Alberto “Beto” Gonzales could have easily stayed in The Life of drugging, fighting, abusing, and manipulating that used to be his M.O. as a gangbanger, but he found the courage to change and that transformation has led him to help countless others stop the madness, get clean, and go straight. For years now he’s worked as a gang intervention specialist, a position he holds today as a civilian employee with the Omaha Police Department. He’s much respected for his work in the South Omaha community, whose barrios he grew up in. There were many harsh experiences he initiated. He did things he regrets and has made amends for. But he’s done all he can to move on and to be a productive citizen and he’s been exceedingly successful at that. This profile for Omaha Magazine ((http://omahamagazine.com/) is my second opportunity to tell his story and I’m glad to have had the chance to share his life and work with readers.
Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.
Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a substance abusing, drug dealing, gang-banging illiterate and runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage and alcohol-drug use.
“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.
Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.
He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert at the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.
“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me. Sister Joyce was no joke. She was incredible.”
At her urging he became a counselor.
Beto, who’s spoken about gangs to high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials. is the subject of a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “patience – you can’t give up on them, you have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have you can make it – all you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”
This former menace to society “never ever could have imagined” working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”
His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.
“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down – nobody’s talking.”
He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.
“They feel safe opening up to me, they know I’m there for them, I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this, all you do is continue your relationship with someone and if you build that trust that relationship will be there forever. I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years.
“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years but they know they can always come back.”
Not everyone’s cut out for this work.
“The burn-out is real/.”
Not everyone wants recovery. Relapse and recidivism is high.
But Beto’s a firm believer in second-chances.
“Somebody gave me a chance.”
Intervention and prevention is “my passion,” says Beto, who can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.
“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get in to some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing, that’s a lost child.”
He often tells his own story at assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.
“I share it all the time with hundreds of kids and believe me every time I share it I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting ready of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”
He can only do so much. “There’s a lot of kids out there hurting I can’t get to. The other frustrating part is when we lose kids to murder or prison. I’m just so focused on trying to save one life at a time, one family at a time.” As a society he feels, “we better wake up and invest in more counselors – we’ve got to educate, educate, educate.”
Happily married with kids, he has serenity he never had before.
“I wish everybody had that.”
He’s made peace with the fact his job never really ends.
“Even when I retire, people are going to be knocking on my door. I already know that.”
The challenge is as near as a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled. They all respect him except for a teen boy.
“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’
‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ Fourteen years old. He’s just another Beto.”
He holds out hope. “Anybody can change, anybody, I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”
Here is a pair of stories I did for the spring 2011 issue of UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag), the official magazine of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is my alma mater (class of 1982). The stories fall in line with this particular issue’s focus on UNO alums and faculty working in various aspects of crime, safety, and justice. In the first piece I look at how a UNO faculty member provided expertise and technology to assist a local crime lab technician with valuable measurements in testing evidence from a crime scene. In the second piece I profile a UNO alum working as a crime scene technician back East and her finding a real niche for herself in the field, one that’s become glamorized by television portrayals in recent years.
He may not have any super powers, but Dana Richter-Egger does have a super spectrometer. And with a call for help from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2006, he joined the league of Omaha crime fighters.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)
By day, Richter-Egger is more about busting complex math and chemical equations than he is about busting bad guys. He’s an assistant professor of chemistry at UNO and director of its Math-Science Learning Center.
Four years ago, though, Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help that only he could provide. Specifically, Gabig needed assistance determining whether glass fragments found at the scene of a crime matched shards found in a suspect’s car.
The crime occurred on Dec. 5, 2005. An Omaha Police Department undercover officer was in an unmarked vehicle on a north-side street when a car pulled up parallel to his. The driver then pointed a shotgun at the officer through an open window. The officer ducked for cover, firing several rounds through his own open driver-side window at the fleeing car.
A suspect in the case emerged when a man sought medical treatment at a hospital for gunshot and glass wounds. DNA linked him to the car with shattered windows but prosecutors needed evidence that definitively put him at the scene as the driver.
Gabig did initial tests on the glass fragments in her lab, but they were inconclusive.
“I knew I needed more detailed analysis,” she says, “and I immediately thought of Dana and ICP-MS.”
The Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, that is.
A sophisticated trace element analyzer that enables sensitive measurements in many fields, the ICP-MS is housed in Durham’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratories. It was purchased in 2004 in part with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
UNO’s general chemistry students use it to measure area lead contamination levels and to perform drinking water analysis. Gabig, a UNL graduate, learned of the ICP-MS while taking a quantitative chemical analysis course at UNO taught by Egger.
The complex machine could help her answer a seemingly simple question — whether the glass fragments came from the same source.
Help in the Haystack
“ICP-MS really provides the best detection limits,” Richter-Egger says. “It’s going to find the smallest needle in the haystack relative to other techniques available. That provides the ability to look at and compare a great many more elements. It’s like being able to identify more points on a finger print to look for the match.”
The more data points tested, the stronger the case.
Gabig’s experience studying under Richter-Egger made her comfortable with the prospect of collaborating with the professor.
“I really respected his knowledge and I thought the (math-chemistry) program was fantastic,” she says. “I learned so much that was directly applicable to what I was doing here at the sheriff’s office. Also, I made contact with these great chemists who can help me.”
Further bolstering her confidence, she says, was the knowledge that ICP-MS results are “fully accepted in the courts.” The methods were based on standard procedures provided by the American Society for Testing Materials.
“That went a long ways to helping me feel good about what we were going to do,” Richter-Egger says. “After all, there’s somebody on the other end of this thing that is going to be in court and we’ve got to be sure we do our diligence and do a good job.
“Whatever the data is I want to make sure it is the highest quality possible so that when that evidence is presented it is accurate and that it helps to lead to the right decision in the courtroom. That weighed pretty heavily on my mind as we were considering this.”
In their research, Gabig and Richter-Egger discovered that manufactured glass in vehicles can be pinpointed to within 100 feet of a production line. That information, says Richter-Egger, meant that “if we could find there’s not any difference between these two glasses then that says a lot about the likelihood they actually came from the same window.”
The glass first was dissolved in acid and added to a controlled solution. The ICP-MS then required precise calibration. The instrument evaporated water in an ultra high vacuum and applied electric fields to separate atoms by mass. The device provided a spreadsheet readout of the elemental differentiation.
Richter-Egger says it’s a process whereby “electronics, engineering and chemistry meet.” After crunching the numbers and consulting UNO statisticians, he and Gabig went back and forth over the data, questioning each other and crosschecking information.
In her report, Gabig concluded that glass fragments from the suspect’s car and the scene “likely came from the same source” based on ICP-MS test results and statistical analysis that showed a high probability of a match.
In the end, the suspect took a deal, pleading to one felony assault count and one terroristic threat charge. Since the case did not go to trial, Gabig did not testify.
The forensic scientist and the professor collaborated on a slide presentation for a UNO chemistry department seminar. Gabig has also used the presentation to educate law enforcement agencies about trace evidence analysis.
Might UNO and CSI work together on another case?
“I could envision this happening again,” Gabig says. “Making use of data analysis at the university is a big benefit.”
Learn more about the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, including animations, athttp://water.unomaha.edu
Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)
Forensic Services Unit
It’s not every girl who grows up dreaming of becoming a “bloodstain pattern specialist.”
And while that might not have been Angela (Harbison) Moore’s girlhood fantasy, it became just that while attending classes at UNO, graduating in 2001 with a degree in chemistry.
Today Moore works as a forensic technician for the Newport News (Va.) Police Department conducting crime scene evidence analysis. It’s a career choice the former Goodrich Scholar says was inspired by work she did with UNO chemistry department faculty.
“We were doing a lot of neat stuff in Dr. Richard Lomneth’s bio chemistry lab that was applicable to forensic science,” Moore says. “It really piqued my interest. It was a turning point.”
Dr. Frederic Laquer also was influential. “He taught me how to be a true chemist, how to document things, and to this day I still think of him every time I do all the little things properly,” Moore says. “It’s a great batch of professors at UNO. They’re very rigorous.”
Moore later began forensic science graduate studies at George Washington University, but with her Air Force husband stationed at Offutt Air Force Base she transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan. While in grad school she worked as a chemist at UNO, preparing solutions for use by students in the Durham Science Center labs.
In 2007 Moore joined the CSI team in Newport News, where she’s a bloodstain pattern specialist. The unpredictability of when crime happens means her schedule is forever fluid.
“You can literally be at a scene and be called to another scene,” she says. It’s a job that demands “intense curiosity and attention to detail” and the ability to multitask.
Her work entails doing bloodstain analysis at crime scenes and in the lab, writing reports, assisting with autopsies, and testifying in court. She works the cold case unit. She also teaches college courses and makes presentations.
“I like to get into a lot of things,” she says. “I always try to challenge myself to be the best I can be in life.” Next year she will attend the National Forensic Science Academy in Tennessee. “I’m pretty excited about that.”
Nothing is more satisfying then when her work helps solve a case. She says her bloodstain pattern analysis led to a man being charged with murder years after the incident. In another instance she extracted DNA evidence that helped convict a serial rapist.
Some cases linger with her.
“Once they go to court there’s resolution and I feel better about them,” she says. “The child ones are really hard to deal with sometimes. But at the same time I feel like we’re helping people out.
“When I’m at a scene with a deceased person I feel it’s the shell of a person left over. Their spirit is someplace else. The body is to be utilized as another piece of evidence that can speak for that person.”
The first and last time I walked into a pawnshop was when I did this story. On second thought, I may have been in a pawnshop or two when I was a kid, accompanying my dad on trips to find some bargain items, maybe a guitar for my older brother Greg or something like that. But otherwise my only take on pawnshops is derived from the movies and from books and articles. My research for this story didn’t necessarily overturn any assumptions I had about these places, other than the fact that they can be extremely large and profitable operations with vast warehouses full of merchandise that rival that of discount department stores. This story for the Omaha Weekly may not dispel any of your ideas about pawnshops either, but after doing the piece I did have a better appreciation for why they are so ubiquitous — simply put, they fill a need or demand that all the banks and loan offices cannot. I try in the piece to present the good, the bad, and the gray about these marketplace and moneychanging emporiums, where commerce of all kinds is transacted.
The Pawnshop Beat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
In what is a combination bazaar, everything-under-one-roof discount store and cash-on-the-barrelhead lending operation, the neighborhood pawnshop offers something for everyone. This marketplace for buying, trading and borrowing is a center of commerce where the down-and-out rub shoulders with the upwardly mobile in a common search for a good deal. From cars and boats to lawn mowers and weed whackers to guns and games to stereos and VCRs to rings and necklaces, pawnshops, which have been called the world’s greatest garage sale, deal in it all.
Because they are also historically dumping grounds for stolen goods, every single transaction is reviewed by law enforcement authorities, who, based on hunches and crime reports, look for red flags in the merchandise moved there and in the profiles of customers doing business there.
You generally don’t seek a loan at a pawnshop unless some life event — usually a bad one — has brought you to one. Maybe you’re out of work or in between pay checks. Maybe your credit cards and checking accounts are tapped out. Maybe your car’s on the blink. Maybe medical bills are due. Perhaps you’ve lost more than you can afford at Harvey’s.
Whatever your story, and there’s a million of them, you find yourself strapped for cash and unwilling or unable to borrow from family, friends, traditional lending institutions and more non-traditional sources like loan sharks. So, you grab whatever possessions you can lay your hands on and hock them for some greenbacks to help you get out of a bind. Often described as the bank of last resort, pawnshops are, for some, a stop-gap money source for when true crises arise and for others simply a way of life whose no-questions-asked ready-cash supply helps folks get by when other avenues are closed.
Jack Belmont, who’s been in the trade since growing up in the Great Depression, explained the basic appeal for people of doing business at a pawnshop as opposed, for example, to a bank. “It’s a quick deal,” he said from behind the main counter at Mid-City Jewelry & Loan, where he is a partner with owner Don Hoberman. “You walk in when you feel you’ve got something to pawn and you make the loan. You can be in and out of here inside of five minutes. You can come back anytime you want. Nobody knows your business. You don’t have to fill out a balance sheet or anything else like that. It’s very convenient, very quick.”
For those engaged in that left-handed form of human endeavor known as crime, pawnshops are convenient places to unload hot property and turn a fast buck, although the chances of avoiding detection are slim. Indeed, if it wasn’t for pawnshops, police officials say, many stolen goods would not be recovered. When stolen property in a pawnshop is detected and its rightful owner contacted to identify and retrieve it, the owner is invariably upset to find out he or she must pay to get the stuff back. This redemption charge, which is usually a fraction of the item’s cost, may seem somewhat heartless but is completely legal.
Clerking at a pawnshop is a little like being a bartender or a barber. Just about everyone who sidles up to the counter has a hard luck story to tell. Saul Kaiman, the introspective bearded owner of Sol’s Jewelry & Loan, which has four locations in the Omaha metro area, said, “When I first started working in pawnshops in the ‘50s I heard so many tales of people needing $50 to get to a funeral that I didn’t think there was anybody left alive in the United States. I was naive. I believed everything they said at first. After awhile, you know some of them are just stories and you just try to keep a straight face,” he said.
Christy, a pretty clerk in Sol’s downtown store at 514 N. 16th Street, said she has heard it all. “We get a lot of people who need help with their bills or need to get their car fixed or need to get their house repaired. Once in a while we get pawners who’ve never pawned before. They have some family emergency and they actually cry they’re so desperate.”
For a gun lover, getting a loan on a prized weapon can be as torturous as giving up a first-born son. At least that’s how painful it appeared for a man wearing a jacket and hat emblazoned with NRA slogans who came to Sol’s to pawn his Mossbach 810 rifle: “My car broke down and I needed to get it working again and this is all I had to get me what I need to get by,” he said, referring to the gun. “It’s a very fine gun. I just want to get it back.” He said it’s the first time he’s had to give up his gun. As with any pawn transaction in Nebraska, he has four months to redeem his weapon, with interest accruing from the date of the loan.
According to Tedi, a pert and petite clerk at Sol’s downtown store, “There’s a lot of people that come in here that feel bad about the circumstances they’re in. I tell them that it’s happened to everybody. That bad stuff happens and we all need money to get out of jams, and that’s what we’re here for. I try not to make them feel embarrassed about. I try to make them feel like it’s OK.”
Don Hoberman, the sardonic owner of Mid-City Jewelry and Loan at 515 So. 15th Street, explained there is an implied Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell pact in place at pawnshops to protect people’s privacy. “You don’t ask them why” they need the cash, he said. “It’s immaterial anyway. It’s their money. They don’t have to tell me why. Some people just walk in, borrow money and walk out. But some people feel they have to, so you listen,” he said.
A pretty but sad-eyed wife and mother of two recently entered Sol’s looking distraught as she used one hand to push an electric snowblower ahead of her and the other hand to cart a camera case. “I missed a payday at work and I needed a little help to pay some bills today. That way I won’t get behind and I know I still have time to come back down and get my stuff out. I’ve been dealing with Sol’s for 10 years and they don’t ask any questions — they just help if they can.” With her $275 loan in hand, she left with a smile.
Customers don’t always leave happy, however. In assessing the fair market value of a pawned item, for example, there is bound to be some difference of opinion. Christy at Sol’s said, “We get quite a few irate customers. They get mad because we don’t give them what they want or they think we’re gypping them. We’re not. We’re being fair with the game. When they sign the contract they know what they’re signing.” Tedi at Sol’s added, “No matter how hard we try to explain the loan process, you get some people that…don’t seem to understand that the item they pawned a year ago and never paid on is no longer here, because if you don’t come back for it or pay on it after four months we can sell it. A lot of times it was a sentimental thing, and they’re angry about it. Like it’s all our fault.”
Then there are the regulars. Take Judy Johnson, for example. She often pawns jewelry at Mid-City to help tide her over when things are tight. “Right now I’m painting my house, and I need extra money” for supplies, she said one morning at the shop. She still has several jewelry pieces in hock.
“I miss them a lot,” she said. She is one of several loyal customers to follow Belmont to Mid-City from the shop he and his late brother ran, and that their late father started, Crosstown Loan, which was located on N. 24th Street until it burned down in the 1969 riot, and which later moved to 16th Street. At Sol’s, the regulars include a mother-daughter combo who say they’re such frequent customers that “they should put a revolving door in for us.” Kaiman said many elderly customers, including a man who pawned his Colt. 38 revolver over and over again, make a habit of pawning as much for the social interaction as for the money.
Hoberman and partner Jack Belmont own a combined 90-plus years in the business. For them, the pawnshop is a kind of social laboratory and money changer in one where the disparate mix of human kind meet to haggle and strike a deal.
So, what’s the oddest thing someone has tried pawning? Hoberman recalled the man who came in once and asked, ‘Do you take anything?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘How about an eyeball?’ I said, ‘C’mon quit kidding.’ So, he popped it out and put in on the counter. And I said, ‘Make it wink.’ He couldn’t do it, so I had him put it back.” Then there was the World War II veteran who made a habit of pawning his prosthetic leg, which he never picked up — Veterans Administration Hospital workers did. Hoberman draws the line at living creatures. “We always figure if you gotta feed it or clean it, you don’t want it, so we don’t take it.”
You never know who will show up at a pawnshop, either. Back in the early 1980s then-Governor Bob Kerrey, who became a good friend of the store’s through his predecessor, former governor and senator Jim Exon, whom Hoberman knew from Exon’s days in the furniture business, stopped by to ask, “What do you give somebody who’s a movie star?” Kerrey was referring to his then girl-friend, screen actress Debra Winger. “I told him one of the fashionable things was pearls, and so we acquired 30-inch strand of pearls and he gave them to her for a present. Two day afterwards her picture was taken at some event and she had them on. He sent me the picture. He doesn’t have the girl anymore, but she still has the pearls.”
If all his years in the trade have taught him anything, Hoberman said, it is that people “from all walks of life” — from high rollers to penniless tramps — frequent pawnshops and the thing is you can’t always tell who’s who.
“You can’t qualify who comes through the front door and decide what they’re going to pawn or what they might be able to buy. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. I once had somebody pawn a $5 watch and then he wanted to look at a $1,000 ring. And I thought, Well, why should I show him this ring when he’s having trouble getting $5 together?
“But I soon learned you don’t look at it that way. The guy came back and he said, ‘Thank you for loaning me on the watch,” and he walked over to the jewelry case and plunked down cash to buy the ring. You see, you just don’t decide what they can and can’t do by what they look like.” In other words, assuming someone is broke just because he or she needs fast cash is a no-no. “It isn’t always because you’re broke,” Hoberman said, “it’s because you’re short.”
Or, as a distinguished looking black man said one morning at Sol’s, where he was redeeming a bracelet he originally bought there, “I get paid every two weeks and with utilities the way they are and everything in general going up, I get little shortfalls between paychecks, and so pawning’s a matter of just being able to make it and keep everything current with bills, groceries, bus fare and things like that.” He added, “You know, sometimes you don’t want to do it, but it just comes in handy as a safety net. It’s just another tool in helping you make it through.”
Besides, the kind of fast turnover loans made by pawnshops just aren’t available elsewhere. “Say you have a ring you bought at a retail store for $1,000, and now you need $200 for something. You can’t take it (the ring) to the bank because they don’t loan on products like that,” Hoberman said. “Even if the ring was worth $40,000, the bank still won’t loan on it. I have people come in with $10,000 in their pocket. They need another $4,000 to buy something and they’ve got to do it NOW. They come with something we can loan them $4,000 on and they’re out the door and they’re back.”
Hoberman believes most people find themselves financially short due to their own actions or decisions. He points to the casinos across the river as a major reason why some people end up on the margins or fringes. He said where items were once being redeemed at a nearly 80 percent rate, they are now redeemed at only 62 percent.
“The redemption percentage has dropped because I think people never recover from their gambling losses,” he said. “I have one gentleman who pawns his car here. He stops in on his way to the casino. We loan him money on the car, then we drive him over and drop him off at the boat, and we put his car into storage. On occasion…he hits and he’s back to get his car the same day.” Other times, the car sits in storage for days or weeks before he can afford to retrieve it.
Kaiman, of Sol’s, agrees that gambling addiction, along with drugs, accounts for the lower redemption rates being seen in pawnshops.
“My personal opinion is that a lot of people get financially hurt over at the casinos. You know they pawn their diamond ring or something with hopes of winning over there. They don’t win and they don’t have enough to get it back. The casinos have probably changed the way we operate more than anything than I can remember. It used to be a cyclical thing. From October to February more people were buying things and picking up things, and the rest of the months were more input — with people bringing things in more than picking up. But because the casinos are 12-months a year, 24-hours a day, that’s changed a lot. We get less pickups and just more coming in.”
It’s meant an ever expanding inventory at Sol’s, which must increasingly try to resell unredeemed items, often at close to cost just to reduce backlogs.
Detective Mike Salzbrenner of the Omaha Police Department’s Burglary/Pawn Unit works the local pawnshop beat. He, and his colleagues, follow a daily routine that finds them making the rounds at the local shops, where they scour through identification cards completed on every transaction. Each pawn card includes the customer’s name, address, telephone number, height weight and fingerprint as well as a summary of the transaction and a description of the items dealt. Rifling through the cards, the well-tanned and blue-suited Salzbrenner looks for anything that appears fishy.
“See, this one bothers me,” he tells a visitor one morning at Sol’s. “Here’s a young lady who just turned 18, which is the legal minimum age to pawn, and she brought in a $250-$300 tennis bracelet. Because of her age, that makes me think the bracelet’s her mother’s or somebody’s. That’s one I’ll call and speak with the mother about. I swear, half the time the mother will come back and say, ‘It’s not in my jewelry box.’ And I’ll tell her, ‘I’m sorry ma’am, but she just pawned it and you better find out why.” Often, Salzbrenner said, it’s to support a drug habit or to cover debts.
Although he has no hard evidence to prove it, Salzbrenner is sure that pawning — of stolen goods or not — has increased since the arrival of the casinos. Gambling debts, he said, force otherwise law-abiding citizens to take desperate measures. “A typical case I’m working on is somebody with a gambling problem. They get addicted to gambling and, of course, they run out of money. They turn around and start stealing from their employer. Well, a lot of these people are not common thieves. They wouldn’t know a fence out on the street. But they do know pawnshops, where they go and claim items as their own and get $20 for a watch or whatever. They go across the river, lose their money and they want to gamble again.” So, they steal again. And the cycle goes on.
The job, Salzbrenner acknowledges, calls for much interpretation. “We’re the judgment call beat. We’re looking for anything suspicious. Suspicious to us,” he said, includes youths bringing in merchandise not appropriate to their age or anyone selling things, especially new items, for a fraction of their value or customers not knowing much about the goods they represent as their own.
He said in following up on questionable deals, citizens often grow defensive about what they consider a hassle and an intrusion into their private lives. “We get a lot of accusations thrown at us. A lot of times they say, ‘If there’s no victim, then why are you bothering me?’ Well, I tell them, we’re trying to find out if there is one.”
When his nose tells him something stinks, he said, he’ll track the customer’s pawn and criminal records on the police computer, he’ll place phone calls and he’ll make other inquiries until he’s exhausted all lines of investigation. “Somebody’s going to have to satisfy me someplace,” he said. Until he has an answer, he can put a hold on any item, and it cannot be touched again until he releases it.
Salzbrenner’s superior, Sgt. Mary Bruner, said smart thieves either avoid pawnshops altogether — preferring to exchange their ill-gotten goods on the street — or else enlist accomplices, including residents of shelters, to pawn the booty, which makes suspect identification and apprehension more difficult. While only a fraction of all stolen goods is ever recovered, Bruner said the OPD’s Burglary/Pawn Unit cleared a record $752,000 in recovered stolen property last year. Contributing to that total, she said, was the unit cracking a couple large jewelry theft rings.
According to Hoberman, the way business is conducted at pawnshops these days — with paperwork filled out in triplicate and unredeemed items stockpiled in warehouses brimming with goods from floor to ceiling — some of the joy has gone out of the work. He said there isn’t quite the trust and conviviality there once was.
“People have changed. It used to be word was bond. Way back, a guy would come in with a two-cent lead pencil and you’d loan him $10 on it. Now, that may sound strange, but his word was bond. That’s all he had was his word. He would come back and get that lead pencil. Now, he knew he could go out and buy another pencil for two cents. He didn’t have to come back and pay that $10, but he would. It used to be a little more casual and a lot more fun. It’s still fun, but it’s more business. Back in the old days you could kind of fly by the seat of your pants. I used to keep a whistle under the counter and when it would get really crazy in here, I’d blow the whistle and say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s start this whole day over.’”
- Pawnshops finding unlikely customers (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Pawnshop oddities reflect Gulf struggles (cnn.com)
- Before the Wall Street Crisis, There Was “Poverty, Inc.” (politics.usnews.com)
- Pawning the family heirlooms (money.cnn.com)
- Pawnshops Becoming More Respectable (volokh.com)
- Groupon Founders Reinvent The Pawnshop (fastcompany.com)
- Pawnshops Flourish in Hard Times, Drawing Scrutiny (time.com)
I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger. Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier. As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too, as he pastors to incarcerated men. I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms. Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.
Morris Jackson today
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.
His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.
“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.
He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.
“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.
To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.
“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”
Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.
“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”
During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.
“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”
When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.
His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.
In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.
“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.
The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.
Morris Jackson in his fighting days
“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.
The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.
Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”
Ron Stander in his fighting days
By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.
But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”
His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.
While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.
“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.
Morris Jackson preaching the word
He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’” It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.
“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”
Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.
Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”
Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.
The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.
But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?
- World Heavyweight Boxing Championship 1960-1975 (sportales.com)
- Meldrick Taylor vs. Julio Caesar Chavez: The Greatest Prizefight Ever? (bleacherreport.com)
- James Kirkland: Ex-Convict Will KO Japanese Prizefighter Within 7 Rounds Tonight (bleacherreport.com)
A couple acquaintances introduced me to Doug Hiner and he immediately got on my radar as someone I’d like to profile when I learned he regularly sailed down to Cuba on missions that were partly about delivering medical supplies and partly about secreting back contraband, as in cigars. Hiner is a wheeler-dealer type who denied the illegal trafficking at the time I interviewed him, then expressing upset at my story’s suggestion that he engaged in anything like that, but subsequent events confirmed his smuggling activity because he got caught in the act down in Florida and faced serious federal charges. He pleaded guilty to one count and received 36 months probation.
Aside from the intrigue, which occurred after my story appeared, his story is really a classic tale about his taste for adventure and his passion for all things Cuban. A version of the following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
More than any other country, Cuba both seduces and vexes Americans. This island of paradoxes is at once a natural paradise fulfilled and a socialist promise unrealized. In a place where bare necessities do not go for want, chronic shortages make hustlers out of peasant and professional alike. Within a closed society and controlled economy, anything, for a price, is a black market possibility.
Social/economic problems don’t change the fact that Cuba, at least geographically, is a tropical island idyll. Sun, ocean, jungle, mountains — much of it pristine. Politicians/bureaucrats aside, the people embrace life with a live-and-let-live Latino insouciance. Music, dance, food, art, love, sun, surf. Fun prevails, if not for all, for tourists.
Omahan Doug Hiner sees the schizoid nature of Cuba every time he sails there on his 53-foot cutter, the Vitamin Sea. He captains the Tampa-docked boat on voyages that transport medical equipment to hospitals and clinics on the island. He’s been making runs like this to Cuba for seven years, a period when official American policy toward that intransigent Caribbean nation has gone from rigid to ultra hard-line. Embargoes of one kind or another have limited trade with Cuba and, in some cases, denied aid.
With Fidel’s recent stomach surgery making his mortality and his grip on power a renewed subject of world interest, Hiner prepared for a late December sail to bring in another boatload of supplies. But the gringo’s boat blew an engine, pushing the trip back until this month. He arrived February 10 in Havana, where the gear still sits, waiting for the red tape to be cut so he can move stuff inland.
His artist wife, Christina Narwicz, usually joins him on these maritime adventures but she wasn’t feeling up to it when he shoved off this time around.
The Man and the Sea
Hiner, 67, is a former hair dresser and a retired real estate developer and landlord. He made and lost a fortune. He’s not oblivious to the political realities that hold Cuba hostage in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. He has strong views on what Cuba and its paternalistic neighbor to the north should do to ease restrictions and tensions. His awareness of Cuban medical needs drives his missionary trips there, even as he brings in and takes back his share of contraband.
His journeys go well beyond idol curiosity. Hiner and his wife feel they have a fair handle on Cuba by virtue of not only having traveled there several times — it’s 15 trips and counting for him and about the same for her — but their stays usually last weeks or months at a time. They get around to different parts of the island and really immerse themselves in the place.
“We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Hiner said. “A tourist wants to have MacDonald’s no matter where he’s at. We like to enjoy the cultures of different countries and not live like Americans. We try to blend and be friendly with the people, and that’s all it really takes to be accepted. They love Americans, especially if you’re friendly to them. They don’t like the ugly-American types.”
Whatever motivates him, he ultimately makes these journeys because they put him in touch with three of his favorite things — sailing, the sea and people.
Though he grew up in landlocked South Dakota and Nebraska, Hiner long ago felt the call of the open sea.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea,” he said, “and I’ve always had this dream of having a boat to sail around the world.”
Years ago he and Christina “were planning to do a sail around the world …” when his “business fortunes changed,” making such a trip “impractical.” Circumnavigating the globe is not such a passion now, not with the expanse of warm southern waters to explore. “You can spend your whole life in an area like that and never see everything,” he said. “The Caribbean is a whole chain of islands. We’ve never been to Colombia or Central America, so eventually I’d like to do that.”
Besides, it’s the carefree, unrestricted, port-of-call lifestyle he enjoys, more than the challenge of seeing how far Hiner can push his sailing skills.
“A boat is like your home. You’ve got everything on it. You’re totally self-sustaining … It’s a real nice feeling,” he said. “You can anchor anywhere you want for nothing. We spent a couple New Years Eve’s anchored off of Key West, one of the liveliest New Years places in the world.”
Still, the allure of cruising wave and wind is like the call of the sirens — hard to resist. Half the challenge is dealing with weather and the other half comes with the inevitable mishaps.
“Weather on the high seas — that’s your biggest danger,” Hiner said. “We’ve gone through some pretty turbulent stuff, some accidentally, some on purpose because we had to. But it’s never been a safety issue. You’re never really out of ear shot of weather” reports via radio/radar.
Nature-related or not, things do go wrong. Take the couple’s 1999 trip to Cuba for instance.
“Going down on the second trip we blew out the sail. We ran into some bad weather. We had to have it repaired. It’s usually mechanical problems. It’s like, not if it’s going to break, but when it’s going to break. The last time we left Cuba the autopilot failed and we had to hand steer for 40 hours. Oh, and coming back from Cuba once we lost our fresh water pump, so we had no engine. There was no wind and we drifted for a day-and-a-half or two days before we finally got close enough to Key West to get a boat to tow us in.
“Our boat is about 20 years old and it needs extensive rewiring and stuff and I really haven’t been able to afford that, so we just kind of patch things together. It’s safe but it’s always a little bit of an adventure.”
Sea-faring is an apt avocation for an inveterate beach bum who, whether inland or coastal, enjoys kicking it with friends over drinks in the Old Market, where he developed some of the first condos, or partying on his boat.
He enjoys the simple, well-done pleasures of good food, good drink and good company. His wife’s the same. The residence they fashioned from an old brick-faced bar and parking lot on South 13th Street reflect their shared interests. The grounds’ richly decorated Great Wall that fronts 13th Street has a gated entry whose mammoth door opens onto a large courtyard filled with her plantings.
Hiner’s no stranger to graceful living, as he once owned a Fairacres mansion “back,” as he likes to say, “when I was rich and famous.” He made big bucks and moved in tony circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it all crashed. He alludes to a business partner running his development company into the ground.
The house, featured in the Spring 2000 edition of Renovation Style magazine, is designed with walkouts along the length of the courtyard that connect to a wood deck, creating a veranda. The interior opens up to a loft master bedroom and guest quarters, revealing a 32-foot-high ceiling and a bank of large windows that stream light in. At one end of the property is a screened-in porch. At the back of the lot is Christina’s well-lit studio. It all works toward a cozy hacienda feel.
As soon as he laid eyes on the spot he knew “it was exactly what I had in mind.” When he bought the former Glass Front Bar it was only a shell. But, he said, “I had this vision.” He designed the place himself. The work fit neatly into his years of “retrofitting old buildings. I’ve always had a knack for design and style and just living comfortably.” The result, he said, adheres to “the European concept of zero lot lines…where you basically use the whole property. We don’t have a back yard or front yard or side yard — we have a court yard. The same with our house. We utilize the whole house. We don’t have formal spaces. It’s just more practical and creative in my estimation. It’s just a feeling of well-being.”
His passion for this getaway within the city dovetails neatly with his ardor for Cuba. It always comes back to communing with people.
“It’s just a wonderful country. The people are so friendly and so caring and loving,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve traveled all over the world and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that is so warm and safe. There’s virtually no crime in Cuba. It’s true there’s a policeman on almost every corner, but the people there are so law-abiding. They’ll steal, but their attitude is, ‘If you don’t lock your bicycle up with a chain or padlock, then you must not want it.’ I’ve never had anything stolen off my boat in the marina and I can’t say that in almost any other country.”
Years living under the thumb of a dictatorship has its palliative effects.
“If a policeman on the corner points to a driver and signals him to stop,” Hiner said, “he’ll almost come to a panic stop to obey the order. They wouldn’t even think of not [stopping]. A police chase over there would be unheard of.”
Back to the contradictions bound up there, he said Cuba can seem chaste one minute and carnal the next. “It’s a real straight-laced island. Pornography is totally illegal. Drugs — zero tolerance. One marijuana cigarette would throw you in jail for a week before you’d be expelled from the country and told never to come back.” On the other hand, he said, “Cuba’s a very sexually open country. Even though prostitution is illegal…a lot of people are shocked by the young women that are readily available for sexual encounters. One, there’s a serious lack of men on the island. And two, their culture is not uptight about sex at all. I mean, geez, if some foreigner wants to give you twenty bucks, that’s even better.”
Besides, he said, “Cuba’s all extended families — there’s four-five generations that live under the same roof, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to help support the family group.”
While Cuba prides itself on a system that accounts for citizens’ basic needs, rampant poverty compels most everyone to be on the make.
“You see very little begging, yet the young Cuban kids and the old folks are out hustling for the family,” Hiner said. “Everybody is sort of doing whatever needs to be done to provide extras. They have to have some access to dollars to really have any quality of life.”
Amid all this naked human need, Cuba takes great pains to put on a good face. “They sweep each block of Havana every day. If you don’t have anything to do, they’ll put a broom in your hands,” he said.
By Western standards, he said, Cubans lack everything we take for granted. He tries to give friends there some creature comforts otherwise unavailable to them.
“I’ve taken personal things down for people, like a microwave oven or VCR or DVD player, because all that stuff is illegal. Everything’s illegal in Cuba. Mainly, if it plugs into the wall, it’s illegal. They have an energy problem and they’re just trying to keep people’s lives basic.”
Even more basic than that, he said, he brings items like toothbrushes and razor blades that are “not a big deal here, but are a big deal there.”
He’s also brought back, on consignment, works by Cuban artists he and Christina sold in Old Market art shows, the proceeds going toward supplies for the artists.
Beat the Bushes, ‘Bend a Few Rules’
He’s sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people, whose deprivation goes deeper than a lack of material things, to essential services. Sure, Cuba provides free health care, but many clinics and hospitals lack equipment and technology that can not only improve care but save lives. And while average Cubans and natives of nearby Latin American countries have access to free care, some medical centers are reserved for the elite. It’s why he got involved as a medical supplier in the first place. His awareness began on his inaugural visit to Cuba in 1998. The marina in Havana introduced him to fellow travelers, including many Americans, some of whom became a model.
“I met a lot of people that first time. A lot of just normal people. Some were bringing medical equipment on their boats down there,” he said. He soon discovered an informal network of doctors and suppliers. “As I met people in the marina and friends of theirs I was put in touch with various doctors and got lists of things they needed.”
Over the next year Hiner beat the bushes and made contact with “various organizations” that run aid into Cuba.” He cultivated the names of key suppliers, like Jack Oswald in Chicago, and key recipients, like surgeon Gilberto Fleites in Havana. When Oswald, who works with a group called Caribbean Medical Transport, ran a check on Hiner’s then-fledgling medical mission activities he was duly impressed.
“The medical equipment he gets is a cut above most of the stuff humanitarian aid groups get and I’ve been doing this a long time. His stuff is absolutely flawless,” Oswald said. “I went with him on his last trip because he was packing some really heavy equipment…I came from Chicago to help him figure out a way to put some of this stuff on the boat without it sinking. We put thousands of pounds on the bow…and you no longer could see to navigate…so we had to have somebody at the front of the boat calling instructions out to the captain just to avoid the reefs and boats and weather we came across on our way to Cuba. It got a little adventurous here and there.
“I’ll tell you, the guy’s fearless, he really is. He’s mission-oriented, there’s no question about it. Almost militaristically I might add. He doesn’t really let anything get in his way. Some of the stuff he does is a bit risky. And sometimes he doesn’t have the money, the equipment or even the plan…but he just keeps doing it. I think both sides are willing to let him operate, maybe even bend a few rules here and there…because they know what he’s doing is valuable.”
Joining Oswald, Hiner and his wife Christina on the voyage was a Cuban American physician who brought medical supplies to a cousin physician in Cuba. The Americans also brought art supplies for an artists collective there. Oswald said of Hiner and Narwicz, “They just know a whole lot of people and they just really enjoy Cuba. The folks I met that know them are like family.”
On Hiner’s first supply run in 2000 he was introduced to Dr. Fleites. “I met Gilberto and his wife Teresa and they were really neat people and we became really close friends and we had a really wonderful time there,” Hiner said.
Hiner calls Dr. Fleites “a bit of a renegade. He ran the national cancer institute in Havana. He was on the Cuban ethics board. He tried to get some doctors removed from practice because he thought they were killing more people than they were saving,” Hiner said. “But his superiors kicked him off the board because he wasn’t ‘a team player.’ He still performs surgeries … but only on important people because they know he’s very, very good. He’s sort of like freelance. It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”
The Omahan’s “become sort of an emissary” to Dr. Fleites. “I get lists of stuff from him” the Cuban medical community “needs,” he said, “and come back and hustle my friends. I know a lot of doctors from when I used to be rich and famous.” As Hiner’s refined his networking, tons of things get donated — once, an entire operating suite. Omaha’s Children’s Hospital donated an anesthesia machine. He works with established humanitarian nonprofits that authorize him use of their license for delivering free medical goods abroad. Much of what he takes there goes to Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, an AIDS hospital directed by Dr. Jorge Perez. It’s not an impersonal process for Hiner, who’s visited there and other sites he’s supplied. He’s impressed by Cuba’s “incredible medical system.”
What began as annual trips became twice-a-year voyages. Their last trip, in 2005, they were in Cuba four months.
He’s transported medical gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including mechanical operating tables and surgical instruments ranging from forceps to retractors to endoscopic devices. The goods ship to a central location and, when there’s enough for a full haul, he loads a truck and drives it to his boat in Tampa. After everything is securely stored and lashed aboard, he rigs his boat and sails for Cuba. Once there everything must be checked and approved by customs officials, a process that can take weeks. Various government stamps and seals are needed. From start to end, a single supply mission can take months.
He cuts what red tape he can with “gifts” to marina workers and ministry officials.
For the current trip, he amassed a large inventory that includes an entire delivery room donated by a hospital, complete with delivery table, incubators and monitors. So large is the haul he left half the load in Florida for a return trip next month.
Donations have never been better, but he said navigating the bureaucratic waters to get them to Cuba has become more problematic. He blames the Bush administration for “tightening travel restrictions,” especially since 9/11. He said the feds have made it harder for the nonprofits he works with to obtain or renew licenses. The main clearance he needs is from the U.S. Coast Guard that grants free passage through “an imaginary security zone between Key West and Havana that no one can define.” Without the permit, he said, “they can seize your boat, fine you $250,000 and put you in jail for 10 years.” When things were more “more relaxed,” he could slide by. Not now.
There are also new Commerce Department and Council of Foreign Currency Control approvals needed.
Cuba’s hardly immune from bureaucracy, but the tropics make the paperwork and graft more bearable. Besides, as “well accepted” as Hiner is there, he can play Lord Jim. He hopes a meeting he’s been angling for with Fidel, whom he admires, happens one day. He knows just what he’d say to the dictator. “I would tell him he needs to make more opportunities. The people there are very industrious but he keeps stifling any kind of private enterprise,” Hiner said. “He’s getting old and overly restrictive. I would tell Fidel, ‘You’ve got to loosen up. If you were a young man today you’d start a revolution against yourself.’”
To Cuba with Love
Ironically, Hiner’s romance with Cuba may never have happened if not for an accident. It was late 1998. Doug and Christina were on one of their Caribbean sailing jags and had put into port in Jamaica. There, Christina took a fall and broke her ankle, putting her in a cast. He hired a young Jamaican boy to help him crew. The trio sailed to the Camyan islands, where Christina’s pain worsened. Doug sent her home by plane. That left Doug and the boy. The idea was to make for Florida, but Doug knew the boy would be denied entry without papers.
“So, we decided to go to Mexico,” Hiner said. “I got in big trouble there because, unbeknownst to me, a Jamaican needs a visa to get into Mexico. They almost threw us in jail. I talked my way out of that.”
Next, Hiner set his sights on Key West, but learned that, too, was off-limits. Desperate, he asked officials, “Where can we go?’ ‘Cuba,’ they told him. “So, the next morning off we went to Cuba. That was my first time. We were there almost 10 days before I was able to get a plane to fly him out to Montego Bay. And while in Cuba I just loved the country. When I got back home I told Christina, ‘I loved it so much we need to go back there.’” Go back they did.
- Governor seeks release of American held in Cuba (reuters.com)
- The Cuban Embargo Myth (pajamasmedia.com)
- Cuba stubs out cigarette rations for older people (guardian.co.uk)
- US company in Haiti blames Cuba for loss of barge (sfgate.com)
- Cubans dream of being tourists – abroad (worldblog.msnbc.msn.com)
- New rules usher in a tasty comeback for Cuban food (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
UPDATE: The memorable subject of the following story passed away June 9, 2011. I didn’t know Clyde Waller well, but I spent enough time in his company that I am confident he will alway be one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
Here’s a story that two Omaha news weeklies turned down because the subject’s rather epic criminal boasts could largely not be corroborated.
Omaha’s African-American newspaper, The Omaha Star, did run the story, in two parts, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way they were laid out and positioned — they just kind of got lost or swallowed up in a sea of type.
I wrote the piece in a way that takes it all in with a certain grain of salt and leaves it up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself what’s credible and what’s not. In the end, I didn’t really care if what Clyde told me was the truth or not, because he and his stories, and most importantly, the way he told them, were too compelling for me to dismiss or walk away from.
Clyde later hired me to conduct a series of interviews, executed at his motel room, so that he could get his life on tape to inform a biography and a screenplay that another writer had begun but that he wasn’t happy with. In all, I amassed something like 15 hours of interviews with Clyde. The way he paid me, with a stack of bills in a plain white envelope that he slid across the bed to me, made me fill a bit like I was part of some criminal intrigue. I got the same feeling when he had his brother deliver some documents to me for my story project. His brother told me to meet him in the parking lot of a supermarket. I got there a bit early and waited in my car, having told Clyde’s brother the make and model and color of my ride. Before I knew it a Cadillac pulled up alongside me with two men in it, and the fellow in the passenger seat indicated I should slide my window down. I did as I was told, and the man handed over a manilla envelope thick with content. Barely a word was exchanged, except for me commenting how much the driver, who I took to be Clyde’s brother, resembled Clyde. Then the messengers drove off just as mysteriously as they’d arrived.
If I can ever get the interview tapes from Clyde I plan to write a one-man play whose entire monologue would be extracted from those sessions I had with him in the motel. I could never duplicate his streetwise patios and embellishments and poetry. It’s a project I hope to get to sooner rather than later.
Well, anyway, here’s a version of his story:
Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the Omaha Star (2008)
NOTE: This two-part story about Omaha native Clyde Waller is based on interviews I conducted with him. Waller described to me a multi-faceted criminal life whose sheer scope makes much of what he said he did difficult to confirm. Given Waller’s underground world and urban legend character, I do not purport the story is entirely factual. Rather, it is an interpretive, as-told-to account that, whenever possible, uses Waller’s own words. Make up your own mind.
Part I: Clyde Waller’s Education in The Life
Long before you meet living urban legend Clyde Waller, you hear the stories. When you finally talk to the man, he confirms a criminal past of mythic dimensions.
He describes growing up fast on the mean streets of post-World War II Omaha, where next door to each other his father ran Count’s Pool Hall and his uncle the after-hours Count’s Joint in south O. His dad and uncle had legit businesses, but always had some extra action going on the side, from moving bootleg liquor to boosted merchandise. Young Clyde soaked it all in.
Dodges came naturally to him as a kid. He resold comic books and costume jewelry for a profit. He supplied his mom with handkerchiefs he’d cut into swatches for her to crochet. Then he peddled the doilies on the street, at school, wherever. On his first train ride he hustled the sandwiches he packed to hungry GIs, for whom he spent the rest of the trip running errands, earning cold hard cash in tips. “I kind of had a hustling quality about me as a child,” he says.
When not looking for an edge, he roamed many a haunt. His south O hangouts included the banks of the Missouri River, the stockyards, Ak-Sar-Ben race track, Riverview Park, Playland Park and the Chief and Roseland theaters. When his family moved to the north side, he was a regular at the Crosstown roller rink and Reed’s Ice Cream stand. Downtown, he took in show after show at the Tiverly, Brandeis, Omaha and Orpheum theaters. He swears the movies’ glamorous portrayals of crime only reinforced his own way of life.
In the early 1960s the high school drop out led more or less a straight life. He ran errands for patrons at a hotel and worked as a janitor at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. He even joined the Naval reserves. All that conformity ate at him. Just as the Vietnam War was about to grow hot, active duty called. When he went AWOL before his Navy hitch began, he fled to Kansas.
When he felt the heat was off he came back to Omaha a few weeks later, got married and started a family in the Spencer Street housing projects. But the MPs caught up to him and he soon found himself on the USS Procyon, a supply ship, bound for Nam. To teach him a lesson, he says, “they shipped my ass out with no basic training or nothing.” He reported for duty in his fly duds. The Navy proved a rude awakening, but some things never changed, as he soon found the angles in this bad situation to do a handsome trade in black market Naval stores.
Back stateside in the mid-’60s, he settled in Oakland, Calif., where he fell in with a proverbial den of thieves. They used the Color Me Natural barbershop on 98th Avenue as a front for their illicit operations. With its juke box and its hip cutters, the place was a gathering spot for people in “the life.”
“Gamblers, hustlers, pimps, dope dealers, you name it, they come through there. And some of it rubbed off on me,” he says. He learned the “honorable” craft of barbering along with less reputable pursuits, like how to pull off various frauds. He helped design West Coast scams that bilked companies and individuals alike. His crew staged accidents they then collected disability insurance settlements on or they filed false discrimination lawsuits defendants gladly settled out of court. The gang found ways to embezzle or otherwise redirect monies from private financial accounts.
“I always had some game going…running one scheme after another. Then we got into drugs. We were selling weed, cocaine, heroin and every damn thing else. So we were living on easy street. We got a nice barber shop and we’re selling drugs and driving Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah, livin’ on top of the world. Living way beyond the means of cutting hair,” he tells you.
His first marriage failed. He married again, only to see it crumble as well. Besides the children from his two wives, he fathered more with other women.
He’s captivated you with his tales over the phone. This natural storyteller’s rich, profane language is just what you expect from an old-school gangsta. He sounds like the real deal, too — a man wise to the ways of the wicked. When he comes to Omaha for an August family reunion, the legend doesn’t disappoint. He looks the part of an outlaw with his world-weary slouch, muscular arms, graying pony-tail, stylish clothes, Ray-Ban shades and gold bling-bling that drapes his ears, neck and wrist. You imagine Samuel Jackson or Terrence Howard playing him if his story ever finds its way on screen, which it just might. It’s one of the reasons he’s in town.
You sit down for lunch with him in the Old Market and he spills out details from his story in loud, expletive-laced riffs that you’re sure will turn heads, but don’t. It’s easy to see how he could manipulate people to his advantage with the way he seduces you into feeling you’re the only one in his gaze at that moment. There are glimpses of a compulsive man whose hunger for more gives him a desperate edge.
No matter how much he made, it was never enough. Too many middle men cut into the profits. Especially with coke. “So we devised a way to bring it up out of Bogota,” he says matter of factly.
He purports to, in the ’70s, being perhaps the first African-American drug lord with his own direct connection to the Colombia cartel of Pablo Escobar. Of being made “a godfather” by a Colombian family. Of being a big-time supplier. “I never dealt drugs directly. I never sold $50 worth. I sold no less than $50k in drugs,” he says. “But I never got away from the haunt of it.” Of how, in the ’80s and ’90s, he made San Francisco and Hawaii his new bases of crime, running drugs, pulling scams, laundering and counterfeiting monies. How he breached monetary security walls. How his graft finally caught the attention of state and federal authorities. How federal judge Henry Fong called him “the most serious threat to the American monetary system.” How he cut a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to tell the Secret Service’s Fraudulent Crimes Division “all” he knew in exchange for himself and two brothers not serving any part of a stiff sentence.
His ego was hurt when the government doubted that he, a lone black man, could mastermind such sophisticated criminal enterprises. In a warped way, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of racism.
The key to his rackets was having the smarts to see and slip through what he calls “the blind door.” He refers, for example, to a period when in-transit credit card transactions are exposed to spying crooks who, by using devices and/or inside information, tap the WATTS line and pilfer accounts when no one’s aware. Poof, it’s gone. He intimates that his Omaha connections gave him access to figures with knowledge of the systems that made Omaha then, as now, a telecommunications-telemarketing hub.
“The blind door is the door you open that no one ever thinks about,” he says. “Nobody’s even conscious it’s there and that’s the one I use, and it makes me invisible. Man, there’s a blind door to every damn thing. There’s a part where nobody sees nobody, and that’s where I come in. I figured out when it was. And unless I tell you I did it, you’ll never know how I did it.”
He says he kept right on stealing even while in the employ of the Secret Service. He says he only escaped the distasteful world of informant by making himself an addict and thus a degenerate nobody wanted anything from anymore. That his life only found meaning once he stopped looking for an edge. He talks with pride about making himself clean and sober and raising, alone, his two sons with ex-wife Lola.
Millions in ill gotten gains passed through his hands, he says, as he never intended on accumulating wealth. Others speak of his generosity in sharing what he made.
Trina Smolen, a Phoenix, Ariz. writer he worked with to turn his story into a book and a screenplay, was a jobless single mother in Hawaii when Waller adopted her and her little girl in the late 1980s. She speaks of his “big heart” and his “Robin Hood quality.” She says, “He paid for operations for people. If somebody needed to make a rent payment, a mortgage payment, bail kids out, he was generous that way.” She also says he and his second wife Lola shared a coke habit and that his “criminal enterprise” employed dozens of people and raked in loads of cash.
“I‘d just make it and spend it, give it away, just (expletive) it off,” he says. “Eighty-ninety thousand dollars in the trunk of my car. And after awhile it became a burden. The money was not only illegal, the s___ was heavy. Then I had to hire people to count it. Then they stole a little bit. I was going through misery.”
He’s seen it all, done it all, short of killing. That’s where he says he drew the line.
“I stayed away from guns…murder. I didn’t want to be involved in nothing like that. I did it my way by not allowing anyone in with these tendencies. And it worked. I’m walking here a free man,” he says on a walk in the Old Market. “I did something right. But I really should be either dead or in a penitentiary for the rest of my life.”
Violence was all around him growing up, first in south O, then in north O. On the south side, young Clyde navigated an Eastern European immigrant turf dominated by rough and tumble men who drank and fought hard. He saw gun play and knife fights. He once came upon a frozen corpse in the snow. He developed street smarts to fend off pervs and other predators. When his family moved to the near northside, things only got worse. The Wallers lived across from the Apex Bar, commonly known as “the bucket of blood” for all the stuff that went down there.
“I witnessed a lot of violence. I witnessed people getting shot, people getting cut. I was paranoid from the time I was 7 until I was 33 because I knew what people would do to one another and the extent to what they would do. That made me go the opposite direction. It kept me from it because to me it was ugly.”
From the time he was a little kid, he learned how to talk his way out of any jam, even practicing his lies in the mirror. He learned too that being on the make was a way of life. Hanging around his dad and uncle’s places he learned to hustle suckers with words, cards, dice or a pool cue. He could take you any way he chose.
He knows he comes off a braggart, but he insists baring the darker side of himself wears on his soul.
“It’s only because of the way I tell the story it sounds glorified, but it actually hurts to tell the story. The emotions are still there. When I leave you I will be literally worn out,” he insists. “I want people to understand I not only have remorse about what I’ve done, I wish I had done something else. I’m telling this story because it needs to be told. This story will answer a lot of questions to a lot of people somewhere, somehow.”
Ego played a big part in his getting caught up in the whole drug scene. Circumstances too put him in a position where he could be a player, a somebody. He said coming of age the way he did, amid shrewd black men who lived large from vice, he developed a distorted view of the world and a corrupt confidence in himself. Magnifying this was a loving father who told Clyde “you can do anything you want to do” and a police department, not far removed from the corrupt old Dennison political machine, that got a piece of the action.
“In the back, my father always had a card game going on. When the police would come in my older brother would take ‘em back to my father who would hand ‘em an envelope and they’d walk out. I’m not saying this to offend people, but I was taught something the average black child today don’t get instilled in them. When I went on my three-decade odyssey I was not inhibited by white people or their laws. I was free — up here,” he says, rapping his temple with a finger, “and that’s why it was so easy for me to do it.
“I could have been anything. It’s just very unfortunate that at the time I chose to express my talents…coke was a recreational drug and everyone was doing it…doctors, attorneys, politicians, sports greats,” he says. “I actually stuck the needle in some of these arms. It put me on the same level with them. They, and I’m not lying, envied me. Ain’t that a b_____? They envied me. I done something they would never be able to do. They made me think what I was doing was important and, of course, I believed ‘em. I felt important.”
End of Part I.
Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Part II: The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Clyde Waller
The way Clyde Waller tells his life story of dodges and deceptions, it’s a riveting saga. He has a way with words anyway. That, combined with his urban slang, and his Old School G appearance makes it easy to believe he’s seen his share of hell. You don’t doubt for an instance his street cred. But still…
Can his tale really be believed when so much of it must be taken on faith? Author Trina Smolen of Phoenix, Ariz. has known Waller for years. Up until a year ago or so she was writing a book and a screenplay about his life. But he parted company with her when he felt she wasn’t being authentic to his experience. What she did write about his various criminal scores and enterprises was largely based on extensive interviews with him. Her chapter summaries for the book Blind Door read like the narrative from some arresting crime fiction.
Family and friends either have direct knowledge of Waller’s larceny or anecdotally confirm he was into some kind of heavy stuff. Had to be. Why else would a barber from Oakland, Calif., by way of his hometown of Omaha, be hauling ass on repeated trips to South America just as the cocaine trade came of age?
An Omaha cousin who got caught up in Waller’s dealings on the coast describes going to the L.A. airport to meet Clyde on one of his return flights from Bogota. The cousin, who lived above the Color Me Natural shop in Oakland Clyde operated out of, asked him, “Where is it?”, meaning the drugs, whereupon Clyde told him, “You’re holding it,” referring to the large radio he’d handed his cousin. Clyde explains he gutted most of the radio’s insides to hold the stash of cocaine, leaving just enough wiring to let it still play. Good thing, Clyde says, as customs agents tried the radio. It played, just barely.
Then there was the “lavish lifestyle” that didn’t jive with cutting heads. “So they knew I had money,” Waller says. “I even paid doctor, hospital, pharmacy bills, down payments for homes and college tuitions for family and friends.”
Omaha actor-director John Beasley grew up with Waller and his brothers here and says it was common knowledge Clyde’s “always been into something. We used to hear these stories about him. We used to wonder about him.” Therefore, he believes what Waller says may be true. “The reason I don’t doubt it is I remember years ago when I’d ask his folks, — ‘How’s Clyde doing?’ — I’d hear, ‘He’s a barber out in Oakland, but he’s got some kind of scheme going on.’ Or, ‘Clyde’s been in Hawaii or South America again.’ I knew cocaine was involved. I’d hear tales back.”
Waller’s only sister, Larceeda Jefferson of Dolton, Il., said while never involved with Clyde’s misdeeds she learned of them from her brother or others as they played out. “You can trust it, it’s true. He did everything he said and then some probably…At the time I had mixed emotions. I didn’t feel like he failed anybody in what he was doing, I just felt like he wanted something and he wanted it so bad he didn’t care how he got it. He’s always been that way. He’s still that way now, except he don’t do that (crimes) anymore. He still has that pie-in-the-sky attitude that one day he wants to be somebody. I don’t know who he wants to be. It was all a matter of survival for him. He survived the best way he found.”
He involved select family and friends in some of his criminal pursuits. At the very least a cousin and two brothers. Indeed, his ex-wife Lola, the mother of his children, got sucked into “the life” of a drug runner and addict. But mostly he kept that world a secret, a pattern he began in childhood.
“It’s like I was living in two different worlds,” he says, “but I never let those worlds meet. That made my life not only paranoid, but hard.”
Some official documents allude to his life off the grid and just how far his assorted mischief went, but nothing concrete. Otherwise, all you’re left with is Waller’s own claims of criminal exploits. All you have is his word. The irony doesn’t escape him. That a man who owns up to making and losing a fortune through elaborate deceptions raised to high art should be trusted that what he says now is how it was then. The past tense is deliberate, for Waller says he’s gone straight for the past dozen years. He says he’s paying taxes and following both the letter and spirit of the law. He recently opened a barber school in Oakland, where he’s widely seen as a mentor in the community. A 2004 Oakland Tribune feature paints him so.
He’s telling his story, he says, as the final piece in his recovery. Then again, you must take some of it with a healthy dose of skepticism when he says things like, “See, I come off to a whole lot of people as slow-witted, dumb. But that’s my game. That I’m just an old country boy from Omaha. That I ain’t going to hurt you,” he says with a smile, adding, until you realize “I’m going to take your house.”
He’s a master at taking people into his confidence for his own devices. He says he “learned” a long time ago “the average person is constantly looking for something for nothing, and I used that against them.” Could his spill-the-guts confessional be another “blind door” to some pay-off? But why would he risk the sterling rep he enjoys today by spinning a false story?
If this is a con, it’s hard to say how he’ll benefit unless a book deal gets inked or until the movie rights are sold. At one point, Waller and Smolen said major publishers had expressed interest in the outline for the manuscript. John Beasley”s convinced enough by Clyde and his story that he’s bidding to acquire the screen rights for his company, West O Films. Beasley’s currently preparing to mount a feature film on football great Marlin Briscoe, an Omaha native Beasley and Waller grew up with.
Waller knows how improbable it all seems. He says it seemed that way to him too as he was living it. From the moment he made his first trip to Colombia in 1978, it all unfolded as in a dream.
“I used to sit there at night looking up at the stars, saying, ‘You this little (expletive) from Omaha, Neb. down here in the (expletive) jungle.’ And I did it willingly. It wasn’t like the army sent me down there. I did this s___ on my own. When I first got there, I was actually crying. I’m saying, ‘(expletive). man, I’m back in Vietnam. What person in their right mind would even put their ass in a situation like this?’”
Bogota was as scary and foreign to him as Vietnam had been. The surreal nature of it all sank in as soon as the plane landed in a militarized airport.
“Guns everywhere. Dogs. I couldn’t speak Spanish for s___. I took a cab to the Hilton and they put me up in the Presidential suite. I wouldn’t come out for three days. I was crashing on the floor, freezing from the high altitude climate.”
He called home, desperate he’d made a terrible mistake. He told his wife Lola, “’Baby, I’m coming home. I gotta get out of here.’” She calmed him down, reminding him he “hadn’t done anything” yet,” he says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, man, but there was a time I couldn’t even think about it.”
An African-American looking for a major drug connection in Bogota made him an object of suspicion, at least in his own mind. It was weeks before he met the young man, Foris, who would initiate him into the drug culture or “lifeline” of Colombia.
Before Foris and his people could trust Waller, they tested him. Having him hole up in the hotel for 30 days only disoriented him more for what came next.
“What they do is they take you out in the jungle and they leave your ass out there,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was out there for and that’s what be getting you. Brother, you just go crazy. You just lose it. And that’s what they’re looking for — to see how fast you can get yourself back in control. At first I thought maybe they’d given me some kind of drug because I went out and pitched a b____. But I got under control in like 10 or 15 minutes and I passed the test.”
Another test he says he passed came in the presence of Pablo Escobar himself, only Waller asserts at the time he didn’t know who The Man was, only that he was an associate of Foris’s. Escobar came to the home of Foris, bodyguards stationed outside. Waller recalls Escobar as quiet and carefully “observing me.” The men whiled away the night drinking beer and smoking PalMals stoked with coke, each measuring their manhood by how much they could consume.
“They wanted to see how strong I was,” he says. “The next morning they were laying on the floor and I was stepping over their asses, still drinking, still smoking. The final result was, ‘I was a helluva black American.’”
Clay, as he was called there, lived with Foris, his wife and their extended family. His immersion in the coca culture brought him deep into an alternate reality. “It’s a world of it’s own down there,” he says. “See, everything down there is opposite here.” His acceptance in this underground gave him cachet but that didn’t mean he still wasn’t afraid. “I was always thinking they was trying to kill me,” he says. When told how the drugs were carried out — in small plastic bags to be ingested and then expelled — he was sure of it. “I thought they was crazy.”
Now he needed a sign of trust. It came on a road trip to Cali. “The police stopped us. Foris tried to bribe the cop and he took our asses straight to jail,” he recalls. Drug convictions bring stiff penalties in Colombia. “Down there if they caught you with a zig-zag in your pocket you’d do 30 years,” he says. “Any paraphernalia, you go to prison. If it’s coke, you never get out.” It’s why Waller made a decision while stewing in jail. “I sat there and thought, ‘If this man (Foris) get our asses out of this, then I know I can put my life in his hands.’ And he got us out of it. That’s when the trust came in. After that, I didn’t have to ask no more questions.”
Smuggling smack out of the country was a crucible of logistics and rituals and mind games. When Foris brought Clyde his first shipment, he avoided it for three days. “They said, ‘It belongs to you now.’ I did not touch it, I walked around it, I tried to ignore it, I even tried to act like it wasn’t there,” he says. “It was a helluva an experience.” As prep for each trip Foris’s wife communed with spirits to protect Waller on his mule run. “She’d come out from a closed room and say, ‘Clay, it’s time to go,’ and I knew it. I’d just get up and go. And it happened like that seven times. She always told me, ‘Everybody around you will help you.’ I didn’t know what she meant. But it happened just like she said. Everybody around me helped me…”
Once, when carrying into the U.S., he says he saw that drug-sniffing dogs were on duty. “I knew this day I might have a problem,” he says. Rather than panic he seized the moment when he sized-up a young girl aboard as someone special. He was right — she was a diplomat’s daughter. By insinuating himself into her entourage, neither his body nor luggage was searched.
He refers to the Zen-like “control” and presence of mind it takes to complete a drug run. “Pure control,” he says. “You have to be able to do it or go to prison. It got easier and easier. I was like an actor on the set getting ready to do his part…go into his character. You have to be able to live your cover.” He could have easily “lost it” on his first run if not for how he’d steeled himself. Going over “every scenario that is possible” in his head. “What it boils down to is thinking logically,” he says.“That first trip of mine, man, they made us sit on the plane for two hours before we could get off of it (in Miami). They turned off the air, we were sweating. All I could see outside was dogs and federal marshals.”
He nearly began tripping, until he reminded himself “they don’t know I’m coming through here with this unless I tell them.” In order to not betray any tells, he says, “you have to have the ability to take that fear away from you. I was always able to surmount it and get over it and get past it without being shaken. Nobody can teach you that. And when you get out you are so mentally exhausted.” He says making runs with someone else, as he did with Lola, is even harder and riskier. He had to “maintain” her and himself to avoid a slip. He says the two of them would assume fake identities, once even posing as missionaries. “We couldn’t do it the same way every time. We had to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very creative.”
Waller says he came to know the major drug routes and was courted by crime organizations, including a group he calls “the black mafia.” But he kept the drug business a sideline to his financial chicanery, eventually setting up base in Hawaii, where the feds finally closed in. Busted, he faced serious jail time. Rather than do time, he cooperated.
By the time he walked away from it all, he says he was spent from the pressure of being a user and being used. It’s why he “allowed” himself to get hooked.
“A way of paying penitence. The more hooked I became, the more my importance diminished — importance to the authorities and to the dealers. I never let anyone know that I was using. Only Lola knew and my brothers. But my concentration on ‘the game’ was waning, just like I wanted it to do. I made a conscious decision to do this. I couldn’t handle being in charge of so many other people’s lives and welfare — 15-20 people depending on me to feed their kids -– not including the users who were depending on my product.”
Sealed documents contain the threads of some of his criminal escapades. He and Smolen tried gaining access to those records without much success.
If things go the way he wants, his story will break big — as a book, a film, a play. He’ll be immortalized as an American Gangster. He’s fine with that, although he’s concerned his sons, the new women in his life, Ruby, and the young men and women he mentors at his barber school will learn disturbing things about him they don’t know.
The old life is not completely out of his system. Although he swears he’s mostly gone legit he acknowledges he’s still got some action going on in his capacity as a kind of liaison or procurer who can, for a price, get you anything you want. No questions asked.
Every one who reads or sees his story will have to make up their own mind about this living urban legend. Perhaps he says it best:
“Man, I’m telling you it’s so heavy and deep it’s almost like this s___ was a dream.”
- Too many laws, too many prisoners (economist.com)
- Frank Abagnale | Planet Gossip (atomiurl.com)
- Battles intensify between Jamaica police and gangsters allied with reputed drug kingpin (thestar.com)
- Drug kingpin’s ex-girlfriend gets 12 years after testifying (thegrio.com)
- The Killers Next Door (time.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)