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March 9, 2010

The Mistake That Nearly Cost Me Everything

womens prison

Danbury Connecticut's federal women's prison.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

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During a brief stay back in the States to visit with my very suspicious family, I received a call from Nora, who explained tersely that she needed me to fly out the next day, carrying cash to be dropped off in Brussels. She had to do this for Alaji, and I had to do it for her. She never asked anything of me, but she was asking now. Deep down I felt that I had signed up for this situation and couldn't say no. I was scared and agreed to do it.

Nora met up with me in Europe, where things took a darker turn. Her business was getting harder for her to maintain, and she was taking reckless chances with couriers, which was a very scary thing. When Nora informed me that she also wanted me to carry drugs, I knew that I was no longer valuable to her unless I could make her money. Obediently I "lost" my passport and was issued a new one. She costumed me in glasses and pearls and told me to get a conservative haircut. With makeup she tried in vain to cover up the tattoo on my neck.

A single phone call to my family would have rescued me from this mess of my own making, yet I never placed that call — I thought I had to tough it out on my own. Mercifully, the drugs she wanted me to carry never showed up, and I narrowly avoided becoming a drug courier. Still, it seemed like only a matter of time before disaster would strike. I was in way over my head and knew I had to escape. When Nora and I got back to the States right before Thanksgiving, I took the first flight to California I could get. From the safety of the West Coast, I broke all ties with Nora and put my criminal life behind me.

It took me a while to get used to a normal life. I had been living on room service, exoticism, and anxiety for over six months. But several friends from college, now in the Bay Area, took me under their wing, pulling me into a world of work, barbecues, softball games, and other wholesome rituals. I immediately got two jobs, rising early in the morning to open a juice bar in the Castro, and getting home late at night after hostessing at a swank Italian restaurant across town. Finally I landed a "real" job at a TV production company that specialized in infomercials and worked my way up from gal Friday to producer.

I never talked about my involvement with Nora to new friends, and the number of people who knew my secret remained very small. As time passed, I gradually relaxed — I was feeling pretty damn lucky. Great job, great city, great social life. Through mutual friends, I met Larry, the only pal I knew who worked as much as I did in leisure-loving San Francisco. When I would crawl, exhausted, out of the editing room after hours, I could always count on Larry for a late dinner or later drinks. We shared a particularly simpatico sense of humor, and he quickly became the most reliable source of fun that I knew. Within months we were an official couple, much to the shock of our skeptical friends. When Larry got offered a great magazine gig back East, I quit my beloved job to move back with him. More than four years after I parted ways with Nora, Larry and I landed in New York in 1998 — he was an editor at a men's magazine, I worked as a freelance producer — and settled in a West Village walk-up.

One warm May afternoon, as I worked from home in my pajamas, the doorbell rang. Within minutes, two customs officers were standing in my living room, informing me that I'd been indicted in federal court in Chicago on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering, and that I'd have to appear in court within the month or be taken into custody. The veins in my temples suddenly pounded as if I had run miles at top speed. I had put my past behind me, had kept it secret from just about everyone, even Larry. But that was over. I was shocked at how physical my fear was.

I staggered uptown to Larry's office and pulled him out onto the street. "I've been indicted in federal court for money laundering and drug trafficking."

"What?" He looked amused, as if perhaps we were participating in some secret street theater.

"It's true. I'm not making it up. I just came from the house. The Feds were there."

Larry was uncharacteristically quiet. He didn't yell at me for not telling him I was a former criminal, didn't chastise me for being a reckless, thoughtless, selfish idiot. He never once suggested that, as I emptied my savings account for legal fees and bond money, perhaps I had ruined my life — and his, too. He said, "It will all work out. Because I love you."


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