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Earning Freedom

Chapter One: 1987-1988
Months 1-12

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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. 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.”

 

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