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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Visitor from the Past -- August 23, 2014

A couple of months ago I was surprised to receive a letter from a girl I had not seen in nearly 25 years. "Cynthia" had gone to junior high school with me and I was elated she contacted me after all these years. For all practical purposes, my life abruptly ended at 18 and the years before my arrest consequently have an enormous significance. Her letter brought me back to a time that was not filled with ceaseless misery and emptiness. Quickly, I wrote her a reply and we have exchanged a few more letters since. In our correspondence she expressed how she would like to see me once again. Although I had some reservations, I filled out the necessary paperwork to have her approved as a visitor. Yesterday, she came to the penitentiary and despite the terrible circumstances, I was very happy to see her. The nostalgia I have for the distant past cannot be broken.

Cynthia's first letter was written with large round print and a few smiley faces. It reminded me of the notes girls in middle school wrote minus the looping cursive. Oddly, Cindy was not certain if I would remember her, and did not enclose any photos because she thought they may not be allowed. She did not have to send me a picture, however, for me to recall who she was or what she looked like. Simply recognizing her name on the envelope I imagined the friendly girl with long dark hair and slim figure. We did not date or even attend any of the same classes together, but the junior high school we went to was rather small. It had students from 6th to 8th grade who were basically from 3 grade schools in the west suburban town. There were fewer than 300 students and I remember most of them particularly those who were in my grade.

Over the decades that I have been incarcerated, family and friends faded away. At the Cook County Jail, my Sundays were filled with visitors and I spent much of the day talking with people through a mesh screen in Plexiglas. Immediate family drove into the inner city to see me every week. My extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins also visited regularly. Often Brian and other friends including a few girls I had dated in the past showed up. Remarkably, my first visitor was a girl I had not seen in a couple of years. However, after being convicted and sent to the penitentiary, people become disconnected as the years pass by. They realize my life was within these walls and theirs was outside them. Despite my conviction, one girl continued to visit me until she learned a life sentence literally meant life. The former statute where people were eligible for parole after 12 years ended in 1979. Life literally meant life. I never saw her again.

Since Sue created this blog forum in 2009, a few former classmates of mine have contacted me. The emails are far and few between and usually brief. Some have signed my petition for executive clemency which is still pending before Governor Quinn. However, rarely does anyone write and they are all aware of my arrest and conviction. The news media coverage was immense and I did not think there could be a classmate who missed it. Amazingly, though, Cindy was not aware until earlier this year. After high school, she moved out of state and only recently returned to the Chicago metro area. She reacquainted with classmates who mentioned what happened to me. From her letters she seemed to be shocked by the news and that is what compelled her to write.

I assume most of the students I went to school with believed I was guilty. The news media was incredibly negative and full of slanderous reporting. It may not have been until the Palatine Brown's Chicken murders were solved that they began to question my conviction. Cynthia did not ask but I knew I had to address the pink elephant in the room. In my letter to her I said that during my high school years I increasingly began to associate with men involved in criminal activity. I did so for various reasons but mostly to escape living at home. After my 18th birthday I moved in with Bob Faraci who only a couple of weeks later allegedly killed someone in the northern suburb of Barrington. She would probably have more questions but I left them for another time.

In junior high, as throughout most of my school years, I was on the honor roll. I was also an exceptional athlete and played on numerous sports teams both in private leagues and at school. The students I associated with during that period of time that Cindy knew me were also very clean cut and heavily engaged in sports. The exception may have been Tom and his older friends who were in higher grades than us. Tom had failed a grade or maybe two. He was probably considered a trouble maker, but he was fun to be around. He was also probably the only other student who could be my equal on the football and wrestling teams. We were also a good duo in other activities in junior high social life. Like Cindy, however, he moved away and I never saw him again after 8th grade.

This week it was entertaining for me to watch the Little League World Series. The televised games reminded me of when I played in junior high. Sunday was my favorite game because it was between Law Vegas, Nevada and Chicago's Jackie Robinson West. Numerous prisoners at Stateville were cheering for the all black team and thus I intentionally sought to antagonize them by rooting against J.R.W. Furthermore, I felt a little connection with the kids from Vegas. There was Austin Kryszczuk who teammates nicknamed "AK-47" apparently after his initials, size, and physical prowess. Also playing on the team was Brennan Holligan and he also reminded me of myself because of his pitching. Throughout nearly all my 7 years playing baseball, I played the position of pitcher. Coaches wanted me on the mound because by 8th grade I was able to regularly throw over 80 mph fast balls. On the small Little League diamond, 77 was the equivalent to a 100 mph pitch in professional baseball. It was very difficult for any middle schooler to hit and Holligan with almost similar speed kept Jackie Robinson West to only a few hits. Boasting, I said to my cellmate, "If I were there, it would have been a shut out." Anthony retorted that there also would be a few batters hit with wild pitches. I cannot deny that my fast ball was not as accurate and sometimes came with collateral damage.

More amusing than the comments between my cellmate and I was my exaggerated cheers for the benefit of convicts in the building. Early in the game, Las Vegas had the bases loaded and I was just waiting to burst with applause. When Brad Stone hit it out of the park for a grand slam, I shouted, "It's going, it's going, it's gone!" and then clapped loudly. The cell house went quiet except for a few disgruntled mutterings. Vegas went on to win by slaughter rule in the 4th inning, 12 to 2, and I was very pleased. The news media has been heaping praise on the all black Jackie Robinson West team. I knew it was simply due to their race. Later, the black Little League girl, Mone Davis, would become the darling of liberals and even placed on the cover of ESPN magazine.

After the game, a biker asked me if it was I who was making "the natives" unhappy. I could not deny my fun, but quickly changed the subject. Bone looked very sickly and moved almost like the living-dead. He said he felt like he had one foot in the grave and this was ironic because the following day he was to break his foot. Early Monday morning I heard him telling the sergeant that he fell out of bed and needed to go to the Health Care Unit. The sergeant seemed unmoved and Bone then added that there was blood all over his mattress, sheets, and the floor. Despite trying to bandage the wound, he continued to bleed. A few hours later when I went to commissary, I noticed a trail of blood on the concrete and knew it had to have come from the biker.

I do not think my cellmate was a jock during his school years, however, on Tuesday he went to the gym to play full contact basketball. The black inmates he plays with have begun to call him "Hatchet," apparently due to his physical defensive play and flagrant fouls. It was a humid day and inside the unventilated gym the building was like a hot house. Anthony returned almost soaked in sweat and hung up his soiled under and outer clothes to dry. Unfortunately while he was gone I washed my blues after working out and the cell had wet clothes draped everywhere. Although we used our fans, a heat index near 100 prevented them from drying until well after midnight.

The hot weather continued into the week and when my mother visited on Wednesday, it was very uncomfortable. A fan was placed near an open door in the back of the room but this did not help. The visiting room was filled with a crowd of people, many of whom were fat. In addition to the heat, it was very loud and my mother could only hear me if I spoke loudly or leaned forward. At Stateville prisoners must visit with friends and family at specially designed tables. The tables are lower than the stools and the stools are intentionally set far apart to prevent the passing of contraband or touching. A prisoner sits on one side of the table and up to 3 people can sit on the other side.

In contrast to the visiting room, the strip search room was cooled with air conditioning. Visits in summers past were also but purportedly the A/C unit was broken. I did not believe this was true and most likely administrators were trying to save money or intentionally make visits unpleasant to discourage them. Typically, prisoners were in a hurry to be done with a strip search but on this occasion me and the other men undressed and dressed slowly while conversing with guards. Everyone was making fun of the guard who passed out legal mail. She had a lot of attitude and could greatly annoy men. I was not aware but she also is on the "crisis team" which is staff meant to help prisoners deal with trauma or some other psychologically upsetting event. Men in the strip search room joked that she could be the source of distress and when an inmate asks to see the crisis team, she would only leave and come back to give him more grief.

In the evening I watched the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It was an amusing 80's film about high schoolers. My cellmate tried to make character connections with me. Initially he said I was ticket scalper who tried to be cool and left the girl hanging when she needed a drive to the hospital for an abortion. He knew this was not true however because it was impossible for me not to be myself. Furthermore, I wanted children and was opposed to abortion. Then I was the black football player who goes ballistic when his younger brother crashes his car. I told him I was always a brute when I played football and did not need a reason to blast the quarterback or some other offensive player. His last comparison was to the stoner played by Sean Penn. This was ridiculous but I had to agree that I did attend classes other than my own and while I never thought of ordering pizza delivery to class, I may miss a class to leave for lunch. During high school there was no stereotypical clique or student Anthony could compare to me. I was a rogue and did not fit into any square.

Thursday, the penitentiary was placed on a low level lockdown. Thunderstorms had rolled through and purportedly disrupted guards' radio transmissions. I spent the day in the cell doing what I commonly do. Occasionally, I would reminisce about my years in high school and even to the time period I knew Cindy. In my last letter to her I wrote that she had been approved to visit and she could drop by the penitentiary any time she wanted. I was a little hesitant to put her on my visitor list, however. In my mind, I had an idealized image of her I did not want altered. I knew it was foolish but I wanted her to be the exact same girl I remembered from 8th grade. Also weighing on my thoughts was how much I had aged or may be disappointing to her. I had fallen in so many respects from my years in high school. The prison visiting room was definitely not going to help any impression I wanted to make. In fact, it was the last place I would like to meet a classmate I had not seen in 25 years.

Close to noon on Friday my name and cell number was announced over the loudspeaker for a visit. I told a guard to give me 10 minutes to get ready. I was not expecting anyone and if it was not my sister, I assumed it was Cynthia. As I brushed my teeth and looked myself over in the small plastic mirror taped to the wall, my cellmate began razzing me that I was preparing for my big date. Going on a visit at a maximum security prison was hardly a date and his insinuations that I had a girlfriend were silly. Despite this, I did want to make a good impression if this was even possible in my circumstances. For me it was like the class reunion I never had the opportunity to attend.

From the air conditioned strip search room, I walked down the stairs into the visiting room. The heat was even greater than that on Wednesday and what I would expect in a Brazilian rain forest. The place was also mobbed with over a hundred people all talking and yelling at once. It was a zoo and the worst possible circumstances. However then through the crowd I saw Cynthia and I could not help but smile as I approached her. For a moment all the noise, people, and other unpleasantries disappeared and there was just the girl I remembered from junior high.

After so much time had passed, a person may expect a disconnect, but I felt the opposite. Conversation was easy and there was alot to talk about. We spoke about school, classmates we both knew, and our lives since 8th grade. For me there was little to say regarding the latter. Just out of high school I had been arrested and charged with murder. My attorney failed to contest a lying cop and I have been in prison ever since. Unlike me, she has lived a very full life. She had married, had children, and divorced before my first appeal was heard. Thereafter, she was employed in various lines of work in various different states. Eventually, Cindy earned a bachelor's degree in education and was now a school teacher. I must have expressed disappointment that most of my life was a great empty void and she said it was not what one does but who they are. Contrarily, I thought all meaning and value came from accomplishments and I was a pathetic failure.

I asked what classmates she met earlier in the year. I expected to know most of them but only remembered Kristen. I had several classes with her and inquired how she was. I was told she was well and was married with 2 children. She could not say the same about a punk skateboarder who I came close to putting into some shop machinery. Troy was shot and killed in a mugging. I said, "How terrible," but in my flat sarcasm I wondered if some students thought the same about my wrongful conviction and sentence to life, a fate comparable to death. In fact, I would have preferred to be shot dead. I asked what the other students she had met thought about my plight. I was told they just talked about what occurred and did not express an opinion. Possibly, that was Cindy's way of being nice.

I then asked her what she thought about my conviction. She said it was incredibly bizarre. "How could you be convicted for someone elses actions when that person was acquitted?" she asked. As I have done countless times before, I explained that the courts look at the cases separately. They do not consider the killer was set free while I was made to languish in prison indefinitely for purportedly lending my car. Cindy asked if I had a public defender or a bad attorney representing me. "No, Bill Von Hoene was actually a prominent attorney from the prestigious law firm of Jenner and Block, and he is now on the board of Exelon Corporation. However, because he lacked experience in criminal law and was primarily a civil attorney, he made a horrendous blunder in trial strategy," I replied. I went on to describe the arguments we had when he failed to contest the testimony of the police officer who interrogated me and again when he refused to allow me and my alibi witnesses to testify.

At times I gave her long looks. It was like peering into a portal to the distant past. I was also scrutinizing her appearance and every slight movement. She was the same in many ways but also different. It was the differences that I quickly picked up on and disliked including her eyebrows which were trimmed excessively. Girls could often be unnerved by my steady gaze and I suspect she also, even as an adult, became uncomfortable. "Would you prefer if I were sullen and disengaging?" I asked. No, she did not want that and said she was glad I was happy to see her again. I told her I have probably not smiled so much in months. Prison was the most miserable and soul draining place to live.

At 2:30 sharp a guard yelled for everyone to get out. Cindy asked if we could hug. On the walls are signs that no touching is allowed. These rules applied during visits and not upon greeting or leaving. I did not particularly like hugs, but I gave her one and then grabbed her belt buckle to pull towards me. She said she will come again to see me and I wondered as I let her go. Sitting at the table, I watched her walk out of the visiting room and up the short flight of stairs. She looked back a few times and I tried to imprint a mental picture of her in my mind. I may never see her again or revisit the past. Those times were over, and no matter how much I would like to, there is no going back.

As I write this post there are dark skies outside the barred windows of the cell house. The rain is falling and I recall a song which became popularized by the 80's movie The Breakfast Club. I believe it is called "Don't You Forget about Me" (by Simple Minds) and the lyrics repeat in my thoughts. The Breakfast Club was about a group of students who had to serve a Saturday detention. All of them came from divergent cliques or paths in life until they converged on that day. At the end of the film, a person is left uncertain whether they will ever meet again and this is how I feel. Regardless, I am glad to have had this one visit from the past. Even the dead like to be remembered by the living on occasion.