A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 17
by Jake Rohrer, August 25, 2011
My attorney finally showed up and filled me in on what was going on. The feds had convened a grand jury to hammer my old friend, BL. The rat in this instance was “Cricket,” a guy who'd worked for BL doing menial tasks and who I had met once. Cricket had been “reborn” and was now doing the Lord's work, informing on BL and throwing my name into the hopper. In many ways, that was a relief. He didn't know me from Adam; I'd never had any dealings with him. Anything he had to say about me was purely his own conjecture. Nonetheless, if I didn't reasonably answer questions from the grand jury, I could be facing a couple of years of “dead time.” Stephen Green, too, knew about BL, and knew I had a relationship with him, but Green had no one-on-one dealings with BL. Nonetheless, being a good little rodent, he told them all he knew and that was bothersome to me.
Doron met with BL's attorneys who told him that BL had already been .”..buried” by previous witnesses. Doron, along with Tony, belonged to a principled group of attorneys who would not represent informants, those who were shedding their own culpability by informing on others. He nonetheless advised me not to be a damn fool and reminded me that it wasn't my honor that was at stake here. We went over some potential testimony that we felt wouldn't do any more harm than had already been done. I also took refuge in the fact that any dealings I'd had with BL I believed were now beyond the statute of limitations. All I had to do was make sure whatever I said was credible. I was uneasy about saying anything at all but eventually came to terms with it, feeling only slightly cheesy.
Now I would be escorted to the Humbolt County jail in Eureka to await my appearance on their docket. I was rousted from the cell at 4:30am and put in a holding cell to await my escort. There was another person already there, reclined on the cement bench with his feet in the air resting against the cell bars, a roll of toilet paper for a pillow. Probably a drunk, I figured. Pretty soon one eye popped open and we looked at each other warily.
“Hi, Bud...what're you doin' here?” I asked. He was a nice looking fellow, young and bearded with a knowing sparkle about him. Not a drunk.
“They brought me up from CMC (California Men's Colony, a state prison near San Luis Obispo) last night. Got a court hearing in Oakland.”
I noted the orange band on his wrist that indicated he was a federal prisoner. “There's no federal court in Oakland,” I said (Federal court in Oakland was established about a decade later). “Who brought you up here?”
“Federal marshalls. I guess they were coming this way and picked me up as a favor.”
“In a pig's eye they did. What makes you think you're going to Oakland?”
“It can't be anything else. I just filed for this hearing three weeks ago.”
“No court system I know of operates that fast on a prisoner's request...where are you from, anyway?”
“Santa Barbara...Maui.” He said, “Maui” like an afterthought. This is going to get interesting. I asked if he knew Robbin.
“Yeah, I've met him.”
I asked if he knew BL and his expression changed, .”..yeah, yeah, I know him real well.”
“Well, do you know what's going on with him?”
“No,” he said. “I haven't seen him in a couple of years.”
“Guess what, my friend...you're not going to any court hearing in Oakland. Your ass is coming with me to be dragged up in front of a federal grand jury that's after BL up in Eureka.”
He sat up and looked dumbstruck. “That can't be true, no one's said anything to me about a grand jury.”
“Can't be, but it is. You've never had any experience with the feds, have you? These people don't tell you shit, they do as they please. I know what's going on because the records office down at Lompoc let me read the writ. They probably weren't supposed to. Grand juries operate in secret, you know?”
The sparkle left his eyes as he pondered what I had told him, not wanting to believe a word of it. “Are you sure?” he managed.
“Almost as sure as I am that the sun's going to come up in another hour or so.”
I watched as all of this finally came home for him, stimulating his central nervous system. He picked up his pillow and went to the grimy, seatless commode that hung on the far wall of the holding cell and moved his bowels, timing the flush like a seasoned veteran. “S'cuse me,” he said.
* * *
And so it was that I met Bob Goneau, a genuine good guy and ne're-do-well outlaw with whom I would spend the following week in close quarters. He was serving a four-year sentence for growing marijuana and had so far served nine months. He had a bright mind and a striking sense of humor and we made the best of it together, laughter the only refuge from our circumstance. We got our hands on some Louis L'Amour cowboy novels and, reading them, we each took on an old west persona, acting out our daily activities as though we were Sacketts.
Three well dressed marshalls, each with a big iron on his hip, escorted us through SFO to United's daily flight to Eureka. They took off all of our chains, surrounded us in step, and told us just to act natural, me in my scruffy federal khakis and Bob in his unkempt state blues. We made a strange looking bunch. At Eureka we were handed over to a lone female deputy sheriff with a big magnum holstered on her ham-like hip. She was a large, horse-faced woman built like a Buick, with a voice that'd shrivel even Casanova's cock. “Don't you give this woman no shit,” I advised Bob. “She'd shoot the likes of us at the drop of a hat.”
Taking over custody from the FBI, she put us in handcuffs chained at our waists and a single pair of leg irons, my right ankle chained to Bob's left. She never said more than a couple of words to us. It was hell trying to nonchalantly walk through the Eureka airport to get to her cruiser. The airport lobby came to a standstill as people gawked at us desperadoes. Stumbling along in our leg irons, we had the fluid movements of an aging priest on a disco floor. I stopped in the middle of the lobby and told Bob, “Let's get it together, cowboy...right, left, right, left...when I say go, okay?” I forgot that my right leg was chained to his left, and when we took off we damn near fell in a sprawling heap on the lobby floor, saved only by quick reflex. All we could do was laugh at ourselves, Bob wondering if I was an Arthur Murray graduate. We laughed hard enough to make all of the gawkers take a step back (“…mommy, are those men on drugs?”)
* * *
“I prefer rogues to imbeciles because sometimes rogues take a rest.”
— Alexander Dumas
I was completely unprepared for the Humbolt County jail. Bob and I shared a dark and dirty cell in a corridor packed with the dumbest, loudest, filthiest, most obnoxious punks imaginable. It was as though anyone over 25 or with an IQ exceeding 2 digits was kept elsewhere. Rednecks all, they spat through the bars, threw food all over the floors and walls, hurled their trays and utensils up and down the corridor floor after every meal, screamed, yelled, rattled the cell doors and generally came on like a tribe of rabid banshees. These guys would last about two seconds with the feds. We settled in for some hard hours while we pondered our moves with the grand jury and watched the cockroaches scurry over the walls and ceiling, ignoring gravity.
The first night was bad enough, the bellowing din going on past midnight. I had to calm Bob on a couple of occasions. The following night with things still out of control at 2:00 AM, I lost my cool and committed a jailhouse faux pas by requesting that our neighbors shut the fuck up. Silence. Then came a snotty voice:
“Maybe you should have stayed home, huh?” And the chorus began to build.
“Hey, Augie...these assholes in number six want us to be quiet...whaddaya think, man?”
“Fuck 'em in their nigger-lovin' assholes. Anyone got a knife?”
“You mean them grand jury guys? They ain't nothin' but fuckin' rats anyway.”
“Sorry Bob,” I whispered. “I forgot my own best advice.”
We didn't say another word and let this sorry pack of unfortunates burn themselves out. Then, probably angered at not drawing us in further, they decided to burn us out. They crumpled newspaper and tossed it in front of our cell, then set it on fire. When I looked, there was a pretty good blaze going in the corridor and I wondered where the hell the cops were, but by now it was obvious that the county jail cops didn't give a shit about anything that happened here. Bob and I exchanged glances of disbelief as if to say, relax, the worst is yet to come.
Twice weekly it was the practice of the jail to let all of the animals out of their cages for a couple of hours in the recreation room. You could play pool, watch TV, lift weights or just walk around. We wondered if we were in for a hard time, but decided, .”..we're feds, man—we're bad!” All of those tough voices that came out of the night were now reduced to daylight reality, that of whiny, witless losers, little punks who hadn't the sense to pour piss out of a boot. They looked at us with cautious glances and gave us a wide berth. Not a soul said a word to us. “Yeah, man. We're bad. We're feds. Don't fuck with the feds.”
* * *
I was escorted to the grand jury by a young FBI agent who packed a long-barreled .44 magnum, a strange piece to hide beneath a 3-piece suit. He fit the profile of the other agents I'd met, clean cut, ivy-league, calm and pleasant; he was apologetic about the hassle and accommodations. No handcuffs required, we walked side-by-side to the courthouse where I was deposited just outside the grand jury room. The Assistant U.S. Attorney running the grand jury was Peter Robinson (who later switched sides, becoming a criminal defense attorney). He seemed a little nervous and stumbled over his introductions. He was a short man who looked at me through coke-bottle glasses that rested on a pudgy face crowned with a shock of wooly hair. He had an animated look about him and approached me like a submissive cur, wondering if I would accept his overture or bite his head off; he was probably feeling some remorse for having hauled me out of my comfy camp to this shit-hole of a county jail on a fishing expedition. The first thing he wanted to establish was my background as a dope dealer, which I testified to openly. Some of the grand jurors looked at me like I was the lowest form of earthly life.
My plan was not to add to the damage BL had already incurred, and not implicate anyone else. I had given matters a lot of thought and studied hard. I was prepared to handle a lot of tricky questions with evasive logic and feigned lack of knowledge; I even had a few dead people in mind who I could point to if necessary. Everything they wanted to know was covered in about 15 minutes. Most of the questions were answered with a simple “no” as I hadn't seen BL in several years and I knew none of the other players. I alluded to some non-specific transactions in the distant past, and was then amazed that I was never questioned on dates, weights, others involved or any other details, all particulars used against me at trial. The grand jurors, each of them a hard-working, God-fearing, flag-waving taxpayer, listened with passive interest, but were more interested in my relationship with Creedence, a fact that came out when Robinson started asking if I had any knowledge about some nebulous money laundering scheme BL apparently had going with some recording studio. I gave them no solid information about BL or his associates; I was never asked about the things I feared the most. It seemed solely a “fishing” expedition to see what might come out of me.
It was all over and I wondered at all the needless stress and worry I'd gone through over nothing. It felt a little cheesy to me having to say anything at all, but I sensed my admissions about BL were nothing that amounted to hard evidence in a court of law. I was perplexed that Robinson seemed pleased with my testimony and later figured that it was just my friendly manner that made him think I would be a willing witness for him at BL's trial. Anyone who knew BL liked him, save perhaps a jilted lover or the newly reborn. He had a strong sense of integrity and fair play, plus a lot of personal mana. On Maui he had been a highly regarded surfer. When his trial date came about, it was clear to Peter Robinson that he had no knowledgeable cooperative witnesses against BL, certainly not me or Robbin (who somehow escaped the grand jury call), no snitch on the inside who would paint a clear picture for a jury. The whole thing was settled in a plea bargain that included very little time for BL. The witnesses who had previously “buried” him, including Cricket, turned out to have very little credibility or knowledge.
Happiness that day for Bob and me was the Humbolt County jail in the rear-view mirror. We parted company back at the San Francisco County jail where they lodged me for one more night on my way back to Lompoc. My room back at the camp now felt like a Plaza suite.
* * *
With a newly modified sentence, I would now have a new parole hearing to determine how much time I would serve. I thought I could handle this myself and didn't ask Doron to come down to represent me, maybe a mistake. I asked a prior unit manager from Terminal Island who was now working at the penitentiary next door to speak on my behalf. My record was spotless and my work reports sterling. I even got Peter Robinson to write a letter, praising my cooperative manner. Robbin had 3 months cut from his maximum sentence and I had made a significant forfeiture of cash and tainted assets. I knew I had something coming.
Fat fucking chance. A bloated slug of a man named Kelly, venom-filled eyes bulging from greasy sockets, hammered on me no-end, citing the magnitude of my crimes and how lucky I was not to be facing new guidelines. When I pointed out the obvious disparities in sentences others were serving and reminded them of my voluntary forfeiture, I was attacked for not giving up other assets that I had acquired long before I ever dealt dope. It wasn't my day. Even with a testimonial from my one time unit manager urging immediate release, I had drawn the equivalent of the psychotic cop, “Make My Day,” for a parole examiner. I was continued to expiration, clearly not enough time for Kelly who seemed to take personal offense that my original sentence had been modified. I figured he last got laid when Eisenhower was in office. I filed an appeal, but didn't hope for much. I knew that these parole board swine pretty much stick together, all feeding at the same trough.
Meanwhile, following my lead, my co-defendant, Bump, ponied up less than half of what I did and got his 12-year sentence reduced to 3 1/2 years, the disparity in our sentences based solely on what Stephen Green had to say about us. The word of Green served as gospel for the feds. I guess if they actually knew the reality of it, all of us would have been sentenced to twice what we were. Bump served his time, but never learned the all important lesson. Only months after his release he sold a large quantity of cocaine to an undercover fed, quickly pleading to 20 years under new guidelines. Neither Robbin nor I ever again sold so much as a single joint. Rather than the bad guys, the feds could now look at us as valued taxpayers, a status achieved thanks to a work ethic learned from our parents and the counsel of our good friend and benefactor, Uncle Eddie, who taught us that clean money was the only kind worth having. More than ever we remain the fortunate sons, thankful for our parents, heritage and friends. We are also graduates, magna cum laude, of one of our country's highest teachings, learning the hard way but learning for all time the simple lesson that helps life roll easy in America: .”..don't fuck with the feds.”
* * *
Robbin has been released to start life over again and I am coming up on my first weekend furlough, also a 3-day bonus weekend. But I was feeling a little hollow about it because I no longer had a girlfriend to spend it with, running in a single harness on a closed track. I planned to spend at least a day with my son and daughter, kicking around San Luis Obispo, window shopping and eating at fine restaurants. Then what? Good fortune would again seek me out and force its will on me; actually hammer me with its promise.
I had met Laurie on several occasions. She was the girlfriend of one of my old friends from high school. I thought she was smart and lovely, and I wondered how Freddy managed to score such a dish. Unknown to me, that relationship had ended some time ago. Just 3 weeks prior to my furlough date, out of the blue, there came a letter from Laurie. Winsome and friendly, she wrote that I had recently passed through her thoughts and she wanted to say hello and pass on her wishes that all was well for me. She also mentioned that she was tiring of the Bay Area and was considering a move to Hawaii.
I wrote her back that evening, letting her know I was doing well and tried to impress her with my sometimes clumsy prose. I read a lot, I told her. I enjoy Tom Robbins, among many, and just finished “Jitterbug Perfume.” BTW, I'm single and I'm a free man for the President's Day weekend. You?
She wrote right back. .”..you write like a wordsmith. I just read 'Jitterbug Perfume,' too, and enjoyed it immensely. I am both single and free that weekend. I'd love to see you.”
Here we go. Letters went back and forth, setting out our plans. My pulse would elevate 20 points when I'd get her distinctive envelopes at mail call. Robbin’s' novel became our meeting ground. It is a terrifically clever and sexy story, full of humor and raw sex, with beets serving a characterization in the storyline. I reminded her that .”..what starts with beets, ends with the devil.” She went out and bought a ceramic bowl decorated with beets for our picnic; we still use it to this day.
It was too strange for me, our first evening together. Myriad thoughts and feelings reeling through my mind, the soft closeness of female company then so far removed from my experience, thoughts of starting something I didn't know I would finish, bothersome. I needed to respect her as something other than a casual depository for my personal use, but I hardly know her. Feelings of guilt mingled with desire and confusion; sport fucking has never been my long suit. It was happening too fast, I was making believe I was expected to unleash years of pent up sexual frustration in some overheated rush of prowess, only to be stilled by performance anxiety...shut up, Jake! Quit talking to yourself. Talk to her. And so we laid there, side by side, just talking, getting to know one another, trading thoughts on worldly pursuits and desires, divulging the hopes we had for our futures, an occasional kiss...finally drifting off to sleep.
Our first night together didn't include love making, but the day dawned anew and spontaneous love making seemed to happen on its own just after we awoke, no longer feeling forced or expected, no longer strangers. We had brunch in a quaint village near the sea and listened to an entertaining quartet who called themselves the “Trio de Janero.” The afternoon was spent in a theater watching “Out of Africa,” a new release at the time, trading glances and smiles, holding hands. I thought it was one of the best films I'd ever seen, and further thought that Meryl Streep and Robert Redford had nothing on us. Each was developing a trust of the other; no one was out to take without giving, there were no secret motives or hidden agendas, just a mutual desire to reach for the prize, to experience life at its best and highest level. Then it was time to deliver me back to the camp.
Laurie had arrived for the weekend with her own anxieties. .”..god, don't let me fall in love with him. I want to go to Hawaii...maybe he smokes; I could never be with a smoker again...” I did smoke, but not much, especially around her. I had my own uncertainties. Even after this life affirming weekend, did I want to obligate myself to this woman? I wanted to think about things and I gave her some lame line about not bothering to visit me at the prison because it was depressing and a lousy way to see one another. We said our goodbyes and she watched the building swallow me up as I headed for the Lieutenant's office to be checked back in, and she headed to the highway for the long drive home with similar thoughts of her own.
I couldn't stand it. For days I was on auto pilot, walking on air, running into things, lost in my thoughts. I missed her with a longing that pulsed through my veins with every beat of my heart. In an environment filled with smokers I flat quit forever, knowing how she felt about smoking. Want to quit? Try falling in love with a non-smoker. Desire overcame anything I could put in its path. I sat in the waiting line for the phone, then called her.
“Hi there,” I chimed, “whatcha doin'?”
“Cooking dinner for me and Eva.” Evanthia was Laurie's 15 year-old daughter from her marriage to a Greek years before. Laurie fell in love with Greece as a young woman and lived there for 4 years.
“Whatcha cookin'?” I stumbled, lost for words, feeling dumber than hell.
“Turkey burger and asparagus,” came the matter of fact reply, but tinged with her own nervous laughter.
“Would you come for a visit?”
“Oh, god, I was afraid you wouldn't ask...when can I come?”
Twenty-five years later, through all the bumps and bruises, we still share the bond that was born during my stay at Camp Fed, still very much in love after all these years.
* * *
If you want to be well connected in the world of illegal drugs, Camp Fed is the place to be. Here reside experienced specialists in every facet of the field. Current trends and market reports are often a topic of conversation. Expert smugglers discuss scams and methodology, old and new, while growers trade agricultural techniques and executive merchants trade ideas, sources and outlets. I thought it a curious way to fight the drug war. What would happen if you locked up all the Wall Street criminals together to form personal bonds and trade ideas on how to further fill their pockets and drain away the life savings of others? The real estate scam of recent years had lenders and loan agents running wild, allowing unqualified buyers to purchase and refinance properties at inflated values, granting loans on an “income stated” basis. Then they bundled them together and—Jesus, it staggers the imagination—sold them off to the world stamped with a bullshit “Triple A” risk rating to become instrumental in bringing entire countries (including our own) to their knees and the brink of utter collapse. Looking at what went down still makes me speechless. I've seen ground level examples of these lending practices, up close and personal, and I still can't believe the sheer, lemming-like idiocy of the lenders, nor can I quite get my head around the concept that it was all done intentionally at the bequest of the shadowy characters who run the game. No wonder they don't arrest these guys—if you put them all together at a place like Camp Fed, it might give them opportunity to come up with an even more diabolical scam.
Drug war? Also a scam, enriching an industry built on legislated crime and punishment. Time and again, learned groups, senate committees, appointed task forces and various commissions made up of wise and intelligent individuals have done detailed studies and extensive examinations of the war on drugs and concluded that it does more harm than good, wasting incredible amounts of money, and in the end, cannot be won. Response from the Drug Czars, politicians, prisoncrats, cops, prison guard unions and others hasn't varied and remains cloaked in a monied self-interest: .”..these findings are unfounded.” Like the other wars we have immersed ourselves in, they just go on and on. Who, indeed, are the real criminals? Apology for my participation in the drug trade extends only to here.
* * *
“If you know where home is you know everything.”
— Billy, Navaho shaman
Afterword: Still and always the fortunate son, the last furlough was a week on Maui with Laurie, staying upcountry with mom, getting our feet on the ground that would later become our home. We were married the next year in mom's backyard, a festive celebration of joy and commitment. On my release from Camp Fed, the life calendar stood at July 7, almost half the lifetime allotted yet to be lived. Loving acknowledgments to my son, Dan, and daughter, Tracy, for their unwavering love and standing by their dad through it all, and to my wife, Laurie, for helping me to bring it all back home. Many thanks to Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser for his encouragement and support. Thanks, too, to Alexander Cockburn, Ewalina Billington, my sister, Mary Goodrich, my old pal, Sheldon Bialkin, and “Uncle Eddie,” Ed Olson. And of course to Robbin, for the good times, for the hard times, for the love of a brother.
Yours in real time, JR, July 20, 2011