City Paper is not for tourists
The FBI wanted a bitch. But I refused to snitch. So then I had to ditch.
Illustrations by Fred Harper
SOMEWHERE IN THE CITY OF LONDON
I miss you, D.C. I miss canoeing down your Potomac River. I miss pedaling my bike along your Rock Creek Parkway. I miss hanging out with friends at house parties. And I miss writing for this newspaper.
But I had to go. A live grenade from the war on drugs landed in my lap, threatening to blow my life to bits. So I packed my bags and scampered off to London. Cheerio, District of Columbia.
London was a likely choice. There’s no language barrier. The city is dank and rainy, but I’ve found shelter under its sunless, almost bulletproof sky. It’s a big city, the kind of city a guy can get lost in. The kind of guy who needs to get lost. A guy like me.
When I look back, the experience that drove me from Washington seems surreal, like a nightmare that never really happened. Except it did. The world’s most famous law enforcement organization tapped my phone and bugged my apartment. The FBI knew that certain coke dealers would trust me, so its agents pressed me to set up a huge buy for them. They wanted me to wear a wire and testify in a federal courthouse to corroborate the tape.
I never did wear that wire or testifynever planned to do so in the first placebut I made the mistake of telling a few friends about my troubles. That’s how rumors get started. When the word got out that the feds had their claws in me, drug dealers started messing with my head from the other directionmaking death threats. With the FBI on one side and angry dealers on the other, my life became unmanageable. I had to skip town.
The seeds of my predicament were sown back in 1994. I had just come back to the States after covering the Goodwill Games in Russia as a stringer for the Washington Post. Russia had been a great assignment, but that’s all it wasa freelance gig. I had been called back to the States to care for my nephew. I needed to find a real job, I was broke, and I didn’t have the luxury of time.
I moved into an apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. One late afternoon, I went for a drink at Madam’s Organ, lured by the neon sign in the window that said, “Sorry We’re Open.”
Madam’s Organ was an odd place, all tricked out in bordello red and bathed in blue neon, its walls cluttered with yard-sale nudes and bric-a-brac kitsch. I was the only customer that afternoon, sitting alone with my beer, when an argument broke out between the bartender and the owner. When the bartender abruptly quit and walked out, the owner turned to me.
“Can you mix drinks?” he asked.
I had no experience bartending, but I’d observed the trade often enough to believe that a trained monkey could do it. The owner was a likeable guy. With his Irish wit and incessant mischief, Bill Duggan made me weep with laughter that first day. Before I mixed my first drink, he warned me about the pitfalls of bartending in the craziest little blues club in town.
“The first thing you need to ask yourself about a bartender,” he said, “is ‘Will he show up?’ The second thing you need to wonder about is, ‘Will he stay sober?’ The third thing you need to know is, ‘Will he steal?’ And one more thing,” Duggan added. “If you’re wired, you’re fired.”
I had never been a cocaine aficionado, but I caught the “wired” reference right away. Most people assume that drink is the biggest occupational hazard for bartenders, but coke runs a close second. The drug is tailor-made for the social nature of bartending; the sustained energy burst that it delivers offsets the effects of the drinks that you’re obliged to share with customers if you want to top off your tip jar.
My coke habit began modestly enough. It was a slow night, and a steady customer tipped me with a tiny packet of blow, wrapped up in a one-dollar bill. I was dog-tired, so I powdered my nose in the men’s room. I came out feeling like a million bucks waiting for change.
The habit crept up on me, caught me unawares. Whereas before I had made do with a good microbrew and a nice joint, now I saw nothing wrong with hoovering a little blow before each shift. The drug made me alert and gregarious. Like any good bartender, I used my snappy patter to erase any moroseness in the room. I had tumbled farfrom the giddy heights of being a foreign correspondent to slinging drinks in a lowdown blues divebut cocaine made me forget all about it.
At the time, Madam’s Organ was a cock-eyed caravan, full of great blues music and eccentric characters. Of all these characters, the most outsized was our rubbish-man-turned-bouncer, Isa Abdullah Ali. He was a homeboy from Anacostia. A reformed gangsta, he had converted to Islam in the late ’70s.
Little did I know that my mere association with Isa would bring the heat down on me. Isa was well-known to U.S. intelligence authorities, who had kept a close eye on him over the years. In fact, the government officials had called him “extremely dangerous” in a lengthy Washington Post Magazine story in December 1990.
That story chronicled his life’s journey from ghetto hard guy to guerrilla fighter in Lebanon. I knew nothing about his being an alleged terrorist, but I could see that his true talents were wasted hauling rubbish. We needed a new bouncer, and Isa’s 6 feet, 3 inches, and 240 pounds of solid muscle seemed perfect for the job.
He certainly looked the part of the doorframe heavy, showing up for work in biker leathers or military fatigues. A pair of goggles strapped around his balding head gave him the air of somebody who was always combat-ready; through the thick lenses, his small brown eyes looked like floating saucers. A mole on his right cheek came into focus whenever he leaned forward, either to make a point or to shift his weight off a bullet fragment still lodged in his left thigh, a souvenir from his final gunfight in West Beirut.
Isa told me his Creator had put him on Earth to defend innocent Muslim civilians. In 1995, that meant tilting like some postmodern knight errant toward Bosnia, to help stop the Serb slaughter of his fellow believers in that country. Isa landed there in the last few months of the war, and he saw some action. But when the conflict was over, his real troublesand minebegan.
Isa’s presence in Bosnia ran afoul of the Dayton Peace Accords, which required that all foreign forces in the conflict be expelled from the country. Four days after the expulsion deadline passed, no less an official than U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry ordered Isa’s arrest. I was at home that day when I heard the news, excited that I’d just had my new cable television service installed.
Clicking the remote control for the first time, I was shocked to see Isa’s face fill my TV screen. CNN Headline News showed a mug shot of him looking sinister and unshaven, with a voice-over announcing that Perry had placed NATO forces on “high alert,” with orders to arrest Isa “on sight for suspicion of terrorist activities.” Perry said the Pentagon had reason to believe that he was planning to pose as a U.S. Marine and blow up a NATO compound.
I stood there aghast. Almost immediately, my phone began to ring. Isa’s old acquaintances were phoning each other in disbelief. “Did you hear about Isa? He’s all over the news. Unbelievable!”
The next day, I was at Madam’s Organ, waiting for the weekly beer deliveries. I was at a table up front by the large windows, and I had a joint burning in the ashtray, when I heard a rap on the glass door behind me. I swiveled around to see two stocky, middle-aged white guys in tight-fitting sports jackets standing outside. Right away, my eyes were drawn to a tie worn by one of them. Below a sloppy Windsor knot was a pattern of logos from police forces from all over the country. Unmistakably, these were cops. Feds.
I snuffed out the joint and lit a cigarette to cover its odor. When I opened the door, the two suits immediately flashed their FBI badges. They were pleasant enough, and if they smelled my weed, they never let on. They had bigger concerns, obviously.
They wanted to know about Isa. They told me it was all a big mix-up, that he was innocent, that they were simply “concerned for his safety.” But just like in an old spy movie, something about that phrase did not sit right. The broad-shouldered agents seemed right out of central casting, and I was beginning to feel like the bartender at Rick’s Cafe, in Casablanca. I couldn’t tell them anything useful, so they left.
That evening, the feds were back again to work the crowd. Among the dreadlocks and ponytails, the two agents looked like bumblebees in a bouquet of flowers. By midnight, the crowd had thinned to a few lonely drunks. Nobody knew Isa’s whereabouts, and not even the sorriest drunk wanted to cozy up to a couple of feds.
As the hubbub settled, we all forgot about Isa and went back to our usual tricks. I knew people from all walks of life who were snorting blowartists and musicians, housewives and homeboys, congressional staffers and overpaid lobbyists, diplomats and journalists. They all craved the cocaine sensation.
By 1996, oceans of nearly pure powder had flooded the city at rock-bottom prices. Everyone seemed to be swimming in it. Even our own mayor, Marion Barry, got caught using crack. Everywhere I went, there was blow for sale. I found myself getting sucked deeper and deeper into the white-powder whirlpool. Before long, I was bingeing badly.
With my nose in the bag every night, I saw the sunrise every morning. I did enough cocaine that the tissues inside my nose bled regularly. I knew people who sold their bodies for the devil’s dandruff, others who’d snorted so much blow that they could literally string dental floss through the tunnels they’d burnt from nostril to nostril.
I had entered a very dark place. I grew irritable, swooping into depression whenever I ran out. At the blues club every night, I was surrounded by a couple hundred happy revelers, but I felt completely alone. As a close friend told me: “Cocaine takes you to the moonand leaves you there.”
I had been promising myself for a long time that I would go straight, but that was a lie. On New Year’s Day 1997, I made a resolution to get clean and to seek help if I failed. Within the week, I was off on a three-day bender.
Finally, I took a step in the right direction. I flushed the coke, hung up the bar rag, and climbed into a Narcotics Anonymous program for a six-month spin-dry. It was a Sunday evening when I walked into my first NA meeting in Dupont Circle, falling into the embrace of fellow addicts who understood.
The recovery program seemed to do the trick. I bought into the belief that addicts need spiritual helpnot prison cellsand tuned out the cant and cliché# of 12-step therapy-speak. I got six months’ distance from the drugsand the people who did them, too. I felt like a new man. I was a better surrogate father to my nephew. My career as a writer was back on track. I was working out every day. I’d even quit smoking cigarettes and drinking. People kept telling me how great I looked, how well I was doing.
They were right, but not entirely. I’d missed an important NA memothe one about alcohol being the biggest gateway drug of all. Although cocaine is a powerfully addictive drug psychologically, it is not physically addictive over the long term. If the drug is out of sight, then it’s out of mind. But when a single line is offered to an addictespecially an addict with a few drinks in himthe difference between thought and action becomes nonexistent.
Booze breaks down inhibitions, and cocaine is a very jealous mistress. When booze meets coke in some dark bar, they almost inevitably go home and fuck. Cocaine was the whore of the Adams Morgan scene, easily found in clubs up and down 18th Street. I found it impossible to go out at night without seeing cocaine cast its come-hither glances.
“Psst,” a dealer would whisper into my ear. “You want a bump? Here’s a line, man. Go to the men’s room and come right back.”
Back I came, again and again, paying for one bag after the next. By fall of 1997, I was swooshing down those white slopes again, in the deepest powder of my life, in fact, because one of my closest friends, Colete Fontenot, was in the business now.
After she’d lost her job as a researcher at a nonprofit groupshitcanned for chronic absenteeismColete was fronted an ounce of blow and told she could pay for it when she had sold all 28 grams. She was off to the races.
For a few years, she was one busy businesswoman, carving out her niche among Georgetown diplobrats early in the evening and then finding customers among the wan-looking vampire types in after-hours bars. One night, she let me tag along in the back of her chauffeur-driven limo for a story that I was researching on a day in the life of an anonymous coke dealer. I never did write that story, although I conducted some very thorough research.
Colete’s customers varied in another way as well: Some of them were addicts whose lives were in ruins, and others were weekend warriors who seemed to be handling the drug easily. It struck me that there was no business like blow business. Cocaine seemed the ultimate metaphor for our culture of instant gratificationand the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, because the business offers near-zero start-up costs and extraordinarily high profits.
On her nights off, Colete would often come over to my place with Tupperware containers brimming with blow. She was tall and dark and stop-a-clock gorgeous.
“Hi, honey,” she’d say, sashaying over to the microwave to concoct confections of cocaine and baking powder. Our Tupperware parties were debauched but glorious. Smoking coke is the way to go, especially when you have bottomless supplies of free shit. For one thing, it spares your sinuses. It also happens to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The rush that washes over your body is completely sexual. No wonder cocaine is winning the war on drugs. It was beating the shit out of me.
Yet I still had enough of my wits about me to see that my next coke-smoking session could be my last. I’d already passed out a number of times from huge hits. A heart attack or brain hemorrhage was right around the corner. In early 1998, I checked back into NA, this time for some remedial learning.
“It works,” the NA addicts all shouted when the meeting was ending. “So keep coming back!”
Now I was once more determined to live drug- and alcohol-free, and I had an old friend back in town to help me do it. It was the spring of 1998, and Isa had just returned from Bosnia to proclaim his innocence. Isa and I were on the same wavelength. As a Muslim, he never drank, and he was into physical fitness. He even moved in with me.
He said he had flown right back into the country with no problem at all. Insisting that he had fought the good fight as a freedom fighter in Bosnia, he said there was not one shred of evidence to prove he was a terrorist. The U.S. government was just covering its ass as usual, he said, betraying its deep-seated prejudice against Muslims.
Isa was eager to clear his name, so we set to work on writing his life’s story. Every day, we engaged in what we called “writing and fighting” sessions. These would consist of an hour of writing, followed by a half-hour of martial-arts training, followed by another hour of writing. After six months of Isa’s flipping me around our living room, we’d managed to knock out the first draft of his autobiography, under the working title They Call Me a Terrorist.
After we finished, Isa returned to Bosnia to settle some of his affairs. I set about finding an agent to peddle our book. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from another old Madam’s Organ friend, an accountant at the Internal Revenue Service. He told me that an FBI agent named Brad Deardorff had stopped by his office to see if he had any news on Isa. He said Deardorff seemed like a decent guy, adding that I might want to talk to him.
When I called Bosnia to give Isa the heads-up that the FBI was looking for him, he was unfazed.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Give the feds my number. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Isa was curious, and so was I. He’d planned to come back to the States soon to finish the book, and the last thing he wanted was to be stopped at the airport. So I phoned up the feds just to smoke them out. Deardorff asked me to pick a place to meet him, and I suggested the Starbucks at 18th Street and Connecticut Avenue. When I showed up, Deardorff was sitting at the counter. He was barrel-chested, with short, reddish-blond hair, a friendly smile, and a firm handshake.
I never wanted to get on the wrong side of the FBI, so I was straight with him. I offered that I was writing a book with Isa that would spell out the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter: A terrorist preys on civilian populations; a freedom fighter defends innocent civilians. While Isa claimed to have slain hundreds of combatants, he always maintained that he had never killed a civilian.
Deardorff showed little interest in my political opinions. He was tight-lipped and let me do most of the talking. What he really wanted was Isa’s phone number, and he seemed quietly pleased when I gave it to him. Deardorff wanted to know what kind of a guy Isa was. I told him Isa was the biggest badass I’d ever met, but that his ferocity was tempered by his large capacity for laughteralmost like a good ol’ boyand a sweet, aw-shucks innocence. I insisted that he was completely misunderstood, that he was by no means a terroristthat he had dedicated his life to defending Muslim civilians and killed only in battle.
Deardorff seemed convinced that Isa was on the side of the angels. At the end of our 20-minute conversation, he slid me an envelope with $400 in cash compensation, he said, for my long-distance phone calls to Bosnia. I neither needed nor wanted the money, but said I would mail it right away to Isa. (I did, because I knew the dough would go a long way in postwar Bosnia.)
Deardorff asked me to sign for the money, assuring me that it was a mere formality. As soon as the ink had dried, however, he told me that I was now, officially, an FBI informant. He quickly added that he was assigning me a code name. Another formality, he said.
I must admit, I had a momentary megalomaniacal reverie. I felt as if I were being welcomed into a special fraternity. A Masonic Lodge or an Elks Club, but for G-men.
I had no thought of anything beyond acting as a go-between, no notion of any possible consequences. I thought the FBI might help with the book. Indeed, Deardorff had suggested at that first meeting that he might have some “connections” in the publishing world. But he urged me to hold off on it until he had spoken with Isa. He said he didn’t want me to blow Isa’s cover. What mission he had in mind for Isa, he would not say.
At home, I consulted a dictionary. I discovered that my code nameUracilwas defined as one of the building blocks of DNA, and “an extremely important intermediate in the transfer of chemical energy in living cells.”
To me, my code name sounded like a headache pill. And sure enough, my association with the FBI turned into the biggest headache of my life. “Uracil” was a loaded handle, a biochemical in-joke of sorts. And the joke was on me.
The next time we met, Deardorff was there at the Starbucks with another agent. He said he had reached Isa over the phone in Bosnia. He said the FBI had checked Isa’s line before making the call, and it was “secure.” I wondered aloud about my own phone line. Deardorff smiled a friendly smile. He reassured me that my friends and I had nothing to worry about. As I would later come to understand, that was bullshit. Deardorff was grooming me to be a snitch.
I met with Deardorff and several other agents who occasionally accompanied him three times over the next six months. They would meet me either in a van down the block from my house in Mount Pleasant or at our usual spot, the Starbucks. Before long, we were old pals. But Deardorff was frustrated. Isa would not cooperate, he said.
For some reason, Deardorff wanted to keep me apprised of his efforts to turn Isa. He said Isa had agreed to meet with him but had flatly refused to go to work for the U.S. government. I had figured as much, since Isa had told me the same thing over the phone. He said the FBI had called him several times in Bosnia hoping to enlist him in their fight against international terrorism. Isa said no dice.
Isa had also told me that the CIA had been trying to recruit him for decades but that he had steadfastly refused to strike the Faustian bargain. He believed that working for the CIA would violate his principles. Isa always maintained that, by his definition, the U.S. government was the world’s largest terrorist organization, because U.S. bombs and bullets had killed so many civilians all over the globe.
What kind of mission the FBI had in mind for Isa is something I could only imagine. His assets were varied. He spoke fluent Arabic, without an accent, and he was light-skinned, like an Egyptian. He was widely traveled in the Arab world. He would, I presumed, make the perfect mole to infiltrate Mideast terrorist cells.
Then again, with his commando skills, I figured, Isa could be put to work capturing Serbian war criminals. I even suggested to Deardorff that he use Isa to grab Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic under cover of darkness. I had my own selfish reasons, of course, for meddling in the affairs of state. I knew that a stunt like that would catapult our book to the best-seller lists and make me a wealthy man.
When I asked Deardorff directly what he wanted out of Isa, he replied tersely: “Patrick, we don’t answer questions. We ask them.”
“Well,” I said, “if you don’t tell me what you want Isa to do for you, how can I help swing him?”
After that conversation, I heard nothing from the feds for a few months. But, it seems, they heard everything from me. This I learned in March 2000, when Isa returned from Bosnia again. Instead of greeting me with his usual bear hug, he tiptoed into my apartment, placed a forefinger over his lips, turned my stereo up to full volume, and wrote on a sheet of paper: “Your phone is tapped, and your apartment is bugged.”
My heart leapt. Who would do such a thing? Then he jotted down words that chilled my spine: “The FBI. The CIA. And the National Security Council.”
We went for a chat outside. Isa covered his mouth, suspicious that lip-reading surveillance cameras were trained on us. He said that the feds had told him they were watching me closely, that they were listening to all my phone calls. They knew about my old coke habit, and they knew that I still smoked pot. They implied, he said, that they would fuck with me if he did not go to work for them. In other words, they would use what little leverage they had in the war against drugs to fight the war against terrorism. Suddenly, I felt like a low-life character in some crappy Robert Ludlum novel.
Isa had always had an overactive imagination. I had trouble believing what he was telling me. But he erased all doubt: To prove the feds had bugged my apartment, Isa told me things nobody else knew about. He recited details about my sex life to me, incidents like one involving a friend I’d slept with once. Isa knew her name, and he knew she was loud in bed. There’s no way he could have divined that. Isa chuckled and told me that Deardorff had made a wisecrack about my sex life.
I met Deardorff once more in the spring of 2000, a few weeks after Isa returned, and he began to squeeze me in earnest that day. He told me that he knew everything about me and threatened to press distribution-of-marijuana charges against me. Then he smiled, not pleasantly, and just gazed at me. It was the gaze of a man who knew with unshakable certainty that he was right, that the world was exactly ordered to his satisfaction. It was the look that makes underlings writhe.
I could hardly deny what the feds probably knew from listening to my phone. I acknowledged to Deardorff that I had, on occasion, exchanged marijuana for money, but never more than $100 worth. I thought if I came clean about the weed, then they might leave me alone. Next to the looming presence of cocaine, a little weed exchanged among friends seemed harmless enough. The courts would surely overlook it.
In April, Isa and I were both freaking out. I wanted him out of my life, or at least out of my apartment, but he needed time to find another crib. We were wigging out on each other with regularity, snapping over small things. I’d started drinking again, and Isa was not pleased. He saw me falling to pieces. His biggest fear was that I would relapse on to cocaine and get us both busted.
My biggest fear was that our writing-and-fighting sessions would escalate into the real thing, and there was no question that this man could snap me like a twig. Isa suddenly seemed sulky toward me, and when I caught him giving me odd looks, he would hurriedly shift his gaze, as though embarrassed. When I finally confronted him, he blamed me for everything. He got right up in my face. He said it was all my fault, that things had gone wrong because I had consorted with known cocaine dealers. I told him that if he’d only play along with the feds, then they’d ease off me. He said he would never go to work for them.
By now our friendship had hit the skids, and the professional relationship between writer and subject was torn to shreds. We decided to put the book on hold. The whole project had turned out to be a monumental waste of time.
But at least the feds might be placated. All along, Deardorff had been urging us to kill the book. I still don’t know why.
I figured that was the end of a very strange chapter in my life. Isa finally moved out, and I hoped and prayed I’d seen the backside of Deardorff for the very last time.
But once again, I was mistaken. Four months later, in the last week of August 2000, my quiet life was pierced by the ringing of the telephone. Deardorff was on the line. Again.
“Patrick,” he said, “we’d like to meet with you again. The usual spot, Starbucks in Dupont Circle.”
I wasn’t worried. I was sure the feds were done with me. I hadn’t heard from them in months. I had shelved Isa’s book, showing myself to be steady and cooperative. In fact, I figured, they probably had a big story to pass along to me. I skipped out the door that day, thinking that the meeting might be a small steppingstone in my journalism career. What a moron I was.
I was 10 minutes late. Deardorff seemed relieved to see me. He shook my hand and flashed me a smile, which I somehow knew boded no good. Something was not right. I could not put a finger on it. I kept an eye on him as we exited the coffee shop, and it seemed that he kept an eye on me, too. Then he got down to business.
“We know you wanted to wash your hands of us, Patrick,” he said. “But it’s not going to be that easy. You’re in our files now.”
Out on Connecticut Avenue, Deardorff asked me to step into a car. When I hesitated, he straightened his cuffs and brushed some flecks of lint off his sleeve.
“Just get in the car, Patrick.”
At the wheel of a pine-green, late-model Ford Taurus was Special Agent Roberta Stephenson. Another agent, Gregg Horner, sat in the back seat. Stephenson was a bit younger, nice-looking, and sweet to me, almost maternal; Horner was middle-aged, with a small paunch, and wore a red goatee.
Stephenson pointed the car down Rock Creek Parkway, snaking along the palisade of trees that line the road. We finally stopped in a parking lot next to the old Art Barn, not far from the National Zoo. She quietly explained that she was leading an investigation into a ring of cocaine distributors in the metropolitan area. She needed my help.
Stephenson opened a file folder. There was a photograph of Colete and me. There were more photos as wellshots of various known coke dealers and some small-time users. I recognized about half the people in the pictures. The ones I didn’t know looked like people I’d never in my worst nightmares want to meet. They wore gold rings and chains, or greased-back hair and Armani suits.
Stephenson asked what I could tell her about Colete’s cocaine business. I ransacked my memory for things that I’d said over the phone, with the full knowledge that they had been listening. I insisted that we were just friends, and that I knew nothing about dealing.
“Colete is a party girl,” I said. “She’s just like me.”
Stephenson said she wanted me to set up a huge buy with Colete, for 2 1/2 kilos of cocaine. I tried to remain calm, but my heart was racing faster than it ever had on cocaine. I felt gutted. I felt like getting high.
Deardorff chimed in from the back seat. He said that I would go to jail with everybody else if I refused to cooperate. I told them I needed to seek legal counsel before we talked again. They dropped me off back near Dupont Circle, and I walked away from that car calling Deardorff every filthy name I could lay tongue to.
That night, I couldn’t stop pacing. I was coming unraveled. The FBI had come back into my life like a monster emerging from the murky Potomac. Its vise grip was tightening around me. Images of Deardorff raiding my home at dawn flashed incessantly through my mind.
Back at home, I had speed-dialed my attorney, David Niblack, leaving dozens of messages. He was out of town. I went for a drink at the Raven, a hole-in-the-wall dive in Mount Pleasant, but the alcohol only clouded my thinking. Eight Heinekens chasing as many shots of whiskey couldn’t wash my problems away. My choice was stark: save my own neck or bust my friends.
I felt compelled to warn Colete. At closing time, I pedaled my bike over to her house on Harvard Street in Columbia Heights. She was holding, and we got high as I told her my story. The drugs only made me more paranoid than ever.
Then Colete popped a curious question: “Want to marry me?” she asked, only half in jest.
“Yeah, if we were husband and wife, by law you couldn’t be forced to testify against me.”
Smart girl. Cool as a cucumber. To this day, she has never lost her sense of humor.
Colete revealed that she had already thought she might be hot. Her ex-boyfriend, a Parisian draft dodger, had been busted, and she did not trust him. She said she was getting out of the business pronto. But it was already too late. What she didn’t know was that her ex had been undercover for a year.
In his paper-strewn office down at 6th and G Streets NW, my attorney sat behind his desk, calm as Buddha.
Niblack explained that the feds need a court order to tap electronic communications or search for evidence during investigations. But they don’t need one for espionage cases. Technically, I had fallen between two stools, he said, because Isa’s file fit into the espionage category. The only question was whether the evidence gathered from tapping my phone on an espionage case could be admitted as evidence for a drug prosecution.
“Look at you,” Niblack said. “You’re a wreck. Your hands are shaking, and you look like you haven’t slept in days.” He motioned to a paper coffee cup on a bookshelf in the corner. “Now, get that down,” he said.
I gazed in bewilderment at the cup, which was full of dirt. “I dug that right off the grave site of J. Edgar Hoover,” Niblack said, grinning impishly. “Now, I want you to scoop some of it into your hands, and the next time the feds come to bother you, I want you to throw that dirt in their chest and tell them, ‘You’ve got nothing.’”
A few days later, Niblack called me at home. He told me to call him back from a pay phone. He said he’d discussed my case with the FBI agents, who referred him to the U.S. Department of Justice. They wanted to offer me an immunity deal. If I talked, they’d leave me alone. But if I did testify, I’d have to betray Colete and divulge everything I knew about every other coke dealer in town. This was not a welcome piece of news.
Niblack dismissed the deal immediately. “‘Immunity from what?’” he said, replaying his confab with the feds. “‘You’ve got nothing. My client has done nothing wrong. He is not even the object of an investigation.’”
This was the best piece of news I’d heard in months. Niblack was rightthe feds had been bluffing all along. They had nothing on me. That same weekend, I attended the annual Adams Morgan Day Festival. It was great fun. The sun was shining, musician friends were on stage pumping up the volume, and I danced the day away.
Around 10 p.m., I went up to the rooftop deck of Madam’s Organ for a cool drink. I was sitting alone at a table, far from the madding crowd, when this big biker dude sauntered over to my table and tossed his beer all over me. Then he clenched his fist in my beer-soaked face.
“You better watch your ass, snitch,” he warned. “That’s how people die.”
There’s pretty heavy pressure against snitching in the District’s seedier environs. A lot of folks don’t last the night. From what I’d heard, it was all arranged through Lorton Prison. On visitor’s day, a name was whispered to a prisoner, who, in turn, passed the name to a hit man on the outside. Life is cheap: For a few hundred bucks, anybody can be killed. Even me.
I could not bear to think about this, so I began to drink regularly again. The brain is a tricky appliance. It cannot dwell for long on death and violence and jail terms, so it recalibrates itself to fit more comfortable thoughts. I put the threat out of my head. But soon, I received another reminder.
It was several weeks later, and a woman’s voice was on my home phone: “If you testify,” she whispered slowly, “then you are a dead man.”
I had no plans to testifyout of loyalty to Colete and out of sheer fear. Colete knew that. She knew that any rumors about my being a snitch were no more than an ugly commingling of two separate dramas: my involvement with Isa and my involvement with her. Yet that confusion was now out on the street.
Overnight, my relationship with the feds had turned my life into Pulp Fiction. The stress was taking its toll. Why was that white van always parked outside my house? Who was that enigmatic stranger following me down the sidewalk? Why were certain cars driving slowly beside me? Visions of my own bloodied body haunted me daily. I felt a numbness tinged with paranoia.
I worried about even going out at night, fearing I might meet a bullet fired from the barrel of a stolen handgun. Would I end up just another casualty of the war on drugs? Who would know the difference? Endless small lives are snuffed out in the District, and the vast majority of such crimes go unsolved. I left the house only when necessaryand only through the back door.
In mid-September, early on a quiet weekday morning, my doorbell rang. Horner and another FBI agent handed me a subpoena that compelled me to appear before the grand jury for the United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia. I was to appear on Oct. 11, 2000, at 9:30 a.m. Re: John Doe Number A00-262. The subpoena was signed by William Fitzpatrick, assistant United States attorney.
I faxed the subpoena to Niblack and called him from a pay phone. His tone shifted from blithely dismissive to gravely concerned, particularly when I told him about the death threats.
Nonetheless, on a chilly October morning, I went to see the grand jury. They kept Niblack and me waiting for hours. When it was my turn, I was ushered into a room with 23 men and women, a stenographer, and Fitzpatrick, the prosecutor. After being sworn in, I told them my name and occupation. Then I invoked my Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Legally, I am not permitted to reveal the questions asked of me in front of the grand jury. The questioning went on for 30 minutes. To each question, I replied, “On the advice of legal counsel, I respectfully decline to answer because my answer may tend to incriminate myself.” At one point, I asked irritably if I could just raise my finger and say, “I take the Fifth.”
Fitzpatrick ran a scornful eye over me. He insisted that I repeat the entire phrase into the microphone after each question.
When it was over, Fitzpatrick followed me out. He told me that he had it on good authority that I was a flight risk.
He was right. I was ready to pay a king’s ransom to get out of town before he could compel me to testify. “Well,” I said, “you’re obviously still tapping my phone.”
As we left the courthouse, Niblack told me that if I wanted to leave the country, I should do so immediately.
“You need to get out of here now, before they serve you with another subpoena, or before you get killed,” he said. “That is perfectly within your rights. The chances of them dragging you back to testify are slim to none. If you hang around and they get you on the witness stand, you’ll have to talk or face a contempt-of-court charge. If you lie on the stand, it’s perjury.”
I gave deep thought to what Niblack had said and began to make active plans to leave the country. Within a week, I got another jolt. The phone rang.
“Did you hear the news?” a friend asked. “Niblack is dead.”
Niblack’s death came as no great shock. He was overweight, and he smoked and drank to excess, despite having had a mild heart attack several years before. But I took his passing as a signal of sorts. I could be next.
I finally had to choose. Either I’d get pimped by the FBIand then whacked by some dope-dealing hoodsor I’d refuse to talk, or lieand then go to jail for contempt or perjury.
Those two choicesa bullet in the back of the skull or a jail cell with Bubbakick-boxed inside my head. It would take me seven more weeks to find a flat in London and wind down my life in D.C. But finally, just before Christmas, I laid aside my misgivings about leaving my home, my country, and my family.
London, where even the police are unarmed, seemed so civilized by comparison.
Before I left, a couple of hundred close friends gathered to see me off. There was toasting and speechmaking and merriment that night at Madam’s Organand friends whispering false rumors in my ear.
“Pssssst,” they’d say. “Yeah, come closer. What’s the deal with the FBI? We heard you were snitching. Are you going into the witness protection program, or what?”
What could I say? I was bound to confidentiality because of my grand-jury testimony. I did not want to do anything that the feds could use to hang a charge on me. I just shrugged and gave my buddies a nonresponse: “You know,” I said, “half the lies that people tell about me are true.”
Two months after I arrived in London, Colete came to see me. It was in early February when she flew here and stayed in my flat, above a fish ‘n’ chips shop. By day, we rode the red tour buses through the steady London drizzle. At night, we dined in posh restaurants. We danced through the wee hours in Soho nightclubs. We finally felt free of drugs, guns, and cops.
Colete had fallen in love with London. She was done with the District and with the fetid coke scene. She was determined to settle here and start her life anew. She said she just needed to go back to the States to tidy up her life, and then she’d come right back.
That was four months ago. Colete is still in sunny America, yet I know I’ll be catching more rays than she will: The day after she landed at Dulles International Airport, she ended up in jail.
“I was busted down on U Street,” she told me by e-mail. “It was like something out of Hollywood. A dozen squad cars. Guns drawn high. I wished I’d listened to you, honey. I just wish I’d stayed in London.”
As it turned out, a warrant for her arrest had been issued while she was here with me. When they finally caught up with her, she was holding one tiny gram of coke, worth about $60. She pleaded guilty, but under U.S. mandatory sentencing guidelines for cocaine conspirators, she is facing 10 years to life in federal prison on “kingpin” charges, based on the testimony of real snitches. She is to be sentenced July 6.
It turns out that Colete was set up by her own colleaguesdouble-crossed by people above and below her in the dealing hierarchy. Four of her fellow cocaine dealers had agreed to testify against her. It was the dealers who wound up snitchingeven the person who had started Colete in the business.
Colete’s guilty plea obviates the need for me to testify, so the feds are finally off my backI hope.
I am clean and safe here in London, far from threats by cops and dealers. By day, I attend AA meetings, and I no longer dismiss the 12-step cliché#s. I embrace the programhook, line, and sinker. As the first step states: “We admitted we were powerless over alcoholthat our lives had become unmanageable.” If anybody’s life was unmanageable, it was mine.
Ironically, I have to thank Deardorff for drilling the point home. As much as I hate to admit it, the man was just doing his job. This may sound like the Stockholm syndrome, where captives grow to adore their captors, but it’s actually much simpler than that. In AA, we learn to cope with resentments, to take a personal inventory, to resolutely examine our own mistakes. I was a drug-addled fool, way out of my depth, and it was my own drug abuse that set in motion the train that jumped its tracks. Without Deardorff riding my ass, I might still be out there using.
I have my nephew here with me nowall grown up and safe and sound, where nobody who wants to fuck with me can fuck with him. And as I look out from our flat, past our curtains, and watch the red double-decker buses roll down the wet street at night, I wonder if I’ll ever see D.C. again.
When I do go out at night, I can’t help but notice the coke fiends out therethe conga lines to the bathrooms, the sniffling, the incessant chatterand I avoid those people as if my life depends on it. Because it does.
One night not long ago, I was offered a line by a nice British gentleman. It was frightfully impolite of me, but I had to just say no. “You see, old chap,” I whispered, leaning in close, “cocaine took me to the moonand left me here.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Fred Harper.