Vickie Stringer didn't need influential friends and a college education to conquer the publishing world. She had something more valuable: a prison record.
Editor’s note: Our True Crime Classics series continues with Dave Ghose’s 2004 profile of Vickie Stringer, the drug-dealer-turned-novelist.
Alone in her cell, Vickie Stringer grabbed a pen and challenged God. It was Jan. 2, 1998, a year and a half into her five-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. She was in Bryan, Texas, hundreds of miles from her family in Ohio, Michigan and Mississippi.
Writing in her journal, a gift from one of her attorneys, Stringer held nothing back. An aspiring novelist, she asked God for a computer and a book deal. She asked for clothes, a car, a good job, a purpose for her life and the ability to bless her family and friends. Then she laid out the big one—her ring.
Authorities seized it, along with the cars and money, when they arrested her. But the piece of jewelry meant more to her than any BMW. Her son's father gave her the ring when they were in love and planned to marry. It was a remnant of a happier time, before he left her, before she became the cocaine queen of Columbus, before her mug shot appeared on the nightly news.
Now, she was wearing flip-flops and a prison-issue uniform. She couldn't get much lower. But she still dreamed.
One of the fastest-growing publishing houses in the country is in an ordinary two-story building on the northeast side of Columbus. Next door is a Methodist church. Across Stelzer Road is a wooded lot. Triple Crown Publications shares the building with a veterinary clinic, a Christian fellowship, an interior designer and a cleaning service. The location is about as far removed from the glamorous New York publishing industry as possible.
On this August afternoon, Triple Crown headquarters is busy, noisy and cluttered. There's a single corner office, an open area with desks lined in a row and stacks of boxes filled with books. Sticky notes and papers are haphazardly hung on the wall. Everyone's on the phone or running around or bumping into someone else or consumed in work. The place feels like a newsroom on deadline.
Vickie Stringer steps out of the corner office and waves a visitor toward her. The novelist and publisher is dressed casually in jeans and an orange top, and she wears her braided hair in a ponytail. She has apple-butter skin, big brown eyes and the friendly, flirtatious manner of a sorority girl (which she was before she became a drug dealer).
More Triple Crown books—gritty tales of inner-city hustlers—are on the bookshelves in Stringer’s tiny office, along with stuffed animals, a Pepto-Bismol bottle and a screenplay adaptation of her two autobiographical novels, “Let That Be the Reason,” and “Imagine This.” On the door is a copy of a Newsweek article about her.
The magazine story is part of a wave of national publicity. Earlier in the week, Stringer was on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" radio program and spent a day with a New York Times reporter. The week before, MTV broadcast a segment about her. Every day, another media outlet seems to call.
They're drawn by her fairy talelike story. Since leaving prison, she's gone from waiting tables for $2.15 an hour at the Adam's Mark hotel to hawking self published books out of the trunk of her car to starting her own small publishing company to getting a standing ovation at this summer's BookExpo America, the industry's signature event. “It's so gratifying to me to see a person like Vickie Stringer," says U.S. District Judge John Holschuh, who sentenced her to prison eight years ago.
After returning to Columbus, Stringer visited Holschuh in his chambers and gave him a copy of her first book. The judge now on occasion will mention Stringer when he sentences other defendants. She turned around her life; so can they. “It's a great story," he says.
Stringer founded Triple Crown in December 2002 with help from a silent partner, Shannon Holmes, a fellow writer who lives in New York City. Since then, Triple Crown has established itself as the premier publisher and the most recognizable brand in the growing field of hip-hop fiction. The company sold more than half a million books during its first 19 months, and its authors are all over Essence magazine's bestseller list, which is based on sales at African-American bookstores. "We have people coming into our stores asking when the next Triple Crown book is coming out,” says Joe Holtzman, category manager for fiction for the Borders Group, which owns Waldenbooks and Borders. “That never happens."
Like the music, hip-hop fiction is a product of urban life. In books such as “Dime Piece,” “Gangsta,” “B More Careful” and “True to the Game,” hip-hop authors (often ex-cons or hustlers themselves) tell stories of junkies, drug dealers and gangbangers in the raw idiom of the street. For some urban residents, the novels are the first that reflect their lives and culture and speak their language. “They don't want to read about some dude sipping wine in a nice condominium going through problems with his girlfriend," says Kwan Foye, the first author Stringer signed to Triple Crown. "If you on a stoop with a 40, you ain't got no condominium. You probably never tasted no wine. You can't relate to that."
The books are turning the hip-hop generation into readers—creating a new market for booksellers—and getting the attention of big publishing houses. Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, released Stringer's latest novel, “Imagine This,” in August. The book, a sequel to her breakthrough debut, “Let That Be the Reason,” sold more than 40,000 copies in its first four weeks. What's more, several other pioneering hip-hop writers have jumped to major houses, and Atria has expressed interest in distributing Triple Crown titles.
In her office in August, Stringer can't help but laugh when she talks about the incredible irony of her success. In less time than it takes to earn a bachelor's degree, she's gone from a halfway house to a $345,000 custom-built home, from federal inmate 03752-001 to the “reigning queen of urban fiction” (that's what Publishers Weekly declared her). And to do so, she didn't need influential friends and a college education. She had something more valuable—a rap sheet. “The same story that sent me to prison now pays my bills," she says.
Sringer grew up on the East Side of Detroit, the second youngest of seven, in a middle-class family. Her father was an engineer, her mother a schoolteacher. She attended Cass Tech, the premier high school in the Detroit school system, and went to Western Michigan Unversity in Kalamazoo, where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta. The sorority nationally includes congresswomen (Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan), a brigadier general (Hazel Johnson Brown) and an international actress “Ruby Dee Davis). Smart and charismatic, Stringer seemed to have the potential to do great things as well.
After her freshman year, she transferred to Ohio State University, and during a cookout at a friend's house in Columbus, the teenage Stringer fell in love at first sight with a young man. "He came over in his souped-outride, looking all good,”she recalls. "I was like, ‘He's so fine. He was better than any textbook.’ ”
He also was a criminal. And soon, Stringer abandoned school to run with him and his crew, the Triple Crown Posse, the namesake of her publishing company. The couple lived well. The money flowed. They even opened a hair salon together on the East Side of Columbus, and Stringerwore the $16,000 engagement ring on her finger.
But the fun didn't last. Stringer got pregnant. She says he denied he was the father and married another woman Stringer was left to raise and provide for her son on her own and sold the hair salon. Living the high life as a drug dealer's girl, Stringer never learned to budget and was soon struggling to pay the bills. She eventually turned to crime. "It was a matter of survival," says Terry Sherman, her former attorney and the inspiration for “Myer Levin," the thoughtful lawyer featured in both “Let That Be the Reason”and “Imagine This.” "I don't mean that lightly."
It turned out Stringer had a knack for the game. She says she started her ownescort service, which she declined to talk in detail about. Then, using the street alias "Carmen,”she branched into drugs. She became the local connection in an interstate cocaine and heroin trafficking operation that, at its peak, moved about $6 million worth of drugs a month from New York City to Columbus, according to Stan Lisska a retired Columbus narcotics detective.
Stringer says she wasn't a heavy drug user. "I never had a habit that interfered with what I was doing," she says. "My addiction was money. That was thebiggest downfall—becoming greedy."
Dominicans from New York City supplied Stringer with the drugs and delivered them in a fleet of vans. The drugs were hidden in secret compartments underneaththe seats. "They'd bring in 20, 30 kilos at a time," Lisska says.
In September 1994, police nabbed a courier in Stringer's ring with a kilo of cocaine. To save his own butt, he told detectives about “Carmen," who had supplied him with 30 kilos of cocaine and heroin in the past 18 months, and he agreed to work for them as a confidential informant to bust her.
For several days, detectives spied on Stringer, and on Sept 16, they put their plan in motion. The informant paged Stringer. They set up a meeting at the Cooker restaurant on East Main Street. Stringer didn't show. The informant called again, and the meeting was moved to a nearby MCL Cafeteria. There, in the parking lot, with detectives watching, she entered the informant's car and exchanged a kilo of cocaine for $26,000. Police converged on her Jeep Cherokee at Mound and South Yearling streets a few blocks away, finding the marked bills as well as $218,000 in a gym bag and $12,000 more behind the driver's seat.
As part of the sting, police also found 22 pounds of cocaine and 200 grams of heroin in a Mazda van with New York plates and 100 grams of heroin in the refrigerator of an apartment of an unknowing relative. Among those also arrested were Rodney Stringer, Vickie's younger brother, whom officers found in the apartment, and, in the strangest twist, Vickie's ex-boyfriend. As Vickie had turned into Carmen, she and her ex formed a business partnership as drug dealers. Police found a kilo of cocaine in a cereal box in his apartment, says George Hahnert, a retired Columbus detective who worked the case.
A year later, Vickie Stringer, then 27 years old, pleaded guilty to one count each of money laundering and conspiring to traffic drugs. Prosecutors agreed to a lighter sentence in exchange for her cooperation against her codefendants, including her brother. (She faced a maximum penalty of life in prison.) She didn't end up testifying against anyone, however, as they all pleaded guilty. "She was like a lot of people who are good at that business—very charming," says assistant U.S. attorney Mike Burns.
Even then, Stringer's lawyer, Sherman, remembers thinking she was one of the most remarkable people he'd met—savvy, talented and with infinite potential. “I told my co-counsel at the time: If circumstances were different, she'd have run IBM and been successful. She was just a brilliant person.”
While behind bars, Stringer began writing in a journal. Far away from her family and friends, she had time for self-reflection. "You have to make a conscious choice to use your time positively," she says. “You could use your time to hate people or you can heal yourself. And that's what I did. I did not want to hang around with the prisoners who still wanted to break the law. I didn't hang around with the pity-party people. I understood that association brings assimilation."
Inspired by the late author Donald Goines, a fellow Detroiter and ex-con, she began to write her own stories. Every evening, she would head to the law library, hang a “research in progress” sign on the window to keep others away and disappear into the life of her fictional alter ego, Pamela Xavier. Sometimes, tears would fall from her eyes as she typed. She finished the first drafts of “Let That Be the Reason”and “Imagine This” in prison. Both were hits with her fellow inmates.
The stories contain plenty of sex, profanity, violence and, for those unfamiliar with street culture, incomprehensible slang. That's typical of the hip-hop genre, which took off after the 1999 publication of “The Coldest Winter Ever” by hip hop activist Sister Souljah.
Some complain that Stringer and other urban authors glorify the thug life. Stringer disagrees, calling her stories cautionary tales. The books also get knocked for their rough language and horrible grammar, which seems unfair. Hip-hop authors are trying to capture the urban subculture, warts and all; the characters shouldn't sound as if they stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.
Stringer calls her writing fiction, but it seems more like memoir. She estimates that 90 percent of her writing is true, though most of the names have been changed.
With her manuscripts in tow, Stringer returned to Columbus, first living in a halfway house and then on supervised release (she was required to take regular urine tests). She focused on making it as a writer and refused to let 26 rejection letters from mainstream publishers break her spirit. “She was determined not to fail," says her sister, Lori Stringer, who lives in Columbus. “You could see it in her face and in her actions."
She redirected the entrepreneurial instincts and people skills that made her a good hustler. She self-published her first novel, “Let That Be the Reason,” and proved to be a creative marketer, traveling on her own to other cities and hawking her novel in unlikely places—corner stores, hair salons (she used her old connections). She'd enlist friends and family to help her; Lori Stringer sold copies to her coworkers and members of her church. Customers at Sammy's Auto Clean on Cleveland Avenue bought about 100 copies. “Those were money," recalls carwash owner Sam Cavin. In total, she sold her run of 1,600 copies in three weeks.
The word-of-mouth, grass-roots buzz caught the attention of Upstream, a small publishing house in New York City. The company bought the book in 2002 and gave Stringer a $50,000 advance. Around that time, Stringer and Joylynn Jossel, a self-published Columbus author, participated in a panel discussion at the Spirited Sisters Expo at Veterans Memorial. The two hit it off and went to dinner afterward. "We were at the Spaghetti Warehouse," says Jossel, whom Stringer later signed to Triple Crown. “We were talking about what we wanted to do. I just wanted to be this writer, this household name. She said, 'I have this story, and I was able to pen that story. But I don't really want to be what you want to be. I want to publish. I want to make other people household names.' And she did that."
The two-story beige home is in a peaceful new subdivision off McCutcheon Road. During her hustling days, Stringer used to dream about this kind of neighborhood—manicured lawns, immaculate flowerbeds, wind chimes swinging from shady trees.
She pulls her BMW into the three-car garage, steps out of the SUV and enters her new home, which smells like you've died and gone to lilac heaven. Sometimes, as she walks through her spacious kitchen or relaxes in her sunroom, she thinks this can't be her home; she must have sneaked in.
Stringer is an enthusiastic tour guide on this August afternoon. The first stop is her home office, where there's a framed Boston Globe article about her and Triple Crown. The next stop is the dining room and then on to her son Valen's room. “Isn't it perfect?" she asks.
Indeed, it does seem like a boy's dream come true. There's a big TV, an Xbox, a cool-looking Asian chest for his clothes. “I'm happy," she says. “He's happy. I never thought I would be where I am today."
When Stringer was behind bars, her parents raised Valen, who was 2 when she was arrested. She only saw him once while she was in prison, but she reconnected with him and regained custody about six months after returning to Columbus in 2001. Now, she sends him to Upper Arlington's Wellington School, an expensive and highly regarded private school, and encourages him to be open about his past. Last year at a Big Brothers Big Sisters program at the King Arts Complex, he spoke about his life. In the audience was Gov. Bob Taft. "Secrets enslave you,” Stringer says. “So if you tell people your mother was in jail, no one can tell you first."
Sitting on her back porch, Stringer picks the dead leaves off a philodendron and talks about her future. She says her next book, “Dirty Red,” which will come out in April, will be her last. Writing is too time-consuming, she says, and she wants to spend as much time as possible with Valen. "When my son gets to high school, I really want to be supportive," she says. "He's a seventh-grader now. We really have five years left with each other."
In the future, she'll concentrate on business, which she thinks is her greatest talent. Several writers, including Foye and Jossel, have hired her as their agent, and she's helped them sign with major publishing houses. Stringer also wants to make inroads into the movie business. She sold the film rights to her novels (Stringer says rapper and actress Eve may star), and she someday hopes to produce DVD/video versions of Triple Crown titles on her own.
But her biggest goal isn't business related. She wants to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show. "She'll call," Stringer predicts. "It's coming. I'm trying to lose weight so I'll be ready when Oprah calls."
Why so confident? The answer is on Stringer's finger—a sparkling diamond ring. About two years ago, Stringer took a hard look at the wish list she made in her prison cell in 1998. She had the nice clothes, the BMW, the good job and the book deal. Her family also was doing well. But the ring, the big test, still was missing.
So Stringer grabbed the phone book and called the number for Diamonds, Pearls & Jade, the store where her ex bought the original. Much to her surprise, the original designer, Sophia Prinz, answered the phone.
The next day, Stringer visited Prinz in her Upper Arlington home and couldn't believe her eyes. “That's my ring." Stringer said, staring at the jeweler's finger. Prinz's ring was nearly identical to Stringer's lost one; the center stone was a different shape, but that was about the only difference.
For the next year, the two worked together to recreate Stringer's original. They also formed a surprising friendship. Prinz is a native of Russia with a doctorate in chemistry and an aristocratic pedigree—her father was the conductor of Moscow's world-famous Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra, the oldest in Russia.
The task was challenging. They struggled to find the long, tear-shaped baguettes of the original. But just when the quest seemed hopeless, Prinz told Stringer she found the jewels.
In January of this year, with tears in her eyes, Prinz presented her friend with the finished product. "Your ring came with great sacrifice," the jeweler said. “I'm so proud of you. You touched my heart."
Prinz, too, knew pain. She escaped the Soviet Union for the U.S. in 1974 with $113 in her pocket. She split from her husband and business partner and nearly died in a fire at her house and later an assault in her store. Though they came from different worlds, Prinz felt connected to Stringer and her story. And that's why Prinz made a sacrifice of her own. The jeweler revealed that she removed the eight baguettes from her ring and put them on Stringer's.
She cried, too.
This story orginally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.