Family of Serial Killer Suspect Has Violent History
It is 7 a.m. Saturday and, already, Dorothy Prince is second in a long, lingering line of those who have come to the Jefferson County Jail for a chance to see their loved ones for 20 minutes at a time. She is two hours early to see her son.
People are furiously puffing cigarettes. Children are laughing and scampering over the drab, dirty brown tile, as if this jail lobby were as natural a place to be as a playground.
“Visitor for Cleophus Prince Jr.,” a receptionist says, and a dozen family members step forward.
Dorothy straightens herself for the visit upstairs. She has a kind, round face and radiant smile, which disappears when a reporter approaches. “I did not come here to see you,” she says through clenched teeth.
Dorothy’s mother joins her in line. Dorothy’s 22-year-old daughter, Tesa, and Tesa’s three children--ages 7, 2 and 5 months--fall in.
Cleophus Prince Sr., whom they call “Big Pie,” is here to see his son “Little Pie.” Dorothy divorced him a year before he was released from prison after serving 11 years of a 40-year murder sentence. On this Saturday, he has brought three of his nine children, Cleophus M. Prince, 10; Skyler, 9, and Ciara, 7, all half-siblings to Cleophus Jr.
He also has brought his nephew Roderick, 24. Roderick moved in with Cleophus Sr. after his father killed his mother with 14 swift shots of an automatic rifle.
Cleophus’ girlfriend, Chan Powers, who had just the day before gotten a call from a San Diego police detective asking her if she knew her boyfriend to be “a vicious killer,” has arrived.
She is here to be supportive and says Cleophus is innocent. But she is so jealous of his new girlfriend, Charla Lewis, that she has decided she will not talk to Cleophus on the phone once they get to the eighth floor, where visitors are permitted each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Two weeks ago, Prince was charged with five counts of murder. A 97-page affidavit lays out the case San Diego police and prosecutors have against Prince, who they say entered the homes of five women and brutally stabbed them. Prosecutors may impose the death penalty.
Some aspects of Prince as a serial murderer are unusual, not the least of which is that Prince is black and all of his victims are white. He is one of the few serial killers who has slain people outside his race. Among the others was Vaughn Greenwood, the so-called “Skid Row Slasher,” who was convicted of killing nine white people in Los Angeles between 1964 and 1975.
Family members say Prince had no problem relating to whites and got along well with them in school. His father said the family was taught that prejudice is evil. His sister said Cleophus has a picture of himself and a white woman taken in San Diego, although she knows of no instance in which he dated a white woman. The picture shows Cleophus and the woman hugging and laughing, Tesa said.
“Color is only skin deep anyway,” Tesa said. “When we die, we’re all going to the same place. That’s what we believe.”
The family is strongly united behind Cleophus. He is not capable of any type of violence, much less murder, they said. San Diego police were simply waiting for the right scapegoat incapable of defending himself, they said.
But there have been instances of violence in Cleophus’ life: his aunt’s murder at the hands of his uncle; his father’s murder conviction, where countless visits by Cleophus and his mother were made to jail cells all over Alabama; the accusation in 1984 that his father raped a young woman while his wife held her down, which Cleophus Sr. denied but pleaded guilty to anyway on a misdemeanor charge, and another aunt who shot herself when Cleophus was 7.
Serial killers often have a trace of child abuse in their past, experts say. It is unclear whether Cleophus had ever been abused although his sister says his upbringing, mostly by grandparents, was gentle and loving.
Cleophus Prince Jr. was born to Dorothy and Cleophus on July 24, 1967, just a month or two after they were married. They raised their son in the downtown Birmingham home of Cleophus Sr.'s mother and father.
Less than two years after his son was born, Cleophus Sr. was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for shooting to death a man Cleophus Sr. said pulled a knife on him outside a grocery store where he worked as a butcher.
He said eight men asked him to steal a carton of cigarettes from the store and when he refused, said they would wait for him outside. When he left the store, the men jumped him. Three had knives, he said.
“I killed a man,” said Prince, 43, a burly man with a bushy black beard flecked with white. “I took something I couldn’t give back--a life. If I hadn’t, he would’ve taken mine.”
He spent 11 years, one month and 28 days in prison. And almost every weekend during that time, Dorothy brought their son, and baby daughter Tesa, to jail for visits. About a year before he was released from jail in 1979, Dorothy filed for divorce.
Dorothy had started to work at various jobs to support Cleophus Jr. and Tesa and the children split their time living with Dorothy’s mother and Cleophus Sr.'s parents.
Even now, Dorothy continues to hold two jobs. By day, she works at the food stamp office. By night, she is a security guard at the downtown Civic Center.
Tesa said she and her brother found that growing up with grandparents was carefree, a nice alternative to mom and dad.
“You know grandparents. They give you more attention,” she said. The houses were always filled with children, so many that “you didn’t have to play with anybody outside your family,” Tesa said.
Tesa graduated from Banks High School. Her brother didn’t.
Teachers who worked at Banks, which is now a middle school, can’t easily recall Prince. If they remember him at all its because of his unusual name.
“You remember the outstanding ones or the bad eggs,” said Sgt. Maj. Thomas Tinney, head of the Banks ROTC program at the time. “You don’t remember much in between.”
Tinney did recall that Prince was motivated his first year in the ROTC program, which he took his freshman year. He was “not so motivated” the second year.
Prince took an Armed Forces Qualification Test and scored so poorly, he told Tinney, that he dropped out of ROTC his sophomore year. A semester later, Prince was out of school altogether. Tinney said he was surprised to read that Prince made it into the Navy.
Teachers say Prince hung out with a group of about seven boys, almost all of whom dropped out of school. One boy was expelled for grabbing a teacher, turning him upside down and dropping him on his head.
Still, Prince was not a major discipline problem, said Elbert Morrow, who dispensed punishment for boys at Banks.
“He was a crybaby,” Morrow said. “When I started to get on him in my office like I sometimes have to do, he’d just start crying. I had him in four or five times for missing class or being late. Nothing serious.’
More content to test his skill at Pac-Man and other video games than stay in school or hold down a steady job, Prince escaped Birmingham in 1987 and enlisted in the Navy, a decision his parents heartily supported. He trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago and then was assigned to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, where he worked as a mechanic.
Court-martialed in October 1989, he spent 27 days in the brig for larceny and was discharged two months before he moved into the Buena Vista Gardens apartments, where two of the murder victims were found. A third was found at the apartment complex next door.
Last month, at his mother’s urging, he said he was coming back to Birmingham for a visit. He told his parents that San Diego police were harassing him in connection with a murder case.
Prince flew into town on a Sunday, Feb. 24, and stayed with his mother at the Marks Village housing project of Gate City.
The projects are brick apartments, where dirty drapes are slung low over any window that is not broken and boarded. Clothes and mops hang on laundry lines that are supported by rusted T-shaped iron pipes. The apartments front a small grassy, glass-scattered swath and each cluster of 12 share one tall light pole in an area that is stark and desolate.
Tesa, unmarried, with three children and getting $107 a week in unemployment benefits, says she knows the area is dangerous but there are not many places she could afford for $157 per month.
When her brother came back to visit, she could see he was “the same old crazy Pie who liked to have fun.”
For a week, Prince hung around almost exclusively with two cousins, Edward Jerome (Donny) Prince, who served a year in prison for breaking into a car, and Roderick Prince, whose father is in prison for shooting his mother to death and who now lives with Cleophus Sr.
Prince took Roderick job-hunting in Tesa’s car during the week. They had a good time, Roderick, driving around to all the relative’s homes and greeting everyone.
Roderick is 23, with a trim beard, mustache, diamond earring and gold support for one of his front teeth. His girlfriend is due to deliver his first child this month and he is seriously considering marriage. Having fun in Birmingham, he says, is going to the malls, hitting the video arcades and cruising the streets.
His cousin said nothing about being in trouble with San Diego police. In fact, he mentioned almost nothing at all about San Diego. “I didn’t think to ask,” Roderick said.
“All of us cousins are real close,” he said. “He’s just like the rest of us. He was not violent. He likes to have a good time. The type of person he is, he’s not guilty. The picture they got of him looks nothing like him. I stand behind him 100%.”
Donny said he and Prince did nothing more during the week than try to meet women and go to nightclubs. During the day, they watched TV and drank beer. About the only person in San Diego he mentioned is Charla Lewis, whom he said he loved and intended to marry. “I been knowing him all of my life,” Roderick said, turning defensive. “Little Pie ain’t violent worth a damn. That’s my cousin. Cuz didn’t do nothing. You don’t know how all this makes me feel. I’m closer to him than his own daddy. Cuz ain’t involved.”
Five days after Prince arrived home, he and Donny went to the Sunova Beach nightclub.
“We was drinking everything that night, everything,” Donny said. Prince was drunk when he allegedly reached over and grabbed some money from a tip jar. Security guards held him for the police.
He was released on Saturday and went back home but a Birmingham police officer told him he hadn’t signed the necessary paperwork for his bond.
Cleophus Sr. brought his son to the Eastlake precinct Saturday night and he was re-arrested for murder on San Diego police warrants.
“Why was he willing to go down there anyway?” Cleophus Sr. says. “Because he didn’t have a . . . thing to hide. You’re a grown man, 23 years old, and your father takes you down to the precinct and you know you committed a crime. Would you go?”
His son now sits in jail, making calls to his sister and mother each day and waiting for visitors. His cousin Donny has not yet been to visit. He didn’t know visitors were allowed.
Last weekend, Prince’s attorney in Birmingham invited the family to talk with Loren Mandel, who will be representing Prince in San Diego from the Alternate Public Defender’s Office.
A few family members were invited. By Mandel’s count, 40 showed up.