pris­on­ers tran­si­tion to the out­side upon re­lease.

And he's turned up at some mur­der scenes where po­lice say they've watched him try to reduce ten­sions.

"I want to re-em­pow­er the com­muni­ty — pri­mar­i­ly the black com­muni­ty," Wil­lis said. "Why do in­di­vidu­als par­tici­pate, in many cases, in ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence, of­ten in broad day­light? Because they don't have any­one around in the com­muni­ty who is going to say any­thing. You have this dis­con­nect. Young peo­ple don't feel they have any re­la­tion­ship with old­er peo­ple. And the older peo­ple are scared of the young peo­ple. That sense of vil­lage has erod­ed."

A change in pris­on

Dur­ing his pris­on terms, Wil­lis said he did some soul search­ing.

"You take a life, that is one of the most hor­rible things you can do," he said of the 1982 shoot­ing. "I used to pray every year for him and his fam­i­ly."

Local ci­vil rights lead­ers Gary Sudduth, Spike Moss, Mah­moud El-Kati, Har­ry Da­vis and Ron Ed­wards spoke to in­mates and "start­ed to re­shape my think­ing," Wil­lis said. "Not only was I re­morse­ful for what I was locked up for, I gained a new­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my cul­ture."

With Da­vis' help he start­ed a pris­on school for blacks. He at­tend­ed busi­ness col­lege class­es. On the streets, Wil­lis, the tough guy, was known as "Black Sam"; he had a mock "fu­ner­al" for Black Sam and then changed his name to Sha­rif.

Back behind bars in 1994, Wil­lis was re­leased from fed­er­al pris­on in March 2017 and start­ed work­ing for Mc­Afee at his church. He now does odd jobs there, has a small of­fice and meets with young peo­ple from time to time.

"He's paid his dues," says Mc­Afee. "People can i­den­ti­fy with him."

Wil­lis rents a room in a house owned by Mc­Afee that in­cludes oth­er resi­dents. On Feb. 20, po­lice doing a search found five .357 Magnum bul­lets in the base­ment. Wil­lis was ar­rest­ed, but the Hennepin County Attorney's Office called the evi­dence "in­ad­equate" and "in the in­ter­est of jus­tice" dropped the charges.

The morn­ing af­ter his re­lease, Wil­lis sat on a sofa in his liv­ing room, dis­cuss­ing the ar­rest. The bul­lets, he said, must have been left by a pre­vi­ous res­i­dent.

"I'm lit­er­al­ly in shock," he said. "You work so hard to try to do some things and then things can change and you have no con­trol. ... My pro­file is so high in po­lice cir­cles. There is a seg­ment who be­lieve the worst a­bout me. To con­vince them I'm some­thing dif­fer­ent is just a chore."

His girl­friend came over and of­fered to cook him break­fast.

Wil­lis thanked her, add­ing that he re­mained un­de­terred in his ef­fort to make a dif­fer­ence.

"If I spend the rest of my life mak­ing up for what I've done, it isn't en­ough," he said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twit­ter: @randyfurst