Friday, January 7, 2022

January 8th: My Personal Turning Point

by Jason O'Neal

The original version of this story was first written in January 2016. I have since graduated college (still carrying several thousand dollars in student-loan debt) and relocated to Phoenix, AZ where I teach high school social studies. Although I have more than ten years of continuous sobriety, and a much more rewarding career, I still wrestle with my feelings about the federal government and law enforcement officials. Regardless of my personal views, January 8th remains a significant date in my journey through this life.

Growing up I always remembered January 8th as Elvis Presley’s birthday. I think it was because I read his biography in a book my mother kept on the shelf in the hallway of our home. Every year when this day would arrive I would think to myself, “How old would Elvis be if he were alive today?” Eight years ago that all changed. 

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I just pulled into the driveway of my over-priced house at Otay Ranch in California. I had only lived there for about four months and financed the house which I had purchased in a short sale from the previous owner. I went to the trunk of my white Camaro Z-28 to retrieve my duty gear and pistol. I was in my seventh year working for U.S. Customs which had been part of the government realignment that created Customs and Border Protection within the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. I got the job because I was a military veteran with an honorable discharge. 

As I closed the trunk I heard a man call out my name. When I turned around I noticed a tall bald white guy wearing khaki pants and a Hispanic woman walking toward me. They had been waiting in an inconspicuous four door car parked across the street and they dressed like feds. As they got closer the guy flashed a badge at me and said, “We’re with the FBI, can we talk with you?” 

I responded, “Yeah, would you like to come in?” 

We walked through my garage door into a house with almost no furniture. As we sat on my ivory leather sectional I offered them flavored water. I had no clue where the chips were going to fall. And I had no idea how long our conversation was going to last. I was going to have to play the cards I was holding. 

When all was said and done, the agents left my house at about 9 p.m., nearly six hours after they had arrived. Another half dozen agents had shown up almost two hours later than the first two. I am sure they had been waiting patiently outside and to this day I am certain my neighbors were none the wiser. Also, if a team of FBI agents ever shows up at your home it is safe to assume they have a warrant to search the premises. They did and I signed. It took them the better part of the evening to search my house. They kept a few paper bags of files, receipts and pictures, which they called “evidence.” As they walked out the front door the bald agent told me that my supervisors were aware that I was under investigation and that I would need to decide if I was going to resign or allow the process to continue on administrative leave. I had been under surveillance for more than a year and they had records of my phone calls and text messages. 

I was a union steward for CBP and I had sat on dozens of internal investigation interviews with employees and management. I knew they were going to latch on like a snapping turtle and not let go. During that interview of more than four hours I was asked questions about people I knew, places I went, and purchases I made. At one point I had tried to throw them a curveball about my “browsing” the government information database. I should have known better because “the man” is not going to ask you too many questions he doesn't already know the answers to. Before the end of the interview, I came clean and told them I was in an unhealthy relationship of about four years and for more than half the time I had suspected my girlfriend was cheating on me. That one statement, which took about five seconds, was the single bullet in the gun now pointed at me. I knew that was what they were going to hold over my head. 

Everything else was air tight. Aside from a few photographs and unexplained expenditures there was no evidence to charge me with anything more serious. Good thing they never once looked at the prepaid Nokia cell phone from Mexico that was charging on the kitchen counter next to the stove. 

I resigned the next day and, during the six weeks that followed, my lawyer and I hammered out a plea agreement with the United States Attorney. I was guilty of some of the accusations made against me and many others were just far-fetched fantasies. Of course, my attitude and wiseass comments didn’t help my case. Later that summer, against the recommendation for three to six months of confinement from the FBI and pretrial services, I was sentenced to probation for three years. 

I also forgot to mention that I was arrested for driving under the influence a few nights before the FBI materialized at my doorstep. I was returning home from a "victory party" after the Iowa Straw Polls and, ironically, it was probably the most sober I had ever been while driving intoxicated. Surprisingly, the U.S. Attorneys' Office always seemed to have some excuse to postpone my sentencing hearing for my federal charges. This kept my DUI attorney (I had one of them, too) busy requesting extensions to delay my appearance in municipal court for the drunk driving case. This was purely legal gamesmanship that kept my criminal history clean until after I was sentenced in the U.S. District Court. If my DUI conviction would have been adjudicated first, I would have been sentenced to federal prison for at least six months based on the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in federal court. I’m just happy I had the money to cover the legal fees after I had cashed out my retirement account. 

There I was. An unemployed high school graduate with no skill set or job prospects other than playing the enforcer. All I had to fall back on was my ability to talk to people. I had a mortgage, bills, attorney's fees, and child support payments with only a few thousand dollars in the bank. The other money was tied up in foreign investments and a large chunk of it would be embezzled out from under me. I rented out the rooms in my house and went to work in a real estate office. I made some commission splits, but couldn’t get my sales agent’s license because of my conviction. After the economic meltdown that September, I became a bartender earning minimum wage plus tips. I remained in that occupation for more than five years. 

During my best year tending bar I cleared almost $40k, which was still less than half of the $95k I made as a CBP Officer in 2005. It’s hard to believe at times that I “earned” so much working in the civil service enforcing arbitrary laws while standing as a gate guard on the southwest border of the “homeland” of the American Empire. However, I am happy to say that in the years that I worked as a bartender I met some of the best people I now have the privilege of calling my friends. I had also noticed something during my forced career change. I was happier. My network of contacts and circle of friends was growing. When I wore a badge and a gun I was miserable. I was a depressed alcoholic adrenaline junkie who played with hookers and drugs on the weekend. When I wasn’t engaged in illegal activity, I would spend most of my time off from work drinking beer with my co-workers reliving the events of the day. A large portion of this time together was wasted talking about some of the crazy things we would see at the border crossing or complaining about new hires and supervisors. Several hours later we would all drive home intoxicated just to do it all over again the following day. 

Throughout the years after my court appearance I have never hidden my conviction from the people I met. A close friend of mine, a retired attorney from San Diego County, told me to embrace my past and use it as a positive motivator to change my life. I did. I quit drinking and using drugs and tried to get my real estate license, again. The California Department of Real Estate, unfortunately, remained unconvinced. Eventually, I would short sell the house I was in and head back to school. 

Most people don’t know this, but the FBI continued to stop by my home every few months to try to get me to talk. I have always thought it was because I never went to prison. After my arraignment I had met up with the lead agent to recover my personal items which were taken from my home during the search. By the way, that cell phone they missed ended up in a San Diego sewer system the day after they left. While in the parking lot of the FBI headquarters the lead agent told me they could have had me if they had waited a few more months. I told him it was too bad and that he would have to be satisfied with a false statement conviction. Apparently, their investigation had tied up too many man hours. It’s common for a judge or deputy U.S. attorney to press agents to wrap up a case after several months of digging and no additional leads. I guess thirteen months was too long for justice. Anyway, every time the lead agent would knock on my door, I would tell him that I would have to report any and all contact with law enforcement to my probation officer. This kept them at bay for the most part. 

There was this one time, though. A guy came to the bar where I worked one early evening during the Farmer’s Market. He chatted up my customers and stayed for a couple of hours. He said he owned a business and was new in town and that I had the right personality to be one of his salespeople. Before he left he gave me a piece of paper with his name and phone number. A few weeks later I called him. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a local IHOP. I showed up twenty minutes early and he was already there sitting at a booth in the corner. We ordered and were about halfway through our meal when the conversation eventually turned to what I might be doing for him. He said to not be alarmed as he slid me a business card face down. A peculiar, yet familiar, rush of excitement hit me as I turned it over. He was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s finest, too. 

After a few hypothetical situations were discussed he dropped me $1,500 and wanted me to contact some of my old friends. When I told him I wasn’t too keen on ending up in a 55-gallon drum of acid he said I could keep the money and I never heard from him again. 

I graduated from community college last May and I am now about to start my second semester at UC Berkeley. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. I have had some bumps along the way. Divorce. Heartbreak. Nervousness. Breakdowns. Financial hardships. Betrayals. But I had some bright moments, too. Some are more comical than others. A journalism professor once tried to get me fired from a job when he called them to say I was a convicted criminal and they should not allow me to work for them. He was upset because a group of former students, myself included, had started an anonymous underground newspaper on campus. One of his professor friends in the history department, along with former classmates of mine from her classes, even spent weeks discussing how they should contact Berkeley to try and get me kicked out. Some people have nothing better to do.

You see, when you go through life there will be times when people are just not going to like you. It could be because of something you did, or it could be for no reason at all. Don’t let it stop you. Even when you are a loud mouth trouble maker like me. Do what makes you happy because life is too short and don’t worry about them. Because, sometimes in life you are going to find yourself sitting across the table from someone who is trying to take you down. You might have some awful cards, but you are going to have to play them the best way you can. There may be a few times when you have to push all of your chips in the middle while only holding rags. Don’t give up, the object of the game is to stay alive and keep going. 

In my case, I stayed out of jail and eventually came out ahead. During the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting some really great folks to guide me along the way. My political consciousness has awakened and my views on the economy and the world have changed. Through this journey I was also able to find solidarity with the comrades here at Facts For Working People. 

I will wrap this up with a few things I have learned during the past eight years… 

It’s better to play chess while your opponent is playing checkers; it’s wiser to have a gun when the other guy wants to fight you with a knife; and don’t challenge a corrupt system of nepotism and inefficient bureaucracy unless you are squeaky clean and have nothing to lose. “The man” has unlimited resources to coerce and threaten you into submission, so don’t put a target on your back for them. 

Would I do it again? That depends. If reliving these experiences and other events could guarantee that I would end up as the same person I am today… You can bet your ass I would! 

Today is January 8th and it’s Elvis Presley’s birthday. Long live the King (or maybe not)...

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