by Jake Rohrer, December 18, 2013
Attorneys representing fellow defendants in companion conspiracy cases, all of them launched by the informancy (a new word I just made up: informancy, n. a period of time during which one acts as an informant) of Stephen Green, urged that I hire Tony Serra. They hinted that it would be my good fortune, indeed, should he agree to defend me. I knew next to nothing about Tony Serra or criminal law. My lessons were about to begin.
Tony Serra was a fascinating individual and I liked him right away. He was highly principled and his reputation as a fierce opponent in the courtroom was widely held. He was eager to defend the underdog and those subject to racial injustice. I didn't consider myself qualifying as either, but I soon learned that almost anyone whose opponent happened to be “The United States of America” qualified as an underdog. All of his skills and admirable values, however, may have presented an intellectual enigma to the jury of sheep selected to decide our case. When later polled, many thought I was guilty because I hired an “expensive” attorney like Serra. Tony's fees were in fact considerably less than other attorneys involved at the trial stage. He just loomed larger than most in the courtroom.
If Tony presented an enigma to the jurors, he presented something of a different nature to Federal Judge Robert Schnacke. He didn't like Tony Serra, his pony-tail, his courtroom demeanor, his rapier-like undoing of prosecution witnesses. Or the way he dressed—a little too bohemian, barely meeting bench standards. The required necktie looked out of place on Tony. Although Tony didn't like Schnacke either, he respected his intellect. He was always polite in his discourse with the judge, but sometimes seemed to hold himself aloof from the court as though refusing to kowtow to silly rules and overbearing authority. Everything about Tony that might have offended the judge, I admired. When Tony presented his closing argument, the courtroom was packed, not with people who cared about me or my co-defendant, rather, with lawyers, there to hear Tony argue. His best efforts notwithstanding, the jury voted to convict.
On pronouncing sentence, Schnacke's furious vent and judgment thundered into me, rocking me back on my heels. I felt I was getting the brunt of his dislike for Tony, certainly in the maximum sentence he handed down following Tony's eloquent plea for probation. I vowed then and there I would one day find Schnacke's grave and have a good, voluminous piss on it. My need to escape his wrath and judgment was such that I slipped away into daydream, picturing myself in some graveyard with a full bladder, lurking behind trees while I searched for the headstone with that strange Germanic name engraved on it. It was a vow I was later to recant.
“Bail on appeal is denied,” roared Schnacke.
“Could you at least recommend a camp setting?” pleaded Tony.
“I prefer to leave that to the Bureau of Prisons,” huffed Schnake, unwilling to concede the slightest crumb to Tony or me.
I sensed I was about to be remanded to custody and trundled off by US Marshals but was struck by total surprise when Schnacke granted me two weeks of freedom to get my affairs in order before self-surrender to prison authorities. I was not viewed as a flight risk, although I gave it some brief thought before rejecting any such idea as foolhardy.
In the two weeks granted I replaced Tony with Doron Weinberg, a skilled appellate attorney of lofty intellect, greatly respected throughout the legal community. Doron was more to the Judge's liking. Just like magic, he reversed himself and bail on appeal was granted. As a result I spent nearly two years, rather than two weeks, getting my affairs in order, recklessly hustling more cocaine to pay legal expenses and putting together some cash to see my family through what I knew would be a long hard winter.
The finest hour during my entire ordeal with the feds came when I learned that the elderly and priggish Judge Schnacke had been rounded up in a vice squad raid on a Mitchell Brothers porn theater in San Francisco, creating scandalous headlines. Both the DA and the defense attorneys wanted the judge as a witness for their cases and he hired my lawyer, Doron Weinberg, to get him out of this embarrassing public spotlight. My delight at the judge's public shaming was immeasurable. There you go, your honor, what goes around comes around. Even when the man who prosecuted me, Eric Swenson, some years later was caught criminally tainting evidence against some Chinese heroin smugglers and drummed out of office (most thought he should have been jailed), I felt no glee at his censure. He had spared me the piety of his office, suggesting only that a maximum sentence would send a message to the criminal element. That, of course, was bullshit. The real message, aimed at those awaiting their turn in the same conspiracy, was this: you'd better not waste our time with a trial unless you, too, would like a maximum sentence. My role as first to come to trial was that of sacrificial cow.
* * *
The great majority of evidence presented against me at trial consisted of the testimony of one time associate-turned-informant, Stephen J. Green, engaged in the process of saving his own skin. I hadn't been caught doing anything—I'd been told on. It wasn't a victim providing testimony. It was instead the man said to be at the top of the conspiracy, a major trafficker, caught red-handed and sentenced to 20 years. The feds were giving him his freedom for informing on his associates, prosecuting those farther down the ladder. Tony said it hadn't been done before. Imagine Bernard Madoff going free while prosecuting his lieutenants. That of course didn't make me any less culpable, but it might anger the jury enough to turn the table on the government's case if we could get them to understand that others would be serving far more prison time than the informant, rules against such disclosure notwithstanding.
Not a chance. When later polled, all were aghast at learning my prison time would grossly exceed that of the informant who would serve only about 18 months of his 20-year sentence, most of it in tight security helping the government build their case. But the jury got it right. I was guilty as hell, and rather than own up to the feds, I insisted on doing things the hard way.
* * *
Stephen Green. In all fairness, what can I say about him? He was smart and had an outgoing, even charismatic, personality. He walked his walk with a lot of bluster, like an aggressive salesman enamored with his product. He was small in physical stature, but we called him “Mr. Big” for his purported successes and connections. When members of our fraternal brotherhood of drug dealers—we “spice merchants” if you will—talked about “holding your mud” (maintaining silence) if you happened to be arrested, Green's voice was the loudest. Among his associates he assumed the strut of a general.
He liked to host lavish parties, once renting facilities at an upscale Napa Valley winery where his guests arrived at the dinning room in gondolas, like a ski-lift delivering passengers to a chalet. It was supposed to be a classy affair, the sampling of fine wines with a catered dinner, a lot of canapes and tete-a-tete, Green playing the role of an aristocratic and generous host. He was doing his best to establish a legitimate persona at the winery and had asked his guests, ..”.no drugs, please.”
But the room was filled with his friends and associates, cocaine distributors, dealers, smugglers and users. Once everyone was a little looped on the wine, out came the coke. My brother, Robbin, started things off, pouring out about half an ounce of high-end cocaine onto a saucer that got passed around the tables. Others followed suit, revelers snorting up line after line of pure cocaine with great flourish through rolled-up hundred dollar bills, indeed...C notes. Consumption was open and obvious, spiraling out of control by a like-minded gathering of criminals who had no thoughts of hiding their activities among themselves. The dinning room staff became anxious and alarmed. Green did his best to calm them and continue his masquerade as the legitimately wealthy host, but it was too late. Any fool could see that Green's carefully choreographed propriety had been swallowed up by a room filled with swaggering, coke-sniffing pirates.
Green didn't choose his role as informant out of love of country, nor did the feds wire his genitals with electric current to force confession. He was a self-serving braggart of a man and he used his illegitimate wealth to prove his place in the world—somewhere above the likes of you or me. He had a Ferrari to play with when he tired of his Porsche and a San Francisco penthouse staffed with a butler, there to answer his door, polish his shoes and dust his wine cellar. He would strut and preen while articulating the code of the honorable outlaw, taking your own medicine while maintaining silence in the face of adversity. He pointed derisively at others who he claimed would “turn rat” at the drop of a badge. He was also a racist, particularly anti-black, paranoid of finding himself in the company of colored people. “That place is nigger heaven,” he would say of certain clubs and restaurants, refusing to patronize them.
In the press Green excused his turning informant by claiming that he just couldn't leave his newly born daughter without a father. It was okay, though, if his friends and associates got separated from their families. More to the point, I would venture that he probably found being jailed among tough, feral and barbaric criminals, many of them black, his worst nightmare, and would have sold his soul or his daughter to be elsewhere.
Recalling my intention to be fair, now that I've thoroughly gutted, dressed, and trussed Mr. Green, it must be asked: who was the fool who trusted and did business with such a man? Does lack of appetite for toys and showy trappings make me a better man? No, just a different man, who engaged in many of the same crimes as did Green, save the distasteful crime of informing on friends, associates and family solely for personal benefit.
* * *
It did not sit well with me that the feds were proposing to let Green go free, trading him for people who were at least unpretentious and honorable, cocaine merchants nonetheless. It was I, of course, who was on the trading block, coloring somewhat my personal view of events. Giving the feds their due, I admit they got ten for one, even if the one, whose confinement was exchanged for the freedom of the others, was the least deserving of the lot. Throughout it all, nothing whatsoever was accomplished that put the slightest dent in the runaway-train drug trade, but the industry that thrives on policing drugs was provided with a heaping helping of new fodder.
My anger at Green and the feds, accompanied by a fear of what might lie ahead, served as brush and canvas. With such tools at hand I proceeded to paint myself a victim, able now to wallow in some self pity about what I looked upon as the unfairness of it all. I chose to ignore what was right in front of me, and pushed aside the obvious: my “karma” had arrived, its momentum irrevocable.
* * *
No doubt persuaded by media and public image, I grew up believing that the feds were always the “good guys,” people of strong moral character who always played hard, but played fair. Then I learned first hand that to expect Federal authorities to always play by the rules is to be naive. No different than most, the feds will break the rules any time they think they can get away with it, no penalty if the ref doesn't see it.
While I was washing up and getting dressed on the morning of my arrest, the arresting feds had a go at my personal documents and desk drawers. I came from the bedroom to find DEA agents frantically riffling the contents of my desk, thinking they would be unobserved. They quit, red-faced, when I asked if they had a search warrant. Thanks in large part to Big Dog, they wouldn't have found diddly-squat, but the attempt was an affront. They were given free rein in my home and they behaved shabbily. Imagine that, the dope dealer calling “bad manners” on the feds who were in the act of arresting him. But I was too fucking scared to strut about it...until just now.
Later, during my trial, FBI agents harassed and threatened a witness who was to appear on my behalf, afraid she would destroy the credibility of her brother who was scheduled to testify for the prosecution. I thought it thug behavior. Her presence had been unearthed in another state by private investigators from my team, billing me $175 hourly for their services. She represented an unhappy surprise for the prosecution.
A criminal trial often takes on the fervor of a heated chess match. Each side postured and moved their pieces warily within the ever-changing landscape of the game. Insults were traded, like in a nasty election campaign. The jury looked on, unaware they were the pawns. The Judge ruled over both sides like the all-powerful queen, able to move in any direction he saw fit. Justice and our constitution were represented by the slow-moving king, the ultimate object of capture. Prosecutors and defense lawyers were themselves the knights, bishops and rooks who battle it out in the trenches aided by their minions and seconds, the investigators and expert witnesses. Watching from the gallery, I was the accused, a eunuch of the court, flaccid and speechless, powerless save for my pocketbook used to purchase the services of my champions. The informant a knave, seeking to better his circumstance at any cost.
“Buffalo,” the fellow whose sister was harassed, was at one time a distant friend, closer to my brother and some of his associates, but who could nonetheless provide some damaging testimony about me. Attempting to establish himself in the drug trade, Buffalo found himself on the wrong side of some bad hombres in a drug deal turned sour. He had reason to believe they were out to kill him. Broke and with no place left to turn, he went to the DEA and made his deal with the devil: he sold himself as an informant. Although we had nothing at all to do with his problems, he tried to impress the DEA with the magnitude of the secrets he possessed, and told them a lot of grossly exaggerated bullshit about me and my brother (we were supplied with copies of his debriefing in discovery). It was laughable until you thought about who he was telling it to.
Late in my trial, the prosecution maneuvered one move ahead of my team who failed to see it coming. After Buffalo testified, Tony thought he had “stiffed” the prosecution, testifying only that I had at one time given him a him a small, unspecified amount of cocaine I had called “Baked Alaska.” Not a word was said about any real transactions. We were concerned that Buffalo might do our side some damage. As it turned out the damage was hidden, even to Buffalo who obviously didn't want to testify against me. But it proved to be the opening that the prosecution needed. They were then able to establish as fact that Buffalo and Stephen Green didn't know each other, had never met or spoken to one another. Buffalo had unknowingly corroborated Stephen Green's testimony, confirming for the jury that I had christened a particular load of Green's cocaine “Baked Alaska.” Checkmate. It was a key point for the jury when they voted for my conviction. They didn't like Stephen Green. No one did. But now they had something to hang their hats on. Buffalo had given them reason to believe Green's testimony.
When he was done, Buffalo sauntered by the table where I was seated and gave me a knowing glance, as though to say, “…See, brother? I wouldn't do you no harm.”
* * *
Once incarcerated, my fears, anger and sense of unfairness gradually softened and melted away, replaced by understanding and an acceptance of responsibility. I became embarrassed by what had been my mindset as a victim. Mine were just desserts, “Baked Alaska” at the top of the menu. I knew also, without a doubt, my status as prisoner was a better place than Green's version of freedom. I had also learned, yet again the hard way, the only person on whom I could place blame for my circumstance, or from whom I might seek vengeance, was standing in my own shoes. Green is forgiven, at least by me. In the long run, we mostly get what we have coming. No one outdistances his own karma.