Kevahn’s recollection of the birth of his crime spree matches the official record. In New York, the consequences for a teenager arrested for shoplifting (which Kevahn and his brother referred to as “crafting”) are relatively serious: Kids 16 and over, while still minors under civil law, are considered adults in the criminal-justice system. That means they go to Rikers and get an adult record. However, the first few times someone is charged with petit larceny—a mere misdemeanor—he usually gets off with a warning. But that warning didn’t stop Kevahn. The allure of Barneys was too powerful.
“I experimented and took this Comme des Garçons shirt,” he remembers. “I was just testing, like, how easy it is. That was my first high-class shirt I took. Then me and my brother went to Bergdorf Goodman, and we stole vintage Ralph Lauren polos—and that’s the hardest store to steal from. The next day, we went to Barneys again, and we took some 7 for All Mankind jeans. And I went in Bergdorf Goodman and stole a navy-blue Gucci V-neck T-shirt, and then I was like, Damn, I need a pair of shoes with these, so I went right to Prada and I crafted—I took those lavender patent-leather Pradas.”
He was caught multiple times but got away with plenty. The method was simple—he’d put his own clothes over stolen ones, or he’d stuff them down his pants or simply drop them into a shopping bag. The brothers were entranced by the environment they had stepped into. “Barneys, that store sells—they have plain T-shirts in there for $500,” marvels Jovahn. “They have Seven jeans, True Religions, Polo shirts for, like, $200!” He adds with a small laugh, “Uh, you know, we weren’t buyin’ nothing, so … ” Jovahn was arrested, too, but a trip through the Department of Corrections was enough for him, he says, and he begged off further exploits.
Kevahn, meanwhile, was arrested over and over—always at department stores, he emphasizes, “never in no label stores,” like Prada, where the staff is perhaps more sensitive to the possibility that a young black kid drifting among the merchandise might be an up-and-coming entertainer or a rich private-schooler and not necessarily a thief. And by then, he was dressing for the occasion. As helpful salesclerks retrieved sneakers from the stockroom, he whisked the ones he wanted under a couch and played a kind of shell game with display models and shoeboxes. When he was caught, he pleaded down the petit-larceny charges to disorderly conduct, until a judge finally got fed up and sent him to Rikers Island for the first time, on a ten-day sentence.
But he only grew more determined. When his frustrated mother threw nine pairs of sneakers down their building’s trash chute, Kevahn waited up all night and was there when the sanitation workers unloaded the garbage compactor to retrieve them. His junior school year had started, and he was reveling in his new reputation. “If you’re walking down the street with average clothes, people won’t pay attention to you,” says Melisa. “But then you walk down the street wearing, like, a thousand-dollar outfit, people gonna look at you a certain way. He’d hide stuff from his mom and keep it here. He’d actually come from Queensbridge in the morning and get dressed and go all the way back out there.”
This costume drama gave him a new role to play, one in which he felt himself to be literally worth more. “I was the first person with patent-leather Pradas,” he says. “Now everybody in Queensbridge got patent-leather Pradas.” He began to spread the wealth among his friends. “He went into an eyeglass place, and he stole like five pair of frames,” says Monet. “Even the security guards in my school, they’d be like, ‘Kevahn said he got the hookup on glasses, and he was gonna give me some glasses!’ ” He studied and catalogued brands, makes, models, and prices with almost Rain Man–like specificity and devotion. “In school, they called him Gucci or Fly K,” says Melisa.
The only problem was that he was now spending more time on Rikers than at school, which didn’t quite jibe with his new image. But his brushes with the law didn’t seem to faze him, let alone stop him from stealing. “He would do it constantly,” says his brother. “Get mad stuff, and then go back the next day, get a lot of clothes, next day get more, and then bam, one day he gets caught. He goes in jail, comes back out of jail, he does it again.”
Kevahn is handcuffed to the bench at the side of the arraignments room at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse the first time I see him. The extent of his thievery is so audacious that it’s easy to forget he is all of 16 years old, a small kid lost inside a striped Hugo Boss sweater. That’s what he has been wearing on Rikers Island, where he has spent almost a month—not because he was sentenced to that much time but simply because no one can pay his $2,500 bail. His arrests have brought him to the attention of Legal Aid’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team. Nancy Ginsburg, the unit’s director, and Rosemary Vassallo, Kevahn’s assigned lawyer, are trying to figure out what to do with him.