By Jamie Satterfield
Clarence McDowell presented a paradox for this federal judge Tuesday.
A 72-year-old grandfather considered by many in the Lonsdale community to be a leader and benefactor, McDowell is also an ex-con who kept a gun in his liquor store to protect the $20 million gambling operation he helped run, as well as an apparent cocaine user.
Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan openly struggled with the contradictory portraits of McDowell as he considered McDowell’s punishment as one of three men — the other two were McDowell’s son and Knoxville fashion designer Marcus Hall — who for at least six years ran a numbers racket known as “butter and eggs” in the Lonsdale community.
“The defendant was of such an age and physical condition (as he is now) when he was taking part in criminal activity,” Varlan said. “The court is mindful of the defendant’s community involvement (but) the court is also mindful some of his good deeds are because of the financial benefits this defendant gained from his illegal gambling operation.”
Varlan sentenced McDowell to 18 months in federal prison. He had faced as much as 33 months. Hall, who financed his renowned Marc Nelson Denim fashion firm on Depot Avenue with proceeds from the gambling operation, struck a deal to plead guilty was sentenced earlier this month to 33 months. McDowell’s son, Maurece McDowell, faces sentencing later this week.
Thanks to more than $324,000 in federal empowerment zone money, the McDowells operated an entire strip mall in Lonsdale that consisted of a liquor store, a convenience store, a check-cashing firm and a real estate company — all of which is now being forfeited to the federal government in the gambling case.
In 2009, the McDowells teamed up with Hall to run a lottery-based numbers game, which defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs noted Tuesday has long been a traditional form of gambling in the black community. In olden days, winning numbers were based not on a lottery but the price of commodities such as butter and eggs.
“If you ride down the same street (in Lonsdale), it’s still operating today,” Isaacs argued.
He said McDowell was an “iconic figure” in Lonsdale, who mentored children and young black men and helped organize the community’s annual homecoming festivities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Marie Svolto noted McDowell was convicted in 1981 on a federal charge of selling cocaine and tested positive for the drug after being charged in the gambling case. He was barred from possessing a gun as a result, but the IRS Criminal Investigation Division seized three guns from him — one at the liquor store and two at his home.
McDowell told Varlan he was “not a violent person” and said he was lured into the gambling venture after a divorce and bankruptcy.
“I do accept full responsibility,” he said.
Varlan is allowing McDowell to remain free until the U.S. Bureau of Prisons determines where he will be housed.