The engraved invitations had been circulating in New York and Atlanta for weeks. The cards read in gold that a man named “Fireball” was holding a birthday party for “Tobe” on 2819 Handy Drive in the Collier Heights section of Atlanta’s West End. The festivities were due to begin in the wee hours of October 27, 1970, just after the historic comeback of boxer Muhammad Ali, who was in Atlanta to face Jerry Quarry three years before the ring.
The invitations covered both cities because the organizers knew Ali’s return would draw fans from New York and elsewhere. It would also attract hustlers, pimps, drug dealers, and various other men and women by alternative means to make a living. They would all have cash with them and flash expensive jewelry.
Although boxing fans were used to watching robberies in the ring and on the judges̵
Atlanta was not a conventional choice to host Ali’s comeback. From 1967 to 1970, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay had fought against the federal government after he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to do military service in the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison for draft military service.
After Ali was released on bail, he appealed his sentence – but the stigma persisted. The boxer was stripped of his heavyweight championship and effectively banned from the sport, with states refusing to grant the then 28-year-old a competitive license. In the south, where racist tensions remained high, it seemed unthinkable that an official would advocate Ali’s return to the ring.
Robert Kassel thought differently. The New York-based attorney had helped promote a fight against Joe Frazier and knew Ali’s comeback would be a profitable one. So he asked his father-in-law to call Atlanta businessman Harry Pett and Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson. Pett and Johnson were friends; Johnson, one of the few black elected officials in the state, found Ali’s treatment unfair and agreed to see what he could do.
Johnson discovered that Georgia didn’t have boxing laws that left local communities with permission to hold events. Johnson reached out to Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, who continued the fight – assuming Kassel donated $ 50,000 of the proceeds to a drug rehabilitation program in the area.
Ali’s comeback was scheduled for October 26, 1970 against Jerry Quarry, who had recently upset top heavyweight competitor Mac Foster. That weekend, locals and tourists alike came to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta and the 5,000-seat Civic Auditorium and paid up to $ 100 for a seat on the ring. (Fans in other cities could watch the fight on closed-circuit television.) Celebrities like Diana Ross were spotted at the Hyatt. So did guests who wore elaborate outfits and extravagant jewelry. More engraved invitations for Fireballs Party, which was to begin immediately after the fight, were distributed.
Years of ring rust shake off, Ali was declared the winner by technical knockout in the third round when a cut forced Quarry’s coach Teddy Bentham to abandon the fight.
While Ali celebrated his victory at the Hyatt, surrounded by friends and celebrities, truckloads of the not-so-famous attendees gathered at 2819 Handy Drive. When they walked the front door they expected to find a frenzied party. Instead, they were hit by men in ski masks with sawed-off shotguns.
One by one, the partygoers were maneuvered into the basement and asked to throw their money and jewelry in a pile. Then they were told to strip down to their underwear and lie flat on the floor. As more people showed up – it was estimated that there were up to 200 guests – the pile of valuables grew. The victims had to pile up on top of each other. The raid, slow and deliberate, lasted hours; The robbers stuffed the goods into yellow and white pillow cases.
Finally, the armed men left at around 3 a.m. and dragged two hostages with them. You were dropped off on the other side of town three hours later and given a $ 10 cab ride. The police were called and an investigation was soon opened. But solving a robbery in which most of the victims were criminals themselves would not be easy.
The authorities took a close look at the homeowner. a little criminal named Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams. (He got the nickname by buying chicken sandwiches which he then distributed to attractive women in hopes of charm.) However, one of the lead investigators on the case, a lieutenant detective named JD Hudson, knew Williams was relatively clean. Hudson had been hired to serve as Ali’s bodyguard in battle and had seen Williams, whom he had known for decades, at the same time that Williams’ friend Barbara Smith said she was helping prepare the party when the gunmen burst Williams had only given permission to a criminal employee named Fireball to use the house for a party.
References were rare and testimony was difficult to secure. Most of the victims of the robbery had concerns about speaking to the police and did not come out of town. Only five filed official complaints. Most left Atlanta without giving their contact information to the authorities. The only real tip came from an anonymous call from someone saying the heist was set up to pay off a drug deal that went bad in New York City earlier this year.
The first real break came two days later when a shotgun and a yellow and white pillowcase were found in a leather bag near the house. The gun has been traced back to a man named Jimmy “Houston” Hammonds, who said he bought the gun for two friends: James Jackson and James Ebo. Both men had multiple aliases and both were known to be involved in criminal activity. Hudson went to Jackson’s apartment, but no one was home. Still, he was lucky: Jackson’s bed had yellow and white sheets.
A month later, a Fulton County grand jury sued Hammonds, Jackson and Ebo, who were named under his pseudonym James Henry Hall, for six armed robberies each. Hammonds was already in custody, but the other two men were nowhere to be seen. Hudson assumed that one of two things would happen: either the police would find them or their victims – especially now that they had been featured in the papers. If the victims found her, there would be no trial.
Hudson was right. On May 8, 1971, Jackson and Ebo were found shot dead in a Cadillac parked in the Bronx. A third man, Donald Phillips, was also killed. Robbery did not seem likely as both guns and $ 700 cash were left in the car and 11 shots had been fired. New York detectives couldn’t figure out the motive until Jackson and Ebo were identified as suspects of the Atlanta robbery by Hudson, who had flown to New York to consult with authorities. “We said last fall it was just a matter of who caught up with them first – the police or the victims,” said Hudson The New York Times. “It seems that the victims got there first.”
Although a total of five to eight armed men were reported by the victims, no one else was arrested. A third person linked to the crime, “Bookie” Brown, was also found dead. Hudson assumed street justice had come for the rest of them too.
It was incorrectly believed that Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams was killed for his suspected role in the robbery. Local newspapers even reported that Williams was murdered just two days after the party when he was actually alive and well. Williams had worked with the police and then told some New York City staff that he was not involved at all. His girlfriend had even been one of the hostages when the robbers escaped. Williams eventually quit the drug trade and became a minister.
Ali would have his draft evasive conviction overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971 and regain his heavyweight title in 1974 fighting George Foreman. For the fight in the quarry, he received $ 250,000 against 42.5 percent of the proceeds. The robbers set off with an estimated $ 1 million.