From Behind the Wire: Column by Richard J. Lester for drugwarprisoners.org
July 2001: The Oddest Thing Happened to Me While I Was Doing Time
I was a businessman for most of my adult life. I owned and operated several small businesses, one of which was a consumer finance company in Northern California. The company had about six hundred loans with an accrual balance of approximately two million dollars. The majority of those funds were borrowed from the bank and then re-loaned to local citizens to purchase used automobiles.
The Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) in Arizona was told by a confidential informant that my finance company was involved in very large amounts of drug money laundering. (Untrue.) The AUSA was ecstatic with the information and after I was indicted searched the company record back to its inception, only to learn through their concerted investigation that no money had ever been laundered through our company – they had been lied to by their snitch.
I have learned there are many facets to our Justice Department. It is not easy to understand the multiplicity of such a vast conglomerate.
One of the divisions under the direction of the Attorney General’s Office is Asset Forfeiture. This unit thrives on this type of disclosure, or confidential information as they refer to it. They have proved that they will stop at nothing to achieve their goal of confiscating private property, even if they have been given false information by a well known and self-admitted perjurer.
Neither I nor my family had any idea that anyone had accused us or our finance company of being involved in a money laundering conspiracy. We were average working folks, a husband, wife, and five kids to raise – proud parents of children who attended Catholic school and brought home good report cards.
Then early on a Friday morning in late September 1992, the Federal marshals, FBI, and the infamous DEA rolled up our drive in numbers that boggle the mind – twenty-six in all came busting through our unlocked front door. In the foyer hung the crucifix and a picture of Christ, a lit candle on the table beneath honored the presence of the Lord in our home.
The agents’ intrusion desecrated that holy place, and their language added to the demonic rampage that followed. “Down on your belly, you son of a bitch, or we will blow your f--ing head off,” they addressed me as I entered the hallway. In my peripheral vision I could see my children neatly dressed in their uniforms ready to leave for school. My youngest son Scottie, seven years old at the time, leaped forward and fell on top of my body, screaming at the agents as he fell, “No, don’t shoot our daddy!”
I will not discuss this outrageous and uncalled for act here or the psychological impact on the children or the psychosomatic results left in the wake of this barbaric invasion. Those few words sounded by the agents resound in my ears, even as I write today. The indelible effect on our Christian family will last more than a lifetime for all of us.
My wife and I were no longer to be normal taxpaying citizens, sharing the burden of government with you. I was reduced to the state of a common criminal, to join the hundreds of thousands of other men and women marked by an insane government.
They left us penniless, without a home, without a business, and at the time without hope. They had not only accused me, but my entire family was tainted by the ridiculous accusation. Not by indictment but by innuendo, by the subtle remarks made by the agents to our neighbors – not teachers or the family priest were spared their inflammatory remarks. No one was left unscathed by the indictment against me.
Since the AUSA had conducted no investigation prior to the indictment, they relied solely on the perjurer’s story. By his accusation alone they brought charges against me, finding soon after they began their investigation that they had been lied to by the perjured informant.
This left the AUSA in a precarious position. The false information had already been leaked to the media. They were faced with the choice of apologizing to me, my family, my friends, and the community, or staying the course and attempting to manage an unmanageable situation.
The agents came to our little community of Eureka, California many times and interviewed hundreds of locals. They searched our home and offices several times and found no incriminating evidence. They found no evidence at all. They took all my books and records and even our computers for examination for illegal transactions. They went back thirty years in our personal lives and uncovered nothing. Every penny and every asset we had was proven to be bought and paid for with hard-earned and well documented funds.
As such, the AUSA did not claim that any of our assets were drug tainted, and presented no evidence to the jury that they were gained through crime. However, they chose to forfeit our assets under the seldom used Substitute Property law. This is a lawful act that would make the founding fathers of this nation vomit in disgust if they were alive today. This type of forfeiture allows the federal government to seize a citizen’s property, even if it can show no crime was committed on the property, and even if the property owner can prove that it was gained through legal enterprise. The Asset Forfeiture Division of the Justice Department was more than willing to participate in the “lawful” conspiracy to seize our assets. But then the Asset Forfeiture unit has monthly quotas to meet.
Since the government found no evidence in our home or business records, they set about to interview all of the six hundred finance company customers. Many of those interviewed read statements the agents claimed they had made during an interview. Several found inaccurate statements, and called our office to complain. I instructed my employees to report what was occurring to the AUSA. The AUSA in turn brought me before the judge. The judge, after learning that our customers were unhappy with the reports upon reading them, admonished me and instructed me and my employees to have no further contact with anyone the agents had interrogated. This meant all our finance customers as well. The judge also gave me a stern warning, telling me that if more people complained or changed what was reported by the agents, he would have new charges lodged against me for obstruction of justice and have me forthwith placed in the county jail to await trial.
The investigation had effectively muzzled us from collecting past due accounts, as the agents had already examined or were in the process of examining all of the open and most of our closed accounts in their unending search for illegal activity.
We initially charged off three hundred thousand dollars, and ultimately just under six hundred thousand dollars.
That the court ordered us not to contact the customers, coupled with the misinformation being released by the so-called but ill-named Judicial Public Relations Department left little hope of ever recovering any of the monetary loss.
The AUSA had no factual evidence that I was involved in the alleged conspiracy. They relied solely on the statements of their cooperating witnesses and the perjured statements of the confidential informant.
Only after joining in collusion with the AUSA did the indicted co-defendants choose to “offer up the lamb.”
The co-defendants, now government cooperatives, were each given an copy of the perjured CI's debriefings, and were instructed they would be eligible for leniency only if they supported the CI’s allegations. The leniency was part of the deal to corroborate the word of the CI and AUSA. Federal laws prohibit such exchanges, but the AUSA does not feel bound by the laws that govern society as a whole. Each cooperative was promised amnesty in varying degrees: immunity, probation, reduced charges, or reduced sentence for their greasing the wheels of the prosecution . You would suspect that a cooperating witness’ attorney would prepare the plea agreement with the AUSA. Not so. The AUSA prepared all the plea agreements. Co-defendants were told point blank, “Make no substantial changes in this agreement, or the deal is off.” So all signed away their dignity for amnesty, a congenial method of remaining a free person
I was convicted and sentenced to sixteen years in prison with no hard evidence that would support the allegations of cooperating witnesses.
. We lost everything except that which counts for us as the greatest asset of all, our faith. In that we live a rich and abundant life.
I am not a man that lies down and quits when he is flogged with lies and half-truths, a man that rolls over in submission like a whipped dog. I am a man with a beautiful and lovely wife and five great-children waiting for me at home. I owe them not only my love and steadfastness, but also my financial support.
This brings me to the reason that I write this story. It is the story of a man who decided to offset the government’s acquisition of our assets and the loss of our income. I began soon after I was incarcerated. All I had to draw on was my own true life experience – and with that in mind I penned my first story, entitled “Conspiracy, the Indefensible Crime.”
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m going to write a book about that?” Whoever made that statement probably had a high school education and was articulate in English classes. I was intimidated by the challenge and considered myself a fish out of water. I was forced to leave high school in tenth grade to help my mother to support our family. Writing a book was a far-fetched idea for a farm boy from Minnesota.
I have not written the conclusion of my conspiracy story, for it has not occurred yet. But as it lies gathering dust, I have completed ten other manuscripts and two short story collections. To use that well-worn adage, it can only happen in America – even in an American prison.
An odd thing did happen to this old soldier while doing time. I learned that no matter what comes up against you, if you have the will to fight the battle to the end, you will prevail – no matter the odds, and no matter what a person is faces, which includes the methods of the United States government and the draconian sentences passed by a judicial authority that has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years. Yes, even this will not prevent a Christian from rising from the quagmire of injustice.
I keep my faith in God. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” In the words of that great Adventist Ellen G. White I quote, “In Christ we find peace that the world can neither give nor take away.”
Recently, I was touched as I was reciting my daily devotions. The question was asked, “What is one of the richest periods of your life?” As I sat in my cell pondering the question, the sun extended its radiant light through the bars, and tears gathered in my eyes. I knew the answer then – do you?
This column was written before the writer was transferred to FCI Safford, his present place of incarceration in Arizona.