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Posts Tagged ‘Les LeMieux’

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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!

946162.standalone.prod_affiliate.5Yes, 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.

McNeilmap1980In 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.

15728306Because 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.

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From Lowell Cauffiel, author of Masquerade and House of Secrets:

It’s a simple fact that the quality of your true-crime book will be directly proportional to the quality of your research. I try to schedule tasks when I’m researching a book, but once you open up a thread it can take days to run it down.”


Heh. Or weeks.

I haven’t had a very productive October so far when it comes to developing my true-crime book.

Perhaps it all depends on how you define it, however. On the one hand, I’ve had some deep frustrations in terms of getting access to documents and people I need in order to substantively proceed:

— For nearly two months, I’ve been trying to arrange a short interview with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, in regards to her policy and practice in acting upon the recommendations of her Clemency and Pardons Board. Things went well at first, with her communications director promising to see if he could arrange something for me. Then he abruptly quit his job and moved back home to North Carolina. And while an interim successor has been named, I’ve had a hard time getting him to return my e-mails and phone calls. The deputy directors haven’t returned them, either. I even turned to some statehouse reporters — fellow members of the newspaper brotherhood — and they haven’t been returning my e-mails, either.
Finally, today, one of the deputy directors got back to me, apologizing for the delay in responding, and — you guessed — promised to see if she could arrange something. My confidence in actually getting face time with the governor isn’t high at the moment, as you might imagine … but at least one of the many doors on which I’ve been knocking has cracked open a bit.

— As readers of past posts on this blog might recall, I’ve shifted my focus from writing one book compiling short stories on several Clemency and Pardons Board cases to writing several books on individual cases. First up, as things stand now, is the story of a man who helped hold up and try to murder a fellow Seattle-area drug dealer before taking off to California with his girlfriend — another attempted murderer on the run — before being featured on “America’s Most Wanted” and being caught on a tip from an AMW viewer. And now, 12 years later, the man has been recommended for clemency and early release to the governor, largely on the strength of supportive testimony from his victim. The delay there has been in getting hold of the petition paperwork — including the court documents — that make up the factual backbone of the story. My paralegal contact in the state Attorney General’s office is finally coming through on my request, however, and I should have a CD bearing the entire file in the mail in a day or two. Reading what’s contained in that file will pave the way to several other avenues of research, I imagine. It’ll also enable me to start interviews in earnest with Les LeMieux, the victim in the case, who has agreed to work with me.

— Aaron Borrero, the man who tried to kill LeMieux, hasn’t yet fully pledged his cooperation with me, but he has agreed to meet with me so I can answer his questions about my project. Problem is, he’s at McNeil Island Corrections Facility. And while he’s agreed to put me on his visitors list, the state Department of Corrections hasn’t yet approved me as a visitor. If this sounds like a familiar complaint from an earlier blog … well, that’s because it is. I sent in the paperwork nearly a month ago and haven’t heard a word. (I’m also trying to get access to an inmate at the state women’s prison about whom I’m also writing; she murdered her parents as a teenager 26 years ago.) In the meantime, however, his sister found me on this blog, and hopefully she and I will be able to sit down for a conversation soon.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, that’s left me plenty of time for the necessary drudgery of true-crime writing — transcribing interviews (which I really hate, because I hate the sound of my own voice) and drawing up timelines for the other cases I’m working on, for which I have most of the documents already.

That’s been going slow, because I have a low threshold for boredom. And that’s a real problem in writing a credible book, obviously. My attention tends to wander after half an hour or so, and usually sitting for an hour straight stretches me to my limit. So I get up, read or write for an hour or two, and guilt myself back to the kitchen table where I do my work. The upshot is that I get some stuff done, but not as much as, you know, an actual adult would. (Did I mention that I’m 44 years old?)

That’s going to make November interesting. Because, by Nov. 1:

a) I may well have everything I need to proceed with my main story, which I fervently wish to have finished in six to eight months. Which means I could easily spend every waking, non-working moment doing something productive toward that end.

b) I still need to do the drudgery work.

c) I still need to chase new cases, and there’s a new Clemency and Pardons Board hearing coming up at the end of November.

d) NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo?

Do you know about National Novel Writing Month? Basically, it’s a big challenge: Write a novel of at least 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. I did it last year, and completely faceplanted. I failed to draw up an outline, thinking it would be better to start cold from the first word, and wound up seeing my frontstory get sidetracked by my backstory. So I started over in mid-month, and while I did better, my efforts at frenetic catching-up fell short, and I finished at 42,000 words.

So, this year, I’m torn. At this time last year, I hadn’t even developed a zygote of an idea for the nonfiction project that’s all but consumed me this year. And I know that trying to shoehorn NaNoWriMo into all the other things I have going on is probably asking for more from myself than I can possibly deliver.

And yet, I’m driven by two things:

1. My friend Craig Lancaster, my wingman and daily confidante from last year’s NaNoWriMo effort, not only finished his novel in 30 days (with some 80,000 words, yet), but self-published it. And, based, on the positive word-of-mouth he was able to generate from that effort, he landed a mainstream publishing deal. And just after this year’s NaNoWriMo kicks off, Craig’s novel, 600 Hours Of Edward, will be re-released by Riverbend Publishing. I couldn’t be more proud of my friend … or more inspired by what he’s accomplished.

2. I really like my idea. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive plot summary, but suffice to say that it’s a dark thriller about an estranged father and son who team up in the course of a single night to kill a lot of people what need killing — and work out their longstanding differences with each fresh addition to the body count.

3. I really need to just fucking write. A year of researching and interviewing has been like a year of foreplay — fun as far as it goes, but eventually it’s got to get you where you really want to go. I think I can work out some of my long-shelved ya-yas in November by just diving in and happily humping away at my novel. It’s just a month, honey … you’ll understand, won’t you? (I hear myself in my mind asking my nonfiction project for permission.)

I think I’m going to go for it. As hard as it’s going to be. And hard it will be, because I won’t neglect this blog, either.

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I suppose it’s both good and bad that I notice with surprise that it’s been nearly a week since my last blog post.

Good, because I have been busy.

Bad because it’s not been all about book-writing. (I won’t bore you with the Homerian epic saga of my Saturn and its failing catalytic converter.)

Good, because there has been a lot of book stuff in there, anyway.

Bad, in that for the passage of a week, there’s still so much I’m waiting on. And I don’t have the patience to be patient.

But let me catch you up on the good stuff.

As you might recall, 11 days I earlier I live-blogged from the hearings of the state Clemency and Pardons Board in Olympia as I trolled for new cases of crime, punishment and redemption to write about.

One of those cases jumped out at me far more than the others — a case in which one man (with two accomplices) held up another in a Seattle-area drug deal, tied him up, stuffed him in a duffel bag and dumped him in a freezing river to die. Only, somehow, the guy lived. And, 12 years later, at the hearings, he spoke in support of his attacker’s plea to be released from prison. (Or, technically, as the victim made clear, he was “not opposing” his assailant’s release.)

You might remember I wrote: “This guy is fascinating … I gotta talk to him.”

As it turns out, that man, Les LeMieux, found me … by doing a Google search on the hearing and finding my blog. That led to an exchange of e-mails and a phone call last week in which we made plans to meet. He’s expressed interest in sharing his story with me.

At this point, we’re talking about meeting for lunch in Tacoma on Thursday. (Assuming my damn car cooperates, of course.)

The same day, I exchanged e-mails with the paralegal with whom I deal on Clemency and Pardons Board matters at the state Attorney General’s Office.
If I want copies of the court files, police documents and correspondence of each case heard before the board, I have to formally request them through her.

At first, she told me that fulfilling my requests — for partial and complete files on six of the nine cases heard that day — would take 90 days. That means that to get my hands on the file concerning Aaron Borrero, the imprisoned attacker, I’d have to wait until a week or two before Christmas.

Not good. Not if I want to produce a book on this case in six months. So I wrote back and said, well, what if I request just the Borrero file for now? Could I have that one in, say, 30 days? And she allowed that that was possible. So I may have my hands on the factual backbone of this story in three weeks or so. Definite good news.

But, of course, there’s one big missing piece in this puzzle — the cooperation of Borrero himself. To that end, I sent a letter last week to him at the state prison on McNeil Island, where he resides in minimum custody. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear back from him — or somebody close to him — by the end of the week. If I’m luckier still, I’ll hear that he too is willing to work with me. I have every reason to think I’ll be that lucky, though — he’s got nothing but incentive to share his story as he waits on the governor to decide his fate, and that’s a process that could take several months. Having received a thumbs-up from the Clemency and Pardons Board, it behooves him to make his case for early release more compelling in the governor’s eyes. Especially since she has been known to overturn the positive recommendations of her handpicked panel.

But, for now, I wait.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of stuff to work on. Novels and short stories. Other stories based on Clemency and Pardons Board cases (on any given day, I read documents or write correspondence on three to five cases from among the dozen or so I have in play).

And there’s platform-building exercises. For one, I was recently invited to write for Reading Local: Seattle, and have been working on my first project for those folks: A review of a new historical true-crime book called “The Road Out Of Hell” and a profile of its author, Anthony Flacco. In fact, I’ll be interviewing Flacco tonight at his home in my hometown of Bainbridge Island.

For two, I’m writing a two-part series on how to get book publicity in the news media for another Seattle-based literary collective called 1st Turning Point. One part has been delivered; the second part will be delivered by week’s end. I’ll share the links with you when they’re online.

For three, I’m developing a series of Q&A with authors for this blog. First up will be an interview with Janet L. Smith, a Seattle writer who published three well-regarded mystery novels between 1990 and 1995 — and then stopped. Why did she stop? I’ll find out tomorrow afternoon, when she and I meet for coffee and an interview. Hopefully that blog will be ready to go in a few days. I’m excited for it; we’re all so obsessed in the literary world with what’s new and what’s hot that we rarely take the time to look back at what was new and hot, say, 20 years ago — and wonder what happened. The reality is that not every author has a long and happy career. Many, like Janet, vanish from the scene. Don’t ever you wonder why? I do.

So, that’s me for now. Hopefully, a week from now, I’ll have much more to report — and have reported some of it well before that week elapses.

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