Tue | Dec 7, 2021

The rise and fall of the Coke empire

Published:Friday | June 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Dudus in the hands of Drug Enforcement Administration guards in New York yesterday. - AP
Funeral home employees view the body of Lester Lloyd Coke in this altered 1992 Gleaner photograph. Coke died from suffocation during a fire in his jail cell.
This mausoleum in May Pen Cemetery marks the resting place of Lester Lloyd Coke, alias Jim Brown. His mother and brother are also buried there. - photos by Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
The grave of St Aubin Coke, alias Chris Royal, one of Lester Lloyd Coke's sons. He was killed by the police in May 2005. Three policemen were killed shortly after Chris Royal's death, thought to be a reprisal for his slaying.
The tombstone of David 'Nunu Puss' Miller, a Tivoli Gardens gangster who was slain on August 31, 2008, in May Pen Cemetery. He is buried beside Jim Brown's mausoleum.
The resting place of Jah T.

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

The much-feared Coke empire reigned supreme in Tivoli Gardens for about a quarter of a century before it was toppled, at a time when the second-generation leadership seemed to have been at its most dominant.

Lester Lloyd Coke, alias 'Jim Brown', the architect of the dynasty, was not always the combative gunslinger of the Wild West he was reputed to be in the years leading up to his death.

In classic dramatic irony, as it emerged in recent weeks, the turnaround for Jim Brown came in 1966, the same year that political warfare ushered a state of emergency into western Kingston.

Jim Brown, then in his late teens, was shot multiple times.

"One Sunday, after politics came into the community and the guys started to gravitate to either the PNP (People's National Party or the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party), he (Jim Brown) was shot by some gunmen. He got about five shots, fell into the gutter water," recalled Carl, a childhood friend of Jim Brown.

"Everyone was so scared to assist him until someone rode up on a bike, held him and brought him to the area now called Tivoli Gardens where he was treated at the health facility back to good health by the medical professionals.

"When Jim Brown re-emerged, he came back as a bad, bad man," Carl recalled. "That is when everything changed."

At the time he was shot, Jim Brown was making something of his life.

"He was a regular Jamaican youth, not an idler. He worked hard because he was apprenticed to a locksmith by the name of Miller in a shop between Regent Street and Chestnut Lane," disclosed Coke's childhood pal.

Carl said at the time there were numerous genuine businesses in the heart of the community.

"You had good mechanic shops and good lumberyards," Carl remembered.

A turn for the worst

Coke did not die, but the experience would have a far-reaching, life-altering effect on him.

It was another state of emergency that would be declared 44 years later to nab Jim Brown's son, Christopher, better known as 'The President' or 'Dudus', who had succeeded him as Tivoli's informal monarch following the patriarch's tragic death in 1992.

But like father, son would run into trouble with the United States on gun- and drug-trafficking allegations.

Carl, who spent his youthful days in western Kingston, recalled that a novel brand of violence was ushered by a frenzied wave of politicking into the region.

Jim Brown's pal remembered him as a good footballer, with whom he played regularly in Denham Town. At the time, Tivoli Gardens had not taken shape and the centre of western Kingston was Denham Town.

"I still can't believe that he (Jim Brown) just changed like that," said Carl, still seeming to be in a state of mild surprise, more than 50 years after they walked the streets together.

At the time, Jim Brown had another name: Ba-Bye.

He said while the well-built Coke could defend himself in a fight, he was never an aggressor.

All this changed the day Jim Brown was attacked.

Carl fondly remembered how when he left high school and got a job, Coke Sr would advise him not to be a victim of rough-tackling footballers during a Sunday evening game.

"Nuh mek dem idle youth ya prevent you from not going to work by injuring you," Jim Brown reportedly warned Carl.

Political poison

At the time, Jim Brown and most of the youths lived in and around Denham Town, but went into the area that later became Tivoli Gardens to participate in sporting activities. Then politics intruded and disrupted it all.

Carl recalled that even an active youth club was transformed into a veritable political football.

"That is the root cause of the changes in the community," declared Carl, in reference to the political incursion.

"Because youth who were friendly, who had amicable relations throughout, changed when the parties came with their agendas."

He said the elder Coke would help to lead the team in a constructive way when they ventured out of western Kingston to play other teams.

At the time Jim Brown allegedly took up arms, he was not the front-line man in Tivoli Gardens.

"There were prominent people like (Claudius) Claudie Massop and (Carl) Byer Mitchell, who were on the front line, but eventually he emerged as the leader of Tivoli Gardens."

As time passed, Jim Brown took unto himself a family and sent his children to prominent high schools.

His eldest son, Mark Anthony Coke, aka 'Jah T', went to Wolmer's Boys School, while Leighton, otherwise called 'Livity', attended Excelsior High. Dudus went to Ardenne High.

Haunted by violence and death

Even when Jim Brown ruled Tivoli Gardens with an iron hand, his children were never known to be troublemakers in school.

The lives of the Coke family members changed again dramatically one fateful Sunday morning in 1992.

The senior Coke was behind bars, locked up at the high-security Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre after losing an extradition battle, when news broke that Jah T, his heir apparent, had been killed.

Jah T was riding along Maxfield Avenue, St Andrew, on a motorcycle when he was attacked. The reprisals were swift and vicious. Police said at least 12 persons were killed within a two-week period.

In February 1992, on the afternoon Jah T was being buried, another tragedy hit the Coke family. Jim Brown died in a mysterious fire in his cell.

With the demise of the father and heir apparent, Dudus, an adopted son, was chosen to lead Tivoli Gardens over 'Livity', to the latter's displeasure.

A truce of sorts was forged between the two living sons and Dudus reigned with a might that had sweeping reach - that is until the US intervened with its extradition request.

After nearly a year marked by diplomatic impasse, political scandal and an unprecedented clampdown by the security forces, the Coke empire has crumbled. Time will tell if it will be buried forever.