Earning Freedom: Chapter 1
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 good-bye 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 flattop 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 pipe. I especially dreaded working on weekends or during summers when my friends were waterskiing 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 a 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 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.
The driver turns into an office complex and parks. The third agent, the one who searched me and cuffed me during the arrest, parks a separate, identical car beside us. I exit the car with one agent holding the chain of my handcuffs behind my back. I’m like a dog on a leash, being walked into what I presume is a field office.
Once inside, the agents begin to process me. They unlock my handcuffs so I can hold a nameplate beneath my chin while one of the agents photographs my head. Another leads me to a station for fingerprinting. They invite me to cooperate again, to talk with them in exchange for a reprieve from jail. Last chance. The ship is sailing, fading away on the horizon, but I’m not onboard.
Disgusted with my refusal to spill the information they’re trying to coerce from me, an agent leads me to a room the size of a broom closet and locks me inside.
“Get used to it.” He warns, tossing the words over his shoulder as he walks away.
I’m alone in the tiny room. A bench extends the length of one wall. I sit, elbows on my knees, head in my hands. I’ve been immersed in a scheme of selling cocaine for nearly two years and now it’s come to this. Although I’m not ready now, I’ll soon have to answer to the world for the lies I’ve been living.
I knew my parents suspected something. My mother even accused me once, crying about how she didn’t want to lose her son to prison. I tried to console her while simultaneously stonewalling her questions about why I had moved to Miami, about why I wouldn’t provide her with a phone number or an address. My irresponsible choices broke her heart long ago.
With arms folded across my chest, I stare at the floor, leaning my back against the cold brick wall. I’d like to ask forgiveness, to take my lashes and start fresh, but instead I cling to Raymond’s assurances that I’ll prevail if I simply tough it out.
With stress and the bright lights exhausting me, I lose track of time, though I’m sure that more than an hour has passed. My head aches and I’m dizzy.
Finally an agent opens the door. “Cuff up!”
He slaps the cuffs around my wrists and locks them behind my back again. The agents take me outside to their car. They unlock and open the back door, then press me inside. I don’t know where I’m going but I presume I’m about to see the inside of a jail.
We drive a short distance and turn into the parking lot of a complex enclosed by double rows of chain-link fencing. Coils of glistening razor wire loop through the tops of the tall gates and many more coils of wire lie stacked atop each other on the ground in the wide space of no-man’s land between the fences. No one could escape without cutting himself to shreds.
It’s hot and humid outside. Sweat forms under my arms, across my chest and back as I step out of the air-conditioned car. The agents march me toward the entrance of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Miami. Prison guards from a control center press a button to unlock the heavy steel door electronically and I hear the click of the dead bolt. A guard from the Federal Bureau of Prisons wearing gray slacks, a white shirt, and maroon tie accepts manila folders handed over by the agents escorting me. They exchange words, though my mind goes blank and I can’t comprehend their conversation. When the guard searches me, looks in my mouth, inside my ears, and tugs on the handcuffs to ensure they’re secure, it’s clear that I no longer share a common humanity with them.
The guard leads me inside a series of gates that roll behind us, locking me deeper inside the prison. I spend interminable hours in holding cells, sometimes alone, sometimes with other prisoners. I complete forms declaring that I don’t suffer from health issues or require medication. Then I stand for photographs and more fingerprints–my life as a federal prisoner has begun
I exchange my brown alligator skin loafers and matching belt, linen slacks, and a silk dress shirt now reeking from sweat, for elastic-waist khaki trousers, a white t-shirt, and blue canvas slip-on deck shoes. Without my clothes I feel my identity slip away. It’s ten at night when I receive a roll of sheets, a blanket, and towel. Then I descend into my first housing unit.
The rectangular building is a two-tiered shell of concrete and steel with hundreds of sullen prisoners loitering in the common areas. Some of the men stare at me. While walking through the riffraff inside, I’m struck by the level of noise.
My thoughts wander. Who are these people? What did they do? Can I handle myself in a fight with them? I see a line for the telephones and make my way through the crowd. When my turn comes I call Lisa.
Prisoners crowd around on all sides as I press the phone against one ear while holding my finger inside the other to silence the noise. Lisa’s voice reminds me of all that I’m missing. I mask my emotions, trying to appear stoic. Between her sobs she tells me that Raymond told her I have a court date scheduled in the morning. “I’ll be there,” Lisa promises. “Your mom is coming with me.”
“You told my parents?” My question comes across more like an accusation. I’ve lost control over the moment of truth, and it bothers me that I’ll have to confront them.
“I had to. Raymond said he wanted to show that you have family support. Your mom wants to talk to you.”
During my 18 months as a drug dealer in Miami, the family business collapsed, devastating my parents financially and emotionally. I’ve repressed the guilt that my reckless ambition caused the business to fail, but it surfaces again with my confinement, and it’s heavy. My parents salvaged the assets they could and relocated to Miami, where my father’s family lived. Their marriage didn’t survive the disruption and my mother now lives with my younger sister in a Miami Beach condo. The stable family and household where my two sisters and I had grown up were in shambles, only a memory.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I say in an attempt to ease her distress after Lisa connects us. “I didn’t do anything and I’ve got the best lawyer in Miami. You’ll see. He’s going to clear me of all this nonsense.”
“Oh, Michael…your father and I are so worried.” My mother sobs between her whispered words. “What have you done?”
“Nothing, Mom. I swear. I didn’t do anything. You’ll see. My attorney is going to clear all this up. Give it time. We just have to trust him.”
“What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to say? I can’t believe this is happening!”
My time on the phone ends, not with a good-bye, but when a guard presses a switch to disconnect the call. He marches me to my room and locks me inside.
Podcast 111: Earning Freedom 1.2
“¿Que Onda?” Another man is locked in the same cell. Cuban, I presume from his accent. He stands by a waist-high metal locker in boxer shorts, staring at me. He looks like a thug. We’re the same height, though he is heavier, with more fat than muscle. Crudely drawn tattoos look like chicken scratches across his arms and torso.
“¿De donde eres?” He wants to engage me.
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
“What is you, white?” He speaks in English this time.
The man’s question bothers me. I think of myself as an American, un-hyphenated by ethnicity. “I am what I am.”
“I thought you was Cuban.”
“My dad’s Cuban.”
“So why the fuck you don’t speak Spanish?”
“I speak English.” I’m ready for this guy’s challenge, if that’s what he wants.
“Where you from?”
“I’m from Seattle.”
“You a cop?”
I stare at him, wondering why he would ask such a ridiculous question when I’m locked in a prison cell, wearing prisoner’s clothing. “Hey dude, what is it you want?”
“I’m sayin’, muthafucka come up in my house, lookin’ Cuban but think he white, gotta ask if you’s a cop.”
“I’m not a cop. I was arrested today. I’m going to court tomorrow.”
“You’s arrested?” He mocks me. “Where’d they bust you?”
“Oh, so you got paper.”
“Paper? What are you talking about?”
“Money, muthafucka, you got money!”
“Why are you so interested in who I am? Who are you?”
“You up in my cell, bitch. Don’t be axin’ me no muthafuckin’ questions.”
“What are we doing here? Are you looking for a fight or what? It’s late, I’m tired, and I’ve got to go to court tomorrow. But I’ve got all you can handle if that’s what you want.”
He sizes me up. “You ain’t no snitch is you?”
“I’m done talking to you.”
“Okay. That’s good. Don’t talk. That’s you bunk, white boy.”
The hostility in the cell surprises me. What’s this about? I walk to the steel rack against the wall, unroll the mat, and stretch the sheet across it. I climb up without using the sink or the toilet, too exhausted for more confrontation. I turn on my side and stare out of a narrow vertical window. It’s no more than six inches wide, but I can see outside. Spotlights shine on crabgrass, steel fences, and razor wire. I watch as a guard drives a white pickup slowly around the prison’s perimeter and I fade into sleep.
It’s an anxious sleep, and when I wake, I stare out the window, with tears filling my eyes. The man below me smells. I miss Lisa’s perfumed skin, her hair, her body. This is going to destroy us. My only hope is Raymond. He has to free me from this nightmare. I wipe my watering eyes and drift back into sleep.
A guard unlocks the door and yells my name into the cell. His voice bounces off the concrete walls and startles me from a dead sleep. I jump down from the rack and he orders me to dress for court. I’m still wearing my khakis and the t-shirt. Feeling beaten and exhausted, I slide into the canvas shoes and accompany the guard out of the cell. He slams the steel door behind us and uses a formidable key to lock the dead bolt.
I walk with other prisoners through the same door I entered last night. We join a throng of more than 100 men and the guards herd us into caged bullpens. The noise makes my head throb as I stand shoulder to shoulder with scores of angry prisoners. A clock on the wall shows that it isn’t yet three, which explains why I feel exhausted. I can’t believe court begins this early.
One by one, the guards call us out of the cage to change into our clothes. When I receive the mesh bag with my name on it, I see my clothes balled together at the bottom of the bag, ruined, my shoes on top of the shirt.
“The belt is missing,” I tell the guard.
“What?” He growls.
“My belt is missing,” I repeat.
“Let’s see here.” The guard grabs a processing form from the bag and scans down the boxes. “Don’t show that you was wearin’ no belt when you checked in.”
“What do you mean? Of course I was wearing a belt. It was brown, alligator skin, matching my shoes.”
“Form don’t say nothin’ ’bout no belt. Now get the fuck dressed and quit pussyfootin’ around. Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that you ain’t got no panties.”
I know that I stink, and my clothes are damp, which will add to the disaster of this day, my first as a prisoner.
As soon as I dress, a guard leads me back to the bullpen. My legs ache from standing. Hours pass. At six, the guards begin calling us out in groups of two. They shackle my ankles, wrap a chain around my waist, weave handcuffs through the front of the chain and then lock my wrists in place. The chains are heavy on my body. Secured, we march awkwardly out toward waiting transport buses.
“You don’t like the chains,” one guard taunts while sucking on a cigarette, “quit selling drugs.”
I have a window seat on one of the three packed buses that maneuver through morning rush hour in Miami. I peer through the spaces between vertical steel bars and a tinted window, looking at the faces of other drivers–people leading responsible lives. Legitimate work is something I haven’t done since turning my back on responsibilities at my father’s company.
We drive past the tollbooths that lead across the bay to Key Biscayne. I see the sign touting Key Biscayne as “The Island Paradise” and I’m overcome with sadness. My neck cramps as I try to wipe the tears on my shoulder. I may have a court date, but my gut tells me I won’t be sleeping in my bed tonight.
The driver maneuvers our bus into an underground garage beneath the Federal Building. Guards march us through doors that lead to a series of adjacent bullpen cages. Still chained, we squeeze in like animals in a chute heading for slaughter. I don’t understand this system, and I hate all that is happening. I’m trapped. Worse yet, I’m strangely uneasy about surrendering my fate to Raymond.
Paco, one of my cocaine suppliers, introduced me to Raymond. Paco praised him as one of the best lawyers in Miami, and when I visited his office, I was influenced by its opulence. I admired the photographs of Raymond smiling in victory with well-known organized crime figures. They stood victoriously outside a courthouse after beating federal racketeering charges. The press clippings convinced me I had to have Raymond on my team. Even though I wasn’t expecting any legal problems, having a top-notch attorney on retainer made sense. I agreed to pay him tens of thousands in cash just in case.
“Santos. Santos. I need Michael Santos.” I hear a guard yelling my name.
“I’m in here.” I press my way through the crowd to the front of the cage.
“Let’s go.” He unlocks the gate for me to step out. After locking the cage behind us, he walks me to a tiny cubbyhole of a conference room for defendants to meet with their attorneys. I see Raymond sitting on a stool waiting for me. I notice immediately that he wears my Rolex.
“How’re you holding up, Sport?” He greets me as if we’re partners in a tennis match.
“I’m okay. A little tired.” I’m embarrassed that Raymond sees me unshaven and in wrinkled, sweat-stained clothes.
“Did they treat you okay in there?”
“I don’t know. It’s loud, crowded. I haven’t been able to think about anything but getting out of this nightmare.”
“Have you eaten?”
“I can’t eat.” I shrug my shoulders. “They passed out bologna and white bread. Mine’s still in the bag.”
“You’ve got to eat,” he says, trying to encourage me. “I need you strong through this.”
“I need you strong,” I counter, feeling weaker than I hope I show. “How long am I going to be in here?”
“We’re trying to get you out on bond this morning. Lisa and your mother will meet me here at nine. I brought your watch for Lisa. If you were wearing it when they arrested you, they’d have seized it.”
“Why does my mom have to be here?”
“This is a first appearance. We’re going to enter a plea of not guilty to the charges. Then I’ll ask the judge to let you out on bond. I need your mother and Lisa here to show that you’ve got community ties.”
“You mean they’re going to let me out?” For the first time, a sense of hope begins to surface through my despair.
“I’m sure going to try.”
Raymond can see that I need something to pick up my spirits. He’s like the baseball coach trying to encourage a little leaguer in a slump. “You need to toughen up. We’ll make a good case. You don’t have an arrest record. There aren’t any allegations of violence or weapons. You’ve got family support.”
“How much will it cost?”
“We need to talk about that, Sport,” Raymond says as he leans back against the wall. “You’ve been charged with operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise. It carries a possible life sentence. If the judge agrees to bond, it’s going to be high. What can we offer the court?”
“What do you mean, a life sentence?” Fear overtakes me. “For what? What’s that mean?”
Raymond holds my wrist, trying to steady my nerves. “Don’t worry. We talked about this. It’s only the beginning. The government always overcharges.” He dismisses the concern with a wave of his hand. “You’ve got to trust me, leave this to me. For now we’ve got to have a plan for the bond request so we can get you out of here. What kind of assets can you pledge?”
“I don’t have anything.” I’m embarrassed to admit that my whole life is a charade. “I told Lisa to get everything we have for you.”
“What do you mean?” Raymond squints at me, disbelieving. “You didn’t put anything away?”
I scratch my head, and then I rub my face in shame. “I bought some property in Spain from Paco. He hasn’t given me the title yet. Lisa was supposed to talk with him yesterday about getting the money back so we could finish paying you. That’s all I have.”
I sense Raymond’s incredulity and sinking respect as he scratches his head.
“How about your parents? What can they put up?”
“I don’t have anything, Raymond. Let’s just think about beating these charges, not the bond.”
“How much is Lisa bringing me today? We need money to beat this thing, Sport.”
“She has about a hundred grand. Paco will give her the rest and she’ll pay you off.”
“Tell me about this property. What’s it worth?”
“A couple hundred thousand. Paco owes it to me from a deal we made that never went through. We’ve been waiting for him to transfer the title, but after we left your office yesterday, I told Lisa to get a hold of him and pull together whatever cash he could return immediately.”
Raymond shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you don’t have anything set aside. How do you own a watch like this with no money?”
I feel like I’m eight-years-old. Totally deflated, I sink deeper into my chair.
“Don’t worry.” Raymond begins to recover. He can see that his questions about my finances are pushing me into a dark hole. “We’ll be okay. I’ll talk with Paco about this property. I’ve got to get into the courtroom.”
The guard lets Raymond out and leads me back to the cage. I don’t understand the talk about a life sentence. Why a life sentence? Also, Raymond’s slightly veiled disdain for my financial situation troubles me. I’m not prepared for any of this, not emotionally, not physically, and certainly not intellectually. I’m totally in Raymond’s hands. I feel nauseous, unsettled, but I dismiss the instinct that I should plead guilty and cut my losses. I’ve got to trust Raymond.
When the guard leads me into the courtroom I see Lisa and my mom. They hardly know each other and my mom has never accepted Lisa as a part of my life. Yet in that courtroom they hold each other, one supporting the other as I sit at the defendant’s table beside Raymond. We can’t talk, but I nod before turning away to face the court.
To steady myself I study the ornate courtroom–the elaborate paneling, the carvings in heavy wood, the high ceiling and podium. The room invokes a sense of majesty and ceremony. Prosecutors sit at a table to my left. To them I’m a nonentity, just another criminal. The judge considers arguments that I can’t comprehend. I feel foolish, ill equipped to grasp the significance of all that is happening. The only words that register with me are possible life sentence. They resonate through my mind. Why? I see the judge’s forehead crease when he stares down at me.
“There will be no bail for this defendant.” The judge slams the wooden gavel on the podium after he rules.
This must be the longest day of my life. Federal marshals lead me back to the crowded bullpen. I’m dejected, thinking of my mom and Lisa tearfully embracing each other. The packed cage doesn’t faze me as I press my way to a rear corner and slouch to the filthy concrete floor. My back rests against the evenly spaced steel bars and I drop my head to my knees.
These threats of a life sentence feel real, so much more real than Raymond has prepared me to cope with mentally. I don’t have enough money to fight this battle or to support Lisa. I need to get out of here, but I don’t know how.
When I return to the prison, guards assign me to a different housing unit than I slept in last night. I’d been in a classification unit, though I didn’t know anyone was evaluating me. This is a strange environment, where guards order me to specific locations, expecting me to comply without question. I’m now in Coral Unit, and I must sleep in a room with six other prisoners about whom I know nothing. Everyone snores as I climb onto my rack, still in my clothes. This time I don’t have a window.
It’s my third day in prison and a counselor approves me to receive visitors. I call Lisa and ask her to come. “Did Raymond give you my watch?” I ask, my entire identity wrapped up in my possessions. When she tells me that he did, I ask her to bring it.
“Can you wear a watch like yours in there?”
“I don’t want to keep it here. I just want to feel it on my wrist again.” I need some physical remembrance of the life I lived only 72 hours ago. We all wear white t-shirts and khaki pants. As much as I want to hold Lisa, I also want the other prisoners to see her beside me.
Within minutes of her arrival guards reprimand me for kissing her. They cite rules permitting a brief kiss at the start and end of each visit. If I kiss her again, they warn, they’ll terminate my visiting privileges for one month. We sit on metal chairs at a round, Formica-topped, white table. I listen as Lisa describes the fallout from my arrest. Her mother is urging her to leave me though she pledges her undying love. The thought of her abandoning me strikes another jolt to my vanishing confidence.
“What about Raymond?” I ask, and inquire whether she paid him.
“I gave him the money. He’s working through the property deal with Paco. They’ve already talked.”
“You mean he wants the money and the property? That’s worth way more than the $200 thousand he wanted!”
“I don’t care. You can always make more money. I just want you home.”
I tell Lisa about my time inside. We have a law library and I’ve read scores of legal cases during the few days I’ve spent here. I may only have a high school education, but I understand what I read. The government has charged me with operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise. Those law books describe the charges as the “kingpin statute.” To convict, the government has to prove that I managed five people who participated in drug deals involving significant amounts of money. I know I’m guilty.
“Maybe I should plead guilty,” I suggest to her. By pleading guilty early in the proceedings, I understand that the government might reduce the charges, or agree to a lighter sentence. The cases I’ve read suggest that if a jury convicts me, I’ll receive a long sentence, maybe life.
“Are you crazy?” Lisa doesn’t want to hear my reasoning. “We’re not pleading guilty to anything! They didn’t catch you with anything. Raymond told me this would happen, that you’d want to break down. He told me to keep you strong in here.”
“If I plead guilty I could probably get a 10-year sentence.”
“And what am I supposed to do for 10 years? You’re my husband and I need you home.”
“I wouldn’t serve 10 years. There’s parole and good time. I’d probably be home in three years or something.”
“Michael, they didn’t catch you with anything.”
“No, but Alex and Tony are testifying against me.”
“No one is going to believe them. They were caught in the act, with cocaine.”
“Baby, I’m just saying we should think about pleading guilty, cutting our losses. This charge accuses me of being the boss. The government doesn’t have to catch me with anything. Prosecutors only have to prove that I supervised others who sold cocaine.”
“Who do you think you are, Al Capone?” Lisa laughs, mocking me. “This place is just playing with your mind. Where’s my strong husband?” She reaches over to hold my hand and I look at the guard to see if he’s watching. “We have to trust in Raymond. He says we can win and that’s what we’re going to do.”
I’m still uneasy when our visit ends and I return to the housing unit. Later, I hear a guard’s voice paging me over the loudspeaker to report to the visiting room again. Raymond has come to see me. We sit in a small conference room reserved for attorney-client visits. Raymond tells me that Lisa described my fears about the trial and he asks how I’m holding up. I want to appear unshakable, as if I can handle this struggle, though I know I’m in deep, way over my head. I tell him what I’ve read in the law books–about all the people serving life sentences for the same charges as mine.
“I don’t want you reading those books,” Raymond admonishes me. “They’re just going to mess with your head and cloud your thinking. Those guys didn’t have me representing them. They may have had shoddy lawyers for all we know. Besides, those books only show the losers. They don’t publish the cases about the defendants who beat the pants off the government. That’s what we’re going to do.”
I need that expression of confidence that we can prevail. “What am I supposed to say when people ask about my case?”
“If you have to say anything, tell them you’ve been wrongfully charged with a crime and that you will vindicate your name through a trial. I need you strong,” he repeats, with an authority that bolsters my spirits. “This is my business and I’m the best in the world at what I do. Let me try this case.”
Raymond forewarns me that the U.S. marshals will transfer me from Miami to Seattle. He promises to send copies of briefings he will file with the court, and says that he will fly to Seattle to prepare the case a few times before the trial begins.
“When are we going to trial?”
“We go to trial when we’re ready, Sport.” Raymond conveys the message that we’re in control and that he has a strategy to deliver my acquittal. He urges me to stay strong while he determines the most advantageous time to try the case. Raymond insists that I not ask questions about what he is planning and insinuates that he has tactics he can’t share with me. I leave our meeting feeling optimistic, wondering if Raymond is bribing the judge. That must be the reason he needs so much money.
Thanks to Raymond’s heads-up, I’m not surprised the following morning when the marshals transfer me in chains on the vans, buses, and airplanes they reserve for prisoner transport. I’m held over in Oklahoma and Arizona prisons before arriving in Seattle. When the marshals book me into jail, I’m among several other men–most of whom are friends and now my co-defendants. They’ll stand trial with me for playing a role in distributing the cocaine I sent from Miami.
Since moving to Miami more than a year ago, I isolated myself from the day-to-day activities of the trafficking scheme. From afar I could limit my role to logistics, coordinating with suppliers to ensure that the local distributors had enough coke to meet their demand. This strategy, I convinced myself, would ensure that I’d never face problems with the law. Yet here I sit, locked in the same jail with many of those who worked with me.
In the Miami prison I felt alone, totally new to confinement. The shock, together with the ominous possibility of a life sentence, wreaked havoc on my mental state. But in Seattle my tension lessens, even if I am locked in jail. I miss Lisa, of course. My father returned to Seattle when I was transferred here, and my sister Julie lives nearby. They spend a few hours with me on each visiting day. They also accept my collect phone calls, allowing my delusions of innocence and release to continue.
I adjust to the rhythms of this particular jail, actually enjoying the time I’m spending with my codefendants and others who have an indirect relationship to my case. While we wait for our judicial proceedings they teach me card games and chess. One day my spirits lift when I spot David, a Colombian I’ve worked with before but haven’t seen for nearly a year.
Even when we did see each other in the past, we didn’t communicate much because David doesn’t speak English. His role in my organization was to store cocaine that Rico would distribute in Seattle. When Rico began cooperating with the DEA, he led the agents to David and his stash house.
David pulls me to a corner of the jail and tries urgently to communicate a message. He whispers and takes precautions to ensure others don’t hear us. I can’t understand him and our inability to communicate frustrates him. I try to bring a bilingual prisoner over to translate, but David stops me. This is a private matter, he insists. He borrows a Spanish-English dictionary. Finally, I get the message he’s been trying to convey.
When the DEA agents arrested David, they didn’t find eight kilograms of cocaine that he had hidden. I’d been out of the loop, unaware that eight kilograms existed until David told me. My understanding had been that the government seized everything when Rico began cooperating with them. David explains that he was holding that cocaine for the Colombian suppliers who had fled after the arrests. He wants someone to retrieve and sell it, though he doesn’t know anyone in Seattle.
David proposes a solution to my immediate problem. If I can coordinate this transaction, he offers to split the proceeds. At current prices, eight kilograms of cocaine will bring more than $200,000. My cut will cover Lisa’s expenses while I wait for Raymond to free me. From my perspective this isn’t even a risk since I’m already facing trial.
I call Tom, Lisa’s brother, and invite him to visit. In the past, I relied upon Tom as a courier to transport cocaine. Since we both want the best for Lisa, I trust him. The government charged Tom in my indictment, but the minor role he played in the conspiracy allowed him to remain free on bail during the judicial proceedings in Seattle. During our visit I explain what I’ve learned from David.
We visit in a tiny booth with a glass partition separating us. I show him a map that David has drawn for me. It feels as if I’m coordinating a treasure hunt from the jail. The potential life sentence no longer troubles me, as I’ve resigned myself to let Raymond handle the trial. My focus has switched to providing Lisa with more financial resources.
“There’s nothing to it,” I explain to Tom. He may be out on bail facing federal charges, but he, too, sees the opportunity. I instruct Tom to deliver the cocaine to Walt, one of my clients who wasn’t I implicated in the indictment.
“Just pick up the eight kilos. Once you get it, call Walt and he’ll sell it. Tell Walt I’ll finance him. He can pay over time, without pressure. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than an hour and we make a hundred grand.”
I return to my housing unit, completely oblivious to the new crime I’ve just committed. During a phone conversation the following morning Tom says all is well. Within days Tom receives tens of thousands of dollars and sends Lisa what she needs. He rents a home near the jail and pays for Lisa to move to Seattle so she can visit while we await my victory and release.
“I knew you’d be able to handle this.” She places her hand against the glass that separates us in the visiting room, smiling at me as if I’m a hero.
I’m visiting with Lisa whenever we’re allowed, and there is something about providing for her that empowers me, even if my family doesn’t like her. They don’t understand, especially now that I’m in jail and still shutting them out by refusing to talk about my case. I’ll make things right once Raymond frees me from these charges. For now I need to take care of Lisa. That’s about all I can manage.
At 23, I’m younger than most of the prisoners around me. Raymond, my attorney, flies to Seattle whenever necessary. On visiting days, other prisoners see me with my striking wife. I walk with a swagger, filled with delusions that I’m quite the man about the cellblock. I play it up, enjoying the role of kingpin during those first few months in the Seattle jail, thinking that I’ll soon be walking out victoriously, beating the feds.
I spend my first Christmas behind bars, and then I celebrate my 24th birthday in January 1988 with a Snickers-bar party for all the prisoners in my housing unit. The time in jail hasn’t been bad, but only because I’m certain my liberty is coming. My mother continuously asks what I’ll do once I get out. She has a hard time defending me to relatives and friends who inquire about my predicament. But I don’t have an answer for her, as I haven’t thought about anything besides beating the case. I’ll think about the future later, I tell her, suggesting that she ignore what others say.
After five months of pretrial detention, I’m impatient, ready for the action to begin. The government doesn’t have any tape recordings of me doing deals. Further, DEA agents didn’t catch me with any drugs or any money, and the people who’ve agreed to testify against me have self-interests in blaming me even though they were the ones caught with cocaine. I can’t wait for Raymond to persuade the jury that I shouldn’t be in jail.
Before the trial starts Raymond coaches me on the testimony I’ll give. We sit for hours in a small conference room adjacent to my housing unit while he fires questions as if he’s the prosecutor trying to rattle me.
“When you answer,” he coaches, “look at the jury. Find a juror you like and talk directly to her. Speak clearly, without rushing your words. We need them to trust you, to believe that you’re just like them.”
I’m getting excited. It feels like we’re approaching opening night and I’ve got star billing.
“Is the jury going to know how much time I’m facing?” The jurors would not convict me, I’m certain, if they knew I was facing a life sentence.
“We’re not allowed to discuss the possible sentence. The trial is about determining guilt or innocence.”
“Can I slip the possible sentence into one of my answers when I’m on the stand?”
Raymond pauses to consider my question. “Well I can’t say anything about the sentence, but if you see an opportunity, take it quickly because the prosecutor will object in a hurry.”
I’m ready the following morning when the marshals transport me from the jail to the courthouse.
Podcast 112: Earning Freedom 1.3
The marshals escort four of us in chains through the working areas of the post office. I see postal clerks eying us suspiciously as they sort the mail into large bags while we wait for an elevator to take us to the courthouse. We walk into a bullpen. The marshals remove our handcuffs and chains before locking us in.
A few minutes later the marshals bring in Alex, my former partner. I recognize his voice when they lock him into an adjacent cage. We can’t see each other, but once the marshals leave I hold onto the bars on the front gate and talk to Alex, disregarding the solid wall that separates us.
“How can you testify against me?” I ask him. “We’ve been like brothers.” Alex graduated from high school two years ahead of me, but despite our age difference, we became close friends. After he introduced me to the money we could earn by selling cocaine, we became partners.
“I’m sorry.” I could hear the humiliation in his voice. “It was too fast. When they caught me, I just got scared. I didn’t know this would happen.”
Alex began cooperating with prosecutors a year before my arrest, when DEA agents caught him with a kilogram of cocaine. In a plea negotiation that would limit him to two years in prison, he agreed to testify against me.
“Do you know that I’m facing a life sentence?”
“I heard.” His voice drops, and I know the severity of sanction that I face weighs heavily on him.
“The government’s case rests on your testimony.” I try to manipulate not so much what Alex will say, but how he will say it. “It all rests on you. Either you can come across like some kind of star witness, or you can come across in a way that might make you look like a liar in the eyes of the jury. Just remember that you’ve already got your deal. If you fall apart under cross-examination from my attorney, the jury won’t convict me.”
“I got ya.”
The seed I planted bears fruit. When Alex testifies before the jury, both on direct examination from the prosecutor and on cross-examination from Raymond, he seems totally untrustworthy. His testimony emboldens me, as I know Alex’s stuttering and mumbling portray him as a less than credible witness, out to save his skin at any cost.
Later that evening I’m elated when I return to the jail, thinking that my friend came through. The government has been counting on his testimony, but now the prosecutors will have to present more compelling evidence if they want a conviction. In the following days, we have peaks and valleys, scoring well with some witnesses, not so well with others. All in all, I feel my acquittal nearing.
My hopes for release shatter during the second week of the trial. When I return to the jail after court one evening, I call Lisa for our nightly conversation. While we’re talking I hear aggressive male voices shouting in the background. Then the line goes dead. I dial the number again. Someone picks up the phone without answering. I hear a click followed by silence. Frantic now, I dial a third time. I haven’t dispelled rumors in the jail that I’m a man of means, and I worry that some gang leader from the jail has orchestrated a home invasion or kidnapping. Finally, a male voice answers. When the operator announces my collect call, the call goes through.
“Hello, Michael.” The man who answers takes a familiar tone, snickering.
“Who is this and what’re you doing in my house?” I squeeze the handset of the phone in anger.
“I’m a special agent with the DEA,” he taunts. “You’ll find out soon enough why we’re here.”
“You’re harassing my family because you’re losing the trial.”
The agent laughs at me. “I don’t think that’s the case,” he says. Then, just before he hangs up, he adds that they’ve arrested Tom, Lisa’s brother.
Minutes later, officers from the jail arrive to pull me out from the housing unit. They lock me between sally port cages that separate the unit from jail corridors and I crouch down in despair. My mind reels with questions. Worry torments me. Why would the agents invade Lisa’s house? Why would the agent tell me they have Tom? My heart races like never before. Then I see a team of DEA agents enter the housing unit. They march past me and into my cell for an apparent search.
After the agents finish their ransacking, the guards lead me back into the housing unit and lock me inside. Adrenaline surges through my body, I can’t sleep. When guards come for me in the morning, I’m pacing. They escort me to the bullpen for court transportation and I’m stunned to see Tom, Lisa’s brother.
“What’re you doing here?” I can’t believe Tom is in jail. He’s been free on bond since our initial arrest, sitting beside me at trial each day. I can’t fathom what happened.
“I messed up.” He doesn’t look at me when he responds.
“What are you talking about? Were you home last night when the DEA busted in on Lisa?”
Tom didn’t even know that the DEA had been to the house. He tells me that the DEA arrested him yesterday afternoon following the court proceedings.
“Why did they arrest you? And why would the DEA bust in on Lisa?”
“I messed up.” Tom repeats. He won’t make eye contact. While sitting on the bench, rubbing his face and looking at the floor of the cage, he tells me what happened. Several months ago, just days after my arrest, when I instructed Tom to retrieve those eight kilograms of cocaine and deliver them to Walt, Tom decided to sell them on his own. One of his customers, it turns out, is a DEA agent.
“You mean you’ve been selling that cocaine this whole time on your own?” I’m angry to learn that Tom disregarded my specific instructions to deliver the cocaine to Walt.
Tom nods. “I thought I could make more money that way.”
I close my eyes and shake my head. “Please tell me that you weren’t storing the coke at Lisa’s house.”
“I didn’t keep it there, but I stashed money under my mattress. I also gave Lisa some money I’d been paid by the guy who turned out to be the undercover DEA agent.”
All I can think about is the possibility that Lisa has been arrested. I receive clarification a few hours later, when Raymond fills me in. He says the agents might charge Lisa with the crime of lying to a federal officer. When the agents were at the house, she told them that the money in her purse belonged to her, when in fact Tom had given her DEA-marked bills. At least she wasn’t in custody.
Raymond urges me to snap out of my despair and focus on the final hours of my trial, which is my immediate problem. I no longer care about the trial or its outcome. The true severity of my problems has finally crashed down upon me. I’ve not only made a disaster of my own life, but of everyone else’s, I want to give up, to die.
The jury returns its verdict, convicting me on every count. Lies of innocence yield to the reality of my guilt. I have to accept that I’m facing a life sentence. Who cares? I don’t know what’s coming. Nothing matters. The government may charge Lisa with a felony and the thought of her in handcuffs rips me apart.
I ask Raymond to make some kind of deal with prosecutors, to tell them I’ll accept a life sentence, a death sentence, I’ll waive my right to appeal, anything, if the government will leave Lisa alone. He tells me the government hasn’t even charged me in the case.
“Then tell them I’ll confess. I arranged for Tom to receive those eight kilograms. They were part of the same crime I was just convicted of, but if I hadn’t sent Tom, the coke would’ve stayed buried.”
“I’m not going to do that. You’re under duress. I don’t want you cooperating. You haven’t even been sentenced and you’ve got excellent prospects on appeal.”
“I don’t care about an appeal, I don’t care about anything other than doing what I can to spare Lisa. She doesn’t deserve this. Call the prosecutor. Tell him I’ll confess.”
“I won’t do it.”
Raymond doesn’t want to involve himself with my talking to prosecutors. I don’t understand his reluctance–it may be that he doesn’t want me to reveal the counsel he has given throughout my ordeal, or he worries that I might divulge information about the property he received from Paco as part of his fee. I don’t care. Raymond is not my priority. Wanting to do whatever I can for Lisa, I fire Raymond, telling him that I don’t want him to represent me anymore.
I dial the prosecutor, Jerry Diskin, myself.
“Is this the same Michael Santos who testified that he didn’t know anything about drug trafficking?” The prosecutor is mocking me.
“Look, Jerry,” I say, “I was doing what my attorney told me I had to do. I’m sorry. I’ll confess to anything you want, I’ll give up my right to appeal, I’ll accept any sentence you want to impose. Please, just don’t put Lisa through this.”
“I have some problems with what you’re offering,” the prosecutor puts me in my place. “Let me start from the beginning. First, don’t ever call me Jerry. I’m a United States Attorney, Mr. Diskin to you. Do you get that?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Second, I do not, I repeat, I do not want to speak with you unless it’s through an attorney. Why are you contacting me instead of Raymond?”
“Raymond doesn’t want me to talk with you. I don’t want him to represent me anymore.”
“Then I’ll have the public defender send someone over. Don’t contact me again. And for the record, let me respond to the offer you made. I don’t need your confession. You’re convicted, and you’re facing a life sentence. Your appeal doesn’t concern me. I don’t know why you think I would want to talk to you.”
Mr. Diskin is right, I realize. I breathe in deeply and exhale, trying to ease the pressure and anxiety squeezing my chest.
While lying on my rack, I think of all the ways I’ve disappointed and humiliated my parents. They never wanted the business expansion I craved. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my parents worked hard, hoping to give my sisters and me privileges that they didn’t enjoy growing up. They weren’t college-educated people, but they loved us, and they built a life that provided our family with a beautiful home, new cars, regular vacations. I abused their trust and pushed them into decisions they would’ve never made without my influence. Ultimately, my greed led to the destruction of our family and their business. Then, when I saw a better opportunity to enrich myself by dealing cocaine, I abandoned them. My decisions destroyed my parents’ prosperity, contributed to their divorce, and embarrassed my sisters.
My criminal decisions also humiliated my grandparents. They were devout Catholics who expected me to lead a moral life and make good decisions. The letters I’ve been receiving from my mother describe their disgust at my actions. I haven’t had the courage to speak to them since my arrest. Instead, I’ve burdened my mom with the impossible task of defending me to them.
My mental anguish is relentless. I carry Lisa’s picture in my hand trying frantically to think of anything that might save her. How can I persuade the government not to prosecute her?
Suicide feels so inviting. I think about another prisoner who did it using the blades from one of the plastic razors we’re allowed to have in jail. While sitting in a toilet stall, he sliced his wrists and bled to death. That option appeals to me. It could be one way of reaching Mr. Diskin. If I’m dead, he may feel some sympathy for Lisa.
But killing myself would crush my parents and my sisters. Although I don’t want to face the consequences of my actions, I know I can’t allow these suicidal thoughts to continue. My dad urges me to be strong and through long letters that my mom writes, she shows that her support will not waver. Lisa, on the other hand, worries mostly about the fallout from my problems spilling over to her. During our daily phone calls, tormented by the possibility of going to prison she pleads with me to save her.
Boils erupt on my arms and legs as the stress I’m feeling manifests itself throughout my body. The egg-sized volcanoes of pus burn like hot acid under my skin, exerting unbearable pressure. Only a visit to the infirmary for an excision relieves the pain, though within hours of having one drained, more begin to fester and swell.
I’ve been in jail for six months and must languish through several more before my sentencing date. I don’t know what the judge will impose, though I accept the possibility of a life sentence as being real. I’m not interested in playing cards or table games. I stay in my cell reading the Bible with hopes of finding solace, an anchor. The Scriptures help me resist a growing urge to end my life and strengthen me to hold on for another day. Although I want to identify with the agonies and loss described in the Book of Job, comparisons end there. Job, at least, wasn’t beset with self-recriminations over acting stupidly and dishonestly. Knowing that decisions I made spawned my tribulations aggravates the continuous torment in my mind.
The marshals come for me again and drive me to the courthouse. I meet Justin, my public defender who is there for my debriefing session with Mr. Diskin. Justin hasn’t had an opportunity to review any court records or files pertaining to my predicament, though he knows a jury convicted me on numerous counts of high-level drug charges only days before. I haven’t been charged with additional crimes and he doesn’t understand my motivation for wanting to talk with the prosecutors.
“Look man,” I tell him in the private room, “I’m responsible for everything. I’m the one who told Tom to pick up the eight keys. He may’ve sold them to the guy who turned out to be DEA, but I’m responsible.”
“But you haven’t been charged,” Justin points out. “What do you hope to gain from this admission?”
“The government can do whatever it wants with me. But the prosecutors are threatening to charge Lisa with a felony. All I want is to take the punishment myself, whatever it is. Tell them to slam me with whatever, but to leave her alone.”
The public defender shakes his head in resignation, knowing that I’m not ready to receive counsel. We walk to an adjacent courtroom to meet with the prosecutor. Justin sits beside me as I respond to Mr. Diskin’s questions. His first question is whether I lied when I took the witness stand during my trial. I answer that I did, and he asks whether I understand that admitting to such lies exposes me to the additional criminal charges of perjury. I offer to accept any charges or sanctions the government wants to impose and then I plead with the prosecutor not to charge Lisa. Mr. Diskin smirks, unmoved.
The debriefing session lasts for an hour. In the end, Mr. Diskin tells me that I haven’t revealed anything he doesn’t already know.
“You’re going to have to face the full punishment for your crimes.” The prosecutor narrows his eyes as he lashes out at me. “And you may find yourself sitting at the defendant’s table again, this time beside your wife.”
The marshals drive me back to the jail. I’m completely spent, knowing that I’m powerless to protect Lisa. For weeks I lie in my cell, clutching my pillow, staring at the wall, catatonic with grief.
While I wait through long months leading to my sentencing date, I look for anything that will pique my interest. I stumble across a two-volume hardcover anthology called A Treasury of Philosophy in the jail’s book cart. Hoping it might help, I begin reading. Even though I’ve never been a reader, the essays intrigue me. Since graduating from high school I haven’t read a single book. Yet now, here I am, aching with thoughts tormenting my mind as I try to read philosophy in a jail cell.
Philosophy isn’t a subject I’ve encountered before. I find a dictionary and begin a tentative step into another world, discovering that the essays in this anthology help to lessen my feeling of hopelessness. They give me new understanding of an individual’s relationship to society. I begin to believe that maybe, over time, I can reconcile myself with my fellow citizens. This thought of redemption comes to me as I read the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who defines the “social contract” and outlines each citizen’s covenant with and responsibility to society. In breaking the law, I haven’t been faithful to the social contract Rousseau described, but in reading his work, I begin to believe that I can make amends.
I read John Locke, whose essays on human understanding introduce me to the concept of the tabula rasa, or blank slate. Locke believed that everyone comes into this world without prior knowledge or innate ideas. Rather, everything a person sees, feels, tastes, and smells makes an impression, influencing who and what the person becomes. As Locke suggests, I learn from my experiences in society. In turn, those experiences spawn the values that guide my thoughts, my decisions, and my actions.
Thinking about Locke’s philosophy, I rest the open book on my chest and stare at the ceiling of my cell while I clasp my hands behind my head. What made the lasting impression on my blank slate? What prompted me to think that earning money by selling cocaine would be a proper life choice? The questions deepen my introspection.
Unlike many of the men locked up with me, I had options. Had I chosen college, my parents would’ve supported my decision. But without worries about receiving a paycheck, I took the easy road. At 20, I persuaded my dad to pay me a higher salary than I deserved. He also leased a new black Bronco I could drive without concerning myself with expenses for gasoline, insurance, or maintenance.
If it wasn’t economic necessity that drove me to crime, what was it? Maybe insecurity. I wanted others to see me as something more than what I was. Greed and a sense of entitlement drove my decisions. But underneath the flash I wasn’t anything more than an insecure boy.
Where did my fixation with money begin?
My grandparents lived a moral life as hardworking Americans, and they showered my sisters and me with love from the time we were children. I should’ve learned more from them. Yet, I equated who I was with what I materially possessed, always wanting more.
In our household, we never spoke honestly about drugs. Although our parents harped about the wickedness of drugs, their admonitions didn’t apply to the consumption of alcohol. They entertained in our home regularly and drinking was always a major component of any gathering. When my sisters and I discovered that two of our parents’ close friends–one a prominent lawyer and the other a neurologist–had used cocaine, we confronted our parents. They made excuses. I still remember, vividly, how my mother tried to explain, telling my sisters and me that their friends snorted coke for health reasons.
Inconsistencies between what my parents said about drugs and alcohol with what I saw may have contributed to my perceptions on morality. Likewise, my parents’ tolerance for bid rigging and collusion in the pursuit of contracts to advance our construction business couldn’t help but influence my sensitivity to the law’s relative importance to society.
My parents’ lectures about honesty, integrity, temperance, and other virtues of good citizenship didn’t make as firm an impression on me as the hypocrisy I saw. As far as I was concerned, certain activities might be illegal, but if they were committed without harming recognizable victims, then it was okay to shrug off or disregard those laws. My parents’ reasoning differed dramatically from the principled approach Rousseau taught in his essay on the social contract, a pact that bound all citizens.
As I move closer to my sentencing date, I begin to feel responsible for the crimes I committed. By contemplating the writings of John Locke, I start to appreciate the influences that shaped the young man I’ve become, and I accept that I have to change. I must “unlearn” the corrupting influences that led to my bad actions, and eventually, to my imprisonment.
When I pick up the Treasury of Philosophy again, I read an essay that describes the trial of Socrates and it slowly helps me accept the predicament I have created. Socrates was convicted for breaking an absurd law that prohibited the aristocratic classes from teaching the commoners. The Athenian tribunal sentenced Socrates to a self-induced death by poisoning for his crime. He waited patiently in jail for the date of his scheduled execution.
Many leaders of Athens loved and respected Socrates. Outraged at his sentence, they coordinated a plan that would allow him to escape punishment and live the remainder of his life in exile. Socrates refused the offer, explaining that his conscience would not permit him to sneak away, avoiding punishment for his actions. Reading about Socrates inspires me. As a lover of law and democracy, Socrates asserted that his honor would require that he carry out the sentence by drinking the poison that would kill him. In my eyes, that principled position reveals Socrates as a man of strength and courage. While waiting for the imposition of my sentence, I look to him as a role model for the type of thoughtful man I’d like to become.
With my Bible and the philosophy books, I live like a monk in my cell. The reading transports me to new worlds of thought and contemplation. I feel an unfamiliar maturity creeping into me, bringing hope. I write letters to my parents, my sisters, and every day I write to Lisa, promising to redeem my crimes by educating myself and using time in prison to prepare for a productive life upon release.
Seven months after my initial arrest, the government indicts me with several new criminal counts. I accept these new charges and don’t dispute the leading role I played in distributing eight kilograms of cocaine or my perjury during the trial. Lisa isn’t named in the indictment, although the lawyers speculate that she’ll later face criminal charges for lying to a federal officer.
My efforts to protect Lisa have failed, but prayer and philosophy inspire optimism. Rather than allowing forces I can’t control–such as the sentence my judge will impose–to dictate my attitude, I begin to feel a spiritual strength building inside of me.
Prison will not destroy or define me. Rather, I make a commitment to define myself through my response to the sanctions I face.
I want to atone for my crimes. To make my statement public, I write to Stuart Eskenazi, a journalist who covered my trial for The Tacoma News Tribune. In the letter, I express remorse for my crimes and for the ways I acted after arrest. I pledge to find ways to make up for my wrongs during the decades ahead.
A few days later, Eskenazi comes to interview me in jail. I understand that audiences will be skeptical about my commitment to educating myself and to creating opportunities for positive social contributions. Still, I’m committed to begin anew. I feel myself turning the page on the decisions that brought me into confinement.
The front-page story that Mr. Eskenazi writes for the local paper does not influence my sentencing judge. After two separate hearings, he imposes consecutive sentences. In total, the judge orders that I serve a 45-year sentence and fines me $500,000 for my crimes.
“You will be an old man when you walk out of prison,” the judge states flatly. “But you’ve earned it.”