DRUG KINGPIN NOW A PERSONAL TRAINER TO ELDERLY ADULTS
It was a stinging 9 degrees on a recent Thursday morning when Thomas Mickens bounded into the Rochdale Village Senior Center in Jamaica, Queens. He was 15 minutes early to teach his 8:30 a.m. aerobics class, and his boisterous entrance was met by friendly jabs and laughter from about three dozen enthusiastic older people. The group ranged from 60 to 89 years old, most on the younger side of old age; none relied on walkers and only two had canes.
Over the next hour, Mr. Mickens had his aging students working with 1-, 2- or 3-pound weights, stretching muscles, and doing chair and standing exercises. At one point, he had them doing the wave in their chairs. “Looking good. A little higher. Work with me,” Mr. Mickens, 50, coached over an R&B soundtrack.
“They’re picking five people out of this class to go to the Senior Olympics,” he joked as he led them in leg lifts. “Are you good? No, you’re great!”
“I go to four of his classes a week,” said Audrey Williams, lean and agile at 84, who drove about 10 blocks to get to class and attends another one Mr. Mickens teaches at a senior center in Rockaway. “It’s his personality — and the workout. He notices everything.”
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Thomas Mickens turned his focus to teaching exercise to older adults. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Mr. Mickens dreams big. Right now, as president and C.E.O. of the Tommy Experience, a fitness company focused on older adults, he says he wants to turn his company into an international brand, as big as Bally Total Fitness and Equinox. He envisions sports merchandisers like Nike and Under Armour sponsoring his company and providing comfortable workout clothes for the 60-and-above set, “to sponsor their grandmothers, aunts and grandfathers like they would sponsor kids or a team.”
While his stated mission is to help older people transform themselves, it is also about his own transformation — and redemption. In 1989, Mr. Mickens, then 25, was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering and tax evasion. He was fined $1 million and sentenced to 35 years in federal prison.
His criminal organization was vast. “We had so many different locations to hit: co-conspirators’ homes, his house, his businesses,” Michael McGuinness, a now-retired detective who supervised the narcotics investigation, said of the raid in which Mr. Mickens was arrested. He described Mr. Mickens as one of the top five drug kingpins in southeastern Queens in the mid-to-late ’80s, with more than 50 people on the streets selling drugs for him.
According to court documents, Mr. Mickens had amassed 18 properties, including a five-bedroom, five-bathroom retreat in the affluent Long Island community of Dix Hills; 18 luxury cars, including two Rolls-Royces, two Mercedes-Benzes, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini; and a 38-foot Bayliner yacht kept near a condominium Mr. Mickens owned in California. Prosecutors estimated that he made more than $2.5 million in four years from the sale of cocaine, not including proceeds used for down payments on properties and cars.
“It was extraordinary how young he was and how much he accumulated,” said Patricia A. Pileggi, who led the public corruption unit in the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn at the time. “The financial investigation told an amazing story of unexplained wealth, aliases and money laundering.”
Mr. Mickens’s street name was Tony Montana, after Al Pacino’s murderous character in the 1983 film “Scarface,” but unlike other drug lords in southeastern Queens, he was never implicated in any killings. “I don’t know everything, but Tommy was not known to be violent,” Mr. McGuinness said. “But this was the atmosphere he was operating in.”
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Mr. Mickens used some of his proceeds to open businesses with the Montana name near his retail drug sites in Laurelton, Hollis and the Rockaways in Queens, including a sporting goods store, a deli and two dry cleaners. He says he was trying to bring quality stores to the neighborhood. Authorities said it was possible he used the stores to launder money from drug sales or was setting up an exit strategy.
On May 10, 1988, it all came to an end, when a team of F.B.I. agents and New York Police Department narcotics officers showed up at his door.
“In prison, everything stops,” Mr. Mickens said. Behind bars, he lived much of his life in flashback. He wrote in journals and reconsidered the self-confidence his mother had instilled in him. “It was a blessing and a curse,” he said.
His mother died while he was in solitary confinement. As Mr. Mickens told the story to one of his classes recently: “My mother was in a nursing home. She was half paralyzed from a stroke, and no one would help or motivate her. I want to help you because I couldn’t help my mother. Every one of you I see as my mother.”
While imprisoned, he worked out frequently and at one point was housed in a facility with disabled prisoners. As he tells it, he decided to do for them what no one would do for his mother. “I showed them different routines to strengthen their upper body,” he said. “They were so touched that I helped them.”
After serving 20 years, Mr. Mickens was paroled in August 2008. “He came out with both feet on the ground and running,” said Lawrence Goldman, a senior United States probation officer who oversaw Mr. Mickens until May 2011. “He had grand plans.”
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Thomas Mickens, above in 1983, hopes to expand his company internationally. Credit Collection of Tommy Mickens
After his release, Mr. Mickens worked as a subcontractor for another fitness group, leading two senior classes a week, and got his certification as a personal trainer. By May 2009, he was working for himself. Now he keeps a detailed spreadsheet of the 79 nursing homes and senior centers, from Long Island to New Jersey, where he routinely provides exercise classes, as well as facilities where he and his team fill in when staff members are out sick or on vacation. He’s working on expanding to Washington by the fall.
“His class packs them in,” said Andrea Rivette, the recreation director of Maple Pointe Assisted Living, a place where the median age is 85 and many residents rely on walkers to get around. Maple Pointe, in Rockville Centre, Long Island, was Mr. Mickens’s next stop after the Rochdale center.
Toward the end of the class, jazz music segued into the powerful beat of Mr. Mickens’s theme song, “Eye of the Tiger,” from the film “Rocky III.”
“Make a fist. Let’s go,” he exhorted the group doing chair exercises. He began counting. “Are you weak? No, you’re not weak!” Newly powerful, the men and women threw their punches at the air.
Few of the people in Mr. Mickens’s classes know his background. Cathy Cahn, a caseworker at SNAP (Services Now for Adult Persons) Brookville Senior Center in Rosedale, Queens, said he had a special ability to connect with the elderly. She was floored to discover his past when he sent her a text that was linked to an article about him.
“That somebody could turn so completely around to becoming one of the healthiest people, and inspiring good health and wellness among seniors; it’s like two different people,” Ms. Cahn said. “I said to him, ‘I would have loved to have known you back then,’ and he said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’ ”
Mr. Mickens usually steers clear of Merrick Boulevard in Laurelton and the other sections of southeastern Queens where his drug empire operated. But on this day he stopped at 232nd Street and Merrick as part of a tour of his past.
“It’s the first corner I started hustling on, selling loose joints and nickel bags,” he said.
When he was about 10, Mr. Mickens said, he started helping shoppers carry groceries to their cars for tips at the Grand Union and wound up organizing a crew of youngsters. A friend piqued his interest in selling marijuana when he was 13, and he gave it a try. He bought a bag for $3, rolled the stuff into eight joints and sold each one for $1.
Merrick and 226th Street was the center of his old empire. The Queens Church of the Firstborn now sits on the corner where the Montana Lounge and the Montana Grocery were. There is no hint of Montana Sporting Goods.
“I don’t take pride in what I did to my community,” he said. “I deserved the time I got. I recommend nobody to follow my path. But I feel great now. I provide jobs for people now, but it’s the right way.”
Swinging back around to Merrick Boulevard, Mr. Mickens stopped short and started honking his horn. He spotted an old friend, wearing a tattered mink coat, looking years older than he should. They smiled and laughed and chatted briefly. You could see the hard life of the street etched in his friend’s skin.
After the man left, Mr. Mickens shook his head. “That’s why I don’t come to my neighborhood,” he said. “It hurts that I grew up with these guys, but I can’t hang with these guys. I left a trail, but I can’t clean it up.”
(reprinted from the NY TIMES 3/2/14)