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After losing all his money in a business venture gone wrong, Warren Stelman does the unthinkable. He gets involved in a sweepstakes scam and makes dirty money. In August of 2012, his world comes crashing down when he is arrested by Interpol in Santo Domingo and extradited to the Southern District of New York by the United States Government to face justice for the crime he committed. This is his story—his journey through hellish conditions in third-world jails, fourteen months in the super-max Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York, and four more years in a Unites States Federal prison. Released in January 2018, he is now home and reunited with his wife and four children. In Gorilla Tango, he recounts the harrowing events that took him from a cushy life-style in the Caribbean to the bowels of prison and how at fifty-three years old he had to adapt to survive in a brutal, violent and unforgiving world. It is a story of personal redemption, spiritual growth, and survival.
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From Businessman to Convicted Felonand Surviving the US Prison System
FromBusinessman to Convicted Felonand Surviving the US Prison System
by Warren Stelman
Copyright © Warren Stelman2018
Published by Fourth Quarter Press
All Rights Reserved.No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,recording or otherwise without written permission of the publisher.
This book is a memoir. Many of the events are a matter of public record, however, they are filtered through the author’s memory, experience and point of view. To protect the author as well as the privacy of individuals and the identity of those who do not wish to be in a book, the names of lawyers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and correctional officers, medical professionals, businessmen and inmates have been changed. The opinions expressed within this book are the author’s personal opinions and are freedom of expression.
Fourth Quarter Press
I'M A CANADIAN IN A USprison. I robbed old people and got caught.
Now I live with murderers, drug lords, bank robbers, mobsters, gang members, arsonists, pimps, pedophiles and a sprinkling of white collar criminals like myself. The white-collar guys received too much time to be in one of the Federal prison camps because they need less than ten years remaining on their sentence to qualify. Once they’re under ten and as long as they’ve stayed out of trouble, they’ll get transferred to a camp and a better life with more freedom. As for me, I’m a security risk because I’m a foreigner. I’ll never see a camp. I’m also a criminal mastermind if you believe the newspapers.
It’s six thirty in the morning, and they’ve just called the “ten-minute move” over the PA system. The “move” allows inmates to go from place to place on the compound before they lock it down again. I’m heading up to the rec yard for my morning workout. I won’t need ten minutes to get there, which is good, because half the time they only leave it open for five. If I’m caught on the compound after the“move”closes, I’ll get a “shot”―a disciplinary incident report or extra work detail cleaning goose shit off the sidewalks, even if it is their fault for closing the move early.
When I first got here, the ten-minute move reminded me of period breaks in high school when you had a few minutes to get to your next class. But this isn’t high school, not even close. This isprison. In here, it’s not the principal they’ll send you to see;it’s the compound Lieutenant who’s ready to break your balls.
I’ve been doing this formore than fouryears now, and I have eleven months lefttothe door. When my sentence is over, I’ll probably be taken to some shit hole county jail to await transfer back to Canada. From there, they’ll either put me on a plane or drive me to the closest Canadian border crossing. We’re in Pennsylvania about a four-hour drive from the border and eight hours from Montreal the city I’m from. I think they’ll take option two to save money.
They won’t tell me which in advance because that would be a security risk. I try and imagine how or why. It’s amusing thinking about someone trying to attack the van transporting me to break me out of my last forty-five minutes of Federal custody. I guess dealing with felons they have to consider everything.
With eleven months to go, if they opened the front gate, gave me100thousand dollars in cash and a ten-day head start, I wouldn’t even consider leaving. Nor would I have on day one. The last thing I need is another five years for an escape charge.
For those same security reasons, I won’t be allowed to call my family to give them a heads-up either. The good news is it will be the last brush with the U.S. justice system I will have to bear before I get my life back. No matter how I explain it, no one will ever really understand. It’s just one of those things that can’t be understood unless you have the misfortune of living it. I hope you never do.
Anyway, I’m still here so it’s best not to think outside these walls. All that does is slow down your time. It’s hard not to think about the future, but I need to stay in the present. That’s how you do time.
The present is my work out “car” has the weight bar for one hour until the next move at seven thirty. Inprison,an exercise group is called a “car.” Therearefour of us, myself, Mark Murdock a big marijuana dealer who worked with a Mexican cartel supplying the tri-state area for years until he got caught. They gave him twenty-fiveyears and he’shalfwayin. The second man is Igor, a Russian gangster from New York. Like me, he’s Jewish. This is his second Fed bid, and he’s two in on anine-year sentence. He’s a huge guy, very strong. He works out like an animal and I wouldn’t want to be the guy who pisses him off. We’re getting pretty close and I know he’s got my back. The last man in our car is a crazy half Irish, half Puerto Rican who goes by the name Ghost. He did nine in a pen in California before transferring to a medium in Kentucky for four more. He got here about eight months ago, and he’s got two more years to the door. He’s really institutionalized, so we’re trying to get him to lighten up. He’s always ready to fight for any little thing he perceives as disrespectful. Oh yeah, respect. A really big deal in prison, but I’ll get to that.
Our car pays four fish a week for the bar. Ready-to-eat mackerel filets in packages that don’t require refrigeration are sold atcommissaryfor one dollar.They are the compound currency. Anything you buy or sell gets settled with fish. Guys gamble for fish, clean cells, shoes and wash dishes for fish. They buy dope or hooch with fish. Some buy sex for fish and a lot of chomos (child molesters) get extorted or robbed for fish. That’s the way the prison economy works. A locker full of fish makes you prison rich. It also makes you a target, so anytime I have a lot of fish, I store it with someone else, for you guessed it, a few fish.
We pay the four fish to the guy who runs the weight pile in the mornings. It’s not an official job, it’s his hustle. There are1300inmates here and only eight weight bars so he makes sure the bar is available for us in the time slot we arranged. That’s how he makes his money. If someone’s using our bar, he deals with it. We pay him;we get the bar, period. In the afternoon andevenings,someone else handles the pile. The guards are here to maintainorder,but make no mistake about it, the inmates run this place.
Everyone has a hustle in prison, a way to make money. The money you earn from your official prison job isn’t enough to make a phone call home. I’m an in-unit orderly. I clean the quiet room, a small room used for reading and studying. The job takes less than five minutes to do, and I’m paid two dollars a month by the government. I pay one of the Mexicans five fish a month to do my job and I earn my money through more viable endeavors.
I don’t ask my children for money. They work too hard for it, and I’m ashamed of what I did to end up here and how my actions impacted them. Oh yes, I should mention that my wife was also convicted and sentenced to four years in Federal prison for the same crime. She’s been home for fourteen months now and doing well, but she had a very difficult time. I won’t tell her story because I think she has to be the one to do that.
Lana and I have been married for twenty-eight years, and we have four grown children. I’m fifty-seven, but I’m probably in better shapethanthe average twenty-five-year old because all we do in here is work out.
The way I see it, once you’re over the initial shock of what’s happened to you and where you are, the situation is tougher on the family than it is on you. If I didn’t earn any money I’d still get three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and the opportunity to take care of my health. They have to survive in the real world with all the pressure of paying bills and meeting deadlines plus spend their days worrying about me.
It amazes me when guys complain their families aren’t sending them any money, or when I hear them on the phone yelling at their wives or baby mamas for not putting money “on their books.” An hour later they’re gambling or buying dope.
So rather than rely on my family for money I always make sure to have a lucrative hustle. I’m in food distribution right now. I have threekidswho work in the kitchen and mule out food almost every day. Stitch and Raz are from upstate New York and Jigz is from somewhere in Maine. They’re all here on drug cases. I know because I checked their paperwork. BypaperworkI mean all the legal documents related to your case, including plea agreement, sentencing transcripts, thejudgmentand commitment listing your charges, sentence and fines and your pre-sentence report, which is prepared by the probation office. They didn’t tell on anyone, and they aren’tchomosso that makes them “good.” In prison, baseline due diligence is checking paperwork before you do anything with anyone. I only deal with people who I know are good. The guards know who the snitches are, and they always work them to find out who’s doing what. Oh yeah, I’m also good. When I got here, people wanted to vet me, so I showed them my paperwork. News spreads fast on the pound, and once it was confirmed that I was good, everyone knew. The guards know why we’re here and how we handled our cases, and the stand-up guys actually get greater respect from them.
Back to thekids.Now that the Feds have terminated their drug selling careers, they work in the prison kitchen and steal food for a living. They’ve been supplying me for about four months, but I’m already developing some new “connects” because Stitch and Raz are getting hot. One of the guards who I know well said that kitchen staff told him to give the kids an extra look when they’re leaving. That means a body search and possibly a strip search. If he’s working the same shift as the kids, there won’t be a problem. He doesn’t care because they throw out so much food after every meal anyway. Other guards will shake them down more often so it’s just a matter of time before they get caught and sent to the hole.
The hole is the SHU or Special Housing Unit. It’s in a separate building on the compound designated for punishment and protective custody. You’re locked down in a ten by ten cell twenty-three hours a day. You get one hour of exercise time in a tiny fenced in area. You get a shower every third day. They feed you through a slot in the door. I’ve been there.
I’m pretty sure they’re stand up kids, and they’ll keep their mouths shut if they get jammed up, but you never know. For a lot of guys, it’s easier to “tell” and get transferred to another prison for their protection, than do SHU time. If they give me up to Special Investigation Service or SIS, they’ll come for me too, and they can leave me in the hole for up to three months under investigation. After three months, they have to release me, but once I walk through the doors to the housing block they can take me away again under another trumped-up charge for investigation. It happens all the time.
In the meantime, I take everything the kids steal by guaranteeing them money every week regardless of their production. So, on bad weeks, they get paid, and on really good weeks, I might top them off a bit. I pay two dollars for whole cooked chickens and two dollars for a bag of sliced meats.
Food sells here like crack. I have an exclusive clientele who buy everything for double. On an average week, I make about100dollars, big money in prison. Because I have no bad habits; no drugs, no drink, and I don’t gamble, it’s more than I can spend. I get paid in fish, and whatever I need, I buy for fish. The prison commissary sells food and other items we need to live. Each unit goes once a week, and each inmate can spend up to their monthly limit of360dollars. Limiting criminals doesn’t work though, and there are ways around it. I know a few, so I always have more than I need. I also make sure to have extra to sell at a profit if someone else needs something and the commissary’s out of stock.
Back to my hustle. I never actually touch the food. I have the kids deliver it to someone who re-packs it and hands it off to another guy who works at the yard. He delivers it to my customers. I have a standing arrangement with the New York Italians who buy everything I have. They can buy chicken from the Mexicans or the Puerto Ricans for a dollar less, but they like the reliability I offer. They even invite me to sit with them at their table in the chow hall, and sometimes I do, but I like to keep my distance. They kill their friends.
I also have another guy who works “veggieprep.” He mules out onions and peppers every day, which I take for a dollar and sell for two.
I plan to get out of the business in the next few months. I’m going to lay off most of it to the Albanians and keep the rest for my personal use. We already discussed it and agreed on terms. Just to be clear, I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman. I keep my word, and I tell the truth. Everyone understands anything can happen at any time because we can’t control the environment we’re in. If you talk and act straight up, you won’t have any problems. When you start bullshitting or trying to beat people for money, you will find yourself in a world of hurt.
You’re probably wondering how I got here. It’s a crazy story that’s for sure. Let me take you back to the beginning.
-APURATE, MANUEL! TENGO QUEir al banco antes de irnos para el aeropuerto.
Hurry,Manuel! I need to go to the bank before we leave for the airport.
-Okay,Jefe.¿Están listos Lana y Andie?
Okay,Boss. Are Lana and Andie ready?
-Están esperando abajo con el equipaje.
They’re waiting downstairs with the luggage.
Manuel and I are leaving my apartment. I live in a high-rise luxury condominium building inSanchenNaco, an upscale neighborhood in what is often referred to as the “golden mile” of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, an island country in the Caribbean.
We’re rushing to pick up my wife, Lana, and our youngest daughter, Andie, who just turned sixteen a few months ago. They live ten minutes from here in Evaristo Morales, another upscale neighborhood.
It’s the first week of August,and,in a fewhours,our flight leaves for Montreal. Our fourteen-year-old son, Jace, is attending summer camp after spending two weeks with his older sisters and grandparents. He starts school in late August, so we have to pick him up and bring him back with us. Andie and Jace go to the American School of Santo Domingo, a private English school.
Lana and I have been separated for the past four years. It happened when we were still in Montreal. We came down here to make money and tried living together, but it didn’t work. The wounds from my infidelity were too fresh. On top of that, I had a terrible drinking problem that developed over a ten-yearperiod, which complicated everything. I was just too far gone and too blind to see it. That was in 2008.
I quit drinking two and a half years ago with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. I hit rock bottom, apparently a prerequisite for the program to work. I was just sick and tired of being dependent on alcohol and dealing with the terrible things that come with it. Life has since improved, and Lana and I are moving in together. That’s another reason for the trip: to tell Stephanie and Paige our older daughters, in person.
Stephanie orRoo, the nickname I gave her when she was little, is twenty-one. Paige is nineteen. We can’t wait to see them. The last time was over the Christmas holidays when we rented a beach front house in Punta Cana, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from where we live.
They flew down with my parents and we all spent two wonderful weeks together.
The last reason for this trip home is mythirty-seventhhigh school reunion. There were reunions before, but I never went. Because of Facebook, people from everywhere are reconnecting and suddenly I’m in touch with old high school friends that I forgot existed. It looks like there will be a huge turnout, so I’m excited to go and meet everyone after so many years. I just turned fifty-three, which is still hard to believe, because it feels like yesterday I was walking down the hallways of Chomedey Polyvalent High.
Manuel is our driver and security person, and he’s been with us for two years. He’s former military, and his primary responsibility is to drive Andie and Jace to and from school and anywhere else they want to go. We don’t anticipate trouble, but you never know, so he’s armed. The kids speak fluent Spanish, and they’re very familiar with the city and culture, but they don’t go anywhere without him; same for Lana. If she wants to get her hair done, go shopping, or meet friends for a drink, Manuel takes her. To Dominicans,white-skinnedforeigners are rich, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. We’re not rich, but we’re doing very well. Everything is relative, and just owning a new car and living in a nice apartment makes us Oligarch rich to the average Dominican.
This is a third world country after all, and the majority of the ten million people who live here are very poor. The average monthly salary is about10 000pesos or250US dollars.
The government does a pretty good job of educating its people, and the literacy rate is quite high. The problem is underemployment, which translates to very low wages. Someone graduating college with a bachelor degree, lucky enough to land anentry-leveljob as a bank teller with one of the country’s big banks, only earns about300dollars a month. A policeman’s salary is about200dollars a month, a situation that leads to massive corruption. In a country where the only way out of poverty is to become a major league baseball player, a politico (politician), one of the lucky few who can become a successful entrepreneur, or a narco (drug dealer) apropina(tip) orsoborno(bribe) can go a long way.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very rich people in this country, and there’s a burgeoning middle class. The golden mile is street after street of luxurious condominium towers with new ones popping up every day. Foreign money is pouring into the country at unprecedented rates. Thereareworld-classshopping malls and office towers. There are well known American businesses and brands, major hotel and real estate projects and a brand new underground metro system. New roadway and highway infrastructureisbringing economic growth to areas of the island that were too difficult to reach when we first came here. The country is changing rapidly and Santo Domingo is at the pinnacle offering everything you can get in any major North American city, including great entertainment, fine dining, amazing shopping, artandculture. With somemoneyyou can live very nicely here. We love it.
After Manuel drives the kids to school, he spends the day in our office running errands or helping with anything that needs doing. At two thirty, he picks the kids up and brings them home. At five, he goes to our other office to pick up the daily receipts from the small finance company we started so he can deposit them in the bank.
The business has been growing and the deposits have become substantial. I warn Manuel not to get complacent. He instinctively knows to take a different route and go to a different bank branch every day, but he still has to be alert. The possibility of getting robbed while making his run is very real.
As for me, I don’t have my own driver. I don’t want one. Instead, I carry ahandgunon my hip at the small of my back, which is obvious to anyone really looking. Seeing a weapon deters most. They don’t expect this from agringoand immediately assume I must be someone importantbecause atourist, or visiting businessman, would never carry a weapon. I also keep aGlockin the glove box, just in case. My Spanish is good; I worked hard in my first two years here to learn the language. If someone hears me speak, they assume I know the score.
Santo Domingo isn’t the vacation destinationsthat the country’s famous for. It’s the big city. I’ve met foreigners who’ve been robbed, usually because of their own stupidity and naivety. Just the other day,I stopped a young American couple who were riding rented bicycles on a busy downtown street, wearing expensive back packs, jewelry and holding iPhones. I told them to go back to their hotel and change. I understand why they think it’s safe. The cityseems civilized. They see familiar things and police presence everywhere, not realizing that the police may be the first to rob them.
Anyway, Manuel’s helping me today so he’s driving, and I’m in the passenger seat. We’re pulling out of the underground garage in my Kia Sportage; low key is my policy. We stop at the electronic gate waiting for the doorman to open it. Instead, he signals to us, so Manuel lowers the window.
Talk to me,bro, Manuel says.
-Por favor espere un minuto...quiero hablar con Usted.
Wait a minute please. I want to speak to you.
He enters the garage and approaches the car on Manuel’s side, leans on the window frame and says to me;
-jefe, ¿hablaste con el hombre que trabaja de noche?
Boss, did you speak to the guy who works nights?
- ¿No,por qué?
-Porque ayer, vinieron dos hombres buscandolo. Ellos querian entrar al apartementosuyo,pero yo no lo deje entrar. Uno dijo que era policía y el otro era fiscal.
Because yesterday two men were looking for you. They wanted to go to your apartment, but I didn’t let them in. One of them said he was police and the other a prosecutor.
-¿Policía? ¿Fiscal? ¿Estás seguro? No tengo ningún problema con nadie. ¿Por qué me estan buscando? ¿Te dijeron?
Police? Prosecutor? Are you sure?I don’t have a problem with anyone. Why would they be looking for me? Did they tell you?
-Yo les pregunte, pero no quisieron decir nada.Se fueron despues.
I asked them but they wouldn’t say.They left after.
-Okay,gracias por la informacion. Si ves algo raro, dejame saber imediatemente.
Okay, thanks for the information. If you see anything strange, let me know immediately.
I hand him500pesos, knowing he’ll pay extra special attention. What the hell is this about? Police? Prosecutor?
My first thought is someone is looking to rob me. Manuel and I discuss it and agree it’s possible. I know someone who was stopped by police while driving his car downtown. They made him drive to his house and then robbed him. It’s very disconcerting, and I’ll need to deal with it when I get back.
There’s another possibility. Our lending business makes small collateralized loans to working people who aren’t able to, or don’t want toborrow from the banks. We offer much better rates than our established competition, so we ended up with all of their customers. I know this upset them, and I always worried about potential fall-out. Can it be they’re trying to do something about it? Two people pretending to be authority is easy to pull off here. Anything’s possible, especially when you’re taking food off someone’s table. It’s worrisome, for sure.
I’M TEMPORARILY BLINDED BYthe tropical sun as we exit the garage. Eleven in the morning and already eighty-sixdegrees. I’m grateful for the weather, even more grateful for air conditioning. We head down Abraham Lincoln, a major boulevard. Traffic is heavy but moving steadily.
At the next intersection we hit a line of cars waiting for the light to change. Facing us across the street is a mega Nacional Supermarket that covers two city blocks. I glance around at the contrasts. Mercedes Benz, BMW, an old beat up NissanSentra, a late model Range Rover, a Honda Accord, a new Audi, a wagon hitched to a donkey over flowing with plantain. Behind him, a brand-new Ferrari.
One lane over is a carro publicothat drives up and down the boulevard transporting people like a bus service. Its interior, packed with bodies. Arms and even a couple of heads spew out its windows for lack of space. Motorcycles, some burning black smoke, revving their engines waiting for the light to change. Others weave between waiting cars, moving to the front. There’s a family on a 125cc motorcycle two lanes over; father in front, mother in back, sandwiching their three small children between them.
Another motorcycle approaches with two Policia Nacional dressed in standard grey uniform and black military boots. The one in back has a rifle strewn across his lap. They pay us no mind.
A squeegee kid approaches and is about to splash my windshield with water from a plastic bottle. He draws the squeegee like a gunslinger when Manuel hits the wipers to warn him off. The kid curses, so Manuel flings his arms in the air with a “what are you gonna do about it” look. Kid’s on to thenext one, hurling water across the windshield before its driver can make a choice.
Street vendors hawk pre-paid phone cards, battery chargers, fresh fruit, cold drinks, steering wheel covers, clothing, toys and even puppies. A woman begging with new born in arms. She may have rented the baby for her performance; desperation will do that. Honking seems mandatory. Everyone does it, though it’s sometimes hard to decipher the reason. Sound systems from the backs of cars and SUVs blare reggaetón music so loud that the bass makes you nauseous if you’re too close.
At the next corner the Bomba has a line of cars waiting for gas. They still serve you here. People flow in and out of its convenience store, some with cold cervezas in hand, already. Drinking is acceptable almost anywhere any time.
At night, liquor stores morph into gathering spots and quasi night clubs, selling drinks by the glass. People hang out in front drinking, talking and dancing. Car sound systems provide the entertainment. Beautiful girls in short skirts, low cut tops and high heels everywhere; enough to drive a man crazy.
The Policia Nacional are there too, appearing to keep order and protect the public. But really, they’re earning a stipend from the liquor store to keep the flow of business unimpeded. They help direct the parking of cars and get a piece of the propina paid to street parkers who use public parking spots as their own inventory. Just try and park there without paying them....
This city is a modern-dayWildWest. Its vibrancy is infectious and its spirit exhilarating. There are socio-economic problems for sure, but the progress is unstoppable and inevitable. Man, I love it here. It makes me feel alive in a way I haven’t felt for many years.
We make our way to Lana’s building and as we pull up, she and Andie are waiting inside the parking lot behind the electronic security gate.
“What took you so long? We’ve been down here for thirty minutes,” Lana says half aggravated, and looking nervous.
“I told you to wait upstairs. We tried to get here as fast as we could, but there was traffic. We have plenty of time, stop worrying.”
“I know, but I want to get there and eat something before the flight.”
-Manuel, los equipajes por favor.
Manuel, the luggage please.
I got it,Boss.
-Dime Andie.¿Cómo estás querida? ¿Estás emocionado de ir a Montreal?
Talk to me, Andie. How are you, my dear?Excited to go to Montreal?Manuel asks Andie.
-Ya sabes, quiero ver a mis hermanas, abuelos y amigas.Losextrañomuchísimo.
You know, I want to see my sisters, my grandparents and my friends. I miss them so much,she answers.
-No olvides a tu hermano Jace.
Don’t forget your brother Jace.Manuel adds.
-No lo extraño!
I don’t miss him!
-Andie, No digas eso.Estoy seguro de queélte extraña.
Andie don’t say that. I’m sure he misses you.Manuel says.
-¿Crees? Entonces, ¿cómo es que él nunca me escribe?
You think? Then how come he never writes me?Andie asks.
“Andie, you know how camp is. He has no time to write letters. Besides, even if he did, you wouldn’t get it until next year with the Dominican mail,” I tell her.
“He can email me! I email him all the time! He never answers!
“Well, there is that, but you know boys are different from girls with that stuff, Andie.” I say.
“Whatever,” she answers.
An hour later, we’re pulling into Las Americas International Airport, a forty-minute drive from the city and the biggest of the six international airports in the country. Manuel pulls up to the departure area and speaks to a Policia who’s there to manage traffic flow. He tells him he’s going to leave the car parked in front for ten minutes. The Policia says he can’t, so Manuel slips him100pesos, and he lets him.
We make our way to the Delta desk. We’re flying to Montreal with a connection in Miami, a flight we take a few times a year. After we’re checked in, I tell Manuel he can leave. Then, Lana, Andie and I head through the security check point.
The Dominican Government charges a departure tax to anyone who’s stayed in the country for more than three months if they don’t reside here. They collect it at Customs. We don’t pay the tax because we’re residents. Lana and the kids have their permanent residence. I have my temporary residence, but I’m expecting my permanent status any day. They processed their paperwork a couple of months before I did and used a different lawyer.
When we get to the Customs window we hand her our tickets, residence cards and our cedulas (Dominicanidentity cards) to the woman Customs official. She’s a bit surprised we’re not tourists and begins typing at her computer terminal. A few minutes later she lifts her head, looks at me and says:
“Señor, Usted no puede viajar.”
Sir, you can’t travel.
- ¿Qué?¿No puedo viajar? ¿Por qué?Qué significa eso?
What? I can’t travel...what does that mean?
-No puedes salir del pais. No puedes viajar. Nosépor qué.
You can’t leave the country. You can’t travel. I don’t know why.
Lana and I look at each other not understanding what’s going on. I explain to the woman that I need to take this flight and whatever the problem, it must be related to the processing of my permanent residence. I know the process is currently undergoing drastic changes. I tell her I’ll deal with it when I return and I place twenty dollars on the counter.She looks at me and says:
-Señor, nosécuáles el problema, pero es seguro que no puedes viajar.Lo siento.
Sir, I don’t know what the problem is, but for sure you can’t travel.I’m sorry.
Shit, she’s serious. She has to be if she’s not taking the money. Worse, this means it’s bigger than her. What the hell is going on? I realize I won’t be getting on the flight.
“Lana, you and Andie go ahead. I’ll find out what this is about. It’s got to be because of my residence. You know they introduced all kinds of new rules and procedures. Maybe you can’t leave the country during the process. I’ll call Victor and straighten it out. I’ll take another flight tomorrow. What a drag! I have to pay for another flight, unbelievable!”
“Are you sure? You don’t want us to go with you tomorrow?” Lana asks.
“No, that’s crazy. We’ll lose all the money we spent on the tickets. No, you guys go, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The Customs official hands us back all our documents, and Andie and Lana head to the gate.
I call Manuel and tell him to turn around to pick me up. My bag was already checked at the Delta desk, so I go back to retrieve it. I still have my carry on and laptop with me.
Fifteen minutes later Manuel shows up as I wait for my bag. After another thirty minutes there’s still no sign of my bag and I’m beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. Something, I don’t know what, but something, isn’t right.
“VICTOR, IT’S WARREN. HOWare you?”
“Very well, Warren, and you?”
“Not so good. Victor, I was leaving to go to Montreal with Lana and Andie at Las Americas, and Dominican Customs told me I can’t travel. They didn’t say why. Whatever it was, she saw it on her computer. Can this be related to my permanent residence?”
“Wouldn’t let you travel? I have no idea what that’s about. I don’t think it’s related, but I’ll verify. They’re changing the entire process. I think I’ve mentioned that. It’s much more complicated, so anything’s possible. Give me a couple of hours, and I’ll check with my contact at immigration. I’ll call you back as soon as I know something.”
“Okay Victor, I’m waiting. I have to get to MontrealASAP.”
“Okay, I’ll call you back.”
Three hours later Manuel and I are in my apartment. I’ve been dialing Lana’s phone incessantly. I have a bad feeling, and it’s getting worse with every unanswered ring. I can’t stop thinking about what my doorman told me, and it makes me think about what we’d done. We have a dirty little secret. Holy fuck! Could that be it? Please no!
They should have been in Miami by now. What the hell is going on?
My phone rings and I look at the caller ID....Victor. “Yeah, Victor.”
“Warren, I spoke to the person handling your residence file at immigration. They didn’t do anything to keep you from leaving the country. They have no idea what it’s about. He did ask if you have any legal problems. Do you?”
“What do you mean, legal problems? You’re my lawyer Victor. You know I have no problems. I mean, none that I’m aware of. How can I know?”
“It’s just that he intimated that it sounds like some kind of detainer order. He said the police usually impose them.”
“The police? Victor, this morning when I was leaving my building, my doorman said two men were looking for me yesterday. One of them said he was police and the other a fiscal. Do you think it’s related?”
“Shit. I don’t know. Warren, my uncle’s a retired police General. He still has a lot of influence. I’m going to call him and ask if he can check if something’s going on. If there’s a problem, he’ll find out for sure. Let me work on it. I’ll call you back.”
“Okay, I’m waiting. Please hurry,” I say and hang up.
I’m feeling sicker by the moment. Why won’t Lana answer her phone?
An hour later Andie answers. She’s completely distraught and crying. She can hardly speak.
“Andie, calm down, honey, please. I can’t understand what you’re saying. Take a second. Take a few deep breaths.”
She’s sobbing uncontrollably and sounds like she’s having trouble breathing. A couple of minutes later sheregains some composure and says:
“Daddy, the FBI arrested Mommy.”
“What? What did you say Andie?” Blood rushes to my head and butterflies fill my stomach.
“Daddy, three FBI agents met us when we got off the plane. They told Mommy she’s under arrest. They left me here all alone. I’m so scared. What do I do? What’s going to happen toMom? Why was she arrested Daddy? What did she do wrong?”
My worst fears are confirmed. They fucking got us! Oh My God!
“Andie, listen to me. This is very important. Do you have money on you?”
“Yes. I have the money Mom gave me to hold. She wanted me to hold it because she had to keep opening her purse, and she didn’t want anyone to see it. Daddy, I’m scared. The FBI lady told me I won’t see my mother for a very long time. She was such a bitch. She was so mean. I asked her how I was going to get home and she said, “You’re sixteen. You’ll figure it out.” Daddy what do I do? Mommy was scared. I’m worried about her.”
“Sweety, listen to me. I need you to listen very carefully. We’ll straighten this out. I don’t know what it’s about (I lied). The only thing that matters right now is that you’re safe. Is your phone charged?”
“It’s Mom’s phone. I was holding hers, and she had mine. They took mine.”
“Okay, is the phone charged?” I ask again.
“Yes, it’s on half.”
“Do you have a charger with you?”
“Yes. I have one in my purse.”
“Okay, good. Make sure it’s charged at all times. Don’t close it for any reason, do you hear?”
“Now I want you to go to the Delta desk and ask for a supervisor. Tell them you’re a minor, and you were left alone in the airport. You can tell them what happened. Tell them you need to get home to Montreal. I’ll contact Delta on this end. Do you understand?”
“Yes, but what about Mom? We have to help her, Daddy. She was crying. She was so scared. What do we do?”
“I don’t know, honey, but I will soon. You just worry about you, and let me worry about Mom, okay? Will you do that for me, Andie?”
Here I was trying to calm Andie down, but I was freaking out myself. We’re so fucked. Our lives are ruined. We’ve shamed our children, our parents, ourselves. What will happen? How will I explain this to my family? What will people think? Are we going to jail? Why did they separate us? Was it premeditated? Are they coming for me too? What will happen to Lana? She must be terrified. Holy Fuck! I need to help her. How? Just calm down. You need to remain calm for Andie and your other three kids right now. Pull yourself together.
“Andie, please do what I said. I’ll have Stephanie call you soon. Go to Delta and if you need anyone call me or Stephanie right away, okay?”
“Okay, Dad. Daddy, please help Mom, please!”
“I will, Andie. I promise.”
I spend the next few hours talking to Stephanie and Paige. I tell them everything. I also tell them somehow it would be okay, but they know better. Paige is falling apart and Stephanie is trying hard to keep it together. We’ve already put these kids through so much with all the fighting and the separation, and now this. Nothing is okay.
I Google “criminal lawyers Miami” and a few names come up. I call four of them and hire the first one who gets back to me, over the telephone. He checks Lana’s status while I wait on the phone and tells me she’s being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. A preliminary hearing is scheduled two days from now. He’ll see her first thing in the morning. All I have to do is send him aten-thousand-dollarretainer. I impress upon him that he has to make sure she knows I’m doing everything I can to help her. He agrees to include thehuman comfort in the price. I asked if he knew whether I’m in trouble too, but he said the indictment is sealed so he can’t say, but I should assume the worst.
Now everything makes sense. I understand why the police came looking for me. They weren’t trying to rob me. They probably wanted to arrest me. Shit! I better get out of here before they come back. I need time to figure out what to do. They could be back any minute.
Then it dawns on me. Why didn’t they let me fly to Miami like Lana and Andie did, and arrest me on US soil? Maybe I’m not in trouble. Maybe they aren’t going to arrest me. It doesn’t make sense on the surface. If they wanted me, all they had to do was let me fly with them. Wait a minute, how did they even know we were flying to Montreal today? Someone told them, that’s how. Someone close to us gave us up. I need to really think this through. I can’t trust anyone. Fuck!
I grab a few things and tell Manuel to drive to the Hilton on the Malecon, a strip of hotels by the ocean. It’s a huge hotel so I’ll blend in easily. I tell him to park the truck a few blocks away on a side street.
At the front desk I ask to speak with the manager. When she comes out, I explain I’m here on business and all my documentsalongwith my credit cards were stolen in the airport, I’ve already reported it to the police, and I have an appointment with the Canadian Embassy tomorrow afternoon to arrange temporary documentation. Luckily, I keep my cash separate from my credit cards. She’s very sympathetic and offers to assist me in any way she can. I pay for three nights in advance and give her atwenty-dollar tip for her help.
When I get to the room, I drop my bags on the floor and fall on the bed. Myhead is splitting and the back of my neck is throbbing from the tension. I try breathing deeply to ease the discomfort, but it doesn’t work. What the fuck am I going to do?
I think about the people who knew we were going to Montreal. There’s Manuel, of course, and Maria, Lana’s housekeeper. Then I remember. I met with Frederico, a business associate, twice last week. I wanted him to invest money in our loan business because a new opportunity had presented itself. I first met him through Roland.He used to cash checks for Rolandand later for us. He owns a very established business sellingconstruction supplies.I bet he’s the one. They must have followed the money back to him. It has to be. Damn!
When we met he was asking me a lot of questions about Roland. Where is he? Have I seen him? Do I talk to him? I told him I haven’t had contact with him in almost two years, and last I knew, he was living in Punta Cana.
Then I asked him to give me an answer on the investment opportunity when I got back from my trip to Montreal. I told him we were all going hometo visit. It’s him! It’s got to be! They must have traced the checks back to him so he’s cooperating with them.
I’ve been in stressful situations before in my life, many of which were out of my control, but never before have I felt so completely overwhelmed. It’s like watching everything happen to someone else; surreal, unbelievable. I can’t reconcile how I perceive myowncharacter with what I did and with what’s happening.
I never broke the law before or did anything that could get me arrested. Exaggerating expenses or understating earnings for tax purposes was the extent of my misdeeds. I figure I didn’t do what any businessman didn’t do. I thought of myself as an honest, hard-working provider. Until I did what I did, of course.
I started in business at a young age and worked very hard. In 1998 I was thirty-nine and after a string of successful businesses I sold an internet start-up and did quite well. I wasn’t set for life, but I was in good shape. I had a lot of money in the bank, several properties and my children had college funds. We also had a nice retirement savings plan.
Then later that same year with my own money and outside investors I started a new business, an internet driven, digital signage company that had large screens in the food courts of every major Canadian shopping mall, broadcasting real time content and advertising.
The business was known in media circles internationally. In 2002, I signed a revenue deal with Bell GlobeMedia, Canada’s largest media company. They owned the largest national TV network, the biggest newspaper in the country and many other media properties. They wanted to expand their offerings through convergence with other platforms. We were perfect for them. Theywould pay us to supply video and graphic content to our screens nationally and use their sales force of hundreds to sell advertising.
Just before the deal closed, I was contacted by their mergers and acquisitions department and told they would only close the deal if they could buy an interest in our company. Chaching!
After intense negotiations, we agreed to sell them a17percent stake at an attractive valuation. They also had the right to buy a majority interest after five years. This was going to be my biggest win yet and easily propel me to real wealth and, if I chose, early retirement.
But things weren’t as rosy as they seemed. I was having mounting problems in my personal life as a result of some very bad choices. I was unfaithful to my wife and was involved in an on-and-off affair that lasted close to ten years. Lana found out about it, and it hurt her badly. We argued continuously and our kids were subjected to this insanity. She gave me chance after chance, but the more we fought, the more I looked for distractions. Lana was a loving and dedicated wife and mother who didn’t deserve what I was doing.
There was also my increasing dependence on alcohol. I never drank before, but I was traveling a lot and entertaining media buyers all the time, so I began drinking wine with dinner frequently. After a while wine with dinner turned into wine to sleep, and then wine to anything. One day someone ordered vodka and I discovered how little I needed to feel good. It became my preferred beverage, accelerating my down fall. My judgment became clouded and my performance affected. I didn’t recognize the extent.
Financial pressure in my personal life was also taking a toll. In 2000, the Dot Com bubble left me with a significant market loss and since launching the business I was supporting my family on a salary that didn’t cover my nut. I was subsidizing the difference and depleting my savings.
Still, I managed to pull off a miracle. I looked South to the US market and closed a partnership deal with Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the largest billboard companies in the world. We formed a new entity of which our company owned 49 percent and began rolling out to food courts in American malls. With the Bell GlobeMedia deals in the works, the company’s future was looking very optimistic. All roads were pointing to a successful outcome. I was all in.
These deals were critical because we were burning cash. Even though revenue was growing at a steady clip year over year, we still weren’t breaking even. Investors were impatient. To complicate matters, there was terrible in-fighting between some of them from other unrelated interests they had together. It spilled over into our business and created a poisonous,dysfunctional environment. I was spending way too much time trying to manage these distractions.
As the pressure mounted there was a constant threat of closure from key investors which was exacting a toll on me. No amount of pressure was going to produce sales any faster. The process of educating and attracting new business was slow but steady. We were digital pioneers, and we had to almost single-handedly change the long-term mindset and buying habits of advertisers at a time when most global advertising agencies still didn’t understand the internet or alternative digital mediums. The BellGlobe Media purchase was going to fix everything.
Then disaster struck. A new CEO took over the parent company of Bell GlobeMedia and his new directive was to divest their “convergent” relationships. Everyone we were working with waslet go. The revenue deal had already been signed and executed, and we were just waiting on their board to rubber-stamp the equity purchase agreement.
In support of the new CEO’s strategy, they killed the purchase in the last minute and left us in the lynch. Even though we had the revenue from the first deal, without the legitimate “buy in” of the parent company, the sales distribution never materialized, and we struggled to make the company profitable as quickly as investors expected.
At the end of 2006my principal investor withdrew support with little notice, leaving me no choice but to find a buyer for the company for pennies on the dollar. My equity vanished just like that, and my savings were gone. I was in debt for the first time in my life, jobless, and the event I had been waiting for and counting on, vanished.
I stepped up the drinking, feeling the victim and drowning in self-pity. I had never really failed at anything before in my life, and I didn’t understand why it happened or what I needed to do to rebound. Truth is, even if I did, the booze wasn’t going to let me. I was a broken mess.
We were forced to sell our properties, which by now were remortgaged, and the pressure on our fragile marriage was too much. Lana and I separated. The hardest part for me was dealing with the fall from grace. I’d always been successful. I was able to send my kids to private schools, summer camps and give them nice things. Suddenly, I couldn’t give them anything. I was a failure. Had I not been so poisoned by alcohol, I might have coped better.
Lana moved across town with Andie and Jace and took a job as a manger in a retail store. She was struggling to make ends meet on her salary. I landed a consulting contract with a high-tech start-up but it was short lived because of my drinking. I thought I could hide it, but I couldn’t. Then I got a job inbusiness development for a new product, which I hated, mostly because I hated myself and where I was in life.
About a year later, the incessant fighting between Lana and I calmed down. One day she called me and told me she wanted to take the younger ones to live with her in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Apparently, someone we knew from our old neighborhood, a guy named Roland Ross offered her a job selling time sharing on the telephone. He had moved there several years earlier and assured her she would make a lot of money. I was livid. I told her she wasn’t leaving the country with my children.
One afternoon, she came to see me to try and convince me to let them go and suggested I go as well. She said there’s nothing in Montreal for us and maybe a fresh start was what we needed. I was so unhappy and so miserable and felt like such a failure, I decided I had nothing to lose. I rented Stephanie and Paige an apartment in downtown Montreal so they could live together, and off we went.
Turns out there was no time-sharing. He was scamming people and telling them they won a sweepstakes. It was a scam I knew existed and never imagined I would do such a thing. Yet here we were in a foreign country with no resources and nothing to go back to. I felt desperate to make money so I rationalized that I would do it just until I got back on my feet. Many people experience financial hardship, and they don’t resort to stealing money. Twisted by alcohol,filthy,misguided greedandscared to death of where my life was heading, I did it anyway.
At this point, to escape reality I was drinking vodka at eight o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t even do a good job scamming people. I spent days at a time in my apartment not going to work. Just me and a bottle. The fighting between Lana and me got worse, of course. How could it not? We lived apart because we couldn’t even live as roommates.
One day I finally had enough. I was hurting my kids. They told me they weren’t going to speak to me if I didn’t stop drinking. It was also clear that if I didn’t, I would die. I wasfortypounds overweight, very unhealthy, and I was slowly destroying myself and the people I loved most. Plus, booze had gotten me into several dangerous situations in Santo Domingo, like the time we were in a hotel and I punched a man from England in the face for hitting on my daughter Paige who was onlysixteen. The police were called, and in my drunken state, I was belligerent and uncooperative. I was lucky no one killed me.
I knew if I wanted to keep my kids in my life I had to quit. I knew if I wanted a chance at any type of decent life or happiness I had to quit. I was ready. Scared to death but ready.
I gathered all my strength and conviction and returned to Montreal to get sober. I quit drinkingandStephanie and Paige were with me every step of the way. So were my parents. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I puked for two weeks straight from withdrawal, but I dragged myself to three AA meetings a day. It worked.
When I returned to Santo Domingo, I found a meeting in English and went three times a week. I never drank again.
Once sober,I started lookingfor businessopportunities thatwould get me away from scamming peoplewhich I continued doing.I met a businessman and together we bought and sold productswholesale.Eventually,Ihadenough money to launch a lending business. Without the alcohol I wasbecomingmore likemy old self again and everything started to turn around. I was living modestly and the business started growing. Everything was back on track.
Too little, too late. It seems our scam just caught up with us.
I LIFT MYSELF OFFthebed and look at the mini bar and think why not? Just one little shot to relax. Oh yeah, that’s why not.Your family needs you!
Any self-pity I’m fostering evaporates quickly, and I focus my energy on navigating this shit storm. I’m pretty rational as things go, so I accept reality andthink:
Do what you have to for Lana and the kids before you face the music.
I start a to-do list. A few minutes later, a knock on the door. I get up, nervous, and look through the peep hole. Oh good, Manuel….
I let him in.
“You alright?” I ask.
“Yeah,Boss. I’m okay.”
“You parked on a side street, not too close, right?” I ask.
“Like you told me.”
“You want something to drink? There’s water, juice and soft drinks in the mini bar. Have something.”
“Thanks, Boss. I’ll take water.”
“Okay, Manuel, listen. We’re in some serious trouble. That’s why Lana was arrested in Miami, and they probably want me too. I doubt you’re in any type of trouble, but if you’re worried and you don’t want to help me, I understand. Once I know exactly what’s going on, I’ll decide if I want to turn myself in. Before that, I need to take care ofsomethings. Are you okay with that?”
“Yes,Boss, whatever you need. You guys are like family. I love you guys,” he says.
“We feel the same about you, Manuel, thank you.”
“Manuel, I need to ask you something. Did you tell anyone that we were going to Montreal?”
“Tell anyone? Who? What do you mean?”
“I mean anyone. Did you tell anyone?”
“I told my wife last night. I told her I had two weeks off, so I will drive the taxi. I told her you guys were going to Montreal. Besides her, I never said anything to anyone. Why,Boss? Did I do something wrong?
“No, no, Manuel. You didn’t do anything wrong. It just seems like they knew we were going home to Montreal. Never mind. Forget it.”
“Okay, listen...this is important. You have a lot to do. I’m going to wait here for you. I can’t risk going outside unnecessarily. First, take a taxi to two different cell phone stores and buy six cheap burner phones. Make sure they’re small independent stores. Then buy twenty thousand pesos in phone cards on the street. Don’t buy them in the stores. You got that?”
“Yeah, no problem. I know where to go.”
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