November was warm. As I drove to work, it felt like fall might go on forever. I opened my sunroof and allowed the playlist on my iPod to pour out onto a sunny mid-Missouri morning. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin yucked it up on a cut from Live at the Sands. The pair swapped jabs and jokes before breaking into “Luck Be a Lady.” The Rat Pack gave way to Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” as I drew closer to work. The commute from the lakefront community where I lived to the radio studios where I worked was less than ten minutes – just long enough for two good songs each way. It seems almost funny to think now about those two songs being the last two I would hear as a free man.
Sitting in my office later in the morning, I reviewed notes for my talk show. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website filled the screen on my computer. I scanned” the site briefly — partially for headlines, but mostly just to think about St. Louis. I had spent the entire weekend in the city two hours east of my home. In my heart, I believed that I would soon be living there. Because of my heart, I knew that I was ready to live there. Happiness had inexplicably found me again. It had been more than a year since the love of my life had died. For the first three months, I lived inside a shell – going from bed to work and back to bed again. For the next six months, I lived inside a bottle — going from bed to work to a regular collection of bars and then to a bed, couch, or floor somewhere. The months that followed, however, were much different. I drank less, worked less, slept less, and seemed to rediscover life.
A chance meeting in a store led to a date with an old friend from high school who was recently divorced. Dinner dates quickly gave way to long weekends enjoying the area around her home in St. Louis. I knew it was only a matter of time before I left Jefferson City again. Coming back to my childhood home had been my version of hitting Control-Alt-Delete on my life after the sudden death of my wife the previous year. Now it was time to take the next step. I had no idea what that step might be, I just knew it was time to move forward.
At 9:00, I walked into the radio studio. The morning host had already cleared out. I scattered papers across the top of the u-shaped desk centered in the studio, adjusted the microphone rising from the desk on a crane-like arm, and looked over my notes one more time. A few minutes later, the opening bars of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” blasted out of the studio speakers followed by the booming prerecorded voice of the station’s announcer introducing me. I let the music ride for a moment before I keyed the microphone and offered the greeting I used to begin every show, “Good morning friends.” The Tuesday edition of PartyLine was underway. At almost the same moment, 1 300 miles away, Martha Coakley, the District Attorney for Middlesex County in Massachusetts walked in front of a group of Boston-area reporters to read a prepared statement.
Following my opening monologue, I took off my headphones and walked into the hallway outside the studio. I noticed a man and two women standing down the hall. I stuck my head into the newsroom and made some crack about my first segment to a reporter working on a report that seconds later would be replaced as the lead story of the day.
The man waiting in the hallway called my name and I walked over to greet whom I presumed to be clients on a tour the radio station. The next words I remember hearing were, “You’re under arrest” or some variation of that line. I laughed — not heartily, but rather a simply chuckle. One of the local nonprofit groups held a regular fundraiser where community members were “arrested” and asked to make a plea to friends and family members to help them raise a charity bail.
I turned with a smile and mockingly put my hands behind my back. My humor must have caught the trio off guard. The man shoved a piece of paper in front of my face. My eyes quickly scanned the typed page until they slammed into the word “Murder.” My smile melted as I felt handcuffs reach around my now stiff wrists. The blood drained out of my face and my stomach locked. My reporter friend looked on from the newsroom in pure confusion. I mumbled something to him about taking care of the rest of the show before I was spun around and marched upstairs from the basement studios to our front lobby. As we reached the top of the stairs, I saw our receptionist frantically dialing the phone in an effort to reach our main office, my family, and anyone else who needed to hear the details of my arrest before it became breaking news.
The bright light of the lobby almost blinded me. My mind spun out of control. I could feel the first stages of a migraine attack advancing on my brain. I turned my head slightly in a futile attempt to shade my eyes from the sunlight pouring into the lobby. I felt a large hand clamp tighter on my arm. I looked over and finally recognized the resolute face looking back at me. The man had been one of the State Police officers who had questioned me more than a year before inside a cramped conference room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that moment, the smooth flow of time ceased. Reality froze. And, like stiff rusted gears, time lurched forward in chunks.
During the next chunk – I was led down a flight of stairs into the basement booking area under the Jefferson City Police Department. The US Marshal who had driven the transport van cracked a joke about how often prisoners accidently slip down steps while handcuffed.
The next chunk – I was being fingerprinted.
The next chunk — I was sitting on a cracked plastic chair while officers floated past me talking about evening plans, football scores, and nothing in particular. I felt like a ghost haunting the police station–unseen by all. Then I caught an officer staring at me. His face screamed, “That’s the guy on the news!” and I wanted nothing more than truly to be invisible.
Next chunk — I was now in the basement of the Cole County Sheriff’s Department. How did I get there? The sheriff’s office was blocks away from the police station, but I have no memory of how I moved from one place to the other.
Another chunk – photos – forward, then side – more fingerprints were taken – and an orange jumpsuit. My bare feet curled on the rough cold cement as I was led around the corner and put into a dark yellowish cell across from a raised desk surrounded by a gaggle of sheriff’s officers. A sound like a sledge hammer hitting a thick piece of metal indicated the cell had been secure. I turned toward the sound to see a solid wall of rough steel with a square eye-level opening smaller than an index card. It was the only space in the cell not sealed off from the outside world. Then, an anonymous hand on the outside reached across my last view of my previous life and swung a small metal shutter closed over the tiny box of light. I heard the muffled swing of a latch. And then I heard nothing else.
I turned around to discover two rusted metal bunks hanging from opposite walls mashed into a space no bigger than the parking space I had used at the grocery store the evening before. The jumpsuit I wore was one size fits all if you were six inches taller than me and fifty pounds heavier. I shuffled over to one of the bunks. A flat green plastic mattress stretched across the solid metal frame. There was no pillow, no sheet, or anything else in the dim cell other than a stainless steel sink and toilet combination jammed into a cutout at the end of the bunk. I sat on the edge of the pancaked mattress unable to think.
Another chunk – the cell door was wrestled open. I was motioned over to the opening. An officer led me to a room that appeared to be part bathroom, part interrogation room, and part meeting space. A young man I had never met before stood in the room wearing a dark blue suit. He introduced himself as my attorney. Seeing the confused look on my face, he explained that my family had hired him to represent me. Over the smell of stale urine and fresh bleach, the lawyer informed me that the courthouse was a zoo because of my arrest and that the judge didn’t want me brought into the courtroom. Instead, I would be arraigned through a video conference. My lawyer explained that there was an extradition order in place and he recommended that I not fight it — that it would only delay an already certain process.
Moments later, the two of us followed another officer to another room. We stood in front of a television with a camera bolted to the top. On the screen I could see only part of the courtroom. There was a dash of movement across the screen and when the pictured settled, my mother and younger sister’s faces filled the screen. My mother smiled at me through the camera on her end and told me that everything was going to be okay. I could tell from her puffy red eyes that she had been crying – a lot. My sister was still crying. She kept wiping her wet eyes with her wrists. I tried to say something reassuring, but I have no recollection what words I spoke. My mother led the three of us in the Serenity prayer before disappearing off to one side. The camera shook, there was another blur, and the picture refocused on the judge.
Another chunk – I was back in the barely lit cell. How long had I sat there? The small portal opened again. I saw part of a face, but I recognized the part I could see. The door cracked open. Through the gap, I could see that it was now dark outside. But what day was it? An officer I knew stood in the doorway. “Your mother sent this,” he said in a hushed tone as he held out a big yellow book. A friend who had spent the summer in New York interning at the Federal Reserve had bought Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton for me as a gift. The book was sitting unread on the nightstand next to my bed the morning of my arrest. The door slid shut and I returned to the bunk. I pressed myself into the corner of the cell, opened the book to a random page, and tried to force myself to read. Nothing computed. I flipped back and forth through the pages for a few minutes before I closed the book in defeat. I placed it at the head of the mattress and stretched out on the bare pad, using Chernow’s tome as a pillow.
I couldn’t sleep. Or if I did, I didn’t realize I had slept. I could only mark time by what seemed to be the random opening of the portal on the door. Each time the box opened, a set of eyes would peek inside, and I would stare past them desperately trying to see the window next to the officer’s station across the way. Usually, all I could spy was the judging eyes that filled my one view of the free world.
I spent three days in the Cole County Jail waiting to be sent from Missouri to Massachusetts. It was only three days, but while there, I existed outside of time. Between the shock of my arrest and the ongoing sensory deprivation of solitary confinement, I lost all awareness of life around me. It would take months for me to regain any footing of sanity – to rediscover reality. By then, I would be twenty floors above the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the Middlesex County Jail. My new love and many of my friends and colleagues were gone. My family and a close-knit group of supporters were the only people left from my old life. Now I began a new life.
I spent more than two years in the Middlesex County Jail waiting for trial and working to unpack the new normal that had come to dominate my life.
James Keown is an author and prison journalist serving life without the possibility of parole at MCI- Norfolk in Massachusetts. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of Lifers’ Group Inc., a prisoner-run organization dedicated to assisting and advocating for those serving life and long-term sentences. James also volunteers as a tutor and writes self-study guides to help incarcerated men and women experience the trans formative power of education. Before his arrest, James spent most of his career in radio and television working at different times as a journalist, talk show host, and broadcast executive. James also spent time with technology and nonprofit organizations.
James Keown #W92519
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Norfolk, MA 02056