FROM The Atlantic Monthly
JOHN DOWERY JR. was happy to be working again. He had recently spent 11 months cooped up, a prisoner in his own home. In November 2003, two officers investigating the sound of gunfire in East Baltimore had arrested him after a car and foot chase. They said that Dowery, who had been riding in the back of a blue Mitsubishi, had jumped out of the car, placed a loaded .38-caliber handgun on the ground, and tried to flee. A 36-year-old heroin addict with a felony drug conviction, Dowery was facing federal prosecution and the prospect of up to eight years without parole. While he awaited trial, he had been “put on the box”—confined to his house, his whereabouts monitored by a transmitter locked around his ankle.
Staring down almost a decade behind bars can change a man, make him long for a second chance. And now it seemed Dowery had been given one. In October 2004, he had cut a deal, agreeing to become a witness in a murder trial. In exchange for his testimony, and as a result of good behavior, the feds had eased the terms of his pretrial detention. He had entered a drug-treatment program and landed a job working the graveyard shift at a condiment factory in the suburbs. For the first time in years, he was clean and sober, and life was looking up.
Each night, Dowery rode the commuter rail from the city to the plant; each morning, he rode it home again. He didn’t mind the odd hours; having worked as a baker, he was accustomed to being nocturnal. Shortly after dawn on October 19, 2005, he got off the train as usual. It was a brisk morning, with clouds dappling the sky but no hint of rain. He decided to skip the bus and walk the mile to his house on Bartlett Avenue.
He ambled past the massive Board of Education building, with its columns, and headed down North Avenue to Greenmount Cemetery. There he turned left, passing the abandoned row houses where the “corner boys” were already opening for business, hoping to find a junkie in need of a morning fix. Farther on, past still-shuttered hair salons and check-cashing outfits, he turned down East 24th toward Bartlett. Just after seven o’clock, he reached his front porch and called out for his girlfriend, Yolanda, to let him in. Then he sensed something behind him.
He spun around to find two men dressed in black standing in his small front yard. One held a gun. As Dowery scrambled for his neighbor’s porch, the man pulled the trigger. Dowery leaped from the porch and raced around the side of his house, the two men close behind him, the gunman firing the whole way. He managed to stagger through his back door before his legs gave out. The attackers, believing their work accomplished, took off. A neighbor would later tell police that she heard one of them say, “We busted his motherfucking ass.”
Dowery had been shot in the back and in both arms and legs—six times in all. Only the skilled hands of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins spared his life. And yet, in the eyes of many people in the blocks around Bartlett, John Dowery had gotten what was coming to him.
IN MANY BALTIMORE NEIGHBORHOODS, talking to the law has become a mortal sin, a dishonorable act punishable by social banishment—or worse. Prosecutors in the city can rattle off a litany of brutal retaliations: houses firebombed, witnesses and their relatives shot, contract hits on 10-year-olds. Witness intimidation, they say, badly hampers their ability to fight crime, and it affects nearly every murder case they try.
Prosecutors in most major U.S. cities tell similar stories. Two years ago in Philadelphia, a drug kingpin was convicted of witness intimidation after he was taped threatening to kill those who testified against him. Five relatives of one witness in the case had already died, in a house fire that prosecutors believe was the drug lord’s doing. Last year in San Francisco, two gang members beat a murder rap after the state’s star witness turned up dead. Several years ago in Denver, a key homicide witness was sexually assaulted in what prosecutors believe was a “contract” attack designed to frighten him out of testifying.
Police and prosecutors have been contending with reluctant witnesses for decades. But according to law-enforcement experts, the problem is getting dramatically worse, and is reflected in falling arrest and conviction rates for violent crimes. In cities with populations between half a million (for example, Tucson) and a million (Detroit), the proportion of violent crimes cleared by an arrest dropped from about 45 percent in the late 1990s to less than 35 percent in 2005, according to the FBI. Conviction rates have similarly dropped. At the same time, crime has spiked. Murder rates have risen more or less steadily since 2000. Last December, the FBI voiced concern over a jump in violent crime, which in 2005 showed its biggest increase in more than a decade.
The reasons for witnesses’ reluctance appear to be changing and becoming more complex, with the police confronting a new cultural phenomenon: the spread of the gangland code of silence, or omerta, from organized crime to the population at large. Those who cooperate with the police are labeled “snitches” or “rats”—terms once applied only to jailhouse informants or criminals who turned state’s evidence, but now used for “civilian” witnesses as well. This is particularly true in the inner cities, where gangsta culture has been romanticized through rap music and other forms of entertainment, and where the motto “Stop snitching,” expounded in hip-hop lyrics and emblazoned on caps and T-shirts, has become a creed.
The metastasis of this culture of silence in minority communities has been facilitated by a gradual breakdown of trust in the police and the government. The erosion began during the civil-rights era, when informants were a favorite law-enforcement tool against groups like the Black Panthers. But it accelerated because of the war on drugs. David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, told me: “This is the reward we have reaped for 20 years of profligate drug enforcement in these communities.” When half the young black men in a neighborhood are locked up, on bail, or on parole, the police become the enemy. Add to this the spread of racialized myths—that crack was created by the CIA to keep blacks in their place, for example—and you get a toxic mix. Kennedy thinks the silence of many witnesses doesn’t come from fear, but from anger.
The growing culture of silence helps to legitimize witness intimidation. At the same time, criminals have become more adept at enforcing the code, using increasingly sophisticated methods to bribe, intimidate, and harm witnesses. Defendants and their surrogates have obtained witnesses’ supposedly confidential grand-jury testimony and tacked it to their doors, along with threatening notes. They have adopted new technology like cell-phone cameras and text-messaging to spread the word about who is snitching; threats have even been text-messaged to the phones of sequestered witnesses. And every incident in which a witness is assaulted or murdered heightens the climate of fear and mistrust—the sense that the law either can’t or won’t protect ordinary people.
ON OCTOBER 13, 2004, a year before he was shot while returning home from work, John Dowery was still electronically shackled to his house. Sometime after 3 p.m. that day, he looked out his front window and saw his friend James Wise coming up the street. Dowery and Wise, whom everyone called Jay, shared a love of basketball—and of heroin. Today Jay was with a younger man Dowery didn’t recognize. They stopped outside the chain-link fence around Dowery’s front yard. Jay called to Dowery, then came up to the door. He seemed nervous. He wanted Dowery’s advice.
Jay said the other man had a gun. They were planning to rob an old drug dealer named Reds, who operated from a vacant lot a few doors down. Dowery told him it was a bad idea. At 40, Jay was no innocent, but neither was he an experienced stickup artist. Even if the two men could pull off the robbery, stickup boys in East Baltimore don’t usually live long: On the street, robbing a dealer is a capital offense. “I told him basically not to do it,” Dowery would later say. “But he ain’t listen.”
Dowery looked on from his front door as the two men walked down the street and entered the “cut” where Reds worked. He watched a flock of dope fiends suddenly flee the alley, like ducks flushed from the reeds. Seconds later, Reds darted out too. Then Jay and his partner emerged and raced down the street.
The two had timed their escape poorly. Sauntering up the street just then was Tracy Love, an athletic 20-year-old with cornrows and a meticulously trimmed beard and mustache, whom everyone knew as “Boo-Boo.” Prosecutors later alleged that Boo-Boo oversaw the Bartlett Avenue drug operation. Jay and his accomplice brushed right past him. As Dowery watched, Boo-Boo pivoted and began to follow them down the hill.
Fifteen minutes later, Dowery heard the wail of police sirens and the thump-thump of a helicopter overhead. Boo-Boo strode back up Bartlett with his younger half-brother, Tamall Parker, who went by “Moo-Moo.” “I got that motherfucker, six times in the chest,” Dowery later recalled Boo-Boo shouting—ostensibly to his crew down the street, but loudly enough that anyone out on the block could hear. “Next time, one of y’all gonna do it. I’m tired of doing this shit.”
According to police and prosecutors, this is what happened after Jay and his partner, a man police would identify as Joseph Bassett, robbed Reds and left Bartlett Avenue: Boo-Boo went to find Moo-Moo. They got into a white Lexus with sparkling chrome hubcaps and began cruising the neighborhood, hunting for Jay and Bassett. Unaware they were being pursued, Jay and Bassett met up with a couple of prostitutes a few blocks away. Jay knew one of them, Doris Dickerson. He told her about the robbery and offered her drugs. She said she would catch up with him in a minute, and walked into an alley. Bassett also left for a few minutes. Just as Doris and Jay were about to meet back up, at the corner of Bonaparte and Robb, Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo spotted Jay. Boo-Boo let Moo-Moo out of the car, then drove around the corner and waited. Moo-Moo tugged the hood of his sweatshirt up around his face, approached Jay, and pulled out a 9-mm handgun. He opened up, firing at least 13 times. The bullets punched holes in Jay’s chest and abdomen; at least one smashed into his skull.
James Sylvester Wise Jr. was dead—the 229th murder of the year in a city that would rack up 278 by the end of December. Although 10 people called 911 to report the shooting, many refused to give their names. Six told the emergency operators that they did not want to talk to the police when they arrived. One caller, John Craddock, said he had seen a man running down the street and jumping into a white Lexus. He could not see the man’s face, but he thought he could make out part of the license plate—a blue-and-white temporary tag with the numbers 3, 4, and 9. Police dispatchers put out a description of the car, but to no avail. Officers canvassed the block but turned up no additional witnesses or information. None of the three who knew the most about the killing—Dowery, Bassett, or Dickerson—came forward.
A MAN GUNNED DOWN on a busy street. No identifying witnesses; no suspects. In this, James Wise’s murder was typical. Colonel Frederick Bealefeld III, Baltimore’s chief of detectives, says the police used to be able to rely on people’s consciences and sense of civic duty to generate leads in murder investigations. But today, few witnesses are willing to offer information, even anonymously. “How hard is it for someone to get on the phone and say…‘The guy who shot up this block—it is wrong, here’s who that person is’?” Bealefeld asks. “Yet we don’t get a ton of those kinds of calls. And if we graphed it out, if we tracked it over the years, you would see a very clear decline.”
A 26-year veteran of the force and the grandson of a cop, Bealefeld has seen these changes firsthand. His grandfather walked a beat on Greenmount Avenue, not far from Bartlett. In 30 years with the department, he fired his gun exactly once in the line of duty. “No way he could walk that beat and do that now,” Bealefeld says. “He took it for granted that the community respected him. Today’s police can’t take that for granted.” By the time Bealefeld joined the force, in 1980, things had become much more dangerous for both the police and the citizens of Baltimore. But during the ’80s, working narcotics, he could still find confidential informants with relative ease. Over time, that too started to change.
Bealefeld says he does not want to underestimate the fear people feel on the streets, or their lack of trust in the law. But he thinks witness intimidation has also become a cover for indifference. “How do I separate your intransigence to take part in a civic responsibility, and a moral responsibility, from your alleged fear?” he asks, the anger rising in his voice. “‘I am not doing it, because I am afraid’—that is easy to say. You may not be doing it because you are a jerk and don’t care about anybody but yourself and have no love for your fellow man.”
Bealefeld is right that disentangling fear from other factors is not easy. But when I spoke with people in the blocks near where James Wise was murdered, it was the fear that was most palpable. “Round here it’s not a good idea to talk to the police,” Jacob Smith, a thoughtful 13-year-old walking home from school in East Baltimore, told me. “People, they like, if they know you talk to the police, they don’t be around you. And if people talk on them and they get locked up, their friends come up on you and hurt you or something.” (The ostracism and retaliation he spoke of got wide airing as a plotline last season in HBO’s The Wire, set in Baltimore and created by David Simon, a former crime reporter, and Ed Burns, a former police officer: A teenager thought by his peers to have snitched was beaten, and eventually his house was firebombed.)
All over Baltimore, whenever I asked people about cooperating with the law, I got the same response. “Why would you talk to the police? All you are doing is putting a label on yourself,” said Barry Nelson, a 42-year-old part-time handyman who was waiting for a meal from a charity the day I met him. “They ain’t going to be back to protect you after you done told on some cats.” Randolph Jones, a retiree who was sweeping leaves from the sidewalk in front of his house in Northwest Baltimore, said he would call the police if something happened on his block. But the drug dealing and shootings on the next block over? He won’t pick up the phone. Jones said the police try, but as soon as they arrest one corner boy, another moves in. “You got to live here, and the police can’t do much,” he said. “You don’t want to end up like that family in East Baltimore, the Dawsons.”
The Dawsons come up in almost every conversation about reluctant witnesses in Baltimore. Angela Dawson had tried to shoo drug dealers away from the sidewalk outside the East Baltimore row house where she lived with her husband, Carnell, and their five children. She had frequently called the police. The dealers decided to strike back. In October 2002, the Dawsons’ house was firebombed. Angela Dawson and all her children were killed in the blaze; Carnell Dawson died in the hospital a week later. A drug dealer named Darrell Brooks was convicted of the crime and is serving life without parole. But the sentence has done little to reassure potential witnesses. More than four years later, the Dawsons still haunt the city.
JOHN DOWERY knew Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo had shot someone; he prayed that it wasn’t Jay, that it was the other guy. But the next day’s newspaper confirmed his fear about his friend. Jay’s death shook Dowery. But it also made him more determined to get his life back on track. And in the tragedy of his friend’s murder, Dowery sensed opportunity. If he told the police what he knew about the killing, perhaps he could get a lighter sentence on his gun charge. On the other hand, talking was dangerous: If Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo found out, they might come after him or his family. So Dowery struggled with the decision. A day went by, then a week. Then he picked up the phone and called his public defender.
On October 27, Dowery, along with his lawyer and the prosecutor handling his gun charge, met with Michael Baier, the Baltimore homicide detective assigned to Jay’s murder. Dowery told Baier what he knew about the killing. He also said that Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo, who were still hanging around Bartlett, had ditched their distinctive white Lexus. His statement provided a crucial break in the case.
Another break came the following week, when Joseph Bassett, Jay’s accomplice, was busted selling heroin to undercover cops. With his long rap sheet, Bassett knew he was in trouble. He tried offering up an illegal .32 he kept at home, in the hope that the officers would let him go in exchange for getting the gun off the street. When that failed, he said he might know something about a murder on Bonaparte. The officers brought Bassett downtown to homicide, where he told Baier about robbing Reds. He also said he had seen two men in a white Lexus circling the block, and that he saw the car stop and a man get out and shoot Jay. Baier showed him a photo lineup. Bassett identified Tracy Love as the driver of the car and Tamall Parker as the shooter.
Parker and Love were picked up two days later. Baier had several other pieces of evidence: The two suspects’ mother had recently returned to the dealership a white Lexus with the temporary license tag 38491L. Video from a warehouse surveillance camera near the murder scene had captured what appeared to be a white Lexus circling the block in the minutes before Jay was killed. An analysis of Love’s cell phone records determined that the phone had not left East Baltimore that day, a finding that directly contradicted Love and Parker’s alibi: They said they had spent the day in their mother’s hair salon, in West Baltimore.
Baier did not have a confession or a murder weapon, however. So at trial, a lot would depend on the testimony of Dowery and Bassett—convicted felons who had come forward at least in part because they were facing charges themselves. Eventually they would be joined by a third witness, also in trouble with the law: Doris Dickerson, picked up for prostitution, told police that she was heading toward Jay when she heard shots. She saw Jay fall to the ground and Moo-Moo run away. She too identified Parker as the killer from a photo lineup.
Witnesses of this sort would once have made a prosecutor blanch. Now, they are usually all prosecutors have. One problem with such witnesses is that defense attorneys can use their records to attack their credibility. The fewer witnesses the state has and the more a defense attorney expects to be able to discredit them, the more likely she is to advise her client against a plea bargain. This means more cases go to trial, at significant expense to the state. And at trial, there is a decent chance—in Baltimore, about 50 percent in a nonfatal shooting, and 38 percent in a murder—that the defendant will walk.
Witnesses in the drug trade are also highly susceptible to being coerced into changing their stories or not showing up in court. If a witness goes missing, his prior statements generally aren’t admissible. And a witness who “backs up”—legal slang for recanting—can create doubt, including reasonable doubt, in the minds of jurors.
Not surprisingly, defense attorneys have a different take. Elizabeth Julian, Baltimore’s chief public defender, believes the problems of witness intimidation are overstated. She told me that the real issue is police tactics that encourage suspects to lie about their knowledge of other crimes, and she pointed out that it is perfectly legal for police to mislead potential witnesses into thinking they won’t have to testify in court. “If you are being asked, and you are getting a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card tonight, people take it. That’s human nature,” she says. In her view, many witnesses who back up are telling the truth on the stand. It’s their initial statements that were false—either outright fabrications or some mixture of fact and rumor. Julian jokes that the word on the street, rather than “Stop snitching,” ought to be “Stop lying.”
AS IT HAPPENED, Dowery decided to become a witness just as witness intimidation in the city was about to explode into a national story. The spark was an underground DVD titled Stop Fucking Snitching that began circulating in Baltimore in November 2004. In it Rodney Thomas, a rapper known locally as Skinny Suge, talks about what he thinks should happen to informants: “To all you snitches and rats…I hope you catch AIDS in your mouth, and your lips the first thing to die, yo bitch.” The DVD also includes numerous segments in which young men on the street rail against snitches.
In its subject matter, the DVD was more evolution than revolution. The slogan “Stop snitching” had been around since at least 1999, when it was popularized by the Boston rapper Tangg da Juice. The video would have remained a local curiosity except for one thing: It includes a cameo by Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native who became an NBA star with the Denver Nuggets. Anthony appears in only six of the film’s 108 minutes, and spends most of that time poking fun at a former coach and a rival player. As he later told The Baltimore Sun, “I was back on my block, chillin’. I was going back to show love to everybody, thinking it was just going to be on the little local DVD, that it was just one of my homeboys recording.” But his celebrity, combined with the DVD’s charged subject matter, created a sensation.
For Baltimore’s police, prosecutors, and judges, eager to raise awareness about witness intimidation, Stop Fucking Snitching was a gift. “Think how bold criminals must be to make a DVD,” Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn told the local press. “It shows that threatening snitches has become mainstream.” Patricia Jessamy, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, had hundreds of copies made and distributed them to politicians and the national media. The publicity helped her win passage of a tougher witness-intimidation law, one the Maryland legislature had voted down the year before. The police department made a show of arresting the DVD’s stars, including a man accused of carrying out contract killings, and created its own video, Keep Talking, to encourage future witnesses to come forward.
Stop Fucking Snitching was produced by Rodney Bethea, a 33-year-old barber and entrepreneur. I met him in his small West Baltimore store, One Love Underground, which pulls double duty as a barbershop and a boutique from which he sells his own line of urban fashions. Bethea told me the authorities and media had misinterpreted the DVD. It was not intended to encourage violence against witnesses, he said; he had simply set out to make a freestyle documentary, and snitching happened to emerge as a major theme. He also said that the term snitch has a very specific meaning on the streets and in the video. “They are referring to people that are engaged in illegal activities, making a profit from it, and then when it comes time for the curtains to close—you do the crime, you do the time—now no one wants to go to jail,” he told me, pulling on his goatee. “That is considered a snitch. The old lady that lives on the block that call the police because guys are selling drugs in front of her house, she’s not a snitch, because she is what would be considered a civilian.”
Bethea believes there is a double standard—and perhaps a tinge of racism—in law enforcement’s criticism of the “Stop snitching” culture. “When you think about it, I mean, who likes a snitch?” he said. “The government don’t like a snitch. Their word for it is treason. What is the penalty for treason?” He pointed out that the police have their own code of silence, and that officers who break it by reporting police misconduct are stigmatized in much the same way as those who break the code of silence on the street.
Bethea’s argument has a certain elegance. But the distinction he draws between the drug dealer who flips and the civilian who is just trying to get dealers off her stoop has ceased to mean much. Just ask the Dawsons. Or Edna McAbier, a community activist who tried to clean up drugs in her North Baltimore neighborhood. The local chapter of the Bloods considered blowing her head off with a shotgun but settled for firebombing her house, in January 2005—not long after Stop Fucking Snitching made news. McAbier escaped with her life, and her house was not badly damaged; those responsible received long prison sentences. But though the gang members didn’t succeed in killing her, they did silence her: She left Baltimore out of fear for her safety. And the city got the message: If you break the code, you are in danger—even if you are a “civilian.”
BY THE TIME OF THE MCABIER FIREBOMBING, John Dowery was starting to reap the rewards of his decision to testify in the state’s prosecution of Tracy Love and Tamall Parker. His own trial had been postponed indefinitely. He had been released from home confinement, his drug-treatment program was going well, and he had started working.
So far, Baier had kept Dowery’s name out of the investigative records, referring to him simply as “a Federal Suspect” and “the Source” so the state would not have to disclose him as a witness until closer to the trial date. He had also deferred taking a taped statement from Dowery, out of concern for his safety. These were sound precautions: On several occasions, prosecutors have intercepted “kites”—letters from a defendant, smuggled out of jail—detailing the prosecution’s witness list and instructing friends or relatives to “talk” to those on it. But Baier could not keep Dowery’s name a secret forever. Sooner or later, the government would have to tell defense lawyers that he was going to testify. In the meantime, suspicions about Dowery had already begun to circulate in the neighborhood. “Somebody approached me saying, ‘Yeah, you snitching on us,’” he told Baier.
The case against Love and Parker languished. A trial was set for early April 2005 and then postponed until May, and then postponed again, and then again—seven times in all. In Baltimore, as in most major U.S. cities, the large number of cases and the shortage of judges, courtrooms, and lawyers make such delays common. Some cases have been postponed more than 30 times and have dragged on for more than five years. And each postponement increases the risk that witnesses who were cooperative will cease to be so—that they will move and leave no forwarding address, change their stories, genuinely forget facts, or turn up dead. “The defense attorneys play this game,” says Brian Matulonis, the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s Homicide Operations Squad. “If the witness is not there, they are ready to go. If the witness is there, they ask for a postponement.”
On May 20, 2005, Baier finally took a taped statement from Dowery. It was delivered to defense lawyers in June. Soon afterward, Dowery got a phone call from Love.
“That’s fucked, man. Why you gonna do me like that?” the defendant seethed.
“I said I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Dowery would tell the jurors during the trial. “I was testifying the whole time. But I just act like I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
A few weeks later, Love called Dowery again. “He like, ‘Man, the other guy, he say he ain’t gonna testify. What about you?’”
Dowery again played dumb. “I say, ‘Man, he lied. I don’t know whatcha talking about. You cool.” Love seemed satisfied. “It was, like, a friendlier conversation the second time,” Dowery would testify.
Dowery was nervous about the calls and about becoming known in the neighborhood as a snitch. But he didn’t believe he was in immediate danger. The trial kept getting pushed back. Summer gave way to fall. Then came the morning when two men met him at his front door with a gun.
ONE OF JESSAMY’S primary weapons against witness intimidation is her office’s witness-assistance program. Unlike the federal witness-protection program—the one most people know about from the movies—Baltimore’s program can’t provide marshals to guard witnesses around the clock for years. It can’t offer witnesses a new identity in some distant city. Instead, the Baltimore program—run by a staff of two, with an annual budget of $500,000—tries to get witnesses out of harm’s way by putting them in low-budget hotels that serve as temporary safe houses. The average stay is 90 days. The program also helps witnesses relocate permanently, generally within Maryland, providing a security deposit or first month’s rent, moving costs, and vouchers for food and transportation. If necessary, it helps with job placement and drug treatment.
In most cases, this is enough to keep witnesses safe. Few Baltimore drug gangs have much reach beyond a couple of blocks, let alone outside the city. Still, many witnesses refuse the help. Almost a third of the 255 witnesses whom prosecutors referred to the program last year did not even come to an initial meeting. Of the 176 who did, only 36 entered safe housing. “Many of these people have never left their neighborhood,” says Heather Courtney, a witness-assistance coordinator. “A lot of people can’t handle it. They just can’t be out of that neighborhood. That is all they know.”
Even after the shooting, Dowery did not want to leave East Baltimore. He had spent his whole life there. His entire family—aunts, uncles, cousins—lived nearby, most on or near Bartlett. This included many of his nine children. In a neighborhood of absentee fathers, Dowery doted on his kids. Two of them lived with him and Yolanda. And he tried to stay involved in the lives of the others.
Eventually the witness coordinators prevailed upon Yolanda, who in turn convinced Dowery that they should leave. After less than two weeks in a hotel, Dowery, Yolanda, and their five-year-old daughter moved to a house outside the city. Most of his relatives remained in the old neighborhood.
THE TRIAL OF Tracy Love and Tamall Parker for the murder of James Wise began on January 26, 2006, in the cramped courtroom of Baltimore Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox. During opening arguments, Christopher Nosher, the boyish assistant state’s attorney prosecuting the case, appeared confident. Although Judge Cox had barred any reference to the shooting attack on Dowery, ruling that the defendants had not been definitively linked to the incident, Dowery would be allowed to testify about the phone calls from Love. For Nosher, this was a coup: Jurors can be instructed to interpret a threat against a witness as “consciousness of guilt.” Evidence of intimidation can also help juries understand why witnesses may back up on the stand.
Nosher had another reason to be confident: He knew that all of his witnesses would show. John Craddock, the man who had caught three numbers of the Lexus’s license plate, had never wavered during the long pretrial process. Bassett, Jay’s accomplice, had been convicted of his drug charges and was serving a seven-year sentence, so he wasn’t going anywhere. And both Dowery and Doris Dickerson had remained cooperative.
In this respect, the trial was unusual. Witnesses so commonly miss court dates in Baltimore, whether from fear or irresponsibility, that Jessamy’s office has resorted to arresting them just to compel their appearance. Jessamy acknowledges that arresting witnesses is hardly ideal—it tends to make them hostile to the prosecution and more likely to back up, and it further sours police-community relations. “But if you’ve done everything you can to get them to come voluntarily, then you do what you have to do,” she says.
That afternoon, Dowery took the stand. He had always been skinny, but in the witness box he looked gaunt. His long, loose-fitting black shirt covered a colostomy bag, a result of the October 2005 shooting. Dowery spoke in a deep, soft voice as Nosher walked him through the events he witnessed on the day James Wise was murdered.
As he began his testimony, a commotion electrified the hallway outside. Several friends of Boo-Boo and Moo-Moo tried to rush into the courtroom carrying cell phones, which they held near their thighs, fingers resting on the camera buttons. Detective Baier was also in the hall, awaiting his turn to testify. He spotted the cell phones and stepped in front of the men, barring their path to the door. “Whoa, you can’t come in here,” he told them. “It’s a closed courtroom.” This was not true, but it kept the men from entering. Then, for laughs, Baier took out his own cell phone and took pictures of them.
Incidents of intimidation at the courthouse are no longer aberrations. Gang members sometimes line the courthouse steps, forming a gantlet that witnesses and jurors must walk through. Family members of defendants have come to court wearing STOP SNITCHING T-shirts and hats. In a Pittsburgh case last year, a key (though hostile) prosecution witness came to court in STOP SNITCHING gear. He was ejected because his garb was considered intimidating to other witnesses, and without his testimony, the district attorney dropped the charges. At the close of a Baltimore trial two years ago, jurors were so frightened of the defendants and of gang members in the gallery that the forewoman refused to read the guilty verdict aloud; so did another juror asked to do so by the judge. The judge eventually read the verdict herself and, as a precaution, had sheriff’s deputies accompany the jurors out of the building.
DOWERY ENDURED A WITHERING CROSS-EXAMINATION, but he escaped the stand largely undamaged. Nosher’s two other eyewitnesses did not. Dickerson developed sudden memory loss, claiming not to recall key details of what she had seen. Then Love’s lawyer got her to admit she was probably high on heroin when the shooting took place. As for Bassett, he backed up right away. “First, I would like to say I don’t appreciate being here against my will,” he said in a high, squeaky voice that seemed incongruous coming from a man of his bulk. He went on to say that he never saw Jay after the robbery, never saw anyone shoot Jay, never saw a white Lexus at the end of Bonaparte, and never told Baier that he had seen any of these things. When Nosher showed him the photo lineup he had signed, in which he had identified Parker as the shooter, Bassett said that Baier “basically picked the dude out for me.” What about his taped statement? He had been forced to make it, he said. “I gave them the plot of the story; they put their own characters with it.”
The jury heard from other prosecution witnesses: Craddock talked about seeing the Lexus and part of the license tag. Baier testified about the investigation, stating that he had not coerced Bassett or helped him pick photos from the lineup. A telecommunications expert testified about the location of Love’s cell phone. Video from the warehouse surveillance camera was shown to the jury. The defense put on no witnesses of its own. But after two days of deliberation, the jury announced that it could not reach a unanimous verdict. Judge Cox was forced to declare a mistrial.
AT FIRST, the prosecutors planned to retry the case. But over the summer, the federal government decided to take over. (With Dowery’s cooperation, it had already been working on a case against Love, Parker, and James Dinkins, a man police believe was involved in Dowery’s shooting.) In late August, Parker, Love, and Dinkins were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin. As of this writing, the trial is scheduled to begin in late March.
Federal prosecutions are one method cities are using to combat witness intimidation. A law passed by Congress last December explicitly makes witness intimidation in a state case grounds for federal prosecution. Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, says the federal government has a big advantage over the states in breaking through the code of silence: leverage. Federal sentencing guidelines provide for long prison terms and, unlike the state system, do not allow for probation or parole. “We don’t appeal to their sense of civility and morality,” Rosenstein says. “We get a hammer over their heads. They realize that cooperating is the only way they can get out from under these hefty federal sentences.”
Some states are looking to bring their laws into line with federal practices. The Maryland law Jessamy helped pass elevates witness intimidation from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by a minimum of five years. It also allows prosecutors to introduce a witness’s prior statements even if the witness isn’t at the trial, if they can provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant was responsible for the witness’s absence. Still, Jessamy isn’t satisfied. The new law excludes child-abuse and domestic-violence cases. And rarely can prosecutors obtain the kind of evidence of intimidation it requires. Even when they can, Jessamy says, trying to persuade judges to apply the law “is like pouring water on a stone.”
Cities are also pushing to increase funding for witness assistance. The federal law passed in December allows the U.S. attorney general to dispense grants to states for witness protection. But Congress appropriated only $20 million annually for these grants through 2010. By contrast, a bill that Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland introduced two years ago would have provided $90 million annually to support state witness-assistance programs; that bill died in committee. Since the start of the new congressional session, in January, several bills to strengthen the protection of witnesses in state cases have been introduced; as of this writing, they are all still in committee.
Federal prosecutions, new laws, more money—these are the blunt instruments of policy-makers. They might chip away at the edges of the problem. But to really reduce witnesses’ reluctance to participate in the judicial process will require something beyond the abilities of cops and courts: a cultural transformation in America’s inner cities. In Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C., authorities have tried to prohibit the sale of STOP SNITCHING clothing (they succeeded in Washington). But there is no indication that criminalizing a fashion and political statement will alter the underlying sentiment. Leonard Hamm, a long-serving Baltimore police officer who returned to head the city’s department in 2004 after an eight-year absence, sees the problem this way: “I think that the community is going to have to get sick and tired of the shootings and the killings and the memorial services. And all we can do as police is be there when they say they are ready.” But what if the community is never ready? Many inner-city neighborhoods have no community. The institutions that once held them together—the churches, the associations, the businesses—are shells of what they were, if they exist at all.
FOR DOWERY, the mistrial was unnerving. Yet in some ways it was better than a guilty verdict. He was still planning to testify for the federal government against Love, Parker, and Dinkins. This would further postpone his gun case. In addition, as a federal witness, he began receiving some token financial assistance from the FBI.
Dowery’s family would visit him in the suburbs. Still, he missed them, and he missed his friends. So he occasionally sneaked back to the old neighborhood for a day or two, usually staying with his mother and trying to keep a low profile. In the spring, he proudly watched his two eldest sons graduate from high school. And he didn’t want to skip Thanksgiving at his aunt’s house, on Bartlett Avenue. “He was tired of hiding out,” his aunt, Joyce Garner, told me.
On Thanksgiving night, more than 20 members of Dowery’s family gathered for a feast. Dowery was in a good mood, reminiscing about old times. Garner remembers that he came to talk to her as she was cooking. She asked if he was worried about being back in the neighborhood. “He just talked about the Lord to us and gave us a big hug and said, ‘God’s got it,’” she recalled. Toward the end of dinner, Dowery excused himself. He wanted to run across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes and have a beer.
The sign over its beige stucco facade calls the Kozy Korner a “Cut-Rate & Lounge.” Two doors separate the bar from the street. The first opens onto a grungy vestibule where a cashier sells beer and liquor from behind a bulletproof window. The second is locked; customers must be buzzed through. Once inside, they are greeted by a dark, narrow room. A Baltimore Ravens poster is affixed to one wall. A rendering of the Last Supper, with a black Jesus and black disciples, decorates the other. Three video gambling machines flash and hum.
When Dowery arrived, a dozen other patrons were packed into the space. He recognized one of them: a former girlfriend called Toot. They chatted inside the doorway while he smoked and sipped a beer. Just after 10 o’clock, the door opened, and two men entered. This time Dowery’s sixth sense—the feeling that had told him to turn around on his porch that morning a year earlier—failed him. One of the men drew a gun, pointed it at Dowery’s head, and fired. Then the other did the same. This time, the doctors couldn’t save him.
And although the bar was crowded, no one has come forward to say they saw a thing. It’s just another homicide in inner-city America, with no suspects, and no witnesses.
JEREMY KAHN is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Fortune, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy, and Slate. Previously, he served as managing editor of The New Republic and was a staff writer at Fortune. He recently moved from Washington, D.C. to New Delhi, India.
As a writer, you want all your stories to matter—you want them to be read, to have an impact. But in this case, that desire was particularly strong. I desperately wanted to wake people up, to make them think about the way in which witness intimidation reinforced the inequality of the American justice system—the way it put whole inner-city neighborhoods essentially beyond the reach of the law. I hoped that out of the tragedy of John Dowery’s death, some good might come. But I have enough experience to know that merely exposing a wrong rarely rights it—that places like East Baltimore would not be the way they are if it were so easy to bring about change.
Since this story was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, the “stop snitching” ethos—some even call it a “movement”—has received increasing attention from the national media. African American columnists, commentators, and community activists have expressed outrage and dismay at the acceptance of this code of silence in America’s inner cities, as well as anger at the hip-hop stars and professional athletes who condone and legitimize it. (Unfortunately, few white commentators or politicians have seemed as exercised.) But the marketing juggernaut that romanticizes “gangsta” culture shows no sign of changing course. So the rapper Cam’ron, without any hint of shame or guilt, freely admits to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that talking to the police would “hurt my business.” Never mind who else gets hurt—that’s none of Cam’ron’s business. Meanwhile, local police and prosecutors—whose business it is to see that justice is served—remain confounded by the epidemic of witness intimidation. In some cities, like Newark, prosecutors have stopped bringing cases in which there is just one witness because of the likelihood that intimidation will derail the prosecution. This policy keeps lone witnesses safe—sometimes—and it conserves the DA’s precious budget, but it hardly makes neighborhoods safer or provides justice to victims’ families.
When I wrote this story, I assumed John Dowery’s murder would never be solved. Police and prosecutors were furious over his killing—determined to show that no one could execute a federal witness with impunity—but they had crashed into that familiar brick wall of silence. I wasn’t optimistic they could break through. Still, Baltimore’s entire law enforcement community—lead by the local FBI field office—was helping to work the case. And as U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein points out in this story, the feds can be pretty persuasive. Eventually, the wall cracked.
On November 20, 2007, almost a year to the day after Dowery was killed, federal prosecutors charged two men, Melvin Gilbert, age thirty-three, and Darron Goods, a twenty-one-year-old known on the street as “Moo-man,” with his murder. Prosecutors allege that Gilbert ran an East Baltimore heroin, cocaine, and marijuana distribution ring that called itself “Special.” Tracy Love, aka “Boo-Boo,” and Tamall Parker, aka “Moo-Moo,” were ranking members of Special, according to prosecutors, and Dowery was killed to prevent him from testifying against the gang. In addition to Dowery, prosecutors allege that members of Special killed at least four others, including at least one other witness. In January 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced that it would seek the death penalty against Gilbert. As of this writing, the case had yet to come to trial.
FROM Men’s Journal
ERIC VOLZ WAS TRAPPED. a large crowd had gathered outside the small-town courthouse, screaming, “Ojo por ojo!”—an eye for an eye. Volz had just finished a preliminary hearing for the alleged rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend Doris Jimenez, and despite considerable evidence pointing to his innocence, the judge ruled to allow his case to go to trial. But the people in the town of Rivas, Nicaragua, wanted more than justice. They wanted revenge.
“We’re not going to let you get away with it,” they chanted in Spanish. “We’re going to kill you.” Looking out the window, Volz could see that the angry mob numbered well over 200, some of them waving sticks and machetes, their faces both enraged and excited at the prospect of violence against the gringo. His only protection was several local police officers, along with a U.S. embassy security officer named Mike Poehlitz. The plan was to escape via the back door, a scheme that evaporated moments later when a friend of Volz’s called on his cell phone and said there was a man with a gun waiting outside.
The only option was to exit via the front, where a police pickup truck waited for them, right in the heart of the unruly crowd. As they hit the street and darted for the truck the driver sped away, and the horde closed in, throwing fists and stones. All but one of the cops also fled; the lone officer yanked at Volz’s shirt and yelled, “Corre!” Run.
Though he was handcuffed and without shoelaces, Volz sprinted down the street with the officer and Poehlitz. Miraculously, they made it a block, then ducked into the doorway of a nearby gymnasium, where they barricaded the door and crept from room to room as protesters hunted for them outside. When an unmarked police truck finally arrived an hour later to escort them to the station, they dashed back outside. The crowd moved in, and people jumped on the car. The driver gunned it, hitting some protesters before speeding off toward the police station.
But Volz, a 28-year-old American who had come to Nicaragua with all of the best intentions, was far from free.
Four months later, in late March, Eric Volz sits inside a sweltering 6-by-10-foot cell at La Modelo prison, in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. He cannot feel the gentle breezes that groom and feather the incoming swells that first attracted him to Nicaraguan shores. If he serves his full 30-year sentence he’ll catch his next wave when he’s 57 years old.
The story of how Volz wound up here is every expatriate’s worst nightmare. He was a well-known resident of the Pacific coast town of San Juan del Sur, a surfer’s paradise that he’d helped promote. His ex-girlfriend Doris Jimenez, one of the prettiest girls in town, was found brutally strangled on the floor of her clothing boutique. Volz cooperated with the authorities, only to have them turn on him, he says, after he offended a local police officer. Despite numerous eyewitnesses who said that Volz was two hours away at the time of Jimenez’s murder, and the fact that no physical evidence tied him to the scene, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The trial, many believe, was a travesty of justice that tests the bounds of the absurd.
“I’d say this was a case of guilty until proven innocent,” says Ricardo Castillo, a well-known Nicaraguan journalist who was meeting with Volz at the time the murder allegedly took place.
“I was really angry that the judge would bend to public pressure so easily,” Volz told Men’s Journal, recalling the judicial farce that brought him here. “I did not kill Doris, absolutely not. And I had no connection to it.”
Volz is handsome, with intense, dark brown eyes. He’s six feet tall, and his muscular frame might make an assailant think twice, but he’s already had to defend himself with his fists in prison. As an American convicted of raping and murdering a Nicaraguan woman, he got into scuffles with a former cellmate, and other inmates have menaced him daily.
“The threat is very real,” he says. “It’s very simple for Doris’s family to pay $500 or $1,000 to send a message to one of these gangs to try and kill me.”
Volz’s imprisonment has sparked an unofficial diplomatic war. His parents and supporters have mounted a media campaign for his release that has resulted in segments on the Today show (among others), so far to no avail. Online, a handful of American and Nicaraguan blogs and websites offer their versions of the truth to the browsing masses. A seven-minute pro-Volz video on YouTube shows him being hustled off to the courthouse over a moody Radiohead soundtrack, while a competing version, by “Nicaraguan Films,” also on YouTube, lingers on him blinking—guiltily, we’re to assume—as the judge delivers her verdict. And Men’s Journal has learned that Volz’s family has hired private investigators to reexamine Jimenez’s murder, which was poorly handled by police.
Volz’s case is far more complex than that of an innocent abroad who got caught on the wrong side of a Third World justice system. At the time of his arrest he was anything but a carefree surf bum; he had fully embraced Nicaraguan culture, and his main pursuit wasn’t leisure but publishing a bilingual magazine called El Puente (The Bridge), which sought to close the gap between Central and North American cultures. Instead, Volz has become a flashpoint for the tensions between Nicaragua’s growing community of relatively wealthy Americans and locals who feel left on the sidelines of prosperity.
The trial left many questions unanswered—such as why anyone would want to harm Jimenez. How a man could be convicted of a murder that allegedly took place while he was on the phone and having lunch two hours away. Was Eric Volz singled out as part of an anti-American backlash—backed, perhaps, by the newly resurgent leftist Sandinista party? Or is the dream of surfing and living in paradise simply untenable? The only certainty is that no gringo in Nicaragua believed in that dream more than Eric Volz, and few have suffered a ruder awakening. “The more politically charged my case becomes, the more nervous I get,” he says.
THE ROAD FROM MANAGUA to San Juan del Sur is like a metaphor for life in Nicaragua: lush and beautiful, but uneven and full of surprises. There are sections of fresh pavement where cars can zoom along, but for the most part it’s a slow, potholed slalom course requiring serious navigation skills.
Once you reach the end of the road, San Juan del Sur sucks you in. Nestled by a horseshoe-shape bay, with fishing boats on the beach, the friendly and relaxed town of 18,000 is not far from some of the best surfing beaches in southern Nicaragua. There’s a magical quality about the place that you just can’t put your finger on, something that inspires first-time visitors to start dreaming about dropping out of the rat race.
“I’ve never once felt unwelcome by the locals; in fact, just the opposite,” says Bryan McMandon, who quit his San Francisco job and moved here in 2004 after visiting on a surfing trip. “Everyone has bent over backwards to help me, especially when I first got here and didn’t know a lick of Spanish.”
Real estate offices line San Juan del Sur’s main drag, and you can still find a beachfront lot for $75,000—a bargain compared to Costa Rica, just 20 miles to the south. “The first time we came here we asked Eric about buying property,” says Volz’s stepfather Dane Anthony.
A little more than 20 years ago, though, San Juan del Sur was a Cold War battlefield. In 1984 U.S. forces planted mines along the coast as part of the Reagan administration’s effort to oust Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega—who was recently reelected president.
“It’s real touchy, real delicate here,” says Jane Mirandette, who founded and runs a local library program. “There are people who don’t speak to their neighbor because of what happened in 1980. We have Contras, we have Sandinistas, we have everything in this town. Emotions run really deep, and people’s fears run deep too.”
Eric Volz first rolled into town on a backpacking trip in 1998. Like most young norteamericanos, he’d come for the surfing, but that wasn’t the only reason. Despite the tabloid headlines calling him “the gringo murderer,” Volz is only half gringo; his mother is Mexican. He spent a semester studying Spanish in Guadalajara and majored in Latin American cultural studies at the University of California-San Diego. “I think Eric always wanted to get in touch with that part of his heritage,” says his mother. “And like everything else he does, he poured himself into it.”
He moved to San Juan del Sur in early 2005 and took a job in the small but bustling local Century 21 office, earning as much as $100,000 a year selling beachfront lots and townhouse condos in developments that were beginning to dot the pristine coast. He began taking photos for El Puente, then a local newsletter, started by an expat named Jon Thompson.
It wasn’t long before he met Doris Jimenez, a slender 25-year-old beauty who worked at the Roca Mar restaurant, where Volz usually ate lunch. Her parents had split up when she was young; her mother moved to Managua, and Jimenez was raised in San Juan del Sur by her grandmother and aunt. She was beautiful, with milky brown skin and a dazzling smile. “Everyone really liked her,” says Gabriela Sobalvarro, Jimenez’s best friend, who calls her a coqueta, Spanish for flirt. She was smart, too: According to one friend she was studying business administration at a university campus in Rivas, about 30 minutes away.
There’s no such thing as casual dating in Nicaragua, at least for the locals. Couples are either juntos (together) or they’re not, without much of anything in between. According to Sobalvarro, Volz and Jimenez hit it off, and after a few weeks of being friends the relationship turned romantic. They became juntos. “They got along really well,” says Thompson, who, with his wife, shared a house with Volz and Jimenez in the latter half of 2005. “Doris was really chill, almost docile.”
Once, when Volz went away for a few days, Jimenez decorated the house with balloons and streamers and baked a cake to welcome him back. “The guy was only gone a week,” says McMandon, who lived with the couple in 2006.
Volz’s mother first met Jimenez on a visit in November 2005. “She was gorgeous, and very sweet,” she says. At the time, Volz was helping Jimenez open up a clothing store, called Sol Fashion, in San Juan del Sur, and his mother helped Jimenez design and decorate the space. “There was something about Doris where you almost wanted to take care of her,” she says.
Jimenez’s friends wondered if Volz returned her affections. “I didn’t like him much,” claims Sobalvarro. “He was always busy with his work and never had time for Doris. I also think he felt that he was superior to her.”
Volz wasn’t the type to go out drinking every night with the boys. He had greater ambitions; he was spending more and more time on El Puente, which he and Thompson now co-owned. Thompson wanted to keep El Puente local and grassroots, while Volz saw it growing into a glossy travel magazine covering sustainable tourism and development in Central America. In early 2006, he wrested control from Thompson in a messy split. “I would call Eric controlling, not just with Doris but in general,” says Thompson. “He was very self-assured, very confident. I’d call him arrogant, but he probably thought he had reason to be.”
In July 2006 the new (and so far only) issue of El Puente magazine was published. That same month Volz moved to Managua, and he and Jimenez broke up. They were separated for about a month, according to friends, but then he began to visit and they would be seen hanging out together. But Volz’s main focus was in Managua, where he had an increasingly complex business. On Tuesday afternoon, November 21, 2006, Volz was working in El Puente’s Managua office with more than a half dozen others when he says he got the call from Jon Thompson’s wife. Doris Jimenez had been murdered.
THE FIRST PERSON to discover the crime was Jimenez’s cousin Oscar Blandón, who told the court he went to Sol Fashion around two in the afternoon and found her body in the back room. She had been gagged and strangled, her wrists and ankles tied. Blandón ran to get Gabriela Sobalvarro, who worked down the street. “When I entered the store, it was a mess,” she says. “Doris was wrapped up in sheets like a mummy.”
Sobalvarro called Volz. “He told me not to let anyone go into the crime scene, including the police, until he got there,” she says. It was too late. A crowd had gathered, and at least 20 people traipsed in and out of the store, touching the body and possibly even moving it, before the police arrived about 20 minutes later and finally roped off the scene.
Although Jimenez was found fully clothed, the police removed her jeans and her shirt and took pictures of her. Marks on her body led them to conclude that she’d been raped, vaginally and anally, an explosive claim that soon found its way into print but was never substantiated. Jimenez wasn’t known as a drinker, but she had a blood alcohol level of 0.30 percent—three times the DUI limit in most U.S. states. The coroner estimated the time of death between 11 AM and 1:45 PM, right during lunchtime, while people were eating at sidewalk restaurants.
“We didn’t see or hear a thing,” says Bob Merrill, whose pizza shop is directly across the street. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Meanwhile, Volz rented a car in Managua and set out for San Juan del Sur, stopping in Rivas to pick up Jimenez’s father Ivan. When they arrived at the scene at around 6 PM there was still a crowd in front of the store, but police had the entrance blocked off. A take-charge sort of person, Volz demanded to be let in. The police refused; when Volz kept asking questions, he says, they turned hostile.
“I know the rules,” says Volz. “You’re not supposed to get involved here, you’re not supposed to get hands-on with a police investigation. But Doris’s family wasn’t doing anything, the police weren’t giving them any answers.”
From this point on his actions would be carefully scrutinized. Spying Sobalvarro, he gave her a brief hug. “He was very cold, very unemotional,” she says. “He didn’t even cry. He asked me if I had eaten, if I was hungry. I thought that was strange.”
The next day, Volz says he was in Rivas when a friend called, saying he’d received a threatening text message: “Your girlfriend, is next.” Alarmed, Volz, his friend, and the girlfriend went into the police station to report it and spoke to a commissioner of investigations named Emilio Reyes. The meeting quickly turned sour. “You drink a lot, don’t you Eric?” Reyes asked, according to Volz. “Do you get violent when you drink? How many times have you hit Doris? Are you a jealous guy? Are you jealous enough to kill someone if they cheated on you?”
Reyes also wondered aloud, “Why don’t Americans take showers very often?”
That set Volz off. “I know my rights, and I stood up for them,” he says. “I was like, ‘I don’t like the way you’re talking to me. If you’re going to accuse me of something, if you’re implying something, do it directly. I’ll get an attorney if I need to.’” He left in a huff, refusing to sign a statement Reyes had given him.
At Jimenez’s funeral on Thursday, Volz helped carry the casket and cried at the grave site. Afterward the police asked him to come back to the station to resume his conversation with Reyes. Volz realized he was in trouble when the police put him in their pickup truck and paraded him slowly through the center of San Juan del Sur, as his friends and acquaintances gaped.
“It was a strategy to immediately build support [against me] and have people start spreading rumors,” Volz says now. The police brought him to the Rivas station and charged him with murder. “I was totally shocked,” says Volz. “I was not expecting that at all.”
The police also charged three other men, including a wealthy student named Armando Llanes, whose father owns a nearby hotel, and who Doris had dated after she and Volz broke up. They also picked up two local hangabouts, Nelson Lopez Dangla, a known drug user, and Martin Chamorro, who had a long-standing crush on Jimenez and who had chided her publicly for dating Americans. Chamorro had scratches on his face, while Lopez had marks all over his body, including his penis. According to the police, the four had allegedly raped and killed her together, led by Volz. In a statement to police, Chamorro alleged that Volz and Llanes had paid him $5,000 to help them do the deed.
It wasn’t long before all of the attention settled on Volz, especially, he says, after a local police official told Jimenez’s mother that Volz had confessed to the crime (which he hadn’t). A few days later the Sandinista paper El Nuevo Diario published a front-page story accusing Volz of leading a brutal gang-rape and murder of “this ‘sirenita’ of San Juan del Sur.” The newspaper’s version was accepted as gospel.
Jimenez’s mother Mercedes Alvarado, 45, appeared often on TV, appearing to sob exaggeratedly—despite the fact that she and Jimenez had been estranged and rarely talked. A volunteer Sandinista organizer, she lives in a small house on a dirt street with a huge picture of President Ortega on the wall. She had met Volz only a few times, but that didn’t stop her from relaying lurid tales of his disrespectful treatment of her daughter, from midnight booty calls to supposed beatings. (Jimenez in fact spent most nights at Volz’s place when they were together, and roommates say they got along well.) Alvarado organized the truckloads of protesters who were brought in for Volz’s preliminary hearing.
“This is my town, and these are my people,” she says. “It was a show of solidarity and support from the people. We knew if the judge found him innocent, he would go free.”
He ended up in El Chipote, the Sandinistas’ notorious underground torture prison in Managua. Clad only in boxers and a tank top, Volz was thrown into a tiny, windowless concrete cell, which he shared with two scorpions and a tarantula. The lights stayed on 24 hours a day, and the dripping moisture bred mosquitoes that feasted on his exposed flesh.
Volz believes Emilio Reyes, commissioner of investigation for the Rivas police—the same man he thinks ordered his arrest and leaked his “confession”—may have sent him there.
MORE AKIN TO A FOURTH-GRADE classroom than a house of law, the Rivas courtroom seats about 25 people, on metal chairs, and testifying witnesses are within arm’s length from both the judge and the court reporter. A large, colorful poster tacked on the courtroom door depicts a hand offering money to a faceless judge, with a stop sign in between. According to the U.S. State Department, judicial corruption is rampant in Nicaragua.
On February 14, the first day of his trial, Volz entered the courtroom wearing a brown long-sleeved parka zipped up to his chin that concealed a bulletproof vest. After the mayhem following the preliminary hearing, Volz and the police weren’t taking any chances. The police took the further precaution of blocking off the streets around the courthouse.
There was no jury, only the judge, a woman from Rivas named Ivette Toruño Blanco. And the four initial suspects had been whittled down to two: Volz and Chamorro. On the day of the preliminary hearing in December, Llanes had shown up with his father and a lawyer and a paper showing he had been registering for classes on the day of the crime. After a closed-door meeting with the prosecutor he was let go. Charges against Lopez Dangla had also been dropped, and in an unlikely twist, he was now going to testify against Volz.
It appeared at first that Volz might have a fighting chance. The medical examiner and the police testified that there was no physical evidence linking Volz to the killing. None of the 100-plus hair samples matched his. There was no semen found in Jimenez’s body, but because she had been embalmed, a full examination was not performed. And the only blood found at the crime scene besides Jimenez’s was type O. Volz is type A. Also, Volz had signed credit card receipts for the rental car; the contract was printed at 3:11 PM. The only physical evidence the prosecution presented regarding Volz was photos of scratches on his back. (He claims they were from carrying Jimenez’s casket.)
Soon it was clear that this was not going to be an orderly, Law & Order-style trial, but more of a theatrical performance. After she finished answering questions, Sobalvarro announced dramatically that Jimenez had confided that Volz had threatened to kill her if she went with another man. Jimenez’s mother echoed that statement, adding that Volz’s family had offered her $1 million to drop the charges against Volz, a claim Volz’s family adamantly denies. At one point during the trial gunshots were fired outside—apparently by police trying to control the crowds—and while the judge retreated to chambers, Alvarado launched an impromptu news conference.
Things became even more bizarre when Lopez Dangla took the stand. According to defense attorney Fabbrith Gomez, he was “visibly incoherent” and “agitated” during his testimony, continually pleading his innocence to the judge even though he was not on trial. Lopez Dangla said he had seen Volz coming out of the victim’s store at 1 PM, and that Volz had paid him about $3 to dispose of two black bags he was carrying. He did not mention Llanes. “I may be lazy and a drug user,” he said, “but I’m not a liar.” (Contacted by Men’s Journal, Lopez Dangla said he stands by his testimony.)
Volz sat patiently through the testimony, consciously controlling his body language. By U.S. standards he had an airtight defense. Records from cell phone towers showed that he was in Managua at the time of the murder, as did testimony from several witnesses, including Ricardo Castillo, who said he had lunch with Volz that day. Several others had also seen him, but the judge disqualified them because they worked for him.
On Friday, February 16, the third day of the trial, Judge Toruño Blanco reached her decision. In open court she either discounted or dismissed most of the defense’s evidence. She discredited the alibi witnesses, claiming they all had business relationships with the defendant, including the journalist Castillo. She dismissed the phone records saying there was no proof that Volz had actually made the calls. (The defense did not call witnesses who could confirm having spoken to Volz on his cell phone.)
She instead chose to accept Lopez Dangla’s testimony, despite the fact that he was incoherent on the stand and had everything to gain by testifying against Volz. The scratches on Volz’s shoulder constituted further proof that he had committed the crime, she said; no mention was made of Lopez Dangla’s numerous scratches. “Nelson Dangla and [another witness] have all the credibility necessary,” she asserted. She found Volz and Chamorro both guilty.
Volz stood blinking in disbelief. “Once I heard the initial part of the verdict, I stopped paying attention,” says Volz. “I immediately started preparing for what was next. It was back to survival mode, focusing all my energy on staying alive.”
FOLLOWING HIS CONVICTION Volz was sent to the El Modelo maximum-security facility. After fighting with his first roommate, he was paired with a 35-year-old man convicted of attempting to murder his wife. “He keeps the place clean, he respects personal space, he doesn’t use drugs, and he’s not gay,” says Volz. “It’s a good situation.”
His parents have hired someone to bring him fresh vegetables and water to supplement the single plate of rice and beans he’s allotted each day. Once a week he gets two hours in the yard; he spends the whole time running. He does yoga stretches in the morning and uses meditation and visualization to try to keep himself centered. “I don’t really have time to spend with the other prisoners,” he says. “Prison is a time to self-explore and really try to make sense of it all.”
Volz isn’t the only one trying to make sense of things. His mother and stepfather Dane Anthony have launched a media campaign on his behalf, beginning with a website, friendsofericvolz.com, that’s regularly updated with news about his case, and lists of things that visitors can pray for if they choose.
The U.S. embassy is tight-lipped, but the embassy monitors his treatment in prison, and legal observers attended his trial. Volz’s lawyers have appealed the conviction, in the hope that—barring further lynch-mob shenanigans—cooler heads will prevail. (Chamorro has also appealed.) “I don’t think [the conviction] was politically motivated,” says Castillo. “This type of thing happens to a lot of Nicaraguans, and it’s really a problem. It needs to change.”
Then again, cooler heads might not prevail. The media campaign has stirred up a backlash in San Juan del Sur; one American journalist had his tires slashed, and a photographer was threatened—by an expat. Local opinion seems to have solidified against Volz. A recent headline in El Nuevo Diario condemned “Pure Lies From the Volz Family.” “I’d say about 85 percent of the Nicaraguans here think Eric Volz is guilty,” says one San Juan del Sur native. “Maybe more.”
To their minds, everything adds up. Volz and Jimenez had split, she was seeing someone else, and he was jealous. He also was said to show no emotion at the murder scene, which struck people as suspicious. He asked too many questions, acted too bossy, and dared to tangle with the cops, which any Nicaraguan knows is tempting fate. Something was up. And, finally, the judge found him guilty. “Justice was served,” says Jimenez’s mother.
In the short run some Nicaraguans might see the case as a victory against the rich Americans who are buying up the country, one quarter-acre beachfront lot at a time. “The locals are starting to realize how much money the gringos are making in Nicaragua,” says one expat. “I don’t think they really knew before. Maybe there is some animosity when a gringo buys land for $20K from a local and turns around and sells it for $50K to another gringo. The local made $20K for land they’ve owned their whole life and the gringo made $30K in five minutes. This has happened plenty, and I’m sure the locals have felt ripped off as a result.”
“I think locals are starting to realize that they’re getting left behind,” Volz agrees. “There’s been more crimes and other things that seem related to the social inequity. I think there’s an underlying tone to the whole real estate boom, and me being a member of that community working for Century 21. They just chose to see this so-called privileged, moneyed real estate guy.”
Volz is annoyed that fellow expats are keeping quiet about his case; he thinks they’re afraid to spoil their budding boomtown, which local real estate websites liken to Cancun in the ’60s. There are miles of unspoiled coastline waiting to be snapped up. One day there will be highways and condos, and the pristine kilometer-long beach that’s listed for $2 million will seem like an incredible bargain. Or so they hope.
DEAN LATOURRETTE is a freelance writer living, working, and surfing in San Francisco. He has written for Men’s Journal, San Francisco magazine, Sunset, and The Surfer’s Journal, among others. He is coauthor of Time Off! The Upside to Downtime and Time Off! The Leisure Guide to San Francisco, and considers himself a leisure connoisseur.
Unlike most real-life crime stories, “A Season in Hell” actually has a happy ending. On December 21, 2007, after spending a harrowing year in a Nicaraguan prison for the reputed rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend, Eric Volz was released—his case having been overturned by a Nicaraguan appeals court. Thirteen months after Volz’s nightmare first began, he enjoyed Christmas dinner in the United States with his family.
Volz phoned me out of the blue, about a month after his release. He would not divulge his location—he was still in hiding, fearing repercussions due to his release (a substantial portion of the Nicaraguan people still believe he’s guilty). It was only the second time I had ever spoken to him, the first being within the walls of La Modelo maximum-security prison in Tipitapa, Nicaragua, in March 2007. It was hard to believe the voice I heard on the other end of the phone belonged to the same individual I had interviewed in prison, when hope for a just outcome in his case was running thin. If speaking to him was surreal for me, I could only imagine how the implausible events of the prior year must have felt to him.
The absurdity surrounding the Volz case is difficult to describe. When I first learned about the story, I was convinced that there had to be more to the investigation than was first reported—that Volz somehow was guilty—and I set off for Nicaragua determined to dig up a smoking gun. That all changed, however, on my first day there, sitting in the courthouse, poring through the case files. What I found was shocking, as much for its incompetence as for its injustice. By U.S. legal standards, it was a slam dunk: The case should have been thrown out before it ever went to trial (in actuality it was originally thrown out, by a judge who was later “dismissed” from the case). But this wasn’t the U.S. legal system; it was a relatively callow and unsophisticated Nicaraguan system finding its way. And this wasn’t just any crime: it was the supposed rape and murder of a beautiful, innocent Nicaraguan woman, presumably by a rich and successful “gringo.” In many ways it served as a metaphor for U.S.–Latin American relations over the past two hundred years, and Nicaraguans were not about to take things lying down. Did anti-American sentiment play a significant role in the trial? Absolutely. But so too did primitive police work, botched legal processes, and small-town justice.
In the end, despite the stirred up anti-Americanism and strained U.S.-Nicaragua relations; despite a bungled investigation, irresponsible media reporting, and a trial gone awry, some very brave Nicaraguans ultimately risked their reputations, their careers, perhaps even their lives—to step up and fight for justice.
And that’s something Nicaragua should be proud of.
FROM ESPN: The Magazine
SHE COULD TELL. But she couldn’t bring herself to believe it, even though the pictures she examined led to very simple observations: that the man in the photo had a head that wasn’t as square, for instance, and a nose that was longer and not bowed slightly to the right. And that his neck was stout but his jaw too strong. And she noticed that the face wasn’t framed by an almost horizontal hairline, like the one on the man she knew, the hair thinning and brown instead of a black flattop, thick and gelled back. This is what she thought, at first, that something was off, until he explained that pictures lie. Until he said the photographs of Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman that she found online were taken several years ago, when he arrived at training camp as a rookie with the features of a young man. Weathering those seasons had changed him, he said, and he was insulted, even a bit embarrassed, that she doubted him.
Kristin* didn’t have much to go on but the pictures. The Jerame Tuman she knew had a rounded stomach that fell below his waist, and arms and legs that weren’t trim. But he was tall, so she slowly convinced herself that if he said he was an NFL tight end, then this is what an NFL tight end must look like. He had shown her a cell phone full of numbers, after all—Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Ike Taylor—and bragged about “his boys.”
In the beginning, Kristin actually got a thrill from hanging out with him in the leather passenger seat of his white Denali, looking out the tinted windows as he navigated the nighttime traffic on the south side of the city, feeling the rap thrum from his extravagant speakers as he bounced in the driver’s seat while speeding through red lights, saying, “Nobody in Pittsburgh is gonna arrest me, I’m a Steeler”—because, well, she was with a Steeler. And when he began to phone her twice a day to wish her good morning or to talk about the upcoming divorce from his wife, Molly, or the custody battle over his son, or to recount the sad story about his mother and his sickly uncle who raised him, she believed. And when he explained that he was changing his cell number every couple of weeks because he was “tired of dating this other girl on the side who only likes me for what I am, not who I am,” she believed then, too. Because she thought he was confiding in her, because he was one of her best friends, and because he was sweet. He once called a 7-year-old family friend to wish him a happy birthday; “How’s my little buddy doing?” he asked. He couldn’t wait to show her his Super Bowl ring, and promised her season tickets, neither of which he followed through on. And she trusted him because while he was at times vapid, he wasn’t above revealing weakness. He once rang her at 4 a.m. to say, “I’m not married anymore. I’m 30. What am I doing with myself?”
Kristin was a good and interested friend; she often bought him lunch and made him dinner, though he always canceled and gave her excuses about being held up by appointments. She overlooked it when he invited her and her girlfriends out on the town, saying he and Hines would take care of the bill, but never showed. She gave him keys to her apartment, though he didn’t let her see his. When he told her he didn’t have time to go to the mall to buy a new pair of shoes, she went for him and picked out a pair with a metallic silver swoosh on the side. And when he told her he lost his wallet, she lent him money. In fact, when he needed help paying rent for his “place on the waterfront,” she obliged, believing him when he said his bank accounts had been frozen in the divorce. When he needed quick cash to go on a trip with some teammates, she asked no questions. And when he told her he wanted rims for his SUV but couldn’t use his credit card because he was about to start paying alimony, she covered him then, too. Over four months in 2006, she loaned him $3,200. And with each loan, he told her not to ask if he was good for the money, reminding her that he could get anyone else to help him if he wanted.
It is because of her generosity that Kristin has been blamed for being gullible, stupid, an outright imbecile even, in a very public way, in a town where you’re not part of the conversation if you don’t love the Steelers. And though it is easy to stare at the same photos and wonder what she was thinking, it’s also impossible to blame her—he was that good. It wasn’t until after he had, in Kristin’s words, “fallen off the face of the earth” for a month and a half that she got pissed and sent a Hallmark card to the Steelers’ training facility, addressed to Tuman, asking for her money back as soon as possible; she’d given him her savings and was living paycheck to paycheck. Then, one day last August, Kristin, a tall, pretty woman with long, blond hair who majored in communications and anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, was riding the bus home from work when she got a call from Steelers security director Jack Kearney. “I hate to break it to you,” Kearney told her flatly. “But you’ve never met Jerame Tuman in your life.”
CONSIDER HER SURPRISE. Or humiliation. Consider her anger, if nothing else. If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, the city at the confluence of steel-black rivers, a town that embodies its football team, you might empathize with Kristin. If you don’t live where flags fly black and gold and the awnings of half the buildings bear the same industrial colors, where gift shops are stocked with candy and soda and Steelers commemorative hats, banners, shirts, baby clothes and not much else, you can probably understand, even as you find it hard to fathom. But if you’re from Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance you’re aware that Kristin was one of three women over two years who were fooled by a man named Brian Jackson, a 32-year-old former car salesman who moonlighted as Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman, third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre, and most curiously, Ben Roethlisberger. And you might deride Kristin, and have a good laugh over a cold Iron City at her expense. Even if you didn’t know what Tuman looked like, you’d at least have been able to see that Jackson looked nothing like a football player. Pretty much, you’d have been smarter than she was.
“The Steelers are next to God here, so I don’t see how someone impersonating one of them got away with it,” says Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
“Oh god, the women were that gullible?” says a woman browsing Steelers towels at Mike Feinberg Co. store, “The Official Home of Steeler Nation.”
“Everyone thinks it’s funny,” says Mike Katic, a bartender at the Buckhead Saloon at Station Square. “I guess as long as the guy had the build of a football player…”
It wasn’t so funny for Tara,* a 24-year-old part-time model who thought she’d met Ben Roethlisberger at a local pizza shop. Two years ago, a big guy wearing a backward Steelers hat and khaki shorts had strolled up to the table where she and a friend were sitting and announced confidently that he thought she “was hot,” before explaining how famous he was and which famous friends he wanted her to meet. Tara and her friend ogled him over their slices, considering whether he was big or athletic enough to be a quarterback.
Though she didn’t know it that day in July 2005, the guy she was staring at was really a middle-class man born and raised in Pittsburgh; a man who, Allegheny County courthouse records reveal, has a litany of traffic incidents, including one involving vehicular homicide, and who now has a July court date to face felony charges of identity theft and theft by deception for impersonating Tuman, and for stealing money from Kristin in the process.
Two days after Tara met him, she spent a few very awkward, if memorable, hours on a date with “Big Ben”; hours she’d like to undo. Their activities included traveling to the Steelers’ training facility, where the security guard who never stops anyone waved at the faux quarterback, letting him through to attend to “some business” while Tara sat in the car; signing a Steelers jersey for Tara’s giddy neighbor and posing for a photo; telling her about his dog, Zeus, over a dinner she ended up paying for because he left his wallet somewhere; and an uncomfortable encounter in which he tried to touch her hand and lean in for a kiss, which freaked her out, because she wasn’t attracted to him anyway.
Whispering recently from her bedroom because she’s afraid her fiancé might hear, Tara says Jackson talked so much about himself as Roethlisberger that she barely got a word in. “He said he just got back from Miami, talked about his cars, about other players,” she says. “He should be in prison, or in a mental hospital. I was leery, but hell, I didn’t know. I didn’t think he was telling the truth, but my friend thought I should give him a chance.”
The day after the date, Tara’s neighbor showed her a newspaper photo of Roethlisberger, and she quickly alerted the police and told Jackson never to call her again. But he persisted, demanding she return his calls and insisting on more dates. He had his friends call her, pretending to be Roethlisberger’s friend or sister, to say Tara was breaking his heart. He sent her a signed football, which she has since “destroyed.” Soon the story was out and she was the laughingstock of talk radio. “It was one of the worst parts of my life, and it wasn’t even a full day,” she says. “Being portrayed as an idiot, it was awful.” Her neighbor asked the team for a replacement Roethlisberger jersey. He never got it.
“When I heard about it, I laughed,” says the real Big Ben. “It was kind of flattering. Then again, feelings were hurt and that isn’t funny. But I hear all the time that ‘someone at a bar is trying to be you.’ It’s because all people talk about in Pittsburgh is the Steelers. Me, I don’t really care. But it made Jerame uneasy. He’s happily married with a family.”
IT IS FAIR to say Brian Jackson thrived on the attention; that his escapades were born not only of malicious conjuring, but of his fantasy. He was Jerame Tuman when he wore his black-and-gold hat askew, sometimes pulled down to mask his eyes, and he was Ben Roethlisberger in his T-shirts and thick-legged sweats, and the official pair of football gloves he wore, sometimes while he drove, as though he’d just come from a long and successful practice. It is not supposition to say he felt comfortable when he dressed and acted the way he did, because his clothes and actions weren’t part of a costume. His dreams had become his waking life. He was part of the team. It’s what made him so convincing. He believed it was all real.
“He put almost incomprehensible thought into what he was doing,” says prosecuting attorney Debra Barnisin-Lange. “He had an answer for any question that may have come up from the women. This type of scam is very embarrassing for the victims; several other women he did this to haven’t come forward. It’s the way all cons run. He said he was a Steeler, but in another instance someone might say, ‘I won the lottery,’ but they don’t have a bank account to cash their check. Once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.”
According to courthouse officials, he knew more than enough about the Steelers to work a room with tales of the team. Those familiar with the case say he had an encyclopedic, nearly obsessive knowledge of the men he said he was: he knew where they were born, where they went to school, what they drove, the names of parents and wives and children and pets. And he could recall a player’s TV highlights as if living inside the moments of another man’s life. He regarded a woman he was trying to impress the same way an athlete might regard a trophy. According to the women, he was funny, at times charming and caring. He trolled the strip downtown near the practice facility on weekends in his Denali or black Impala or blue Mustang, and ate lunch at Nakama, the sushi place frequented by Steelers during the season.
Jackson put himself amid the passing drunks in Steelers jerseys and among the women who packed the sidewalks by Primanti Bros. and Cottage Jewelry and Sunny’s Fashions, with the clothing racks out front and the black-and-gold Pittsburgh City Paper boxes at their waists. There were always more than enough fans around eager to celebrate in his presence. In the murk of a rowdy night, his sort-of-familiar face and confident stories—Yeah, I’m waiting for Hines, he should be here any minute—were truth enough.
“This city lives, eats, breathes Steelers,” says detective Frances LaQuatra, a season ticket-holder. “They are always the news. The radio people get sick of talking about them all day, 12 months of the year. Working this case, I realized that when people hear something about the Steelers, they think, Why would someone lie about them?”
HE WAS BRIAN ST. PIERRE. And he wooed Annie* with stories about teammates and autographed footballs for kids in her neighborhood. When he suggested she look for him on the sideline, during a game, on TV, she took him up on the offer. But when the camera showed the real St. Pierre, their relationship took a sudden turn. After the game, she called him out as a liar and he called her “crazy” and, according to court documents, said she’d “be sorry” if she pressed charges. He even impersonated Roethlisberger in a phone call not long after, in which he vouched for himself as St. Pierre. Then he followed her home in different cars and materialized wherever she went, which, frankly, scared her to death. That was at the end of 2004, and she still won’t speak of him. “She’s moved on. I don’t want her to relive it,” says Annie’s boyfriend. “She doesn’t want to either.”
Jackson didn’t harass Kristin the way he did Annie or bother her the way he did Tara. No, one day he just went away. He stopped calling Kristin to say good morning or to ask for advice. He stopped picking her up at work so she could buy him fish sandwiches. When he changed cell phones, his old number was the last trace of a man who never existed.
She saved that number, and now it reminds her of that night in March 2006 when she was partying like everyone else on the south side and, after a few cocktails, had picked up her girlfriend’s cell. She was interested and curious and—football fan’s curse—attracted even though she’d never seen him. Like it would be with a lot of people, she says, her desire to talk to him took control. She wanted to find out what he might say, because, “Who doesn’t want to talk to a Steeler?” She left him a message that went something like, “So, what’s up? My girl tells me you’re a Steeler, so…”
But Kristin isn’t stupid. Maybe just a little naïve.
IS IT HIM? Well, yes, of course it’s him, in a baggy gray hoodie and jeans that fall off his behind. He’s been watching out the window of his redbrick house, the one with the unattached trailer in the front yard. He grudgingly opens the glass screen of his front door to greet the unwelcome company, and nearly slips when he steps on the porch.
He doesn’t look so threatening as he clings awkwardly to the door frame. He looks like he hasn’t slept, though, just as he looked when he turned himself in to Detective LaQuatra last year after Kristin came forward and his gig was up. He groveled to LaQuatra that day: “I can’t help myself, I really can’t.” And he doesn’t sound so cocksure now, as he didn’t when he called Kristin right before she pressed charges, to offer this rambling admission: “I just idolize these guys and what they do, and the attention they get from women, and I just want that for myself, and I don’t think I can do it on my own and I just want to be them.”
On this February morning, Brian Jackson just looks angry or nervous or both, like a man about to face felony charges who doesn’t want to be bothered. As the sun hits his face, he stares off to the side, eyes bloodshot-red like kindling.
Are you Brian Jackson?
“No. I’m his brother,” he says.
Well, is your brother home, then?
Do you think he’d want to talk about…
“No, he wouldn’t.”
He’s tall, all right, his head is square, his body sturdy. His voice is as heavy as lead, and standing in front of him, it is not only conceivable he could pass for a Steeler, but understandable, especially in a town that sanctifies the men who wear that uniform but are often unrecognizable without it.
This morning, the Denali with tinted windows is docked in the drive, without the rims. Taking a step back, Jackson shuts the screen door. He’s not wearing his Steelers hat. But he does have on a nice pair of sneakers, with a metallic swoosh on the side.
JUSTIN HECKERT is a native of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and now lives in Atlanta. He is a contributing writer for ESPN: The Magazine. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he was a staff writer at Atlanta magazine for two years, where his narrative work was awarded the City and Regional Magazine Association’s gold medal for Writer of the Year in 2005 and its silver medal in 2006. He has also written for Esquire, the Oxford American, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Vox magazine, the Columbia Missourian, and the Southeast Missourian.
He swindled other women, too. No one knows how many, but the number is probably a lot more than three. Though Kristin, Tara, and Annie all came forward and shared their stories about Brian Jackson with the Pittsburgh police, officials at the Allegheny County Courthouse postulated there were maybe a dozen more women who had been afraid to speak out, even when encouraged to. Not because they were afraid of his physically imposing presence, or his anger, or the thought of vengeance—but because they were much more scared of what something like this, in a relatively small city that thrives off its football team no matter the season, would do to their reputations. The Steelers wouldn’t touch this story. Their PR people, the security director, the players, their agents—nearly all of my calls and requests went unanswered, no matter my vigilance. It was a coup to even get Ben Roethlisberger on the phone, finally, two days before the story was put to press. (When he did talk, he was lighthearted and seemed unbothered when reflecting about all of this trouble.) I walked around Pittsburgh, and drove across its bridges, and passed the empty stadiums, heading into the hills in the ice and cold to ask people if they knew about this. Nearly everyone remembered something about him, or had heard about him, or the women, or had some vague recollection of the guy who had pretended to be a Steeler. No one remembered his name. It was an important topic on local radio stations, but for the most part the hosts just mocked the women, ran bits about how stupid they were, and the sentiment from more than a few Steelers fans was that they deserved what they got, because they were “gold-digging” anyway. Kristin even sent me a recording of one station that (though they didn’t have her name) was merciless in its excoriation of her. The women who did agree to speak with me—none of them had spoken on the record before, and getting to them involved a great deal of groundwork—provided invaluable insight into Jackson, and though none of them had ever spoken to each other, they all had pretty much the same things to say, despite the different experiences they had hanging out with him. While I doubt these women are perfect angels, I also know they’re not the money-grubbing, gold-digging harlots the local radio made them out to be. I literally staked out Jackson’s house to try and speak with him. His lawyers asked him, but he didn’t want to talk. Every day in the morning I’d drive to Brentwood and sit for a few minutes by his driveway; I’d come back at lunch; then at night; and then I’d go again, to ask his neighbors if he still lived there and what times he might be home. I was always looking for the white Denali. It was only the last morning I was in town that I saw it there, finally. (Though he didn’t speak to me when I approached his door, he had his lawyers call me just as the story was going to bed and we were able to print part of his confession in the magazine.) In August of last year, Jackson was sentenced to ninety days in prison and five years probation after pleading guilty to impersonating Tuman and taking $3,200 from Kristin. He gave back all the money he owed her, writing a $1,950 check and paying the rest in cash. He seemed very sorry for what he had done, as though it really had ruined his life. I have wondered if he’ll do it again, though; if we’ll be seeing another blurb in the paper, or on one of the news websites, like the one that originally sparked an interest in me to embark on this story. I’ve wondered if that old feeling, whatever’s inside him, will rear itself, and if he’ll put the gloves or jersey on and take the Denali out of the driveway and head back to the strip on the South Side of the city one night, and what might happen if he does. I asked Kristin what she thought about that. “I don’t know. I think it’s over,” she said. “I’ve moved beyond it. Although, training camp has started here. You never really know.”
FROM The New Yorker
THE RESIDENTS OF CEDAR STREET, a thinly settled road on the island of Grand Manan, would not have considered Ronnie Ross an ideal neighbor even if they hadn’t believed that he was running a crack house. Ross was a slim, sporadically belligerent man in his early forties who had grown up in Nova Scotia and had worked from time to time on Grand Manan lobster boats. He was a devotee of loud music and powerful speakers—both sometimes left on, the neighbors had come to believe, even if nobody happened to be home. He often seemed high on something. Carter Foster, a burly young fisherman who lived across the road with his girlfriend, Sara Wormell, has recalled that one of the first conversations he had with Ross—about two years ago, a few months after Ross moved into 61 Cedar—began with Ross stating that he could see people up in the trees behind his house. Erin Gaskill, who lived with her two small children in the house next to Ross’s, once saw Ross take a two-by-four and smash all the windows of a car parked in his driveway—a car that apparently belonged to his girlfriend. The people who congregated at Ross’s were a rowdy lot. The neighborhood children were so reluctant to walk past the house that the school-bus stop was moved so they wouldn’t have to. Laura Buckley, the proprietor of the Inn at Whale Cove Cottages, who is known on the island for tart speech, recently summed up Ronnie Ross this way: “He had asshole issues that were much larger than just being a drug dealer.”
The calm assumption that some people are just drug dealers is a phenomenon of recent decades on Grand Manan, which lies off the southeast coast of New Brunswick, in the Bay of Fundy. There are older people who remember the days when someone who wanted nothing more than a bottle of beer was faced with a trip to the mainland on the ferry, which runs to Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, twenty miles away. Grand Manan always had more than its share of churches that take a stern view of drinking and carrying on. Whenever the question of opening a liquor store on Grand Manan was being debated in the provincial capital, an islander in his sixties said recently, so many stalwart Christians were so eager to testify in the negative that casual travellers to the mainland couldn’t find space on the ferry. On the other hand, he added, there have always been a lot of people who believe that “the good Lord can’t see you once you get past Blacks Harbour.”
Although the needs of whale watchers and birders and people with vacation cottages provide some employment in the summer, most people on Grand Manan make their living from the sea, in jobs whose rigors and dangers predispose them to a robust celebration of, say, the arrival of Saturday night. From November through June, Grand Mananers haul lobster traps out of the frigid waters of the Bay of Fundy. Starting in the spring, some of them, including Carter Foster, tend weirs—towering herring traps that look like Richard Serra sculptures made of telephone poles and netting. Some drag for scallops or sea urchins. Some work as divers, maintaining the nets used in salmon farms or weirs. Some “wrinkle”—gather periwinkles from the rocks at low tide—or collect and dry dulse, a seaweed that is edible, or at least considered so in the Canadian Maritimes.
Grand Manan experienced a boom in the nineties, but in recent years there have been some economic reversals. The aquaculture industry, which had disease problems, has greatly shrunk. Two years ago, a large sardine factory closed down. A federal program to buy fishing licenses and turn them over to Indian tribes eventually drove the cost of a boat and a lobster license so high that young islanders found it difficult to enter the field as proprietors. Still, someone just out of high school can make a considerable amount of money in the fisheries if he’s willing to work hard. There is not much to spend it on. Grand Manan is seventeen miles long. Since virtually nobody lives on what residents call the back of the island—the imposing cliffs whose shade helps produce high-quality dulse—just about all the houses and businesses are close to the one main road, officially New Brunswick Route 776, which runs from North Head through Grand Harbour to Seal Cove. Given the wait for the ferry and the drive on the mainland to St. John, New Brunswick’s largest city, it’s a three-hour trip to the bright lights. Activities for young people who aren’t interested in church functions have always been in short supply on Grand Manan and so have drug-prevention programs. In the view of the Regional Crown Prosecutor, James McAvity, who is based in St. John, Grand Manan has almost laboratory conditions for a serious drug problem.
In the late sixties, a liquor store finally came to the island, and it wasn’t long before liquor was supplanted by marijuana and hashish, as it was in small communities all over the Maritimes. Grand Mananers who came of age in that period are likely to be undisturbed by the sight of a fisherman lighting up a joint. That tolerance wavers around cocaine and tends not to extend to crack. People said they’d heard that Ronnie Ross was not simply selling crack but selling it to schoolchildren, and they wondered why he was never arrested. Law enforcement on Grand Manan is in the hands of a four-officer detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mountie who concentrated on drug enforcement had spent hours watching Ross’s place from Carter Foster’s or Erin Gaskill’s. A search warrant to go through Ross’s premises was executed, but the evidence required for a charge wasn’t found. One community activist thought of organizing a sort of mothers’ vigil in front of 61 Cedar to monitor the comings and goings, until she heard that Ross kept some particularly nasty dogs. Someone posted a sign, quickly torn down, warning people who turned off Route 776 onto Cedar Street that they were about to drive down a block that held a crack house. As time went on, Ross seemed to grow more brazen. “People on the wrong side of the law usually keep a low profile,” a councillor in the Grand Manan village government said recently, in discussing Ronnie Ross. “He made himself out to be this big-time gangster.”
The big-time-gangster image was fed by having plenty of visitors from the mainland. Grand Mananers are not as wary of people from away as they might have been in the days when just about everyone on the island seemed to belong to one of the families that had been there for generations. In recent years, there has been turnover in the population. Some young people, like a lot of other young people from Atlantic Canada, have moved to British Columbia, which has an appealing climate, or to Alberta, which has an appealing wages. (Carter Foster and Sara Wormell, who are in their twenties, had been thinking about a move to British Columbia themselves.) Some Newfoundlanders who came to work in the sardine factory or the salmon farms have remained. But the mainland still represents dangers that don’t exist on an island of twenty-five hundred people. Stolen goods, which would be recognized in a community as small as Grand Manan, can easily be fenced on the mainland, for instance, and last summer more people reported missing property—especially power tools. It was rumored that the stolen goods were being taken by Ronnie Ross’s crowd, or being accepted by Ross as payment for drugs. One of Ross’s regular visitors, Terry Irvine, a young man from St. John, drove a G.M.C. Jimmy, and some people on Grand Manan began to see the Jimmy as a way of carrying stolen goods off the island and bringing drugs on. The stealing seems to have caused at least as much anger on Grand Manan as any drug dealing. “That’s where it changed, I guess,” Carter Foster later told the R.C.M.P. “When stuff started getting stolen.” On the first weekend of July last year—the long Canada Day weekend, which is roughly equivalent to the Fourth of July—Irvine’s G.M.C. Jimmy, parked in Ronnie Ross’s driveway, was destroyed by fire.
ROSS ACCUSED CARTER FOSTER, AMONG OTHERS, OF HAVING burned Irvine’s S.U.V. Foster pointed out that he hadn’t even been on the island at the time of the fire. That assertion had no effect on Ross, who told Foster and Sarah Wormell that they had better sleep with their eyes open, because “a flaming ball of fire is going to come through your window.” That evening, Ross piled some wooden palettes in his front yard, right next to the street, put a couple of propane tanks on top of the pile, started a fire, and, according to Foster, said that he was going to blow up the entire neighborhood. The R.C.M.P. constables who put the fire out were told by Ross that people at a community meeting had decided to burn his house down. During the next few weeks, various accusations were exchanged, including a claim by Ross that, even before the car fire, someone had thrown a propane tank through his living-room window. R.C.M.P. Constable Gerald Bigger had what sounds like a rather typical confrontation, in which Ross went from obscene gestures and obscene language to picking up a large rock and saying, according to the constable’s report:
“I ought to drive this through you.” I pulled my side arm from my holster, placed it by my side and told him if he raised the rock in my direction he’d be shot. Ronald threw the rock down. He continued to yell, call names and swear. Then, as quick as it started it was over. Ronald jumped across the ditch, said he didn’t like to be called a loser or laughed at. I told him that I didn’t like to be called names. He said he only called me the names because he thought that I didn’t like him. Ronald also accused me of conspiring with the community to burn him out. I told him that I wasn’t part of any conspiracy and that I wasn’t aware of any community meeting to burn him out. Before leaving, Ronald shook my hand and invited [me] to drop by his place anytime for a drink.
A lot of rumors went around the island, many of them about who might arrive from the mainland and what they intended to do to avenge the burning of Irvine’s S.U.V. On Grand Manan, some rumor enhancement is taken for granted. It has always been said that if hailstones the size of mothballs start to fall in North Head they’re the size of icebergs by the time the story reaches Seal Cove. Some of the rumors, though, were disturbingly specific. Larry Marshall, a wrinkler and dulse-gatherer, heard that Ross was importing people from the mainland to burn eight or ten houses, with Carter Foster’s house at the top of the hit list. Marshall’s brother, Harold, whom he customarily describes as “a bag of trouble with a capital ‘T,’” hung around with Ross. The two of them, Larry Marshall told Foster, were “planning to have people come from away with dynamite and machine guns.” A volunteer fireman later told the R.C.M.P., “I heard…that Ronnie Ross had some of his friends come down, supposedly from the Hell’s Angels.” It was said that on July 21st, a Friday, ten thugs were going to be arriving from St. John in an S.U.V., presumably the vehicle that would take them around to the houses on their hit list. The estimate quickly grew to twenty.
Not long after midnight on that Friday night, Constable Bigger stopped by Carter Foster’s house. By that time, there were thirty or forty men in Foster’s yard. A number of them were, in Foster’s words, people “who’d had something stolen and knew where it went.” Some were people who had come from a baseball game and were still in their uniforms. Some were older men who were saying that Carter Foster and his neighbors oughtn’t to put up with Ronnie Ross. Constable Bigger informed Foster that the rumor about twenty hoodlums arriving from the mainland wasn’t true. Irvine’s new vehicle, a white G.M.C. Yukon, had been stopped by the R.C.M.P. when it left the ferry and had turned out to contain only three men and no weapons. Foster told Bigger that he had, in fact, spotted the three men at Ross’s. According to the constable’s report, Foster said that if the crowd at 61 Cedar started something, he and his friends were going to finish it. Sara Wormell, a polite young woman who likes to take photographs and keep journals, had put her dog and some family papers and favorite photographs in her car. “I thought for sure our house was going to be burnt down,” she later said.
The talk on both sides of houses being burned down would have come as no surprise to one summer resident—Marc Shell, the Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who recently completed research for a book called “Grand Manan; or, a Short History of North America.” Shell concluded that on Grand Manan, which has always been lightly policed by officers sent from the mainland, “unpopular groups are often driven off island by fire” and “sometimes the only form of law enforcement is illegal police-enforced banishment.” As far back as 1839, for instance, the Episcopal church was destroyed by fire, and any question about whether the blaze had been started by what a church statement called “a sacrilegious incendiary” was settled by a note at the scene containing, according to the same statement, “language which betokens premeditated malevolence and hostility against the Bishop of the Diocese, against the Rector of this Parish in particular, and four other persons of this County.” All of the men brought to trial for the arson were acquitted.
“THE IDEA WAS to put the fear of God in ’em, get ’em on the boat, and get ’em the hell off the island,” a lifelong Grand Mananer said recently. “But it got out of hand.” On Friday the twenty-first, Erin Gaskill was told that she might want to have her children sleep over at their grandmother’s that evening. According to later court testimony, there had been hints, or perhaps more than hints, from the R.C.M.P. that calls involving Ronnie Ross would not draw a swift response. For a while, the people in Foster’s yard seemed less like a group of aroused citizens than like a bunch of men attending a barbecue. Accounts of what happened when the trouble started are imprecise. It was dark. People on both sides of Cedar Street had been drinking. It’s clear that the sides were not evenly matched—there were fewer than a dozen people at Ross’s—and were not cleanly divided between outsiders and islanders. Some of the people at Ross’s house were from Grand Manan and a few of the people on Carter Foster’s side of the street may at times have tempered their outrage at drug dealers with a few purchases of their own. It’s clear that at one point some of the men on Foster’s side were carrying bats, and at least one of Ross’s crew had a knife taped to a pole. Shortly after midnight, Carter Foster and several companions moved into Cedar Street to confront the men who had come out of Ross’s house. “You’re going to fucking get off the island!” Foster shouted at Ross. He and Ross began to fight. Foster, who was winning, had Ross in a choke hold when the shooting started.
The shots seemed to be coming from Ross’s house. Foster let go of Ross, went back to his own house, and got his rifle—a high-powered sniper model that he is licensed to use on seals that get into the herring weirs. He climbed onto the roof and started shooting at the white Yukon parked in Ross’s driveway. He fired at least once at Ross’s porch light. “People in my group were saying, ‘Shoot the shooter,’” Foster later told the R.C.M.P. “I can’t do that. I couldn’t even put a person in my sights…. So I proceeded to shoot the vehicle to disable it for our own protection, so they wouldn’t take off and get out of there. And, at the same time this was all going off, some people on our side had rocket flares, pistol flares, different things like that.” The exchange of gunfire went on for five or ten minutes. Remarkably, no one was hit by a bullet, although Ross was struck in the leg by a flare. By the time the three available R.C.M.P. officers arrived, the shooting had stopped and no one was in the street. Later, though, fights broke out that the Mounties seemed powerless to stop. Both Ross and Irvine were beaten up. At some point, a couple of young men from Foster’s side of the street circled around behind Ross’s house, poured out some fuel, and tossed in a match. Flames shot out the back wall, and the people inside the house rushed out the front door.
When the Grand Manan volunteer fire company arrived, the firefighters figured that they might have to reserve one of their hoses to protect themselves, since they could hear shouts of “Let it burn!” and “Off the island!” Rocks were falling near the firefighting equipment. Eventually, the firefighters were satisfied that the blaze was out and they returned to the fire hall. Ross and some of his friends were escorted away by the R.C.M.P., leaving the house empty. Then, at four-thirty or five in the morning, there were explosions inside the house and it burst into flames. When the firefighters arrived this time, they encountered a pickup truck parked across Cedar Street to bar their entry. After that had been cleared away, the fire trucks were blocked by half a dozen people, including Sara Wormell, linking hands across the road. Sooner or later, the firemen were allowed through, but it was too late. Ronnie Ross’s house was beyond saving.
CANADA WAS STARTLED. T here were headlines across the country about the normally serene fishing community of Grand Manan—in the normally law-abiding country of Canada—having resorted to vigilantism. Crown Prosecutor McAvity moved swiftly to bring charges against those who had broken the law, partly to demonstrate that the authorities were not going to tolerate what he called mob rule. The R.C.M.P. was not able to find out who had set the fire that actually destroyed Ronnie Ross’s house, and Crown prosecutors eventually decided not to charge the people who had blocked the fire trucks or egged on the crowd. But five young men who worked in the fisheries were taken to jail on the mainland—arrested for offenses that could potentially lead to terms in the penitentiary. Two of the defendants were charged with having set the earlier fire, and three, including Carter Foster, were charged with participating in the shooting. (Ronnie Ross was charged with the same firearms violation and with having issued the fireball threat to Carter Foster and Sara Wormell.) A week or so after the incident, the R.C.M.P., apparently acting on tips that another person suspected of dealing drugs might be burned out, sent seventy officers to Grand Manan—a show of force that mainly just irritated the islanders. The mayor of Grand Manan, Dennis Greene, asked for an investigation of the R.C.M.P., which he claimed had spent a hundred thousand dollars on an after-the-fact invasion after years of saying that it didn’t have a few thousand dollars in the budget to put a drug-sniffing dog on the ferry.