Tattooed arms, hair plaited close to his head in corn rows, sporting a long, braided goatee, DeJuan “DJ” Verrett was 210 pounds of prison-yard buff. His tight, white T-shirt was almost pointless, undersized and ripping away from his biceps and thick neck.
Verrett was smoking a cigarette against a wall at a halfway house when he spotted an “old white lady” walking nearby. The gang leader and ex-con from Harbor City, a sometimes tough slice of the South Bay, was 36 and recently released from 17 years behind bars.
His last doughnut was half a lifetime away. He knew what was in the bright pink box the woman was carrying, and he was going to have one, come hell or high water. He followed her into a building and up a flight of stairs.
The woman turned to confront the thuggish Verrett.
“Young man, would you like a doughnut?”
Verrett replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Then come with me.”
Verrett followed the woman and her doughnuts straight into a recovery meeting where love and spirituality were stressed.
“I had to go inside to get that doughnut,” he recalls. “The words I heard from the people in that room were profound.”
People come to Los Angeles from all over to remake themselves. For some, it’s a pretty long, strange trip. The guy at the video store is a part-time assistant director. The waitress at Norm’s has optioned a screenplay for a very modest sum. Verrett is a TV actor with street cred as a former gangster. He didn’t need any stinking acting lessons to show him how to play a convict on one of TV’s hottest series.
The words Verrett heard from the lady he calls Liz led him to a new path. He swapped shot-calling for a recurring role on Sons of Anarchy, which on Dec. 9 ended its final season on the FX channel.
These days, instead of pushing crack, Verrett pushes his twin daughters in a stroller. It’s a 43-mile drive from Harbor City to his place in Pacific Palisades. In his youth, the Palisades was the other side of the universe.
He came to a recurring role on Sons of Anarchy the way people in the Midwest thinks it works here all the time. A television producer approached him at a workshop on addiction. She liked his look and asked if he thought he could act.
“Playing a convict on TV was real easy,” Verrett says, laughing. He parlayed his experience into a three-year gig on Sons, which can still be seen on PlayStation Store, Google Play and Amazon. He’s had roles on Cougar Town, Melrose Place and Cold Case.
Verrett does some of his best work when he’s playing a con. He does his very best when he talks to real cons about changing their lives.
Once a month, DJ, a nickname earned because he has worked nearly every club on the Sunset Strip as well as the Nokia Theatre — goes back in jail. Each time, it’s with a message for men who have given up: “If I can kick, you can kick. Come as you are, but don’t leave as you came.”
In the old neighborhood, he’s called “Ghost” because of his pale skin. His mother and father were black. He never knew his father and wasn’t sure how to explain his light skin until he saw a picture of his great-grandfather, “who looked like Colonel Sanders.”
Gang members took the place of his father, a story as old and real as the history of gangbanging in Los Angeles. “They groomed me on how to survive on the streets,” he said one recent day.
He left home at 15, living in motels and selling $1,000 worth of crack daily. His “mentors” taught him to never smoke his own product. Instead, Verrett found pot and his favorite drink — a mix of gin and a nasty caffeine fuel called Super Socko. It was the late 1980s and Southern California’s crack epidemic was spreading from the ghettos to suburbia.
“I was taught that crack addicts have no morals,” he says. “Crack addicts would steal from their kids, steal from their mothers. I snorted powder cocaine, but if you snorted powder you weren’t considered an addict. Snorting was just partying. I was the boss of my block. I was BG Ghost. Baby Gangsta Ghost. I had $500,000 in cash and was unhappy. I thought I’d find happiness with more money, more things and more women. I did not.”
One day, “I grabbed my pistol and some gin and wanted to pull the trigger because the gin wasn’t easing the pain.” He didn’t follow through, he says, “because I didn’t want to kill my mother’s only son.”
He points to old stab wounds. At 15, Verrett survived a drive-by, the bullet striking him in the back. His friend who was slinging crack with him that day died as Verrett held him. The downside of the hustle.
“We thought this was the natural way of life,” he explains.
His friend’s murder didn’t stop him. On Feb. 5, 1990, “My mentors were busted at the Greyhound bus station.” The next day, the DEA arrested Verrett after his mentors turned on him. A judge put him away him for trafficking 11 pounds of cocaine.
“The ones who brought me to this way of life gave me up,” he says. “They gave up the Ghost.”
Verrett got into so much trouble in jail that he went through a revolving door of 13 prisons over 17 years. At the end of 2006, he was released and eager to return to previous glory. But the pink-box lady named Liz posed a new dilemma. He was either going to stick with his bad-guy mode or listen to her words of redemption, a 21st-century Lazarus tempted by a doughnut to rejoin the living.
“I was somebody on the street,” Verrett thinks back. “I was one of the shot callers, a true gangster. I worked hard to get my reputation. I earned my stripes. A million dollars a day in crack was sold in the projects. People came from everywhere, Redondo Beach to Pacific Palisades in Ferraris. Do you know how long it takes to count a million dollars in fives, 10s and 20s? I do, because I counted it.”
That was then. These days, Verrett is a convincer, working as a motivational speaker. He returned to high school and graduated, then went to community college. Besides acting and motivational talks, Verrett is a certified drug and alcohol counselor. The second edition of his book, Inside Job: From Life in the Maze to an Amazing Life, is out and he’s basking in fatherhood.
A highly polished, marine-blue Honda Sabre motorcycle takes him to self-help meetings. Nonprofits are enamored with Verrett and his message of hope. They like to fly him to distant cities where he can share what he’s learned with prisoners, the most recent being Cook County Jail, Chicago.
He’s as cool as you would expect a street boss to be. It’s probably why felons listen to him when he tells them people can change.
In 2012, he married Sue and they have twin daughters, Lola and Leigha. Verrett said he’ll tell his daughters about his ugly past as well as his redemption. Coming clean is the only way to be clean, he says.
“I get to be a husband to my wife,” he adds, “and the father I never had.”
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