Criminal Ring: How Muhammad Ali's 1970 Comeback Led to a Big-Money Heist
For weeks, the engraved invitations had been circulating in New York and Atlanta. In gold lettering, the cards said that a man named “Fireball” was throwing a birthday party for “Tobe” at 2819 Handy Drive in the Collier Heights section of Atlanta’s West End. The festivities were to begin in the early morning hours of October 27, 1970, immediately following the historic comeback of boxer Muhammad Ali, who was in Atlanta to face off against Jerry Quarry after three years away from the ring.
The invitations blanketed both cities because organizers knew Ali’s return would attract fans from New York and elsewhere. It would also attract hustlers, pimps, drug dealers, and various other men and women with alternative means of earning a living. They would all be carrying cash and flashing expensive jewelry.
Even though boxing fans were used to witnessing robberies in the ring and on judges’ scorecards, this time would be different. As they celebrated Ali’s victory, they’d be victimized by one of the most brazen armed robberies the city of Atlanta had ever seen.
Atlanta was not a conventional choice to act as the site of Ali’s comeback. From 1967 through 1970, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay had been fighting the federal government after declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to enlist for military service in the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion.
After being freed on bail, Ali appealed his sentence—but the stigma endured. The boxer was stripped of his heavyweight championship and effectively blacklisted from the sport, with states refusing to grant the then-28-year-old a license to compete. In the South, where racial tensions remained high, it seemed unthinkable that any official would endorse Ali's return to the ring.
Robert Kassel thought differently. The New York-based attorney had helped promote a Joe Frazier bout and knew Ali’s comeback would be a lucrative event. So he asked his father-in-law, Atlanta businessman Harry Pett, to phone Georgia state senator Leroy Johnson. Pett and Johnson were friends; Johnson, one of the state’s few Black elected officials, considered the treatment of Ali unfair and agreed to see what he could do.
Johnson discovered Georgia had no laws governing the sport of boxing, which left permission to hold events up to local municipalities. Johnson reached out to Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, who allowed the fight to proceed—provided Kassel donate $50,000 of the revenue to an area drug rehabilitation program.
Ali’s comeback was set for October 26, 1970 against Jerry Quarry, who had recently upset top heavyweight contender Mac Foster. That weekend, locals and tourists alike descended upon Atlanta's Hyatt Regency hotel, as well as the 5000-seat Civic Auditorium, and paid up to $100 for a ringside seat. (Fans in other cities could watch the bout on closed-circuit television.) Celebrities like Diana Ross were spotted at the Hyatt. So were guests who wore elaborate outfits and extravagant jewelry. More of the engraved invitations for Fireball’s party, which was scheduled to start immediately following the fight, were handed out.
Shaking off years of ring rust, Ali was declared the victor by technical knockout in the third round, when a cut forced Quarry’s trainer Teddy Bentham to call off the fight.
While Ali celebrated his victory at the Hyatt, surrounded by friends and celebrities, carloads of the event's not-quite-so-famous attendees were beginning to gather at 2819 Handy Drive. Upon entering the front door, they had expected to find a raging party. Instead, they were met by men in ski masks wielding sawed-off shotguns.
One by one, the partygoers were maneuvered into the basement and ordered to throw their cash and jewelry in a pile. Then they were told to strip down to their underwear and lay flat on the floor. As more people showed up—by some estimates, up to 200 guests arrived—the pile of valuables grew. Victims were forced to stack themselves on top of one another. The heist, which was slow and deliberate, took hours; the robbers stuffed the goods into yellow-and-white pillowcases.
Finally, around 3 a.m., the gunmen departed, dragging two hostages with them. They were dropped off on the other side of town three hours later and given $10 for cab fare. Police were called and an investigation was soon underway. But solving a robbery where most of the victims were criminals themselves wouldn’t be easy.
Authorities looked closely at the homeowner, a small-time criminal named Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams. (He earned the nickname by purchasing chicken sandwiches, which he then handed out to attractive women in the hopes of charming them.) But one of the leading investigators on the case, a detective lieutenant named J.D. Hudson, knew Williams was relatively clean. Hudson had been tasked with serving as Ali's bodyguard at the fight and had spotted Williams, whom he had known for decades, in attendance at the same time Williams’s girlfriend, Barbara Smith, said she was helping to prepare for the party when the gunmen had burst in. Williams had only given permission for a criminal associate known as Fireball to use the house for a party.
Clues were scarce, and eyewitness testimony was difficult to secure. Most of the victims of the robbery were wary of talking to police and were from out of town. Only five filed official complaints. Most left Atlanta without even giving authorities their contact information. The only real tip came from an anonymous phone call from someone who said that the robbery had been set up to pay off a drug deal gone bad back in New York City earlier that year.
The first real break came two days later, when a shotgun and yellow-and-white pillowcase were found near the house in a leather satchel. The gun was traced to a man named Jimmy “Houston” Hammonds, who said he had 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 activities. Hudson went to Jackson’s apartment, but no one was home. Still, he lucked out: Jackson’s bed had yellow-and-white bedsheets.
A month later, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hammonds, Jackson, and Ebo, who was named under his alias of James Henry Hall, on six counts of armed robbery each. Hammonds was already in custody but there was no sign of the other two men. Hudson figured one of two things would happen: Either police would find them, or their victims would—especially now that they had been named in the papers. If the victims found them, there wouldn’t be any kind of trial.
Hudson was right. On May 8, 1971, Jackson and Ebo were found shot to death inside a parked Cadillac in the Bronx. A third man, Donald Phillips, was also killed. Robbery didn’t seem likely, as both guns and $700 in cash had been left in the car, and 11 shots had been fired. New York City detectives couldn’t figure out the motive until Jackson and Ebo were identified as suspects in the Atlanta robbery by Hudson, who flew out to New York to consult with authorities. "We said last fall it was just a question of who caught up with them first—the police or the victims,” Hudson told The New York Times. "It appears the victims got there first."
Though a total of five to eight gunmen were reported by the victims, no one else was ever arrested. A third individual connected to the crime, “Bookie” Brown, had also been found dead. Hudson assumed street justice had come for the rest of them, too.
Erroneously, Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams was thought to have been killed for his assumed role in the robbery. Local newspapers even reported that Williams had been murdered just two days after the party when, in fact, he was alive and well. Williams had cooperated with police and then sent word to some associates in New York City that he had not been involved at all. His girlfriend had even been one of the hostages taken when the robbers made their getaway. Williams eventually got out of the drug trade and became a minister.
Ali would go on to have his draft evasion conviction overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971 and reclaim his heavyweight title in a fight against George Foreman in 1974. For the Quarry bout, he was paid $250,000 against 42.5 percent of the revenue. The robbers made off with an estimated $1 million.