Chapter One: 1987-1988
I can feel the DEA agents waiting. I don’t know where or when they’ll strike, but I know they’re near. I’ve never been arrested before, and I’m scared. My wife, Lisa, sits next to me in our Porsche convertible, clutching my hand. We’ve only been married five months. She’s a glamorous South American blonde who looks spectacular in her form-fitting designer clothes, better still in a bikini. With her beside me, I feel powerful. I’ve built my life on extravagance and appearances, and Lisa completes the image I want to project. She’s five years older than I am and I always try to appear strong for her–man enough for her. I don’t want her to see my fear, but inside I’m shaking.
Shadowy forces feel like they’re closing in, but I don’t have a grasp on what’s coming. Instinct, intuition, a sense of impending doom keeps crowding my consciousness. This high-flying life is about to change. I can feel it.
Lisa and I have just left Miami where I learned from Raymond, a well-known criminal lawyer I’ve had on retainer, that a grand jury in Seattle just indicted me on drug trafficking charges. Raymond said that my arrest was imminent and that the criminal charges I’m facing could include the possibility of decades in prison. After hearing that unsettling news, I followed his instructions and gave him my diamond-faced Rolex to hold. Then I told Lisa how to make arrangements for his $200,000 fee.
After leaving Raymond’s office, I drive us toward the Rickenbacker Causeway that leads to Key Biscayne. Despite my attorney’s warning, I’m going home. He convinced me that a huge difference existed between an indictment and a conviction. By paying Raymond all the money I’ve got to fight the case, I’m hoping for a fresh start from the mess I’ve made of my life. I’ve been miserable for months, knowing that I needed to make a change.
* * * * * * *
We arrive at the entry into Key Colony, the private oceanfront community on Key Biscayne where Lisa and I live. The security guard raises the gate and I drive the Porsche forward. We make eye contact, and I sense resentment in his phony smile as he waves us through. I’m half his age, and for the past year, I’ve driven through this gate every day in my flashy sports car with Lisa beside me, wearing a gold watch that cost more than he would make in a year. Today he’s sporting a smug grin. Maybe I’m paranoid. No, I shake my head as I accelerate through the gate and turn right. My gut roils with a subconscious awareness that I’ll never drive through this tropical paradise again.
I park in the garage beneath Botanica, the building where we live. Lisa and I walk arm-in-arm to the elevator, not speaking. I’m alert, watching, expecting the feds to rush me at any second. With heightened senses, I’m acutely aware of the salty ocean air filling my nostrils. My stomach churns as I push the elevator button and we ascend.
The elevator door slides open and we step onto the top floor. An open breezeway with palm trees and lush, tropical vegetation on either side leads to our apartment.
There they are, in front of us. The three men wearing dark blue jackets wait, eyeing me as I approach.
“Are you Michael Santos?”
In an instant, I see three guns aiming at my head.
“Freeze! Put your hands out where we can see them!” One of the agents then begins to recite my Miranda rights.
I comply with their orders. Lisa steps away from me, gasping. One agent clasps my hands behind my neck as he searches me for weapons, though I’ve never carried a gun. Then he lowers my arms, pulling them behind my back. I hear clicking and feel cold metal as he slams handcuffs over my wrists. When the agents see that I’m not resisting, their tone becomes less hostile. They begin to question me and, following Raymond’s instructions, I refuse to answer.
“I want my attorney present before I say anything.” I’m embarrassed that Lisa sees me so helpless, so impotent in the grip of authority.
“Do you want to say goodbye to Lisa?”
I cringe at the familiar way her name rolls off the agent’s tongue, and I realize I’m really being taken away.
“Michael!” Lisa’s tortured cry echoes across the breezeway. “Michael! What should I do?”
I don’t turn around. To see her face would only prolong the agony of the moment. One agent is in front of me. I’m sandwiched between the other two and I feel hands gripping the chains of my handcuffs. I keep walking with my head down, humiliated.
* * * * * * *
It was 1987 and I was 23. For nearly two years I’d been the leader of a small group that distributed cocaine in Seattle. The scheme wasn’t sophisticated. Those at the core of our little enterprise were my classmates from Shorecrest High School, in the North Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park. Sensing a huge market for cocaine among Seattle’s young professionals, I joined my friend Alex in a partnership to capitalize on it.
I found suppliers in Miami. My friend John and his girlfriend, Lori, drove the drugs across the country and delivered them to Tony in Seattle, who stored them in his apartment. Alex coordinated deliveries to customers using Loren and Rico as local drivers.
The shallow layers of people separating me from the actual cocaine fed my delusions that I wasn’t really a drug dealer. Instead, I liked to think of myself as an entrepreneur. To the extent that I thought about it, I provided a simple service. No weapons. No violence. My friends and I only sold to consenting adults, so I equated our actions to those who supplied speakeasies during prohibition. It was my way of glamorizing the scheme to camouflage the severity of potential consequences.
The government, of course, saw things differently. Ronald Reagan occupied the White House and he was ramping up the “War on Drugs.” I may have previously seen myself as a businessman, but riding through the streets of Miami in the back seat of a black Ford LTD with my hands locked behind my back, in the custody of DEA agents, left no doubt that I was in big trouble. I thought of Lisa. I thought of my parents. I wondered if my attorney, Raymond, could really get me out of this mess.
* * * * * * *
“So, what’s up? Did you think you could run from us forever?” The two agents in the front seat switch to a friendlier approach. The driver has carrot-red hair, styled with a flat top and military fade. His partner looks hip, wearing feathered brown hair that he holds in place with his stylish sunglasses. They try to engage me in conversation, but I’m silent, deep in thought as I stare out of the tinted windows at the glass-faced, high-rise buildings of downtown Miami.
“Talk to us,” the driver pipes in. “This may be your last chance to save yourself.”
I’m mute, afraid, sensing that I’ve reached a pivotal moment.
“Alex and Tony have given us plenty already. Who’re you tryin’ to protect? This is the time,” the driver speaks with authority. “No one knows you’ve been busted but us. Your pals cut sweetheart deals, left you hangin’ in the wind. Take us to your suppliers and I’ll turn this car around right now.”
“You don’t have much time.” The other agent stares at me, tempting me, trying to persuade me. I can tell that he isn’t much older than I am. “Once we move forward, you’re booked, game over. Speak up now and you’ll be able to go home to that pretty little wife of yours.”
I don’t say a word. It’s not that I feel an allegiance to any criminal code. As crazy as it sounds, I don’t even consider myself a criminal. It’s simply that escaping problems by betraying others doesn’t appeal to me as much as the chance for total vindication. Raymond suggests we can win through a trial, and I’m swinging for the fences, going for it. I cling to those hopes, but I’m also conflicted because a deep shame seeps through me. For years I’ve been telling lies, though I’m yet not ready to confront the reality of who I am, of what I am. I desperately want to resume a normal life and spare myself the humiliation of having to admit that I’m a drug dealer.
As the DEA agents urge me to confess everything, I think about Lisa. I’ve come to define myself through material possessions, and she is my trophy. I live a fantasy life with her, locked in a constant struggle to mask my shallowness. Cooperating with the DEA and informing against others to spare myself would show weakness, implying that I lacked the wits and enough power to resolve the situation. It wouldn’t be the forceful image I’ve worked so hard to project. I remain silent, sealing my fate.
* * * * * * *
I’ve never been to prison, nor have I been locked in custody before, but I did have a previous problem with the law. In high school, I organized a sports gambling pool. When one student couldn’t pay up he offered to settle the debt with a stereo he stole. I accepted. A few months later, when police officers caught him in another theft, he told the officers that he gave the stereo to me. That led to my conviction for receiving stolen property. When I confided in my father about the problems of the stolen stereo, he stood by my side. For my sanction, a judge ordered that I pay $900 in restitution and that I fill out a form for a probation officer each month for nine months. We concealed the incident from my mother and sisters, not wanting to worry them.
* * * * * * *
In the back of the DEA car, I think about how my arrest is going to devastate my family. I’m now in a predicament that’s going to expose the deceitful life I’ve been living and I’m humiliated, yet I still can’t bring myself to come clean because I’ve got too much invested in the lies I’ve already told. In choosing this path, with Raymond fighting my battle, I’ve got to go all the way.
* * * * * * *
My father was a Cuban immigrant. Together with my American mother he built a contracting company in Seattle and provided well for our family. We lived in a beautiful five-bedroom home that sat on several acres in Lake Forest Park. A stream with waterfalls ran through our front yard, with a thick forest behind the house. My parents worked hard to provide my two sisters and me with every advantage, to prepare us for success, grooming me to lead the family company.
My father took pride in operating heavy equipment, pouring concrete, and creating work of lasting value. His company specialized in public works, installing highway lighting and traffic signal systems. My dad was an old-country kind of guy, and he aspired to teach me a strong work ethic. But I resented pulling wire and carrying the pipe. I especially dreaded working on weekends or during summers when my friends were water skiing on Lake Washington. Even though I worked by my dad’s side from the time I was six, I couldn’t see myself doing physical labor, not for the long term. I wanted the good times my friends enjoyed.
After graduating from high school with mediocre grades, I maneuvered my way out of the field and into the office, wanting to wear clean clothes and to position myself close to the money. With high expectations, my parents gave me the position of vice president, despite the fact that I lacked the maturity to wield the responsibility such a title implied. They trusted me, and I exploited their confidence in my abilities.
I’ve always been driven by the pursuit of money and possessions, with a sense of entitlement, wanting more than what my parents gave. Their friends were professionals and business owners, people whose influence and style impressed me.
The family business was small when I joined it full-time after graduating from high school, employing only a few electricians. My dad worked alongside them to install illumination and electrical systems while my mom kept the books. The company remained free of debt and afforded us a comfortable life, though it wasn’t enough for my tastes. To me, bigger seemed better.
Rather than studying and working through a four-year apprenticeship program to earn the state licenses I would need to assume control of the business, I thought of ways to expand without having to dirty my hands. I could always hire people with the necessary licenses and reasoned that my energies were better spent on increasing revenues.
I joined trade organizations and socialized with other contractors. Those relationships led to collusion, bid rigging, and other violations of state contract laws. My parents didn’t object too strenuously as the company’s annual revenues increased from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. To finance the growth, I persuaded my parents to sign agreements that required them to pledge their home and assets as collateral for higher credit lines with banks, suppliers, and bonding companies. Within three years I convinced my parents to expand the company from one of boring stability into a leveraged business with more than 50 employees. My dad could oversee jobs across the state while I acted as the big man, schmoozing with people and working with numbers that impressed me.
* * * * * * *
Greed was a sinister enticement, clouding my judgment. My friend Alex had been supplementing his income by selling cocaine. Since I had unencumbered access to money from our family’s business, I proposed a scheme to Alex that would finance bigger coke deals and allow us to work together. I was 21, and the prospect of a quick score seemed harmless, too good to pass up.
Taylor, a mutual acquaintance of ours, agreed to supply us with several kilos of cocaine. For our first transaction, I pulled cash from the company account to pay Taylor on the morning of delivery, and Alex contacted customers to sell the cocaine during the same day. By late afternoon Alex gave me back the money to reimburse the company’s account. The deal left Alex and me with tens of thousands in profits.
All went as planned until the following day when a maid discovered more than $100,000 in Taylor’s hotel suite and reported it. Hotel management contacted the Seattle police who seized the money. When Taylor tried to claim it, the police required an explanation. “Just give us a receipt that shows how you received the currency and you can have it,” the officers told him.
Taylor called me at work to explain what happened and he asked for my help. “I’ll give you 20 percent if you can provide a receipt that will get me the money back.”
“Thirty percent,” I countered.
Since I’d withdrawn a substantial amount of cash to finance the transaction, I had a plausible explanation, or so I thought. We concocted a story that we were going to use the money to establish a leasing company. I then brought Taylor to the high-rise office tower of our company’s attorney and hatched a plan to bamboozle him into helping us retrieve the money. I had an excellent relationship with Geoff, who was a partner in the firm. Since I’d worked with the attorney before, I assumed he would simply make a few phone calls and resolve the complication.
Taylor and I sat facing Geoff across his polished cherry wood desk. His office overlooked the mid-rise buildings of South Seattle and Puget Sound.
“I gave the money to Taylor so that he could make a cash offer to purchase construction equipment from a contractor who was going out of business.” Geoff listened patiently to my story, but in his eyes, I saw skepticism.
Lying, I fabricated a story, telling him that Taylor and I were then going to lease the equipment back to my father’s company. Supposedly, we would rely upon the leases to collateralize a bank loan to reimburse the company.
“Is your dad a part of this new venture you’re launching?”
I still remember the doubt in Geoff’s voice from his first question.
When I told him that I’d made this deal on my own, Geoff nodded, then turned his interrogation to Taylor, who sat across the polished desk as if he were an accomplished businessman there to consult on a corporate merger rather than seek help to retrieve a duffle bag full of cash.
“And where do you live?” Geoff’s question was direct.
“I keep an apartment in The Grosvenor House,” Taylor answered.
“That’s on Queen Anne, isn’t it?”
“That’s right.” Taylor didn’t yet realize that he was out of his depth.
“About five minutes north of downtown?” Geoff persisted.
“So you keep an apartment in the city.” Geoff nodded, holding a finger to his temple as he rocked in his chair.
“Then help me understand why you’d take a hotel room a few blocks away from where you live. More to the point, why would you leave so much cash in a hotel room while you went to the gym for a morning workout?”
Taylor stumbled through Geoff’s penetrating questions. I remember squirming in my chair, knowing the meeting was a disaster. The longer we sat there, the more I realized how foolish I’d been to think that I could manipulate a skillful attorney with lies.
Geoff said he’d make some inquiries with the police and call me later with a plan. I walked out of the office feeling sick to my stomach, knowing that I’d permanently destroyed my reputation. I wouldn’t have the courage to face Geoff again.
“Are you alone?” Geoff asked when he reached me in the car later that afternoon.
“Yes.” I was driving north on Interstate 5 toward the company office. Rain drizzled on the black Bronco I drove.
“Taylor isn’t with you?” He sounded concerned for my welfare.
“No, I’m alone.”
“I’m going to ask you some questions and I want you to answer honestly. Okay?”
“Of course.” I knew what was coming.
“Does your father know about this money?”
“Did you give that money to Taylor?”
“Does that money really belong to you?”
“I didn’t think so. Michael, I want you to listen very carefully to me. I’m speaking to you as a friend and as your attorney. You have a brilliant future with your father’s company in this city. But I smell drugs with Taylor. I want you to run as far away from him as you can. He is cancer and he will destroy you. Do you understand?”
“Yes. You’re right. I’m sorry I brought him to your office.”
“That’s okay. We’ll keep our meeting today between us.”
Despite his kind tone, I sensed that I’d irretrievably lost his respect. I hung up, humiliated. Taylor had created his own problem by leaving his money in a hotel suite while he exercised. By intervening I made Taylor’s problems my own; there wasn’t any way for me to erase what I’d done or re-establish trust with Geoff.
Instead of running away from Taylor as Geoff advised, I did the opposite. I abandoned my responsibilities and obligations to our family business. My poor judgment had forced my hand, I thought. With the irrevocable damage I’d done to my reputation I left Seattle for Miami, intending to earn a few million by becoming a coke dealer.
* * * * * * *
And that’s how it started. That’s how the scheme began that led to where I sit now, locked up. I’m a prisoner of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on my way to places unknown.
You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison Professors.com. We help people prepare for success through prosecution, sentencing, and prison. Our digital products bring value to prison systems, schools, and corporate training. Visit Prison Professors.com to learn more, or find us on YouTube. Learn how my partner Shon Hopwood and I can help you. Stay tuned for the next free audio clip. We invite you to subscribe to our podcast. Please share and leave an honest review, wherever possible. If you’d like to engage in the discussion, please leave a comment.