The Fortunate Son Redux
by Jake Rohrer, December 11, 2013
Big Dog came by the house on a Friday afternoon, late in the day. Watching his arrival from the front room I could tell by the deliberate walk to the porch and the concern on his face that it wasn't a social call. As I was about to learn, he was a man on a mission, like Paul Revere, sounding the alarm: The feds are coming! The feds are coming!
“I have grim news,” said Big Dog, making his way into the house, his head bowed as though in distant thought. As usual, he was well groomed and neatly dressed. Of high-caste Mexican heritage he was six foot-plus, lean and good looking, with wide-set dark eyes under a broad forehead. Wire-rimmed eyewear gave him the look of a learned man. His normal carriage was that of an aristocrat, calm and in control, but today he seemed distracted and a little out of breath.
“The feds just popped John Bump,” he announced. “I was there when they came to get him. They talked a lot of stink at me, too, but obviously they didn't have a warrant. Scared hell out of me though. I came straight here.”
I didn't know Bump but I'd heard of him, and I knew he was one of Big Dog's friends. In addition to trafficking in drugs, these were men who dabbled in Tiffany lamps, Persian carpets, and other fine accoutrements. “They picked off John Viljoen earlier this morning,” he continued, building the drama of his message. “My lawyer says they rounded up a couple of Green's friends in San Francisco yesterday.”
I knew Viljoen, a friendly and fun-loving South African whose company I enjoyed, and who had been associated with “Mr. Big,” Stephen Green. Viljoen and I didn't do business together, but we sometimes met for dinner or drinks. We also shared separate professional histories in the automobile business.
“Green's let it all fly to the feds,” said Big Dog. “I think you're next,” he concluded, getting my full attention.
“Can't be true,” I pleaded. “They couldn't possibly have anything on me...other than hearsay.” I assumed they had at least that after being rousted at the border in December, coming home from Mexico.
“Wake up, man!” scolded Big Dog, peering at me owl-like over the rim of his glasses. “This isn't the local sheriff. These are the feds. They have Green. They don't need anything else. The charge will be conspiracy.” It was the first time I ever heard Big Dog bark, at least at me.
“How come they didn't get you?” I asked, trying to fend off the stark reality he had just presented.
“I don't think they have enough on me through Green,” he speculated. “I never did business with him. But there's no doubt he's blabbed all that he knew about me anyway. Everyone's a wild card right now. The feds might try to roll Bump to get at me, but I know he'll stand tall.”
For someone involved in a business as serious as this one, I was amazingly ignorant of the rules by which it could be played. I hadn't made a study of the legal realities as they applied to the illicit drug trade and had only a hazy concept of what a criminal conspiracy might consist of. I was yet to meet the elite of San Francisco's criminal defense bar, a dozen or so of whom were at that very moment scrambling for new clients in the wake of Green's betrayal. With Green as their puppet, the feds had generated a vast web of conspiracy charges, now spreading like a wildfire across San Francisco's high-end drug and legal communities. What we viewed as “betrayal” was viewed by the feds as “cooperation.”
“I have to be on my way,” said Big Dog, anxious to continue his “midnight ride” even though still late afternoon. I followed him out the door. “Make sure you're clean!” he called as he shut the door on his vintage Mercedes coupe, then lowered the window for a final admonition as he pulled away, “Protect yourself!” I was left standing at the curb with my thoughts and questions. Stephen Green in bed with the feds? Could they really make a case like that, just out of words?
Okay, I thought, I'll humor Big Dog — just in case. Aided by false hope, I reasoned that they must have some hard evidence on the others, unable to accept the idea that they could make a case on someone's say-so. I moved everything incriminating out of my home, including a wayward kilo of cocaine. I put notes concerning transactions — receivables and payables, weights and measures — into code, then hid that document in a single record album sleeve wedged in among hundreds. Even if found it, they'd need a cryptographer with a Rosetta Stone. A specially built container filled with cash remained in an ingenious hiding place built into kitchen cabinets by a clever and talented friend who'd done some remodeling for me. To open it required some requisite mechanical steps, like a Chinese puzzle. Short of demolition, I defied anyone to find it. I was so proud of it, of course, I showed if off to all my friends and conspirators.
The weekend passed without incident and I relaxed about the impending doom. I was still hopeful that Big Dog was overreacting, wrong about my inclusion as a target for arrest. It didn't occur to me that even feds take the weekend off. The knock on my door came at the start of the workweek, 7am Monday morning, loud and demanding. A bolt of shock and realization shot through me on my way to the door, a lightening stab down my spine and into my gut.
“Who is it?” I called with a musical lilt, knowing full fucking well who stood on the other side. One of the fringe benefits of being a criminal is the ability to sleep in. I didn't know anyone who'd be up at that hour, certainly no one with an insistent, ball-breaker of a knock like that. I was answered with an official looking Federal ID encased in clear plastic, slapped up against one of the small decorative windows across the top of the door.
“Hold on, I'll be right with you.” I went back to the bedroom and pulled on my pants, telling the woman who shared my bed, “They're here. Get word to my brother.”
* * *
So began a new incarnation in my life, the one with the feds in charge. I was living in a Berkeley brown-shingle my brother and I had purchased as an investment a couple of years earlier, a three-story, three-unit conversion near the campus. It was 1981 and November was just getting underway. The feds would stay in charge for a long time.
On Halloween night, just days before my arrest, the sun had been down for about an hour when someone in a convincing gorilla costume came to the door. When opened, the gorilla bounced apelike into the foyer. He made himself at home, wandering around on all fours into the front and dinning rooms, peering into the kitchen, and shuffling around the corridor that led to the bedroom. Half a dozen friends were there at the time, cocktails in hand. Everyone was charmed, thinking the gorilla to be a perfect component for the occasion. Everyone but me. The gorilla never said a word and I didn't like the way he looked at me. He lacked any note of gaiety. He seemed nosy, too, and he wasn't there for treats. After a few minutes he lurched across the floor on his knuckles and disappeared out the still-open front door. I thought it an eerie visit and I was unnerved by the gorilla's gall and impertinence.
Later, well into my ordeal, I gave some thought to the gorilla incident, looking for reason and logic. What do you think? An advance fed? Wanting to confirm that I lived there, a chance to case the joint for the bust without tipping me off? Nah, probably not. I never met a fed with a sense of humor. But neither a gorilla with the demeanor of a fed. I never learned for certain what the gorilla was all about.
* * *
They seated me in the back of their nondescript four-door sedan, caged off from the front seat, my arms handcuffed behind me. I told them the cuffs were unnecessary, but they were having none of that. There were two feds in the front, one a female. We were on our way to DEA headquarters in San Francisco. They had nothing to say to me, engaging only in boring chit-chat between themselves like morning commuters on their way to the office, indeed, exactly what they were. Two other feds who had come into the house with them were in a separate car. I think I actually invited them in, but they could have simply walked in at their own invitation. I was too shell-shocked and scattered to have my wits about me. They took some liberties looking around while I finished dressing and washing up, one of them keeping an eye on me. The lead fed, playing the friendly sort, told me he liked the western-style cabinets in my kitchen, giving me a momentary start. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were likely looking for something that would give them cause for a search warrant.
Four feds to arrest one guy. They could have called, told me they had a warrant for my arrest, and I would have turned myself in. Not much fun for the feds, though, and it would remove the possibility of finding an excuse for a search warrant during the arrest. They looked hard, but didn't have the fortune with me that they had with Bump. During Bump's arrest, a challenging fed said something to him about being a lucky man that they didn't have a search warrant. Bump's cocky response was, ..”.you wouldn't find anything but a little grass,” which gave them cause to search for it, coming up with a scale and some sandwich baggies they could parade in front of a jury, obviously the accoutrements of a drug dealer. Laboratory analysis would find minute cocaine residue on the scale.
The crush of morning commute traffic surrounded us as we inched our way to the Bay Bridge toll plaza. My mind was a whirl of thoughts and pictures. I was trying to concentrate on how to be ready for them, their questions or some sort of interrogation, but Oliver Hardy kept popping up in my thoughts, angry and scolding: “Now you've done it! A fine kettle of fish you've gotten us into this time!” He wasn't talking to Stanley.
I took a deep breath and chased Ollie from my mind, only to be replaced by thoughts and images of my former life. I saw the family home in Kensington and the high school in El Cerrito. I tried not to think about mom or my proud and loving children. There were visions of dad's auto business where I had been a parts and service technician, then the dealer and manager after dad was gone, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a tragic hunting accident.
I wouldn't be here now if dad was still around.
I envisioned the “Factory” where I'd come to work for Creedence Clearwater Revival as they realized their dreams, climbing with them to the top of the mountain.
I'd rather be on the road with the boys right now, all things considered.
I pictured John Fogerty for whom I had worked during the years following Creedence, and his music played in my head. I admired John like few others, throughout the years we were associated.
I wouldn't be here now if John was still the John who needed me.
But he wasn't. And here I am.