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Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemptionby Shon Hopwood
LIKE TRASH BLOWING IN
"Take a look at those clouds!" someone behind me said. I strained hard against my chains, leaning over a guy to see out the plane's window. A wild storm was building over Oklahoma City, our final destination. Lord, please just let this plane crash was my silent prayer. The storm seemed like an opportunity for an easy exit from life. I was through with it.
Growing up in Nebraska I had seen enough poached green clouds to know the most beautiful sky is the one about to kill you. As a kid I had often heard the town's tornado siren and scampered to the top of the roof to see for myself, watching horned monsters form in the clouds until Mom shouted me down. My brothers and sisters and I would huddle with her under the splintered stairway of our basement, safe in her embrace. My mother, I think, liked the drama of those moments.
Over the years I'd given her plenty of that.
Under the stairs was probably the only time she felt in control of her three headstrong boys; my two sisters were well behaved.
Dad's red rusted toolbox was down there. I saw it in my mind when I thought of that basement. On one of my bank jobs I had borrowed it just to drop it a few feet to the shiny floor tiles. The bang was loud enough to draw everyone's attention. That's how the first bank robbery began, a year and a half earlier--already a lifetime ago.
In the plane, downdrafts were rattling our chains and bucking us around like a two-dollar state fair ride. I was nervous enough just to be going where I was going--federal prison.
If Marty Barnhart still wanted to pray for me, this would have been a good time, I thought. Marty was the pastor of our church, and when my downward slide had first started, my parents had asked him to come visit me in county jail, where I was staying after buying beer for my barely underage brother. Marty came because he had been asked to, but also--I could see it in his face--because he sensed I was on the brink of something a lot worse.
Marty held my hands through the bars and prayed for me. Little did he know I had already robbed one bank and would rob four more. I liked him, but I figured I was too far gone for his medicine.
My hometown of David City is an hour and a half due west of Omaha, or forty-five minutes northwest of Lincoln, the home of the Cornhuskers football team--football being the state's second religion. The land is mostly flat. Modest hills of corn, grass, and soybeans rise just enough to spoil your view of the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Those hills play havoc with the crop pivots, which are quarter-mile-long steel sprinklers that look like shiny backbones left over from some science fiction war. They come alive once or twice a week, spitting water and chemicals as they roll slowly in great circles. They save work, allowing sons and daughters who once toiled with irrigation pipes the time to get into trouble.
I certainly am not blaming the sprinklers for what my best friend, Tom, and I did.
For us, David City was about fifteen hundred miles from anywhere fast enough and slammed up enough to be worthwhile, meaning L.A. or New York. The very tranquility of the town irritated us. We felt landlocked and depressed. So we lived from weekend to weekend, party to party, inventing half-assed rowdiness after the football games and speeding off to drinking parties out under the stars with girls.
That would pass for happiness for a while. Tom and I were both sports stars in high school. I had worked for that brief stardom. Back before I was old enough to start driving, I would dribble a basketball with my weak hand all the way to school each day, and all the way home each evening. At home, I practiced endlessly under the old hoop in our driveway, even when it was dark and so cold that the ball was hard as a rock and full of bounce. The purpose of life was tracked on scoreboards in those years.
I had always been determined to have an interesting life. Not a superstar life necessarily. But, you know, at least something--not the wasted life of a wage slave shoveling cow manure--my last real job before the banks.
Now I was on my way to spending a decade or more in federal prison, which wasn't exactly like heading off to summer camp. It would be heavy weather no matter how you looked at it. And if I didn't make it, well, I had always figured I would die young anyway.
The plane banked sharply and I saw the suburban fringe of Oklahoma City close below--clean little cars on clean little streets in shopping center parking lots, and the green and brown athletic fields of perfect high schools.
Regular life can seem small and too well ordered, but seeing it, I longed for all that suddenly, to be small and well ordered and free. All those people down there were doing whatever they wanted today--or at least choosing who would tell them what to do.
The airline flying us through this storm was JPATS. Trust me when I say you don't want frequent-flyer miles on this one. The initials stand for the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. It is operated by the U.S. Marshal's Service, and it moves a few hundred thousand federal prisoners around the country each year. Inmates call it Con Air. The planes are similar to commercial jets, though a bit worn inside from years of handcuffs, belly chains, ankle shackles, and sociopaths. The seat belt sign always stays on, though mine had a little broken blink to it. The bathrooms are for the marshals. The conversations with seatmates differ from other airlines--they're mostly about robberies, drug deals gone bad, snitches, and news about who is now in which prison.
We banked hard again, and I took another look at the town below, now a worried brown. The hardworking people down there were no doubt looking up fearfully, but not at us--we were the lesser danger that day.
You have probably looked up and seen, without knowing, these prisoner planes flying over like white and mostly unmarked Pandora seeds blowing in the wind.
The marshals, mostly in their thirties, were more professional than the guards back in the county jails. The county guards looked like people who had fallen into those jobs, not by choice, and while they had grown a bit mean, you could at least picture having a drink with them someday. Not these federal marshals. They resembled mercenaries who had come back to the States after working in tough places, doing tough things. I was sure that if they suddenly received an order to march us out the back door without parachutes, they would not hesitate to do so.
Shortly before landing, to my surprise, they handed out apples, bone-dry crackers, and tiny boxes of juice. "Eat up fast, we're almost there," they repeated as they tossed the food from the aisle to a chained wave of big tan hands that shot up like rattling tambourines.
My seatmate, a black kid a few years younger than I was, watched as I struggled to place the drinking straw into the juice box and into my mouth.
"Why you got special handcuffs?" he asked. He seemed too young to be going to a federal prison.
"Bad luck," I answered. "They think I'm a flight risk."
He looked confused. "Like this flight?"
"No, like flight in general, as in run away."
He still didn't get it.
"It's just some bull." He accepted that with a nod. I guess his ears were plugged, or maybe he was just slow or had an undiagnosed hearing problem. Maybe something like that had screwed him up in school, and here he was. When you come from poverty and a bad neighborhood, you're always walking the tightrope, and any wrong move or bad luck can knock you into a free fall. This kid should have been flying to meet his iron-willed grandmother instead of meeting armed guards and years of steel doors. But in my ten months in county jails I had learned to toughen my feelings about the many young lives you see wasted by bad drugs and bad drug laws. Most of them seemed so beaten down. The smarter and nicer ones--those qualities usually go together--really stood out. Some would even return a smile.
My special handcuffs had a rigid plastic piece between them that kept my hands stiffly apart like a stockade. Called a black box, inmate lore says it was designed by a former convict. The rigid piece connects to a belly chain. My leg shackles ensured that I could take only baby steps, but we all had those.
I had been flagged as a flight risk because back in the St. Louis county jail where I had been warehoused for two weeks an albino meth addict with two teeth had gotten angry at me and Craig, one of my codefendants, for changing the channel on a television. He told the guards we were planning to escape, and they believed him. We were all on the eighth floor of a high-security jail, a place where the elevators didn't move unless you had a key and a security badge. Only Houdini would have tried it from up there. But whenever I was transported after that I received the special restraints otherwise reserved for murderers and terrorists. At least they made me look dangerous; I would take anything that might help protect me.
My travels that morning had begun with a St. Louis guard pushing my face into a wall and calling me whiteboy, emphasizing the boy part. He was yelling in my ear that he would take care of me if I tried to escape, as if my even thinking about it was akin to challenging his manhood.
He had me by the hair and could have cracked my skull like a coconut against the bricks. Even so, I mouthed off. I said he must be incredibly stupid to believe a meth-head and think I was trying to escape, and that I would announce it to the world. That basically did it. I could feel it coming. But another guard intervened and held the guard's arm. They compromised on a kidney punch that sent me to my knees.
A dozen of us were taken by bus to an airport on the other side of the river from St. Louis and there we were met by fifty or so men with rifles and shotguns. They thanked us for our visit and showed us the way to the plane. We flew to Terre Haute to pick up more prisoners, then Detroit, Chicago, then Rochester, Minnesota, then somewhere in South Dakota, then finally to the back of the Oklahoma City airport, where there is a large holding facility for federal prisoners. It was like a garbage run: we were coming into the Oklahoma City transfer station, on our way to a landfill somewhere.
Assuming we didn't crash, of course. I knew there was a tornado or two in the storm. On final approach, my seatmate began mumbling.
"I never done this before," he finally blurted out.
"You mean going to prison or flying?"
"Both I guess. They always jump around like this?"
"It's not unusual." I lied.
There was in fact a tornado coming, and more than one. The Oklahoma tornadoes that day were among the most powerful ever recorded. The main one was a hair under a category six--almost unheard of. In those four days of tornadoes, in the first week of May 1999, sixty-six twisters would kill forty-eight people in and around Oklahoma City.
We touched down and tipped slightly to the right as the pilot fought to keep us on the runway. He throttled the engines louder and then back, and we settled in. As we taxied, marshals rushed through the cabin to unfasten our seatbelts. "Get ready to move fast when we give the word," they yelled a dozen times. "We're racing a twister, so move when we say move."
Everyone contorted to look out the windows. I could see a black funnel cloud approaching, maybe two miles from the airport. All the guys on my side of the plane could see it. There were a lot of comments, all beginning with the word "holy."
The plane rolled past the civilian terminal to the federal facility. Extending from that large fortress were two Jetway ramps like a mother's impatient arms. The pilot was making fast turns and hitting the brakes at odd times. He stopped at the gate with a sudden deep dip like a teenager in driver's ed, sending the marshals into an aisle dance that drew some laughs.
"Move it, boys, up, up, up!" the marshals shouted. We clanked our way through the aisle and shuffled as fast as we could into the tin corridor outside.
"Faster, men, go, go, go!" The federal guards in the Jetway seemed anxious for their own survival as they shoved and shouted us along. There were about seventy-five of us, each with ankle chains, belly chains, and wrist shackles, all running in baby step rhythm now: chink chink chink--go go go! Running in ankle chains is like running with skinny jeans around your ankles.
We fast-stepped it as the apocalypse roared louder overhead. Near the front of the line a man tripped, and down went fifteen behind him. They were pulled to their feet by guards and each other, and the line again started jerking ahead, with the men in the back yelling to hurry up and the men in the middle, including me, trying not to trip. My basketball years helped me move better than most. The metal corridor was rocking. The kid in front of me, my seatmate, glanced back for moral support. I gave him a smile like this is always the way we do it.
I was actually okay with all of it. I was hoping the funnel cloud would take us away to Kansas or home to Nebraska or wherever it had in mind--right into the next life would have been fine. Had the whole chain gang swirled up into the cloud, most of the dots would have been black; I would have been one of the few white charms in the necklace. I was twenty-three.
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