Oliver North Does Time Battling Drugs in the Nation's Capital

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Standing by a boarded-up storefront near the corner of 7th and T Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., a group of teenagers eye three approaching men. The youths recognize onetime gang leader Roland "Roachie" Henry and convicted drug dealer Larry McMichael, both of whom recently "crossed over"—went straight. But the other guy, the one in the starched white shirt, gray suit and tie, definitely isn't from the neighborhood. Henry waves the wary teenagers over, then introduces them to the man with the gap-toothed grin, retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. "How old are you...14, 15?" asks North. "How come you're out on the street and not in school?" Looking down at their shifting feet, the boys trot out their excuses. "My mother's in the hospital." "I'm out on half day." After a brief chat, they depart, thinking about North's pitch to recruit them for his latest crusade—the war on drugs.

After his conviction last May for obstructing justice and shredding documents in the Iran-contra scandal, North was sentenced to two years probation, fined $150,000 and ordered to perform 1,200 hours of community service. So, the former presidential adviser has brought his organizing skills to Save America's Future (SAFe), a struggling nonprofit group trying to get kids off Washington's drug-infested streets. Although a U.S. district court has barred North from promoting his work in interviews, he allowed PEOPLE to look in on him at SAFe. There, in a small, windowless office nine blocks from the White House operations room where he plotted to sell arms to the Iranians and illegally supply U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels, North plans strategy with preachers and ex-cons trying to win back the streets. The much-decorated Vietnam veteran now limits his risky patrols to occasional recruiting missions into D.C.'s drug-war free-fire zones, accompanied by an armed bodyguard paid for by the Ollie North legal defense fund. North's new general, John Staggers, founder of SAFe, told the ex-leatherneck, "We're not retrying you. You're my brother. I know you're only required to stay for 1,200 hours, but we want you for life." Vowed North: "I'm yours for life."

North came to SAFe with the asset of name recognition. "Ghetto kids don't see him as a guy who has been convicted of a crime but as a hero," says Henry, 50, who spent 15 years in prison for dealing drugs and became North's colleague after they joined SAFe last August. "As far as they're concerned, he was on the news a lot. If I'm walking with North, they believe me when I say I crossed over."

At first, not everyone was so taken with North. When introduced to the former Marine officer McMichael, 20, was just out of the hospital after being gunned down by two burglars in his D.C. apartment last July. "I wasn't impressed," recalls McMichael, a street hustler who took up drug dealing at 15. "Then he started showing me his bullet wounds from Vietnam—one in his leg, two in his arm, one in the stomach. That's what made me listen and pay attention." North found him a $7-an-hour night job at a printing company, but after two weeks McMichael quit. Dragged into the SAFe offices by Henry to face North, McMichael feared North would give up on him. But North wrapped his arm around McMichael and said, "We gotta talk." The next day, North got him a $13-an-hour construction job. "It's hard getting up at 6 to go catch a bus and work real hard and come home with $45," says McMichael, "when I could have been on the corner hustling and made $4,000. I got to fight myself every day."

North has occasionally proved a mixed blessing for SAFe. When he first arrived, he unleashed a flood of memos and charts from his portable computer. "There's still a lot of bureaucrat in Ollie," chuckles Rev. Al Lawrence, a SAFe organizer. "He kept sending memos and more memos, and I'd just throw them in the trash." North may be a hero on the street, but in certain quarters he remains controversial. In one case, a prominent Washington figure stopped raising funds for SAFe because of North's involvement. Though North averages two speeches a week at an estimated $25,000 per appearance, he is forbidden under court order from any public fund-raising for the group.

North's appeal of his conviction is still pending, leading some to suspect he is on his best behavior in hopes of winning points in court. But Don Lewis, a SAFe organizer who is now a close friend of North's, thinks the doubters are wrong. "Critics will say he's doing this for the publicity," says Lewis. "But the guy I see has a genuine concern. Look, if Roachie lost his ability to size up someone, to see if they could be trusted, he would lose his life. We trust Colonel North." Now, that's rehabilitation.

—Montgomery Brower, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington

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