My first thought as rains let up and the ferry drew me close to McNeil Island for the first time: Holy crap! The island is being attacked by giant mutated Slinky worms!
Yes, there really are that many loops of razor wire all over McNeil Island Corrections Center. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. McNeil may be a medium-security facility, housing short-term inmates rather than the worst of the worst, but it is a prison nonetheless — the last island prison in the United States. And the mainland isn’t far away — less than a mile in places to the north and west from where it rests in the South Puget Sound region of Washington state. And escapes were not uncommon from McNeil, at least not in its days as a federal prison prior to 1981.
In my 20-plus years as a Washington journalist, I’ve been to the prisons in Shelton, Walla Walla and Monroe to cover stories for newspapers and interview inmates. I’ve been to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor more than 20 times (and will be back next week; more on that later). But that rainy Monday marked not only my first trip to McNeil, but my first visit as a citizen rather than a journalist.
My mission: To meet with a man convicted of attempted murder, to see if he’s willing to cooperate with me for the book I hope to write about his crime.
I’ll recap here briefly: Aaron Borrero is the man, who, in March 1997, participated in the robbery and attempted killing of fellow drug dealer Les Lemieux in Kent. Borrero is the one who actually dumped the hogtied Lemieux into the Yakima River to die. By a miracle, Lemieux survived. But not knowing that, Borrero took off for California — along with girlfriend Elizabeth Hernandez, also wanted for attempted murder in the shooting of her ex-boyfriend. The two were featured on America’s Most Wanted and, after two months on the run, were turned in by an AMW tipster. Borrero stood trial in 1998 and received nearly 23 years for first-degree kidnapping and first-degree attempted murder. His earliest possible release date is early 2017.
But Borrero turned his life around in prison, taking ownership of his crimes and personal failures along the way,and his good behavior got him a transfer to McNeil. It also gave him the idea of making a bid for clemency and an early release through Gov. Christine Gregoire‘s office. At his September hearing, Lemieux surprisingly testified in support of Borrero’s early release, and an impressed Clemency and Pardons Board voted unanimously to recommend to Gov. Gregoire that Borrero be released within 18 months. Today, that recommendation awaits a decision from Gregoire. That could happen tomorrow, or next month, or a year from now. Or it could happen on the last day of Gregoire’s term. By statute, it’s entirely up to her.
I knew at that hearing that I wanted to write about this remarkable case, and I set about securing the cooperation of the two principals. Les Lemieux, who did prison time himself for drug dealing, agreed to work with me, and we started formal interviewing on Nov. 2. Aaron Borrero responded to my letter with a short one saying that he wanted to meet with me before he made his decision. And as soon as I received state Department of Corrections clearance to visit McNeil, I set a time and date through Aaron’s helpful mother.
Because I was “just” a visitor this time and not going over as a member of the media (arranging formal prison interviews is a far more complicated process), I had to leave all the tools of my trade — notepad, pen, camera and digital recorder — behind in a locker on the Steilacoom side of the water. A shuttle bus then took me and a dozen or so other inmate visitors to the ferry terminal, about 15 miles south of Tacoma, and we boarded the passenger vessel Neil Henly — named for a former McNeil superintendent — for a crossing of about 25 minutes.
From Steilacoom, McNeil loomed a couple of miles southwest, its whitish-gray buildings a start contrast to the dense thickets of evergreens, cedars and maples surrounding it. It was odd to see the shoreline of a Puget Sound island waterfront uncluttered by the luxury homes that pockmarked Fox Island to the north and Anderson Island to the south.
But it made sense, given that McNeil Island has been a prison island as long as Washington has been a state, and that no private citizens have lived there since 1935. In fact, the non-building part of the island — i.e., most of it — has an otherwordly land-that-time-forgot quality. On the bus ride to the ferry headed back to Steilacoom that afternoon, we traveled through beautiful, rolling, tree-dotted greenery punctuated here and there with weathered white clapboard houses on sagging foundations that looked for all the world like something out of Depression-era small-town Saskatchewan.
That central part of McNeil looked as though the island had been evacuated by the Joad family from The Grapes Of Wrath, and left untouched since by the presence of humanity. Small wonder that the place we departed from was called Still Harbor.
On the arrival trip in the late morning, we trudged up the dock and along a winding, wire-crowded path to the building housing the McNeil visiting room, which looked for all the world like an elementary school cafeteria. Which, I suppose, was the idea — as I walked in, I saw children playing with toys, board games and coloring books at table. Their daddies, many of which had gang tattoos crawling up their necks, smiled and laughed in delight as their kids happily busied themselves. More common was the sight of adult visitors playing cards with their inmate friends and family members.
I waited at a table for just a few minutes until a handsome, bespectacled, shaven-headed, lightly complected Hispanic man in his mid-thirties walked out from the main prison housing complex and caught my eye. It occurred to me, at just that second, that I had no idea what Aaron looked like, but I felt certain this had to be him. We shook hands with a smile and sat to talk.
Within three minutes of conversation, I knew I had chosen well. Aaron is not only personable, but bright, articulate, thoughtful, possessed of a strong memory and infinitely willing to embrace his failings and his crimes. I have a pretty strong bullshit detector, but my antennae didn’t twitch in the slightest as we talked for nearly two hours. As he spoke, I developed an increasingly focused picture of a man who realizes that the key to a successful future lies in claiming complete ownership of his past.
His path to redemption began some eight years before, after a series of “dirty UAs” — positive drug tests — while he was incarcerated in the far more hardcore state penitentiary in Walla Walla. According to Aaron, the corrections sergeant who administered the most recent test said, essentially, “You’re a better person than this, I can tell … what are you doing here? I don’t want to see you here again.” And then he sent Aaron, as he was obliged to do, to “the hole.”
It was in solitary confinement that Aaron did the reassessment that started his life on a different course. Since then, Aaron’s prison record has been almost completely clean. He repaired his relationships and reconnected with a lot of his childhood friends, many of who knew him since before his days as a cheerfully womanizing football star at Kentridge High School. He embraced an interesting mix of Christianity and self-empowerment through motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins. (I got the impression that Robbins’ book Awaken The Giant Within was just about as important to him as the Bible.) He’s also a big fan of Warren Buffett, and has a deep interest in financial planning and investing.
He spoke with remarkable candor about his crimes, starting with an armed assault just after his 1993 graduation from high school that landed him in a King County work-release program. It was through a work-release contact that Aaron made his first drug-dealing connection, and from there developed a reputation through Kent as a badass drug dealer who was not above robbing other dealers. Everything he told me checks out with the official record.
Aaron Borrero doesn’t deny what his did to Les Lemieux, and their stories largely agree. But he does feel that he took the fall for the crime’s mastermind, a guy named Kyle Anderson, who managed to escape clean after two mistrials. And after reading the police documents and court transcripts from his case, I’m inclined to agree that of the three people who participated in the robbery and attempted murder of Lemieux, Borrero’s punishment was disproportionate to his culpability. In other words, he deserved the sentence he got — but the other two should have been at least equally punished. But that’s not an argument I’ll make in my book. That’s not my purpose. It’s simply my belief that once the reader takes in all the facts, that’s the conclusion they’ll come to.
Anyway, the upshot is this: Aaron Borrero has agreed to fully cooperate with me as I prepare this book (which I have tentatively titled Everybody Here Gets Out Alive). And to that end, we’ll meet every two or three weeks on Monday afternoons. He’s also agreed to help secure the cooperation of others I’ll eventually want to talk to, including Elizabeth Hernandez, the mother of his youngest child. Hernandez got out of prison in 2004, lives in the Seattle area, and the two amicably co-parent their son even though they’re no longer a couple.
So this, in essence, means that Everybody Here Gets Out Alive is a go. Even if none of the secondary characters in the story agree to work with me, I’ll still have enough material for a good book based on police reports, court documents, trial transcripts, the Clemency and Pardons Board records … and the detailed memories of Aaron Borrero and Les Lemieux.
The best ending I can think of? In my first meeting with Les, I asked him if he would be willing to meet with Aaron once all the legal issues are behind them (there’s a lifetime restraining order between the two, which is pretty much automatic for any attempted murderer and his victim, but it can be lifted if the victim wants it lifted).
He said yes.
On Monday, I asked Aaron the same question. He too said yes.
I would very much like to be present for that moment. It would be an incredible way to conclude an incredible story.