The whistler, p.34
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       The Whistler, p.34

           John Grisham
 

  called Verna and they talked about the arrests of the men charged with killing Hugo. She called Allie Pacheco, but got no answer. They had not spoken the entire day, and that was fine with her. She suspected he might be rather busy.

  —

  At nine on Monday morning, U.S. Attorney Paula Galloway appeared before a federal judge in Tallahassee and requested a series of rulings that would immediately close thirty-seven businesses. Most were in Brunswick County, but the entire Panhandle was affected. These included bars, liquor stores, restaurants, strip clubs, hotels, convenience stores, shopping centers, amusement parks, public golf courses, and three residential developments under construction. The organization’s tentacles stretched into several residential communities, such as Rabbit Run, but because the majority of the properties had been sold to individuals they would be left alone. Ms. Galloway provided the judge with a list of eighty-four bank accounts and asked that they be frozen for the time being. Most were related to the businesses but some were for individuals. Hank Skoley, for example, kept $200,000 in a low-yielding CD and about $40,000 in a joint checking account. Both were iced by His Honor, a veteran who was very much a team player with Ms. Galloway. Because of the nature of the proceedings, there was no one to oppose her requests. She asked that a certain lawyer with a big firm in Tallahassee be named as the receiver for all companies named so far.

  The receiver’s duties would be extensive. He would assume legal control over all of the businesses that had derived their funding, in whole or in part, from the criminal activities of what was now being properly referred to as the “Dubose syndicate.” He would reach back to the beginning of each business and company and reconstruct accurate accounting records. With the aid of forensic accountants, he would attempt to weave together the money trails that tied the enterprises together and track them to the syndicate. Working with the FBI, he would attempt to penetrate the maze of offshore companies set up by Dubose and discover the assets of each. Most important, the receiver would handle the forfeiture, or sale, of all of the properties linked to the Dubose syndicate.

  Two hours later, Ms. Galloway held a well-choreographed press conference, something all U.S. Attorneys dream of. She faced a crowd of reporters and spoke into a nest of microphones. Behind her were her assistants, including Rebecca Webb, and several FBI agents. To her right, on a large screen, were the enlarged mug shots of the five Cousins and Clyde Westbay. She explained the murder charges against them, said they were already in custody, and, yes, she planned to seek the death penalty. Holding off questions until the end, she moved from the murder indictment to the RICO charges. The roundup was still under way, but twenty-six of the thirty-three defendants were under arrest. The FBI and her office were in the early stage of the investigation with a lot of ground yet to cover. The criminal activities of the Dubose syndicate were extensive and well organized.

  When she asked for questions, she was bombarded.

  —

  By noon Monday, the mountain getaway was losing its appeal. They were tired of watching the news; tired of napping; tired of trying to read old books someone else had selected for them; tired of sitting on the deck and soaking up the colors of early autumn, as beautiful as they were. Gunther’s buddy wanted his airplane back. Lacy had work to do. And JoHelen was eager to walk into the Brunswick County Courthouse knowing that she would never again see the face of Claudia McDover. She couldn’t wait to hear the gossip.

  Most important, in Allie’s opinion the threat to JoHelen had passed. Dubose had matters far more important than a loose-lipped court reporter to worry about. With all the major players locked away and without phones, it would be difficult for him to get things done. Allie also said the FBI would keep an eye on JoHelen for a couple of weeks.

  Rusty picked them up at 2:00, and the ride straight down the mountain was more terrifying than on the way up. Even Gunther felt nauseous by the time they arrived in Franklin. They thanked Rusty, went through the empty rituals of promising to see him again, and took off.

  Lacy wanted to fly straight home, but that was not possible. She had left her new hatchback in Valdosta and had no choice but to stop there. The flight was rough, with Gunther dodging storms and trying in vain to find a smooth altitude. By the time they landed, Lacy and JoHelen were rattled and happy to be getting in a car. They hugged Gunther and said thanks and good-bye. They waited until he was airborne and quickly left town. Tallahassee was halfway between Valdosta and Panama City, where JoHelen had left her car in the Neptune Motel parking lot.

  As the long drive stretched before them, Lacy had a better idea. They would spend the night in Tallahassee, at her place, and invite Allie for dinner. Over some pasta and good wine, they would listen to his stories from the past three days. They would pump him for the details they were eager to know. Who collared Dubose and what did he say? Tell us about Claudia and her attempted getaway. Who are the other defendants and where are they now? Who was threatening JoHelen? As the miles flew past, they thought of dozens of questions.

  Lacy called Allie and asked about dinner. The added bonus was that JoHelen Hooper would be there.

  “So I get to meet the Whistler?” he asked.

  “Live and in person.”

  “I can’t wait.”

  EPILOGUE

  In the days after the arrests and raids, the story was front-page news throughout Florida and the Southeast. Reporters from everywhere scurried about, digging here and there, chasing leads, and angling for the latest. The locked gates of Treasure Key became the favorite backdrop for their televised reports. They camped out in Verna’s driveway until they were forced to leave, so they retreated to the street in front of her home and blocked traffic. After two were arrested, and after they realized Verna had nothing to say, they lost interest and drifted away. Paula Galloway, the U.S. Attorney, held daily briefings in which almost nothing new was revealed. Allie Pacheco, speaking officially for the FBI, refused to speak altogether. For a couple of days the reporters filmed outside McDover’s home in Sterling, and in front of the Brunswick County Courthouse. They filmed outside Phyllis Turban’s locked office, as well as the law firm in Biloxi. Slowly, the story went from page 1 to page 2.

  With the focus on the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, there was little interest in the Board on Judicial Conduct. Indeed, the tiny agency survived the storm while attracting almost no attention. Lacy and Geismar got a few calls from reporters, none of which they returned. Like everyone else, they followed the story in the press, and marveled at the amount of misinformation being kicked around. As far as BJC was concerned, the case was closed. Their target was in jail and expected to soon resign.

  Moving on, though, was difficult, at least for Lacy. She was too emotionally involved in the case to simply close it and open another file. The biggest case of her career was over, but it would consume her life for months to come. She and Pacheco were spending a lot of time together and found it impossible to talk about anything else.

  Two weeks after the arrests of McDover and the Dubose gang, Lacy returned to her apartment late one afternoon. She was about to get out of her car when she noticed a man sitting casually on her doorstep, waiting. She phoned Simon, her neighbor, and asked him to take a look. He was already watching. As Lacy approached her apartment, Simon stepped outside to monitor the situation.

  The man was wearing a white golf shirt and khaki shorts, with a baseball cap pulled low and almost covering his eyes. His hair was short and dyed jet-black. As she approached him, he smiled and said, “Hello, Lacy.”

  It was Greg Myers.

  She waved Simon off, and they went inside.

  As she closed the front door behind them, she said, “I thought you were dead.”

  Myers laughed and said, “Almost. I really need a beer.”

  “That makes two of us.”

  She opened two bottles and they sat at the kitchen table. Lacy said, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Carlita.”

  He laughed again and
said, “Spent last night with her. She’s fine. Thanks for rescuing her.”

  “Thanks? Come on, Myers, start talking.”

  “What do you want to know?”

  “Everything. Why did you disappear?”

  “It’s a long story.”

  “Figures. Start talking.”

  Myers was ready to talk, ready to reinsert himself into the narrative that he had helped to create. He took a long pull on the bottle, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a clumsy swipe that Lacy had seen before, and began. “Why did I disappear? Two reasons, as it turned out. First, it was a backup plan all along. I knew the FBI would be reluctant to get involved, and, as things evolved, I was right. If I vanished, then you and the FBI would believe that Dubose had found me. Another murder, mine, would prompt the FBI to take a second look. I didn’t want the FBI in the picture, but we, all of us, soon realized the case would go nowhere without them. Was I right about that?”

  “Maybe. Your disappearance certainly made it more interesting, but it didn’t exactly change the FBI’s decision.”

  “What did?”

  “DNA. We had a blood sample from the scene and it led to the driver of the truck. Once he was identified, the FBI knew the case could be cracked. They smelled a huge win and came in with guns blazing, so to speak.”

  “How did you obtain a blood sample?”

  “I’ll tell you about that later. You said there were two reasons you jumped ship.”

  “Yes, well, the second one was far more important than the first. I was on the boat one morning in Key Largo, sort of minding my own business, fiddling with an engine, when the burner in my pocket vibrated. I popped it open, said hello or something like that, and a voice said, ‘Myers?’ I figured it was Cooley, then something told me it wasn’t. I hung up and called Cooley on another phone. He said, no, he had not just tried to call me. I knew someone had picked up my trail and that someone was Vonn Dubose. I went below, erased everything on my laptop, stuffed my pockets with cash, and told Carlita I was walking to the marina to buy some ice. I hung around the marina for half an hour, watching everything, and finally bribed a local to drive me to Homestead. From there, I drifted into Miami and went underground. It was a close call and scared the hell out of me.”

  “Why did you leave Carlita alone like that?”

  Another long pull on the bottle. “I knew they wouldn’t hurt her. They might threaten her and frighten her, but I figured she would be safe. It was risky. And I had to convince her, Cooley, you, and maybe the FBI that I was just another casualty. People can be made to talk, even Carlita and Cooley. It was important that they knew nothing about my disappearance.”

  “You ran away. Cooley ran away. And you left the girls behind to deal with the danger.”

  “Okay, it looks that way, but it was far more complicated. I had to either run or catch a bullet. Cooley ran for different reasons. Once I was gone, he figured he had been compromised. He freaked out and hid under a rock.”

  “And now you’re back looking for the pot of gold.”

  “Damned right we are. Keep in mind, Lacy, that none of this would have happened without us. Cooley was the brains who put it all together over a long period of time. He’s the real genius behind it. He recruited JoHelen and handled her beautifully, until, of course, he got scared. As for me, I had the guts to sign the complaint, and came within an inch of paying dearly for it.”

  “So did she.”

  “And she’ll get her rewards, believe me. There will be enough for all three of us.”

  “Has Cooley kissed and made up with JoHelen?”

  “Let’s just say they’re negotiating. They have been sleeping together for twenty years, off and on, and they understand each other.”

  Lacy exhaled and shook her head. She had not taken a sip of beer but his bottle was empty. She got another from the fridge and walked to a window.

  Myers said, “Look at it like this, Lacy. Cooley, JoHelen, and I planned this entire assault on Dubose and McDover. Things went wrong. Your buddy got killed. You got hurt. We’re lucky there were no other casualties. Looking back with perfect hindsight, I would not have done it. But it’s done, and the bad guys are locked up, and the three of us are still standing. We’re in the process of making peace, and we’ll eventually have fun splitting the pie.”

  “I’m sure you’ve been reading the newspapers.”

  “Every word.”

  “So you’ve seen the name of Allie Pacheco?”

  “Oh yes. Seems to be a hotshot agent.”

  “Well, we’re dating, and I think he needs to hear this story.”

  “Bring him on. I’ve done nothing wrong and I want to talk.”

  —

  The FBI’s investigation into the Dubose syndicate lasted for another fourteen months and produced six more indictments. In all, thirty-nine people were arrested, and virtually all were deemed flight risks and held without bond. About half of them were lesser targets who worked for businesses owned by the syndicate but knew little about the money laundering and nothing about the skimming at Treasure Key. With their bank accounts tied up and their freedom curtailed, and with court-appointed lawyers, they began snagging plea bargains as fast as Paula Galloway could lay them on the table. Within six months of the arrest of Vonn Dubose, about a dozen of his co-defendants had agreed to plead guilty and point their fingers at their bosses. As the government chipped away at the fringes, the noose grew tighter around the necks of the real crooks. But they held firm. None of the eleven managers, except of course Clyde Westbay, and certainly none of the five Cousins, cracked.

  A soft spot, though, was found outside the syndicate. Gavin Prince, a well-regarded Tappacola with a degree from FSU, decided he had no future in jail. He had been second-in-command at the casino and knew most of the dirty secrets. His lawyer convinced Paula Galloway that Prince was not a crook and could help their case immensely for the right deal. He agreed to plead to one count for probation.

  According to Prince, each gambling table—blackjack, roulette, poker, and craps—has a cash box that cannot be accessed by the dealer. Ninety percent of the money arrives in the form of cash, which the dealer takes, counts for the benefit of the players and the cameras, stuffs into the cash box attached to the table, and converts to chips. Blackjack tables generate the most cash; roulette the least. The casino never closed, not even on Christmas Day, and its slowest hour was 5:00 a.m. At that time every day, armed guards collected the cash boxes, put them on a cart, and replaced them with empty boxes. They were taken to a fortified room—the official “count room”—where a team of four professional counters—the “count team”—went through each box. Each counter had a security guard standing behind him or her, and a camera directly above. Each box was counted four times. There were usually around sixty cash boxes. Prince’s mission each morning was to remove box number BJ-17 from the highest-grossing blackjack table. He did this by simply taking it off the cart before the cart was rolled into the count room. He never said a word. The guards looked the other way. It was business as usual. With BJ-17, Prince stepped into a small room, one without cameras, and placed the cash box in a locked drawer. To his knowledge there was only one other key and it belonged to the Chief, who visited the casino every day and removed the cash.

  On average, the cash boxes from the blackjack tables collected $21,000 a day, though BJ-17 was known to do even more business. Prince estimated the box yielded at least $8 million a year, all of it gone and unaccounted for.

  The surveillance tapes of that table were mysteriously erased every three days, just in case someone asked questions, though no one ever did. Who, exactly, might come poking around? They were on tribal land!

  Prince was one of three supervisors who rerouted the cash to the Chief’s little drawer. All three were in jail, indicted, and facing lengthy sentences. When he folded, the other two quickly fell in line. All three claimed they had no choice but to facilitate the skimming. They knew the Chief was not keep
ing all of the money, that it was being used to bribe other people, and so on. But they worked in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell environment where they made their own laws and truly believed they would never get caught. None of the three claimed to know anything about Vonn Dubose.

  The casino was closed for three weeks. With two thousand people out of work and dividends in jeopardy, the Tappacola hired some expensive lawyers who finally convinced a judge that they could clean up their act. They agreed to engage a professional management team from Harrah’s.

  With Chief Cappel in jail and facing the likelihood of being there for decades, and with the tribe thoroughly humiliated, a recall effort began. Ninety percent of the Tappacola signed a petition calling for his resignation and for a new election. He stepped down, as did his son Billy and their sidekick Adam Horn. Two months later Lyman Gritt was elected Chief in a landslide. After his election, he made a promise to Wilton Mace to get his brother out of prison.

  Lawyers for the Cousins sought unsuccessfully to loosen up some of their money. They wanted to retain some big-league lawyers who could dig for loopholes. The judge, however, was not keen on the idea of allowing tainted cash to be spent on legal fees. He said no, and emphatically, and appointed experienced criminal lawyers to defend them.

  Though far more serious than the RICO indictment, the capital murder case was easier to prepare. Absent Clyde Westbay, there would be only five defendants at trial, as opposed to twenty or so in the RICO case. Paula Galloway had long since decided to push hard for the murder trial, hope for convictions, and, with the Cousins locked away for either life or death, negotiate aggressively with the remaining RICO defendants. Once everyone was caught and in jail, she and her team believed the murder trial could be set in about eighteen months. The RICO trial could take as long as two years to put together.

  In April 2012, some six months after the arrests, the court-appointed receiver began selling assets. Using an infamous and controversial federal statute, he organized an auction for nine late-model automobiles, four boats, and two twin-engine airplanes. Lawyers for the Cousins objected, claiming such a forfeiture, while their clients were still, technically, considered innocent, was premature. It was the same argument defense attorneys had been
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