CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Cedric Dean had just left Sunday services in the chapel of a Louisiana prison when a killer offered him a deal.
Help me tell my story, fellow inmate Clay Waller said in the spring of 2013, and I'll pay you $10,000.
The plot for Waller's narrative would involve the murder of his estranged wife Jacque – a killing that sent him to prison and still tormented the Mississippi River town where it had occurred.
Dean, on the other hand, was a career criminal from Charlotte who says he had transformed himself into a jailhouse educator and mentor. He started a foundation aimed at-risk kids. He authored a series of books while teaching dozens of other inmates to write.
Now he and Waller found themselves on the same cell block, negotiating. Waller did most of the talking. He told Dean he already had a book contract from a New York publishing house and a $400,000 advance in the works. He even had a title in mind:
"If You Take My Kids, I'll Kill You: The Confession of Missouri's Most Notorious Wife Killer."
A blue bandana
When Dean was a boy, he and his best friend went to a Charlotte theater to watch the Sean Penn gang movie "Colors." Within minutes of the final credits, he said, the two set off for the nearest store to buy bandanas. Dean's new pretend gang color was blue.
"Mean Dean" and friends already had begun committing crimes, most of them drug-related. Now they escalated.
When he was 15, Dean says, an adult drug buyer pulled a knife on him during a disagreement over a sale. Dean says he drew a .38 and shot the man in the stomach. He says he was never charged.
"This was the era of 'New Jack City,' all this gangsta teenager stuff," says retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Detective Garry McFadden. "Cedric and several other boys ... they ran the streets. They were tough guys, and they committed a lot of crime."
Around that same time, Dean's formal education ended when he was thrown out of Olympic High for carrying a gun onto the school bus. He discovered his love for writing within his life of crime.
At 16, Dean was convicted of armed robbery and sent away to prison for the first time. A group of older inmates took over his schooling, Dean says. Each day he had to master five new vocabulary words or he would be beaten.
Less than a year after his release, Dean was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges and accused of operating a crack ring off West Boulevard. The friend who bought bandanas with him gave key testimony.
After the verdict, a judge ordered Dean locked away "for the balance of your natural life." That launched Dean's odyssey through the federal prison system, with stays in North Carolina and 10 other states.
In 2001, with still a century of his 105-year sentence to serve, Dean says, he was sent to solitary confinement in an Atlanta prison. He picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon's crime saga "Memories over Midnight" that had been left in the single-occupancy enclosure. Instead of simply reading, Dean says he bored down through the book's structure all the way to the punctuation marks. He saw how details fleshed out the story. By the time he finished the book, Dean says, he had taught himself how to write one of his own.
By 2013, when Dean and Waller wound up assigned to the same Louisiana cell block, Dean was almost 20 years into his drug sentence. He had also become a prodigious writer – churning out everything from regular legal filings challenging the harshness of his punishment to more than a half dozen books. He also taught writing and public speaking classes to his fellow inmates while helping dozens of them get their GEDs.
Dean's creative reputation soon reached Waller. He had a story he wanted the world to hear.
River bottom grave
On June 1, 2011, Jacque Waller had a 3 p.m. meeting with her divorce attorney and her estranged husband, Clay. Afterward, the mother of 5-year-old triplets from Cape Girardeau, Mo., vanished.
Jacque Waller, 39, had hoped to start a new life with a boyfriend and her children. Now she was presumed dead.
Clay Waller, a former deputy sheriff, soon became the leading suspect. Prosecutors say he had physically abused his wife throughout their 17-year marriage. According to court documents, he once told her if she ever filed for divorce, "she would be signing her own death warrant."
That July, while much of the community searched for Jacque's body, Clay Waller sent an email threatening to kill Jacque's sister, the court-appointed guardian of the Waller children. In January, he pleaded guilty to making an interstate threat of violence and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Waller was already in federal custody when he was charged with Jacque's murder in April 2012. Investigators had found traces of Jacque's blood in a hallway of her home. A bloody carpet had been stashed in a crawl space under the house.
The futile search for Jacque's body, however, pressed on. With the second anniversary of her disappearance approaching, Waller played his trump card: He told authorities he would take them to Jacque's remains if his charge was downgraded to second-degree murder – a plea deal that would add only 15 years to his sentence.
Jacque's family, desperate to recover her remains and wanting closure for themselves and the triplets, asked authorities to accept the deal.
Waller led the search party to an island on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. After five days of searching, they found Jacque's grave. She had been beaten and strangled, then stuffed in a garbage can and taken across the river in Waller's boat.
In June 2013, Clay Waller pleaded guilty to Jacque's murder. His light sentence drew widespread outrage.
Larry Ferrell, a veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney from Cape Girardeau, say he was determined to find a way to keep Waller locked away for a much longer time. So he and his colleagues combed through thousands of pages of court documents, searching for a new opening in the case.
That same summer, Dean and Waller began working on their book.
50 pages a week
From the start, Waller had insisted that his goal with the tell-all was "setting things right." While he couldn't bring back Jacque, he told Dean he would use any proceeds from the sales to establish a trust fund for the triplets. Dean, Waller knew, had a passion for kids.
"He was a great manipulator," Dean now says. "He was telling me what I wanted to hear."
Shortly into the collaboration, Dean says, he knew he had been misled. Waller displayed little contrition. Instead, his accounts took on a mocking tone, as if he were taunting both Jacque's family and his prosecutors with the details of his crime, Dean says.
With a goal of turning out at least 50 pages a week, Dean says he wrote longhand for up to 12 hours a day. He used prison pencils and lined paper. He found himself injecting a sense of remorse or morality into Waller's point of view.
"All through the writing, it creeped me out," he says. "I saw how callous he was. I saw how self-centered he was. The type of stuff he was saying, the type of stuff he had done to his wife. That kind of stuff was too much."
After about six weeks, the 300-page manuscript was done. After a final editing, Waller smuggled the pages out of the prison and to the mother of another inmate.
Dean says he never saw a penny. Instead, he says Waller told prison authorities that Dean was attempting to extort $10,000 from him. Dean says he was put back in solitary confinement.
Back in Missouri, though, the federal investigation in Jacque's murder was continuing. It would soon pick up speed.
'I got a guy here'
The break in the Waller case turned out to be a logistical one.
During their lengthy re-examination of Jacque Waller's murder, Ferrell and his team discovered that Clay Waller had spent the night before the killing with his girlfriend. She lived in Illinois. Which meant Waller had crossed state lines to end Jacque's life.
In May 2016, a federal grand jury in Missouri indicted Waller on a charge of interstate domestic violence. Soon, federal authorities was interviewing Waller's fellow imates in the Louisiana prison. It was there that they learned of a 3-year-old manuscript. They tracked it down at the Louisiana home of the inmate's mother who still had it.
They also became aware of Cedric Dean.
That October, Ferrell and an FBI agent traveled to a prison in northern Ohio to meet Dean face to face. The Missouri prosecutor carried a copy of the manuscript. He says he remained skeptical that Dean had truly written it.
"I was a little bit pessimistic about it," Ferrell explained last month. "He hadn't finished high school. He'd gotten a GED in prison."
When Ferrell asked Dean where he learned to write, the inmate told him about his long-ago dissection of the crime novel in solitary confinement. Then he handed Ferrell one of his own books.
"It was on 'Thug-ology,' " Ferrell recalls. "Talk about a moment that stands out. He had become, you know, a significant writer. I got a guy here who has published a book."
Minutes into the conversation and without being shown the manuscript, Dean says he began telling Ferrell what was in the chapters. The he began listing details of the killing – "beyond what was in the book," Ferrell says – that only Waller or investigators could know.
Dean says he told Ferrell how Waller had used soft drinks to clean blood from the walls of his wife's house; how he had cut off the fronts of a pair of very small shoes, which he wore to hide his own footprints.
Ferrell soon had heard enough.
A year later, after Waller and his attorneys learned of what Dean was prepared to say in court, the convicted killer pleaded guilty to the domestic violence charge. On Dec. 19, he was sentenced to an additional 35 years. Waller will now spend more than a half century in prison. He also has been blocked from receiving money from any book deals.
Dean says he cooperated with authorities against his former writing partner for one reason only. Waller had killed once. Weeks of interviews with Waller had left Dean with an unshakable belief:
If given the chance, Waller would kill again.
"He told me he was trying to do the right thing with his book, but he lied," Dean said a few days before Waller's sentencing. "With that kind of morality, he didn't need to be going back on the street."
'Mayhem to Morality'
To his surprise, Dean was headed in a different direction.
As a 22-year-old in the mid-1990s, he had been convicted and sentenced on federal drug charges during an era when crack cocaine defendants faced disproportionally severe punishments.
Sentencing reforms put in place while Dean was in prison, coupled with the efforts of his longtime Charlotte attorney Claire Rauscher, had dramatically reduced the time Dean had to serve. Still, several years of potential incarceration still lay ahead.
That was about to change. In late November, federal authorities filed a document that officially thanked and rewarded Dean for his help in closing the Waller case. When U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn of Asheville added his signature, the last years of Dean's sentence from his long-ago drug conviction disappeared.
A few days after Thanksgiving – 22 years and 11 months since he left Charlotte – the 45-year-old Dean came home.
"No one can say that book wasn't a critical piece of evidence in us getting a guilty plea," Ferrell told the Observer a few days after Dean's return.
He says he is already working with former detective Garry McFadden and others to expand the foundation he started in prison. His goal is to reach at-risk children before the prisons do. He has asked the newly retired Ferrell to join in.
Dean also intends to keep writing. He has already started on a memoir.