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The Fashion Thief

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Kevahn Thorpe at Rikers Island in September.  

To be sent to a residential program, he must be diagnosed with a drug or mental-health problem or identify as gay. In a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, Kevahn has been diagnosed with what is perhaps a fairly self-evident case of childhood conduct disorder. He might benefit from counseling but does not require medication. He doesn’t do drugs. And though he reports that people on Rikers are “accusing” him of being gay—and the question is unavoidable for a delicately built boy obsessed with fashion—he maintains that he is not.

He claims, in his interview with Vassallo, that he has been tested and found to have an IQ of 127. He says that he doesn’t shoplift because of peer pressure but because he wants to be “the best dressed.” (“He complimented me on my suit today,” notes Vassallo, who is wearing tweed and pearls.)

Two petit-larceny cases have landed him before Judge ShawnDya L. Simpson, who wears leopard-print stilettos with her black robes and seems to be taking an unusual interest in Kevahn. The judge wants to hear from his mother, Hopian Pownall, and takes the rare step of closing the courtroom to sit and talk with her. As Simpson pats her back, Pownall weeps and rails that she has had enough of the situation with her son and now has to take care of herself. She refuses to allow Kevahn to come home—even if that means he will stay in Rikers—and then leaves court, saying she has things to do. “She ain’t interested,” Simpson says with a sigh. Jovahn now lives with their grandmother—their father’s mother—but she also refuses to take Kevahn. Finally, a bed is found for him at Covenant House, the shelter for homeless kids. “A lot of people are trying to work on your behalf,” Simpson lectures Kevahn as he stands before her. “Your mother and grandmother think that you are basically a handful. So just consider me your mother and your father for the next six months to a year. You will stay out of Barneys. At Covenant House, you’re going to wear what they’ve got in a box.” She pauses to let that sink in, then warns him that if he steals again, “you’re going to jail for six months.” After Kevahn is led away, Simpson stops to talk with the Legal Aid team. “His whole body jerked” at her line about dressing out of the giveaway box, she notes with satisfaction. “That was the only time I got a reaction,” she muses, shaking her head. “I don’t know if I got through.”

Kevahn runs away from Covenant House that same night.

Kevahn’s epiphany came when he found himself at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. “I saw Dior, Bottega, everything there, and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s right here, right near where I live!’ ”

“I almost had a heart attack when I was on Rikers,” Kevahn tells me over an M&M cookie at Starbucks. He’s been back at his mom’s house, and going to school, but he’s also been arrested and released yet again. But he wasn’t afraid in jail. The problem came when he was getting released. In exchange for his property receipt, “they gave me a different bag,” he says, still fuming. He’s outraged by what he takes as a violation of his own property rights, in a creative interpretation of the old saw that possession is nine-tenths of the law. “I was tight, too”—his outfit was perfect—“I had my black Christian Dior glasses and my navy-blue patent-leather Pradas.” To try to retrieve his belongings, he actually made an appointment to go back to Rikers, something that is difficult to imagine any recently released prisoner voluntarily doing.

“I was scared when I first came there,” he admits. Although adolescents under 18 are housed separately from the adult population, a slender kid togged out like Kevahn could expect to get some extra attention. He got some hard looks, he says, when everyone was lining up against the wall, and he says he thought, They’re about to do something to me right now. Nothing happened. To seem tougher, he told everyone he was in on assault. But he knew one of the corrections officers from his neighborhood, so “I didn’t have no problems.” Except for one distasteful rule—he was forced to wear the fluorescent-orange Chinese-slipper-like shoes that inmates call “Air Patakis.”

Five days later, he’s wearing them again. This time he’s been arrested on charges of criminal possession of a stolen credit card and grand larceny at the Apple Store in midtown. He was suspected of trying to steal a pair of earphones, and when he was stopped, he had an iPod that had been bought previously with a stolen credit card—one of at least four unauthorized Apple purchases with the card. “He walked in the house with two iPhones, three iPods, and a Bose system,” his friend Monet remembers. “He would try to give ’em to us. He said, ‘I bought them.’ He showed us a receipt and everything.”


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