A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 16

by Jake Rohrer, August 18, 2011

“When we're gone, long gone, the only thing that will have mattered, 

Is the love that we shared, and the way that we cared, 

When we're gone, long gone...”

— Jamie O'Hara & Kieran Kane, “When We're Gone, Long Gone” 

A prison furlough is technically an “unsupervised release” of a prisoner for a specific period of time. My first furlough was a 10-hour time period to allow me to travel from Terminal Island to the Lompoc camp, located on California's central coast. Subsequent furloughs wouldn't be available until I was within two years of my release date. They then become available every 3 months, starting with just a day, then a weekend, then up to a whole week as you approached your release date. A furlough was the brass ring held out by prison authorities, a reward for good conduct and reason to kiss some ass whenever opportunity or buttocks presented itself. Ken Kesey warned, .”..kiss no ass, no matter how big, no matter how white.” My ass kissing was limited to a high level of competence at my job as unit clerk and reasonably cordial relations with the prison supervisors I worked for. The withholding of a furlough was also used as an effective threat by unit managers whose approval was mandatory. My brother and I wanted those furloughs, and we kept our act and our quarters sparkling clean. We were very careful, and lucky, when it came to all the unthinkable bad shit we would pull off, time and again over the years. Prison authorities had dozens of ways to punish infractions, always meted out with just a bit more relish than necessary. If you happened to get on the wrong side of your unit manager, he might pull a surprise inspection on your room and find a speck of dirt somewhere in a perfectly clean room, and use his finding to deny your furlough. Shortly following my final furlough before release, a dramatic episode involving a prisoner furloughed to travel to the camp shut down the entire program for a while, a typical knee-jerk response by prison authorities.

FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) Pleasanton, about 40 miles east of San Francisco, was a medium security prison that was also co-ed. I always wondered how that could work. Though living quarters were separate, common areas were not. How do you lock up males and females together for years at a time and expect them to behave in a saintly manner? It seemed almost cruel, and when I thought about it, I was thankful I wasn't there. “Ain't Misbehavin'” would prove a tough theme song to live up to. I'd heard rumor of rampant disciplinary transfers from Pleasanton for “inappropriate contact” with a member of the opposite sex. I later became practiced—hell, expert—at such contact in the camp visiting area, which was generous in its layout with picnic tables and trees. I had observed such contact in the Terminal Island visiting room, inside under harsh lighting; once during a visit with a one time sweetheart, her expression unbelieving at the goings-on at the next table. Pay no attention to the folks next door, dear...no staring!

At Pleasanton, a prison drama and love story worthy of Shakespeare played itself out in the headlines that year. Samantha Lopez was serving a 50-year sentence for a string of bank robberies and Ronald McIntosh was a journeyman con-artist who was getting “short.” While incarcerated at Pleasanton they fell in love and formed a powerful bond with one another, then planned a daring escape which they viewed instead as a “rescue” for Ms. Lopez.

McIntosh had a spotless record and had served enough time to be rewarded with a furlough transfer to the camp at Lompoc. He never arrived at his appointed destination. A one-time pilot, he spent his first

day or two on the lam honing his helicopter chops. Then, posing as a real estate executive, he commandeered a helicopter at gun point and set it down at a prearranged time and place at the Pleasanton prison. Ms. Lopez climbed aboard and off they went, the first stage of their “rescue” a complete success. Federal authorities of course had a different view of events; “rescue” wasn't in their vocabulary. Realization that it was McIntosh who had engineered the removal of Ms. Lopez, using his furlough as opportunity to execute the plan, probably resulted in many soiled federal britches around Pleasanton and at western BOP headquarters in nearby Burlingame. Similar to air travel following 9/11, the entire furlough program came to a crashing halt.

Reading about these events and caught up in the romance and daring, I was pulling for them. I hoped they wouldn't be caught and I knew that if they were, they would literally be crushed by the enormous weight of the vengeful machinery wielded by our Federal government. Unfortunately for them, 10 days of blissful freedom would have to last a lifetime. They were caught near Sacramento, the feds tipped off by a well-meaning jeweler from who they had purchased wedding rings.

Their defense at trial centered on the “rescue” aspect of Ms. Lopez's removal from her captors, claiming she had suffered sexual abuse, assault, extortion and torment at the hands of prison guards. Separating fact from fantasy in these situations is never an easy matter, nor is it a particularly level playing field. Getting information out of the BOP is a hard go, no matter who's asking. “Institutional Security” is the blanket excuse used to deny requests and withhold information. Just how far a subpoena penetrates that blanket is a tricky business in itself. “No one can out-lie a cop on the stand” also holds true for prison guards, especially if they are engaged in denying their own culpability. And through it all the Federal bureaucracies can drive you to the brink of madness with their special rules and one-way streets, all the while drowning you in a sea of paper.

Whatever the truths may have been, the result was an additional 25-year term for each of them. Even if Ms. Lopez proved her allegations, and maybe some of them she did, it is questionable whether or not it would have been accepted as a valid defense for escape. That they would be returned to Pleasanton together was as likely as postponing tomorrow's sunrise. Sometime following his conviction, McIntosh was further convicted in a murder conspiracy occurring years earlier and was sentenced to Leavenworth for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole. Don't fuck with the feds—don't piss these people off. They will hurt you.

I always thought this story would make an intriguing book if some stalwart writer could manage the wherewithal to deal with the Federal bureaucracy in order to withdraw information and get interview rights with the subjects. It would be a daunting task, like climbing mountains...which brings to mind a writer whose fierce perceptions and ability to gather and present factual information make him my choice for the project: Jon Krakauer. I wonder if he's a romantic as well?

* * *

Life at the camp soon settled into routine. Roommates and others who had become close and trusted friends were released and then replaced by others, the revolving prison doors in constant motion. Lance, then Bernie and Artie, and more than a year before my own release, Robbin, were replaced by Boomer, Charlie, Booger, Pat and Bruce. Bruce was a smiling and joyous Japanese fellow christened the “Harbor Bomber” by taunting friends who would not let events of 1941 die a quiet death. All of us were drug merchants in one form or another. Boomer was an Air Force officer and academy graduate who piloted C-5 cargo jets and later turned his flying skills to loads of contraband. He was a member of the cattle crew, unpretentious, very bright, and a tremendous athlete. Boomer and I played a lot of basketball together. Booger, so named by a colorful local character we called Tommy the Hoob, moved in when Robbin went home; he was a highly educated and pleasant man who owned laboratories that manufactured various pharmaceutical products before he was sweet-talked into manufacturing a batch of methamphetamine by a “friend” who set him up for the feds. Together with Robbin, Booger was the best tennis player in the camp and he could run a mile in just over 5 minutes. Charlie was an acquaintance from Terminal Island who became a close and valued friend to both Robbin and myself. He once imported heroin from Thailand to Hawaii, and by the time of his arrest had acquired a runaway train habit available only to the successful dealer or the very wealthy. He told us of being put into a “dry-out” cell where he spent weeks on a cot, retching and going through the terrible sickness of extreme heroin withdrawal. The cops would come in at night with their flashlights and laugh at him. Today Charlie lives in Thailand, clean and sober, with his Thai wife and two lovely daughters. We visit from time to time. Pat lifted weights and was tougher than bent nails. About his bulging biceps, Pat said, “It's not for the women...when I get some motherfucker in a headlock, I want him to understand he's in serious trouble.” As a juvenile, he prided himself in his ability to steal the “cherry,” the single revolving red light from the top of patrol cars. Once, crouching on top of the cop car in the act of pulling the cherry off, the cop returned but he couldn't catch Pat who made it over backyard fences and through the parks, unscathed.

* * *

It's bright and balmy, a diamond of a day somewhere in the mid-seventies, not a cloud in the sky. The baseball field is covered with a soft green carpet of new grass and all the trees seem full and in bloom. Out on the soccer field a crew of inmates make ready and drag industrial-grade mowers behind an Arnold Palmer tractor, the old equipment Penz-oiled and working well. Beyond the line of trees to the south, mountain peaks cut the horizon like a big-city skyline and form the bowl that is the Santa Ynez Valley in which lies Lompoc, the flower-seed capitol of the world. Acres of flowers cover the valley floor with an astonishing patchwork of color. Even the flock of vultures, never very far from the prison slaughterhouse, seem in place as they soar above the prison farm fields where plow and disc have recently turned the rich black soil. Sweeter air and brighter surroundings are remembered only on Maui; it even smells like May. No way this could be January 17. But it is.

I awoke the next morning with a tightness in my chest and knew immediately what lay in store for me: seven days of snot and misery. Joe brought it back from MCC San Diego where he was called before a December grand jury. He passed it off to Bobby who unloaded it on Boomer who loaned it to Jeff who deposited it with Robbin who, being a generous and loving brother, shared it with me. A nasty goddam cold. Running, basketball and smoking are out. Brandy might be in, but was unavailable. As much as possible, rest becomes the only remedy. The misery is such that even lift-off, courtesy of our juice cans known as the bears, doesn't offer an attractive alternative. But one distraction is at hand: we are coming up on the annual fuss made over the Super Bowl. San Francisco will be one of the combatants this year, making it a little more interesting than usual. As memorable as the game itself was New Orleans coach, Bum Phillips, talking about Miami coach Don Shula, worth the repeating: .”..he can take his'n and beat your'n...and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n.” High accolades on the gridiron.

* * *

“How much does it cost?” asked one man of another who was depositing coins into a vending machine labeled, “Justice.” “It varies,” said the depositor, “You just keep putting money in until you're broke and hope for the best.”

--Dan Piaro, “Bizarro”

In the on-going legal arena, I had set my sights on getting my sentence modified to a level that at least approximated my comparative involvement. It was my fortune to be called to trial before any of the others. Similar fortune can be found among volunteers and refugees; mine would serve as the test case. Would Stephen Green's testimony hold up under assault by Tony Serra? Rather than my brother, I was paired with another defendant who I'd never before met, John Bump. His dour expression and slouching manner did little to win jury sympathy. I wasn't very smart about any of this, allowing better judgment to be swayed not only by a fear of prison, but enjoined by cheer-leading San Francisco defense attorneys and private investigators, their hands out like hot frying pans in constant need of grease, their clients awaiting their turn. To his credit, money wasn't a primary consideration for Tony Serra. He didn't like informants and was in it for the fight. He quoted a fee that was less than anyone else, worked hard and never asked me for another dime, eschewing anything that reeked of “billable hours,” seven or eight of which others might get in before lunch. Doron Weinberg, too, was both reasonable and lacked any suggestion of hustle when it came to his fees. Other than Green himself and his father-in-law, who following conviction was caught in some sort of murder-for-hire conspiracy aimed at the judge, I received the harshest sentence and biggest fine of anyone involved. Green served only 18 months of his 20-year sentence. Murder-for-hire aimed at a Federal judge is fucking with the feds at its highest level and guarantees anyone so caught a veritable mountain of high security time.

A well-meaning acquaintance, also a San Francisco attorney with some criminal experience but no interest in my case, laid out the probability my chances for me: “Federal prosecutors win over ninety percent of their cases in this district. To have a shot at winning, you need to get on the stand and give the jury something else to believe.” I was guilty as hell. What could I tell them? “You could tell them that Stephen Green made homosexual advances to you; that you had slapped him down and humiliated him. That was the reason he was trying to get even with you.” He even offered to coach me on giving testimony. Thanks, Bill, but acting has never been my gift and I'm a pee-poor liar. But he was right in his assessment. It wasn't enough to have Tony Serra shred the informant. Juries want to hear from the defendant.

I started my quest for modification by writing to the judge, acknowledging my guilt and pleading my circumstance. I was a neophyte in the criminal justice world. I did what I thought I was supposed to do, I hired counsel and followed his advice. I never perjured myself; I sat quietly and let the trial unfold as it would. I pointed to the now obvious disparities between my sentence and that of others whose involvement exceeded my own. Then Doron took over. It didn't hurt matters that the judge thought highly of my attorney, even hiring him for his own purposes. Then we enlisted the support of Eric Swenson, the prosecutor, and offered a personal forfeiture of tainted assets. All was moving in the right direction when the FBI showed up at the camp to see me.

“We're concerned that the 'Big Fish' got away,” said the agent, friendly, well groomed and polyester. “We'd like to know if you can offer us any help.”

“Who's the 'Big Fish'?” I asked.

“Brian Livingston. We understand that you were an acquaintance, maybe more than that.”

Oh shit. BL. Indeed a Big Fish. Also a trusted friend and a hell of a nice guy. “You know my history...you can't possibly expect me to inform on someone.”

“Well, worse things could happen to you. We are conducting an investigation. If you happen to be implicated in it, you could be facing new charges. Here's my card. I'll be back to see you in a week.”

Well...that was certainly an anus clenching encounter. If my modification came through as expected, I will have served more than half my time and was headed downhill. The prospect of a “new beef” was particularly chilling. Then the U.S. Attorney's office withdrew their support of my modification until such time I was cleared of their investigation. When the agent returned I told him I could offer no help. He seemed to expect this and remained friendly, shaking my hand and wishing me well while mentioning the possibility of a grand jury subpoena.

The next four months were harrowing, but I somehow emerged from the investigation with a clean bill of health. The day before my hearing in front of Judge Schnacke, the U.S. Attorney's office reinstated their support of my modification and my 15-year sentence was cut to 6 years and the $50,000 fine was reduced to $7,500 every dime of which I paid, although my records indicate a $300 accounting error in my favor on their part. It was sweet relief, even though the actual time I would serve was cut only by about a year. But it was a good feeling. In addition to the fine, paid during my parole period with “clean” money, I returned a lot of “dirty” money to the government, a part of the debt I owed them, and it felt like I would have a fresh starting place when I was released. I was doubly relieved that I wouldn't be dragged into the mess that Brian was facing. Or so I thought.

* * *

A grand jury is a secret proceeding where the jurors are lead by their noses by prosecutors who outline a case and present evidence, much of it provided by witnesses. The jurors are then asked to vote on whether or not an indictment should be issued. It is a given that grand juries are for the most part a rubber stamp for prosecutors. It is also used as an effective tool to make witnesses talk when they have no desire to do so. In many cases, including my own, immunity from prosecution is granted to uncooperative witnesses, effectively removing 5th amendment rights against self-incrimination. Severe penalties for refusal to testify, as well as for false testimony, are in place for anyone not cooperating with the grand jury. Prosecutors also use the grand jury to go “fishing” for evidence. Let's put this guy on the stand and see what we can squeeze out of him. Faced with the prospect of unknown periods of incarceration in a jail cell, “dead time,” during which the sentence you are already serving is suspended and gets no credit, many would give up their own grandmother. I think I'd rather be waterboarded.

I had gone to the camp records office to see if official notice of my sentence modification had arrived. The records officer pulled my file and took a look.

“I don't see nothin' here for you, sonny, ceptin' this here federal writ.”

“This here what?”

“Writ. I said writ. Someone wants you up in front of a grand jury.”

I took a look at it. A grand jury subpoena for a hearing into the activities of BL, to be held in Eureka in Northern California. I guess it was my good fortune to at least know it was coming. Many times they don't tell you what's going on; they just roll you up and head you out.

Two weeks later I was deposited at the penitentiary next to the camp. They stripped me naked and looked up my asshole. Then they dressed me in prison-issue khakis, shackled my hands at my waist and put on leg irons. You can't take anything with you; cigarettes aren't allowed. They told me I'd get a toothbrush where I was going. The whole vibe of the penitentiary was near-palpable, as though I was being squeezed by the air around me, every sensory activity on alert. It even smelled dangerous. By comparison the camp was a light-hearted walk in the park, bluebirds singing in the trees.

Taking baby-steps in leg irons, I got on the bus with a dozen or so hard-ass looking cons from the penitentiary. I was the only “camper.” We were headed to Vandenberg AFB to meet the marshall's weekly airlift used to move prisoners around. The caravan was accompanied by four guards in bullet-proof vests and armed with shotguns, automatic rifles and heavy-duty handguns. They took up positions around the bus before we were loaded and when we arrived at Vandenberg, I suppose so they could be ready for any Dillinger-like rescue attempts. I watched a couple of them swing out the cylinders of their handguns and give them a gunfighter spin; I felt like Dorothy, no longer in Kansas.

To the delight of the hard cons there were about 15 females on the flight, all headed for Pleasanton.

Some of these guys hadn't been in female company for a lot of years and damn near came unglued at the sight of these young ladies as they sashayed their cute little butts up and down the aisle, talking among themselves like sorority girls, aware of their allure and all belonging to the same exclusive club. The plane stopped in Sacramento where I was handed over to two U.S. Marshalls in a souped-up Pontiac Firebird with out- of-state plates, booty I suspect, from some drug bust. One of the marshalls, enthusiastic and friendly, remembered me from the trial. He had been Stephen Green's escort at the proceeding. He told me how well I looked and what an asshole Green was, and then wanted to know a bunch of stuff about Creedence (which he also remembered about me). I was seated in the back, handcuffed, with a tough-looking black convict named Tooley; we were on our way to the San Francisco County jail. The marshalls stopped and bought us Big Macs and a pack of smokes. Tooley and I split the pack of cigarettes, recognizing we were brothers in this circumstance together, color unimportant.

San Francisco's county jail reminded me of an industrial boiler-room with cages, a constant din of voices, shouting and clanking cell doors. In my particular cage there were 14 of us in a cell with 12 beds. Two had to sleep on a long, steel table in the “day” side of the cell. A muscular black man named Jah-Jah gave me his bed, saying he was, .”..tar'd a alla niggahs on dis side.” His torso was tattooed with scars from stabbings. I sat in that cell for four days, nine black men, two Mexicans, an oriental, a Pakistani with long, grotesque toenails and me. I recognized one of the blacks as a regular from Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue street vermin. One-eyed, unwashed and sporting Caribbean dreadlocks, he spent his days crouched in a corner of the cell grabbing at imaginary flying things. The other blacks refused to acknowledge his presence. On one occasion Jah-Jah snatched another con by his collar, jerking him off his feet and cocking his fist, .”.Ah'm as serious as a heart attack, muthafuckah, now make yo' move!” This dispute was over ownership of a used milk carton, used by jail residents to insulate their coffee mugs made from used orange juice containers. Men have been killed over less. Jailhouse etiquette amounted to the courtesy of timing the flush of the open-air commode with the moment your turd hit water, swallowing up the smell along with the turd.

continued →

One Response to A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 16

  1. Jeff Ghidella Reply

    December 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    This series made my summer. Thanks for taking the time to put it on paper. El Cerrito is still a great place to grow up.

    …and thank you AVA for bringing this to us.

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