Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass
by Cliff Gallant
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 6 will appear next month.
Jake Sawyer and I met again in his apartment in downtown Portland. It was time to talk about Jake’s first stint in prison — a series of prisons, actually, all in California, including two of America’s most storied and notorious correctional facilities: Folsom and San Quentin.
I broached the topic with a sense of solemnity tinged with awe, trying to set the appropriate tone for such a weighty subject. Jake had been arrested and jailed for leading a group of gun-toting Hell’s Angels on a “suicide charge” into the home of perceived enemies of the club. He got out on bail in April of 1966, but his trial was scheduled for August of that year, and Jake was under no illusions that he’d be found innocent of the very serious charges against him.
“I can only imagine what that must have felt like,” I said in a hushed voice, and asked if he might feel comfortable talking about what he was going through at the time.
Jake burst out laughing. He thought it was funny as hell that I thought he’d be worried in such a situation.
“Ha! You appear to have forgotten something, my friend!” he exclaimed. “Something I told you about last time we talked that completely thrust any feelings of dread I might’ve had out of my mind.”
He looked at my blank face in exasperation, then spoke slowly and deliberately, so I’d be sure to get it this time: “I’d become a patch-holding member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club while I was in jail. I had been accepted into the most exclusive club in the world and had realized my destiny!
“I’d hung out with the Hell’s Angels a lot, and had even been on long runs with them, but I had just been a hang-around or a prospect. It was almost like the difference between a friendship ring and a wedding ring, you know? I became a patch-holding member of the Hell’s Angels in the shortest period of time in the history of the club! It was unheard of to become a member in less than two years, and some guys went through three or more years of hell waiting to be voted in. I became an official prospect in late February and became a patch-holding member by the Ides of March!
“I was a member of the Nomad chapter, which was the most violent of all the Hell’s Angels chapters,” Jake continued. “Most of the members in the other chapters had a job, some even had families, but none of the Nomads were regularly employed, and our Hell’s Angels brothers were the only real family we had. The Nomads hung out together all day and night, and sometimes even slept in the same places. We got to know each other very well. There wasn’t any rivalry among us about the things that mattered. We put the welfare of a brother above our own at all times. And your brother is always right because he’s your brother. Period.
“We’d kick the shit out of each other now and then, but it was just because we liked to fight. The only rule was that you didn’t punch a brother in the face. Hey, you don’t want a guy waking up every morning for the next forty years with a pain shooting across his face just because a brother got a little rambunctious fucking around one night. See, we had some sense! Sure we did!”
Jake shot me a glance like he suspected I might have thought otherwise, but I just shrugged and kept writing. When I caught up, I asked him what day-to-day life was like among the Angels.
“Oh, there was a lot of just hanging around working on our bikes and going for rides, but there were practical matters to attend to, fights that had to be fought, that sort of thing. Some of us, allegedly, made our living by stealing cars and motorcycles and selling them for whatever we could get. It was the same 100-percent-profit business plan I had developed years before, and I’m happy to say it had stood the test of time.
“Life wasn’t all grueling hard work, though. We made sure we had some fun along the way. There was the time Dirty Delbert and I decided to get shots for the clap, for instance.
“We’d been screwing anything that could walk, of course, without any concern about sexually transmitted diseases, because that’s just the way we lived. The moment was all that mattered and we laughed at danger, no matter what form it took. It was kind of creepy knowing that your equipment was rotting away, though, so we decided to visit a V.D. clinic that was in the neighborhood of the club.
“There were about a dozen guys waiting in line for shots when we got there, but Hell’s Angels didn’t wait in line for any reason — that just didn’t happen — so we just plodded up to the front of the line and told the pretty little nurse that we were there to get our shots. She smiled sweetly and said she was happy to see us, but that we’d have to go to the end of the line. She was very accustomed to being listened to very respectfully by the men who went there, because they were feeling very meek, so she was quite taken back when we didn’t immediately comply. I told her we were indeed very charmed by her, and wished to cooperate, but we were on a mission from the Lord and didn’t have a moment to spare.
“That’s when she got on the intercom and summoned the attending physician. Delbert and I took that to mean he was the one who was gonna be giving us our shots, and by the time he arrived we had our jackets off, ready to go into the next room with him to drop our pants and get the needle in the ass. When it became apparent that wasn’t happening, and he told us we needed to go to the end of the line, like the nurse said, I didn’t say a thing. I just looked at him kind of quizzically and lifted my jacket off the back of the chair and showed him the Hell’s Angels insignia on the back.
“Right away he kind of gulped and cleared his throat and mumbled something about having a Harley himself and how happy he was to meet us, but that we’d have to go to the back of the line just the same. That’s when I started acting real offended, like my feelings were very hurt, and I told him in a very stern but friendly way that if we didn’t get our shots right then, Delbert and I were going to leave the clinic immediately and go absolutely berserk, giving the clap to as many women as possible, and we’d encourage all our brothers to do the same.
“The doctor was evidently familiar enough with the Hell’s Angels to know we were extremely promiscuous, even when we weren’t on a mission to avenge an insult paid to two patch-holding brothers, and he also knew that most of the women hitchhiking across America to fuck Hell’s Angels weren’t really all that discriminating about who they might do next, so there wasn’t much of a limit on how many men they might infect. He did the exponential math on that one, I’m sure, and could see the nightmare he was creating by being so darn stubborn. Hey, we were about to make having the clap the new cool thing in the counterculture movement, and he knew it.
“‘Give ’em their shots,’ he said to the nurse as he scooted back into his office, being careful to avoid eye contact with the guys behind us in line. I yelled after him that I hoped we’d see him out on the highway on his Harley someday. He just waved his hand without looking back and kept walking. The guys waiting in line hadn’t said anything through the whole thing, which was very good of them, I thought. Not so much as a dirty look, actually, so all was well all around. People can be very pleasant and accommodating when they want to be.
“There’s no way I can adequately describe for you what being with my Hell’s Angels brothers was like. You can imagine what it does for a young man’s ego to be the absolute center of adulation of the general public, while at the same time being part of an extremely close and well-knit social group like the Hell’s Angels were. It was as if I was presented with two perfect universes to live in and was somehow getting to live in both of them at the same time.
“Mind-blowing things happened continually. It was non-stop. Most Friday nights, for instance, after we got out of ‘church,’ by which we meant our regular weekly meeting at our headquarters, we’d get on our bikes and ride to a concert somewhere. We never paid anywhere we went, of course, and we were always invited to help ourselves to the band food.
“Oh, wait,” Jake said with a mischievous grin. “I can’t remember if that’s the way it went, but the food was good. Rock stars get only the best treatment. Sometimes the food would all be gone before they even got down off the stage, though. They were usually nice enough not to say anything about it, which was generous of them. Sometimes we attracted more groupies than they did anyway, so it’s not a good idea to mess with the magic, you know?
“We hung out pretty regularly with Gracie Slick and Jerry Garcia, and got to know most of the Grateful Dead very well. They performed at Fillmore Auditorium pretty regularly and we went to a lot of their gigs. There was a small alcove on the right-hand side of the stage, behind the curtains, where we could sit and watch the show and see the audience through the curtains, but they couldn’t see us — at least I don’t think they could. We’d either bring a few camp followers or the bands would line up some ladies for us, and there we’d be, getting blow jobs while we watched the show, watching thousands of people screaming their heads off. Very heady stuff, believe me.”
When August inevitably arrived, it was time for Jake to figuratively face the music.
“Four of us Hell’s Angels brothers were put on trial at the same time and the verdicts were a foregone conclusion,” Jake told me. “It was the turbulent ’60s, the establishment was gasping for survival, and the Hell’s Angels represented everything Middle America was terrified of. If the Hell’s Angels could charge into someone’s apartment with clubs, chains and guns in the middle of the night, with the intention of committing felonious assault on the occupants, and pretty much get away with it, society was doomed. So we were convicted without much delay and thrown into the holding tank of the Sacramento County Jail to await sentencing.
“The trial did provide a chuckle or two, though,” he added. “Hey, I’ll take any stage, you know what I mean?”
There’s an account of Jake’s trial in a lurid dime-store paperback published in 1967, The Sex and Savagery of Hell’s Angels, by Jan Hudson. I’d brought my copy along, and read the relevant passage aloud to Jake:
“Jonathan Sawyer’s testimony introduced a bit of levity to the proceedings when he announced that he was a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, as well as of the Hell’s Angels. The two organizations are probably not mutually exclusive, but the imagination boggles at the thought of a mangy looking Hell’s Angel and a gray-flannel-suited young executive of the Junior Chamber of Commerce type combined in one individual.
“Sawyer said he had become a Junior Chamber of Commerce member in his home state of Maine some years ago, and had only recently become a member of the Hell’s Angels. … Under questioning by District Attorney Riley, Sawyer acknowledged that he was a weight lifter, and that he weighed 210 pounds and stood six-feet, two-inches tall, but denied that he was known to the Hell’s Angels as Bonecrusher.”
“That’s right!” Jake shouted. “It was the district attorney who came up with the name Bonecrusher for me! I don’t know where the hell he heard it, or if he just made it up himself. My Hell’s Angels brothers called me Jake From Maine. Anyway, Bonecrusher was the name I became known by, in and out of the Hell’s Angels, after the D.A. stuck it on me at the trial. I can’t tell you how many fights I got in just because of my reputation preceding me, and it had a lot to do with that name.”
Sacramento County Jail
“So there we were after the trial, four Hell’s Angels brothers thrown in a holding cell of the Sacramento County Jail to await sentencing, each having been convicted of two counts of felonious assault and one count of first-degree breaking and entering in the nighttime with intent to commit felonious assault therein. The whole thing seemed kind of unreal to us, actually. Something to be understood here is that the members who were chosen by the club to take part in the suicide charge were all members who had clean, or nearly clean, police records, and the system wasn’t going to come down very hard on first-time offenders, especially Hell’s Angels. Or so we thought.
“I was the first one they came and took away for sentencing, and I was shocked as shit when I heard what I got: six to ten years each on the two felonious assault charges, and five years to life on the breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit felonious assault therein charge. My mind was completely blown. I didn’t feel a thing until I was halfway back to my cell. Then it came to me that I was probably going to be spending the rest of my life in prison. With this five-years-to-life stuff, I knew they’d never let me out.
“I started laughing,” Jake said. “I started laughing like the fucking idiot that I am. I don’t know why I started laughing, I just did. The whole thing seemed so preposterous. What the hell had everything I’d been through meant if I was going to end up spending the better part of my live in prison? The whole thing just didn’t make sense.
“When the guys waiting their turn to go saw what a good mood I was in, they assumed I got a very light sentence, and when one of ’em yelled out, ‘C’mon, Bonecrusher, how did it go?’ I yelled back, ‘Piece of cake!’ So when they got the same sentence as I did, you can imagine their shock. They didn’t see the humor in my misleading them, either. They were pissed off as hell at me when they got back — which, of course, I loved, because we’d do anything to pull a real good joke on each other, and I really got ’em that time. I got a big kick out of welcoming them back, one by one, and I’ve been chuckling about it for years. I really am an asshole sometimes, huh?”
I chuckled a little myself and kept pen to paper.
“They kept us in the county jail for about three weeks, then they told us we were going to be transferred to Vacaville, just outside of San Francisco, to be evaluated for placement within the prison system. We tore up our cells the weekend before we left the county jail, including destroying all the sinks and toilets, just for something to do. We were bored, plain and simple. We weren’t mad or anything. We knew we deserved the sentences we got. We were just listless as hell on Saturday afternoon and tearing up our cells was something to do.
“Transferring four Hell’s Angels from one prison to another was a very intense affair, believe me. I loved every minute of it. They were afraid that our Hell’s Angels brothers were going to attack whatever conveyance they used to transfer us, in an attempt to free us. They were also worried about radical political groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen joining in. The Hell’s Angels had become folk heroes to the American public, and locking us up like this was not popular with a lot of people.
“We went in a line of unmarked cars, with each prisoner heavily shackled and in a car with four heavily armed police. There was a police car with four police in front and another in back of each car containing a prisoner. All the time we were driving, the police were scanning the rooftops for snipers, and when they’d hear the roar of a motorcycle or maybe a loud pop, their eyes would dart to one another in alarm. It was fun to watch them.
“When we got to Vacaville they marched us right to the warden’s office, which we found out later was very unusual. Most prisoners don’t ever even set eyes on the warden. He gave us a very stern talking-to, the gist of which was that we were no longer in county jail, we were in state prison, so things would now be very different. The administration at the county jail had gone through the trouble of taking pictures of the damage we had done to their facility, and the warden had the pictures blown up to use as communication aids in his little talk with us.
“Interestingly enough, the warden was looking at me in the same way my Hell’s Angels brothers did the first time I walked into The Luau Club and made their acquaintance. Like, Who is this guy and what the hell is he doing here?
“To begin with, I was the only one in the entire prison who didn’t have any priors. With all that I had done in my life, including stealing automobiles and motorcycles on a regular basis over the years, being a Kentucky rum-runner, being involved in numerous illegal activities in Boston when I managed a health club in the middle of the Combat Zone, and being involved in a very large number of very violent physical altercations over the years, most of which I had initiated, it is quite remarkable that I had reached age twenty-nine and had never seen the inside of a jail. I was also an honorably discharged veteran, didn’t smoke or have any drug addictions, and was in superb physical shape. Those things alone put me in a one-percent bracket in the prison population, even apart from the no-priors.
“When the warden had finished his little talk and we were being led out the door, he called out ‘Sawyer!’ When I looked over at him he started to say something, but then he stopped himself and just signaled for me to keep moving. I’ve always wondered what he was going to say to me, and if it would have made any difference in the way things turned out.
“Oh, I doubt it would have. Sometimes when you’re in a certain mode, good advice kind of bounces right off you, you know what I mean? Maybe the warden thought again and realized I had to make my own mistakes. Who knows?”
“Because of my clean record, after being evaluated at Vacaville I would have been a shoo-in for a minimum-security sentence in some kind of country club facility somewhere, maybe for a few months. But because I was a Hell’s Angel and had shown absolutely no sign of bending my spirit to their will, I was sent to Susanville [High Desert State Prison], which is a high-security prison in the middle of a desert in Northern California. If you escaped from there, you were visible walking across the desert for two hours, if you lasted that long in the heat. The black guys used to laugh like hell and say it wasn’t fair because they’d be visible for four hours!
“The prison population at Susanville was evenly split between black and white, and they kept right away from each other, which I found out the first day I got there. Out on the yard on my first day, I was very pleased to see groups of guys lifting weights here and there, and when I ascertained that the most serious lifters were a group of black guys, I went over to join them. I was excited, because I didn’t get a chance to lift at the county jail or at Vacaville.
“Right away this huge black guy with a gold front tooth gives me a wide smile and tells me that my place is over there, and he points to some scrawny white guys playing around with some weights on the other side of the yard. Now, I know he can see by looking at me that I’m a serious weight-lifter, because he is one too, and he knows I’m not gonna get anything out of joining those puny white guys. So I get a little agitated and go over and snatch-lift a bar with about two hundred and twenty-five pounds of weight on it, over my head, no problem.
“‘I told you this ain’t your place, buddy!’ the guy yelled, just as I had the weights fully extended over my head, which irritated the hell out of me. Everyone around the yard knew that distracting someone like that is a very serious sign of disrespect. So when he said what he did, I roared like a furious fucking lion and heaved the barbell about twenty feet out in front of me, then swiveled around and threw a punch at his face.
“The punching-them-in-the-face tactic doesn’t work when they catch your fist in mid-air and squeeze your hand like it was a rubber toy, though.
“‘You’re in, you crazy muthafucka!’ he yelled when he let go of my hand, and that was that: I was in with the black guys. Every one of those guys knew what it took for a white guy to take a punch at one of them, and when I let go at the biggest one of them all, they knew I was too crazy to ignore.
“Turned out the guy I took the punch at — Fred was his name — was the leader of the blacks, and he and I got along very well. It kind of amused us that between us we could get every prisoner in the place to do just what we wanted them to do. One day we got to talking about how bad the food in the place sucked, and one of us — maybe it was me — suggested that maybe we should call a food strike. No one would go to chow, and anyone who did would have their breakfast kicked out of their stomachs when they got back. Some went, and they got the food kicked out of their stomachs when they returned.
“Fred and I were so pleased with the way the hunger strike went down that the next morning we called a work strike for better conditions and higher wages. They couldn’t very well expect us to work on empty stomachs anyway, we told them.
“I’d like to say that the changes came fast and furious, and that prisoners’ conditions and rights improved dramatically as a result of our activities at Susanville, but it would be a total frigging lie. The administration’s response to the hunger and work strikes was to ship the ringleaders to other prisons, that day. I never even heard if conditions changed in any way, actually.”
“Folsom was your all-time American granite-block prison, built by Chinese coolie laborers in the 1870s. I can’t say I’m proud to have been imprisoned there — that would be pure horseshit — but I have to say that I was privileged to experience something of America’s past there, and I felt connected to Western outlaws like Jesse James and Cole Younger.
“I watch the History Channel a lot these days, and I’ve seen the cell I was in at Folsom! They ran the camera slowly over the walls and I was riveted to the TV screen! I remembered every little black line that runs through that granite. The one-and-three-quarter-inch-thick black iron door with the six-inch barred window at the top also brought back some pretty gruesome memories. Even the bed in the cell was historical. It was a single cot, of course, but it had a Victorian carved headboard. Nothing was poorly made in those days, even prison beds. There was no running water, either, just like when the prison was built. Twice a day a guard would come by with fresh water, and that was it.
“I’ve always been very interested in history, of course, and that’s kind of what my four-month stay at Folsom was all about. There were three elderly men locked up with me that pulled off the last stagecoach robbery in history. It was great hearing about it from them. It kind of linked me to great desperadoes of the past.
“My time at Folsom was almost like a meditative retreat for me. The feeling of the place took me over and allowed me to gather myself for what was coming next. I knew I’d need all my inner strength for that.”
“I’d gotten my first look at San Quentin when I was just a hang-around on the Petaluma run with the Hell’s Angels. We were crossing the San Rafael Bridge over San Francisco Bay, and you could see the prison across the water. San Quentin’s not like Folsom, it doesn’t have any character, it looks very austere and institutional. No charm at all. I immediately thought of all the free spirits, fellow lovers of the sun and the wind, who were locked up for the rest of their lives in such a soulless dungeon, and I felt guilty about all the freedom I had. Now here I was amongst them, less than a year later.
“They had told me that Folsom was just a holding pen on my way to San Quentin, but for some reason I didn’t dread San Quentin at all, even though I knew it was run by very severe rules and regulations and housed some of the most violent offenders in the prison system.”
I had to interrupt. “You were one of the most violent offenders in the prison system!” I said with a laugh.
“You’re right!” Jake yelled, laughing with me and rocking back and forth with delight. “They had the worst offenders in the country winnowed down to just me and the other assholes I was doing time with, and I was happy as hell to have made the cut!
“As a welcoming gesture, given the reputation I had for causing unrest and mayhem, the warden had me thrown in the hole for three months on the day I arrived. So there I was, all alone in my new home for three months, except for being taken out once a week for a shower.
“That three months I spent in the hole at San Quentin was, without a doubt, the closest I have ever come to losing my sanity. I told you about the first night I ever spent in jail, with the lifer screaming about how he was gonna kill me in the morning because I was a Hell’s Angel, but this was an even more drastic situation. This time I had five thousand people like him waiting for me to show my face, and now I’ve picked up the name Bonecrusher!
“The worst part for me was thinking about how my mother was feeling about having me in a penitentiary for the rest of my life. All I could do was try to ease her mind as best I could with jokey kinds of letters and phone calls, but she knew how much I loved my freedom and what I was going through.
“Most guys are in prison for a long time before they realize you have to take your mind off the outside if you want to make a life for yourself inside. I knew it immediately, and I also knew I had to live inside the prison like I’d always lived: go right straight for whatever the hell I wanted. What I really wanted at San Quentin was to be respected, and earning respect was a full-time job. It was showdown time for who was going to be the meanest, strongest, most violent and most respected fucking beast in the country!
“If I told you I sat on my bunk looking down at the floor for the first month I was there, which a lot of guys do, I’d be lying. Yeah, I sat on my bunk thinking sometimes, but it was about how to take over the place. I knew that virtually every guy in San Quentin was in there for violence-related crimes, so I’d never been more in my element. My imagination ran wild thinking about what it’d be like when I got out on the yard.
“As in the past, weight-lifting and working out came to my rescue. The day I got out of solitary and walked out onto the yard, every eye was on me. Even those guys that hated themselves for gawking were looking long and hard at me. I saw a lot of emotions — some I liked, some I didn’t — but I figured I might as well put on a show now that I had the stage.
“There was a barbell across the yard with what must have been three hundred and fifty pounds on it. The most I’d ever been able to lift was three hundred and ten, but I said, What the fuck? The guys nearby knew it would not be possible for someone my size to lift that much weight, so they started to chuckle when I positioned myself in front of the bar and got it lifted up to my waist. That was the easy part, of course. Now came the snap and getting under it to get it up to my shoulders.
“I did it! But I didn’t have enough left to jerk it up over my head. I put absolutely everything I had in it, though. They could see me straining my guts out, and when I threw the damn thing down on the ground it made a huge clanging sound and bounced like it was made of rubber. Got a faint round of applause. Only a few brave souls amongst them dared to show their true feelings. Ah, ain’t that always the way?
“After I’d established myself as the psychopathic madman and self-obsessed showoff they’d been hearing so much about, they knew fucking well I’d confront any one of them head-fucking-straight-on in anything they wanted to pull, and that was the message a boy needed to deliver if he was going to prosper in his new neighborhood.
“Rivalries develop in prison, of course, and the name of the game is to be able to carry through on your threats. Someone bumps into your elbow in chow line and doesn’t apologize, and you don’t shank him — you’re a marked man. A shank is any long, thin, sharp, pointy piece of material that suffices for a knife and can be easily concealed on one’s person, and if someone shoves one into you and you don’t retaliate, it means that anyone can do anything to you, just for fun, and your life becomes a living hell.
“In order to survive, you need to belong to a group. Lone wolves don’t last long out on the yard. I put together a little enforcers’ group made up of weight-lifters.” Jake handed me a black-and-white group photo. “That’s me in the center. I was elected chief because of the professional bodybuilding advice I’d been able to pass on to them — and also because I could lift more, pound for pound, than any man in the place. We called ourselves The Regulators. The group included two former paratroopers and two former Marines who had all been convicted of some type of felonious assault charges, including murder.
“Here’s how it went. If you had to shank a guy, there was a procedure that needed to be followed to the greatest detail. One of our guys would come up behind the mark and grab him by the arms from the back, so his chest stuck out. Then the guy in front would do the shanking according to the intent, whether it be a painful warning or the down-for-the-count-right-now kind. After the shanking, our guy would go straight to the outdoor john, where he washed any blood off himself and the knife. Then he’d be given clean clothes by a guy passing by.
“I played a lot of mind games with my enemies, too. When I heard there was an opening for a job at the morgue, I got on it right away, because I knew prisoners are notoriously skittish when it comes to dead bodies, and I could have a lot of fun freaking them out. I’d do things like go over and sit down at the enemies’ table in the cafeteria and say things like, ‘Oh, shit! I forgot to wash my hands after I closed Johnson’s eyes and stuffed cotton up his ass!’ That would clear ’em out and I’d sit there laughing myself silly.
“I remember my mother saying to me once, ‘Keep your sense of humor, Jonathan, because with the kind of life you’re going to lead, you’re gonna need it.’
“All in all, life was going pretty well for me. I had risen to the top tier of prison society quite rapidly and there were a lot of perks for that. But, as has always seemed to happen in my life, I started to get the feeling I had overstayed my welcome. After about six months in the joint, things started getting very toxic for me. I had been part of shanking many guys, and had shanked a few myself, so it was only a matter of time before it was my turn.
“My relations with the prison authorities weren’t looking all that good either. Unsolved acts of destruction of prison property and acts of violence committed within the prison population had increased noticeably since my arrival, but they couldn’t pin a thing on me. We always had our ears open for anything we could use, and the more friends you had, the more information you had. One of my guys washing the floor inside a stall in the head heard the warden and another guy talking while they were taking a piss, and the warden said he knew I was behind it all. As they were zipping up their flies, the warden said, ‘Yeah, we call him The Ghost. We know he’s been there and we know what he’s done, but we’ve never seen him do it! Fuck it. I think it’s time we picked him out on general principles and put him in the adjustment center again for a while, just to see if things get any better around here!’
“After that, the prisoners started calling me The Ghost too, but I didn’t like that at all. The whole clandestine gig is blown if you start putting a name on yourself, man. It was the same thing with the Bonecrusher name. You get put in a little box you can’t get out of. That’s why I told the guys to low-key it on calling ourselves The Regulators. The more you got puffed up about the friggin’ name, the more unlikely you were to regulate a fucking thing. That’s just one of those little life’s lessons you learn. Or maybe you don’t learn. Who knows?
“Being called The Ghost did kind of go along with my gig at the morgue, though. When the information got passed to me that I was gonna be shanked someday soon, I started standing right next to the bars of my cell late at night, making long and low and faraway sounds, like a loon on a Maine lake, or Abenaki Indians mourning their dead. Some vile things were yelled out at me, I’ll tell you that, but I didn’t stop. The message got delivered: It’s not a good idea to shank a guy called The Ghost, because he’s gonna come back and haunt you in very bad ways for the rest of your life.
“Anyway, I was toast. It was either get shanked by my fellow prisoners or locked up in a room by myself for a few months, like before. Turns out both options came to be.
“One fine evening after supper, a guy came up behind me in the reading room and drove a shank into my back before I even knew he was there. It felt like a punch, actually, and I didn’t feel any penetration, but I immediately knew exactly what had happened. This one was not a warning. It was a botched kill. I like to think my presence alone intimidated the back-stabbing bastard, but, who knows, he might just have been a clumsy fuck. He cut me pretty good, though. I was bleeding like hell, and after a few minutes or so the pain was almost unbearable. I had all I could do to keep from yelling out.
“Every effort was made to keep shankings away from the ears of the warden, of course, because when you got shanked everybody knew it was because you shanked somebody else, even if it couldn’t be proven. I didn’t want to give the warden the precipitating cause he was looking for to put me in solitary again, so I had to get treatment from within the prison population. Turned out to be from Dr. [Raymond] Bernard Finch, who had been known as the doctor of the stars and had been convicted of having his wife killed after a trial that was all over the papers. He worked as the secretary of the Catholic chaplain of San Quentin, and that’s how I came into contact with him.
“I had a real need to talk to someone who I knew was sane, someone who was not a prisoner, had never been one, and was real good at keeping things to themselves, so I thought a Catholic priest might do. I won’t give the good Father’s name, because I’m not sure he’d want me to, but we ended up having some very good talks. He was very interested in the story about my guardian angel battling for my soul with the angels from the dark side in Death Valley. He said I was the first person he’d ever met who talked about having a guardian angel but wasn’t a Catholic.
“The priest and Dr. Finch became very interested in my story when they found out I was probably the only prisoner in San Quentin, besides Dr. Finch, without any priors. I remember the priest leaning forward in his chair one day, clasping his hands together and saying, ‘Jake, you’ve got to think long and hard about what the rest of your life is going to be like if you don’t do something to get yourself out of this. With who you are, and how you act, you’re probably going to die violently in the not-too-distant future, and even if you don’t, what kind of a life are you going to have here? No freedom to come and go as you please, no sex, no nice cars, just violence all the time.’
“I realized the padre was right. I’d been too busy living in the moment. Besides, all the newness had gone out of prison life. It wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t give a shit if I was at the top or the bottom of the pile.
“My first parole hearing was coming up in about three months, and the word was that they’d laugh me out of the room. The guys in the yard said I could look forward to meeting everyone who served on the San Quentin parole board for the next half century or so, depending on how long I lived.
“I got to scanning my life for people I thought might help me, and I came up with this guy from my childhood who I’d always liked and respected, who was now working at the White House. I knew he’d gone to top-notch schools and had become a very successful lawyer, but I didn’t know exactly what he did at the White House.
“Can’t hurt, I thought, so I wrote him a letter, addressed to the White House, explaining my situation to him. I didn’t whine or beg or try to make him feel bad. I also didn’t say sappy things like, ‘Remember the time we did this or that?’ Forget it — we were always straight with each other as kids and I wanted to keep it that way. I just laid the whole thing out: how I got there and what was currently going on with the other prisoners and with the warden. I told him that if I never heard from him I would absolutely understand and still have the greatest regard for him. I would have, too. I understood that I had fucked up and was continuing to do so, so I deserved what I got. Hell, I had fun along the way — shouldn’t there be a price to pay? It’s just that I wasn’t ready to die at such a young age.”
The White House
“One day, a few weeks before my parole date, a guard raps on my cell and tells me we’re going to the warden’s office. This never happens. Most prisoners do their entire stretch without having a one-on-one with the warden. When we get to the warden’s office, he comes out from behind the desk with a big, white, very official envelope in his hand and asks me who I know in the White House who might be sending me a letter. I stammered a bit at first, because I was a little stunned, but I managed to give him the name of my boyhood friend, and the warden handed me the envelope. He had already read its contents, of course, that being the procedure with all prison mail.
“The letter was beautifully designed, with a finely drawn picture of the White House up in the left-hand corner, with ‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’ under it, then my friend’s name under that, all in raised gold-embossed lettering. I couldn’t get much of a close-up look at it on the walk back to my cell, because my arms and wrists were shackled, but even from arm’s length it looked like pretty interesting reading!
“I can’t remember my friend’s words exactly, but he told me in very few words that he was going to look into the matter. I seem to recall some words of encouragement, because he’d do that kind of thing, but the important thing was that he said he was going to look into it. Guys like him don’t just say things and then not do them, so all of a sudden I had a ray of hope.
“Before long I got visited by a lawyer about my age who’d gone to some Ivy League college with my friend and was joining a California law firm as an environmental lawyer. We hit it off very well, but with the way I’d behaved since I was first arrested, I doubted very seriously that he could help me. And there was another very serious factor involved here. Under no circumstance would I rat on my fellow prisoners. No information for special favors. I hated snitches and rats then, and do to this day. So there’d be no playing footsies with the parole board for me.
“When the day came, the parole board treated me like royalty! I was completely blown away! All I heard from them was praise for staying out of jail most of my life and being an honorably discharged veteran. Not a word about all the sorry, bad-assed stuff I’d done since I was first locked up. It was almost as if they were apologizing to me!
“They asked me to please take a seat out in the hall while my case was discussed, and when I came back in they told me I would be held in the separation center for about a month, away from the prison population, but would be released from prison at that time.”
Once again, I had to interrupt. “What?” I exclaimed. “You’re telling me that you were in San Quentin, looking at doing life in prison, and then you got out after only a year and a half behind bars?”
“There’s no way I can prove it to you,” Jake said. “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”
“Yes, there is a way,” I said. “You can tell me the name of the friend who helped you and I can give him a call to corroborate everything you’ve told me.”
“The guy wouldn’t want anything to do with any of this, believe me. He did me a huge favor — gave me back my life, actually — and I haven’t done a very good job of justifying his faith in me. I have not led a very exemplary life since being paroled from San Quentin, to say the very least, and I have no doubt the good gentleman deeply regrets his long-ago decision to help me. Let’s just stay right away from him.”
“I’d like to give him a call, Jake,” I pressed. “You just never know.”
Jake liked my tenacity. He knew I wouldn’t have been as insistent with him about anything when we first met, and he wanted to encourage my development as much as possible. He also couldn’t say no to something as ballsy as contacting a very important man about something that happened almost 50 years ago, something he quite likely would have little memory of, and what memories remained wouldn’t be pleasant.
“It was Harold Pachios,” Jake said.
Harold Pachios. Well, I’ll be damned. Mr. Pachios is among the most highly respected, influential and well-known figures in Maine law and politics. He’s a founding partner of the prestigious Portland firm Preti Flaherty, and the lengthy list of trusteeships and board chairmanships he’s held stretches from the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Maine Maritime Academy to Common Cause and beyond. He served as the Peace Corp’s liaison to Congress in the early ’60s, and these days he sits on the Council on Foreign Relations.
To be frank, I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to call Pachios. Powerful attorneys give me that same tightening in the stomach I felt when I first met Jake. But as Jake says, the only thing to do is go right straight for it. The receptionist at his law office put me through right away.
“I’ve been following Jake’s life story in The Bollard and have been wondering if you were going to call when you got to the San Quentin part!” he jovially said.
“Well,” I replied. “I didn’t know if, I, ah…”
“Jake and I were boyhood friends,” Pachios continued. “I’m a couple of years older than he is. He lived in South Portland and I lived in Cape Elizabeth, but our houses were just a few streets away from each other, so we lived in the same neighborhood. I’ve always liked Jake. He’s a gentleman!”
I listened in stunned silence.
“He was a big kid, kind of, because he lifted weights, and he liked to fight, but he wasn’t a bully. He’d fight with other kids who liked to fight, or he’d beat up guys who picked on the smaller kids. He’s a very talented and intelligent guy, that I can tell you. And he has a terrific sense of humor. I know he’s done a lot of jail time since the San Quentin days, of course, and I don’t like, condone, or even understand what Jake has done in many cases, but he’s always been square with me.”
The conversation turned to how Harold happened to do Jake that big favor.
“I’d been following his career from running into him on his visits home, from knowing his family, and in the media, so I was very interested when I saw the letter from him on my desk. I held a significant post in Lyndon Johnson’s White House at the time, and my office was just down the hall from the Oval Office. His letter had gotten a lot of notice when it arrived, because of his very large and kind of ornate handwriting and the mysterious return address of Tamal, California. A couple of the secretaries looked it up, and there is no such place, so the letter got a lot of notice. We found out later that Tamal is a special return address for San Quentin.”
So, I’d doubted whether Harold Pachios even remembered helping Jake, and in fact he recalled details down to the return address on the envelope Jake sent him half a century ago. Wow.
“I mailed a letter to Jake that I was going to look into it,” Harold said. “Then after I found out a little bit about what was going on, I called a very good attorney friend I’d gone to Princeton with, who had recently joined a San Francisco law firm, and he visited with Jake a few times. Evidently they got along very well and my friend ended up spending a lot of time on Jake’s case, even though he was practicing as an environmental lawyer, not as a criminal lawyer.”
When I asked Harold if I could quote him in this story, he said, “Yeah, go ahead! Jake’s always been an up-front guy as far as I’m concerned. He has a great sense of fairness about him, and loyalty to his friends. He did me a great favor once. It was sort of payback, I guess, but I had the feeling that he would have done it for me even if he didn’t owe me a favor.
“When I left the White House, President Johnson gave me a pair of gold cuff links with the Presidential Seal on the front and ‘L.B.J.’ on the back, as a memento of our time in the White House together,” Harold said. “When I returned to Portland and was checking into the Eastland Hotel, someone rifled through my luggage in my car parked out front and stole them. I was really distressed, because they meant a lot to me. I knew it was very unlikely that the police were going to make that kind of recovery, so I called Jake and asked him if he would see what he could do. He didn’t sound too hopeful, but told me he’d try.
“I really didn’t expect to hear from him, and told him I’d certainly understand if I didn’t, but a couple of weeks later he called me and asked me where I wanted the cuff links dropped off. Recovering those cuff links meant an awful lot to me, believe me. I wear them a couple of times a year now, on special occasions, and sometimes I smile and think of Jake as I’m putting them on.”
“Goodbye, Harold,” I said before our chat ended. “Jake will be delighted when I tell him about our conversation.”
And he was.
I asked Jake what it felt like to walk out of San Quentin and he told me a story from his childhood.
“Once when I was a young teenager I was walking into Portland from South Portland and at the bottom of High Street I saw a large black trash bag thrashing around frantically. I knew immediately that there was a bird inside, so I ran up to it and held it open so the bird could fly out. I’ll never forget seeing that bird swoop out of the bag and bare its breast to the wind again, so wonderfully and gloriously happy to be free!
“There I was when I was released from prison, a wild bird, wonderfully and gloriously free, swooping off to who knows where!”
A condition of Jake’s release was that he had to immediately leave California. Jake being Jake, he promptly disobeyed that order.
“The first thing I did was go visit Sonny Barger at his home, of course,” he said. “I knew he’d be very happy at my release, and he was indeed. Set me up with some very delectable company for the night, as I remember. That was good. Damn good, after being incarcerated for eighteen months.”
“So, Jake,” I said, “after you got paroled from San Quentin and visited Sonny Barger to pay your respects, you went home to Maine, got a job selling life insurance, married your high school sweetheart, bought a nice house in South Portland and got active in the Jaycees again, right?”
Jake laughed as hard as I’ve ever seen him laugh. “I have barely begun to tell you about my life, my friend! Please keep in mind that we are only up to when I was thirty years old. Not even half my life had gone by at the time I got out of San Quentin. So hang on — this is where things start to get interesting!”