Danny heard himself tell Ernie he would be back to pick up the prescriptions in 15 minutes. He felt oddly removed and didn’t recognize the sound of his own voice. The emotions of the day had taken their toll and and he was no longer thinking logically.
At the prescription counter, Ernie calculated how much it would cost for the cocktail of pills needed to stabilize Georgia while Danny made his way down the aisle closest to the exit. It was almost Halloween and the aisle was filled with cases of soda pop, bright Halloween candy and costumes.
Danny stopped short of the exit, turned around and grabbed one of the masks from a bin at the end of the Halloween aisle. If Danny had paused to look he would have seen the mask had the face of a monster, a perfect metaphor for what was about to take place. But he didn't look. He didn’t care. He just had to keep moving forward. He walked out the Save Rite exit and straight for the car.
Danny made the short drive to Cattleman's First Bank and made a quick pass around it. He wasn't sure why but he had seen it once in a old gangster movie. He parked in the empty front lot in a spot just down from the entrance.
He opened the glove box, found a scrap of paper then grabbed the pen clipped to the sun visor. Quickly Danny scribbled out his demand note. He sat quietly in thought for a moment and took a deep breath. He placed the Halloween mask on his head as if it was a hat, grabbed an old soiled cloth bag from under the driver’s seat and exited the vehicle. He briskly walked through the front doors.
Danny avoided eye contact as he strode into the bank. As he approached the teller’s window he dropped his mask into position. Wearing the face of a monster Danny, handed the teller the note and then the bag. The note was short and to the point.
I AM DESPERATE HUNDREDS ONLY
The teller reacted quickly. She packed the bag as fast as she could and pushed it back to the monster facing her. Danny turned quickly on his heels and with his back to the teller he pushed the mask back up on his head and walked as fast as he could to his waiting car, the engine still running.
Danny’s mind was working hard to assure him that everything would work out just fine. He would stroll right back into the Save Rite and find his mother, still shopping. They would pick up her prescriptions and she would never know he had been gone. She would be his alibi if he was ever questioned.
He was surprised at how calm he felt as he pulled back into the same Save Rite parking space he had left just ten minutes prior. He took a deep breath and opened the bag to grab the money he needed to pay for his mother’s medication. As he peered inside, he heard a loud pop. A dye pack exploded, spraying a red ink-like substance which covered not only the money but the inside of the car and Danny's face and upper body.
Seconds later, red and blue lights surrounded the car. All Danny could hear were sirens then a loud voice was broadcasted from one of the vehicles, “You are surrounded. Step out of the vehicle with your hands on your head.” Danny’s heart sank and the hollow aching feeling in his stomach that was hunger just a few hours prior now spread throughout his body making him numb from head to toe. He looked up and saw everyone in the Save Rite looking at him through the front windows. He quickly looked away -- afraid to see his mother’s face.
Danny had failed. He was now a bank robber and not even a successful one at that. His single bank robbery had earned him a dubious honor usually reserved for successful robber with repeated approaches -- a title from the FBI. That day, in just one afternoon, Danny became "The Dye Pack Bandit." The media ate it up and the next morning’s headline read:
DYE PACK BANDIT CAUGHT RED HANDED
The local police held Danny in custody until the FBI took over and presented him before a federal judge. Despite his momentary lapse of judgement and ensuing misfortune, Danny Petros had some luck coming his way. He drew The Honorable George Wu, who, as the facts unfolded showed leniency toward Danny and sentenced him to just five years. The Judge also requested the Bureau of Prisons place Danny in the federal prison just twenty miles from home so he could remain close to his mother in her final days.
This would be where his mother would be making a courageous last stand.
Chapter 1, continued….
Cassie and Scott listened to the NPR Christmas Eve special as they made their way back to the church. The same music filled the rooms of the small converted house of worship. They emptied the coins into the plastic tub that held the seasons donations. It looked like it had been a good year -- the public was generous. They emptied the rear of the station wagon, replacing the bell ringing stations with two large bags of gifts that would soon brighten up this Christmas Eve for the less fortunate.
They once again joined hands as the car moved forward. Cassie started humming along with the classic Elvis Christmas hit " Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me" and they then both started singing along. Magic did seem to fill the air.
Four years prior, give or take a month, Danny Petros was sitting in a waiting room looking up at the clock and wondering when his mother would be finished with her appointment. He was hungry -- his stomach growled to remind him.
Danny was in his mid-twenties and just under six foot with dark hair and skin -- he was a full blooded Greek and a good son to his parents, George and Georgia Petros. They had been married just shy of fifty years when his father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. His mother, a strong Greek woman, had never learned (nor wanted) to drive. Danny stepped up after his father’s death and became his mother’s driver. He devoted one day each week to attend to his mother’s needs.
Danny’s stomach rumbled again and he wondered why this routine doctor’s visit was taking so long when his mother finally returned to the front office waiting room. Georgia, just shy of sixty, had a classic greek look - short and robust with a dark mediterranean complexion and salt and pepper hair. She looked very pale and thin as she walked into the room and she had a hopeless look on her face, like the one she wore the day George had died. As Danny looked at his mother from across the room he realized her weight loss wasn’t due to one of her fad diets and he sensed that something was seriously wrong.
He didn’t speak until they were in the privacy of the car. “What the hell is going on, Ma?”
“I’m sick. I’ve got stomach cancer.” Georgia replied.
“No. We have to fight this.” Danny. “I can’t lose you too Ma.”
“I will. For you. But no chemo. It sounds terrible.” she said quietly “And Danny, when it's time you have to let me go.”
Danny softly repeated “No, you can’t die. I don't want you to die. I can’t let you die.”
They both sat in silence. Then Georgia reached in her purse and handed the prescription to her only child. The cracking of the crisp paper cut through silence of the car. They pulled into the Save Rite and made their way to the drop off prescription window.
Ernie, the tall lean pharmacist, greeted Georgia and took the prescriptions without looking up. As he pulled them into reading position he turned a pale white. He shifted his lower extremities and braced his body weight against the lower counter shelving. Ernie cleared his throat. “This will take a few minutes Mrs. P. why don’t you take care of your other shopping and stop back by when you’re done.” He said this casually as if he was filling a ibuprofen prescription. He didn’t look up -- he just couldn't.
Finally Ernie’s courage overcame his emotion. He needed to talk to Danny privately - his mind raced as he looked for way to slyly get his attention. Ernie called out, giving his best dramatic performance in years, “Hey Danny! I didn’t see you out there. I finally have that supplement information for you.”
Danny’s mind was overloaded and spinning. All this was happening so fast but his mind felt slow and heavy. After a beat, he caught on and told his Mom to go ahead and start her shopping. He would catch up with her in a few minutes.
Ernie started bluntly “Danny, I’m so sorry. You have a very sick women on your hands.”
“She says she has stomach cancer. How sick is she?” Danny replied.
“I’m no doctor but these drugs are only prescribed for terminally ill patients.” Ernie shifted uncomfortably as he waited for Danny’s reaction.
“How much time does she have?” Danny asked matter of factly.
“I’m sorry. I really don't know. I have already said more than I should.” Ernie said gently. “Danny, do you know what you’re up against? These medications are really expensive and some are not covered by your mother’s insurance.”
“I don't care the cost. I will take care of it. I will get the money to pay for them.” Danny asserted.
Ernie reached out to Danny and put his arm on his shoulder. “Your credit is good here Danny.”
“No, but thank you Ernie. In my family we always pay our own way.” Danny shifted on his heels and said “Just fill them. I’ll run to the bank for the money.”
I wrote this original fictional story as a gift for my family while I was incarcerated in a Texas Prison. Over the month I will be sharing it here, chapter by chapter, as a holiday gift for my readers. I hope you will enjoy it as much as my family has.
Scott glanced at the horizon and watched for a few moments as the low winter sun began its descent. Just the night before, a December storm had dusted the surroundings with a blanket of fine white snow. It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for Christmas.
It was almost time to break down the bell ringing stations. Scott had been ringing bells for charity for five years. During that time he had grown from a boy into a handsome young man. He smiled broadly as he watched his childhood friend Cassie, now a beautiful young woman, ring the bell directly across the street from him. She grinned back.
Cassie had started a year after Scott and, while she was a very generous and charitable person, spending more time with him was the real reason she volunteered. Over the past few years they had been ringing bells together and they had developed a unique alternating style and rhythm as they rang their loud brass bells. Town members noticed and the buzz spread after a public interest piece by the local paper. All the attention made for full donation buckets as well as brand new uniforms -- down to new patent leather black shoes. Although they had never spoke of it, they both admired the other’s new look.
Cassie and Scott admired a lot about each other and the sparks between them had become bright enough for everyone at the Outreach Church to take notice. This was exciting news for the small congregation and the real reason the church elders encouraged them to do all their charity work as a team. They were a good match and led others by their example. Their union would help the church grow.
Cassie and Scott had one more act of charity to perform together before they returned to the church for their congregation’s annual Christmas Eve potluck dinner. Scott doubled parked his Ford station wagon and with the hazards flashing, he walked the few short steps over to Cassie's bell ringing station to help her break it down. As they loaded the stand in the rear portion of the wagon, Scott leaned into Cassie and planted a kiss on her cold check. It was smoother and softer than he ever imagined. She was simply perfect. His heart pounded in his chest as he waited for her response.
Surprised and happy, Cassie said softly, “Merry Christmas Scott.” She looked up at him then quickly looked away. Their eyes were bright and danced nervously together -- wanting to connect but careful not to look at each other for too long. He opened the heavy car door for her and she slid onto the bench seat, leaning away from the door as it he pushed it shut. He slid into the driver’s seat, smiled at her and within seconds they were on their way. He inched his hand across the bench seat to find hers and squeezed it gently. With hands in union, they both knew this was going to be a very special Christmas.
Across town, Georgia Petros languished in her hospice bed as she looked out the window at the picture perfect snowscape. She was lucid today - for the first time this week. Pancreatic cancer had been ravaging Georgia’s body for the past four years -- a venomous hungry snake who was now running out of healthy cells to attack and consume. The doctors didn't know how she kept hanging on -- no one did. The disease was taking its toll and the pain, racking her body for years, had become overbearing.
Months ago, her only son, Danny, asked her to stop the weekly trips to the federal prison. He said he wanted her to preserve her strength. But old school and tough as nails Georgia handled the prison visits just fine. In reality, they had become much harder and more painful for Danny - he couldn’t bear feeling so powerless as he watched her waste away.
As we slowly progressed home through the stop and go holiday weekend traffic, our son Finn grilled me with what seemed like a million questions about what it was like being locked up. He was pretty wound up and I tried to provide him honest answers about a world I hope he never entered while attempting to redirect the conversion at every opportunity. As an autistic child Finn could fixate on one issue and it was obvious this one was causing him a good deal of anxiety and stress. With every failed redirection attempt, Nikki would look into my eyes and we would silently share our concerns. This is an exercise that parents of Autistic children have to learn and it was taking all of the skills we had cultivated over the years to drive the conversation away from that dark subject.
We hit a ringer when he asked me what it would feel like to be home. I answered with one word “Christmas!!” His eyes lit up. Nikki flashed her beautiful smile and picked it up from there and the holidays were now our topic of conversation -- talk of presents, turkey and sparkling lights now filled the car. Before I knew it we had reached our destination -- my Grandfather’s old shoe repair shop on Ventura Avenue. The house I had lived in or around my entire life. Home.
Nikki hit the button and the electronic gate opened. The sound of the electric motor kicked in and steel wheels whined as they slowly and deliberately travelled the tract. What, at most times, had been an annoying sound was now music to my ears. I was home. As Nikki pulled into the driveway she hit the gate button a second time and the gate started its journey back to its closed position, it rattled and rolled then shut with a loud clang. Nikki handed me the key and said “welcome home” with a broad smile and a kiss. The entrance to our home was now the side service entrance to the shoe shop. I inserted the key in the oversize security door, pulled it open and stepped in. I breathed in deeply and looked around. My home -- a home I loved deeply and certainly not a conventional home by any means.
Ventura Avenue used to be the main road into the Ojai Valley and a thriving thoroughfare lined with neatly manicured storefronts -- reflections of the self made men who set up shop there and carved out a living with their hands. As the old timers passed the storefronts died too and the Avenue took on the hard worn look it wears now. My Grandfather’s shop was no different and I let the front of our house go so that it would blend in. They say “you can't judge a book by its cover” and that couldn’t apply more to our home. The unassuming run-down exterior gave no clue to the magnificent space we had created within.
I walked through the house from bottom to top, appreciating every detail. The front of the building, closest to the Avenue, was a fully equipped gym. The old cement floors had been replaced with tongue and groove hardwood and the entire west wall was covered with mirrors making a generous space feel even more massive. The gym was fully equipped -- with two treadmills, a chrome two station Universal weight station and an independent free weight station -- each piece of equipment perfectly placed with plenty of room for a martial arts and yoga classes.
Three steps up led into the massive lounge capped with a vaulted all cedar ceiling and grounded in a plush, heavy pile deep maroon carpet. You could lose your toes it was so deep. Along the North wall was a custom made black showcase that, along with the three remaining walls, displayed over sixty years of my personal history and artifacts. This really was a massive space with plenty of room for the two opposing big screen TVs and the collection of large sofas and plush chairs
At the far side of the room I entered the two story addition I had added to the original structure in 1995. Two steps down took me into a open sunken kitchen with heavy rustic beams supporting the upper floor. Off the dining room, to the left, my former office was now Finn’s room. To the right, my youngest daughter, Aubree’s room. A quick inspection found everything in order. I made the short trip up the stairway to our oversize bedroom. It resembled a New York loft and despite our California king bed and the funky sofa we had, there was plenty of room for a open office and a walk-in closet. As I peered out the French style door that opened to the upper sun deck, I remembered the stern warning to remain in the house. I didn't open the door but almost on cue, the phone rang. “Mr. Christie?”
“Speaking,” I replied.
“What part of staying in your domicile didn't you understand?” I recognized the voice on the other end of the phone as the pre-trial officer who had fitted my ankle bracelet. My immediate impulse was to defend myself and launch a verbal assault on this condensing young women but I held my tongue.
“I have not stepped out of my house since I entered it.” I replied curtly.
“Then we will need to make some adjustments.” She continued. “I would like you to start at the North wall and travel to the South wall, then do the same East to West. Once this is completed I want you go outside and walk the perimeter of your property, then return inside your home and stay there until further notice. Your assigned pretrial officer will contact you early next week. Under no circumstances, with the exception of a medical emergency can you leave your home.” and with that she ended the conversation.
Sobered from the momentary nostalgic buzz of being home and back to the reality of my house arrest, it was clear my moments were being closely monitored as I casually roamed about my house. It was a harsh reminder was no longer in charge of my time and space. I was home but I was still in custody -- stripped of my rights and my dignity. As I contemplated the situation a formidable consideration crossed my mind -- house arrest, around since the 1600s, was often used by authoritarian governments against political dissidents.
That night (and many afterward) I was unable to sleep and as I sat watching the minutes pass in the dim lights of my living room, I couldn't help wonder if this is where we were heading as a country. This country that I have served and will continue to serve to the best of my ability. In the stillness of the moment and after everything I had been through over the years it was certainly food for thought. But for now, I was home - just in time for the holidays.
Over the next four weeks I will be sharing a Holiday story I wrote as a gift to my family as I prepared to leave for a Texas prison in 2013. I can’t wait to share it with you and hope you will all enjoy it. It's a fiction story filled with personal experiences. Afterward, on December 27th, I will get back to telling my personal story.
All my best -- George
Though we knew we had an extraordinarily long road ahead of us, our team huddled together to celebrate this momentary victory and key milestone. I looked over at the Government table and could see they weren’t enjoying their sour grapes. As they bitterly grumbled between themselves I overheard murmurings of an appeal to the ninth circuit. But that didn’t matter in this moment. We had won the day and it was time to celebrate and take our victory lap.
As I was marched out of the Courtroom by the Marshals they were debating whether to take me back upstairs to my unit or to take me to receiving and release. The older Marshal overruled his younger colleagues who thought I wouldn’t be making the bail release today. He stated in a matter of fact way “I’m betting he walks out of here tonight.”
I asked jokingly if the stakes were donuts. They all laughed as the old timer said “Now Christie, I think you may have us confused with street cops.”
Then he asked me if I had anything to retrieve from my cell. “No, nothing” I responded, “If I never see that place again it will be too soon.”
“R &R it is” was his reply to me. And with that I was escorted to one of the many holding cells in the Receiving and Release department for more waiting. It late Friday afternoon of Labour Day weekend. We were working against the clock to get me home. If the release paperwork stalled I would have to sit the long weekend out in custody.
Unknown to me at the time, there was somebody on my side that wasn’t going to let that happen -- my wife, Nikki Nicoletto-Christie. As I learned from Nikki later, during the proceedings, as she had handed my passport to the Clerk, Nikki asked her “What do I have to do to take my husband home with me?”
The clerk, likely happy to get some help moving the paperwork along, told Nikki, in a women to women manner, “If you hand deliver these forms to each department, I will do everything in my power to send your man home with you.”
For the next several hours everyone got to see the true colors of the woman I trusted and loved -- the qualities that she brought to our marriage and family every day for the last 15 years. With her steadfast commitment, will and sheer determination she raced the clock as she worked her way from department to department.
As I waited the holding cell, time slowed and it seemed like I had been waiting an eternity. Then, in the distance I could hear heavy boots against the cement along with the rhythm of keys, getting louder with each step. It was the moment of truth. My fears crept in and my imagination ran as I heard a second set of footsteps -- ones that were much lighter. My spirits dropped and a wave of panic and disappointment washed over me. “There are two people. That has to mean I'm am going upstairs.”
I immediately checked myself with a curt silent comment "Come on Marine!! What's a couple more days?” I breathed deeply and my calm returned.
The two sets of footsteps stopped at my cell and as I looked up at their owners my spirits soared. Standing next to the Marshal was a young lady I had never seen before and in her hand my ticket to home -- a black ankle bracelet. As the cell was opened she let me know who was in charge.
As she positioned herself in front of me on one knee, she pointed and focused on my left leg. As I extended it she placed the home detention device around my ankle. She was careful to ensure it was not uncomfortable but tight enough so that the only possible way to remove it would be by cutting. A break to the 360° continuity would trigger a battery of bells and whistles at the pre-trial service office who had dedicated resources monitoring and tracking home detentions 24x7x365.
“Okay, listen up I only going to go through this once.” Without looking up she started barking out the rules as she handed me a charging device.
“You will be released soon. You will enter the vessel that will return you home.”
“You will go straight home.”
“If your vehicle stops for food or gas you will remain in the car. I suggest use the bathroom now so there is no confusion.”
“You will enter your domicile and not exit it, that includes the yard. Stay inside -- you have a no exception rule!”
“You will charge every twelve hours -- if you don't charge your bracelet you will receive a tone accompanied by a red light. When this happens, you must stop what you’re doing and charge.”
“If your device is not charged you will be in violation. We will send marshals and they will return you to custody.”
“Monday morning your pre-trial service officer will call you. Make sure you answer your phone.”
“Any questions? I nodded my head.
“No? Okay, good luck.”
With that she rose turned and marched out of the cell leaving me and the young marshal alone. He looked at me with a big smile on his face and said "Jesus Christ Christie, what did you get yourself into?” We both laughed.
After a quick change into my street clothes, I was led to the door that put me into the Courthouse hall and into the arms of my waiting family. A feeling of relief washed over me. At the same time I was almost overwhelmed by the staggering shift of being in a state of heightened alert and trusting no one to being surrounded by those I loved and trusted implicitly.
As a man, as a leader, it is your duty to show strength to your family -- as an example and a foundation for them. In that moment I realized that they were also my foundation -- and there for me to build and renew my strength. Over the next two years I would learn more lessons here - ones that no book can teach.
After our reunion, as we made our way through endless corridors, Nikki filled me on the tale of her afternoon adventure. We walked through the oversized front Courthouse entrance and into the crowded streets of Los Angeles. Anyone that has spent any time behind bars knows what a rush it can be walking out and into freedom -- it’s like you are a child and your birthday and Christmas morning have been rolled into one.
I enjoyed that moment knowing that the drawbacks would come. The world and it’s harsh realities can come at you like a hard wind and I knew this was just the first round in a long hard battle. The Government abandoned their bail appeal. Soon enough we would learn they had taken up a different tactic and set their sights on something much more sinister.
Charlie and I sat in our cell making small talk when I heard the unit door open. Three Marshals walked up to the duty office and handed the unit officer a paper. The unit officer yelled out “CHRISTIE!” Charlie said in a matter of fact way "You’re up!" Then he looked at me with a solemn smile and said in a friendly voice, “I hope I never see you again.” In the end Charlie never broke prison protocol by asking anything inappropriate about my case. I hoped he never sensed I was on guard with him (as I was with everyone else) but if he did, I like to think he understood my position.
The day had come. My court date had arrived. My mind began racing through every scenario, over and again. I started to second guess whether we were really ready for this -- did we need more time? This was my one shot and if bail was denied it would be extremely unlikely I would get a second chance. If that happened I would have to fight this battle from custody -- where the Government could apply pressure more freely. My body was reacting as well -- my heart was beating high in my throat and my hands were sweating while the rest of my body felt cold. I took several deep breaths to calm my mind and return to a state of clarity and command.
The Marshals were pros. They could see I was preoccupied and kept the conversation lean. They escorted me up to the holding cell -- a place where time feels suspended as you wait for your turn in court. The Marshals returned and with a simple “Let's go Christie” we took the short walk to the courtroom.
It is often said that court proceedings are like theatre and from my experience, that couldn’t be any more true. Anyone who has been in a Federal Courtroom can tell you it is full of pomp and circumstance. The witness stand is no closer than a sword length away from the judge, a tradition most likely brought over from England. There is a section directly in front of the bench known as the well -- traverse this area without permission and you will find yourself publicly admonished. A smart attorney passes things to the Judge through the Court Clerk -- it is wise to keep the Court Clerk happy for they typically have the Judge’s ear.
As we prepared to begin I looked around -- taking it all in. The US Attorney looked ready with all his props in place. His table was heavily weighted with three US Attorneys and two FBI agents while a half-dozen US Marshals were strategically placed around the courtroom. We had been expecting them to take the position that I was a danger to the community as well as a flight risk -- their set up reinforced our suspicions. We were expecting a hard battle and with our strategy, we had our own tricks up our sleeves.
The players all took their positions. The court was called to order as the curtain rose on what would be the first act of a two year play. The Judge took the bench, a petite Vietnamese women whose presence left no doubt about who was in command of the court. With her short jet black hair and her piercing dark eyes I got the sense she was a strong fighter in her own right. Here we were - similar threads in different colors. In 1966, we had both entered new worlds - she a baby in war torn Vietnam, me a newbie in the outlaw bike culture. Years later both of us caught the attention of the Federal Government - hers came from President Obama with a highly honored judicial appointment as a Federal Judge, mine from the FBI as a criminal mastermind with an indictment. It was all unrelated until this moment in time when our lives intersected. I could only hope we would find some common ground as this all played out.
I think the Judge caught everyone off guard with her opening remark. She addressed the US Attorney, “What's seems to be the problem here? Convince me why Mr. Christie should remain in custody when his four co-defendants are free on bail.”
The US Attorney was a small aggressive man with a big bark and a sharp bite. He rose and addressed the court. He looked over at me. Then he simultaneously raised his arm as he extended his index finger looking down his limb as it were a rifle, putting me in his site. Then he turned his attention to the Court and the Judge saying “This, your Honor, is a very bad man.”
My lead attorney Mike shifted in his seat as he prepared to jump to his feet but the Judge was the one to put things back in perspective, “Do I need to remind the Government that remains to be determined.”
The US Attorney was quick to apologize but the point had been made. These types of remarks can really hurt you in front of a jury. Judges hear it all and this slip by the US Attorney rolled off the Judge’s back as she asked for the Government team to proceed. The next half hour ebbed and flowed with statements flying back and forth as each side pleaded its case. The Government team argued over and over about accusations of community safety and flight risk as well as my unquestioned power as a leader of the Hells Angels. While it was an absolute fact I was no longer a member, the Government insisted that was a ruse and argued I would disappear within days if not hours of my release, never to be seen again.
The Judge had heard enough. She had a question of her own she wanted answered. She bypassed all three of US Attorneys and directed her question to the lead FBI agent. She said, “I want to know -- Is Mr. Christie in or out?”
The Government team became silent. They looked at each other, shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
The Judge reinforced her question, “A simple answer is all I need.”
The FBI agent looked to his notes as he stated aloud, "Out!"
The Judge then turned her attention to our table. “I find your parade of character letters very interesting. In fact I have never seen such a diversity of support -- award winning actors, business owners, career military, a church bishop, attorneys, retired law enforcement, a sitting police chief, and of course, maybe most important, the support of your immediate and extended family. Very impressive!”
The Government team had made a huge tactical error by failing to pay notice to all the letters in support of me receiving bail. They now made a last ditch attempt to stall. “Yes, your honor, maybe a little too impressive. We have concerns that there could have been some coercion as well as pressure applied in regards to obtaining some of these letters. We feel that at the very least we should have the opportunity to interview some of the individuals who submitted letters in support of bail.”
The Judge responded quickly “I think it's a little late for that. You have had weeks to prepare for this hearing. No, it's time to get this behind us. I see a long hard road ahead of us.”
The Judge gave each side a few minutes to gather their thoughts before their final arguments. The Government team went first. Deciding to put all their bets on positioning me as a flight risk. They alluded to my many trips to Europe and described me as a world traveler with endless resources both financially as well as socially. With that. the US attorney told the Judge he had nothing more to present.
Courtroom strategy is similar to street smarts -- some have it while others never will, no matter how hard they try. My attorney Mike squeezed my forearm as he confidently took the floor.
Our team had gambled that the Government would base their primary argument on me being a flight risk. Our bet paid off and we were prepared to strike. In 2003, after being denied entry into Amsterdam and placed on the first return flight to the United States, an immigration attorney advised me that a refusal stamp on a passport was a red flag and advised me to apply for another one. My current empty passport was my golden ticket. My wife Nikki had been instructed by my team to bring the passport to the proceedings. It would be part of our presentation if things went our way. They did. Mike continued his closing, “Your Honor, I have brought Mr. Christie’s passport and we are ready to surrender it to the court. I want to bring an important issue to the Court’s attention. You will see, contrary to the Government’s position, Mr. Christie has not left the country in years.” Then, for effect, Mike thumbed through my passport, page by page, revealing not one entry or exit stamp. With that, Mike closed our argument as he continued in silence to display page after page of empty white pages of paper.
Directly from the bench, the Judge granted me bail. It wasn't a complete victory. Perhaps in effort to placate the government or maybe to cover her own ass she ordered me to complete house arrest with absolutely no latitude.
But that didn't matter to me at this point... in a few hours I would be back home with my family and in that moment, that was all that mattered.
Strategically, the team and I wanted to learn as much as possible about the US Attorney as well as Judge Nguyen. However at this point the investigation was raising more questions than answers. I came to the conclusion we had enough information. All further insight would be through direct experience. We refocused and put full attention to my defense.
The move to general population was a benefit to me and my legal team as well. Ask any attorney that has a client in the SHU and they will tell you it can take hours to get a contact attorney client visit -- only to be shuffled out, with no warning, if a security issue arises. We needed to work as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Over the next few weeks, as my bail hearing inched closer, my legal team and I worked diligently to make up for lost time. A full team meeting was set up with with my two attorneys, one my oldest daughter Moriya, our investigator and our paralegal. It was our first meeting all together. We all sat in silence, as if some unspoken doom loomed in the distance. My attorney, Mike, was charged with taking the lead with the team but it was Moriya who broke the silence.
She had a question about one of the younger members. She stated his name aloud. It was more than familiar. This was a young club member I had taken a special interest in over the years. I had watched the kid grow up in the beach area of Ventura. Tall and handsome, he was quite popular especially with the ladies. This kid was part of the the new breed of outlaws - younger guys that were bringing new ways of talking and dressing. These guys would be leading the outlaw bike culture into the new century.
She asked “Can he hurt you?” My stomach twisted into knots - I knew what was coming next. I had misjudged his strength and loyalty. He was no longer a friend or a brother. He was informant #2.
Now this guy wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed but his loyalty had never come in question with me or any of the members. We had shared many cross country trips and logged many miles together but in the end, the bonds we shared meant nothing when the Feds put the pressure on him.
He had been arrested a few months before me. His crime unrelated to the crime I was now facing. Tactical as ever, the Feds real motivation for his arrest became clear. They knew exactly what they wanted. They took their time and pounced when the target seemed weak. I guess the thought of spending decades in a federal prison was just too much for his constitution. He buckled under the pressure and took the easy way out -- agreeing to testify against me.
For years, the rumor on the street was that there would only be one tattoo shop in the City of Ventura. Was there any truth to that? Yes, there was -- but we’ll go into that story another day. Back to the matter at hand…
At the end of the 90’s, tattoos had reached a historical level of popularity. Shops were springing up everywhere, on every corner and Ventura was no different. But the shops that came in just up the street from the Ink House - those were different. I had a real bad feeling about them from the start. Those two shops were a set up. I shared my concerns with Ventura club members in personal conversations and in the weekly club meetings. My advice, to all who would listen, was to stand down and stay away.
My position was supported by police report statements from several witness interviews. Informant #2's statement also affirmed that I had clearly stated "for everyone to stay away." But then an addendum was added - an afterthought I wondered? This addendum was the crux of the problem for me. The addendum statement was "...but I knew what he was thinking." That's what the government hung their hat on.
I sat in silence looking at my legal team. In an effort to lighten things up I blurted aloud, “I'll be damned!! I didn't know he could read my mind.” The laughter felt good but it was obvious we had a rough road ahead of us. We spent the next hour discussing potential strategies that would change over and again as the Feds slowly released page after page of reports.
The time for this session had run out and after I said my goodbyes to my legal team I was escorted back to the unit by the guard. It was becoming obvious to me that the government was building the foundation of their case on informants. I was usually quite vigilant about the motivation of those around me and now I was on high alert. I had to assume there was someone close who was a source of information for the Feds.
As I entered the unit and made my way to my cell (my strange sanctuary in all this madness), I made a quick assessment of each inmate I passed. I took a moment and observed Charlie, he was in his usual reading position. He looked up and over his book and asked in general conversation, “How did it go?” The hair on the back of my neck raised as I processed his question. My intellect told me it was a reasonable thing to ask and that he asked me that question each time I returned from an attorney visit. But my troubled mind raised one red flag after another as I dissected every comment made. I chose to err on the side of caution and not talk about this new development and see if Charlie would be the one to bring up my former brother and friend, informant #2.
While Boston and I got along great, both of us knew our paths wouldn’t cross again. We didn't bother trading contact info -- a goodbye and a solid good luck handshake was as far as it needed to go. I glanced over my shoulder as I walked away. Boston was no longer at the window. Ha! Hell, the kid had forgot about me already. I figured I’d better do the same.
General population was nothing more than an elevator ride from the SHU. It would be filled with society's dreads and dregs. Most would have an angle, everyone a story. I wasn't looking to make any new friends. I learned, back in my ‘86/‘87 case, it's best to keep new jail acquaintances at a distance.
The steel door swung open. All eyes in the unit turned toward me. I took in as much as I could as fast as I could. My quick scan revealed no familiar faces.
Everyone enters this prison through the same receiving center where each guard has a specific duty. Escort you in and out of holding cells, take your fingerprints, take pictures, exchange street clothes for an institution issue suit. Finally you’re given bedding. Before you are assigned a unit, you will have one finale interview with a classification officer. His job is to find out how your presence in the facility will affect you and, more importantly, the daily business of the institution. He will examine your charges, determine if you have any gang affiliation, ask if you feel you would be in any type of jeopardy in general population and evaluate your mental state. His finale question may be if you want to lock up -- move to protective custody where you don't have to interact with other inmates.
When you go into general population you are assigned to a unit. That’s when your real evaluation begins and it’s done by the inmates, most likely gang members or career criminals. Sure, the guards have the keys but it's the inmates that hold court and it's in session twenty four hours a day. Everything is done following a strict protocol and racial lines -- a fragile understanding that can spiral out of control within moments if the right people are not in charge.
Whenever you enter a new housing area you are questioned. I was no different. The duty officer said he would find me a bed. What he should have said was that the shot callers in the unit would find me both a cell and bed.
Being a full blooded Greek, I have been mistaken for Mexican more than once over the years. So it didn’t surprise me when the Surenos approached and asked who I was with. In the middle of my explanation a older white guy approached and respectfully explained who I was and stated “He is with us” and that was that. He stretched out his hand and gave me a firm shake and said “I’m Charlie.”
He was about fifty, a lean six feet with a thick head of black hair combed straight back He wore a pair of grey prison issue bifocal glasses. They looked liked something out of the late fifties. His walk was light, slow and commanding. I would later find out Charlie was a professional bank robber.
He explained our paths had almost crossed before -- he had just missed me at Terminal Island back in 1987. He had just done a twenty year bid there for a bank takeover. Now he was here, on a violation.
There are two types of bank robberies: the first, the majority, are done by passing a note to a teller and in turn they hand over the money with no resistance. The second, the bank takeover, usually involves brandishing weapons and some violence. That was Charlie's preferred way of withdrawing funds.
Prison is often a world turned upside down. Conduct that society frowns on can elevate your status in prison and that's where Charlie, along with ties to white prison gangs, garnered his influence. He was definitely at the top of the food chain in this unit. Under normal circumstances I would be in a Q&A session that would make any interrogator proud. My thirty-five years as an outlaw club leader and reputation made me except from what every other new inmate had to endure.
The first and foremost question asked is if your crime had sexual overtones. If it did, it was usually a huge obstacle to overcome. Lying about it made it worse. In the past there weren’t many child molesters and sex offenders in the federal prison system however the Internet, with powerful search engines, has contributed to both an increased crime rate and the ability to identify one. I saw more than one person not only beaten down but forced to ask for protective custody after lying about the circumstance of their charges.
I left all the prison politics to Charlie and he appreciated it. I had enough of my own problems ahead of me -- my biggest obstacle, aside from my six count indictment, was making bail. The US Attorney had postponed my bail hearing several times. Clearly he was preparing one hell of an objection to me fighting this case from the street. The information on him was very limited and over the next two years I would come to realize why. He didn't care about seeing his name in the paper. What he cared about was getting convictions and that made him a very dangerous adversary.
With little information on the US Attorney I turned my focus on the person that would have the final word in the courtroom, Judge Nguyen. She was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate by unanimous vote. Our legal team felt that as a Judge she was a good draw for us. Then two things came up that I found concerning. President Obama nominated her for the United States Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and it was rumored she was also on the short list for the United States Supreme court. Would she let politics interfere in her courtroom decisions? The other concern -- in 1975, at age ten, as South Vietnam fell to the Communist to the North, Judge Nguyen came to America as a refugee. Upon her arrival she was placed in Camp Pendleton in one of the many tent cities set up for Vietnam refugees. I could only hope it had been a positive experience for her and her family, for this former war refugee now held this former Marine’s future in her hands.
Boston had absconded from the Feds in Boston. Then, after a two year run in the porn business in Southern California under a new identity, it all came tumbling down in an electronics chain store over his ID, a credit application and a big screen TV.
Boston described the wanna be looking cop behind the counter as a overachiever in every sense of the word. Their exchange had become a battle of will -- over a $3,000 big screen TV. His gut told him to walk away. But like so many of us have done when we get that funny feeling -- he didn’t listen. The police soon arrived and everything began to unravel. When the officers patted him down for their own safety, the Glock was hard to explain.
He was smiling as he recounted the story to me, conceding it was pride and ego that brought him down. That TV salesman didn't deserve one ounce of credit. Under arrest, Boston weighed out his choices: LA county jail or a confession he’d absconded from Federal probation? He chose the Feds and that's what brought us together.
After a quick seat on the toilet to recover his goods, he invited me to partake. Although I was no longer bound by club rules against the use of heroin, old habits die hard -- I declined his offer. He was outwardly disappointed and asked if he was interfering in my sobriety. I explained myself and countered that I didn't want to interfere in his good time. With a wide grin he stated he would accept responsibility if we found ourselves in a shakedown, I replied “Yes, you will.” With that we shook hands and set the ground rules for the cell.
Boston had been here close to 18 months fighting his gun case. Not only did he know many inmates, he had also developed personal relationships with the staff. He had been in and out of the SHU several times between stays in general population and wasn't shy calling in favors. His first order of business was his mail. He told the guard he was expecting some important legal mail from his lawyer to come in. In fact, he had seen it on the guard’s desk just before they moved him to the SHU and he really needed it for his attorney visit tomorrow. If he didn't get it, it would set his legal defense back. Now I don't know if Boston had something on this guard but about a half hour later the rectangular slot dropped open and a guard slid in Boston's legal mail. All legal mail must be opened in the presence of both inmate and a corrections officer to insure no contraband is sneaked in while protecting attorney client privilege. A shuffle of the legal brief and a quick look into the deep heavy overnight mail envelope satisfied the guard and he was on his way.
Boston was beaming as he looked over the legal motion. Then, to my surprise, he tossed the packet on the table and took a seat on the small steel stool. Carefully and methodically he deconstructed the envelope - first each side, then the bottom border -- revealing a generous second border of black tar heroin that Boston slowly scraped into a sizable black tar ball.
Boston called out to the Surenos in the cell next to us.
“Hey Johnny! It's me, Boston!
“Ya, I know. The whole god damn tear knows it’s you.”
“You still mad at me?”
“No, let’s just squash it.”
“Good, I got a taste for you. Let's start over”
Apparently they had been in general population together. A beef between the whites and the Surenos over, what else, some dope, had broken into an all out brawl and half the unit wound up in the SHU. Boston had talked his way back to general population and now was back in the SHU again. With a few simple words the conflict was now officially behind them. A fishing line was cast between the two cells to transfer the dope to our neighbors and needless to say they were very happy. Of course the first one is always free and after that taxation begins. Over the next few weeks the Surenos commissary slowly transferred from their cell to ours, not to mention the outside sources that began putting money on Boston's books for payment, as he distributed his product throughout the SHU via the trustees as well as a few unsuspecting guards.
His next mission was to see what women were in the cell directly above us. I learned that the floor above us housed all the women inmates and that conversations between their cell and ours could be conducted through the sewer pipes. In addition to conversation, you could also drop fishing lines to pass contraband between the two floors and then on to various cells. Many a jail romance began and ended through those pipes. Boston was real Casanova.
Despite the good times it wasn't all fun and games. One evening, everything was brought back into perspective when a high power member of the Aryan Brotherhood came calling. He had been bought in from the United States Penitentiary in Victorville to stand trial for the murder of another inmate and as far as the staff was concerned he was already guilty. It was no secret the Aryan Brotherhood was the premier white prison gang - birthed in the California prisons and later spreading into the federal penal system. When the Aryan Brotherhood spoke the prison population listened and Boston was certainly no exception. This influence extended to many a guard.
It was the combination of boots and keys that first caught our attention and brought us to our small reinforced glass window. Looking out we saw five guards and in the center a small lean blonde man with a oversize mustache making their way down the hall. Flanked with two guards on each side, and a rear guard armed with a oversized billy club - this guy was under some serious security. I can still clearly recall the sound of his rubber shower shoes slapping against the floor was a sharp contrast to the sound of the heavy boots of the guards - all highlighted by the sound of his leg shackles dragging on the cement.
They stopped in front of our cell door and opened the shower door, located directly across the hall. The shower door locked, of course, to maintain security. Two guards held him by his arms, that were cuffed behind him, as his leg irons were removed. He entered the shower and after the door was secured his hands were extended through the small rectangular slot and his cuffs were removed. The slot remained open. As the five man detail prepared to leave, one of the officers opened up our slot. Then all the guards exited.
Clearly this was done intentionally so we could converse. Not in an effort to eavesdrop on our cell but to placate this potentially dangerous Aryan Brotherhood member who had apparently requested to pay me a visit. I think this in-of-itself is a real testimony to the power of underground communications in the prison system.
We exchanged introductions and small talk, then the conversation took a sudden turn. “Hey Boston, I heard you might have something for me.” said the man. Without skipping a beat Boston replied he did and asked him to cast his line. A package was affixed to Boston’s line. It shot across the floor, the two lines intersecting each other and the transfer was complete. It was the first time I saw Boston look unnerved - a little shaken and out of sorts. All the mysterious man across the hall said to Boston was "That's mighty white of you." The guards returned shortly after and our guest was escorted away. Within the hour, the laid back and confident Boston I had come to know returned. The next morning it was back to business as usual.
I'm not sure exactly how long Boston and I shared that cell. I think we were into the third week and I had truly given up on the Warden when the Lieutenant appeared and told us to dress up -- the Warden was coming.
The Warden was a large, robust women with very dark skin. She was no youngster but had no wrinkles or any grey in the jet black hair piled neatly on top of her head. Her deep voice travelled through the glass loud and clear and she got right to the point. “Christie, You want in general population-- is that right?
“Yes, Warden.” As I began to plead my case she stopped me mid-sentence.
“I don't give a damn what the FBI wants.” She said. “This is my house. You get one shot Christie and that's it. If there is any problems I will bury you in the SHU. We understand each other?”
Relief washed over me. And I quickly replied “Warden, you won't even know I'm here.
“Then roll it up." She said. "Someone will be by to get you.”
Silent through the exchange until now, Boston couldn’t hold back his sense of humor. “Ok Warden, we’ll be ready.”
The Warden broke into a deep rich laugh. "Boston, you got nothing coming."
Each day started the same way with the same sounds. First, the cadence of the neighbors' exercise routine that echoed down the hall. Then breakfast -- the clacking of food cart wheels, the clanging of food slots dropping open and the scraping sounds of food trays sliding through the narrow rectangle opening. You could also look forward to a shower every third day and a clean change of clothes every Sunday. It was routine on top of routine. The only thing you had within your control were your thoughts and God help you if you lost control of those. In an oblique way your sight becomes limited in the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) but your other senses are enhanced and sound becomes very important.
I could hear the Lieutenant walking down the hall. His steps were fast and deliberate, no stopping to inspect the cells or to exchange a quick word with inmates. It had been close to two weeks and I had given up asking the Lieutenant when the Warden was coming. I could tell the Lieutenant was on a business call. I was the last prisoner in this block and I was betting he was coming to see me. I took a seat on my bed and acted unconcerned as he yelled out “Christie. Roll it up. I'm moving you to the next block. You ready for a cell mate?”
“What about general population?” I barked back. He retorted, “Baby steps, baby steps. If you can live with this guy I'll be convinced you can get along with anybody. Just work with me. I need this cell immediately. Let's go!”
Within minutes I had my mattress rolled up, stuffing what little personal effects I had in the center. I carried the bundle up on my right shoulder as we made our way to the next cell block. Each cell we passed had two faces pressed against the glass - each fighting for a position to get a look at the new guy.
The Lieutenant opened the door. The cell was empty so I staked my claim by throwing my mattress roll on lower bunk. The Lieutenant told me to turn around. He cuffed me and said “Hang on, I’m going to get Whitey Bulgur.” Confusion set in while I waited. I didn't have to wait long. The lieutenant returned in a couple minutes, opened the cell door and in a laughing comment said as he introduced my new cellmate “Well he ain't Whitey Bulgur but he is from Boston.”
Here I was, in a cell the size of a large closet, face to face with a man who was half my age, close to six feet tall, and very fit. He was heavily tattooed and his shaved head gave him an ominous appearance. The lieutenant was not about to take of the cuffs till we had some dialog and he was convinced we wouldn't fight.
My new cellmate opened the conversation. “They call me Boston, are we good?”
“Well, why wouldn't we be good?” I replied.
“I'm just saying, we're good right?” he said again.
We circled each other like roosters, sizing each other up. The lieutenant jumped in the conversation “Turn around Christie” and he took of my handcuffs.
Boston, could see I had no intention of picking a fight with him but couldn't resist breaking the Lieutenants balls. “He looks mean, what if he jumps me?” We all laughed and then the Lieutenant relieved Boston of his cuffs. He said “I knew you two would get along just fine.” And, you know, he was right - we did. Boston was half my age but had been brought up old school, with much respect, and you just couldn't help like him.
As the door slammed shut, Boston threw his things on the upper bunk then went straight for the toilet. Boston explained he had been in general population until today’s drug deal went bad, ending in a fight. As the guards came to escort him to the hole he’d had just enough time to pack his safe. For those of you who don’t know what that means he had taken his contraband and stuffed it up his ass. As he retrieved his valuables: a capped needle, his brown tar heroin, and the accessories that went along with it. He respectfully stated “I hope you don't mind.”
The party had begun. This guy was straight outta Boston.
Shop is Temporarily Closed
George is currently in Spain filming a new TV show. Unfortunately our shop is out of autographed merchandise and will be closed temporarily until George gets back to Ventura.
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