A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 11
by Jake Rohrer, July 13, 2011
“Cocaine's for horses, not for men; they say it'll kill you, but they won't say when.” — Traditional Folk Song
The months following my discharge from John's employ were hard ones, on me and those around me. I was living with an engaging and bright woman in San Francisco, estranged from my wife and family, and I was floundering. What would I do next? I had no idea. There wasn't another CCR or John Fogerty around who needed my services. Competence wasn't enough for a job like that; first you had to be a pal. I talked briefly with Bill Graham who had no openings for me, and I even answered an ad by Alpha Romeo who was looking for a western sales representative. My resume pointed to my career and experience in the auto business as well as in music. Nothing that appealed came my way and I was fast running out of confidence as well as money. My biggest financial need was to take care of my family. I collected unemployment and worked on the side for my brother and Sheldon, who together had purchased a unique Berkeley property they called the “Castle,” a crumbling, art-deco-like remnant of an earlier era that looked like a 16th century Norman castle, only smaller. I moved out of San Francisco and, for a while, into the Castle.
While I was running around the world with Creedence and later working for John, my brother had become successful in various business ventures, mostly on Maui, and equally successful at selling marijuana and, more recently, cocaine. Sheldon and some friends had established a successful real estate investment company, buying, renting and selling residential properties in Berkeley. So here was my brother and my best friend, two of the people closest to me in the world, doing well and tossing me $75 a week to be the caretaker at the Castle, for which I was grateful. The property straddled a major earthquake fault and was in need of a lot of care from decades of shaking. Between the unemployment and the caretaker income, I could see to the current needs of my family. My estranged wife, Jeanne, had started to work as well. At one point, my son and I went to Maui and spent several weeks working on the construction crew for a home my brother was building in Olinda, high on the slopes of Haleakala, a close and healing experience for both of us. Between working on the home and visiting with mom, we spent a lot of time at the beach and playing basketball.
I needed something to do with the rest of my life and unemployment benefits weren't going to last very long. Mom thought I should come to Maui and get into real estate. She had recently sold a 40-acre property to Mick Fleetwood and even touted my availability to Mick's attorney, but I just laughed. I wasn't one of Mick's pals. If I possessed an ability and experience that could be called a trade, it was that I could manage an automotive parts business. I had done just that for my father from the time I was 13 until the time of his death. An old friend several years my senior, who had started in the auto business working for my dad, became the Toyota dealer in Berkeley and he was looking for a parts man. I talked with him and looked over his operation. I didn't like the idea one bit, but it would be solid employment though lacking the glamor of the positions I previously held.
My brother, bless him, was incredulous. “You don't want to do that,” he said. “Stick around. Opportunity will show up...by the way, do you have five grand?” I had five grand, but just. “Give it to me,” he said. “You'll get back fifteen, quick.” That didn't sound too bad. What the hell. I gave him my last five grand, knowing only that he respected my interests and wouldn't be careless with it.
The scam worked like this: one of the partners had a connection in Peru. A cruise ship traveled a route on the west coast of the Americas that called in Lima. Pure cocaine was purchased there for twelve thousand dollars a kilo and stashed behind a secure bulkhead in a suite on the cruise ship. The same suite was reserved in another name for the following cruise. When the ship returned to San Francisco, the cocaine remained in the bulkhead. The ship was refurbished and made ready for the next cruise, prior to which there was by tradition a gala send-off party. Revelers by the hundreds came on board to
see the passengers off, a few of them leaving the ship with the cocaine in back packs, free from the threat of customs, inspections and so forth. Voila! What was worth twelve thousand dollars a kilo in Peru was worth about sixty-five thousand dollars a kilo, wholesale, in the U.S. One hundred thousand dollars was put up by partners and investors to purchase eight kilos of cocaine and cover expenses. I turned out to be an investor. Once the cocaine was sold in the U.S., it would return five hundred-twenty thousand dollars. Investors, which also included the partners who pledged their own cash at various levels, were paid three times their investment, three or four general partners splitting the rest. Turn around time was about a month. It was understood that if something went wrong, you would lose it all.
Nothing went wrong and in no time I had some breathing room, fifteen thousand dollars, plus a bonus of twenty-five hundred dollars for sitting on the load. The partners figured there could be no place under less scrutiny than my home in Orinda. Though I had moved back with my family, it was an uneasy but quiet peace between Jeanne and me.
I continued as the caretaker for the Castle, which was almost a full time job. Everything there needed patching or fixing. Arriving to work one day, there was a Hispanic man waiting in the front yard who I learned was from Colombia. He spoke no English and had a wicked scar running ear to chin on one side of his face. He was seeking one of Robbin's partners who, like Robbin, would be out of town for another 10 days or so. My junior high Spanish class was about to pay big dividends. In clumsy conversation I was able to learn that he had ten kilos of pure cocaine for sale at fifty thousand dollars per kilo. It was already here; there were no other parties to consider. I did some rough math in my head and convinced him: “...bring the cocaine to me!” And he did, starting with two kilos.
During the prior investment load, I was introduced by my brother to one of his key distributors, a trusted associate who we called the “Professor” because he used modern laboratory testing equipment to determine the purity of the cocaine. No one at our level of the game ever adulterated or “cut” the product; that was all done further down the line. Nonetheless, the cocaine was always tested for its purity—who knew where it had been? I took the two kilos to the Professor, who spooned a miniscule amount of the cocaine into a miniature test tube, which he placed into a heating device that registered the temperature to which the sample was heated. When it reached the prime temperature at which pure cocaine would melt, the sample in the test tube instantly dissolved into a clear liquid, leaving no discernible residue. The Professor's eyes widened, a smile crossing his face. “Let's do it,” he said.
This was the first time I was actually involved in the sale of something illegal. I didn't think of cocaine as a dangerous drug. It had been prevalent and socially acceptable throughout the music world and was often given to me as an introductory gift by various people I would meet. I used it on occasion but never thought much of it. If there was a single drug I thought powerful and to be respected, it was LSD. None of us had any experience at all with heroin, a drug we thought of as evil. I remember my disappointment the first time I used cocaine. Some friends and I went to see the film “Easy Rider” and we sat there and fidgeted. Fifty bucks for that? What a gyp, I thought.
Even though a rank rookie, I was entering the business on a major league level, but I understood the financial mechanics of the game. We were American drug dealers. We sold product in pounds and ounces, rarely in kilos. We never sold quantities in grams although we used a scale that measured in grams. A metric pound was 453 grams, a metric ounce 28.6 grams. Our ounce was 28 grams, our pound 448 grams. So, rather than 2 kilos, I left the Professor with four pounds, each weighing 448 grams and priced at $29,500 for each pound. At $29,500 per pound we were getting $65.85 per gram and there was over 200 grams left, about seven and a half ounces. The seven ounces would fetch another $13,000 and the half ounce would become personal stash, split among the partners.
Bottom line on the two kilos was a profit of $31,000 after I paid the Colombian his $100,000. The same would have been true if I had sold the cocaine at $65,850 per kilo, but I guess $29,500 per pound had a better ring to it. Marketing wasn't limited to TV.
This was 1977 and cocaine was breaking into the American psyche, becoming a socially popular drug. The cover of Time Magazine showed a martini glass filled with cocaine in its story about the drug's proliferation. It was expensive and hadn't yet made its way into the ghettos, and free-base cocaine, the smokable variant, was yet unknown to us. Pure cocaine was in short supply and greedily scooped up by the rapidly expanding market. Those plying the trade, at least the ones I would meet in that first year or so, were honorable outlaws who operated on trust and a “do unto others” approach. Most had been, and still were, involved in the marijuana trade as well. No one carried or used weapons of any kind, and it was understood: you didn't lie, cheat or steal, or especially, if you somehow got caught, you didn't rat on your brothers. When I went to collect the first payment from the Professor, he gestured to an adjoining room where there were several full-size brown paper shopping bags on the floor, filled with cash. “...take what I owe you,” he said. I counted out approximately $130,000 in $5,000 bundles with rubber bands securing each end of the bundle. I laid it all out on the floor, but he hardly even looked at it. There was an accepted trust that I would do what was right. I welcomed such open honesty and personal trust. The thought of becoming a Toyota parts man vanished from my mind.
Over the next week I would see the Professor and the Colombian almost daily, completing the entire transaction, all ten kilos. When my brother got back into town, I handed him and his partner over $50,000 each in cash, sticking a like amount into my own pocket. They were of course elated and I had arrived. I was still the caretaker at the Castle but no longer required the $75 per week.
A new partner, Mexican Henry, arrived on the scene, the introduction by way of Sheldon who had met him in a real estate transaction. Sheldon could spot an outlaw at a hundred paces. Henry had connections and ways to move cocaine through Mexico. We had the connections and ways to turn it into cash in this country. We raised the required $100,000 or so with investors, most of it coming from ourselves. Sure enough, the load arrived and was transferred to my brother and me in an unnecessarily clandestine hand-off in Tilden Park. Again, a hungry market readily gobbled it up in no time at all. I was now a full partner, and on completion of the load, we each stuck $76,000 into our pockets. We called this load the “Spirit of '76.”
* * *
Elated, Henry celebrated by buying Sheldon, a monkey, a token of his appreciation for the introduction to my brother and me. Giving someone a monkey is appreciated the same way as if they'd given you syphilis. This wasn't a cute little squirrel monkey, rather, a sometimes ferocious South American Wooly, “Charlie,” who probably weighed in at about 25 pounds. It fell to me to build him a cage at the Castle. I think I was the only one to establish a companionable relationship with Charlie. He seemed to know I was the boss, and he'd follow me around the Castle, playing with the tools in my toolbox as I worked on various projects; we had a respectful relationship. When it was time for me to go, I would have to put him back in his cage and he sometimes objected with a show of his formidable fangs. I seemed to know that if I let him back me down I'd lose control, so on those occasions I would steel myself and talk firmly to him, pick him up and put him in his cage. He never once bit me. But he did bite others if opportunity presented itself, especially females, no doubt a by-product of his own sexual frustrations. We came to learn that a menstruating female would set him off into a frenzy.
The first time my brother met Charlie, he had his girlfriend with him, and when he let Charlie out of his cage, ostensibly to play with him, the monkey took over. Charlie didn't bite anyone that night, but I think he was probably over-amped by a female presence. He ran around the Castle swinging from overhead light fixtures and generally raising hell, having his way and intimidating my brother with his fierce teeth whenever he'd try to get him back into the cage. The frantic phone call came to my home in Orinda, “Jake, get over here quick and do something with this fucking monkey!”
Charlie escaped one day and bit a little girl in neighborhood who saw him and wanted to play, though it wasn't a serious wound. The Animal Control people gathered him up, and we found him later at the shelter. It was becoming clear that Charlie was more a handful than anyone wanted to step up for. Ricardo, one of our friends from Maui, wanted him and took Charlie home with him. We all thought Charlie would be better off in Maui's tropical climate, but he one day administered a savage bite to his new owner's bare foot and, as I hear it, ended up in the Honolulu zoo.
Just prior to Charlie's relocation to Maui, we were one day meeting with Mexican Henry at the Castle. The meeting concerned a second load we had financed and was overdue to arrive. Henry's line of bullshit about the load bothered us, and we developed a distrust of him. We somehow got our money back, but I always felt that Henry had cut us out, teaming up with some other distribution partner. But destiny's fate always seems to extract its due. This time, a little monkey karma. During the meeting, Charlie was out and occupying himself with some of his toys behind the sofa. Henry got up up and crossed the room to get a beer from the kitchen. Like a rocket, Charlie bolted from behind the sofa, grabbed Henry by the leg and sank his fangs into his ankle, a nasty bite. I later read about Henry's problems with the feds, multiple arrests and charges that made my own coming problems almost pale by comparison. I just considered it Henry's drug karma.
Even though I was now financially secure, I started to work for the real estate partnership belonging to Sheldon and his friends, running the office and handling real estate transactions. It was a good experience for me, and I liked the people I was working with. But cocaine was always around, showing up in my life. We had established a network of outlaws that provided a reliable outlet and, generally speaking, easy money. At least it seemed that way at the time. If we didn't have our own load happening, someone else usually did, Stephen Green among them. It became a part of my life. I was always meeting new people and hustling more cocaine. And starting to use more of it than I had in the past.
* * *
Celebrations and party life soon skewered any possibility of reestablishing a life with Jeanne. We remained cordial and civil with one another, our proud and loving relationships with our children remaining our link. I realized with no small amount of guilt what yet another separation meant to our children. It was especially hard on my son, Dan, but the love and bond we had established over the preceding fifteen years would hold strong. Robbin decided that we needed to celebrate our wealth and success with what he called a “love boat” cruise on the Mexican Riviera. We brought Max with us and invited our mutual pal, ex-CCR bassist, Stu Cook, to join the party. We brought along enough cocaine to fuel an entire field of race horses. Max claimed that each time he snorted a line of coke he would become a few years younger. “Man, I'm feeling down to about fifty now! Wonder how it feels to be forty-five again?” The times were festive and we were free and easy. I hooked up with the estranged wife of a San Diego Police Department drug agent, whose company I enjoyed, but I took care to not divulge to her my other life. Sitting in our shipboard suite one night, just having a drink, Robbin rushed in, laid out and snorted a huge line of coke from the glass table top, and rushed back out to the party. “What was that?” she wanted to know. “Just my brother, dear. Pay him no mind.”
Pulling into port at Mazatlan, Stu noticed that shipboard activities that evening included a talent contest, and he was determined we would enter. Stu and I went into town and bought a couple of $60 guitars at the market place and Max always had a harmonica with him. Robbin wasn't musically inclined, but we got him a tambourine to bang against his ass, counting in time, one-two-three-four. At rehearsal we met a delightful woman seeking to join up with someone as a singer or dancer. Perfect. We hired her on the spot as our dancing lady. We would perform as “The Famous Flying Tomato Brothers & Sister Rose,” the name inspired by the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Maddox Brothers & Sister Rose, and the color of my guitar, a gaudy reddish-orange. I told corny jokes and introduced the band members (“...when Max was born the doctor slapped his mother!”). The crowd loved us and we were the hit of the show.
We had such joyous times that we tried to duplicate them later with a Caribbean cruise. Although a lot of fun, it lacked the magic of the Tomato Brothers cruise. Max was uncertain about again setting foot in Florida, harboring unpleasant memories from his first visit. Robbin convinced Uncle Eddie to come along with his wife. Ed hated being cooped up on a ship for days on end. The only table there for him was in the casino. He got drunk enough to spill a drink all over the roulette table and belligerent enough to have security escort him to his cabin. Then we had to put up with an older man who was coming apart at his mental seams and had somehow gravitated to us. “Crazy George” we called him. He was taken off the ship mid-cruise, strapped on a gurney to a waiting ambulance. Ed taught us a new trick that turned out to be a fun concept for us. Stu and I climbed around the partition between our suites and “short-sheeted” Robbin's bed, folding the top sheet back inside the covers and remaking the bed. Anyone trying to climb into a short-sheeted bed bottoms out halfway in, especially aggravating when you're loaded, which we always were. Our steward was “Winston,” a charming and playful Jamaican who got loaded with us most nights. We ran out of cocaine two nights before the cruise ended, putting a no-more-coke damper on festivities. Winston particularly missed our nightly escapades.
* * *
I was soon to learn that cocaine is not without its own brand of karma and it rubs off on those around it. The huge financial rewards attracted the kind of people who were as willing to cut your throat as look at you. What I had once looked on as a business that ran on honor and respect became a murky world, filled with paranoia and unseen dangers. And use of the drug itself was a tricky road, especially in the long term when it became an every day habit. “Poverty will keep you from going snow-blind,” says one song, but that didn't apply to us. Money wasn't the problem. We had our own supply trains with enough “free” residual leftovers to keep us supplied all the time. Then many who had been regular users began to free-base, a powerfully addicting form and process. The Professor fell into its clutches and could no longer function in the real world. Richard Pryor burned himself up. Free-basing seemed to hide people away in their closets, coming out only to obtain more cocaine, the pipe becoming their best and only friend. Where I had once seen cocaine as generally harmless and benign, I was beginning to see that it dismantled people's lives. It is an insidious substance, sometimes seeming an empowering wonder drug, then dragging you into its downward spiral.
The world of the “honorable outlaw” I had once embraced was crumbling all around me. It started with an armed robbery at the Castle, gangsters in search of a big score, out to steal a “load.” Drug dealers and outlaws, people who live outside the law, can't call on the law when they need it. They become easy targets for these vampires. A woman at the Castle innocently opened the door one night and let them in. With a revolver to her head, then mine, they blindfolded me, tied me up, roughed me up, but didn't really hurt me. There was no load there and they got only my wallet and an ounce of “Bing Wong,” a reconstituted cocaine washed under laboratory conditions that removed any trace of impurities and left it a sparkling, flaky snow white. It was named for a Berkeley dry cleaning business. It was sobering to have a loaded revolver at my head. At their insistence that I “...give it up,” I could only tell them, “...if there was a load here, you'd own it.” On reflection, I knew beyond any doubt who was responsible. I had only one black client, the “Ghetto King,” who never required a “front,” always showing up with a couple hundred thousand dollars in cash. The intruders were black, his henchmen, although the first character at the door was white and looked like a drugged out loser. The black guys were in charge of the operation, but didn't show up until the loser had things under control. I had mentioned the possibility of a new “load” to the Ghetto King only a week before and he had once visited the Castle. Don't insult my ability to reason, Satch, you motherfucker, don't tell me that it wasn't you. But thanks for not shooting me.
A few who were once reliable clients fell into free-basing, using up great amounts of the drug rather than paying for it. One client was set up and set upon by gangsters who beat him and stole his entire supply. Once a close friend, he would a few years later fall into his own deep hole and commit suicide, but I think it unlikely that cocaine was the major player in that life ending drama. The trusted “Mr. Big,” Stephen Green, went down in flames, only to turn major rat, even against his own family members. As stressful and nerve-racking as it was going to trial, the nearly two years I spent free pending appeal were the worst of my life. I was in an unsatisfying relationship fed by a stream of constant cocaine use, treading water while waiting for the hammer to drop, as I knew beyond a doubt that it would. I gained 30 pounds of unhappiness.
Another trusted associate, one of the smugglers from the early days who we called “T”, contacted me with a plan to buy 10 pounds of cocaine in Los Angeles from the uncle of another trusted associate, someone he had met a few years earlier. I told him it sounded too good to be true and he could be getting set up. But he thought otherwise and then proceeded to get set up with my thirty grand, a down payment on the load. We had agreed that the money would remain hidden until he could inspect the cocaine and confirm that everything was on the up and up. But he was sweet-talked into bringing out the cash beforehand, which in turn brought out the .357. “Uncle George” was as unprincipled and vicious as they come. Following the rip-off of my thirty grand, he somehow found out where T lived, a rural home in Sonoma County, and a month or two later showed up with two gunmen seeking further hoard from someone who couldn't call the police. In this instance, though, he was wrong. T's property was enclosed by a high redwood fence with a gate. He was fortunate to be upstairs that morning when he saw Uncle George's Cadillac pull through his gate, two men with guns and wearing gloves getting out and closing the gate. T grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and pumped in a round, letting the Cadillac have it broadside. The men with the guns returned the fire while managing to reopen the gate, making a hasty get away. Fuck it, T called the police and reported the attempted home invasion, describing the Cadillac and the gun fire. The Highway Patrol stopped the Cadillac, arresting the occupants. Uncle George, incredible weasel that he was, faked a heart attack and went to the hospital rather than jail.
None of us ever signed up for this shit, but coke's karma can be a vicious fate. Uncle George never knew of me or that I was the financier for his original rip-off, fortunate for me. He just assumed T was the financier and would be an easy target for more. When T told me what had gone down, I hired one of the better private investigators in San Francisco to find out as much as we could about these guys. Surprise, surprise, the two gunmen were off-duty Los Angeles police officers. Cops and robbers. LAPD Internal Affairs got involved, and the case against the cops was transferred to LA and effectively hushed up. Sonoma County law enforcement knew this was a drug hit, but even though T had no drugs or record, he was considered an uncooperative witness. I think they were happy to transfer the case against the cops to LA. The case against Uncle George was drawn out until he really did have a heart attack that killed him. No tears or sorrow from us to see this vicious bastard meet his maker.
In some ways I was anxious to go to prison, to end this chapter of my life, wipe the slate clean. I wanted out of a loveless relationship and out of this lifestyle. My brother had already pleaded to charges and had been sent to the Federal Prison Camp at Lompoc. He warned me not to use any cocaine for at least ten days before surrender because they might do a piss test on arrival and if it turned up dirty, they would throw me in the hole. I did my last line of cocaine ten days before surrender and noted that after two years of constant abuse, there were no withdrawal symptoms other than re-training my bowels. I also noted that it took a threat to compel me to quit. But I was happy to get away from it. I sensed I would be okay. I knew I had a guardian angel and I always would. I would deal with my shame and guilt and pay the debt I owed 'em, thankful for the love and forgiveness of my family and friends.