Essay by Eldon Ray James
War on Drugs – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
I’M GUILTY. Let’s get that out of the way up front. I’m a convicted felon, who violated the laws of the United States. Every word here is colored by that fact. Currently serving 70 months in federal prison, I pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit acts in support of a racketeer-influenced or corrupt organization, perhaps better known by its RICO acronym. While I did not knowingly participate in the conspiracy, I did commit acts that supported an organization I did not know existed, run by people I did not know.
I knew that delivering drugs was against the law (I still have a hard time with “wrong”) but did not realize just how severely a first-time offender could and would be punished. It could have been worse. Much worse.
When I was first arraigned, the prosecutor said “possible sentence of 21 years.” When a second charge was added my court-appointed attorney gently noted that if we went to trial and lost, the mandatory minimum sentence was 20 years. A judge in a bad mood or with an intent to do his part in the war effort could have made the sentence 30 years to life in prison, if the findings of the investigators, prosecutor, and probation department supported it.
Suddenly pleading guilty to a RICO violation and spending 70 months in a prison camp sounded like a good, or at least a less severe, alternative. I copped a plea with the proviso that I didn’t have to testify against anyone and that my coöperation with the government’s continuing investigation would be limited to confirming events, dates, and places, and to talk only about people already arrested or who had been granted immunity from prosecution.
Since everyone who I knew about was coöperating with the government, I didn’t see how I could hurt anyone. The main witness against me encouraged me to coöperate fully with the feds and he was the drug dealer for whom I worked. It seemed the smart thing to do.
FOR A LONG TIME, the rationalization worked that my crimes were acts of civil disobedience. Drug laws allowed the government to encroach on individual liberty. So I excused myself by willfully breaking the law. I still think the drug laws — beginning with the Harrison Narcotic Act signed into law on Dec. 17, 1914 — intrude on individual liberty. My rationale covered the true motive: greed.
Another pardon I allowed myself: the bad seed theory. My alcoholic, ne’er-do-well father served time in an Oklahoma prison for armed robbery. He put food on the table and supplied his own needs with a little boot-legging into the dry Texas county where we lived.
Bad from birth, tainted by evil, that was me. It doesn’t wash. I just wanted the money. Back in 1990, a man offered me some money in exchange for what promised to be easy work. All I had to do was house-sit when he was out of town: Feed the dogs and keep an eye on things. No drug dealing. Nothing illegal.
It turns out that he played a major role in distributing cocaine and methamphetamine in Central Colorado and perhaps farther afield.
Evidence to that effect, gathered over the years by the Salida Police Department, Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, 11th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, Cañon City Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and probably other local, state, and federal law enforcement, eventually brought down “Big Dan” Renfro, his cohorts, and one small-time greedy fool. It didn’t start that way for me; that’s sure how it ended up.
Known and despised by the authorities, this drug dealer served a mean chili and good drinks for Sunday football games shown on a big television at his rural home. Generous to a fault, he shared his wealth with drunks, damsels in distress, and the truly needy. He shopped at Safeway and Wal-Mart, and bought cars and trucks at local dealerships; a lot of cars and trucks.
Sometimes Dan would drive a new one every week. A few times he changed vehicles twice a week in search of the perfect transportation. He changed vehicles almost as frequently as some people change underwear.
Big Dan bought car parts in Buena Vista, liquor and beer in every likely store in a 100-mile radius. He helped support charities in Chaffee and Frémont counties, contributed to schools, and boosted the economy of the region.
This drug dealer gave away more money than most people in Salida make. He broke state and federal laws for over 15 years without arrest. It took a massive investigation led by the FBI to bring Big Dan down. I heard local authorities celebrated with “We got him!” T-shirts featuring Dan’s picture. It seemed that should have been, “We finally got him.”
I knew Big Dan many of those years; enjoyed the benefits of his income without being overly curious about the source. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Rarely did I do his drugs. We talked about photography; he had the eye it takes to become a great amateur or a good professional. I encouraged him to enter shows. Once he almost took Best-of-Show in the Chaffee County Council of the Arts Open Awards Show. Would have, too, if he had been in the professional class. We were friends. He told his darkest secrets. We had some laughs, some adventures. Eventually I delivered his drugs for money.
In 1993, while I still lived in the San Luis Valley and in 1994 after returning to Salida, the house-sitting routine slowly changed. On occasion people I knew and some I didn’t would come by Big Dan’s house, while he was traveling, to pick up “parts” from his garage. Sometimes they left sealed envelopes with me which I stashed in a drawer.
I chose not to know what was going on. For a week of work I would get $200 or more, plus expenses. I’d drive his new car or truck, watch his big screen TV with multi-channel satellite feed, and eat all the food in the refrigerator. Over time — by the later half of 1995 — the money came out of the envelopes and the “parts” became ½-ounce bags of coke and speed (crystal, rocket fuel). I got 10% of each transaction or delivery of money.
THE MOST I EVER MADE in a week was $1,600. It was a lot of money to me. It meant books, clothes, food, movies, trips to Denver or Sante Fé. It meant a computer to do my writing and film for my camera. It meant the rent could be paid on time. Most of all, the money went to pay back loans from Big Dan and others. Low interest, unsecured loans I used trying to keep a newspaper afloat and for things wanted or needed. Pay back the money, I thought, and get away from the business.
When Big Dan decided to move away in early 1996, the operation moved for the first time to my upstairs, downtown Salida apartment where I’d lived since 1983. My stress level sky-rocketed. At any one time I would have a pound of meth (it went fast) and a ½-pound of coke, and $25,000 to $50,000 in cash in the apartment or buried in the hills. I got a 9-mm Glock with a 15-round clip after I heard someone turning the knob on my apartment door at 3 a.m. It turns out it was probably the Salida Police, at the time focusing their investigation on me.
The police did that because a man arrested for selling drugs in Cañon City had implicated me and others as the source of his product. His only lies to the investigators were the length of time I’d been involved and the amount I’d delivered. I suspect he exaggerated both to enhance his chances for a lighter sentence. I heard his sentence was four years at the medium security prison at Florence, plus four years supervised release, a new euphemism for parole. To help get his sentence reduced from at least 15 years — it probably would have been much longer if he’d gone to trial — he coöperated extensively with the government.
He wore a wire a number of times in conversations with me in person. He allowed at least one telephone conversation to be taped. Although not easily understood, the tapes did constitute the bulk of the physical evidence against me. On them, I demonstrated a knowledge of drugs and spoke of possible sources. On one tape, I tell the informant that I would check with a guy I knew to see if he would sell some drugs to the man. It was a bluff. I didn’t know any such person. The guy seemed so desperate I wanted to offer some hope to get him through. It was not the first dumb thing I’d say.
BY APRIL, 1996, I was a wreck. Several of Big Dan’s regulars had been arrested or called in for questioning. I knew a federal grand jury was hearing testimony. All of the drugs were sold or buried. Money still trickled in, but it didn’t matter. I knew it was time to get out even if my boss didn’t. My nerves were shot. I needed a vacation.
I got one. Big Dan rented a car for me, gave me some money, and let me vanish for a while. I drove to Phoenix to get my birth certificate so I could get a passport. My short tenure as a drug dealer at an end, I hoped to move on. In Phoenix, I slept for two days, feeling secure knowing that no one knew where to find me. It was grand. More relaxed on my return to Salida, I sold the last of the drugs and collected the last of the money. I awaited Big Dan’s return from Mexico to bring the illegal relationship to a close.
In mid-May (1996), I returned to work full time at Safeway. In June, the snitch found me there and the dance began again, this time in earnest. By late July, a federal grand jury in Denver issued indictments that included me. My friend, Federal Magistrate O. Edward Schlatter (a former public defender and district judge in Salida and Cañon City), signed the arrest warrant. On July 31, 1996, a man showed me his badge and said, “I’m with the FBI and you are under arrest.”
Since that day I’ve been clean; sold no drugs, done only legal ones, broken no laws. I’ve sold almost everything I owned, liquidated all accounts. I moved out of my apartment and have no home address, no place to go. An odd sense of freedom pervades my days here in prison. On that July 31st I wore handcuffs for the first time in a non-recreational use. The bars closed behind me and ended life as I had known it.
WHEN I DELIVERED drugs and collected money, thoughts about the harm those drugs could do never occurred. Adults could spend their money, destroy nasal passages, wreak havoc with their brains, or kill themselves if they wanted to. It never reached me that children could go hungry when their dads bought these drugs or that wives could be beaten by husbands so paranoid from my speed they confused wife with enemy. I saw myself on the front lines of the constant battle for freedom.
My acts of civil disobedience were directed at a government making unwarranted intrusions against the rights of its citizens. After all, weren’t drug laws the new prohibition even if drug laws preceded ones against alcohol? It was all self-serving bull. I broke the law because it was fun (at first), exciting, and profitable.
By June 1996, it was no longer fun. It was scary, nerve-grating and the profit margin diminished to nil. My self-esteem fell to the point that while attending the Democratic Party State Convention at Pueblo, I felt so soiled that it seemed certain that my presence tainted others. I could think of little else.
The arrest in late July actually came as a release from the darkness. Secret out, I could breathe again. It was beside the point that what the government charged me with, and what it would later convict me of, didn’t reflect what I had actually done. The role the investigators saw me playing wasn’t my role. It didn’t matter, I was free forever of the burden of being a pusher. My crime phase done, I awaited punishment.
When federal District Judge Edward Nottingham sentenced me to 70 months in prison on June 27, 1997, he said he wanted my life to change and he wanted the change to begin that day. It did. Change has been my watchword. Except for the first four days at the Denver County Jail, a brief stay in Pueblo County Jail, and the days of movement wearing traveling jewelry, punishment has been more tedious than cruel. Separation from friends, from the ability to make choices, and from the mountains has been the toughest to bear. By embracing change in the form of Bureau of Prison courses on drugs, criminality, and individual responsibility I have learned that I was a bad actor, working against the best interest of society as the government and most of the people want it to be. In order to be free in this society, I must not break its laws. To not break laws, I must learn how to think like a responsible citizen. I will do that because I want to live free.
ONE HUNDRED years ago, what I did would not have been of interest to the government. I suspect that 100 years from now it will be the same. My crime is politically unacceptable at this time because the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government have decided that some drugs are so harmful to the body politic that it is essential to segregate from the rest of society, for long periods, those who create, sell, or deliver those drugs or those who assist in any way the distribution of drugs. These political crimes have become so destructive to society that only the moral equivalent of war can be used to stop them.
It has been and will continue to be an expensive war. The federal share of the war is over $16 billion a year and going up. The Bureau of Prisons gets over $2 billion of that and that, too, is going up. In an opinion piece in the Denver Post, Federal Judge John Kane points out that in addition to the direct costs of the war, the indirect costs of additional welfare burdens need to be factored in. The costs of building and maintaining additional prisons will increase. There is also lost tax revenue from those in prison and not earning income and paying taxes — yes, some drug dealers work and some pay taxes.
In addition to the monetary cost, lives are being lost in this war. Drug agents die in Mexico. Police die on American streets. Last fall an 18-year-old goat herder, an American citizen, tending his herd was shot and killed by a U.S. Marine on drug patrol near the Mexican border. The teenager fired his .22 in the direction of the fully camouflaged Marines and they returned fire. His family and friends think he was shooting at coyotes that had been stalking his goats. No one will be punished in the boy’s death.
HERE IN PRISON the talk is of the consequences of Congress increasing the penalties for drug crimes. The possibility of life in prison without parole for meth dealers or death for major dealers would bring a new intensity to the drug war, we cons say. It’s simple: If you know you will die if arrested, anyone trying to do so faces a fight. Law enforcement has acknowledged that some drug gangs are at least as well armed as they are.
Firefights on your peaceful block? Don’t be so sure it can’t happen. There are people dealing drugs in Salida and Central Colorado. There are people using drugs in Chaffee County. Some the police know about, some they don’t. The Salida Police had damning evidence about one drug dealer — in my case — years before the arrests began.
In many jurisdictions, they let a dealer sell drugs so he can lead the authorities to bigger fish. Sometimes dealers or users are friends of the police and are allowed to quit or leave the business. It happens. The fact remains that as this war goes on there will be more and more casualties on both sides.
As a prisoner, I am out of this conflict. My five-plus years in prison will clear the record. Judge Nottingham said at my sentencing that he intended the “harsh but fair sentence” to send a lesson to the community that drugs would not be tolerated. I hope the community gets that message. I will work to keep others from getting involved in this foul game, particularity the young. Whether it’s abusing or selling, drugs present a danger to the body and the soul. Some of that danger is manufactured by the fact of their illegality.
There will be no pension when I’m repatriated, no pride in my conduct during the war. There is the numbing realization that over five years of my life will be spent in prison. If I can get a degree, write and read, lose weight, and improve my health then these will not be lost years. It wasn’t worth it; that’s the only thing I’m sure of.
Ray James, now #26930-013, lives and works at FCI Big Spring (Camp), 1900 Simler Ave., Big Spring, TX 79720-7701. He reports that it’s hot, dry, and windy. Before becoming a felon, he was a newspaper editor in Salida and the San Luis Valley, a radio news director, and an unsuccessful candidate for several public offices.