Dead at 23: The Tragedy of Ronald Freedom

A photographer’s search for the explanation of the death of a troubled young man he befriended gives him a lesson in the dysfunctions of America’s juvenile justice system.

“I’m free today, Richard. I’m breathing free air.”

That was three years ago. My friend Ronald Franklin had finally been released. Incarcerated since he was 13—and now, at 20, he was free.

The deck was stacked against Ronald, but a kid of such talent and enthusiasm had a shot. He started calling himself Ronald Freedom. He got a job parking cars at the airport and was living with his mother Carla Brinson — a 30-year crack addict now recovered.

But he was from Liberty City in Miami, and the odds are against you when you are born there. This is the setting for “Moonlight.” The film’s portrayal is accurate.

Carla had said — more than once —”I am almost glad Ronnie is in prison because out here, on the streets, he would be dead.”

They found Ronnie Franklin at 8:30 a.m. on April 1, a sunny, hot Florida Saturday. He had been in a lake for several days. Across the street from Home Depot, behind Target, CVS Pharmacy, Steak ‘n Shake, Starbucks, The Dollar Store—all the signs of American normalcy—was Davie Lake, where he was found floating.

Ronald Franklin

Gale Lewis, a senior supervising attorney for Miami Dade Public Defenders, a friend of Ronnie’s, mentioned she was having trouble getting calls returned from Detective Eddy Velazquez of the Davie Police Department, who was investigating the case.

After two weeks of calling and emailing the police department with no response, I finally got on a plane and went to Broward County, Florida.

[My efforts to see] the elusive Detective Velazquez  got the constant response —”He’s not here” — until finally, a sergeant told me that “unless you are family we don’t inform you about open cases.”

“Couldn’t you call and say exactly that?” I asked the sergeant. “After two weeks, is there any sense of courtesy to communicate?”

“It is an open investigation and our policy dictates we don’t talk about it. I am sure you understand. If it is an investigation, we have to have the medical examiner’s report. If there is the possibility it is a homicide, we don’t want to give information that might assist a suspect or anyone involved in the case.”

“Is it a homicide?”

“It is an open case and we can’t discuss it. I am sure you understand.”

“Why won’t you return the calls and email of the public defender?”

“We certainly don’t talk to any attorneys. As you can understand, we always have an adversarial position with them — they may be defending someone we are trying to bring a case against. I am sure you understand.”

I returned to California, and spoke to Gale, who was even more frustrated that there was no attempt to return a call.

“That’s garbage,” she said. “I speak with law enforcement all the time. What if I had information that is pertinent to the case? I knew Ronnie since he was 13. To not return a call and see if there is relevance to the case is unproductive and nothing that I have seen in many years of working with the public defender.”

‘Going Good’

When he was finally released, there were rough restarts for Ronald. You simply don’t spend all your teenage years incarcerated and walk out with the skills you need to survive in any institution, even college.

Florida detention and DOC [Department of Corrections] is far from perfect in helping kids gain skills, and returning to the same neighborhood presented problems.

Ronnie tried to keep his beats and his music going. He finally got a job working at Home Depot. He enrolled in a computer class. We bought him a laptop to help.

“It’s all good, Richard.” This was the message of the occasional calls.

Ronnie was fixated on his phone, as he had had nothing like it for the past seven years. It would ring, vibrate and light up on a regular basis. I had dinner with Ronnie a few months earlier at a nice restaurant in Miami.

**He ordered steak well done … because he heard someone do the same, but he wasn’t sure what it meant. His exposure to the world beyond Liberty City was limited, and in prison you take what’s given to you rather than order your preference.

There were cracks in the façade of stability. Ronnie’s mother and his sister had moved to “the Dakotas or somewhere like that.” But he said it was all good because there was a month left on the lease.

Later, I asked where he was staying.


I worked with Gale, his defense attorney, to try to get him housing. There was something specific for young men like him in Miami, but each time I inquired if he had gone there was an answer like, “I can’t take time off from work to meet with them.”

He was still staying “around.” Something was off.

No Answers But Silence

[My search for answers in Miami continued.]

I called the police chief’s office. After being quizzed as to why I was asking, I was told I would get a call from one of three public information officers. An hour later I received a call, again inquiring who I was and why I wanted the information.

I explained the history of myself, Ronnie, the public defender, Ronnie’s mother. Little penetrated.

Ronald in juvenile hall.

We live in a period when law enforcement, media and the general public have a very difficult road to navigate. This is far from when my dad was a cop in New York. My history was walking with my uniformed father, who knew everyone and was greeted with a smile.

We live in a different world. How much of it is of the making of a department that responds to every and all inquiry with silence? Communication is the first tool that has to be employed to create any trust.

The Faces of the “Expired”

I spoke to Carla, Ronnie’s mom, who now lives in Fargo, North Dakota. Her husband Junior identified the body, too decomposed for her to see.

“It don’t make sense, Richard,” she said. “They told me it looked like an accidental drowning, but his car was three or four miles away. He never used any drugs. There was a security camera on all the time at this manmade lake. The water never went up past my calf. It was only a foot or so deep. It don’t make sense and they won’t tell me more about it.”

When kids are released with ankle monitors from Miami Dade, they are shown a wall of 50 photocopies of faces with the word “EXPIRED” handwritten across the page. The images are shown to reinforce the consequences of deviating. Newly released young men view the “graduation” wall of their friends.

These were kids whose lives were extinguished within two years after being released from this institution. New kids are told that if they fall in with the same crowd that they were with upon entering juvie, their name and face would join this wall.

There is no understanding that the kids on the wall had not failed and lost their lives as a consequence. It is us and our institutions that have failed these kids.

This is a portrait of America that can’t be ignored. This can’t go unanswered.

The outcomes of these kids’ lives are predetermined by the ZIP codes of their birth.

I thought Ronnie was different. I thought he had caught a break and had the talent and ability to at least survive.

But Liberty City and the world Ronnie lived in took its ultimate toll. Ronald’s death goes down as another statistic. Another young black man from the urban ghetto — who had made his start in a broken home — evolved to years in juvie, then prison, parole and finally a shallow pond.

With no one to care, no one to report him missing. Alone.

My friend Ronnie. No longer breathing free air. Someone cries for you.

Richard Ross is a photographer, researcher and art professor based in Santa Barbara, California. His most recent work, the “In Justice” series of books, turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles. The essay above is a slightly abridged version of one published yesterday by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Readers’ comments are welcome.


The Los Angeles Riots: 25 Years Later

TCR’s West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick was working on a book about the Los Angeles Police Department when riots broke out following the exoneration of the officers responsible for beating Rodney King. He shares his memories of that painful episode in American history.

Los Angeles, Thursday, April 30, 1992

I began writing my first book about the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1991, just after the bone-breaking, recorded beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers had made the department infamous and reviled around the world.

As it had in LA as well.

Black Angelenos had been telling white LA people that sort of brutality happened all the time in their neighborhoods, but few believed them. The King video opened a lot of  eyes, and for the next year of waiting for the cops who attacked King to go on trial, you could choke on the racial tension in the air.

Then on April 29th the spark that would ignite the riots came with the announcement that all four officers had been acquitted of all charges.

Everybody knew what such an outcome portended. Everybody, that is, except the LAPD and it clueless, frozen-in-time Chief, Daryl Gates. Amazingly, just as the acquittals came down, Gates deserted his post at a time of the greatest peril to attend a fundraiser! As he left, downtown Los Angeles where filled with angry crowds throwing rocks and slabs of concreate, smashing windows and overturning cars.

Gates’ destination was the rich, white, bucolic neighborhood of Brentwood, not many miles away, but a world apart from the chaos enveloping much of the rest of the city. His purpose was to attend a fundraiser to help defeat several amendments to the City Charter that would help force reform on his autocratic, fiercely resistant department. LA was thus left unprotected and rudderless for the next 36 hours as the LAPD—along with the rest of us—watched the city go up in flames and soak in bloodshed.

It was an amazing moment, and on the early morning of the first full day of the riots, I set out early to report the book I was writing. I knew exactly where to drive: South Central LA, where the LAPD had fled the scene, and the looting, burning and brutal violence had exploded on a corner where a large crowd had gathered. There they began stopping and pulling out white and Asian motorists, who they viciously beat and then destroyed their cars.

On the areas fringes, I first pulled into a strip mall where a Newberry’s department store had been set ablaze and burned to the ground the night before. Adjacent to it were a Sav-On and a Payless shoe store — untouched by the fire, but alive with looters.

Soon, two long hook-and-ladder fire trucks painted a beautiful red slowly cruised in, led by three police cars—each packed with five cops in riot helmets. Getting out, they took a quick look around for maybe a minute, not much longer, before they slid back into their vehicles and cruise outed, fire trucks in tow.

Meanwhile, the looting had continued unabated.

A bloated, bare-chested man in Bermuda’s walks out of the Sav-On with all ten fingers entwined around four gallons of burgundy, the pockets of his red nylon shorts against pale white skin bulging with pints of whiskey.

Rodney King. Photo by 4WardEver Campaign UK via Flickr

Observing, are a group of black men in their fifties and sixties. Sounding much like Sweet Dick Willie and the comer men in Do the Right Thing,  they shout: “Help yourself. Help yourself.” Then another equally big-bellied Latino wearing a FUCK YOU T-shirt, wheels out a shopping cart filled to the brim with double-A batteries and Ramses condoms.

“They have to loot,” says someone in the chorus, “they showin’ it on the news, they see it, and most of them don’t have anything.”

The first flash of anger comes from a balding black man about 40 in a gray ski jacket and small, wired gold-rim glasses. Four teenagers—also black—are joyously exiting the Sav-On, carrying bulging suitcases.

“I got a calculator, home,” says one. “I got some ice cream,” says another. The man in the ski jacket walks up to the tallest of the kids and says, “Man, all the shit that you take, it’s gonna’ come back to you. It’s real stupid shit you’re doin’. Leave it and respect yourself.”

For a moment, the young brother looks uncertain, until his friend in a Miami Heat cap looks at him: “Man, if you feel like you need this, then take it.”

“Take it?” says the man. “And give up your respect?”

“Fuck respect,” replies Miami Heat, “they don’t give us no respect.”

Meanwhile, a dark, angry-looking man of about 30 drives up in an old Mazda. “Fuck ‘em, take everything; fuck ‘em,” he shouts, “take everything.” A wiry-looking black kid, maybe 17, starts doing the Ali shuffle around me, chanting, “You in the wrong neighborhood man, you in the wrong neighborhood.” The guy in the Mazda walks over and says two words, “Get out,” as I hustle away to my car.

It’s now just past 8 am.


Corner of Florence & Normandie Aves in south LA, one of the epicenters of the 1992 riots. Photo by Craig Ehrich via Flickr.

Minutes later I arrive in South Central. Smoke frames the background of the steeple of the Abundant Christian Church. It’s coming from Frankie and Anne’s Beauty Salon. Four other small stores next to Frankie and Anne’s have already burned to the ground. Straight down the long, wide miles of Normandie Blvd., mile after mile— as far as the eye can see, stores, churches, car lots and anything are ablaze or burned down.

At a back-street stop sign four teenager boys in black pants and T-shirts menacingly look my way.  “Hey, yo, what’s up — what’s up, fuck head?”, one of them shouts.


At Fifty-Fifth and Normandie, an elderly Korean woman with a garden hose and bewildered face is busy watering down the embers of the blackened skeleton of what last had been her mini-mart grocery store. “Three times fire department come. I don’t know what happen. . .I lose everything.”

Down another street of neat bungalows and craftsmen cottages, everything’s remarkably still and calm. Outside one house, two black women are quietly talking: Lisa, who wears a T-shirt is an old lady sitting in a rocking chair that says, “I’ve still got it but nobody wants it;” the other is Brenda, 34, thin, and wearing burgundy sweats.

“It’s not only gang members doing the fires and looting,” says Lisa. “Yesterday evening we’d seen for ourselves. The Crips and the Bloods tied [blue or red due] rags together and said they wuz united. That it was now a black thing. The Crips drove up in cars. And the Bloods, you know, I thought they wuz gonna bust them, but they just started huggin’ each other and sayin’ they wanted to unite.”

“But it wasn’t only Bloods and Crips out there [burning and looting],” Brenda replies, “It’s everybody.” “This was a Blood neighborhood,” Lisa says in a slightly amazed, excited tone.

“Now we united. See, the news didn’t get that. They don’t want to get nothin’ like that. They want to keep it [the riot]‘goin.”

On Normandie and Sixtieth, three black men in their thirties and a fourth, who’s in his late teens wearing Raiders gear, stand with a beautiful, young African-American woman holding an infant in her arms. Cecil, tall and light skinned, confirms the gang story:

“They tied their rags together.” “The red and the blue,” he tells a guy named Kenny who nods his head. “And they held up the power sign. Now they all be wearing black rags. And it was organizzzed.” Everybody starts laughing knowingly. There was generals and soldiers. . .when they started burning down that liquor store, they sent some of them out to the street to direct traffic.”

“Uh-huh,” says Kenny, “they all for one purpose.”

Around the corner, Nathaniel, 55, and William, 74, are already into their forty-ounces of Olde English and their reefer. “That verdict, that little girl getting killed; that a wrong verdict,” Nathaniel says of Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, who had shot and killed a black, 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins in her grocery store—as she was about to walk out.

Joe Domanick

“That Korean woman, she didn’t get as much as they charge a man for drunk driving,” he says of the [probation] sentence she’d received. And the [Rodney] King beating, man that stuff been goin’ on forever in this city.”

“I’m not part of all this [the rioting],” says William, “but the bullshit that’s going on—well, you got to be black to understand that. You know, I came up in the South, but the youngsters, they ain’t gonna put with the shit I used to.”

Joe Domanick reported the riots for the LA Weekly for his first LAPD book, “To Protect and to Serve,” published in 1994. He is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing” is now out in paperback Joe welcomes readers’  comments.


Did the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Defraud the Feds?

An FBI investigation into an alleged switch of engines for Sea King helicopters borrowed under the government’s law enforcement assistance program failed to produce charges. But an investigation by WitnessLA suggests that troubling questions remain.

On August 28, 2013,  Dave Rathbun sent an email to Chief Edmund Sexton of the Homeland Security Division of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD).

“Chief Sexton,” wrote Rathbun, who had been a crew chief in Aero Bureau, an elite unit inside the LASD that oversees the department’s aircraft fleet of aircraft. “I send you this email because I don’t want you to be blindsided by some very troubling information that I have been made aware of.”

The email would lead to an investigation that implicated senior officers of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency in an alleged effort to defraud the federal government.  The investigation received almost no attention at the time, when the LASD was already in the midst of a scandal that resulted in the conviction of then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

But Witness LA has pieced together the details from interviews with sources inside and outside the department.

The investigation was triggered by the discovery months earlier in a Georgia warehouse that a shipment of Sikorsky helicopter engines designated to be returned to the U.S. Navy Marine One Program, which trains Sea King pilots who operate the White House helicopter fleet, was seriously faulty.

The cannisters which arrived at the warehouse contained helicopter engines—but they weren’t  the engines used by the aircraft loaned to the LASD over a decade before by the federal government’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which provides decommissioned military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the U.S. , under the so-called “1033 program.”

The LASD had decided to replace its Sea Kings, used for search and rescue operations across the sprawling area covered by the agency, with newer aircraft. Under the terms of the LESO program, the loaned aircraft were supposed to be returned intact to the original owner—the feds.

The transfer of military property is governed by strict rules, including the mandate that  “Property may not be sold, rented, exchanged, leased, bartered, used to secure a loan, stockpiled for later use.”

The Return of “Junk”

The original  whistleblower was Mike Stille, president and founder of Clayton International in Peachtree, Ga, who had been a consultant for the LASD on the Sea King fleet, and served as the middleman between the LASD and the feds for the return of the helicopters, and all their parts.

Red flags began emerging the minute he started paging through the paperwork that accompanied the Sea King engines.

Due to the stringent safety issues involved, all major aircraft parts such as engines, fuel controls, and gear boxes, must be accompanied by logbooks detailing when the part was serviced, on what aircraft or aircrafts it has been installed, and when, and so on.

Yet, for the first two of the six engines Stille received, he noticed that the records for the fuel controls were completely missing.

When he and his crew at Clayton International opened the canisters for the two engines, the reason for the missing paperwork became evident. In general, the engines looked fine, except when it came to the fuel controls, without which the aircraft can’t fly.

“They were old and unusable,” he recalled.

Next, Stille turned his attention to the other four canisters. These should have contained the four engines he had seen earlier on a trip to Aero Bureau’s surplus lot in Long Beach, CA .  Back then, those canisters had sported identification plaques, which included the engines’ serial numbers, the date when they had last been overhauled, and a third date when they’d been “preserved”—meaning wiped down thoroughly with protective oil, and then sealed in their containers for safekeeping.

But now, there were no ID labels, which was not a positive sign. There was no reason whatsoever for anyone to have removed those ID plaques.

One by one, Stille and his crew opened the four canisters.

“And I saw engines that were all but worthless,” said Stille. “They were just a bunch of old engine parts bolted back together.”

On one engine, the fuel control—which was painted a vivid claret—was not only worn out and unusable, “it belonged on an entirely different model of engine not used by LA or the Navy,” Stille explained.

These were not, in other words, the four engines that the sheriff’s department was required to return to the Navy. They were, according to Stille, “junk.”

When Stille checked further, he saw that, bizarrely, the engines did have the same metal serial number plates—the equivalent of a VIN number on a car—as those engines he had been hired to get back to the feds.

This meant someone had unscrewed number plates from the four good engines, and screwed them on these four unusable junkers now sitting on the concrete floor of Clayton’s warehouse.

The switched number plates led Stille to one more conclusion: Aero Bureau had plainly sold the four good engines, worth around $400,000 or $500,000 a piece, to someone.

He was equally sure that the LASD had also sold the two good fuel controls, each of which were worth around $40,000.

But could he prove it?

Furious, Stille decided to try.

The Fuel Control Switcheroo

It didn’t take him long to figure out who might have bought the fuel controls.

 He’d heard that a helicopter operating company in White City, Oregon, called the Croman Corporation, had recently been interested in acquiring some fuel controls. Croman specialized in contracting their helicopters, along with pilots, to the forest service for fire suppression, and occasionally also contracted their aircraft to timber firms to do heli-logging.

And Croman flew Sea Kings. Stille called Croman and talked to Kory Kaufman, another person he’d known for years, and whom he considered a friend. He asked if Kaufman had managed to procure any of those fuel controls he’d been looking for.

“Oh, yeah, the LA County Sheriff’s Department sold us two of them,” said Kaufman.

“And we also traded them two timed-out cores,” Kaufman added.

When WitnessLA spoke to Kaufman, he repeated what much of what he said to Stille, and explained that “timed out” means that the fuel controls cannot safely or legally fly until they’ve been overhauled.

According to Kaufman, one of his mechanics flew to LA to personally remove the good fuel controls from the Sea King engines, and screw the bad controls back in their place. “We wanted to make sure they were installed properly,” he said.

Kaufman also told us that the officials he spoke to at Aero Bureau never gave him, or anyone else at Croman, any reason to believe that the LASD didn’t have the right to sell the two fuel controls.

Interestingly, when it came to payment, the Aero Bureau people didn’t want a check to be sent to the LASD, or to LA County. They told Croman to send the money to British Columbia (Canada)-located Rotor Maxx, which overhauls various Sikorsky helicopters and parts, ostensibly to pay old bills or for future work.

One Missing Sea King Engine Label. Photo Courtesy WitnessLA

Stille asked Kaufman if he still had the serial numbers of the two old fuel controls Croman had given to Aero Bureau. Kaufman did, and dug them up for Stille.

As Stille had suspected, the numbers Kaufman read off were identical to those on the timed-out parts installed on two of the supposedly good engines Stille was staring at in his warehouse.

Yet it was one thing to suspect that the LASD people had sold RotoMaxx four engines, then covered their actions by interchanging the serial number plates. It was quite another thing to find evidence to substantiate those suspicions.

But then Stille had an idea.

Since he did so much work for the Marine One program, the Navy and other government entities often stored equipment with his company, Stille knew that the Navy had recently transferred 42 engines to the Department of State for use on the S-61T program, a helicopter being built by Sikorsky for use in the Middle East.

The overhaul of a portion of these engines was managed by Sikorsky under a Department of State contract. Since there were so many engines that needed work, Sikorsky parceled the engines out to several contractors, including Rotor Maxx, to be overhauled from the ground up.

(Sikorsky hasn’t made any new Sea Kings or Sea King engines in years, so for those still devoted to the helicopters for their unique combination of qualities, the only way to get a “new” engine is to overhaul an old engine with obsessive skill and care.)

Stille knew about the deal because Clayton had been storing those engines for the Navy until they were needed.

Due to the fact that he is a meticulous record keeper, Stille still had copies of the logbooks for the engines he’d been storing, which meant he also had paperwork for every engine part that was installed on those old engines he’d stored.

Stille got out the logbooks and began scanning them. Voila. The data plates for the parts on four of that batch of old and unusable engines that had gone from his place to Rotor Maxx, via Sikorsky, matched the numbers on the parts attached to the four junk engines that the LASD had tried to pass off as being in like-new condition.

This also meant that Rotor Maxx had used the good engines meant for the Navy to perform their own sleight of hand: Instead of going to the cost and trouble of overhauling the old, junky engines for Sikorsky, they simply assembled faux “overhauled” engines from the major components of the four pristine LASD engines, with the data plates switched to fool Sikorsky into thinking Rotor Maxx had done the work for which they were going to be paid up to $300,000 per engine.

“In other words,” said Stille, since they underpaid for the LASD engines, “they made a very nice profit for doing nothing at all—and saying they did.”

As for the LASD, “the intent,” suggested Stille, “was to misrepresent what was being turned back into the Navy.”

Stille talked the matter over with Dave Rathbun, who had worked a while for Clayton after his retirement from the LASD in 2002, and the two had remained friends.

The former Air 5 Crew Chief said he thought it was time to notify the FBI.  But he decided, out of his sense of obligation to first notify his former employers at LASD what was going on first.

The Investigation  Begins

Rathbun’s August 18,  2013 email to Chief Sexton got an immediate response.

By the end of the following day,  Sexton had sent a formal request to Captain Alicia Ault of the LASD Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) asking for an investigation to be opened into the actions of Cpt. Louis Duran, Lt. Robert Wheat, and Sgt. Casey Dowling—the Aero Bureau’s senior officers.

Sexton also included in his request a letter from Dowling which described the status of what he described as “spare parts”   for the Sea Kings.  In the letter Dowling said that all the Navy’s property that they were supposed to give back had indeed been returned via Stille.

They did, he admitted, keep six engines that they “weren’t required to return.”  But all the rest of the engines, gear boxes, and tail or main rotors had gone back. (Although Stille had paperwork and physical evidence that said that, in fact, they had not.)

Pointedly, however, Sexton’s note included a copy of the specific restrictions governing LESO equipment which made clear that one does not get to sell or barter Navy property to recoup the money spent on routine maintenance and repair on the extremely valuable aircraft and equipment one has been using for free for years.

 At the time that Rathbun and Stille began discussing the idea of calling the feds, the Los Angeles office of the FBI was already three- plus years into a widening criminal investigation into brutality and corruption by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

That investigation would eventually result in the conviction of 21 department members, including the once-untouchable former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka and, most recently, LA’s popular longtime sheriff, Lee Baca, who will be sentenced to federal prison on May 12 of this year.

  As it happened, Dave Rathbun’s LASD deputy son, Mike Rathbun, had spoken to the feds multiple times as whistleblower.  This came about after the younger Rathbun and his deputy partner, James Sexton,  had witnessed what they believed to be serious wrongdoing when they worked in the chronically-troubled county jail system.

But when they tried to report what they knew to the appropriate parties at the LASD, they began receiving convincing threats.  Eventually, the pattern of threats widened to include their family members, which meant that Dave Rathbun began having conversations with the FBI as well.

So  Dave Rathbun knew whom to call.

‘We Were the Victims, Too”

He dialed Special Agent Leah Marx, and told her in detail what Stille had discovered.

Marx (who has since married and is now Leah Marx Tanner) was the lead agent on the existing LASD investigation.  According to Rathbun, Marx said that financial wrongdoing wasn’t her expertise.  “But I’m going to call a guy who does exactly this kind thing.”

The person Marx contacted was Special Agent Jonathan “Casey” MacDonald (who went by Casey).  Soon, both he and Marx were talking to Stille.

A few months later, Agent McDonald flew to Clayton headquarters in Peachtree City where, with a local FBI agent, he photographed the junk engines and the bad fuel controls, while Stille gave them a tutorial about what they were seeing.

“They even fingerprinted the switched number plates,” said Stille.

According to both Rathbun and Stille, the FBI’s concern escalated when they learned that these bad parts masquerading as good parts, were headed for the Marine One presidential program.

“I had to talk them out of the trees, a little,” Stille said. “I explained that although the engines were going to the presidential program, none of those engines would have wound up on the president’s personal aircraft.”  They sere slated to be used on training aircraft for the program.

Nevertheless, the agents were off and running.  They contacted Croman and the Navy, and others.

Croman’s Korey Kaufman said he talked to the feds multiple times.  “And we told them,” said Kaufman, “that we were the victims too.”

 The FBI was particularly eager to talk to Jeremy Brown at Rotor Maxx.  But Brown was a Canadian, which meant various kinds of permissions were involved.

“At one point they were waiting for him to fly in the U.S. and they were going to seize him,” said Stille.

Eventually, the FBI did wind up, metaphorically, on Brown and Rotor Maxx’s doorstep, as Stille had warned many months before.  But the actions of a Canadian company were not really what most interested the LA feds.  It was the people at Aero Bureau.

Meanwhile back at the sheriff’s department, on December 4, 2013, the top three people at Aero Bureau during the engine swap period were relieved of duty by the sheriff’s department, now that the FBI had formally begun an investigation.

These were the same three that Chief Sexton had flagged in his IAB memo: Sgt. Casey Dowling, the guy who sent the email to Stille barring him from coming on sheriff’s department property; Lt. Robert Wheat, the operations lieutenant and second in command; and Captain Louis Duran, the bureau’s loyalty-obsessed commanding officer.

Who Benefited?

Yet, as the investigation moved on during much of 2014, according to the feds, there was one large puzzle piece missing.

“Casey told me they still couldn’t find evidence of personal gain,” said Stille.

They still didn’t know if money had found its way into anyone’s individual pockets, although many familiar with the case of the switched engines felt someone at Aero Bureau had to be getting something out of the deal.

“Why take the risk of committing a crime and defrauding the federal government, if you weren’t getting something out of it?” asked one LASD source.

Certainly $10,000 could have changed hands between RotorMaxx and Louie or someone without leaving any trail, said one Aero sources we spoke with.  “But how would you know if that happened or not?”  And how would you prove it?

And it was also possible, said Aero Bureau sources, that Duran and company simply wanted a slush fund they could draw on for bureau wants and needs without going to the county for approval.

“And with Tanaka’s protection, they would have figured they could get away with it,” said an LASD source.

 In any event, finding and proving personal gain became a sticking point, and gradually the Aero Bureau investigation began to slow down.

 It didn’t help that, as 2014 ended and 2015 began, in LA the feds’ interest was increasingly hyper-focused on gathering the evidence and witnesses needed to charge and try the former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and after him the former sheriff, Lee Baca.


Finally, on April 13, 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox—who was the lead prosecutor on the majority of the cases that the feds were bringing against members of the LASD —wrote a letter to Special Agent Casey McDonald officially “declining” to file charges.

When Cory McDonald told Stille that the FBI had decided to drop the case, he reiterated that their inability to nail down who personally profited was the stumbling block.

Our sources close to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told us the same thing.

They couldn’t pursue everything.  The feds have bosses too. And, without finding the personal gain, the investigation lost its…well….punch.

Interestingly, although the local feds dropped the investigation, agents from the investigative wing of the Office of the Inspector General in the State Department picked it up.

And, in February 2016, Special Agent Samuel C. Brown contacted Stille.

Again, there was a flurry of action, mostly aimed at Rotor Maxx’s involvement with the engine switch, but part way through 2016, this new D.C. based investigation too seemed to lose energy.

Once the feds had finished their probe, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Internal Affairs, could start their own investigation, which had been on hold since December 2013.

In 2016, LASD internal affairs too ended their investigation according sheriff’s department spokeswoman, Nicole Nishida.

As for the outcome:  “The conclusion cannot be disclosed,” she said.

Prior to the end of the Internal Affairs investigation, Louis Duran, Casey Dowling, and Robert Wheat and four other department members filed a lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles,  alleging that former sheriff Lee Baca retaliated against each of them for their support of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s 2013-2014 candidacy for sheriff.

(Pre-indictment, Tanaka ran for the position and made it as far as the November 2014 runoff.)

At the 2015 civil trial, when questioned by county attorneys about the matter of the Navy’s engines, Wheat said little, Duran claimed little or no knowledge of the issue.  Dowling cried when on the witness stand about how difficult it had been to be relieved of duty.

On December 15, 2015, a federal jury found in favor of the plaintiffs.

Duran, Dowling and Wheat each received $120,000 in damages.

As of this writing, Louis Duran, Casey Dowling, and Robert Wheat have retired from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.   Their attorney, Brad Gage, told us emphatically that his three clients had been cleared of any wrongdoing by three different agencies.

RotorMaxx’s Jeremy Brown, who was the firm’s founder, is no longer with the company and was reportedly forced into a buyout by his partners.

Yet, many inside or close to Aero Bureau are still frustrated.

According to one pilot, who was familiar with the details of the RotorMaxx transaction, what took place with the data plate switch on the four engines, in particular,  was extremely dangerous.

“You don’t tamper with serial numbers. You don’t tamper with the logs for parts, you don’t tamper with what’s ‘serviceable’ and what is ‘not serviceable.’ It was absolutely insane,” he said. “What if one of those parts had not been fully inspected” and been installed on a plane? he asked.  What if Stille had not caught what he caught?

Mike Stille put it another way.

The bottom line, he said, is that “the choices and actions by Aero Bureau hold in contempt the good will of the Navy to loan the use of Navy aircraft and engines for all those years.”

The working pilots we spoke with this week agreed. Look, one told us, “Eighty-five percent of the guys at Aero Bureau aren’t like that.  We just want to go to work, and do the right thing, and do a good job protecting and serving the residents of Los Angeles County.  We love what we do.  We keep showing up. And we know the difference between right and wrong.”

As for Duran and company?

“Let’s just say we’re glad they’re gone.”

The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this story with Witness LA.  This is a condensed and slightly edited version of  Parts 2 and 3 of this series. Part 3 was published today.  The full version of the series, produced with the support of  the  Fund for Investigative Journalismcan be read here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.



Double Blind: Preventing Eyewitness Error

About 70 percent of the roughly 350 inmates exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted based in part, or in whole, on eyewitness testimony. A Philadelphia conference explores why witnesses get it wrong so often—and how to fix it.

 On the evening of November 20, 1998, two teenaged girls left a Rite Aid in East Baltimore and were accosted by a knife-wielding man demanding money. During the confrontation, 16-year-old named Toni Bullock was dragged into a vacant lot, where she was stabbed multiple times. Bullock died on the scene.

Police had little to go on. The only witness to Bullock’s murder—her 17-year-old friend, Tyeisha Powell—described their assailant as black, about 5-feet-10 or 5-feet-11, with dark brown eyes and a slight beard, according to press reports at the time.

Investigators used that bare-bones description to create a composite of the killer, and within weeks they had a tip. The sketch matched a 23-year old homeless drug user who had recently been released from county jail. His name was Malcolm Jabbar Bryant.

Detectives presented Bryant’s mugshot to Powell, together with images of five other men, in a photo array commonly known as a “six pack” lineup. She identified the suspect as the man who attacked them. Powell would positively identify Bryant once more—this time in court, during his trial for first-degree murder.

In spite of five alibi witnesses who insisted that he was with them at the time of the attack, Bryant was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based solely on Powell’s testimony. For the next 17 years Bryant maintained his innocence; and in 2016, DNA evidence would prove he had been telling the truth all along.

Powell had picked the wrong man.

Bryant was freed from confinement last May, and received a formal apology from Baltimore’s State’s Attorney. But the apology came too late. On March 8, less than a year after being released from prison, Bryant died of a stroke. He was 42 years old.

Last week, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, hosted a panel of leading experts in witness misidentification to discuss how procedural could help prevent sending men like Malcolm Bryant to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

The discussion was part of the Quattrone Center’s 2017 Spring Symposium, “Common Ground: Preventing Errors In Criminal Justice”—which brought together a variety of stakeholders to seek consensus on ways of improving the criminal justice system.

The panel dedicated to improving eyewitness identification was moderated by Amanda Bergold, a professor at Penn who studies the intersection of social psychology and the legal system.

Participants included Sgt. Paul Carroll—who spent three decades in the Chicago Police Department and now trains law enforcement on investigatory techniques; Karen Newirth, an attorney with the Innocence Project; Mark Larson, chief deputy in the Seattle District Attorney’s Office; and Gary Wells, a professor of Psychology at Iowa State University who has written extensively on the subject of witness misidentification.

Gary Wells, a professor of Psychology at Iowa State University. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Courtesy of Penn Law .

Short of a confession, eyewitness testimony is recognized as one of the most powerful pieces of evidence that can be presented against a defendant accused of a crime. But as the panelists testified, witnesses often get it wrong.

Mistaken eyewitness identification is believed to be the largest single factor contributing to the conviction of innocent people. More than 70 percent of roughly 350 inmates exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted based in part, or in whole, on the testimony of an witness.

But Wells says that’s barely scratching the surface.

“If you look, the vast majority of DNA exonerations involve sexual assault, but this is actually a very small number of eyewitness ID cases,” he said. “Most eyewitness ID cases are robberies. So the fact that these mistaken ID cases coming from DNA are in the hundreds, we’re missing every robbery case that pretty much ever existed. This is the tip of a very large iceberg.”

Thanks to advances in brain science we now know more about the mechanics of mistaken identification than ever before. Human perception is highly malleable, particularly during times of anxiety and stress. What people remember about a particular situation or event is easily influenced by the language others use to describe it, and scientists now say that the mere process of recalling an event can change one’s recollection of it.

Criminal investigators can turn these tendencies to their favor, knowingly or not, with something as simple as a strategically placed a photograph or a disapproving facial gesture. But few detectives have received even rudimentary training in the science of witness memory recall.

Sgt. Paul Carroll, who spent three decades in the Chicago Police Department and now trains law enforcement on investigatory techniques. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Courtesy of Penn Law.

“I’ve given over 400 lectures to police on investigation procedure, and when you go into a room and ask officers how many of them have had any training on eyewitness identification, you’re lucky if you get one hand go up,” said Carroll, who favors laws that require police to follow certain procedures.

In 1999, the year Malcolm Bryant went to prison, Carroll, Larson and Wells were part of a working group convened by the National Institute of Justice to explore eyewitness identification reforms.

They presented five recommendations for police when dealing with eyewitnesses to prevent misidentification. These included requiring law enforcement to be trained on the psychology of memory; providing standardized instructions to witnesses; employing “double blind” techniques in which both the witness and the administrator at a lineup are unaware who the suspect is; capturing identifications on video; and questioning witnesses on their confidence level immediately after an identification is made.

Research shows that jurors tend to equate confidence with credibility. And while there seems to be no direct relationship between confidence and accuracy, in one study a juror’s perception of eyewitness confidence accounted for 50 percent of the variance in a juror’s decision to believe a witness.

“When a confidence statement is asked, and we have that one record, we really know a lot more, we are preserving something that is forensically significant,” said Larson.

According to a 2013 survey of eyewitness identification procedures in police agencies across the U.S., a large number of agencies obtain confidence statements from witnesses. But the study—conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)—found that most departments had not fully implemented the recommendations.

For instance, the vast majority lacked written policies for eyewitness identification procedures, and fewer than a quarter employed audio or video recording. Only a handful of departments used double-blind lineups.

“This is a staple idea in science,” said Wells. “You would reject manuscripts in scientific journals if they didn’t use double-blind procedures, but we’ve sentenced people to life in prison and worse without them.”

New Jersey became the first state to require double-blind administration of lineups since 2002. Since then more states have been taking it on themselves to pass laws reform lineup and photo array procedures. Many are based on a set of five best practices published by the Innocence Project.

Last year Nebraska became the 18th state to pass a law establishing eyewitness identification standards. Legislatures in another seven states, including Pennsylvania, are currently considering eyewitness reform bills. And cities including Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, and San Diego have adopted eyewitness identification best practices.

Karen Newirth, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Courtesy of Penn Law.

“We need to address police practices on the front end but then we also need to ensure that judicial gate-keeping of challenged identification evidence is robust, and that fact finders are given appropriate context for weighing these factors,” said Newirth.

A big part of this involves courts delivering clear and concise jury instructions on the potential fallibility of memory.

“It’s highly important that jurors who weigh identification evidence do so with some context in how to weigh that evidence and how to evaluate it,” she said.

Newirth says courts also need to think more about what witnesses should be allowed to testify about, and how they are permitted to testify. The Innocence Project has been trying to get courts to take a more critical look at in-court identifications, which are most detrimental to a defendant. .


“For decades jurists have acknowledged both the power of the in-court identification and also the theater of it,” she said. “They lack any probative value and can be extremely prejudicial.”

Courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut have begun to take steps to limit in-court witness identification.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 years after the first NIJ study on the issue, the federal government is once again taking an interest in eyewitness reform. In January, the Justice Department issued a first- of-its-kind set of procedures on eyewitness identification.

The new protocols, which will apply to agents at FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Marshals Service, address the use of “photo arrays,” and are designed to ensure that law enforcement personnel do not consciously or unconsciously lead a witness.

Christopher Moraff is a regular contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.







Why Kids are Incarceration’s “Collateral” Victims

A new study finds that children of incarcerated parents sleep less and have poor dietary patterns that can lead to obesity and other adverse health impacts later in life. Teachers and pediatricians who pay attention to this often-overlooked “collateral consequence” of mass incarceration could make a difference, says the study’s author.

Approximately 1 in every 28 American children has a parent behind bars. Roughly 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates have minor children and, with more than 2.3 million adults incarcerated today in the United States, that represents a large population of youngsters whose lives have been disrupted through no fault of their own.

Research has already shown that the incarceration of a parent results in a host of developmental challenges that are among the often overlooked “collateral consequences” of incarceration, such as academic difficulties, behavioral problems, illicit drug use, and socio-emotional skills deficits.

One more should be added: Having a parent in prison also take a toll on children’s sleep and eating patterns.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, my colleague Michael Vaughn and I analyzed data from a large sample of at-risk families in the U.S. to explore the role that incarceration of mothers and fathers might play in their kindergarten-aged children’s sleep and eating behaviors.  Approximately 12% of the mothers and 46% of the fathers had experienced incarceration prior to the time period at which the children’s health behaviors were examined.

Parents were asked whether their child had trouble falling asleep and whether their child was regularly sleeping less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended amount for this age group (i.e., less than 9-11 hours of sleep).  They also reported on the extent to which the child ate a number of unhealthy foods, including sweets, salty snacks, starches, soda, and fast food.

The results were striking.

Children of incarcerated mothers were more likely to experience insufficient sleep on a regular basis.  Moreover, the diets of these children were characterized by more fast food, sweets, soda, and salty snacks, relative to children whose mothers had not experienced incarceration.

We also found that having a father behind bars poses similar risks to children’s sleep and dietary patterns.  Children with incarcerated fathers were more likely to exhibit sleep problems and shorter sleep durations compared to kids whose fathers had not been incarcerated. Moreover, children with incarcerated fathers were found to consume more salty snacks, starches, sweets, and soda than children without incarcerated fathers.

When examined jointly, we found that the probability of risk behaviors across both the dietary and sleep domains was twice as high among children who have had both their parents incarcerated, relative to those who have had neither parent incarcerated.

The results of the study have broader relevance for criminal justice and public health initiatives that seek to minimize the collateral health consequences of incarceration.

First, the results suggest an urgent need to provide services to vulnerable populations in which a high proportion of adults, including parents, have experienced incarceration. It should be noted that sleep and eating behaviors are not fixed, but are modifiable. Proper attention and services tailored to at-risk groups of children can improve these health behaviors and enhance long-term wellbeing.

We believe our findings should be taken into account by those service providers who deal with justice-involved families.  That includes educators and pediatricians, who should be encouraged to identify children who may require special attention and services to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This can include education about healthy sleep patterns and access to nutritious variety of foods that facilitate proper physical, cognitive, and behavioral development.  It must be made perfectly clear that children of incarcerated parents are indeed experiencing one of the most challenging and disruptive events that a child can experience, and that the stress and the strain of such an experience can be manifested in the form of sleep and eating behaviors which, if maintained, have the potential to diminish future health and quality of life.

Matriculation into elementary schools can represent an important point of intervention.  At this time, children of incarcerated parents can be more closely monitored to ensure that they are afforded regular opportunities to eat a healthy balanced meal while at school. More broadly, it may be worthwhile to consider implementing policies that encourage and reward school systems for adopting healthier guidelines for meals and snacks, especially those in disadvantaged communities where there is a larger proportion of households affected by incarceration.

Dylan B. Jackson

Brief training could also be provided to teachers, staff and administrators to recognize the signs of insufficient or disorder sleep and provide services to those families that can assist them in the implementation of a healthier sleep routine.

Our findings should make it clear that incarceration impacts not only the parent who is under correctional control, but also has profound and widespread effects on the health and well-being of their offspring.

Sufficient sleep and proper eating habits are cornerstones of health. Attending to these during sensitive developmental periods is crucial. The evidence pointing to incarceration as a disruptive force that interferes with the healthy development of children is now impossible to ignore.

We hope that our study will lead to fruitful engagement across policy arenas where the lines between criminal justice, social, public, and health policy are blurred.

Dylan B. Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  He is a developmental and health criminologist who studies the link between health factors and criminal and antisocial behaviors across the life course.  His work has appeared in journals such as The Journal of Pediatrics, Social Science & Medicine, Prevention Science, Preventive Medicine, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Journal of Quantitative Criminology. He welcomes comments from readers.


Why Doesn’t the Hippocratic Oath Apply to the Nation’s Prisons?

Many inmates will do anything to avoid seeking medical assistance if they can help it. A recent lawsuit in Washington State explains why.

The Hippocratic Oath has long embodied all that is good in the medical profession. Those who swear by it vow to act “for the benefit of the sick” and to prevent “harm and injustice” from befalling their patients.

But in the correctional system, the Oath is often undermined or, at best, ignored.

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) is an unfortunate example. Medical professionals within the WDOC acknowledge in depositions that its medical staff are required to use “a different standard to evaluate patients than is used [ ] in the community,” and some medical personnel in WDOC concede there is nothing “science-based or humane” about the policies that govern their decision-making.

These claims are currently the subject of a lawsuit, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, brought against WDOC by the non-profit Columbia Legal Services (CLS) on behalf of prisoners throughout the State of Washington. [See, Daniel Haldane, et al. v. G. Stephen Hammond, M.D., et al., No. 2:15-cv-01810-RAJ]

CLS is seeking to end WDOC’s use of “a healthcare pre-approval process to restrict medical costs at the expense of necessary prisoner healthcare” and maintains this practice poses “an ongoing, serious risk of harm to all 16,000 prisoners under DOC’s care,” according to the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Class Certification.

The medical conditions complained of include: commonly withholding opioid treatment even when a prisoner’s chronic and substantial pain is unresponsive to other therapies; and refusing to authorize surgery even when, as a result, prisoners must struggle to wipe themselves after toileting.

While the efforts of CLS should be applauded, prisoners should nevertheless resist the temptation to believe this litigation will lead to better medical treatment throughout WDOC.

Even enlightened, well-meaning policies can degenerate into arbitrary and unsound decision-making. Having suffered the brunt of such decisions over the last quarter century during my confinement, I have come to believe a correctional system’s shortcomings are often rooted in the negative views of the employees.

Views that developed in an era of mass incarceration.

One of the consequences of mass incarceration is the adoption of a military mindset by many correctional employees as the paramount goal within prisons came to be maintaining order and security. When this becomes the ultimate objective, staff members can easily begin to perceive the prison as hostile territory and prisoners as the enemy—especially when the level of violence within a facility makes the working conditions quite dangerous (relatively speaking).

Once this prisoner-as-enemy mentality takes hold of correctional staff, the idea that they should show care or humanity to those who are confined seems to be frowned upon and rejected.

Harm and injustice at first is tolerated, then becomes accepted.

The prison infirmary is no exception. I have seen and felt the iciness that medical providers evince when they have this mindset . Trust me, it would impress the most cold-hearted convict.

Furthermore, to expect proper diagnosis and treatment to be advanced by people with these attitudes is to ignore common sense and human nature.

Yet even in prisons with relatively safe working conditions, there is a general lack of sympathy for prisoners with medical problems.  Their health needs are rarely taken seriously.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Indeed, I have long resorted to toughing it out or trying every home remedy that a convict can conceive before heading to medical to find relief.

Like other medical departments in WDOC, prisoners must be ready for war when they enter the medical facility at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.  While the inside is nice and clean, physician assistants and nurses face off with prisoners as adversaries.

When I explain what ails me, I know, without a doubt, that every attempt will be made to dismiss my symptoms as if I am malingering or exaggerating; and I will likely be sent away with, at best, ibuprofen or amitriptyline—WDOC’s cure-alls for damn near everything.

If I  complained,  it is almost certain that I would be ordered to leave unceremoniously; and, were I to hesitate because the pain I was enduring was all-consuming, I will be handcuffed and escorted to segregation—like the enemy.

The message is: We are unworthy.

We are degenerates.

We should be grateful to get any medical treatment by the DOC.

These ubiquitous views explain why a correctional system might see fit to establish “a practice of withholding necessary medical care from patients with serious and painful medical conditions,” as CLS claims to be the case with WDOC. Such practices only develop when correctional employees do not believe the welfare of prisoners is a priority.

That said, my jaundiced eye has not left me without empathy, so I urge readers not to judge correctional medical personnel too harshly.

With all due respect to Hippocrates, it is easy to tolerate harm and injustice when both have been perpetrated by one’s patients.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.





One Student Takes On Injustices in Minnesota’s Bail System

University of Minnesota student Simon Cecil’s Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that aims to level the playing field by helping low-income people post bail has picked up support from local judges. It’s one of 10 similar funds around the country.

University of Minnesota student Simon Cecil's Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that aims to level the playing field by helping low-income people post bail has picked up support from local judges. It’s one of 10 similar funds around the country . . .

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LA Noir: The Strange Case of the Missing Sheriffs’ Helicopter Engines

Misconduct at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has earned some of its top officers, including Sheriff Lee Baca, criminal convictions. Now, an investigation by WitnessLA into a fleet of Sea King helicopters loaned under a controversial Defense Department program raises questions of high-level fraud.

 Mike Stille stared grimly at the group of huge cans—metal barrels, really—that his transport guys had recently unloaded inside his Number 2 warehouse located in Peachtree City, GA.  The cans themselves looked normal enough, but Stille did not have an upbeat feeling about what he was going to find inside.

Each can was supposed to contain a Sikorsky helicopter engine, in perfect condition, that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) was required to return to the U.S. Navy.

When he opened the cans, his suspicions were confirmed. There were indeed engines inside—but they did not belong to the fleet of Sea King helicopters loaned to the  LASD by the Navy as surplus equipment over a decade earlier.

Mike Stille. Photo by Celeste Fremon

Stille, president and founder of Clayton International, was the middleman between the LASD and the feds.  His company specializes in the support of Sikorsky H-3 Sea King helicopters, a twin engine, all-weather aircraft originally developed for anti-submarine amphibious warfare that has been flying for the US Navy in one variant or another since 1959.

The Sea King’s ability to stay airborne for three to four hours at a time, along with an exceptional degree of dependability, the fact that it can land on water if need be, and the roominess of the aircraft’s interior—you can actually stand up inside —also made it the ideal aircraft for search and rescue work.

Those same qualities have made the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King the primary aircraft used in the Navy’s Marine One program, the fleet of helicopters that land on the South Lawn of the White House to transport the President of the United States.

Six of these H-3 Sea Kings had been on loan to the LASD for well over a decade, as part of the nation’s Law Enforcement Support Office program (LESO), also known as the 1033 program, which was created by Congress under the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

But  the LASD  was about to get a fleet of newer helicopters, so the  Sea Kings and their supply of extra engines were scheduled to be returned to the government for potential use by Marine One’s training program.

The engines were what Mike Stille was expecting to find in the cans inside Number 2 warehouse.

What he found instead—or, rather, didn’t find—would eventually lead to an investigation that would cast a new cloud over a police agency already unsettled by criminal charges against 21 of its officers, including the sheriff and his top deputy.

‘Culture of Corruption’

In January, the department’s once-powerful former undersheriff Paul Tanaka entered a federal prison in Colorado to begin serving a five-year sentence for conspiracy and obstructing an FBI probe of jail abuses.  His boss, Lee Baca, the four-time elected sheriff, was convicted last year of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying to federal officials.

Baca will be sentenced May 12.

On the day of Tanaka’s conviction last April, David Bowdich, then the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, described the LASD as having a “culture of corruption seen only in the movies.”

Jim McDonnell, a reform-minded lawman from outside the department, was sworn in as the new sheriff in December 2014.  Yet a toxic culture does not change easily, and many department members, working and retired, have expressed concern that prominent examples of that toxic culture have neither been entirely rooted out, nor held to answer.

For many of those critics, the story of what happened to the LASD’s Sea King engines is exhibit A.

Witness LA pieced together that story after a lengthy investigation, from sources both inside and outside the department. It begins with a federal program aimed at helping law enforcement agencies around the country leverage their limited resources with de-commissioned military hardware from the Department of Defense.

It involves an elite LASD unit known as Aero Bureau, and ends with a federal investigation that was closed without any criminal charges.

But it continues to raise questions about a department that allowed its public safety mission, and the good work of its decent cops, to repeatedly be undermined by the arrogance and corruption of a few senior executives.

Section 1033

 Section 1033 of the NDAA authorized the transfer—temporary or permanent, depending upon the item—of a wide variety of excess property owned by the Department of Defense to federal and state law enforcement agencies.  The idea of 1033 (which replaced the earlier, more limited 1208 program) was that local budgets were tight and cops could make good use of freebees that the feds no longer needed.

The excess military items given to law enforcement agencies have become a controversial topic in recent years.

Photos of police agencies around the nation using mine-resistant, and ambush-proof vehicles—MRAPs—in protest demonstrations , or to conduct drug raids, triggered a debate about the “militarization” of American policing. In 2015, the Obama administration severely curtailed the program in the aftermath of the publicity surrounding their use in the Ferguson, Missouri protests; the Trump administration has signaled its support for reviving it.

Yet for all of the high-profile abuse of the program, most of the excess military equipment that has been acquired by law enforcement organizations is both useful and appropriate.

In some cases, the gear obtained by cash-strapped police and sheriff’s agencies is used for purposes that have little to do with crime fighting.  For instance, when the city of Nashville flooded in 2010, nine 15-foot Zodiac inflatable rafts procured by the Nashville cops through the 1033 program helped the NPD to rescue nearly 500 people from rising flood water.

 Aero  Bureau

Like most large police agencies, the LA County Sheriff’s Department uses various aircraft as part of its policing and other operations.

Aero Bureau is an elite unit inside the LASD that oversees the department’s aircraft—mostly helicopters.  The bureau has a fleet of 14 single engine light helicopters, Eurocopter AStars, which are used primarily to support the department’s patrol units in their day-to-day law enforcement efforts throughout Los Angeles County.

In addition, Aero has a few-fixed wing aircraft, and a second fleet of helicopters that are operated by specially trained Air Rescue 5 pilots, staffed by the department’s Emergency Service Detail, with deputies who are both paramedics, and trained in handling high-risk tactical situations—in other words, SWAT training.

 The Air 5 helicopter fleet is made up of the sturdier search-and-rescue aircraft we often see on the evening news performing dramatic backcountry life-saving missions, fishing stranded hikers off of ledges, and occasionally inserting SWAT teams into situations where their presence is needed on an emergency basis.

By 1996,  the department’s search and rescue activities had become increasingly demanding, so Aero Bureau started looking around for a larger and more versatile replacement for its aging aircraft.  The Sikorsky H-3 Sea Kings were the logical choice.

Initially, however, the copters were unavailable under the government’s LESO program. The Navy aircraft were labeled as “excess” items—which meant that even though they were no longer being used for any federal mission, they might still be useful someday. But the Air 5 personnel had a long-shot idea: what if some of the excess H-3s could be re-labeled as surplus?

“We were told it couldn’t be done, “ said retired Air Rescue 5 Crew Chief Dave Rathbun, who was on the search committee.  But thanks to the intervention of California’s senior senator Diane Feinstein, four Sea Kings were redesignated surplus by Navy brass.  “She made it all happen in a matter of a few months,” said Rathbun.“

 And so it was that in July 1997, the LASD was given the zero-cost loan of four SH-3 Sea Kings from the U.S. Navy.  Eventually there would be a total of six aircraft, plus eight older model engines that could be raided for parts.

 LASD Gets a Consultant

With the acquisition of the Sea Kings, the LASD also contracted  the services of one of the country’s leading experts on the aircraft: Mike Stille.  Starting in  December, 1997, he served as their consultant and all-round Sea-King guru.

“I didn’t know of anyone with his kind of expertise with the H-3s,” said retired Aero Bureau captain Jim Di Giovanna.

The acquisition paid off for the citizens of Los Angeles County.

“Hundreds of lives were saved over the years we worked with the department because of the Air 5 aircraft,” said Stille.  “And for a long time, we felt a part of that.”

But nothing lasts forever.  When Captain Di Giovanna retired from the department in 2006 after 35 years on the job—17 of them in the aviation unit—he was succeeded by a non-pilot captain, who lasted only two years and made very few changes to Aero Bureau..

Then in 2008, Louis Duran took over as head of the place, and things changed a lot.

Duran reportedly had acquired a sponsor and protector who wielded more power in the department than anyone but possibly then-Sheriff Lee Baca.  That sponsor was Paul Tanaka—who was, according to many, the shadow sheriff who really ran the show, with Baca as the front man.

Once in charge at Aero Bureau, according to sources then working in the unit, Duran quickly became a polarizing character who, like his protector, surrounded himself with a coterie of favorites to whom he reportedly dispensed lucrative favors, such as tens of thousands of dollars worth of overtime a year, during the post-2008 budget crunch when overtime was all but nonexistent throughout the department.

“With Louie, everything’s all about loyalty” One LASD pilot told Witness LA. “When you first come to Aero Bureau he actually gives you a loyalty lecture, and he’ll ask, ‘Are you loyal to me? Are you loyal to me?’ And you want to say, ‘Dude. I’m loyal to the bureau, but I don’t want to swear loyalty to some guy, even if you are the captain.’

Paul Tanaka. Photo by Celeste Fremon.

“But you can’t say that, of course.”

A little over a year after he arrived, Duran set out to replace every helicopter in the LASD’s possession.  First, in 2010, the LASD persuaded the LA County Board of Supervisors to approve $56.7 million for the purchase of a dozen Eurocopter AStars for patrol duty. Then, in 2011, Duran, lobbied to dump the Sea Kings, which he’d reportedly never like anyway, in favor of three smaller but newer Super Pumas.

Factions and favoritism can be a problem in any organization, but shortly after the purchase of the AStars, complaints about Duran’s supposedly Tanaka-protected rule continued to worsen, and allegations of various kinds of wrongdoing began to surface.

Some of the allegations were small in scale, like the alleged manipulation of overtime to favor some people over others. Others were more serious. A former Aero Bureau pilot, Sergeant Richard Gurr, now retired, alleged in a 10-page report that the $29 million Board of Supervisors-approved contract to do completion work on the LASD’s 12 new AStar helicopters, was loaded with massive labor overcharges and the purchase of a startling amount of unnecessary equipment to the tune of upwards of $11 million.

Gurr also alleged, in painstaking detail, that Duran and a small group of supervisors who worked under him colluded to rig the bidding process, for the reportedly overcharging vendor.

In any case, Duran got the okay to purchase the Eurocopter Super Pumas, and Aero Bureau contacted the federal government, as required, to say that they would no longer be using the Sea Kings.

“They had to go to the Defense Department and say ‘What do you want us to do with these aircraft and surplus engines?,’ Stille explained.  “The feds said, ‘We want them all back.’”

In general, LESO rules required that any equipment that might have a military use had to be returned to the government once the local agency was no longer using it.

Misusing or not returning a required item could result in the entire police agency getting shut out of the program.

According to Rathbun and DiGiovanna, in the case of the Sea Kings, the mandate to return the planes and the engines was far more stringent.

 “Remember, they were not really unneeded surplus items,” said Rathbun. “The feds were still actively operating the aircraft. “

 Thus, when Aero Bureau contacted the federal Law Enforcement Support Offic, LESO contacted the Navy, who alerted the people from Marine One, who called LESO to say that, yes, they’d be taking the aircraft and the engines back for their own purposes.

To accomplish the return, the U.S. Navy logically hired Stille.

The Navy was not at all casual about reacquiring the equipment they’d loaned to the LA County Sheriffs, said Stille. “The Navy sent people out to LA to inspect the H-3s and the engines. They went out there twice.”  In other words, he said, “they knew what they were getting.”

 Returning the Sea Kings

The transfer of the H-3s and engines to the Navy via Stille began in December 2011. At first, the returns proceeded smoothly, if slowly, as Aero Bureau made gradual changeover to the Super Pumas.

By the end of February 2012, Stille’s people had picked up two helicopters, and then in the third shipment, they picked up part of the cache of extra engines for the H-3s, he’d gotten for the LASD from the Navy some years before.   There were a few problems.

When the department sent the two aircraft, they were both devoid of engines.

Some additional large pricy components were also missing from each of the helicopter shipments:  a tail rotor gearbox, and some main rotor gearboxes that, except for the engines, were the most important—and most expensive—parts of the aircraft.

When Stille emailed Dennis Thompson, who was chief of helicopter maintenance at Aero Bureau, Thompson told Stille that they had sent everything they had save the helicopters, engines and equipment they were actually using until they got their new fleet of Super Pumas up and running.  Plus there was one engine that Thompson said had been junked.

Stille took Thompson at his word.

By January 2013, all but one helicopter had been turned in, and the remaining engines still needed to be picked up. When Stille checked with Thompson about the outstanding returns, Thompson listed a few items that Aero Bureau didn’t intend to give back to the Navy as the department had bought them, and thought they should be able to keep them.

“The list included a hoist, some special radios, and other things of that nature,” Stille said.

Stille told Thompson that keeping those LASD-purchased items was fine, that the Navy would not object.  Moreover, if Aero Bureau no longer needed those parts bought specifically for the H-3 fleet, Stille said that his company would be interested in buying them.

He offered Thompson $250,00 on the spot.  Dennis said that he would check with his bosses.

A month later, Stille stopped by Aero Bureau’s Long Beach, CA, headquarters on his way to another event.   He wanted to check on the items still remaining to be picked up.  He also reiterated his interest in the surplus parts.  But when Stille arrived on site, chief mechanic Thompson said, that someone else was also planning to make an offer on the extra Sea King equipment. A mechanic named Alan Butler, walked him around the various areas where the less used parts were generally stored.

 Butler, however, was not high up on the Aero Bureau food chain, and mistakenly showed Stille more than the spare parts in question.  He also showed him four engines, the labels for which indicated that they were in pristine shape.

When he saw the engines, Stille started to have an uncomfortable feeling.   On instinct,  he took photos of the engine canisters and their identification papers.

When Stille next talked to Aero Bureau, he learned that the other interested party had bid $400K.

 Stille countered.  “I told them, I’d up my bid to $500,000. “

 Aero Bureau came back a week or two later, and said they were sorry, but someone had now offered them $600,000.

 This news of the $600,000 bid caused Stille’s discomfort to ratchet up considerably.   His bid had already been high.  But $600,000 was way too much for the spare parts that the sheriffs’ department was ostensibly selling.  Stille wondered if the Aero people were also selling some of those nice, perfectly overhauled Sikorsky engines he’d seen in February, that he would soon pick up to return to the Marine One program.

“It occurred to me that they were out to short the Navy and sell of some of those engines for cash.”

 Stille hoped he was wrong.

Eventually he decided to make a call that might dispel his fears.

The Sea King world is a small one where everyone knows everyone else, said Dave Rathbun.  As a consequence, it was an easy mental jump for Stille to guess that the other bidder might be a man named Jeremy Brown who, at the time, ran a company called Rotor Maxx up in British Columbia, Canada, which had done some work for the LA Sheriffs’ Department.

 “Jeremy and I go way back,” said Stille.  “In fact I was the one who introduced Rotor Maxx to the LASD years ago.”

Stille figured that if Brown outbid him on the old parts, no big deal.  Business is business.   But if Brown and Rotor Maxx were also bidding on those like-new engines that were scheduled to be returned to the Marine One program, that was another matter entirely.

Among other things, it put Stille in a peculiar position. It was his job to get all the listed equipment back to the Navy.

In mid-March, Stille decided to call Jeremy Brown to fish around a little.

I said, ‘Look, if it’s you bidding on those parts, fine.’” But if was somebody else, and engines were part of the bid, “you need to tell them that what they’re buying is federal property and eventually they’re going to end up with some FBI agents on their dock, asking for their property back.”

The warning turned out to be prescient.

Stille would learn later that, some time after he and Brown ended their call, Roto Maxx’s Brown had called Aero Bureau, and recounted his conversation with Stille with some added negative spin.

As an apparent consequence of Brown’s call, late in the day on March 13, Stille got an email from LASD Sgt. Casey Dowling, stating that Stille was banned from Aero Bureau.

 “….Effective immediately,” the email read, “you and or your employees are not allowed on our facility until further notice…. In addition I am ordering all Aero Bureau employees not to speak to you for any reason. If you have questions or concerns or wish to communicate with my staff, send me an email and I will respond accordingly.  I am now the point of contact on this operation.”

The Navy tersely replied that was a non-starter.  Meanwhile, Stille went on with business as usual.  He didn’t come to LA himself. But he sent his people to pick up the remaining aircraft, as originally planned, and after that, one more batch of engines.

Clayton’s transport trucks made the last pick up from Aero Bureau on Thursday, June 13, 2013.  By the third week in June, Stille had all of the six aircraft, plus that additional shipment of six engines, all of the engines safely packed in their large canisters.

Stille was relieved to discover that the aircraft were fine.

The engines, however, were not.

[To Be Continued]

The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this story with Witness LA.  This is a condensed and slightly edited version of  Part 1 of this series, published today.  The full version of Part 1 can be read here.  TCR will post the final parts later this week.




How to Keep Kids Out of the Criminal Justice System

In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, the ‘System of Care’ focuses on schools—the place where police most often come into contact with juvenile offenders. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, it offers middle- and high school students therapy, workshops and counseling to address the kind of behavior that otherwise might have landed them in court.

When a middle school student in La Crosse, Wisconsin, swore at his teacher, he risked a criminal charge that would establish his juvenile record.

But instead of a referral to the juvenile justice system for disorderly conduct, he was accepted into a new program designed to address the root of his behavior and make it less likely to recur.

The program, which involved months of cognitive behavior, appeared to work. He hasn’t reoffended or faced discipline since for other misconduct.

Called “System of  Care,” the program is changing the way the county addresses juvenile crime since it was launched November 1.  One of only a handful in the country, it focuses on the place police most often came into contact with juvenile offenders:schools

Curt Teff, a La Crosse School District supervisor who helped develop the program, says the aim is to hold students “accountable” for their actions.

“It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” he said.

The collaboration that crosses agency lines spent years in development to address the county’s disproportionate juvenile arrest rate.

System of Care fills a gap between how schools handle misconduct and what the juvenile justice system provides by addressing [troublesome or acting-out] behavior without a ticket or arrest. Stakeholders believe that the program, while still in its infancy, is working, although the extent of its impact could take years to determine.

“If we didn’t do something different, we would continue to see the juvenile arrest rate climb and see more kids on supervision,” said Bridget Todd-Robbins, who oversees the System of Care.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce barriers to learning and to reduce the amount of referrals to juvenile justice.”

‘Call to action’

Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse County’s juvenile arrest rate was higher than the state average and those of three similar-size counties, according to a study by the Carey Group, a consulting firm retained in 2008 to examine the country’s juvenile justice system–although few juveniles were committed to the Department of Corrections. The consultants also hinted that minority juveniles may be over-represented in the juvenile system.

“It was surprising and absolutely concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, who supervised the county’s Juvenile Justice Unit until taking over Justice Support Services. “It was a call to action.”

In 2013, stakeholders in the justice system, police, schools and community members formed the Juvenile Justice Arrest and Disproportionate Minority Contact Inter-Agency Task Force. State Department of Justice data revealed the arrest pattern continued in each year between 2007 and 2011.


While whites were the most-arrested racial group, black youths had the highest arrest rate each year and were nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The leading arrest charge was disorderly conduct.

About 62 percent of juvenile arrests occurred on weekdays and 25 percent of those were at public schools.

About one-third of cases referred to the criminal justice system resulted in the juvenile being counseled without formal charges. Juveniles were placed on supervision in about 16 percent of cases.

A majority of juveniles cited or referred for charges were not high-risk offenders; they engaged in impulsive behavior that’s typical of adolescent development, Teff said. But there are risks involved if a juvenile enters the justice system, including continued criminal behavior and a decreased chance of graduation.

The Inter-Agency Task force found that without a clear policy on the type of misconduct that warrants arrest and with few arrest alternatives, juveniles were being pushed into the system in a misguided approach to get them help.

It recommended creating a formalized agreement between schools, police and the juvenile system for clear guidelines on when to arrest a juvenile and when to offer a different intervention.

For guidance, the county turned to Clayton County (Ga.) Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped establish the country’s first System of Care.

Juvenile arrests in Clayton County skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent between 1996 and 2003, after the school district stationed police inside schools. The problem, Teske said, was that officers had no alternatives to arrest.

“They acted like street cops on a school campus,” he said. “I saw all of these cases and juveniles being detained and I thought, ‘Something has to give. This isn’t right.’”


Research showed that arresting and jailing low-risk juvenile offenders increases their likelihood to reoffend and that many will age out of delinquent conduct, Teske said.

“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “And when we arrested them, we were contributing to making them worse.”

In  2003, when Clayton County adopted a memorandum of understanding between the court system, police and school district to reduce juvenile arrests by offering alternatives that held kids accountable while addressing the root cause of the misconduct, school arrests plummeted 54 percent in six months.

“It goes to show how many arrests were for minor offenses,” he said. “And that was the problem.”

By offering students workshops to address conflict and theft, drug treatment and wrap-around services for families, juvenile arrests in schools have fallen 71 percent since 2003, while graduation rates rose 30 percent, Teske said.

“The System of Care seeks to help kids who need it,” he said. “We identify causes for the behavior and match them with resources so they can develop coping skills that will help them function in school.”

The system

In La Crosse, the System of Care is built on a partnership involving the La Crosse School District, La Crosse police and the county juvenile justice system.  Students who skip school, steal, hit, damage property or are disorderly while on school property during school hours are eligible for the program.

Juveniles who commit those offenses while on supervision for other crimes are not.

The program is voluntary and requires consent from parents and victims. Each offender must undergo a risk and needs assessment that will determine what led to the behavior and how to correct it.

“Overall, they’re just kids,” Longfellow Middle School Associate Principal Jon Baudek said. “But there are kids making bad choices over and over again.”

Students may be offered counseling, mentoring, anger management training, drug treatment, mental health counseling and, along with their families, referrals to other services for ongoing support. System of Care’s  Todd-Robbins also is working with school staff to remove barriers to learning.

“It is not about excusing behavior,” Todd-Robbins said. “It’s about addressing behavior through skill development.”

Some 29 juveniles have enrolled in the System of Care between its November launch and late March.  Most of those accepted into the program are middle school students, and truancy, punishable by a citation, was the leading offense.

“I have kids who haven’t been to school yet this year,” she said.

The early results have been encouraging. Truant students are back in class and others who faced repeated referrals for discipline now have none.

Todd-Robbins hopes to establish the System of Care as a nonprofit organization so that it would be eligible for grant funding and could expand to neighboring school districts and include offenses students commit off school property.

To address disproportionate minority contact, school district administrators, teachers, social workers, police and others who come into contact with juveniles can participate in the La Crosse YWCA’s racial justice training series to recognize and change how personal biases and prejudice, even on a unconscious level, affect how they deal with kids.

“The issue isn’t always the kid, but how we’re perceiving the behavior,” said YWCA’s Social Justice and Advocacy Director Molly Hilligoss. “If we can look at how we react in our situation and realize our own biases, we can counteract those biases.

“Hopefully, we can continue to lessen the disproportionate minority contact and mitigate the bias.”

Anne Jungen, a staff writer for the  LaCrosse Tribune, was a 2015-2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.  This article, part of her fellowship reporting project, is a slightly condensed version of a story published earlier this month. Read the full version here. Anne welcomes comments from readers.


Former Incarcerees Find Hope—and Employers—at NYC ‘Second Chance’ Job Fair

Despite “ban the box” legislation in many jurisdictions, it’s still hard to get past the stigma of prison to land decent jobs. Two former NY incarcerees started a nonprofit that provides job counseling even before release, and this month they brought their clients together with prospective employers—with impressive results.

At first glance, the job fair held April 11 at the Grand Hall of New York University’s Global Center looked like one of the dozens of employer-meets-jobseeker events you might encounter this Spring at universities in the nation’s largest city.

Hundreds of men and women dressed for interviews milled about the hall, moving from one table to the other to speak to prospective employers, taking time out to pop complimentary brownie bites or check their phones. But for these particular job applicants, it was anything but business as usual.

All of them had been incarcerated.

Attendees meet with potential employers at the Second Chance Job Fair. Photo by Allen Arthur.

Organized by a nonprofit called M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, in collaboration with the Columbia University and NYU Schools of Social Work, the event—billed as the Second Chance Job Fair—provided what for many could be a life-changing opportunity to find jobs that might otherwise have been out of reach if they tried to contact employers on their own.

For Jay, who left prison in January after nearly five years, the fair made concrete the “second chance” rhetoric that is advocated by reformers—but often undermined by barriers in many states that prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting a chance at secure, well-paying jobs.

“You’re coming back home and you have no job and no money,” said Jay, who wanted his last name withheld.  “[That means] someone else has to feed me and clothe me and give me carfare. After a while, that puts a strain on [our] families.”

For the 40 or so employers who were there, it was also an opportunity to make use of the enthusiasm of men and women who may never have held a legitimate job.

“This is a huge stepping stone,” said Aleta Maxwell, Chief Human Resource Officer for Dos Toros Taqueria, who was looking to fill around 15 positions.

“It’s not a fly-by-night job for them. In my experience, they’re the ones who show up 15 minutes early because it means so much to them.”

Toney Earl, Jr. knows from experience the frustrations of trying to rebuild a life after prison.

“My first year home, I applied to over 30 jobs,” said Earl, who left prison in 2008. “I went on over a dozen job interviews, and there were just no job offers.”

That’s one of the reasons he founded M.A.D.E. in 2014, along with fellow former incarceree Tarik Greene. Together, they use the Ready, Set, Work! format to provide workforce-readiness training to currently incarcerated people. For those returning home, they offer the same, as well as job placement and mentorship.

The event was mounted through donations. Employers in attendance were asked to contribute $150 to cover basic supplies, photography and refreshments, though none were rejected if they couldn’t afford the fee. Not only do Greene and Earl hope their fair is a blueprint for what will become an annual event; other cities have contacted them to learn how to put on their own fairs.

The fair addressed a rapidly expanding problem: The United States’ mass incarceration boom has created a mass reentry boom.

 Stable employment remains one of the strongest preventions against reoffending, yet surveys show that 60-75% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed one year out of prison. With around 650,000 people leaving prison each year around the nation, that represents a powerful economic force that has effectively been disenfranchised.

And it also undermines the stability of the families and communities they come home to.

A New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Foundation poll found that 34 percent of unemployed men between the ages of 25 and 54 have criminal records. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that 1.7 million to 1.9 million Americans are precluded from employment by a criminal record—at a cost to the country’s GDP of more than $80 billion.

“You’re creating a whole sector of society that become dependent on the tax base, that draw from the tax base and don’t contribute to it,” said Thomas Safian,  Executive Director of Refoundry, a small incubator offering training, materials, and workspace to formerly incarcerated craftsmen as they develop their businesses.

“There are hundreds of thousands and millions of people that we’re closing off,” added Safian, who did not attend the fair but was interviewed later by The Crime Report. “They’re isolated by the process and by our society and the economic opportunities they have when they come out that are just as isolating as when they were in prison.”

Local Reforms Gain National Attention

The most popular approach to solving the re-entry employment gap has been “Ban the Box”, a legislative reform seeking to remove questions about felony convictions from job applications and interviews.

Some version of that has been adopted by over 26 states and 150 cities and counties throughout the U.S.. Most recently, in February, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, removed conviction questions from state job applications. Hawaii was the first state to pass “Ban the Box” legislation in 1998, but the campaign picked up steam when a group of formerly incarcerated people in San Francisco spearheaded a national movement in 2005. The city adopted Ban the Box legislation a year later.

In 2012, the federal government effectively endorsed the movement when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines warning that refusing to hire a candidate because of a criminal record could constitute employment discrimination under Title VII.

The campaign saw its most notable victory in November 2016, when then-President Barack Obama, citing “a growing number of states, cities and private companies that have decided to ban the box,” issued a Ban the Box order for federal hiring.

(A complete list of Ban the Box laws by location is available from the National Employment Law Project.)

But efforts like the job fair make clear that it is one thing to write policies that encourage a change of attitudes among employers, but another to help the formerly incarcerated  actually close the deal on future employment.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a small-businesses advocacy organization, was one of several business groups to come out vigorously against “ban the box” laws. According to Jack Mozloom, NFIB’s communications director, the group doesn’t believe that governments should tell small businesses how to hire staff—a process that costs business owners substantial time and money.

“Big companies have HR departments to handle that whole hiring process. Our members have fewer than ten employees mostly,” Mozloom said in an interview with The Crime Report. “They are the HR department.”

Employer sentiment seems to agree. A 2015 survey by a background checking service found that 48% of employers surveyed felt the policies were unfair to them, with 62% identifying either workplace or customer safety as the primary concern over criminal records. Many respondents also found the laws confusing.

“Many of our members are perfectly willing to hire people with criminal backgrounds,” claimed Mozloom, “but they want to have the conversation. What we’re not for is blinding employers to the truth. Private employers are the ones risking everything by hiring people, and they deserve to know. And by the way, a criminal felony is a public record. So Ban the Box says this class of citizens – employers – are not allowed to know the public record.”

Even at the Second Chance Job Fair, only a few tables housed private for-profit employers such as Shake Shack and Dos Toros Taqueria. Most employers attending represented nonprofits that often act as a screen, training formerly incarcerated people in trades or soft skills before placing them in jobs.

 A Lack of Consensus

Some research suggests that “ban the box” policies don’t really prevent employers from identifying applicants whom they might be reluctant to hire on the assumption they have a criminal record—even if they can’t access those records.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a conservative think tank, released a study demonstrating the potential negative consequences of these laws for black and Hispanic men in particular, showing that Ban the Box policies resulted in an apparent increase in the disparity between white and minority employment rates.

A second study from the University of Michigan found similar results, suggesting that after Ban the Box laws pass, employers begin screening more aggressively for traits that correlate with incarceration such as low levels of education and traditionally black or Hispanic names.

At the Second Chance Job Fair, almost all of the attendees were black or Hispanic. They were predominantly male.

Lester Rosen, an attorney and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a background screening firm based in California, says he knows of employers who use gaps in job history as a proxy for incarceration.

“What employers tell us is, ‘if people have a pretty uninterrupted job history, that’s the best indication that they’re safe and reliable,’ said Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual and a consultant on a best- practice guide for hiring those with criminal records.

“That does two things that are bad. For ex-offenders who have interruptions in their history, that puts them behind the eight ball.

“Number two, it’s extremely unfair to people who through no fault of their own lost their jobs or had to take care of a sick child. There’s always unintended consequences.”

More significantly, legislation won’t automatically remove the prejudices or fears many employers have about hiring former inmates—just from appearances alone.

Several attendees of the fair sported face tattoos or a “buck fifty”—a slash from the corner of the mouth to the ear inflicted most commonly by gangs, particularly in prison. Employers may make assumptions about applicants based on these marks before a potential hire even speaks.

“Character is everything,” said Mozloom. “That’s the most important attribute. A willingness to cut corners and break the law is an indication of certain character flaws that you want to know about if you’re an employer. It’s very possible, maybe it’s even likely, that people come out of prison changed, rehabilitated, but the employer can’t know that unless he first has the conversation.”

A 2016 Northwestern study challenges those preconceptions. It found that people with criminal records actually stay in positions longer due to a similar rate of involuntary termination to those without a record and a significantly lower likelihood of leaving voluntarily. It also found that “whether the employer had information about criminal records does not predict the likelihood of employee misconduct.”

Maxwell of Dos Toros Taqueria said her company has never had significant issues with the former incarcerees it has hired, but she acknowledged that “returning citizens”—the phrase many now prefer over “ex-inmates” or “ex-cons”— face specific personal obstacles such as time and stress management.

Event organizers Tarik Greene, far left, and Toney Earl, Jr., far right, with members of the Columbia University School of Social Work Criminal Justice Caucus. Photo by Allen Arthur.

That’s one preconception M.A.D.E. tries to change by preparing currently incarcerated people for the workplace before they are released.

“For them, [getting out is] a rude awakening,” Earl told The Crime Report. “You’ve been [incarcerated] with all your meals provided. You don’t have any bills.” Once out, “the realities of the world smack them in the face.”

“Within the formerly incarcerated population, one of the biggest misconceptions is that they can’t do certain kinds of work,” added Greene, who left prison in 2009. “There’s a lack of self-esteem. A lot of people definitely qualified for higher level positions are applying for entry-level positions. A lot of times our clients won’t even apply for certain jobs if the starting salary is high.”

Ebony Lawson attended the fair as a representative of Hour Children, a Queens, NY-based organization providing reentry services to returning mothers. Formerly incarcerated herself, Lawson is the Assistant Director of HC’s Working Women program. There, she helps teach formerly incarcerated women what it takes to excel in the workplace, and how to manage expectations.

“The biggest thing I notice about the women trying to adjust is that everything is not going to be perfect or right, but you still have to go to work. You still have to do your job.”

She says finding the right employment path requires personal attention.

“It takes them really focusing on their journey,” said Lawson, “and really concretely thinking about what they want to do. Sometimes I think people are just in a rush to get to the finish line. I try to tell them it’s not a race.”

Two years ago, Hector Guadalupe launched Unibody Fitness, a personal training business. Unibody’s booth at the fair touted A Second U, a foundation that has so far trained and placed 70 former incarcerees as fitness trainers.

Guadalupe spent 10 years in prison and sees a naturally intense work ethic in those returning home, if they’re willing to change.

“You can’t be the same you and come home and expect different results,” said Guadalupe. “If you’re uneducated and you have limited resources and no options, how can you make right decisions? But when these men and women come home and you provide education, a trade that they can use and enjoy, they end up building careers and it reduces recidivism.”

The job fair cleverly avoided the “box” issue. Everyone’s history existed as a silent understanding. As old-school R&B played from a corner booth, lines snaked around the lobby for free professional LinkedIn photos and last-minute résumé checks. People perused a handout labelled “Jennifer’s Top Ten Tips to Help You Ace Your Interview.”

“It was almost like the feeling I have when I go to a family reunion,” said Greene. “People were smiling and hugging. There was no security there. There was no one saying, ‘You can’t go in. You wait here. You stand over here.’ It was just a freedom.”

While the organizers have not yet heard back from employers, early indications are positive. According to Maxwell of Dos Toros, they have scheduled nine second-round interviews with people they met at the fair.

“I am very confident we will hire at least four. I personally met with four individuals that I think have outstanding personalities that would be a great fit,” she said in an email after the event.

While Greene and Earl hope people will find employment from the fair, they see results beyond jobs.

“It was a something special to see those actively seeking opportunity with the confidence and the hope for change,” said Earl, “especially because of the biases the population is subjected to. Many think that people don’t want to change or don’t put in the effort to change. So to see that and to know how limited opportunities actually are overall, that was special.”

“What I saw and what I heard a lot of people say they saw was a renewed hope,” added Greene. “For this particular population. Hope is the key to all things. For those that have that sense of despair and frustration, hope kills that, and it gives them renewed energy and spirit.

“So from that point of view, I thought it was a huge success way above what we hoped to achieve.”

Allen Arthur is a recent graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Social Journalism program. There, he worked with formerly incarcerated people to understand how journalism might be of service to them. Together, they created Moment of Truth, a reentry zine that is in production now. You can reach him on Twitter @LissomeLight. He welcomes readers’ comments