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