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Chapter One: 1987-1988
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.
* * * * * * *
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. That’s the way he comes across.
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.
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.