After 24 years behind bars, Norman Whiteside‚?"brilliant musician, forgery kingpin, key player in one of Columbus‚??s most notorious crimes of the past three decades‚?"is getting a second chance thanks to the rediscovery of his
At last, Norman Whiteside felt welcome. The other kids were talking to him, treating him as an equal. It was October, around Halloween, and the children in the fifth-grade class at Siebert Elementary School in German Village were all wearing costumes. Whiteside was dressed as a monster, complete with a mask and gloves. He was anonymous, no longer the despised outcast.
Life was hell for him at the school. The only black kid in the class, he was ridiculed, humiliated. On the first day, the teacher called attendance. "Whiteside, Norman," she said. The other children laughed. "It doesn't look like a white side to me," one said.
When some students at Siebert were selected to perform at St. John Arena, the school music teacher enlisted Whiteside, a talented singer. For the concert, she chose the folk song "Old Black Joe." The white students would sing the verses and the chorus, then Whiteside alone would bellow the lead line "Old Black Joe." With the other kids laughing at him, Whiteside refused, and he was sent home. He avoided getting whipped with a switch by his mom after singing the lyrics to her.
But it was different on this autumn day nearly five decades ago. With a mask covering his face, he was just another student. He mingled with everyone, even a boy named Billy, who'd been his biggest persecutor. It was a joyful experience, until some of the kids started to talk about revealing their identities. He feared what might happen, especially if Billy saw his face. Whiteside ran from the classroom, his mask still on.
Though he was transferred to the Warren Correctional Institution less than a month ago, the inmate already has made an impression. "He's a talker," a prison staffer warns a visitor. Keep him focused, she says, or you'll never get your questions answered. He's also running late, no surprise to the staffer. Earlier, she predicted he would take his time strolling across the yard.
Still, Norman Whiteside has never been one to miss a gig. And a few minutes later, he walks into the drab little interview room at the prison just outside of Lebanon. He wears a wrinkled prison-issued blue shirt with his name and inmate number on it. His hair is speckled with gray, and a pair of glasses poke out of a shirt pocket. A mischievous smile is on his face.
The prison staffer's warning is on the money. The visitor asks Whiteside to look at a CD booklet. The old photos inside bring back a flood of memories. And for the next hour-and during two more later interviews-he rambles on about music, the members of his 1970s band, Wee, and the crazy adventures he enjoyed before prison.
Last year, an independent Chicago record label, the Numero Group, reissued Wee's 1977 album, You Can Fly on My Aeroplane, attracting national media attention and introducing Whiteside's music (he wrote, produced and arranged every silky, sexy song on it) to a new generation of soul fans. "Things are coming together, and it's because of this music," Whiteside says. "Now you got people who before would say, 'Leave him in there, kill him, crucify him.' Now, they're saying, 'Man, let's get this guy out of the joint.' "
Whiteside is a complex character. He was a brilliant forger and a brilliant musician. He could come up with an irresistible hook for a song one day and a devious scam the next. His fellow musicians were in awe of his skill as a singer, songwriter, piano player and performer, while police and prosecutors were nearly as impressed with his fake checks and phony IDs. "Norm is the type of guy you never forget," says former assistant Franklin County prosecutor Bob Smith, who convicted Whiteside on a slew of forgery and receiving stolen property charges in 1985.
He was a habitual risk-taker, experimenter and rule-breaker. Those qualities made his music so dynamic and interesting, but also led him down a path that ended with a horrible tragedy-the 1982 shooting death of Denison University student Laura Carter, one of the most notorious Central Ohio crimes of the past three decades and the inspiration for the hit Christopher Cross song, "Think of Laura."
The Carter case highlights the murky netherworld Whiteside occupied at the time. He was perhaps the person most responsible for solving the case (he gave police the murder weapon and named all the players involved), as well as a participant in the events that led up to the accidental killing of Carter. In 1986, he was sentenced to 14 to 50 years in prison, later cut in half on appeal. To this day, his conviction divides major figures involved in the investigation because, in part, Whiteside didn't pull the trigger and wasn't on the scene when the shooting occurred.
An enigma even to his friends, Whiteside will go before the Ohio Parole Board in December. Board members will face a tough task making sense of his epic, convoluted life. He's been a telephone operator, a jailhouse lawyer, a protégé of the late Columbus firebrand Bill Moss, "the Paper Boy" (that's what the cops called him), the hottest thing on the Columbus music scene (old colleagues say he could have been another Sly Stone) and for the past 24 years inmate 184313.
He's stolen cars, chopped tobacco in Tennessee, survived a deadly car crash, run an "underground airline," fathered enough children to field a football team, produced music of sublime beauty and fell in love with a bisexual prostitute who kidnapped him at gunpoint. Is he a thug or sweetheart, a career criminal or hard-luck case, a conman or rube? All these things? "Norman walked the thin line between being a genius and an idiot," says Tom Bennett, a retired Columbus police detective.
The 18-year-old kid was determined to get an audition with Bill Moss. A self-taught piano player and songwriter, Whiteside grabbed a sleeping bag, hotwired his mom's car and camped out in front of the entrance to Capsoul's headquarters above Van's music store in Clintonville, waiting for someone to show up. His chutzpah impressed Moss, the record label's head honcho. He listened to Whiteside play a few of his own songs and hired him on the spot as the youngest member of the Capsoul writing team.
Music was Whiteside's best friend as a kid. He describes his childhood as lonely, mentioning the story about Siebert Elementary School right away when a visitor asks him about his early days. But even back then, he was hard to read. His younger brother remembers his sibling as the life of the party. "Everybody liked to hang out at our house," Richard Whiteside recalls. "They looked up to him." He also was independent and tough, willing to stand up to anyone, from bullies to school officials. While a student at Central High School in the late 1960s, Whiteside says he got kicked out of Columbus public schools when he refused to remove a Jimi Hendrix-style headband. He was forced to enroll in Indiana's Atterbury Job Corps, where he earned a G.E.D.
During his four years at Capsoul in the early 1970s, Whiteside got an education in by-the-seat-of-your-pants business operations. He watched the feisty Moss (who later gained local fame as a controversial member of the Columbus Board of Education) threaten to beat up an Indianapolis deejay to get a record played. A talented mimic, Whiteside impersonated Virgil Johnson-the lead singer of Capsoul's top group, Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr-on a seven-city tour after Johnson quit the group over a money dispute with Moss. And when a trip to Tennessee with the Kool Blues (the Capsoul duo of John Primm and Bill Gilbert) backfired, Whiteside was forced to cut tobacco to earn gas money to get back to Columbus. "I thought that was something only slaves did," Whiteside says.
Capsoul, modeled after the Motown music factory of the 1960s, was not a perfect match for Whiteside's talent. He wanted to write and perform his own songs and clashed with Moss over the arrangement for a tune he co-wrote, "Keep on Loving You," the first Kool Blues single. Influenced by Talking Book-era Stevie Wonder, Whiteside wanted to use a Moog bass synthesizer to create a heavier sound. Instead, Moss inserted horns, a change that annoys Whiteside to this day. "The horns sound like chickens clucking," he says.
Whiteside didn't hit his stride creatively until he struck out on his own after Capsoul imploded around 1974. He joined a band, Wee, which he quickly assumed control of and forged a key partnership with Tom Murphy, the founder of Owl Recording Studios on the north side. The musician-owned Owl was a studio unlike any other in Columbus. Murphy, an idealistic electronics whiz kid, built Owl in a converted old home in a rural section of Sunbury Road to foster a nurturing recording space for players. But Murphy also had a touch of Sam Phillips in him, and he thought Whiteside could be his Elvis-a star who'd put Owl on the map. After an impressive first recording session, Murphy gave Whiteside free rein at the studio. He and his band could record any time they wanted, no charge, as long as Murphy got to produce their records. "Norman had the three-minute-commercial-song thing down," Murphy says. "He also was a good showman. And he knew how to sing and massage an audience. He had the whole package."
Meanwhile, Whiteside's personal life was getting complicated. Moonlighting as a deejay at a bar called Joe's Hole (his day job was as an information operator at Ohio Bell), Whiteside met Jacquie, a prostitute and madam known as "Miss Main Street." Jacquie asked him for a date, but Whiteside, already juggling volatile relationships with two other women, refused. Then Jacquie took the courtship up a notch. A few weeks later, Whiteside says, she and a female friend kidnapped him outside the same club. Despite having a gun pointed at him, Whiteside rejected Jacquie's advances again, and she returned him home unharmed a few hours later.
The next time they ran into each other, Jacquie tried a different dating technique: bribery. She gave Whiteside a few hundred dollars to hang with her for the evening. Incredibly, a friendship developed. Whiteside became fascinated with her life on the street. Within a year, they were an item, too, and the bisexual Jacquie's various girlfriends/employees were his "wives-in-law." Jacquie also introduced Whiteside to one of her regulars, a wealthy man in his 60s. The john became Whiteside's musical patron, paying for about $50,000 worth of music equipment for Wee, as well as a pressing of 1,000 copies of You Can Fly on My Aeroplane, the album Whiteside had been working on in fits and starts for about two years.
In 1977, Whiteside completed Aeroplane, which was released on Owl Records, the studio's companion label. Murphy made frequent trips to New York and Nashville to pitch Whiteside to record executives. Some were interested, and one-Vernon Gibbs of Mercury Records-came to Columbus to hear Wee play at a west-side club. But no one bit. They either asked Whiteside to abandon his band (he refused), or they wanted to see bigger local success first. Without money, connections and marketing muscle, Aeroplane didn't take off as everyone hoped.
Whiteside began to lose his mojo. He says he tried hard drugs for the first time, and his "voices of reason," Murphy and Sterling Smith, the other main principal at Owl, moved to Los Angeles. Whiteside also was involved in a horrible car crash (he was thrown through a windshield, while two other people were killed), and he says Wee couldn't afford to do a potential career-making tour with Wild Cherry ("Play that Funky Music") because of a computer error by City National Bank. To get even with the bank, Whiteside says he started to forge checks and make fake IDs. In December 1978, he was arrested on forgery and receiving stolen property charges and convicted eight months later. Police suspected he was responsible for around $100,000 worth of phony checks, according to a Dispatch article at the time.
The timing was unfortunate. Just as Whiteside was getting locked up, his friends were making connections that could have benefited him. Murphy and Smith were working with the likes of the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan in L.A. Other Owl alumni collaborated with the Rolling Stones and a slew of R&B acts, including Teddy Pendergrass, Natalie Cole, Midnight Star and Roger Troutman. "You can't help but wonder what might have been," Smith says.
After an 11-month stint behind bars, Whiteside was released on shock parole, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Gilbert of the Kool Blues ran into Whiteside then. "This is a fresh start," he told him. "Do something with your life." He gave Whiteside his phone number, encouraging him to stay involved in music. Gilbert never heard from him again.
Tom Bennett, a Columbus check squad detective, and Whiteside, the most notorious forger in town, had a strange relationship. Every few weeks, Whiteside would call Bennett to chat. It was a cops-and-robbers, cat-and-mouse game, of course, and Whiteside had an ulterior motive: He passed on tips to Bennett so the detective would arrest Whiteside's forgery underlings who dared to strike out on their own. But the conversations were always good-natured. Whiteside would tell Bennett about his mother's Baptist ministry, his plans to get his band back together and his expanding brood of children (he has 14 kids, according to court testimony). "In kind of a weird sense, me and Norman were friends," Bennett says.
In the spring of 1982, Whiteside made a cryptic reference to "the little thing out east" during a talk with Bennett. After a few more minutes of enigmatic chitchat, the detective realized Whiteside was talking about the recent shooting of Laura Carter. Whiteside agreed to talk to someone in the homicide squad, and Bennett passed on the tip to Jerry McMenemy, a detective who worked with Whiteside six months earlier in another murder investigation.
Frankly, the police needed help. Carter, a Denison lacrosse player, was shot in the chest while a passenger in a car on East Broad Street. A stray bullet from a nearby gun battle hit her as she, her parents and some friends were driving downtown for dinner. It was parents' weekend at the Granville college, and the group was celebrating a lacrosse victory earlier in the day. The freak killing horrified the public. "It was heartbreaking on so many different levels," says Robin Yocum, a former Dispatch police reporter who covered the story. The case also got more attention when Christopher Cross, then boyfriend of Carter's best friend, wrote "Think of Laura," which became a hit after it was featured on "General Hospital" as the love theme for the soap opera's popular Luke and Laura characters.
Detectives moved fast. They arrested two people, Larry Canady and Sylvester Littlejohn, on manslaughter charges. But there were holes in the case. Tests showed that the gun found in Canady's car did not fire the death bullet. Whiteside told police they had the wrong men. He also said he thought he could deliver what he suspected was the murder weapon. On May 27, 1982, he gave to police a .38 caliber revolver. Tests confirmed Whiteside's suspicion.
The next day, in an extraordinary two-and-a-half-hour interview with detectives, Whiteside described an underworld battle straight out of "The Wire." On one side was the "home team," a group of Columbus criminals involved in drugs, prostitution and forgery. On the other side was the "visiting team," transplanted Cleveland toughs, including Canady and Littlejohn, who were muscling the Columbus operators. For about a year, Whiteside said, the Cleveland gangsters had been trying to extort him and Charles "Dee Dee" Straughter, a Los Angeles resident and a major supplier of cocaine and heroin to Columbus, demanding a 35 percent cut of their profits.
Whiteside's forgery operation had grown into an impressive illicit business, making "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Bennett estimates. In an era before sophisticated computer printers, Whiteside relied on decals, calligraphy, contacts with burglars (they sold him stolen checks and equipment) and an army of kiters. When folks would come to his house in the Short North to get forged documents, he ordered them to take a number from a machine on the wall as if they were at a grocery store deli, Bennett says.
Whiteside also ran what he calls an "underground airline" for felons on parole and probation. His underlings would buy plane tickets with phony checks, and then Whiteside would sell the fares to the criminals at a 25 percent discount, as well as provide them with fake IDs. "Norman was pretty ingenious," Bennett says.
During the interview with homicide detectives, Whiteside held nothing back. He fingered three fellow home team members-James "Bubbles" Smith and brothers Gordon and Ricky Newlin-for the botched ambush that killed Carter. Whiteside said Melvin Thomas, one of the "visitors," had shot Smith in the leg and hand at an after-hours joint on the near east side earlier on April 17 and the trio was seeking retribution. (Thomas was charged with felonious assault in connection with the after-hours shooting, but charges were later dismissed.) The Newlins and Smith told police they were the targets of the Broad Street ambush, leading to the arrests of Canady and Littlejohn. Whiteside said he implicated his associates because his conscience bothered him, and he empathized with Carter's family.
He also bragged about his intelligence and criminal exploits, and he claimed it was his idea to do the ambush, according to a police summary of the interview. He told police he masterminded the purchase of the murder weapon (along with two other guns) and planned to kill Thomas with a sawed-off shotgun at a meeting between the two rival gangs at the Red Flame Lounge a week before the Carter killing (Whiteside backed off when a Columbus police officer approached him). He even admitted to calling police hours after the ambush to find out if Thomas was shot, according to the summary. He pretended to be Thomas's mother.
The interview turned the investigation 180 degrees. Prosecutors dropped charges against Canady and Littlejohn and eventually indicted the Newlins and Smith. Police also focused their attention on Whiteside, which raised a tricky legal question: Did detectives promise immunity to secure his cooperation?
Two courts came to different conclusions. In 1982, Whiteside was acquitted in a federal gun case in connection with the Carter case after the late U.S. District Judge Joseph Kinneary suppressed Whiteside's statement, concluding detectives had promised not to prosecute. But four years later, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge George Smith allowed prosecutors to use the statement in Whiteside's trial on two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder in the Carter shooting. Smith, now a federal judge, zeroed in on a new piece of evidence. The year before, Whiteside was convicted in a giant forgery case and sentenced to 12 years in prison. During the trial, Whiteside admitted to committing perjury during his first forgery trial in 1979 (he lied about police planting evidence on him, according to court transcripts). Smith concluded the admission damaged the credibility of Whiteside's claim of being double-crossed. An appellate judge affirmed the ruling.
Still, the outcome is not without controversy. Shortly after Whiteside spoke with police in May 1982, detective McMenemy wrote a letter to then Franklin County Municipal Judge James Pearson, according to court testimony. In the letter, he praised Whiteside for helping in the Carter case, as well as in the previous homicide investigation. McMenemy also made a revealing statement to Whiteside's attorney, Charles Kaps, during the federal gun trial in 1982. "I'm sorry that this had to happen," the detective said, according to court testimony. "It would never have happened if I had anything to say about it."
In fact, the two key figures in the probe-Patrick Sheeran, the former assistant prosecutor who tried the case, and Bob Young, the lead homicide detective-offered strikingly different takes on Whiteside during recent interviews with Columbus Monthly. Sheeran says Whiteside was one of the most dangerous criminals in Central Ohio and the leader of the home team, even if he wasn't directly responsible for killing Carter. Now a Franklin County Common Pleas judge, Sheeran says he intends to urge the Ohio Parole Board to keep Whiteside in prison. "Norman might not just walk out and shoot you, but he could do a lot of other things," Sheeran says. "Unlike 99 percent of the criminals out there, Norman had imagination, and that was the scary thing about him."
The detective has mixed feelings. "I felt no pleasure in seeing Norman Whiteside indicted, tried and convicted," says Young, now retired from the police department. "He did cooperate. He did help us get to the truth." Though others disagree with him, Young says he believes empathy and compassion motivated Whiteside to come forward. "There was no monetary gain, to my knowledge." He also says it "seems reasonable" for the parole board to give him a second chance. "He's done a long time," he says.
Despite the depressing setting-cinder block walls, a window with a view of razor wire-Whiteside is in high spirits. He quotes lyrics, plays the drum part to "Wipeout" with his hands on a table and relishes his improbable musical comeback. "Once people actually find out who I am, they realize I'm not the monster so many other people think I am."
Whiteside's music didn't disappear after he went to prison. First, collectors started to gobble up Wee records for around $800 a pop after "Try Me," Wee's second single on Owl, gained a following on the Northern Soul circuit, a worldwide movement that started in England and celebrates obscure American R&B tracks from the '60s and '70s. Then, Rob Sevier of the Numero Group, the outfit that did the popular 2004 reissue Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label, tracked down Murphy, the Owl founder, in Los Angeles and cut a deal with him to reissue Aeroplane. Luckily, Murphy held on to the mixed master tapes of the album, as well as some unreleased material, which also was included on the August 2008 reissue. "I knew it was good and had value," says Murphy, who owns a recording studio in Los Angeles.
The album has sold about 4,000 copies. It isn't going to make anyone rich, but it's gotten good reviews in national publications such as Spin and Entertainment Weekly, which put it on its "Must List" in September 2008. Now, Sevier says he's urging fans of Whiteside to send letters to the parole board calling for his release. "He's been in jail almost 30 years," says Chicago soul music historian and record collector Dante Carafagna, a Central Ohio native who introduced Sevier to Aeroplane. "I think that's enough payment to society." What's more, if Whiteside is released, Numero hopes to get him back on stage. This year, the label put together a tour of Numero acts called the Eccentric Soul Revue, which played the Lincoln Theatre in Columbus in November. Whiteside is particularly grateful to Murphy for never giving up on his music. "That's what touched my heart the most," he says, "that somebody cared about me for this long."
At 56, Whiteside is still inscrutable. He has filed 51 lawsuits in Ohio courts since 1994, most of which are against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and its employees, and he was accused of being a "vexatious litigator" by the Ohio attorney general's office earlier this year. He continues to deny wrongdoing in the Carter case, saying the "home team" wasn't a gang and questioning the accuracy of a tape of the police interview introduced in his trial.
He also criticizes the parole board for refusing to look deeper into his conviction, a tactic that could backfire at his upcoming hearing. When members rejected his bid in 2005, they knocked him for refusing to accept responsibility for his role in Carter's death. In turn, Whiteside claims he's always felt bad for what happened to Carter, but, he says, "I haven't quite learned how to admit to something I didn't do."
It's hard not to wonder what might happen if Whiteside would play nicer. Another home-team member, Paul "Ricky" Newlin, one of his three co-defendants in the Carter case, was released from prison in 2006 after serving 14 years. Convicted of involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and felonious assault, Newlin, a fugitive until the FBI arrested him in 1992, received parole even though police say he was at the scene of the Carter shooting. Meanwhile, James "Bubbles" Smith was acquitted of complicity to commit aggravated murder in the incident, and Ricky's brother, Gordon Newlin, who declined to comment for this story, is serving a life sentence for aggravated murder, conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and felonious assault in the shooting.
Still, Whiteside hardly looks bitter. A smile was planted on his face during more than three hours of interviews with Columbus Monthly. He grinned as he discussed "wrong turns." He grinned as he praised surprising musical influences (Floyd Cramer, Gino Vanelli). He grinned as he demonstrated his unique self-taught piano technique.
That happy-go-lucky expression is a trademark. "He always had a big silly smile on his face, like it was plastered there," says Dean Francis, a veteran Columbus musician and former Capsoul songwriter. Francis suspects the expression is a ploy. Like the monster mask Whiteside wore in fifth grade, the smile is for protection and control. "That was part of his way of manipulating people," Francis says. "He got a plan for your ass. It's just that you don't know what it is until it's been done to you."
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.
This story appeared in the December 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.