Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Other Half - Part Two

By Steve Bartholomew

To read Part One, click here

Charlie floored it.

The cop leapt up onto a shelf of air a foot or more above his own hood. The hollow clatter of clipboard and flashlight bouncing off sheet metal as the Jeep passed.

They came out of the parking lot sideways, accompanied by the headlong thunder and shriek of automotive rampage. Behind the wheel Charlie was knuckle-white and angular, his face showing nothing. The four-wheel drive made for an unruly drift, the tires lurching unpredictably. He felt the center of gravity heave up and shimmy before he remembered to ease off the throttle while counter-steering.

This was a five-lane thoroughfare wending through forestland between affluent suburbs, an upscale parkway lined with a dronish species of strip malls. Its curves were unbanked, designed with leisurely drives and rush hour in mind. He kneaded the throttle deeply, working the mechanical sweet spot between terminal velocity and control, exploring the limits of factory metallurgy.

The fluid geometry of flight. He swept back and forth across all five lanes, trimming radial degrees from shallow curves. The headlights were switched off for concealment, and the better to spot approaching vehicles while pushing a hundred and ten in oncoming lanes. He glanced at the rearview. The distant red and blue colorsoaking of roadside trees behind them. Here we are. You may drive for a living and maybe you’re better at it than me, but I’m willing to drive for our lives.

"He‘s back there," Moira said, turning around fully in her seat, "he‘s coming fast."

"Sit down. I told you," he said, as if to the mirror, "put your seatbelt on."

"You don‘t have yours on."

"I'm a little busy here. Just this one thing. All I'm asking."

"Fine," she said, and crawled across the seats, reaching around his middle to grab the belt beneath his arms, tugging it across him and fastening it. She pushed herself back to her side and fastened her own.

"Jesus. Keep your ass in the seat. Sometimes, girl."

"You want to put me over your knee?"

"Beat the dimples out of you, is what I want to do."

"Throw me down and choke me like I'm rented? It's okay if you say yes."

"By the half hour. And you can keep my deposit."

Up ahead, trees lining a bend in the road took up the glow of approaching headlights. Charlie swung the wheel, swerving to the opposite edge of the road as a box truck flew past in the other direction.

"You're sweet for saying that," she said, "I might hold you to it later, like I did last time."

He knew she was trying to bolster his confidence, to remind him that he was skilled at the art of eluding. But he preferred to think of every chase as his only chase. To have faith in a winning streak is to underestimate your opponent. A couple weeks earlier, a sheriff had spotted them as they were leaving Bellingham. As he ran through the gears, he told her to talk her dirtiest, because the distraction would keep him from overthinking instinctive maneuvers. After he'd outrun the county mounties, they holed up, car and all, in an abandoned barn that leaned cartoonishly to one side. Even the best hide is a bust, he told her, if you come out one minute early.

They crept to a boarded window and stared through the cracks, watching hand in hand because touch carries a trustworthy bandwidth of information. His fingers twined between hers, and he could feel the quickened pulse in her thumb. The dried traces of animal in each inhale, the grip of uncertainty loosening gradually with each exhale.

Evasion can lace the blood thickly and he felt it build like a thunderhead, a tantric rush crackling across the air between them. She looked lethal in the rising dust, hushed end smokey with intent, daring him wordlessly like a character in a smutty plot. Daylight seeped through cracks and knotholes, and as it died away he could feel their chances improving. Something about the play of light-stripes on her skin made him claw the ground, firmly alive and primitive. He pulled her down roughly, whispering demands he'd stored up on the way there. Even the stagecraft felt real, a textured scene stolen from the world-beyond, and he lost himself in the role of the toying villain while she played captive in the hay.

The distance to the pursuing lights was impossible for him to gauge at this speed, but he thought their lead might be increasing.

"Seems like I was the one doing most of the holding, the way I remember it. Which, I'm not complaining."

"I want to have to make up a story this time, why I'm walking funny tomorrow."

"Tell them you fell on a doorknob again."

She lowered the window a few inches and flicked her cigarette into the roaring wind. Then she hit the switch to reseal it. "Does it make me way complicated? Because I'm all 'Respect me, but ransack me like I'm stolen first?'"

"I’ll respect your brains out."

"Prove it. Get us somewhere I can be noisy."

The Jeep had a little gumption left, he knew it would do maybe one twenty, but he could not remember the lay of this road. Whether a given side street was a cul-de-sac or an alternate route, he had no way of knowing. He cursed himself for not at least studying a map before being tested in the actual territory. He could feel a peculiar floating sensation, the quirky physics of drag and centripetal force contesting with suspension designed for gravel roads and soccer games.

The State Patrol precinct was somewhere up ahead, one of the hives sure to be emptying by now and swarming towards them.

Charlie came down hard on the brakes, swinging into a wide arc that would bring them in line with an intersecting road that led sharply to their left. It took them up a steep grade. He could see that it disappeared farther ahead, winding into the forest that covered the foothill above. He took the first right, breaking line of sight with the parkway, and slowed enough to not draw attention. Darkened upscale houses set back from the winding curbless street.

"Oh," she said, "I feel like I've been on this road before."

Moira claimed to remember her own birth. She had described the event to him in terms of its pathos, the watershed expulsion, and how this had congealed into a motif throughout her life. She would never admit as much, but Charlie wondered if she'd let this inform her expectations ever since, looking for the sayonara lurking behind every smile or hidden within a fuck. He pondered the weight of blaming your life on your own birth, and how that might become self-fulfilling.

"I‘ve been to that house before. That exact one. I think maybe inside it."

Charlie wondered whether this was another instance of the deja vu she experienced so strongly sometimes.

"Which way then?" he asked, hoping her comment related to an actual event.

"I don't know. It‘s not that specific. It‘s more a feeling, like reading the past, I guess."

"So we're talking post-diction, as opposed to prediction. This is what you're telling me. Like reading your own palm. Not the most useful thing at the moment, I have to say."

"Post-diction isn't a word or a thing. And you‘re a condescending prick sometimes, that's what I'm telling you." She turned toward the blackened window before continuing. "What else I can tell you is that your palm is in your future. How's that for a useful prediction?"

"So you got a reading about this neighborhood, one way or another?" He caught himself dressing the word "reading" in snark and instantly regretted it.

"Just that I wish I was riding through it with anyone but you right now. You‘re a bastard."

They came around a curve and on their right was a low-slung school, an array of portable classrooms arranged about a central building. Charlie swerved into the small parking lot, bouncing over a curb and onto the lawn. He drove along a narrow sidewalk that led between two of the outbuildings and then turned, steering them up a small grassy bank behind the school and out onto a playing field.

Surrounding the field was a thinly wooded greenbelt, younger maple and alder among a smattering of old growth. Beyond the far edge of the field the elevation rose sharply to the crest of the ridge, maybe a hundred feet higher than the school. He nosed into the woods below the rise, threading carefully through the gaps between trees, dropping the transmission into low gear to crawl over fallen limbs and through brush as tall as the windows. The condensed dark beneath the evergreen canopy made him feel myopic.

He killed the engine and nodded at Moira. After getting out slowly, they leaned into both doors, half-latching them. The powertrain ticked and sizzled like a recent wreck in the wooded stillness. He waited for her to pick her way through the dense groundcover and around to his side. Taking her hand, he pushed through the foliage, pulling her along.

At the base of the embankment she pulled up short and looked up at the stubbly clay rearing far above them. Milky light bled through the dark along the crest. "I can't," she said, "Not in these." 

He knelt at her feet and, placing her hands on his head he lifted one boot at a time, snapping the six-inch heels off and tossing them into the brush.

"These were my favorites,” she whispered.

"Sorry. You can take it out on me later."

He grasped her by the forearm, their wrists intertwined so that she could hold onto him, and in this way he began towing her up the steep incline. He would scrabble to gain a couple feet and then with his free hand grab onto a sapling, root or vine, digging his side-heels into the loam before hoisting her by one arm until she could find a purchase. The fire in his lungs spread to his shoulders, his back.

Halfway up, a branch broke off in his hand and he lost his foothold, sending them skidding backward. A racket of cascading debris announced their place in the night before he could plant his toes enough to stop their descent, his hand clawing dumbly at scree. "Charlemagne, I'm scared," she said. "I don't think I can do this." She'd called him by his full name only once before, the first time they'd seen themselves on the news. She knew he thought it sounded like men's lace and French dressing.

"It's only a few more feet," he lied, and began towing her upward again before her reluctance could gain inertia.

At the crest of the cliff they came to a wooden slat fence. He raised up on the balls of his feet and peered over it into a dark backyard. A split-level deck arranged with patio furniture, and in the far corner of the yard a large doghouse. The idea of facing a hostile dog made his nervous system pucker. But there was no way around without backtracking part of the way down and traversing the face of the bluff. "Take off your coat," he whispered into her ear, "and put your bracelets in your pocket. Quick." She must have felt the tremble rising in him. She stared at him, her face a jumble of fear and trust. She handed him the coat and slipped off her jewelry.

"Wait for me to jump down first," he whispered, "and try to stay calm. Whatever happens, keep going." with the leather coat held in his teeth, he laced his fingers together into a step. He lifted her until she could straddle the fence, steadying her before he pressed himself up and over. As he dropped down into a crouch, a floodlight mounted on the house blazed like an instant sun, pushing the darkness from the yard. A deep growl emanated from the doghouse. Charlie wrapped the thin black leather around his left forearm and, keeping Moira behind himself, ran backward toward the side fence.

A potato-colored pitbull came toward them at a dead run. It did not bark, instead making small anticipatory grunts as it ran. Charlie stooped, holding out his arm covered in designer leather the way he‘d seen trainers do. If dogs can really smell fear, than I must reek right now. What if it prefers balls or throats to arms?

The dog lunged, clamping its jaws onto his forearm. The impact was hydraulic violence, high-voltage jolts of bone grating against bone. Nails. The feeling of nails hammered in, sinking and tearing into his flesh even through the leather. Searing cold. His vision strobed in time with the dog's neck muscles, a vicious back and forth, drastic pressure and tugging.

The pain shrank his world, reducing all there ever was down to canine teeth and the nerves in his arm. The paralyzing shock of being consumed.

Fight thoughts flurried through his skull, discrete packets of kinesthetic possibilities, hopes really, entertained without language. But hand-to-hand tactics do not translate against teeth and claws.

His brain was misfiring from the trauma, and so he did what he could do mindlessly. He lifted. He grabbed hold of the collar with his free hand and lifted explosively, swinging the animal's weight as high as he could, and in one motion he slammed it down onto its side. This stunned it, he could tell, a reversal of aggression that confused its sense of dominance.

The jaws loosened and he pulled free his arm, motioning for Moira to run. The dog scrambled to its feet and Charlie backed away, trying to broadcast menace. He wondered if alphas ever back down. It came at him again. This time he almost didn't offer up his arm. But he could not let this dog past him, he knew she hadn't climbed the fence. When it lunged and reclamped its jaws on his arm a brilliant renewal of agony burst loose in colors behind his eyes, making the backward-driving force register slowly, unkiltering him. He stumbled and went down.

Pain is a private language you use to frighten yourself.

This is where it happens, this is how an attack dog makes a kill. He punched at the side of the dog's head but his angle was wrong for any effect.

He fumbled beneath its chest, finally gripping its front leg, near the paw. Ha wrenched it in a lateral movement, torquing it outward until he felt the wet snap and crunch of bone and joint parting ways. The dog let go and began keening, hobbling on three legs away from Charlie.

He stood and ran behind Moira to the side fence, a cyclone type woven with privacy slats. "Oh my god. Are you okay?" she whispered. Examining his injuries now would only infect his mental state, so he simply nodded. He could feel blood dripping from his hand but he could move it, or at least flex the muscles, so he figured no critical bones were broken. He peered over the fence bordering the next yard.

"Let me see it," she insisted, reaching for his injured arm. But he turned her around by the shoulders and slipped one hand between her thighs, gripping her by the crotch, his other hand at the nape of her neck. He lifted her with no thought of grace or comfort, pressing her overhead in a clumsy wrestling move, and then dropped her over the fence into the next yard. He hoisted himself up and over and they ran to the next fence. He lifted her again.

They ran through the hollowed-out landscapes behind the row of houses where the other half lived, past the darkened windows of the sleeping. The stillness felt combustible, as if they were poorly contained sparks edging alongside tinder. He focused intently on listening for the sounds of pursuers, dogs or both, until the blood rushing through his ears started taking on imaginary meaning.

There was a wobble in Moira's movements, a telltale slowing. Exertion and the mental strain of being hunted can bleach meaning from the moment, and he could see the detachment in her face, pale as prison-bread in the dimmest light. She was looking blankly to him for the next move, to somehow divine their exit strategy. His leg muscles were approaching failure and his arm was a kaleidoscope of pain. He knew there would be no more lifting or running. He gestured for her to wait, and she stood there fingering her hair. Her eyes were wide and seemed to drift across their surroundings.

From the rear of the property he could see through a break in the trees a narrow swath of the valley below. Red and blue lights trickled toward them in discrete streams. The gathering mass of lights pulsing somewhere below meant roadblocks. In the middle sky were the blinking blue markers of an approaching helicopter. The visible signs of the snare being tightened. He scanned the yard for options, for somewhere to hide. A lattice arbor covered in vines, clusters of broadleaf bushes and small decorative trees. A rectangular patch of earth, a garden maybe, and along the far side a tall privacy hedge. Two towering fir trees blotted out much of the sky. Near the back fence was a compost box made of landscape timber, maybe three feet deep and eight feet to a side.

Charlie climbed onto the great pile of rotting grass and prunings within the box and shoved in both hands up to his elbows. Moira stood a few feet away, keeping watch while he lifted out clump after clump of blackened mulch, his forearms coated in a paste of blood and plant juices. The syrupy plant rot filled his lungs, his mouth. Steam rose to coat his skin as he scooped out the heavy, moist matter warmed by its own decomposition.

When he had cleared out what he thought was enough, he motioned for her to come near. She looked at the coffin-sized trench and the pile of muck beside it, and then at him. She shook her head, No Not that. He wiped his palms on his pant legs and pulled her close. Please, do not fight me this once. Holding her head in both hands he breathed two words into her ear.

"Thermal. Imaging." He gave her a look that said, This is the only way. He wrapped the punctured and bloody leather coat around her shoulders.

She looked at him for a long second before moving. She lowered herself uneasily into the steaming black hollow, arranging herself on her side and leaving room for him.

Remembering the wheelbarrow he‘d seen while crossing the yard, he held up one finger in a gesture for her to wait, and crept toward it, picking his way through the pitchy darkness. In the wheelbarrow was a folded canvas tarp. He lifted it carefully and made his way back to the compost box. Wedging himself down into the warm slime facing her, he thought, this is it. No more running. We're fully committed now. Her body pressed tightly against him. Propping himself up on one elbow, he began packing around and onto them the piles of removed plant matter. The weight of it felt like damp hands pressing them warmly into the earth.

The wisps of evaporating rot enveloped them. He could taste the ferment. He left the tarp partially folded so it would not look large enough for someone to hide under. With his free hand he pulled it over their heads, just a wad of canvas someone had left atop their compost. He hoped desperately this was something people do.

Their faces were inches apart. His only view was of her eyes, in and out of dim focus. They searched his face for some reason not to be so afraid. He kissed her mouth reassuringly, a chaste lie half told to himself. Her fingers twined between his, pressing into his drying blood. He could feel her pulse outpacing his own.

His lizard-brain shrieked for flight, to somehow flee because this plan will never work and this is not a good enough hide. His thoughts took on a charged quality, the grim mental blurting of the unprofessed. She was printed indelibly on his heart, but this had seemed dangerous to express plainly--until now, and how that bracketed his general regret. He had failed to prevent what was happening, and this was an unspoken part of their pact. Because whatever you name a relationship, at its core it is a reliance.

He wondered if she could sense his sorrow, dumb and powerless. He thought about their self-entombment, the irony someone else might see in it. Why had he been unable, or unwilling to tell her she was the first human being he‘d ever loved?

They communicated in scant movements, the flex of a finger, a roll of the eyes more intuited than seen. He wanted to tell her this one thing, the words pushing toward his surface, but she either already knew or couldn't tell what he meant.

He figured there was a strong likelihood that the incident of the dog and floodlight would draw the police to this neighborhood. The homeowners must have heard the commotion and called 911. He peered through a wrinkle in the canvas.

A helicopter walked across the sky on bluish stilts of light. The swelling throb and muted chopping of another rotor, much nearer.

The canvas came alight like someone had turned it on. A tiny noise escaped her, a gasp at their sudden illumination. She had a mucky thumbprint on her forehead. Charlie squeezed her hand and moved his eyes back and forth, Not yet. The light moved on.

They lay in the racket of their own heartworks, their darksight wrecked. Time passed in a way impossible to gauge. He thought of the go-bag back in the Porsche, and the evidence it contained. They would throw him back into the stone man-hive at Walla Walla, they would throw her into the woman's prison and they would be forever broken apart without ever having broken up. This knowledge gnawed at him more deeply than that of his own imminent capture. How the final frames of a life-stage tend to outlive the highlights, enduring articles of unwanted recollection, and this, he thought, this noxious burial with something crawling up my ankle, this will be how she remembers me.

He could hear the distant approach of a well-tuned engine, idling and than accelerating, idling again. The signature whine of a police-duty alternator. The engine grew nearer and then changed pitch, surging slightly, the sound of someone shifting into park. A car door slamming. And then another. He tried to slow his breathing, eye-screaming for her to hold onto whatever she had left. His entire awareness shifted into his ears. 

The light jingle of a small latch being thrown, the metallic grating of a rusted return spring and gate hinges. The snick of a latch closing. Froggish creaking of leather, rhythmic and footstep-paced, growing nearer. The muffled clinks of steel hardware enpouched on a duty belt. And then, the sounds of stealthy movements coming from farther away, maybe in the next yard. Someone inhaled nearby, sighed. The canvas over them made Charlie unable to gauge the true distance between the sigh and their last good-bye.

And then Charlie‘s watch beeped once to signify the change of hour. Beneath the tarp it was an electronic shrike, a half- second banshee. He cringed. How could I forget this one thing, to disable my goddamn watch alarm?

Her eyes sharpened in reproach and she dug her nails into his fingers. Really? After you bury me in this? He waited for the hand that would yank back the canvas.

“Was that you?" a male voice half-whispered from a short distance away, maybe in the next yard.

Another voice answered, this one coming from directly overhead, "Think so." Charlie could feel the presence of the cop standing over them. They lay utterly still, listening to the tiny whistling in his nostrils.

Every moment was a storyline, its rising conflict played out in heartbeats and tiny breaths, each one a crisis. The creaking struck up again, moved farther away. The snick of a latch opening, the metallic grating and this time the sharp wooden clack and jangle of a gate slapping shut.

They gulped lungfuls of deliciously stale air.

The adrenaline ebbed from his bloodstream and he felt dopey, a puppyish delirium relaxing him muscle by muscle. He thought of nothing, let himself be aware of nothing but her bodyheat and the softness of compost. The weight of his eyelids was staggering.
Just for a second, he told himself, I can close them for a few seconds.

The cold woke him. The brunt of it had settled into his core, making him shiver uncontrollably and out of phase with her. Their frames were clattering against each other. She was watching him across the inches, her face half lit by the gathering dawn.

He imagined a homeowner discovering them there, and how the pursuit would start up again, this time without the cover of night. He slowly pushed back the tarp. His arm had stiffened and felt like a disorder. Fog had rolled in and clung to the trees in webbed clumps. He looked at his hand. Blood-caked sausages creased deeply at the knuckles, the taut skin glowing febrile already.

He rose slowly, moving first one limb then another, the millionfold needle jab of neglected flesh. He held out his good hand and pulled her slowly to her feet. The damp in their clothes was wicking the morning chill. She leaned against him, her shivering coming in fits now. Petting her hair, he inhaled the trace of French shampoo and plucked from her collar a rotting weed.

"Damn," she said, "I sure wish my smokes made it."

"I fucking love you."

"Are you sure you don't have a couple words backwards?"

"Even if you do look a little like a bog person right now."

"Prove it," she said, sliding one hand into the front pocket of his pants and fingering the master key there. "Take me somewhere that has heat and breakfast. I‘m starving."

"Deal," he said, plucking a worm gently off her shoulder and then showing it to her. "But this time you're leaving the tip."

Steve Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

To view Steve's art, click here


Here is a video clip of a stunningly beautiful reading of an excerpt from another of Steve’s essays, "Tearing Down The House of Gemini," by Katherine Hervey

Katherin Hervey is a multimedia producer, college instructor and restorative justice facilitator for incarcerated populations. She is also a former Los Angeles Public Defender. As a multimedia producer she was the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Shades of Contradiction, a nationally distributed not-for-profit arts and culture magazine dedicated to promoting critical thinking and creative action; and co-founded Raw Love Productions, a multi-media production company focusing on visual storytelling. Alongside her partner Massimo Bardetti, she is currently producing THE PRISON WITHIN, an interactive web-based documentary exposing the failure of the U.S. justice system to restore justice through the stories of those most impacted.

Katherin first met Steve as in instructor for University Beyond Bars inside the WA Monroe Correctional Complex, and continued filming him as a character in THE PRISON WITHIN. She chose this piece, "Tearing Down the House of Gemini" because it showcases Steve Bartholomew's emotional depth - his willingness to dig deep within himself and reflect what he discovers through the creative process.

To support and join the mailing list of THE PRISON WITHIN go to:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Atrocity of Sunsets: The Death of Childhood in Michigan

By Chris Dankovich

When my great-grandfather Jan (a Slavic John) came to America, it had been five years since he was released from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. This was World War I, after the Italians had switched sides to the allies, away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had conscripted him. He had been shot through the jaw, taking out a row of teeth. The bullet stopped by his wisdom tooth (which fortunately had come by this point in his life, 19 years old). There are no purple hearts or corresponding rewards given when you are on the losing side, so he returned to the newly formed Czechoslovakia without anything to show for his sacrifice, probably grumbling about how he, a Magyar, had been separated from what he considered his homeland of Hungary by a few miles of re-drawn border. He took the gamble that is America, and, after earning money in Pennsylvanian coalmines and working Detroit steel, he sent for his wife and two children.

My grandfather John (John, son of Jan, son of Jan, son of Jan...) arrived on the RMS Olympic, sister-ship to the Titanic. He worked hard to learn English, and by 9th grade he was completely caught up with his age group in school. The next year, Great-Grandpa Jan took John Jr. (apparently they lost track of what number Grandpa John was supposed to be, though he would have been at least John VI if anyone would have counted) out of school and signed him up for the mines in Michigan. A standard physical before hiring showed Grandpa John had tuberculosis. He was promptly sent to Maybury Sanitorium (sanitarium for mental sanitation, sanitorium for physical sanitation) in Battle Creek, Michigan. A prisoner of disease, but also free: he was roommates with future comedian Dick Martin of “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In” (there's a picture of the two of them mocking Hitler, Charlie Chaplin-style in 1939); they edited a sanitorium newspaper and finished their High School educations and began college. Getting out, he got a scholarship to a university and went to work as an engineer at General Motors instead of the coalmines.

My father James (Grandpa broke the tradition of naming his eldest son John) was a never a prisoner of anything, except, perhaps at times, his mind. He went to school to be a teacher, but found, after less than one school year, that he didn't like teaching. So he went back to school to become a chiropractor. This was the 1960's. He was a hippie, growing pot, selling acid (a roommate who was the main salesman drank the beer that they had dissolved the LSD crystals in and went crazy. ending up in a sanitarium before joining the Branch Davidians). He was lost, trying to find his way. And he became a chiropractor, one of the most successful in Michigan, taking care of the rich (and occasionally famous) in the metro-Detroit area. An American success story: from serfs to the top 1% in three generations. 

This isn't an American success story. This is more of an American failure story. Every day across the nation, children -- 13, 14, 15, 16 years old-- are put into adult prisons. I'm one of them.

The room was white. The walls were white. The ceiling was white. The floor may have been white. The only object in the room, apart from the mattress on the floor (gray!) was a stainless steel toilet, which in the light reflected white. And the light, the cold, biting fluorescent, shone strong and white and never dimmed, even at night.

Opposite the toilet, the entrance to the long, narrow room was almost all glass, which looked out upon a grand, horseshoe-shaped hall, just as white and just as barren. Out there the walls were white, and the ceiling was white as well. The lights were the same artificial white. And that light was amplified by the "bubble" of mirrorized glass: the bubble, which turned what would have been a square-shaped room into a U-shaped one, lined with mirrors that would allow them to see us, but us only ourselves. There was nothing else to see in this room of perpetual, artificial daylight, no actual daylight or means of knowing if the sun had yet risen or set. There were no clocks to tick away the seconds, minutes, hours: to allow us relation to others on that vital but often forgotten fourth dimension (no, not space, for we knew exactly where we were) --time-- the one thing that becomes most terrifying once you have enough of it.

It was as if the humanity had been bleached from the room. Apart from the delivery of meals --spaced relatively equal distances apart-- when I could ask the time, only shadows of life could keep me company. There, to the right, a message on a window: "100% Jamaican," written in toothpaste and feces. But having remnants of a human being's thoughts is not the same as having the actual person around. Though there, and sometimes I could see something move out the corner of my eye, I was alone. 

I was in the “hole:" someone said it was the "Psychological Hole" of the county jail. I was there because, as an adult at 16, I couldn't be placed back with the juveniles, but I couldn't be placed with the adults either. So they put me where they had room. As I sat there, sometimes thinking, sometimes staring at the wall, sometimes napping (because without knowledge of time passing there can be no true sleep), I wondered whether it was called the "Psychological Hole" because this was where they put people who were crazy (like my Jamaican friend to the right), or where they put people to make them so. Was there a distinction? Did those charged with care for our safety and the safety of others care themselves?

I started off my incarceration at 15 years old in Oakland County Children's Village in Michigan, a secure juvenile detention and holding facility. The bathrooms were cleaned thoroughly every day there while the rest was cleaned only occasionally, and so the only parts of the facility that didn't smell like urine were the bathrooms themselves. Most of the kids there were between 13 and 16, some younger, a few older. They stole cars, sold drugs, got caught having sex with their girlfriends (or occasionally boyfriends) often the same age as they were, making it statutory rape. Some were incorrigible, some were disrespectful, some gave up their snack to the new kids to help them feel more comfortable. The staff was professional, sometimes strict, usually willing to offer advice, but, like most kids, the "residents" sought out their guides and role models in their peers. Each "pod" of resident children was generally kind and fairly gentle-worded to each other, though it would only take one bad apple to turn them into rioters. There was a tension in these kids: most had seen violence, many had experienced it. Most were prescribed some sort of medication: many were doped up to the point of barely functioning. Most regularly did drugs before going there: many started their drug abuse with the drugs they were prescribed. We would sit in the corners of the pods, at the picnic tables with the laminate chessboards on top, and trade tips on what to say to get the psychiatrist to prescribe us whatever we wanted, where to score good weed, how to steal a car, where the children's shelters were if they were being abused at home. There was one kid, Dmitry (11 years old), who would hide under those tables and cry whenever the staff or other residents got angry at him, and wouldn't come out for anything (except, occasionally, if I talked to him). He was in there for molesting someone or something --a biological or foster brother, sister, a neighbor, the dog-- as he had a Criminal Sexual conduct (CSC) charge. He was doped up on the highest level of Adderall (multiple doses of 30 mg) and CDB anti-psychotic Seroquel (a thousand milligrams just in the morning) I had or have ever heard of.

Once sentenced as an adult, at 16, to adult state prison, I couldn't stay in juvenile detention, and I was taken to the county jail, and then, the next week, to the state prison intake center in Jackson, MI (fun fact: this is the original home of the Republican Party in the 1800's when the party began as the anti-slavery party: now the town's economy is completely centered around its prison system, once the largest in the world). I was the only juvenile (though, having been charged as an adult, I was no longer a legal juvenile; now I was a “Youthful” adult) there, out of thousands of men, and I was kept in a separate, caged off area in one of the massive cell blocks. The prison looked just like the movies, a lot like the prison on Alcatraz where I visited on a family vacation two years before my incarceration. Rows and rows of steel-bar enclosed cells, tiers stacked upon each other. The porter who would clean the floor in front of my cell every few days (the only prisoner I really had any contact with) felt bad that I didn‘t have any tobacco. He said that it was the only thing that made life bearable in there.

I was transferred to the next prison in two weeks, whereas the normal amount of time is two to three months (being too young for general population again, I had to be escorted everywhere I went, which I’m sure grew tiresome for more than just myself). I arrived at Thumb Correctional Facility's "Youthful Offender's“ Side (Michigan's only prison for adult prisoners ages 13 to 18, though some stay into their early 20's), seven months after I turned 16 years old. I joined some 400 other "youthful" adults in the two units reserved for us, set apart by some fencing and a building we shared with 800 "adult" adult prisoners.

A state whose forbearers eliminated the death penalty due to the moving temperance speeches and last words delivered by a man who killed his partner in a drunken rage and remorsefully walked to the gallows, Michigan has a history of treating those of its citizens who often cannot legally drive a car, smoke, drink, or consent to the touch of another excessively harsh --the harshest, in fact, in the entire world. While the United States of America only officially stopped executing juveniles in 2005, it had been many, many years since any juvenile was actually executed. Instead, states have taken to sentencing juveniles to life in prison without any possibility of parole or early release -- sentencing them to live out the rest of their lifespans (the average lifespan for a juvenile serving life is 52 years) and die in prison. Michigan took the lead, sentencing its juveniles to life without parole at a higher rate than any other state or country in the world. Before the United States Supreme Court banned the practice in 2012, Michigan mandated that any juvenile found guilty of any amount of participation in a premeditated murder (even if it was a plan that wasn't carried out) or a death caused by anyone during the commission of any felony be sentenced to the state's maximum sentence. Hence, Kevin Boyd. who at 16 gave his estranged mother the keys to his father's house, which she and her lover used to rob and murder his father, receives the same penalty as John Norman Collins, a serial killer who cruised Michigan college campuses raping and murdering students. Hence, Cedric King, who at 14 accompanied his older brother to the apartment of a man who was subsequently shot in the leg by the older brother (the man survived) will die in prison (for his charge of conspiring to kill the man) while Charles Manson currently is eligible for parole. Hence, Nicole Dupree, who at 17 sat in restaurant while her older boyfriend excused himself and secretly left to rob and murder a woman whom Nicole had cared for (Nicole always maintained she knew nothing of the crime) will spend the rest of her life incarcerated while Gavrilo Princip, who started World War I by assassinating the Archduke of the empire my great-grandfather was conscripted by (along with the Archduke’s wife and others) as part of a terrorist organization, got sentenced to 25 years because the early-20th Century aggressive dictatorship held that it would not condemn a juvenile to die in prison by any means.

I recently watched an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where a teenage boy was accused of a heinous crime. Detective Stabler, the archetypal hardened detective who plays by his own rules but also has a soft, compassionate side, makes it his mission to find out why the tragedy happened --what made the boy capable of such a thing. The other detectives in the unit debate the culpability of children and investigate leads that might mitigate the boy's responsibility. The unit psychiatrist, soft-spoken but determined Dr. Hong performs a forensic psychiatric evaluation on the boy right there in the station, looking and seeking out what may have happened to the child - with the child -during the crime, eventually discovering the boy was far from an adult, far from a sociopath, far from malicious. They guided the boy through the criminal justice system, eventually convincing the judge to have him treated instead of punished. 

When you are a child and are charged as an adult with an adult crime (there are many crimes other than murder that will make a 14 year old a legal adult), the experience is far from the movies or a Law and Order episode. There are no safeguards for you. Justice will not seek out understanding to why the alleged offense occurred, what led up to it, the psychology, reasoning, or capacity of the child perpetrator. If anything, you are considered potentially more dangerous than an actual adult criminal because, "How could you be so young and still be capable?" But no one will go out of his way to find out that answer (unless your parents, who have full legal decision-making authority over your defense, hire a professional... but that assumes they know to, know how, have the money, and care). No rehabilitation is sought for you, nor is any offered. From the moment the prosecutor decides to charge you as such, the only option available to your future is straight, hard punishment and suffering. The only thing you can do is try, as a child, to argue against an adult well-versed in the law and whose many years of schooling and experience have gone into beating you, that you deserve less than everlasting damnation. Your only ally is your attorney, whom you did not hire (and could not have, as you cannot legally sign a contract and probably have no money anyway), and who, if representing you as a juvenile facing a life without parole sentence in Michigan, has a 38% chance of having been publicly sanctioned or disciplined by the Michigan Bar Association for egregious violations of ethical conduct (though, in any given year, only about 0.3% of Michigan attorneys are reprimanded in such a way).

Most Michigan counties have some sort of juvenile detention facility like Children‘s Village, and the state itself runs a few that are designed to both treat and secure juvenile delinquents instead of directly punishing them. After the late 1980's predictions of child super-predators and 1990's reality of Columbine-like school shootings (none of which occurred in Michigan), former Governor John Engler gutted much of the funding and directly closed most state juvenile facilities and mental institutions (the latter of which at one time were considered some of the best and most innovative in the world). The physical plants of the properties and assets were liquidated as well, and emphasis was shifted to the more "cost-effective" outpatient and county treatments and programming for both. These outpatient treatments and programming never really got off the ground however, and the juveniles and mentally ill instead began being pushed into the state prison system (while still cost-effective in the short-term, as a prisoner costs about half as much to house as do juveniles or the mentally ill who need treatment, prison sentences tend to be for longer than those individuals would have been treated for. A juvenile sentenced to life without parole, for example, will cost an average of $2 million over his or her short lifespan). Engler, whose term also saw the implementation of the automatic waiver system --where children 14 years old or older are automatically "waived" to adult court if even so much as charged with a serious crime, eliminating a judge's discretion to even possibly decide to try the juvenile in juvenile court-- is still hailed by many state Republicans as the state‘s premier conservative for balancing the state budget (much of which was also accomplished by negotiating the sale of Michigan's Great Lakes water rights to foreign governments and corporations in China and France). Other states' leaders have been more blunt in recent years over bestowing the responsibilities of adulthood on juveniles as young as eleven. Former Arkansas governor, presidential runner, and current Fox News Channel show host Mike Huckabee brags in his pre-presidential run autobiography about how, after a thirteen year old and his eleven year old brother opened fire on an Arkansas middle school, he lobbied his state's legislature to pass a bill that would have enabled them to be tried and sentenced as adults to life in prison. Interestingly, fellow ultra-conservative show host Bill O'Reilly, a former teacher, has advocated for the elimination of automatically treating juveniles as adults in almost all cases.

About half of the juveniles at Thumb Correctional Facility's Youthful Side are sentenced under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA). HYTA's are youth from l3 to 21 who are sentenced to adult prison for up to three years, after which they are released and their records expunged. Many of those with less serious offenses, who at one time would have been sent to a juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility, end up with HYTA. They take GED classes and one of two vocational classes when there's space available (taught by adults like myself who teach, tutor, and review lessons with them under the supervision of a teacher) for one to two hours a day, and are locked in their cells (in what used to be maximum security units designed to hold some of the state‘s most dangerous adult criminals) for most of the remainder of the day.

Most of the rest of the juveniles there (bearing the full legal adult burden of their mistakes) will be eligible for parole, though about a third won't be until they have served more time in prison than they have already been alive. Only a small percentage of these youth are serving life without the possibility of parole. But there is Christopher Bailey, who has severe cerebral palsy and can barely walk even with the aid of crutches, sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison at age 14. "Sharkboy" Walker, autistic and with a diagnosed emotional and intellectual age of seven, received a sentence of a minimum of 12 years, also at 14. Juvenile adult prisoners are disproportionately of color, disproportionately poor, disproportionately missing one or both parents (who, again, have control over their defense) from their lives, disproportionately mentally ill. Once they leave Thumb Correctional Facility for another prison, they are at a disproportionate risk of sexual predation and rape.

The rest of the world (except for America and Somalia) officially recognizes the difference between juveniles and adults in terms of ability to navigate their criminal justice systems and the juvenile‘s level of culpability regarding their responsibility for crimes they are found guilty of. In America the mantra repeated by lawmakers and prosecutors who advocate these harsh adult punishments for juveniles is "Adult Time forAdult Crimes." This was the title of a Heritage Foundation report, which argued that the United States could not be in violation of international human rights norms as the United States is the only nation that has refused to sign and ratify the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which mandates that "A.) No child shall be subjugated to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by a person below eighteen years of age: B.) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time… "

I have known some juvenile adult prisoners who are psychopaths...predators...dangerous people. Something rarely considered in regards to prisoners is that they too have families, friends, and loved ones. There are some "Youthful Offenders" I would never want free and living near the people that I love. There are just as many who come to prison, perhaps with problems, perhaps somewhat antisocial, but for making a mistake (like a fourteen year old breaking into a house down the street while the owners were away), who are transformed by adult prison culture of criminal instruction, violence, and domination into something they weren’t before, something scary. Perhaps the scariest aspect of the change in these juveniles is that it didn't have to occur. And there are many whom, with guidance and opportunity, would grow up to become actual adults and assets to society. Impetuousness is usually outgrown. Young adults learn that their mothers, fathers, brothers, older friends are not gods who must be obeyed --individuals that, as juveniles, the youth often could not emotionally, intellectually, or sometimes even legally separate themselves from. Incarcerated youth will not get these opportunities, and many, should they somehow manage to sow and reap these traits in the emotional desert of prison, will never have the opportunity to prove to others the men and women they've become.

Were my great-grandfather Jan to have stayed in his ethnic homeland instead of coming to America, and I had been born (along with the juvenile offenders at the Thumb facility) in Slovakia or Hungary, childhood would have been a time to mature into an adult, no matter the mistakes of youth. Instead, for many, youth begins as a period of abuse and violence, only for them to be condemned to a never-ending future of abuse and violence. One of the principles that the United States and other liberal democracies around the world are founded on is the idea that those subject to the authority of a governing body must have the ability to have some say in the governing processes. Should a juvenile of any age, who has almost no legal control over his or her life (due to the fact that their age group has been deemed unable to be responsible for their decisions), be held equally as responsible and treated and punished exactly the name as a fully autonomous adult when they violate (sometimes at the behest of those with authority over them) the laws of a legal system they know nothing about and have no say in? 

What are your teenage years for? Are they to learn? To mature. to grow up, to became an adult? When exactly does one become an adult? At 13 you can be tried as an adult--at 14 you are often automatically so if charged with certain things. At 16 you can drive (with many, many conditions), or become an emancipated minor (but there's the qualifier in the sentence—a minor still). You may be able to consent to sex with a lover. Before than you can never know the intimate touch of another, not legally. At 18 you can vote, smoke, buy a gun. You certainly are no longer called a minor. Most graduate high school. At 19 you are in the final stretch of that seven-year sentence of being a teenager. Are you an adult now? Is it automatic? If not, in those last few months, weeks, days, hours before your twentieth birthday, do you become one? Can you feel the transformation, adulthood suddenly "there?" Or is it gradual, not a specific moment in time --a process, a gauntlet, a crucible, an evolution of gained rights? 

Where is childhood? It was there at Children's Village, in the cries that life was over after being sentenced to nine months in juvenile programming, in pills snorted to make the unbearable burden of youth pass quicker, in the childish faux attempts at escape by climbing the twenty foot inverted fence in broad daylight, inches from security staff. It was there in the sharing of cookies at snack time, in the thought that ingesting certain chemicals really could make the world a better place and the pain go away, in the belief that when we die, we come back as a blade of grass (to be cut down again?).

There is no childhood in state prisons. It is a place of men, not of boys; men who stand up for themselves, who fight for themselves, their honor, and their greed. Their advice --stand up straight, keep your head up, don‘t walk so fast, start doing pushups ("But I already do multiple sets of 75." “You do? That can‘t be--you're so small“). Sometimes taunts from those who thought I couldn't or wouldn't do anything back. Sometimes sympathy --hands reached out to shake: kind words: writing on the underside of my sink (next to gang graffiti) that read, "God loves you" and “Everything gets better." For thousands of children across America, it doesn't.

Sources for The Atrocity of Sunsets

Pg. 4--“(fun fact: this is the original home of the Republican Party..." The Jackson. MI Historical Society
Pg. 5--"A state whose forbearers eliminated the death penalty due..." The New American Encyclopedia. Volume M. Published by Grolier Inc., 1998
Pg. 5--"...the United States only officially stopped executing juveniles in 2005..." Roper v Simmons 543 S.Ct. 569
Pg. 5--"...average lifespan for a juvenile serving life is 52 years..." National Center for Juvenile Justice Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics 1985-2008
Pg. 5--"Before the United States banned...mandated...any sentenced to the state's maximum sentence." Miller v Alabama 132 S.Ct. 2455
Pg. 6--"Kevin Boyd..." "Cedric King..." "Nicole Dupree...
"Christopher Bailey..." Basic Decency --Protecting the human rights of children A pamphlet published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 2013
Pg. 6--"...Gavrilo Princip..." The New American Encyclopedia, Volume P. Published by Grolier Inc.. 1998
Pg. 7--" a 38% chance of having been publicly sanctioned...for egregious violations of ethical conduct..." Basic Decency --Protecting the human rights of children A pamphlet published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 2013
Pg. 8--"...juvenile...will cost an average of $2 million..."
Second Chances: Juveniles serving Life without Parole in Michigan prisons American Civil Liberties Union Juvenile Life without Parole Initiative, 2004
Pg. 8--"...automatic waiver...children 14 years or older are automatically 'waived' to adult court..." Michigan Compiled Laws §764.1f
Pg. 9--"Holmes Youthful Trainee Act..." Michigan Compiled Laws
Pg. 9--"Juvenile adult prisoners are disproportionately of color...poor...missing one or both parents...menta1ly ill.” Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics 1985-2008 National Center for Juvenile Justice
Pg. 9--"...they are at a disproportionate risk of sexual predation and rape." Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974 (42 USC §5633)
Pg. 9--"The rest of the world (except America and Somalia)..
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations Documents "A/6316" and "A/44/49") Pg. l0--"Adult Time for Adult Crimes..." Adult Time for Adult Crime: Life without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens Heritage Foundation report, 2009

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

I am a tutor/teacher, a writer, an artist, and I have been incarcerated since I was 15. I am proud to say that I've helped over 100 young men earn their GED diplomas, and that I've been published in the Harvard Educational Review, The Periphery Magazine, The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing Volumes 3, 4, 5, and 6; won second place for essay in the 2014 PEN prison writing contest, and have been accepted to be published in FENCE magazine and placed third in non-fiction in Vidahlia Press's 2014 prison writing contest.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tragedy 2 Trial & Beyond

By John Ruzas

Life is a saga that we all get to live. Some live it long, and some live it short. Some are fortunate to live it well, while others live it miserably from their first breath to their last. And then there are those of who life simply gets out of the way while it records each blessing and folly ascribed to the "Lifer." This "Lifer" will let the reader decide.

The locale of this saga is the great State of New York, the "Empire State." In September of 1974, the wise men who enact the laws of government, bowed to the pressures exacted by New York's top executive and its law enforcement agencies with the passage of newly constructed capital punishment legislation. The cause of the pressure began with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 ruling in a death penalty case that arose out of the State of Georgia. The case was, Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, in which the Court‘s decision caused a moratorium on death penalty cases across the country.

Like a pebble thrown in a pond, the small ripples of judicial connection reached the coast of New York, where its highest Court of Appeals had before it the capital punishment case of Martin Fitzpatrick, (deceased). Fitzpatrick had been convicted in Oneida County for the slaying of a sheriff and his deputy in Sherill, N.Y. in 1970. Because the Supreme Court‘s Furman ruling rested on Georgia’s failure to establish guidelines that would assist the deliberating jury in their decision of who would live and who would die and because New York’s capital statutes (P.L.§§125.30;125.35) mirrored those of Georgia, The New Your Court of Appeals, in People v. Fitzpatrick, 32 NY2d 400, (June ’73)  ruled New York's capital statutes unconstitutional. The ruling saved Martin Fitzpatrick from society‘s ultimate revenge, i.e., its planned execution.

The year was 1973, and the knowledge that Fitzpatrick was packing up his worldly goods consisting of those meager allowances the State provides for the condemned, and moving from Green Haven‘s "Penthouse Death Row" to begin serving multiple life sentences in general population, caused curses and swears from New York's highest executive, Nelson A. Rockefeller down to the youngest "cop on the beat." The collective response was immediate, and served as music to the ears of those "law and order" wise men in New York's Senate and Assembly. In a press conference held on June 20,'73, Gov. Rockefeller stated, "...I am deeply concerned that the deterrent provided by the death penalty for the murder of peace officers...has been undermined by a recent decision of the Court of Appeals..." Rockefeller went on to explain the State's intent to appeal the Fitzpatrick decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Should the decision be upheld, the Governor stated, "...I plan to offer legislation at the next session of the Legislature which would eliminate the discretionary nature of the death penalty and thus restore the penalty as to the murder of peace officers and prison guards." (Oelsner, "Governor to Seek Death Sentences," New York Times, June 21, 1973).

While the Governor and the Legislature‘s "law and order" politicians were juggling & jockeying for position in order to come up with death penalty legislation that would pass constitutional muster, this writer was oblivious to their shenanigans but for an occasional read in one of New York's daily newspapers. Like thousands of other "ex-cons" on parole, my days were spent in gainful employment since my release in Dec.11,‘72, and whether New York was a death penalty State or not held little interest to me. I had been the victim of my 1960’s addiction to heroin, and in 1968 I paid the price of seven years for two retail store robberies committed with an imitation pistol. My 4yr./8mth journey (in N.Y. a 7yr. sentence was satisfied by 4yrs./8mths., parole to follow) through the State

Prison system was broken up via transfers that saw me "hop-scotch" around the State from Sing ~ Sing to Clinton to Comstock to Attica back to Clinton and ending in Green Haven where I was released before Santa started his rounds in December 1972. A clean and healthy 29yr. old bachelor, I reapplied for membership in the Carpenter's Union, was accepted, and while the stranger, Martin Fitzpatrick was causing Rockefeller. et al, "political apoplexy," I was causing my hammer & saw to join in the construction of the Queens Mall.

Right about here I'm reminded of the old song, "Ce Sera Sera" (Whatever will Be Will Be) sung by Doris Day of film & record fame.

The life of a 30-year-old "envelope pushing parolee bachelor,” whose focus on the future never went beyond day-to-day, was the walking personification of "Ce Sera Sera." Not surprisingly, the focus that escaped this writer was present in abundance throughout the camps of those death penalty proponents who were determined to reverse the Fitzpatrick decision, or in the alternative, enact a new death penalty statute that would sanction State executions. On November 12, 1973, the latter process was required when the U.S. Supreme Court denied New York certiorari in Fitzpatrick (Olesner, "State Death Penalty Permanently voided," New York Times, Nov. 13, 1973, p.1).

Within a week of the certiorari denial the strategy to return capital punishment was up and running, in large part driven by upstate Republicans responding to their constituents, law enforcement, and their own powerful leader, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Through the negative demeanor of those still seething over the Fitzpatrick reprieve, the pro-death "Pols" went to work re-enacting the most politically driven statute in New York's Penal Law. (Clines, "Death Penalty-Seeking A Reprieve In Albany," New York Times, Nov.18, 1973).

It did not take long. Within a year of the New York Court of Appeals decision in, Fitzpatrick (June '73), the "politics of death" took center stage in the 1974 legislative session with the enactment of Penal Law §§ 125.27 & 60.06, effective Sept. 1, 1974. The law was a cold exacting expression of legislative outrage that fed off the cold exacting executions committed by Martin Fitzpatrick. Excluded from the statute was the customary bifurcation process that required a penalty hearing to determine penalty. The law called for a mandatory death penalty in the killing of police & peace officers, and prohibited the trial court (Judge) and jury from sentence involvement. If the jury found the defendant guilty of Murder in the First Degree, i.e., "intentional murder," the sentence was "Death.”

October 24, 1974, was a beautiful blue sky/puff clouds autumn day. It was also a day that marked 55 days since the newly enacted capital punishment statute had taken effect. But did I know that? How would I know? How many New Yorkers knew? Anyway, it didn‘t matter, and I make no excuse for my ignorance. "Ce sera sera"---again.

Driving down the New York Thruway with thousands in cash & jewelry in the car up ahead, helped make the sky bluer. Every revolution of the car‘s tires brought us closer to the "Big Apple" for a juicy bite, and further from the Syracuse jewelry outlet we had robbed 40 minutes earlier. I rode in a car driven by an old "tough guy" whose reputation took a "hit" when his last minute "cold feet" caused him to wait in the car. The occupants in the lead car were his girl friend; their German Shepard; and my robbery accomplice with all the outlet's plunder in the trunk. But, no matter how blue the sky seemed, I had relapsed into "loser mode," and the tragic proof was just minutes away.

After completion of the Queens Mall, I should have hauled my ass down to the Union Hall for another job, but my irresponsible bachelor side decided to take the summer off. I had a "comfy" two-room apartment: unemployment checks that covered rent and more; an Eldorado convertible in "mint" condition that still turned heads though 10 years old: and I was enjoying the affection of an attractive dark eyed divorcee with two youngsters. I met her over a double Dewars "on-the-rocks" that she poured as her job required. Her name was Gina, which would later turn to Joyce, and she tended bar in the cocktail lounge of a motel in my neighborhood. I had worked steadily since my release from prison 22 months ago, and had maintained a satisfactory parole record, so I reasoned that I deserved a summer "fun-in-the-sun" with a ready made family who had invited me into their lives.

Unfortunately, "Ce sera sera" entered play when the heat of our relationship began to wane like the summer sun. Gina's request that I give up my apartment and commit to hers became insistent and a problem. By October I was seeing her less; drinking; getting high; and I owed a neighborhood shylock a "G-Note," ($1,000). So when I got a phone call from a "Dannemora Alumni" with an invitation to "step-out,"(commit a robbery) that's exactly what this "loser" did.

The State Police cruiser eased off the median strip of the Thruway when the lead car drove past it. We watched nervously as it pulled along-side the lead car, then just as suddenly, for reasons we'll never know, it veered off and drove back on the grassy median. To give the appearance of one person in the car I climbed into the back seat, and listened as the radio announced the robbery of Leonard‘s Jewelry Outlet in Syracuse earlier that morning.

As we drove past the S.P. cruiser, my soon to be co-defendant said, "Here he comes,..the hardons trailin' us." I cautioned him to relax. I reminded him that the radio reported no descriptions of the robbers or their car, and besides the car is clean. What I didn‘t mention was that I still had the pistol and a pair of handcuffs I hadn't used. So he drove on while I crawled into the seats fabric, and the Trooper kept coming.

The seconds that passed before the State cruiser reached us were seemingly frozen in time and dipped in "Murphy‘s Law." I considered rolling down the window and dropping the items on the tar-mac, but I felt responsible for my accomplice’s Beretta pistol, and besides, the Trooper might see them fall, I reasoned. He has no reason to search us, stash them under the seat, I thought, but it was Bobby's car/Bobby‘s "pinch" so that was no good. As the seconds ticked I decided, the car is legit: we‘re not speeding; we‘re over 35 miles/40 minutes away; his hood-lights are not flashing, relax, we‘re OK. As those thoughts filled my head, suddenly my kidneys filled as well. What would James Cagney do?

Lying prone on the backseat I saw the cruiser pull alongside, and the Trooper's arm signal us to pull over. My co-defendant uttered a disgusted, "M .... F ..... ,” pulled over on the Thruway shoulder and stopped.

The Trooper parked about 15-20 feet behind us then exited his car. A 6' tall Stetson with a stomach paunch and slow gait walked to the driver's window. In a voice that sounded more command than request he said, "Let me see your license & registration." It was at that point that he saw me lying in the back. "What’s wrong with him?" he asked. Why in the Trooper's mind something was wrong with me, we’ll never know, but Bobby's response was, "Nothing, he's just tired. What‘d I do Trooper...I wasn't speeding." The Trooper’s curt reply was, "I'll ask the questions here."

Feigning sleep, I awoke and inquired, "What's up Bobby?" What was up was the fact that he couldn't produce a driver's license. The car was registered in his wife Pat's name, but he had no license. I was drugged. Here I was feeling bad that I didn't tell him about the pistol while this clown never told me he had no license. I couldn't believe he had driven from the "Big Apple" to Syracuse for the sole purpose of robbery, and he had no license. "Murphy's Law" was at the door with more in store ,... and I couldn't bar its entry.

The Trooper told Bobby to take the money out of the wallet then give the wallet to him. Bobby complied. In looking through the wallet, the Trooper saw a license and asked whose it was. Bobby said it belonged to a friend that left it in the car. The Trooper placed the wallet in his back pant's pocket, then instructed Bobby to exit the car. Bobby complied again, and was told to assume a frisk position against the car. (The following facts were un-rebutted at trial and supported by physical evidence.) This had the makings of a real nightmare on a beautiful sunny day.

I was convinced that the Trooper did not consider us suspects of anything, least of all the Syracuse robbery. I was certain we would‘ve been long ago "magnum revolverized" and sitting on the ground waiting for his brethren's assist were that the case. Eight months later the trial evidence & testimony would prove me right.

After the frisk, Bobby asked if he wanted to look in the trunk? In reply, the Trooper opened the back door of the old "Caddy" and said, "How about you Buster, let me see some I.D." I replied, "My name’s not Buster, it's John," and I attempted to hand him my bank I.D. and Carpenter Union card. However, instead of taking my offered "I.D.," he reached into the back seat and took hold of a green suede jacket I had worn in the robbery. To this day nobody knows why he did it. His manner was arrogant, and with little regard for procedure, but he was a cop doing his job, so I guess that's all the "Whys" he needed.

By then I was fuming at Bobby, the Trooper, and myself. I knew the jacket held a pair of handcuffs I hadn't used, so I got out of the car and grabbed the jacket. "Hey! That‘s not I.D., this is I.D." I shouted, still holding the Union Card, etc. in my right hand while tugging on the jacket with my left. His face registered surprise by my actions, but be continued to tug on the jacket with his right gun hand. Knowing that I was just seconds away from arrest, I let go of the jacket and reached into my back pocket for the Beretta pistol (25 Cal.) that I accompanied with, "Trooper, don‘t make a move."

A lifetime of reckless behavior and bad decisions had come to a head in slow motion seconds. His face went from surprise to shock when he saw the gun in my hand. He dropped the jacket and began stepping back onto the Thruway as his hand reached for his revolver. A voice that sounded like mine said, "Don't do it Trooper, please," but he just stared as his hand came up full of blue steel.

Instinctively, I fired one shot and broke to my right around the car as his shot smashed through the driver's door window. He fired another shot that entered the car's engine block. Squatting behind the car, everything continued to play in slow motion. The whole confrontation was less than a 10 second scenario that seemed unreal, and would be visited by a commercial at any moment. But there was no commercial, only a need to do something next. I looked under the car and saw the Trooper trotting across the median to the Thruway's far side. Quickly, I ran to his cruiser for the keys, which I threw in the weeds to prevent his pursuit. My co-defendant, who had crouched between the cars during the confrontation, now ran to his car for escape. Luckily it was a four-door car, and I was able to grab the right rear door and jump in as he pulled away. The last recollection I have of the Trooper was of him firing another shot across the Thruway as we drove away.

Because the drama had played out before a traveling audience, we were forced to exit the Thruway. Speeding along in search of an EXIT, the absurdity of flight ran parallel to the disbelief I struggled with to comprehend. "C'mon, I'm dreamin' ,... what just happened, didn't just happen,” I tried to convince myself. Regrettably, the wild-eyed look on my co-defendant‘s face, coupled with the mangled window frame flapping in the breeze caused a cold fact. This was no dream. What just happened was the culmination of my reckless, goalless, drug dabbling life, and we were on the run from a gunfight with the State Police. Then the absurdity of escape and flight revealed another fact, i.e., my jacket and I.D. was back on the tarmac, and Bobby‘s wallet was snug in the Trooper's back pocket. Although I had discarded his car keys, I could see him reporting the incident on the car phone, "...Yes, two white guys, one is Robert Donovan, and the one with the gun is John
Ruzas ."

The EXIT sign read Canastota. As we exited the Thruway we saw a couple of cars in line before the booth, and people began to point at our car as we approached. Suddenly the yellow/black striped barrier bar was lowered preventing our exit on the outside. "Crash through it," I told Bobby. "Suppose it's metal?" he replied. "You wanna get out and walk?" He floored the car and broke through it. It was wood. 

Lost in the Canastota hamlet and needing to ditch the car, we did so when we noticed a woman sweeping off her back-yard walkway. There was a car in her open garage. We approached her and when I got closer I showed her the pistol and said, "Lady, we‘re in real bad trouble, you won't get hurt, we just need your car." 

She said the keys were in the house. We entered the kitchen and she took the keys off the hook. I tossed them to Bobby just as her little girl appeared. "Hi Honey, go with Mommy," I said as I placed them in a nearby bathroom. On the way out I pulled the phone cord out and got in the car. As we drove away we had no idea where we were, where we were going, or how to get there.

Approximately twenty minutes later we reached the town of Oneida, N.Y.. I reasoned that the woman must have used a neighbor's phone by then to report us and her stolen car, so we had to ditch it. At a small cab stand, Gala's Taxi, we hired a cab to drive us to Utica which I imagined would provide us cover until nightfall. We were told a cab would return soon, so I paid $20 for the $18 trip, then went to the bar next door, The Crystal Lounge to wait.

I recall thinking that the lounge would be over capacity if more than ten people were lounging. As it were there were only two old timers sitting at the bar being served by a barmaid of equal age. I ordered a beer, then walked over to the phone on the wall. As I dialed the number a news bulletin flashed on the T.V. above the bar. "The State

Police now report that the Trooper who was shot on the Thruway this morning has died on the way to the hospital. Police are searching for two or possibly three white middle-aged males believed involved in the shooting. 

I'll never forget how the two old male heads, and that of the barmaid all turned to look at the stranger on the phone. Their faces had an unmistakable, We Know Who You Are look about them, and I'm sure they saw something in my face as well. I went empty inside. No organs, no function. Everything closed down behind, “Thou shall not kill." Guilt, shame, loss, Mom, survival, sorrow, responsibility and more all flashed through my mind. It was the single most agonizing moment of my many moment life.

I replaced the receiver and walked back to the bar where I drank my beer and said, "Have a good day." I left the bar feeling their eyes push me out the door.

The taxi was waiting with my zombie-like co-defendant who had heard the report on the cab's radio, Our driver was William Jones, whose identity I learned when I insisted he be called as a witness at our capital punishment trial ten months later. William Jones's contribution to my life is that he helped save it simply by his honesty. Despite the opportunity to lie or embellish the facts to appear a hero/celebrity to law enforcement or small town friends, Mr. Jones simply told the truth. The truth was that during the drive small talk was shared that included the shooting report. He testified that we would probably run into on of the roadblocks being Set-up. More importantly, he stated that at no time was he harmed, felt threatened, or ordered to evade the roadblock by us who by that time had nothing to lose. He testified that within twenty minutes we ran into a roadblock on Rte.5, in Sherill, N.Y., where Bobby and I were taken from the taxi and ordered on the ground, hands on heads, bellies in the dirt. 

What William Jones couldn‘t testify to, and what I would later learn, was that, notwithstanding the millions of square miles; its 62 counties; its hundreds of thousands of roads that criss-cross New York‘s upstate landscape, that patch of ground where our bellies met the dirt was the exact patch where in 1970, Martin Fitzpatrick executed the Sherill sheriff and his deputy after robbing a Canastota gas station.

And so it came to pass that, "Ce sera sera, " and a patch of New York terra firma brought the upstate stranger, Martin Fitzpatrick into my life in a most macabre manner. Regrettably it didn't end there for me, for what was to be was the first mandatory death penalty trial, compliments of Fitzpatrick, and conducted in a cash poor county on a cash poor me.

The die was cast, and the cast of characters along with legal skullduggery was soon to follow.

End of Part I

John Ruzas 75-C0385
Green Haven Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 4000
Stormville, NY 12582-4000