Home > The Racketeer(7)

The Racketeer(7)
Author: John Grisham

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.

Chapter 5

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.

They rotate COs to avoid one getting too close to an inmate. I suppose this happens, but one of the cardinal rules of inmate survival is to avoid your CO as much as possible. Treat him with respect; do exactly what he says; cause him no trouble; but, above all, try to avoid him.

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