In 2001, I spent more than a year enduring the empty space of a Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). At the time it was the greatest mental challenge I had ever faced. It was surreal to now find myself back in the SHU. A different prison, a different decade -- but not one thing in that cell felt any different. It had the same cold air, lights that never extinguish and, of course, four walls that slowly close in on you.
I don't care how tough you think you are... the SHU is tougher and you can't fight it. Fighting will get you to break faster. The only thing to do is find your balance--it’s truly an exercise in Zen. I walked the length of the cell then the width and took a mental note of the number of steps -- a little sanity insurance to help ground me in reality when those walls started moving in.
I wondered if I had any company. I got down on the floor and positioned myself near the east vent and called to the cell next door. Nothing. I repositioned myself on the west wall and called out. Again nothing. But I knew someone was there. As the Marshalls positioned me against the wall just prior to my cell entry, I had seen a face in the small window looking out at me. Our eyes met briefly in that quick glance. Maybe he was sleeping. Maybe he was a psych patient. Maybe he was here for his own protection. Whoever it was it didn't really matter. It could wait till morning. Neither one of us was going anywhere.
I felt tired to the bone. A few weeks prior I had gotten a message an indictment was on its way. Anticipation made sleep light and hard to come by. Now that the indictment had been delivered I knew what I was dealing with and it was time to catch up on some much needed rest. As my body searched for a comfortable position on the cold hard mattress I stared up at the many names and dates scraped into the steel bed frame above me. As my eyes searched for meaning or message in the strange hieroglyphics, I wondered if there were any stories from past tenants to decipher. The symbols began to overlap and dance then finally I drifted off into a heavy sleep.
I didn’t sleep long, my rest interrupted by a strange, unfamiliar noise. It was an exercise cadence that would soon become familiar to me. It would take place early every morning, called out in unison from five adjoining cells to the West. Loud Spanish that would echo out of the cells and down the empty hall. I would find out later these guys were from the Nuestra Familia, arch rivals to the Surenos who dominated the downtown facility. These guys were in the SHU for their own protection -- not their choice but administered segregation from the facility. I’ve seen these modern gladiators fight it out in a prison yard -- both sides valiant warriors. It was none of my business but keeping them apart was probably a good idea for everyone involved.
My neighbor never uttered a single word to me. An act of caution -- for all he knew I could be the enemy. So much for passing time through conversation.
The early morning passed and I could hear the wheels of the food cart making its way down the hall. Food slots dropped open and trays were passed into the cells. Breakfast. I picked at the tray -- sticking to the protein and staying away from the sugars. I needed to stay healthy and grounded. What I ate didn't fill me up but I knew it would keep me going till lunch. As the guard picked up the tray he informed me the Lieutenant was making his rounds and to sit tight.
Soon I could hear someone making his way from cell to cell. A long pause at each window for a quick inspection and inventory of each tiny room. The steps I heard were light but firm, centered, grounded, confident and now they were outside my door. After a quick glance through the small window the Lieutenant inserted the oversize brass key into the steel lock keyhole and the door to my cell rolled open.
The Lieutenant was a 6' tall, lean, capable looking black man. A no-nonsense old school guy who had made his way up the ranks with hard work and street smarts. I sensed nothing had scared this man for many years. He pointed at the small steel desk at the far end of my cell and I took a seat on the table top. This cell visit was off to an unusual start. Typically, conversations in the SHU equal you hunching down at the door slot talking to a face you can barely see through the small hole.
"Well, Mr. Christie, I understand you want to talk to me. What's this I hear? You’ve just arrived and already you don't like the accommodations we’ve arranged for you?” The Lieutenant opened the conversation with a deep voice and a hint of humor.
I replied, “Well, there is really no reason for me to be here in the SHU.”
“It wasn't our idea." He explained. "The FBI requested you be housed in the SHU and it is our standard protocol to follow the recommendations made by outside agencies."
I stressed to the Lieutenant it was unnecessary and that I would fight it and, again, reiterated that I wanted to be moved into the general population. This isolation was unwarranted. He told me not to get myself into a twist... that he would talk to the warden and she would make the final decision.
“I guess with your 1986 inmate number you won’t have any problems with the youngsters, no one will bother an old timer like you.” He said and as our conversation had come to a close, he added “I'm here all weekend if you need anything.” Both of us laughed as he exited. The door rolled shut with a loud bang and once again I was alone with my thoughts.
1986. My mind ran back to that year when I was arrested for a murder that never happened and a crime I never committed. I took that case all the way to trial and was declared not guilty. It had cost me a lot including a year of my life in a federal prison. I was in my late thirties then. Now, almost three decades later, in my mid sixties, once again I was inmate 84677-012.
I watched my co-defendants waiting patiently for their bail paperwork. You could feel their excitement and relief. As for me, the Marshals marched me right back to the holding cells. The older Marshal said "Tough break Christie" - the only words exchanged. As they put me back in the cell the same older Marshal told me he would try to speed things up. I just nodded feeling a little overwhelmed.
A lot of things were running through my mind and I was analyzing the scenario. Clearly I was a target here. On the docket was an unresolved crime from 2007 that hadn’t received much previous attention -- the botched firebombing of two tattoo shops. Oh how I fantasized about telling the Magistrate "Your Honor, it’s obvious I wasn't involved, the job was sloppy and the buildings are still standing!!" I laughed aloud as I gave that thought a moment's play then quickly swept it out of my head. There was no room for humor here. I needed to get mentally organized and manage my thoughts carefully. As a leader you need order then you need vision. My vision was freedom. I could see it but I was still a long way from feeling it.
Footsteps against the cement floor brought me out of my daydream. Not the same rhythm as before, this was a young stride, fast and light in movement. “Christie! Attorney visit!” echoed off the walls. The young Marshal now escorting me was in his prime -- fit, funny and full of conversation. “Your buddies are just about out of here. Maybe your attorney has some good news. Is this one of those million dollar Beverly Hills Attorneys?” I just laughed as we approached the cluster of small glass cubicles. My laugh empty as the many small glass boxes divided by a sheet of clear plexiglas, a phone on either side. I asked the Marshall how long I had. “All night if you want” he replied. One last laugh and he was on his way.
I was now locked in a transparent square--waiting. Waiting is one thing you better get used to quickly in jail. Time is no longer yours. You have absolutely no dominion or control of your physical presence. If you let this affect you and your command of your senses you will quickly find yourself in a downward black spiral from which many never recover.
More footsteps. This time the sounds were street dress shoes. I could hear the leather soles scraping ever so lightly against the cement. It sounded like an old, tired soft shoe dance routine. It was my court-appointed Lawyer. He looked like he was on the far side of seventy. I wondered how many more miles this old warrior had left in him.
I always use a formula I have developed to evaluate attorneys -- for myself or for my clients -- this gentleman was getting high marks. As we moved the conversation forward it drifted into the very limited details about my charges that we had at that point in time. He identified the first collaborator by name and we, for security reasons, tagged him Informant # 1. Sure I knew him, a former member who had been forced to resign under pressure. “Were we close?” was his next question. He pressed on “Do we need to concern ourselves with possible taped conversations?” “Close? No, not by any means” I assured him. "In fact" I told him "I had warned the entire chapter to stand down when the subject of tattoo shops had come up on more than one occasion." He diligently took notes and within the hour his yellow legal pad was filled with fragmented sentences connected by circles and arrows only he would be able to decipher. The time had breezed by and as he looked at his weathered Timex I knew it was time for him go.
He had passed my initial evaluation and I would soon find out he had plenty more miles in him. Together with my daughter, Moriya, they would wage a war against the most powerful government in the world. This was no million dollar attorney but the legal team they put together would have made any million dollar attorney proud. For the next three years we went after the indictment like a Navy Seal team on a search and destroy mission.
Within minutes I was once again being escorted by two very sturdy looking U.S. Marshals as we wound our way through unfamiliar halls that would lead me to my final destination -- the main housing unit for all prisoners. The steel door echoed, metal on metal, as it rolled open. A sound quickly familiar and one you never want to get used to. They marched me to the end of the line -- the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit), more famously known to the outside world as solitary confinement.
If there is a hell on this earth it’s certainly the SHU. I protested this was an unnecessary measure. The Marshals said “Orders are orders but we will tell the Lieutenant you want to be moved to general population.” The door rolled open and I entered. I didn't bother to turn around. I stood in silence as I heard the steel wheels start rolling and waited for the deep clang of metal as the door locks hooked... the sound bouncing off the walls of my inner sanctum. Keys banged against the rectangular door slot and with a quick twist it opened with just enough room for a food tray or for hands cuffed from behind to be squeezed through. “You know the drill Christie” yelled one of the guards. I stooped down to me knees and shoved my hands through the slot, all in one smooth motion. As I presented my wrists to have my cuffs removed I grimly noted my muscle memory was still in place from my last 12 month stint in an SHU unit.
Anyone that's ever had to wear a set of cuffs for an extended length of time knows this feeling. For those of you who have never had this experience, let me take you there. When the cuffs are placed on your wrists you pray they set the double locks. If they don’t, the steel circles continue to close in diameter as you fidget and shift your wrists in an effort to get the steel off your wrist bones. The more you try to manipulate your hands to find comfort, the deeper into the skin they cut. It becomes a real exercise in both mental and physical discipline to keep your hands and wrist stationary. In the end, double locked or not, the cuffs cut deeply into your skin preventing blood flow. Eventually your hands go numb.
The cuffs were removed and I dropped my hands to my sides to return blood flow as I opened and closed both hands in rapid movement -- bringing them back to life. At first they burned as the blood returned. Then the white circles, the imprints of the jaws of the cuffs, began to disappear and feeling began to return to my now free hands.
I turned to protest one last time “I belong in general population”. The Marshall responded it was up to the Lieutenant. As they began to walk away, one of the guards looked back over his shoulder and said “You should have been here last week Christie! You just missed Whitey Bulger”.
There are limits, even in the world of Outlaws. Or so I thought.
Many things have opened my eyes as I journey through this new century. Every mid-September I pause to remember watching the twin towers collapse from acts of cowards. I have seen something else crumbling too -- the outlaw motorcycle culture, a world I had called home since 1966.
As many of you may know, my family has been trying to come to terms with the loss of my son, George Christie III, who passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago. It has hit me and my oldest daughter, Moriya, hard…The depth of the loss is indescribable and, frankly, inconsolable.
In the midst of our grief we have discovered Georgie's FXRS Harley Davidson is missing. The motorcycle was a gift I bought him the day he graduated from high school. Although he would have never said it outright, the fact that he has kept it all these years tells me it held a very special place in his heart. And it held a very special place in mine. I can still see his face and hear his words on the day I gave it to him. "Thanks Pops" he said, as he looked into my eyes and smiled, showing how much he really meant it.
Fast forward, twenty years later -- Georgie dies unexpectedly and the motorcycle has disappeared. I have been asking myself these questions...
What kind of men would steal my dead son’s motorcycle?
What thoughts dwell in their perverse conscious?
How do they justify their dark act?
Are they men with torn moral fiber?
Or have they always been cowards, flying a false flag of brotherhood and honor?
Have they lived in duplicity so long they can no longer distinguish right from wrong?
How do they justify their actions?
How can they live with themselves, their hearts dark and ugly?
How long will it be before they turn on each other?
And now I ask you...
What has happened to the outlaws? Is there no longer honor among thieves?
“I’ll take my chances”
The words I had just spoke reverberated around the room and bounced off the cold hard floor. My cuffs were returned to the back position and my cup of unfinished coffee was tossed in the trash. Clearly this was not the response the agents were looking for.
I was ushered to a waiting van and buckled in, then we were off. I didn't ask where we were headed. I learned long ago too many questions could be interpreted as panic or, worse, fear. I knew in all likelihood we would be at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles in less than a hour. The conversation was dry and lean as we spent the next hour heading south on the 101 freeway, sizing each other up.
I had made this trip back in 1986 and now, almost 3 decades later, it didn't feel much different... or better. Back then, I had not only beat the two agents at their own game with a jury trial and an acquittal but had outlasted them. Hell, they were just retiring and I was just getting started.
This time it was different. I had children older than the agents that had just arrested me. They were both young and fit and they were smart… but they had already made their first mistake... they had made this arrest personal. They were also building the foundation of their case on grand jury testimony from a Hells Angels club member who had been recently forced out of the club -- a man willing to tell them anything to extract him from his judicial responsibility. Before this case would be over the number of informants would grow as the wheels of justice slowly turned.
The sun was now hanging high in the morning sky and as the van dropped into the underground entrance, it felt as if we had entered a giant hungry mouth -- this tunnel into the belly of government. The sun was replaced by artificial light as the government swallowed me whole. One of the agents made a last overture as I was handed over to the US Marshalls -- “You’d better watch your back Christie.”
I didn't respond. It was focus time -- time to lawyer up and dig in. The Marshals threw a sack lunch at me and put me in a single man holding cell. After a short period of time the booking process began -- my number and file had survived from my 1986 arrest -- so things moved quickly. All there was to do was wait for the afternoon court calendar to start.
Anyone who has waited for serious charges against them to be read in an open court understands it’s a lot of pressure. Each second is painfully slow. Eventually time does pass. The sound of boots against a cement floor and a jingle of large brass keys signalled the Marshall’s return - it was time. Soon I was winding my way through the maze of corridors being led to a waiting magistrate.
As I walked in I was surprised to see four individuals in the court area… four faces I was not expecting and who, I would soon discover, would be my co-defendants in a six count indictment that could put me in federal prison for up to 120 years. More about that next time.
We all marched up and were placed inline in front of the magistrate. Reasonable bails were set for each one of my co-defendants -- not a word of opposition from the government. That ended when my name was called. The US Attorney’s approach was clear -- no opposition on the other bails to ensure he could hang it all on me.
My attorneys, one being my oldest daughter Moriya, put up a valiant argument. After both sides fired volley after volley, the judge ruled and bail was set at $200,000. It was the first time my bail had come in under a million dollars. I was ecstatic. I would be out and back to my wife and son by sundown.
The US Attorney would not give up so easily. He pleaded with the court that the judge had no idea what he was releasing back into society. He insisted the government would appeal and he moved for a temporary hold. The judge stated to me that he had no choice under the circumstances and he would rather err on the side of caution. A temporary hold was placed on my bail.
It was a dirty move but not surprising. At this point I had no idea when I would be able to see my family again.
Next week… betrayal rears its ugly head.