This Boy's Life : A teenager emerges from months of captivity in the shadowy haunts of drug dealers. Did his mother 'sell' him, as police suspect? Or was he willingly trying to pay off her crack debt? All his grandmother can do is wonder how their world fell apart.

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Regina Carter's house on the east side is a shrine to the old days. The rooms are filled with reminders of her past.

Propped neatly on the living room floor, amid other Motown memorabilia, is a cracked, faded Marvin Gaye album cover, "Live at the London Palladium." In another room, collections of outdated issues of Ebony and Jet magazines clutter the place. Plastered on virtually every wall are photographs of Carter's family, their smiling faces long-ago frozen in eternal cheer.

But tonight the 54-year-old Carter can't escape the present. The phone keeps ringing to remind her. A friend calls. Now a relative. Another reporter. All have the same question: How did life come to this?

Just three days earlier, Detroit police had rescued Carter's 15-year-old grandson, Tazar, from the city's drug world, where he'd been held captive for several months.

Tazar's story first made international headlines on Nov. 27, when police successfully appealed to the public to help find him after their own search failed. Police said they believed Tazar had been sold by his mother, a 33-year-old crack addict, to settle a drug debt and was being abused by the dealers who held him captive.

But Tazar maintains that his mother wasn't involved, that he did this on his own to pay off her debt, that she tried to stop him.

At night, Tazar Carter sleeps in the county juvenile home as police try to sort out just what happened to him. They want to prosecute his mother and the drug dealers.

Since Nov. 27, Regina Carter, who has raised the boy for years, hasn't seen him except for a few minutes. The detectives seem to want all of his time. They, as well as his grandmother, want Tazar to tell them just how this could have happened.

"He told me a little, but I want to know everything," she says, sitting in her houseful of reminders of the old days. "I never thought that this would come to this in a million years."

*

It didn't take a million--just a decade or so.

Regina Carter can pinpoint the year: 1984. It was then that she moved into her home on the east side, a community filled with working-class neighbors. Carter has five adult children, and with their kids, her small wood-sided house was a mass of people. Tazar was just 4, and his little brother, Arsenio, was a baby.

For Carter, family life was pleasant and hectic. On weekends, cousins, grandkids and friends would pile into Carter's '82 Dodge station wagon for a trip to the circus or to the drive-in or to Belle Isle for a picnic. Other times, she and her extended family would stay home, crowd around the TV set, eat popcorn and watch a movie on the VCR.

Back then, her daughter Mary wasn't using crack. Most of Detroit, in the mid-1980s, hadn't even heard of the seductive drug. Even then, though, Mary Carter wasn't living the best of lives. She was poor, and she was raising Tazar without his father, who had disappeared after Mary told him she wouldn't buy him a motorcycle with her welfare money.

A few years later, Carter recalls, Mary and her girlfriends started to experiment with little yellow rocks of crack. That's when life took a U-turn for Regina Carter and her family.

What follows is what Regina Carter, police investigators and court records say eventually led to the events of Nov. 27.

As her daughter was drawn deeper and deeper into the drug world, Regina Carter was forced to assume more and more of the child-rearing duties for Mary's two boys and a baby daughter, named after her grandmother, who was born while Mary was on crack.

The three children strained Regina Carter's resources. The little girl's bedroom is what used to be a foyer near the front door. It is a tiny room with a little bed, atop which sit a pink elephant and two bears, one brown, one blue. There's just enough room for a little plastic chair.

The children call their grandmother "Momma," their mother, "Tiny," a nickname she's had since infancy.

When they did see Tiny over the years, they treated their mother like a sister. "I told them to love her," Regina Carter says.

But loving a crack-addicted mother proved hard. Tazar told his grandmother that Tiny smoked crack in front of him, and he showed outward signs of despair over her problem when he was 9, penning two essays about the uselessness of trying to stay away from drugs and gangs.

Carter says her grandson daydreamed about moving away from his nightmares, and he loved hearing his grandmother talk about her childhood in Selma, Ala. She told him of farm life, picking cotton and corn, harvesting peanuts and potatoes.

"He wanted to live down there," she says. "I told him what it was like when I was a little girl. . . . I told him we could have our own little garden."

As the oldest child, Tazar felt responsible for his family, his grandmother and others say. In interviews, his friends from the neighborhood said Tazar talked about how he was going to take care of his younger brother and sister. He complained about living with his grandmother and told them that he wanted to stay with his mother. Problem was, there was no telling where his mother would be from one day to the next.

In the summer of 1994, his life worsened. His mother had gone to Alabama that spring, and Tazar was looking forward to her return in June. But on the day she was supposed to arrive, only his great-uncle stepped out of the car. Mary Carter didn't come home.

"He fell in my arms and started crying," Regina Carter says of her grandson. "He said, 'She don't even care about us.' "

At 14, Tazar told his grandmother that he wanted to go live on his own.

That summer, he began running away, she says, sometimes staying away for days at a time. He hung out at a drug house around the corner from his grandmother's home, she says. When she did see him, he told her that he wanted to "roll," street slang for selling drugs.

In December 1994, his mother returned to Detroit. But she didn't come for her kids. She hung out and lived in the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood between downtown Detroit and Wayne State University that is known for prostitutes, drunks and drug addicts.

When Regina Carter saw her daughter in June, she told her that Tazar was hanging out with drug dealers. Regina told Tiny to take Tazar back because she no longer could care for him.

"Go get your son out of that crack house," Regina recalls telling her daughter. "Save your son if you can't save yourself."

Mary got him, but she took him to the Cass Corridor. All the while, Mary's addiction raged. About two weeks after going to live with his mother, around mid-June, Tazar was gone, lost to dope dealers on the streets of Detroit.

Mary didn't go to the police until Sept. 3, when she told them that he had been missing for two days.

Police who found her son have pieced together from anonymous tips, witnesses and Tazar himself what happened to the boy during those five months.

Mary Carter, who is in jail on an unrelated burglary charge, has denied selling her son. If she did it and he's willing to lie for her, investigators say she may never fully be punished for it.

"There's one person who's key to it all, and that's Tazar," says Richard Padzieski, chief of operations for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.

Tazar's travels through the drug underworld were hellish, according to police. A dealer known on the streets and to the police only as "Man" took the boy from the Cass Corridor to an abandoned house on 30th Street in southwest Detroit, an area marked by gangs, graffiti and fields where thriving neighborhoods once stood during the height of the automobile industry.

At first, Man paid Tazar well for peddling crack and heroin. Then some product turned up missing. The dealer blamed Tazar and beat him for it.

At the end of September, Robert Stanley, 35, a regular buyer at the drug house, stole $400 worth of crack and $300 worth of heroin from Man with Tazar's help, police say. The pair fled two streets over to 28th, where they set up shop in a large abandoned house next to a Baptist church and sold the stolen goods. Over the next month, the two worked out of that house and another, selling drugs for a third man.

Trouble hit again, police say, when Stanley began smoking the drugs and "messing up the money." He brought women into the dope houses to buy crack and share it with him. Then, he would force Tazar to perform sex acts with them, threatening to withhold food from him if he refused.

Tazar lived in the houses, eating junk food when he could get it. He also started using crack. There was no running water or electricity, and often a portable heater was the only source of warmth.

At some point during those months, two concerned men who lived in the neighborhood brought Tazar to a nearby safe house called Children's Crusade. Evelyn Richardson, who has run the safe house for almost 30 years, says the boy wore a filthy T-shirt and his hair was unkempt.

"He said, 'I can't go home . . . because my momma owe some money,' " Richardson recalls. He told her that the debt was $2,500. She got the impression that he voluntarily was working to help save his mother.

Richardson offered him a bath and food and had him call his grandmother. He told Regina Carter he would come home. But Tazar did not go home after he left the safe house, and Richardson never saw him again.

Meanwhile, acting on a tip from a social worker, the police had begun looking for him.

Dozens of packets containing Tazar's photograph and addresses where he reportedly had been seen were distributed to narcotics and patrol officers in the area. On Nov. 8, the police tracked Tazar to the house on 28th Street, but he was gone. Over the next three weeks, tips led them unsuccessfully to several other street locations. Desperate, they made a plea for public help on Nov. 27.

Within hours, a tip led them to a house, this time on the northwest side, where they found the boy with yet another middle-aged man. Investigators said the man, a regular customer at one of the dope houses, took it upon himself to spirit Tazar out. They are not sure what the man's motives were, but Tazar said he had been with the man about three weeks and had been treated well.

The man was released after questioning.

On Saturday, Stanley became the only adult charged in the case thus far. He faces two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly forcing the boy to have sex with customers. A day earlier, Stanley was arraigned in an unrelated case, charged with kicking his wife and beating her with an ax handle.

Authorities say they don't know whether any other charges will be brought in the case. They're still trying to find Man and others. Unless they get more corroboration, they have to rely on Tazar's testimony.

Regina Carter says she wouldn't be surprised if Tazar is protecting his mother because she would have done the same for hers. "I would cover for my mother," she says.

*

On this night in her cluttered home filled with reminders of the past, Regina Carter sits thinking of the present. She has just returned from a visit with Tazar. He told her the men tied him up, made him do terrible things, burned him with cigarettes. She rubbed between his fingers where he showed her scars.

How did life come to this?

In front of her on a table are photographs of her grandson and her daughter. The photos are old; their smiles are frozen in time. But they tell Carter that despite all that Tazar and Mary have been through, they are still here. They are still alive.

On top of each of their pictures she has placed a small plastic cross in a gesture of hope.

It's a prayer that they will get the help they need.

It's a reminder of the possible future.

"It's a good ending to me," she says. "God gonna make them better, better than they ever was."

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