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.