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Flint, MI— Water drips from the ceiling, plopping into a bucket in the far corner of an abandoned store on North Saginaw Street. There’s no heat, and the concrete walls lock in the frigid moisture. Battered retail shelves are piled near the door, next to a dusty arcade game and an empty commercial refrigerator.
Dion Savage, the store’s owner, leads the way to a back room where tools lay sprawled around the otherwise empty space. A worktable with a half-sawed two-by-four stands in the center.
It’s December 2020. Dion’s Party Store has seen better days. And so has Savage, now away from his workbench and shuffling around, looking for a place to sit. He walks with a stiff leg; a car accident shattered his left tibia in 1994, the result of falling asleep at the wheel after a 22-hour workday. A deep, purple scar still stains his shin.
In the early 1990s, people came from all over town to visit his stores and filled the parking lots. In summer, they rolled down their windows and blasted music. The surrounding neighborhoods relied on them for groceries and other necessities. Business boomed. Savage and his family could afford the finest luxuries: a $400,000 custom-built house, a yellow Dodge Viper, a Cadillac, and several ATVs.
But that all stopped when Savage went to prison.
Savage grabs a crate covered in sawdust and sits. He wears a gray turtleneck sweater, jeans, and his black prison boots: a reminder of everything he lost during his 23 years locked away. Years, he still claims, he didn’t deserve.
In 1997, he was convicted of selling cocaine and running a small criminal enterprise. The jury sentenced him to life, but a law changed in 2018. Now he’s out, and attempting to rebuild the life he lost, starting with the party store that bears his name. He wants the stores back. He wants his old life back.
His determination to rebuild is more than inspiration, more than a dream. It is all-consuming. It can be seen in the way he widens his eyes, the loud, sternness of his voice, and even the gentle way he puts his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Even in the way he sits down on an old crate in an old building.
The odds are stacked against him. He will likely never be able to get a business loan for his store and will rely on community members and grassroots fundraising to get it off the ground.
Between 10% to 20% of all U.S. prisoners suffer severe mental illnesses such as major affective disorders or schizophrenia. But as a person of color, Savage is already disadvantaged when it comes to mental health treatment, according to the American Psychological Association.
According to Savage, Flint police officers framed him, because they couldn’t stand the thought of a Black man garnering success.
Court documents tell a different story. The stores, prosecutors claimed, were a façade. Records describe Savage as a “bouncer and security guard in the 1980s” who had “formulated a plan” to acquire party stores as a front to conduct criminal activity. Prosecutors said he sold crack cocaine inside the stores and in the parking lots of Dion’s Mini Market and Dion’s Party Store.
They took the house. The stores. The ATVs. The Viper. The Cadillac. His businesses rotted away without him, the glue that held it all together.
Guilty or not, Savage is now out. After 23 years he’s setting out to do what many have tried, and failed to do, to reclaim his life. For Savage, it starts here, reviving the empty, desolate space where he sits now, his bad leg stretched out before him, puffs of condensation escaping through his nose.
The Good Life
Dion’s Party Store was closed down for the night when he says it all began. Savage started his usual routine: count the money, lock the doors, check the stock, when he heard shouting from the parking lot. He glanced through the front window.
A young Black man named Joby Henderson laid handcuffed on the cement. Flint Police Officer Bradford Barksdale, a lieutenant at the time, loomed over him. Savage said he watched as Barksdale cocked back his leg and delivered a swift kick to Henderson’s ribs, and sprinted outside to confront the officer.
From that day on, Savage believes he and his stores became a target by the Flint Police Department. He claims this one incident sparked a series of events that led to his eventual arrest and conviction.
After the incident outside the store, Savage said police began harassing his customers constantly. In 1991, the court granted him a temporary restraining order against the Flint PD.
“Things calmed down after that,” Savage said.
Business boomed and money flowed.
Over the years, he expanded. He opened Big Al’s Pizza and Ice Cream (named after his father, Albert), Dion’s Mini Market, and George’s Big C Market. He also owned the building that housed a business called Norm’s Stop-and-Shop, which he sold in 1993 for $85,000.
“I paid $35,000 for it…At this time, I got a wife and four children staying in a four-bedroom house. So, I’m the type of man always thinking about the future. So, I needed to build a house for my wife and my children,” Savage said.
So, he and his wife, Barbara Savage, hired an architect to design their dream house down the road from Savage’s parents’ home in Mount Morris, Mich.—a $440,000 build. Savage put down $186,000 cash, a fact which would later be used against him in trial.
“I already had a decent amount of cash in the bank, which only added to my fate,” Savage said. “Everybody saw the fruits. They didn’t see the labor that it took to get the fruit…ergo, it must be drugs.”
That labor involved long workdays and little to no sleep. One night while driving home at 2 a.m., Savage fell asleep and hit a tree. When he came to, he was spitting out teeth. His ankle, tibia, and pelvis were broken. At the hospital surgeons pronounced him dead for 35 minutes.
It took Savage a year to recover. He learned how to speak and walk again and managed to keep his stores afloat.
It was a tough life, one he worked and sacrificed his mental and physical health for. One he would, so many years later, try to reclaim.
November 18, 1995
“A fresh snow had just fell,” Savage said, the day his troubles with the police began anew. He was rabbit hunting with his children, Dion Jr. and LaQuisha.
The family had finally moved into their new home and the large property backed up to the woods. Their neighbor, Jerome Koger, was a lieutenant for Flint PD, someone they’d gotten to know over the years.
Savage took the four-wheelers from the pole barn, handed LaQuisha a 20-gauge, Dion Jr. a .22 rifle, and grabbed a 12-gauge for himself. The three drove off into the woods.
As they crossed a field, Savage said he saw Koger galloping towards them wearing nothing but a house coat and house shoes.
They were on the wrong side of the property line, Koger said. They exchanged a few words, but Savage said he complied and left.
Twelve days later, Koger raided Savage’s home and two of his stores. Police didn’t find any cocaine, but drug-sniffing dogs traced scents at his home. Savage also possessed several illegal firearms, which he could not legally own after a larceny conviction in the late 1980s. Police also found hundreds of dollars worth of food stamps in his home, which corroborated their theory that Savage accepted food stamps as payment for drugs.
According to court documents, Flint PD spent most of 1995 building a case against Savage. A man named Claude Carter gave them their golden ticket, Savage said.
“Their entire case was based around one testimony by Claude,” he said.
Carter used to work at Phil’s Party Store, owned by Phil Walker, but Savage said Walker fired him for dealing dope. However, Savage said Carter cleaned up when he started working at Dion’s Party Store in February 1995.
“Stop selling drugs now, you’ve got a job. When you’re out there selling drugs, you’re not only risking your life, you’re risking your daughter’s life,” Savage said he told him.
Carter later testified that they sold between $4,000-$10,000 worth of cocaine a day at the stores.
He named names, admitted taking part in the operation, and said that Savage was responsible for it all.
There was other evidence, or at least things that didn’t look good. When Savage was indicted in 1995, the contractor who’d built Savage’s pole barn, Mike Rinks, told police that Savage had paid him in cash.
“Mike, Mike, why did you do that?” Savage asked, according to Rink’s testimony.
Savage passed several lie detector tests. A witness testified that Koger, who Savage believes was largely responsible for sending him to prison, swore that he would “take Dion’s house.”
But it was Carter’s damning testimony that sealed his fate, Savage said.
The kicker, Savage said, was the lack of evidence found during police raids of his home and stores.
Sitting on the sawdust-covered crate, Savage lowered his voice and leaned forward, held out his index finger.
“You see something on my finger?” he asked.
There was nothing there.
“That’s how much cocaine they found.”
On July 7, 1997, a jury found him guilty on one count of Continuing Criminal Enterprise, one count of Conspiracy to Distribute Cocaine, and one count of Felon in Possession of Firearm. Savage received a life sentence. The stores, the good times, were over.
Tears streamed down Savage’s face.
“For what?” he asked the jury.
As they removed him from the court, he looked back at his father.
“I couldn’t help him,” Albert Savage said. “All the times he’s reached out to me I was there. That was one of the times I couldn’t reach him.”
During his first weeks in prison, Savage cried.
“I was just in a fog. Mentally, I really messed up,” Savage said. He bounced around between prisons across the country and his family would do what they could to visit him.
Barbara Savage remembers what it was like, trying to maintain a relationship in those early days.
“We were hitting the highway every week. We’d stay Friday, Saturday, Sunday in hotels. I’d be so tired driving. Cumberland, Md. was eight hours away. That’s where he went first. Then he went to Kentucky. My father-in-law and mother-in-law helped run the stores… As the time went on, [the] family started breaking apart. Nobody was getting along. Me and Dion was going through a lot,” she said.
LaQuisha, Savage’s only daughter, who’d taken care of him after his car accident, took his loss the hardest.
“I used to go downstairs. I would hear him calling my name…He had just had an accident not a couple years before and we was all taking care of him. So, that was still fresh and then he got taken away. I go downstairs and I just hear him say ‘Qui! Qui!’ but he wasn’t there,” she said.
Unable to bear the pain, she ran away. For the next year, she would stay with friends, coming home only occasionally.
Savage’s two youngest sons, DeAndre and Dionte, were six and five years old when he went to prison.
“It forced us to grow up hard,” DeAndre Savage said. “I grew up around violence and poverty and seeing crackheads walking up and down the street.”
Without the “glue,” their dad, holding the businesses together, everything crumbled. They moved from their luxury home in Mount Morris to a neighborhood in Flint.
But no matter what the family faced, DeAndre said Barbara stood by her children.
“I can never repay my mama. We’d come into the house. Lights turned off. Water turned off. But she was still going…She’s the strongest woman I know,” Dionte said, choking back tears.
He holds out his hand and on it is tattooed something his father told him long ago: “I am you. You are me.”
During his time in prison, Savage buried himself in the prison’s law libraries. He describes himself in those as a jailhouse lawyer, claiming to have helped more than 250 other inmates reduce their sentences. He can still rattle off case numbers and United States codes and remember events as they happened down to the time and day.
The case he couldn’t crack was his own.
There were moments of hope. A decade into Savage’s sentence Claude Carter left a flurry of voicemails on Savage Jr.’s phone, claiming the police pressured him into giving a false testimony.
Savage submitted an application for a writ of habeas corpus, a law recourse in which a person can report unlawful imprisonment, in light of the new evidence, but the court didn’t grant him a hearing.
In 2013, Kelly Van Schaick-Norman, Savage’s high school friend, convinced Carter to sign an affidavit stating that he had lied during his testimony.
“I was coerced by the Flint Police to give false testimony against Dion Savage and if I did not testify falsely against Dion, not only did I fear for my life, but also I was told I would get 20 years in prison if I did not testify as Lt. Koger and Officer Green wanted…Dion Savage is not a drug dealer, nor was he involved in a drug conspiracy as I falsely testified,” it read.
Over the years, Savage met several prisoners who had come into contact with Carter. Five signed affidavits stating Carter told them he had falsely testified in 1997, that he was coerced by police and that Savage hadn’t sold any drugs. But the evidence never saw its day in court.
Carter passed away in prison in 2017. His obituary described him as a “good chef and sports fanatic” who loved animals. His truth died with him.
In the end it was not Savage’s dedication to the law that got him out, but a change in the law itself.
The FIRST STEP Act passed in 2018. It raised the mandatory minimum weight thresholds for cocaine and retroactively applied lighter sentences to those already imprisoned.
On Aug. 21, 2020, Savage walked out of FCI Pekin, a federal correctional facility in Pekin, Ill. His father, Dion Jr. and LaQuisha greeted him outside the gate. Family and friends threw a party for him when he arrived home for the first time in 23 years.
One thing burned in Savage’s mind: reviving his party stores.
The family kept them going until 1999, when Barbara called Dion in prison.
“I’m tired,” she said.
They closed the stores. Dion’s Party Store was the only building that stayed in the family. Now Savage spends his days there fixing leaky pipes, cracked walls, and broken equipment. The list of repairs totals at least $125,000, he said. He started a Go Fund Me to help the raise money.
His family and friends still stand by his side. Together, they work to paint the store, rebuild and host fundraisers.
Residents who live near the party store embrace Savage’s return.
“He used to do a lot for the community. He made sure, say for instance there’s a lot of people around here on fixed incomes, he’d let them open a tab on groceries and he was never squeezing you for money…Some kids would come up and get things for their grandmother and he’d say ‘Tell her to pay me on the first or second,’ or something like that,” Randy Abraham said.
Thelma Weems, who has lived in the neighborhood near Dion’s Party Store for 27 years, said she’s excited to see it come back.
“I’ve been here for a long time. All that I know is he’d be open, and I’d go right in there and get what I want and come on back home. Don’t nobody be hanging around up there. At least they didn’t when he was open,” Weems said.
When the party store closed, residents no longer had a local market. Weems had to walk further to get basic necessities and groceries.
“Now I don’t have as far to walk. I’m 78 years old. That walking kills me,” she said.
Though Savage is an outlier in many respects compared to other men getting out of prison (he said he’s never done drugs and will not be homeless) the impact of his imprisonment on his children and family lingers still.
“He’s been in a mood lately,” Barbara Savage said, saying Savage quietly tromps around the house.
Healing for the Savage family has only just begun.
On March 7, 2021 the family gathered in Albert and Geraldine Savage’s living room. DeAndre and Dionte, who both live in different states, tuned in via zoom. As they shared their story, spilling tears, it seemed as if it’s the first time they’ve spoken about it together.
Dion Jr. said he’ll be publishing a book about how he used his boxing career to try and free his father, “The Boxer’s Dream.”
“Prior to dad going to prison, we was all united. It was like heaven on earth,” Dion Jr. said, “I would’ve died in the ring for dad.”
He hopes to one day make a film with the help of director Tyler Perry.
Sitting in the living room, the family passed around old pictures, some with inside jokes on the back or notes from Barbara written to Savage. In many, the family poses in front of a fake backdrop like those typically used for prison photographs. But Savage’s uniform, gray one year and white the next, conceals nothing.
Despite 23 years of pain, the photos make the family reminisce. They giggled at memories and argued over when and at what prison a certain photograph was taken. LaQuisha poked fun at her younger brother’s former hairstyle.
Nearby, Albert rested silently in his armchair. LaQuisha chatted with her brothers on the computer while Barbara and Geraldine discussed fundraising ideas for Dion’s Party Store.
Savage sat at the end of the couch, surrounded by family and next to Barbara, his bad leg stretched out before him, his prison boots resting on the welcome mat near the front door.