A Gunman Who Had No Bullets

He was high on crack the morning he smashed a stolen car into the Macon Mall and took a woman hostage. After a decade in prison, he wonders if anyone will trust him again. Because for six hours in July 1993, he was a spectacle of the rarest order. He was . . .
   A Gunman Who Had No Bullets

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published Oct. 26, 2003
Lafayette Hall didn't need bullets. He had a four-door Hyundai. The morning he used it, he had crack in his pocket and the police on his tail. The morning he aimed it at a Sears and gunned it into the shoe department, glass shattered and people cried.

When he went to court seven months later in early 1994, after giving a confession that was 16 pages long, he wanted to plead guilty. He needed to plead guilty. He needed to go someplace where it wouldn't be so easy for him to score crack cocaine.

He needed time. He got it. Twenty-plus years.

But this isn't the sob story of a convict longing for freedom, passing the time as he does stitching sleeves onto inmate uniforms in a sewing factory at Hancock State Prison. It is about a real-world, a free-world, unknown. Whether a convict can unshred his life by being good in prison, and, then, deem himself fit for freedom. It is also about, having lost trust, gaining it. Or trying to. And it is about a man realizing that a gun with no bullets can still kill. Because what that man hadn't counted on was what a gun with no bullets could kill, what it could all but blast to smithereens: his word.

When he went and got himself in trouble, in the process he shamed the woman who would save him. The woman who would beg him to trust a preacher he didn't know and to set a hostage free. The woman, his mother, who one day not long after he went to prison, visited him and said, "I don't trust you."

* * *

When Lafayette Hall whammed into the Macon Mall on the first July morning of 1993, he was looking for a place to get stoned.

But miles before he ever whipped that Hyundai into the mall parking lot and stomped it toward Sears, his world had already peeled out of control.

He was discharged from the Marines in 1975. He was always showing up late. He told a higher-up, "I don't care."

He was in his early 20s, stationed in California. "That's where I took my first main drugs, like acid," he says. "Then I just continued it, off and on the rest of my life. Nothing but drugs."

Five years after he left the Marines he was back in Georgia, in Columbus, his hometown. And before long he was in prison for robbery and car theft. Paroled in 1983, he returned to jail three months later for stealing another car and trying to elude police. He was paroled after serving a year in prison.

In 1987, he was jailed for stealing another car and, again, trying to outrun police. That run-in earned him a 10-year sentence. He served a little more than two years before being paroled in 1990.

On the street, crack consumed him. All he cared about was getting looped, feeling, he says, like "you're laying down or in some kind of odd position where the blood is not really circulating through your body properly and you stand up and get dizzy and you have to grab on to something or hold on. That's exactly the feeling of crack. It's a rush that don't last no time, like 30 seconds. Then you want a hit again."

He stole more cars. In them, he trolled shopping-center parking lots. Hall told investigators he'd ease up beside women walking to or from their cars and swipe their purses. He said he did it about 100 times, maybe more.

Hall was so strung out he resorted to flashing a toy badge to swindle crack from street dealers.

Hurting for a hit one night in late June of '93, he held up a Waffle House. He pointed his pistol at a waitress. She refused to open the cash drawer. She looked at him like he was a kook.

He was 38 years old and unemployed.

He'd been cruising Atlanta, where his mother had moved, in a stolen import in search of places to rob. He used the proceeds to buy crack. He held up a Subway sandwich shop, a Krystal and then that Waffle House.

"I pulled a gun out and everybody run out of there," Hall recalls. "Just the customers. The lady had the cash register opened at the time and I was reaching over and the lady closed the drawer. She just stood there. I told her, 'Open that drawer up.' She just stood there. So I just grabbed the whole cash register and ran out the door with it."

About a block away, Hall tripped over the register's electrical cord. The register hit the street and busted to pieces. Hall scooped up $180. Enough to get high, get gas and get out of Atlanta, maybe as far as Florida.
But not enough to buy bullets.

And, in the end, not enough to get past Macon.

* * *

Hall had at least one bullet left the night he hit Macon.

He later told police that he'd fired into the air for emphasis while robbing a drug dealer who'd been reluctant to part with his wares.

The blue-steel .38 he was toting had been in a purse Hall snatched that June. He'd had it for maybe 10 days during his stickup spree.

"I shot all the bullets out of it. Mostly I'd be shooting it at cans, or, at night, I'd shoot at a stop sign to see if I could hit it," Hall says. "Wish I never would have found that gun."

In Macon for the first time in his life, Hall picked up a wandering addict sometime after midnight.

"It was early in the morning, maybe 3 or 4, somewhere in there. I could tell he was on crack, too, so I asked him if he knew where I could buy some at. He said, 'Yeah.' So we went to one guy, bought some, smoked it up, then we went to another guy. ... I robbed him of his crack. And the dude was still (riding) with me. He wanted to hang with me. So I told him, 'You know anybody else?' So by that time he knew what the deal was," Hall says. "He knew I was gonna rob whoever he take me to."

The sun had been up for a few hours by the time Hall held up his last dealer, a guy on Ell Street, southwest of downtown and just east of Interstate 75.

"I called him over to the car, and he showed me a handful of rocks. I pulled out the gun and told him I was a undercover police officer. He just pulled everything out of his pockets," Hall says. "And just my luck, the police come around the corner to see it."

As the Macon police officer rode up, Hall's passenger got out and ran. Hall drove off.

"I said, 'No way. I got this crack in my pocket. I'm fixing to smoke this,'" Hall says. "That was the main reason for the chase. I'm trying to find somewhere to smoke."

He smoked while he drove out Mercer University Drive. Occasionally he'd stick the gun out the window.

"I don't know how many police are behind me then," he says. "It had to be an army of them. ... They were ramming me from the back, trying to crash me. And it just so happened I come up on the mall. The mall just come out of nowhere. And I said, 'That's where I'm going. I'm gonna run off in there.' And I knew when I got right up to it, I said, 'Ain't no way in hell I'll be able to get out of this car and run in there.' So I made a stupid decision."

* * *

A grandmother and her 5-year-old grandson heard Hall coming. They were in the mall, inside Sears. He was still outside in that stolen Hyundai, navigating the parking lot. As soon as he hung a left at the Sears automotive center, the grandmother "knew he was gonna come in that mall."

She grabbed her grandbaby's hand and dashed toward the shoe department. "Then," she says, "I heard all that glass breaking. And the next thing I know, he had hit me."

Pinned against a table, Leola Carnegie cried out. Not because she was injured, but because ... where was her grandson?

"I just knowed he was under that car dead," Carnegie says.

The driver of the car climbed out and broke for the inside of the mall.

Carnegie did all she could do. She yelled: "You done killed my grandson!"

But Carnegie's 5-year-old grandson, Kelvin, had done what the police could not do on that first July morning in 1993. He stayed a step ahead of Hall.

As the runaway Hyundai closed in, Kelvin had shot the other way, which, it turned out, was the right way.

"I saw him peeping around the corner," Carnegie says. "He came over to me, and I kissed him and hugged him and said, 'Lord have mercy, I'm glad you're all right.' He thought I was dead. He told me I couldn't run fast enough."

No, Hall was not a killer that morning. What he was, his mother would say, was blown away.

* * *

One could argue that other than the Great Flood of '94, which would come almost exactly a year later, Hall's standoff with police amounts to perhaps the most publicized breaking-news event in Macon history.

The mall closed and a square mile around it was cordoned off. The standoff made live television. In Atlanta.

For part of a cloudless morning and a 95-degree afternoon police waited Hall out.

People were watching, too. Folks couldn't help themselves. They lined Bloomfield Road in front of the Olive Garden and said things like, "This is something that's never happened around here," and, "This is the most excitement Macon's had in a long time."

And all of it was set in motion by a man no one here had ever heard of.

Heck, the cops were calling him Richard at first.

Richard was the first name of an on-the-loose suspect in a decapitation killing in Florida. This Richard had local ties and had vowed not to be taken alive. The way the police figured it, flooring a Hyundai into the side of a mall and grabbing a hostage certainly seemed the act of a man not too interested in survival.

Hall says, "They kept calling me 'Richard,' saying, 'Richard, end this thing.' I ask [the hostage], I say, 'Your name Richard?' She said, 'No.' I said, 'Who the hell they calling Richard? My name ain't no Richard.'"

It wasn't until Hall tossed his driver's license out of his hiding spot that his identity became known.

Hall remembers telling his hostage, "Now they done got SWAT down here," and thinking, I know I'm dead. I know it's just a matter of time before they kill me.

So, he figured, why not go out high?

"The first thing I did was put me some crack in that [crack] pipe and I lit up. I said, 'Well, at least I got me a place I can smoke, away from them to buy me some time to smoke.' So I smoked and smoked and smoked. Smoked it all up. ... I was crazy back there," Hall says. "I asked [the hostage] to stand up and I got behind her and I looked out there. ... I was thinking they probably had orders to take me out, thinking, This fool back there on crack with a gun, and he got a hostage."

Then the cops started asking Hall questions. They wanted to know what was going on, what his name was and whether he'd hurt the hostage.

Hall just smoked his crack and lied. He didn't have any bullets, but he told the police he had four or five and that he aimed to use them. He'd tell his hostage he didn't want to go back to jail. At least 10 times, he'd cock the revolver and hold it to her head.

Hall says, "They even called the hostage by her name, right off. She said, 'I'm all right. I'm just sitting back here.' ... She talked on her own. Matter of fact, she was talking the whole time back there. ... After I hit that crack, I remember telling her, I said, 'Listen, I don't want to hurt you, and I'm not gonna hurt you. I've just got you to buy me some time. You just happened to be there.'"

But he didn't let her in on his little secret. "I wasn't gonna tell anybody what the situation with the gun was, that it was empty," he says. "I wouldn't tell her or nobody."

Not even his mother.

* * *

Essie Long suddenly became her son's only hope.

She was just back from her regular Thursday-morning hairdo appointment when reporters started calling. An Atlanta television station dispatched its helicopter to fly Long from Decatur to the mall down in Macon where her son was holed up in a gift shop, a place called The Briar Patch.

She didn't know it, but her boy was so messed up that he was considering killing himself with a gun that held no bullets.

The TV-news people were nice enough to fly Long down so she could play the role in every script about some nut with his back against a wall, a gun in his hand and a person to aim it at.

Long was supposed to try and "talk him out." But, of course, the news people with the helicopter came at a price: the inevitable interview. Long remembers one question, the best one, the question that took all the history a mother and child can have and pressure-cooked it down to "what are you gonna say to your son?"

But think about that for a minute. What would you say to a son who had just smashed into a shopping mall in broad daylight? What would you tell a son who had wasted chance after chance after chance and finally gone and taken that final, climactic wrong turn in Hall's case, a hard left toward indefinite incarceration, even death?

Long, at that moment, knew of only one thing that could help. One thing more powerful than "put down the gun." One thing more honest than "let the lady go."

There was really only one thing to tell him now.

Days before, he had left messages on her answering machine that said she was never going to see him again. Her son had, she says, gone off on "his drug ride." And that was after spending five months in a four-month rehab program.

So he was lucky to have his mother on his side. Lucky it was her on the line telling him what she'd already told the TV-news people with the chopper when they put her on the spot and asked her what she was going to say to him.

Because she'd told him exactly what he wanted to hear: "That I love him."

* * *

A man toting a gun with no bullets has to believe in that gun.

If he can, he can make that gun become his noise even if it can't go bang.

And he can make someone else do the killing for him.

After he smacked into Sears and grabbed a hostage, Hall finished off his crack and dreamed up a way to finish off himself.

He had $1.36 in his pocket and an empty gun in his hand. He was suicidal. But he couldn't just stick that blue-steel .38 to his temple and squeeze the trigger. No bullets.

So what he was gonna do was march out of his hiding place toward a swarm of cops and point that empty gun at them.

But then his mother was on the phone. And then, at the end, a preacher volunteered to ease into the shop unarmed and try to calm him.

Hall confronted the preacher immediately. With a question.

"How come some people's faith are weak and some people's aren't?"

Hall recalls that the preacher "explained it some kind of way that you just have to have faith."

And then, after six hours, it was over.

Hall surrendered to the preacher.

Hall says, "Something just told me to trust this man."

* * *

Lafayette Hall looks lonely in prison.

His physique has lost the lankiness that crack lent him in his 30s. But he is in shape for a man whose weakness is iced honey buns from the prison snackbar.

He isn't doughy, but his 5-foot, 10-inch frame is 25 pounds plumper than it was a decade and a half ago when he weighed 165 and braved the beams of high-rises as a structural welder.

He is soft-spoken but terse at times, speaking of his past as though it might, if told in clips, be willed more fleeting.

"Man, that ain't me, period," Hall says, shaking his head. "Never in my life had I committed anything in my life with violent intentions."

If he hadn't pleaded guilty to his crash into the mall and the run of robberies that led to it, Hall figures he'd be pulling 145 years instead of the 25 he bargained for.

Now 10 years in he reckons he's ready to get out.

And when his visitor mentions the woman he held hostage, Hall wonders, "How is that lady doing that I held hostage? Hopefully there is no ill faith against me."

But what if "that lady" doesn't want him to know how she is doing? What if she is doing fine, working her job at an Air Force base, trying to lead a normal life, and not one bit interested in some story about a man in state prison now sharing a cell with his conscience?

That man will just have to trust that there is no "ill faith" against him. Because "that lady" isn't talking.

"That lady," by the way, has a name. You won't read it here. She has already done her time. She was 34 years old that July morning in 1993, strolling through the mall with her mother. They'd just left the Hallmark store. Her mother begged Lafayette Hall not to take her. Her mother pleaded, "Take me!"

Every once in a while, "that lady" reminds her mother how many months and years it's been since that day. But her mother says by phone that her daughter "don't dwell on it at all."

"That lady" still goes to the mall. But she wants no part in making sense of what kind of man drags a woman away at gunpoint so he can get high. All she will say is "I'd just rather forget about what happened."

Her mother, though, mentions something about what did happen. About how when that madman snatched her daughter, her daughter was so ... trusting.

* * *

Let's say trust is something even deeper than love. Let's say that you can love someone and still not really trust them. Take the mother of a child who steals and steals and steals from her. She may love him and, yet, lose trust.

Now let's say one day that child decides to do right, to try and become the most respectable man alive. Let's say he decides this only after he gets in the worst trouble of his life, after he hands over the gun with no bullets and lets his hostage go. How can that child, that man, be trusted again?

There are imprisoned men who this very second will tell you who will insist that they can be trusted, that prison can render them reformed.

But, you say, anyone staring down the cold, black hole of even a quarter-life sentence is liable to tell you anything you want to hear.

Lafayette Hall knows this. He knows what you're thinking. Still he says he can be trusted. He more than says it. He writes it. In a letter for this story, he penned six pages to let it be known that "life is too short ... I can't pretend no more."

He writes of how as a child he did steal from his mother, how he did it to get her attention. To him, she seemed to always be at work or doing something at church. And when she was home it seemed like her friends were always around.

Then in 1993 he got a gun and got himself plenty of attention at that mall in Macon. Thinking back, that gun was loaded after all with a hollowpoint of a question.

A question about which Hall writes:

I blame no one but me. ... We trust each other to keep our tempers in check. Trust is a powerful word. With trust we all become free to live. ... Trust is the key which helps to keep us all from failing repeatedly. ... The degree of your mistake determines your pennance. You are angry. You curse your boss. You say, "I'm sorry," and go on. You steal, you go to prison, you go home. The time away from society is your, "I'm sorry." ... Trust start within. Trust bring honesty. ... Your past is always held against you. You can never win their 100 percent trust, but you can achieve some inner remorse of the damage in yourself. ... I want so bad to be honest with society ... to walk and ride the city bus with no one fearing me.

Since he's been in prison, Hall's mother has asked him, What can you tell me to convince me that you're gonna straighten up?

He remembers her telling him, How in the hell do I know if you get out today that you ain't gonna do the same thing tomorrow?

Of all the people such a scolding could come from, Hall respects that from his mother.

Who better than the woman who saved him to draw him out?

"So now," he says, "I got to convince her. I just tell her, point-blank, that 'you know that ain't me.' ... She'll say, 'Yeah, but you always in trouble.' I say, 'Yeah, that's true.' ... So I say, 'OK, yeah, I always been in trouble. What will I do now to convince you I won't get in no more trouble? And I say, 'Well ... you just have to trust me,' because there is no way you can really tell somebody something like that."

But if you are Lafayette Hall you have to try. You have to take pride in your various certificates of achievement.

Like the one that "hereby recognizes Lafayette Hall as having successfully completed [an] 842 hour course" to become a "sewing machine operator."

Or the diplomas that validate completion of courses called "victim impact" and "family violence" and "recovery concepts" and "social ethics" and "relating to the opposite sex" and "relapse prevention."

And you have to say things like "if a person stuck a gun to my head today and said, 'Smoke this [crack],' I'd say, 'You're gonna have to go on and shoot me.'"

* * *

So here sits a man who made a splash that left remarkably few ripples. No shots were fired. The mall he invaded re-opened within an hour of his surrender. He never went on trial.

Many of the people he shocked have long since forgotten the name Lafayette Rufus Hall.

At 48, a patch of gray fogs the leading edge of his hairline.

Hall now says he is a man who "wouldn't hurt a fly unless he land on me. I hate flies."

He says he has to trust in himself.

To trust that when he writes about "one crazy day 10 years ago" and how he wants to "thank the Lord for not having my life taken that day," that you won't read it and think, Selfish.

Hall has to trust in his common-law wife, the woman who visits him and poses with him and smiles in front of a cheery backdrop with dolphins on it that the prison strings up for visitation-day photos.

Hall also has to trust that the folder his mother dropped off at the state parole board late last month will somehow strike its mark. Because inside it is his case seeking another parole-eligibility hearing.

After his first parole review in July of 2000, the parole board wrote him a letter that said releasing him then "would not be compatible with the welfare of society."

After reading that and the accompanying words, "The Board has established you a tentative parole month of July 2013," Hall came the closest he's ever come to crying in prison.

But Hall has to trust that the society he wounded, the society he will probably one day re-enter, can live with the simple and yet profound question his bullet-less gun raised.

Here's another question, though. Ask Hall this: Had he had bullets that day in the mall, what then?

The man who was the gunman with no bullets shakes his head at that one.

He's honest enough. He knows he cannot answer that, at least not in a way that you knowing only what he did and not knowing him would believe.
 
Still, there is a deeper question: Can you ever trust a man who brandished a gun with no bullets?

Lafayette Hall answers, "Yes, with no doubt. But I know a lot of people would say different."




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