As a teenager, Rene Washington, also known as “Sleepy,” began his journey in the food industry as a dishwasher at Camellia Grill in New Orleans. He inherited his passion for cooking from his father, a chef at Fairmont Hotel. In 2012, he moved to Houston, where he further honed his skills on the grill and continued to pursue his culinary dreams.
Sleepy’s Po-boys, a relaxed eatery serving up New Orleans cuisine and run by Washington’s family, was launched. The business had a tradition of giving away 300 bicycles to underprivileged children every Christmas and donating school uniforms every fall. As a result of its success, a second location was opened and franchising plans were in the works.
In February 2020, Washington’s plans were put on hold after authorities stopped him near the Louisiana-Texas border. To their surprise, they discovered $948,174 in cash concealed inside boxes coated with cocaine.
In federal court records, it was revealed that Hakim Shabazz, aged 46, was sentenced to five years in prison on November 2 for selling cocaine in gas canisters from his auto shop in Chalmette. Last month, his co-defendant, Washington, was also sentenced to over six years in federal prison.
Authorities reported that both individuals admitted to participating in drug-dealing conspiracies that involved the distribution of anywhere from 50 to 150 kilograms of cocaine.
In a recent phone interview while awaiting imprisonment, Washington took complete responsibility for his actions and expressed regret for involving his co-defendant, stating, “I’m sorry I brought my co-defendant into this.”
“He did me a favor, and in turn, I did a favor for someone else. We got caught up in this cycle of doing favors for each other,” he explained. “However, I recognize that what we did was still wrong. It doesn’t matter if it was done for a friend; there are always consequences to such actions.”
According to Washington, he never resorted to cocaine trade to fuel his habit, as he had no interest in it. Instead, work seemed to be his preferred addiction. He firmly asserted that his legal troubles were a result of a poor decision made due to an unusual error in judgment, and not due to any drug-related activity.
The court received letters from eleven family and community members, all of whom vouched for him. One of his supporters attributed his actions to “the devil who has come to kill, steal, and destroy.”
A winning formula
As a child, Washington was the eighth of nine siblings living in the Carrollton area. His father worked as a chef and sold antiques during the weekends, while his mother was employed in a shrimp factory. At the young age of 12, Washington started delivering newspapers.
At the age of 17, he became a part of the lively crew at Camellia Grill after attending St. Augustine High School. Washington expressed his eagerness to secure a sought-after waiter position, which he ultimately landed after working in the kitchen. However, one fateful night in 2012, while he was taking out the trash, he stumbled upon the restaurant’s weekly revenue figures.
He expressed, “I could create this for myself.”
When Washington set his sights on owning a restaurant, he took his dream to Houston. Despite being a father of eight, he worked tirelessly, around the clock, to ensure the success of his business.
Reneka, the daughter of the man in question, wrote a letter to the court, describing her father’s tenacity in the face of multiple failed businesses. She expressed that despite shedding tears, he persevered and continued to strive towards success.
In 2015, the Associated Press reported that Sleepy’s, a restaurant in Houston, had found a winning formula by serving Louisiana-style dishes like shrimp po-boys, gumbo, yakamein, and red beans and rice. The restaurant became a haven for Louisiana expats who were still displaced from Hurricane Katrina, providing them with a taste of home. The dishes were served by the owners’ family members, adding a personal touch to the dining experience.
According to Washington, his downfall was partly due to his tendency to connect with people from different fields, including lawyers and doctors. He acknowledged that he had a natural ability to establish these connections.
“He said it wasn’t about the money, but rather doing a favor for a friend.”
Fateful traffic stop
According to Washington, his criminal record in Orleans Parish includes several drug-related arrests from the 1990s, but he was never convicted. When a friend initially asked him for a “favor,” he refused, but his friend asked again.
According to Washington, he initially thought he knew someone who could help, but it wasn’t until a year later that he was certain. He then made a phone call to that person, which he admits came at a cost.
According to a spokesperson for the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office, Washington and a companion were pulled over for a traffic violation while driving from New Orleans to Houston on February 17, 2020. However, Washington did not provide any further details on the incident.
According to court documents, during a search of the gray Infiniti sedan, a detective from the drug task force discovered several bags containing stacks of currency that were secured with rubber bands. In addition, a cardboard box filled with cash was found, which had been dusted with cocaine and identified by ion scanners.
According to court documents, law enforcement officers confiscated various items, including a ledger and multiple cell phones. The information contained in these items helped agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration identify a Hollygrove bar as a central hub for the cocaine trafficking operation. On February 20, 2020, authorities conducted a search of the bar located at 2802 Cherry Street. During the search, they discovered and seized 72 grams of cocaine and 248 grams of crack, as well as a substantial amount of cash totaling $84,000.
Authorities revealed that Washington was caught on surveillance footage leaving the bar with a cardboard box containing $200,000 just before his arrest on Feb. 17. Further investigation also uncovered text messages in which Washington was arranging the delivery of 18 kilograms of cocaine.
According to the U.S. Attorney Duane Evans’ office, Shabazz, who was a friend of one of Washington’s nephews, was using his auto body shop to receive shipments of cocaine and then distributing it across New Orleans by utilizing gas canisters.
In May, Washington admitted to conspiring to distribute and possessing with the intent to distribute over five kilograms of cocaine. He is set to start serving his 78-month federal prison sentence on January 10th. As part of the court’s recommendation, Washington has expressed his desire to receive business education and culinary training while incarcerated.
Washington expressed his determination to participate in every available program to reduce his time. He emphasized that he wouldn’t mind sacrificing his sleep if that’s what it takes to achieve his goal.
During this time, “Pawpaw” is receiving additional hugs from his grandchildren and they are requesting more video phone calls, according to Washington. While the older grandchildren are having a tough time understanding his situation, they are not showing it to him. Washington assures that Sleepy’s Po-Boys will remain operational during his absence. He also dreams that one day each of his eight children will have their own restaurant to manage.
He encouraged pursuing one’s dreams and advised against getting involved in street life. “Your dreams don’t align with being out on the streets,” he stated.
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