Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Racketeer, Page 2

John Grisham

  “Maybe on the outside. I can assure you the clocks run much slower on this side of the wall.”

  “Still, it’s hard to believe you’ve been in for five years.”

  It is indeed. How do you survive for years in prison? You don’t think about years, or months, or weeks. You think about today-how to get through it, how to survive it. When you wake up tomorrow, another day is behind you. The days add up; the weeks run together; the months become years. You realize how tough you are, how you can function and survive because you have no choice.

  “Any idea what you’ll do?” he asks. I get this same question every month now, as if my release were just around the corner. Patience, I remind myself. He’s my father. And he’s here! That counts for a lot.

  “Not really. It’s too far away.”

  “I’d start thinking about it if I were you,” he says, certain that he would know exactly what to do if he were in my shoes.

  “I just finished the third level of Spanish,” I say with some pride. In my Brown Gang there is a good friend, Marco, who is an excellent language teacher. Drugs.

  “Looks like we’ll all be speaking Spanish before long. They’re taking over.”

  Henry has little patience with immigrants, anybody with an accent, people from New York and New Jersey, anyone on welfare, anyone unemployed, and he thinks the homeless should be rounded up and placed in camps that would resemble, in his view, something worse than Guantanamo.

  We had harsh words a few years ago, and he threatened to stop the visits. Bickering is a waste of time. I’m not going to change him. He’s kind enough to drive over, the least I can do is behave. I am the convicted felon; he is not. He’s the winner; I’m the loser. This seems important to Henry, though I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I had college and law school, something he never dreamed of.

  “I’ll probably leave the country,” I say. “Go somewhere where I can use the Spanish, somewhere like Panama or Costa Rica. Warm weather, beaches, people with darker skin. They don’t care about criminal records or who’s been to prison.”

  “The grass is always greener, huh?”

  “Yes, Dad, when you’re in prison, every place has greener grass. What am I supposed to do? Go back home, maybe become an unlicensed paralegal doing research for some tiny firm that can’t afford me? Maybe become a bail bondsman? How about a private detective? There are not a lot of options.”

  He’s nodding along. We’ve had this conversation at least a dozen times. “And you hate the government,” he says.

  “Oh yes. I hate the federal government, the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys, the federal judges, the fools who run the prisons. There is so much of it I hate. I’m sitting here doing ten years for a noncrime because a hotshot U.S. Attorney needed to jack up his kill quota. And if the government can nail my ass for ten years with no evidence, just think of all the possibilities now that I have the words ‘Convicted Felon’ tattooed on my forehead. I’m outta here, Pop, just as soon as I can make the break.”

  He’s nodding and smiling. Sure, Mal.


  Given the importance of what they do, and the controversies that often surround them, and the violent people they sometimes confront, it is remarkable that in the history of this country only four active federal judges have been murdered.

  The Honorable Raymond Fawcett has just become number five.

  His body was found in the small basement of a lakeside cabin he had built and frequently used on weekends. When he did not show up for a trial on Monday morning, his law clerks panicked and called the FBI. In due course the agents found the crime scene. The cabin was in a heavily wooded part of southwest Virginia, on the side of a mountain, at the edge of a small, pristine body of water known locally as Lake Higgins. The lake is not found on most road maps.

  There appeared to be no forced entry, no fight or struggle, nothing but two dead bodies, bullet holes in both heads, and an empty metal safe in the basement. Judge Fawcett was found near the safe, shot twice in the back of the head, definitely an execution, and there was a large pool of dried blood on the floor around him. The first expert on the scene guessed that the judge had been dead for at least two days. He had left the office around three on Friday afternoon, according to one of his law clerks, with plans to drive straight to the cabin and spend the weekend hard at work there.

  The other body was that of Naomi Clary, a thirty-four-year-old divorced mother of two who had recently been hired by Judge Fawcett as a secretary. The judge, who was sixty-six and had five adult children, was not divorced. He and Mrs. Fawcett had been living apart for several years, though they were still seen together around Roanoke when the occasion called for it. It was common knowledge they had separated, and because he was such a prominent man in town, their living arrangements created some gossip. Both had confided in their children and in their friends that they simply did not have the stomach for a divorce. Mrs. Fawcett had the money. Judge Fawcett had the status. Both seemed relatively content, and both had promised no outside affairs. The handshake deal provided they would proceed with the divorce if and when one of them met someone else.

  Evidently, the judge had found someone to his liking. Almost immediately after Ms. Clary was added to the payroll, the rumors rippled through the courthouse that the judge was fooling around, again. A few on his staff knew that he had never been able to keep his pants on.

  Naomi’s body was found on a sofa near the spot where the judge was murdered. She was naked, with both ankles bound tightly together with silver duct tape. She was lying on her back with both wrists taped together behind her. She had been shot twice in the forehead. Her body was covered with small burn marks. After a few hours of debate and analysis, the chief investigators agreed that she had likely been tortured as a means of forcing Fawcett to open the safe. Apparently, it had worked. The safe was empty, its door left open, not a shred of anything left behind. The thief had cleaned it out, then executed his victims.

  Judge Fawcett’s father had been a framing contractor, and as a kid he tagged along, always with a hammer. He never stopped building things-a new back porch, a deck, a storage shed. When his children were small and his marriage was happy, he had gutted and completely renovated a stately old home in central Roanoke, acting as the general contractor and spending every weekend on a ladder. Years later he renovated a loft apartment that became his love nest, then his home. To him, the hammering, sawing, and sweating were therapy, a mental and physical escape from a job filled with stress. He had designed the A-frame lake cabin and, over a four-year period, had built most of it himself. In the basement where he died, there was a wall covered with fine cedar shelves, all crammed with thick law books. In the center, though, was a hidden door. A set of shelves swung open, and there, perfectly hidden, was the safe. At the crime scene, the safe had been rolled forward some three feet out of the wall and then cleaned out.

  The safe was a metal and lead vault mounted on four five-inch wheels. It had been manufactured by the Vulcan Safe Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and sold online to Judge Fawcett. According to its specs, it was forty-six inches in height, thirty-six inches in width, forty inches in depth; offered nine cubic feet of storage; weighed 510 pounds; retailed at $2,100; and, when properly sealed, was fireproof, waterproof, and, ostensibly, burglarproof. A keypad on the door required a six-digit code for entry.

  Why a federal judge who earned $174,000 a year needed such a secured and hidden container for his valuables was an immediate mystery to the FBI. At the time of his death, Judge Fawcett had $15,000 in a personal checking account, $60,000 in a certificate of deposit earning less than 1 percent a year, $31,000 in a bond fund, and $47,000 in a mutual fund that had underperformed the market for almost a decade. He also had a 401(k) and the standard array of benefits for top federal officials. With almost no debt, his balance sheet was blandly impressive. His real security was in his job. Since the Constitution allowed him to serve until he died, the salary would never stop.

sp; Mrs. Fawcett’s family owned a trainload of bank stock, but the judge had never been able to get near it. Now, with the separation, it was even further off-limits. Bottom line: the judge was quite comfortable but far from rich, and not the type who needed a hidden safe to protect his goodies.

  What was in the safe? Or, bluntly, what got him killed? Interviews with family and friends would later reveal he had no expensive habits, did not collect gold coins or rare diamonds or anything that needed such protection. Other than an impressive baseball card collection from his youth, there was no evidence the judge had an interest in collecting anything.

  The A-frame was tucked away so deeply in the hills that it was nearly impossible to find. A porch wrapped around the cabin, and from any vantage point not another person, vehicle, cabin, home, shack, or boat could be seen. Total isolation. The judge stored a kayak and a canoe in the basement, and he was known to spend hours on the lake, fishing, thinking, and smoking cigars. He was a quiet man, not lonely and not shy, but cerebral and serious.

  It was painfully obvious to the FBI there would be no witnesses because there were no other human beings within miles. The cabin was the perfect spot to kill someone and be far away before the crime was discovered. From the moment they first arrived, the investigators knew they were way behind on this one. And, for them, things got worse. There was not a single fingerprint, footprint, piece of fiber, stray hair follicle, or tire mark to help with the clues. The cabin had no alarm system and certainly no surveillance cameras. And why bother? The nearest policeman was half an hour away, and, assuming he could even find the place, what was he supposed to do when he got there? Any brain-dead burglar would be long gone.

  For three days the investigators inspected every inch of the cabin and four acres around it, and they found nothing. The fact that the murderer was so careful and methodic did not help the mood of the team. They were dealing with some real talent here, a gifted killer who left no clues. Where were they supposed to start?

  There was already pressure from Justice in Washington. The Director of the FBI was putting together a task force, sort of a special ops unit to descend upon Roanoke and solve the crime.

  As expected, the brutal murders of an adulterous judge and his young girlfriend were splendid gifts to the media and the tabloids. When Naomi Clary was buried three days after her body was found, the Roanoke police used barricades to keep reporters and the curious away from the cemetery. When Raymond Fawcett was memorialized the following day, at a packed Episcopal church, a helicopter hovered above the building and drowned out the music. The police chief, an old friend of the judge’s, was forced to send up his helicopter and shoo away the other one. Mrs. Fawcett was steadfast in the front row among her children and grandchildren, refusing to shed a tear or look at his coffin. Many kind words were spoken about the judge, but some people, especially the men, were thinking, How did this old boy get such a young girlfriend?

  When both were good and buried, the attention quickly returned to the investigation. The FBI would not say a word in public, primarily because it had nothing to say at all. A week after the bodies were found, the only evidence on the table was the ballistics reports. Four bullets, hollow points, fired from a.38-caliber handgun, one of a million on the streets and now probably at the bottom of a large lake somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia.

  Other motives were being analyzed. In 1979 Judge John Wood was gunned down outside his home in San Antonio. His killer was a contract hit man hired by a powerful drug dealer who was about to be sentenced by Judge Wood, who hated the drug trade and those who worked it. With a nickname like Maximum John the motive was fairly obvious. In Roanoke, the FBI teams looked at every case, criminal and civil, on Judge Fawcett’s docket and made a short list of potential suspects, virtually all of whom were involved in the narcotics trade.

  In 1988 Judge Richard Daronco was shot and killed while doing yard work around his home in Pelham, New York. The killer was the angry father of a woman who had just lost a case in the judge’s courtroom. The father shot the judge, then committed suicide. In Roanoke, the FBI team scoured Judge Fawcett’s files and interviewed his clerks. There are always a few whack jobs filing crap in federal court and making outrageous demands, and a list slowly came together. Names but no real suspects.

  In 1989 Judge Robert Smith Vance was killed in his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, when he opened a package that contained a bomb. They found his killer and eventually sent him to death row, but his motive was never clear. The prosecutors speculated he was angry over a recent decision by Judge Vance. In Roanoke the FBI interviewed hundreds of lawyers with cases presently before Judge Fawcett, or in the recent past. Every lawyer has clients who are either crazy or mean enough to seek revenge, and a few of these had passed through Judge Fawcett’s courtroom. They were tracked down, interviewed, and eliminated.

  In January 2011, a month before the Fawcett murder, Judge John Roll was gunned down near Tucson in the same mass killing that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Judge Roll was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not the target. His death was of no help to the FBI in Roanoke.

  With each passing day, the trail grew colder. With no witnesses, no real crime scene evidence, no mistake by the killer, only a handful of useless tips, and very few suspects from the judge’s dockets, the investigation hit dead ends at every turn.

  The big announcement of a $100,000 reward did little to spark activity on the FBI hotlines.


  Because Frostburg is a camp and light on security, we have more contact with the outside world than most prisoners. Our mail is always subject to being opened and read, but this is rare. We have limited access to e-mail but not the Internet. There are dozens of phones and plenty of rules that govern their use, but we can generally make all the collect calls we want. Cell phones are strictly prohibited. We are allowed to buy subscriptions to dozens of magazines on an approved list. Several newspapers arrive promptly each morning, and they are always available in a corner of the chow hall known as the coffee room.

  It is there, early one morning, that I see the headline in the Washington Post: FEDERAL JUDGE MURDERED NEAR ROANOKE.

  I cannot hide a smile. This is the moment.

  For the past three years, I have been obsessed with Raymond Fawcett. I never met him, never entered his courtroom, never filed a lawsuit in his domain-the Southern District of Virginia. Virtually all of my practice was in state court. I rarely ventured into the federal arena, and when I did, it was always in the Northern District of Virginia, which includes everything from Richmond north. The Southern District covers Roanoke, Lynchburg, and the massive sprawl of the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metro area. Before Fawcett’s passing, there were twelve federal judges working in the Southern District, and thirteen in the Northern.

  I have met several inmates here at Frostburg who were sentenced by Fawcett, and without seeming too curious, I quizzed them about him. I did this under the guise of actually knowing the judge, of having tried lawsuits in his court. Without exception, these inmates loathed the man and felt as though he had gone overboard with their sentences. He seemed to especially enjoy lecturing the white-collar guys as he passed judgment and sent them away. Their sentencing hearings generally attracted more press, and Fawcett had a massive ego.

  He went to Duke as an undergrad and Columbia for law school, then worked at a Wall Street firm for a few years. His wife and her money were from Roanoke, and they settled there when he was in his early thirties. He joined the biggest law firm in town and quickly clawed his way to the top. His father-in-law was a longtime benefactor to Democratic politics, and in 1993 President Clinton appointed Fawcett to a lifetime position on the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Virginia.

  In the world of American law, such an appointment carries tremendous prestige but not a lot of money. At the time, his new salary was $125,000 a year, about a $300,000 cut in pay from what he was earning as a hardworking partner in a thr
iving law firm. At forty-eight, he became one of the youngest federal judges in the country and, with five kids, one of the most cash-strapped. His father-in-law soon began supplementing his income, and the pressure eased.

  He once described his early years on the bench in a long interview in one of those legal periodicals that few people read. I found it by chance in the prison library, in a stack of magazines about to be discarded. There are not too many books and magazines that escape my curious eyes. Often, I’ll read five or six hours a day. The computers here are desktops, a few years out-of-date, and because of demand they take a beating. However, since I am the librarian and the computers are under my control, I have plenty of access. We have subscriptions to two digital legal research sites, and I have used these to read every opinion published by the late Honorable Raymond Fawcett.

  Something happened to him around the turn of the century, the year 2000. During his first seven years on the bench, he was a left-leaning protector of individual rights, compassionate with the poor and troubled, quick to slap the hands of law enforcement, skeptical of big business, and seemingly eager to chastise a wayward litigant with an extremely sharp pen. Within a year, though, something was changing. His opinions were shorter, not as well reasoned, even nasty at times, and he was definitely moving to the right.

  In 2000 he was nominated by President Clinton to fill a vacancy on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Such a move is the logical promotion for a talented district court judge, or one with the right connections. On the Fourth Circuit, he would have been one of fifteen judges who considered nothing but cases on appeal. The only rung higher than that is the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is not clear if Fawcett had that ambition. Most federal judges do, at one time or another. Bill Clinton, though, was leaving office, and under something of a cloud. His nominations were stalled in the Senate, and when George W. Bush was elected, Fawcett’s future remained in Roanoke.

  He was fifty-five. His children were already adults or in the process of leaving home. Perhaps he succumbed to a midlife crisis of sorts. Maybe his marriage was on the rocks. His father-in-law had died and left him out of his will. His former partners were getting rich while he toiled away at workers’ wages, relatively speaking. Whatever the reason, Judge Fawcett became a different man on the bench. In criminal cases, his sentencing became erratic and far less compassionate. In civil cases, he showed much less sympathy for the little guy and sided time and again with powerful interests. Judges often change as they mature, but few turn as abruptly as Raymond Fawcett.

  The biggest case of his career was a war over uranium mining that began in 2003. I was still a lawyer then, and I knew the issues and basic details. You couldn’t avoid it; there was a story in the newspapers virtually every day.

  A rich vein of uranium ore runs through central and southern Virginia. Because the mining of uranium is an environmental nightmare, the state passed a law forbidding it. Naturally, the landowners, leaseholders, and mining companies that control the deposits have long wanted to start digging, and they spent millions lobbying lawmakers to lift the ban. But, the Virginia General Assembly resisted. In 2003, a Canadian company called Armanna Mines filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Virginia attacking the ban as unconstitutional. It was a frontal assault with no holds barred, heavily financed, and led by some of the most expensive legal talent money could buy.

  As we soon learned, Armanna Mines was a consortium of mining companies from the U.S., Australia, and Russia, as well as Canada. An estimate of the potential value of the deposits in Virginia alone ranged from $15 to $20 billion.

  Under the random selection process in effect at the time, the case was assigned to a Judge McKay of Lynchburg, who was eighty-four years old and suffering from dementia. Citing health reasons, he passed. Next in line was Raymond Fawcett, who had no valid reason to recuse himself. The defendant was the Commonwealth of Virginia, but many others soon joined in. These included cities, towns, and counties situated on top of the deposits, as well as a few landowners who wanted no part of the destruction. The lawsuit became one huge, sprawling mess of litigation with over a hundred lawyers involved. Judge Fawcett denied the initial motions to dismiss and ordered extensive discovery. Before long, he was devoting 90 percent of his time to the lawsuit.

  In 2004 the FBI entered my life, and I lost interest in the mining case. I suddenly had other, more pressing matters to deal with. My trial started in October 2005 in D.C. By then, the Armanna Mines trial had been under way for a month in a crowded courtroom in Roanoke. At that point, I could not have cared less what happened to the uranium.

  After a three-week trial, I was convicted and given ten years. After a ten-week trial, Judge Fawcett ruled in favor of Armanna Mines. There was no possible connection between the two trials, or so I thought as I went away to prison.

  Soon, though, I met the man who would eventually kill Judge Fawcett. I know the identity of the murderer, and I know his motive.

  Motive is a baffling question for the FBI. In the weeks after the murder, the task force settles on the Armanna Mines litigation and interviews dozens of people connected to the trial. A couple of radical environmental groups had sprung up and operated around the fringes of the litigation. These had been closely monitored by the FBI at the time. Fawcett had received death threats, and during the trial he had moved around with protection. The threats were thoroughly investigated and found not to be credible, but the bodyguards remained close by.

  Intimidation is an unlikely motive. Fawcett has made his decision, and though his name is poison among the environmentalists, he has done his damage. His ruling was confirmed in 2009 by the Fourth Circuit, and the case is now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Pending the appeals, the uranium has not been touched.

  Revenge is a motive, though the FBI says nothing about it. The words “contract killing” are being used by some reporters, who apparently have nothing to base this on except for the professionalism of the killings.

  Given the crime scene and the empty safe that was so carefully hidden, robbery seems the likelier motive.

  I have a plan, one I have been plotting for years now. It is my only way out.


  Every able-bodied federal inmate is required to have a job, and the Bureau of Prisons controls the pay scale. For the past two years, I have been the librarian, and for my labors I get thirty cents an hour. About half of this money, along with the checks from my father, is subject to the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program. The Bureau of Prisons takes the money and applies it to felony assessments, fines, and restitution. Along with my ten-year sentence, I was ordered to pay about $120,000 in various penalties. At thirty cents an hour, it will take the rest of this century and then some.

  Other jobs around here include cook, dishwasher, table wiper, floor scrubber, plumber, electrician, carpenter, clerk, orderly, laundry worker, painter, gardener, and teacher. I consider myself lucky. My job is one of the best and does not reduce me to cleaning up after people. I occasionally teach a course in history for inmates pursuing their high school equivalency diplomas. Teaching pays thirty-five cents an hour, but I am not tempted by the higher wages. I find it quite depressing because of the low levels of literacy among the prison populations. Blacks, whites, browns-it doesn’t matter. So many of these guys can barely read and write, it makes you wonder what’s happening in our educational system.

  But I’m not here to fix the educational system, nor the legal, judicial, or prison systems. I’m here to survive one day at a time, and in doing so maintain as much self-respect and dignity as possible. We are scum, nobodies, common criminals locked away from society, and reminders of this are never far away. A prison guard is called a correction officer, or simply a CO. Never refer to one as a guard. No sir. Being a CO is far superior; it’s more of a title. Most COs are former cops or deputies or military types who didn’t do too well in those jobs and now work in prison. There are a few good ones, but most are losers who are too
stupid to realize they are losers. And who are we to tell them? They are vastly superior to us, regardless of their stupidity, and they enjoy reminding us of this.