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Updated: November 21, 2011 10:40AM

More than 700 people streamed through an Englewood church Wednesday morning as former alleged gang hitman and drug dealer Charles Edward Bey was remembered as a man who, in his later years, sought redemption.

“Edward was adamant about not seeing the young people on the street today going through what he went through,” said Larry Jamil Mays, a longtime friend.

The funeral at St. Andrews Temple was, according to those present, “an all-nations gathering of black gang royal families.”

Present were members of the family of imprisoned El Rukn leader Jeff Fort, who along with Bey began the Blackstone Rangers street gang in the 1960s. Both were part of the Main 21, the Blackstone Rangers ruling council.

Members of their longtime and often-bloody rivals, the Disciples, also attended the service as did divisions of the Vice Lords, another Disciple rival.

Bey, who died of apparent natural causes last week at the age of 67, was a legend on the South Side and, for most of his life, not in a good way.

“I didn’t think anything short of a stake through his heart would have killed him. He was that tough,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan, who in the early 1990s prosecuted the El Rukn street gang.

“Everybody was afraid of him,” Hogan recalled Wednesday.

A notorious alleged contract killer, Bey was a shooter who, in turn, got shot many times, according to law enforcement officials.

Bey and Fort grew up together along Blackstone Avenue, and in its heyday the gang counted its membership in the thousands. The Blackstone Rangers morphed into the Black P. Stone Nation and by the late 1970s called themselves the El Rukns. Fort was their undisputed and charismatic “Chief,” with the gang’s drug operations reaching beyond Illinois’ borders.

Fort today is housed in a federal supermax prison in Colorado, serving a virtual life sentence for attempted domestic terrorism.

The violence that surrounded the lives of both men started in the ’60s. The Blackstone Rangers were at war with the Eastside Disciples. The intersection of 65th and Woodlawn became known as the Gaza Strip, due to the carnage.

When the federal government offered nearly $1 million in anti-poverty education funding in 1968 in hopes gang leaders could convert their armies to more productive purposes, the gang eagerly grabbed the cash. Conversion was another matter.

The Justice Department indicted Fort, Bey and others for misspending the money. Fort went to prison. Bey got probation for his part in the scam.

“He was a part of history, I guess, in Chicago,” said Reginald Trice Sr., who was one of many original members of the Blackstone Rangers to attend the funeral.

Trice was present in the late 1990s when Bey declared on a Sunday morning from the pulpit at the Progressive Community Church that he was turning his life around.

It was Mother’s Day, and Bey publicly apologized to his own mother and the congregation for his violent and crime-filled life, according Pastor B. Herbert Martin.

“He did everything he could to be a different kind of man” Martin said.

Trice said, “And he kept true to his word.”

Bey’s gang legend grew as he was arrested for many murders, charged with few and convicted of none.

In 1970, he went on trial for the ambush murder of Chicago Police Officer James Alfano. He was acquitted.

In 1987, Bey was arrested in connection with the murder of flamboyant drug dealer Willie “Flukey” Stokes but never charged.

Bey’s friends insist he did change.

As does the equally legendary former warden of Cook County Jail, Richard English.

“Bey was one of the guys that made a real change,” English said. He added, however, “Sometimes rehabilitation to you and I may not be the same thing to some of those guys who used to be hard-core gangsters and killers.”

Still as prayers were said and hymns sung Wednesday, it was the present being emphasized rather than the past.

Standing in a church hallway was James Highsmith who, along with Bey, was shot four times in a 1986 gang ambush.

“He couldn’t stand to see our youth getting slaughtered on the streets of Chicago, and what he tried to do was use his influence to change ... minds and to change the way they thought about different things,” he said.

“Edward, he felt he had a story to tell,” said Highsmith as the red and white carnation bedecked coffin was being closed and Bey’s red felt hat was being placed on top, marking the end of a former gang leader’s very complicated life.

Don Moseley is a producer for NBC-owned WMAQ Channel 5.

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