Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass
by Cliff Gallant
Editor’s note: This is the tenth installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 11 will appear next month.
In 1977, two years after Jake Sawyer got out of state prison, he was sent back to federal prison, this time in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I knew the official reason he was incarcerated — hell, people still talk about that caper — but I couldn’t understand why, after all he’d been through, Jake would so brazenly break the law once again. The question had been gnawing at me since our last meeting, and when we settled into our chairs in his apartment for another interview it burst out with a frustration that surprised us both.
“C’mon, Jake,” I said, “you were in your mid-thirties, with your whole life ahead of you. Freedom! Women! The open road! How did you allow that to happen, man?”
At first he just sat there looking stunned, gazing at the ceiling and kind of grumbling to himself. Then a smile crept over his face, he looked me square in the eye, pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “Right on, brother!”
I’d never confronted Jake that way before and he was delighted with my progress. I’d gone “right straight for it,” as he says, and he was proud of me. Wow.
“I did try to stay out of trouble with the law after I got out of Maine State Prison,” Jake said. “But I just couldn’t make it happen. I didn’t exactly become a model citizen, but I didn’t do foolish things like before. No more dumping stolen cars into Portland Harbor, for instance. Maybe I was growing up? I don’t know. I might’ve gotten involved in a shady transaction now and then, but I no longer felt the need to shove what I was doing up law enforcement’s ass, and that was progress, I guess.
“I got completely out of the discount used-car-and-motorcycle business and didn’t make any effort to revive the huge marijuana distribution network I’d been operating. I had sold Dancer’s Variety and Mystique Figure Wrap before I went to prison, so I no longer had income from those sources either, but I still owned three apartment buildings on Munjoy Hill and they proved to be a very good safety net. There wasn’t a lot of rental income left after I paid all the overhead, especially because I developed the bad habit of letting my tenants slide if they couldn’t come up with the rent, but the equity I had in the buildings allowed me to revive the Dancer’s Bail Bonds business I’d run for a number of years, and with all the time I had on my hands that activity was soon more lucrative than ever.
“The couple years between Maine State Prison and Lewisburg were two of the happiest years of my life, now that I think about it,” he continued, his mood brightening with the memories. “It wasn’t that ol’ Jakie boy had turned into a Goody Two-Shoes, though. That wasn’t going to happen even if I wanted it to, which I sure as hell didn’t. I did take measures to stay out of serious trouble with the law, but the wild crazy-man aspect of my previous life did not diminish in any way. Public sex, fights in the streets — sometimes in Portland, sometimes down in Lowell, when I went down to spend time with my Hell’s Angels brothers — that all continued in much the same way as before.”
“Alright, Jake,” I said, “then what the hell happened?”
“Would you believe I was sent up on a bum rap?” he asked, laughing.
“No,” I said. “You’ve already told me that you’ve deserved every punishment you’ve ever gotten, so how did this one go down?”
“You know how they say the biggest mistake a bar owner can make is to become his own best customer? Well, that’s about what happened with me and my buildings. I lived in one of my apartments, and when my tenants stopped by for one reason or another, we’d end up partying all day and night with anyone else who might happen by. The good times just went on and on. There were a whole lot of people running around the place at any given time, many of them being on the unsavory side. You have to keep in mind that even though I was pretty much staying legal myself, I was still a very central figure in the Portland underworld through my work as a bail bondsman and other activities.
“My apartment was on the first floor, and sometimes there’d be so many people partying there’d be bodies falling out the windows. Drugs and alcohol galore, fantastic friggin’ orgies, decadence like you wouldn’t believe. Neither would you believe, sir, the number of very well known and respected people who took part in the debauchery at one time or another. I’ve never been one to name names, that’s for damn sure, so I won’t, but when I see them around town putting on uppity airs I sometimes give ’em a sly little smile and it tickles the hell out of me when their face reddens a little and they scurry away. A boy’s gotta have his fun, ya know?
“Anyway,” he continued after we’d chuckled about that a bit, “what ultimately led to my undoing was all the war stories I was telling about myself in the midst of all this mayhem. Things like my time in the Combat Zone, all the high times I’d had with my Hell’s Angels brothers, the time I spent in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. I just couldn’t lay off the storytelling, man, and after awhile it became impossible for me to live up to the image of myself I’d created and still manage to stay out of trouble with the law.”
“The whole thing started as kind of a joke, really,” Jake explained. “There had been a major marijuana bust in Portland and the feds had a mountain of the stuff stored at the Coast Guard base in South Portland, so naturally a lot of the people who hung around my place started to fantasize about how cool it would be to liberate all that weed. Of course I scoffed at the whole idea, mainly because I was far less naïve than they were and knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that anybody could successfully make the heist. Even if they did pull it off, they’d be apprehended in no time flat. The feds would go absolutely bullshit if someone stole that weed from under their noses, I assured them, and they are not people you want to square off against, because they’re very smart and very tough. We’re not talking the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department here.
“I know you’re very familiar with the details of the ‘suicide charge’ I led with my Hell’s Angels brothers, and how I stood up in a meeting before that and told my brothers the charge was a very bad plan that would likely result in either death or prison for anyone who took part, and yet I ended up leading the charge anyway. Well, sir, that was the story this time, too. I knew damn well what a stupid fucking idea it was to try to steal that weed from the feds, but I ended up being the friggin’ point man. Put the whole damn thing together and led the assault on the warehouse where the weed was stored, knowing all the while what the end result would be.
“Here’s how it all came down. Two of my longtime tenants, a couple of long-haired, hippie-type brothers named Richard and Scott Weeman, who I had become close friends with over the years, somehow or other made the acquaintance of a couple of young Coast Guard guys who did duty guarding the weed, and the Weemans became obsessed with the possibilities that presented. The Coast Guard guys very young, just out of high school, so they were very impressionable. When they got partying at my place and people found out about them guarding the weed they became the center of attention, which is sometimes hard for a young man to deal with, especially when he’s away from home and has made contact with a group of very cool people — a good number of them being extremely delectable and very willing females. All those guys had to do was agree to look the other way for awhile and all fame and glory would be theirs.
“I still knew the whole idea was absurd, but with the involvement of the two Coast Guard guys the Weeman brothers were absolutely certain we could pull it off, and when they dared me to get involved, that was it. What pushed me over the edge, actually, was when they showed me a story the Press Herald ran on the front page about how well the weed was being guarded by the federal government, and how impossible it would be to get at the stuff. The big picture on the front page of some Coast Guardsmen carrying machine guns and looking real menacing was too much for me to bear. The gauntlet had been thrown to the ground big time, and everyone was watching to see what I would do.
“There were three of us, the Weeman brothers and me. Our Coast Guard guys said they could be away from the gate of the fence around the warehouse for exactly eight minutes — starting at 4 a.m., when we were to pull up to the gate in our truck, and ending at 4:08 a.m., when we had to have all the weed transferred from the warehouse to the truck and be entirely out of sight — so everything had to go precisely according to plan.
“The Coast Guard guys had told me the type of locks they had down there, so I did my homework and was able to pick them both in a matter of seconds. I’ll never forget that skunky smell of high-quality weed that hit us when Scott opened one of the bags to take a whiff. He jerked his head back and yelled, ‘Whoa!’ Both he and his brother would’ve stood there getting high if I let them, but after I screamed that we had to get the fuck going, the three of us began working very feverishly and were successful at completing the transfer in the allotted time.
“The weed had a street value of well over a million dollars, but I knew getting that much out of it would be a long, drawn-out and dangerous process that would likely get us busted, so I made arrangements to sell the whole stash to a single buyer for ninety thousand dollars, which was a very big chunk of change in the 1970s. The whole idea was to get the stuff out of our lives as quickly as possible and be satisfied with what we could keep. Being greedy is often what gets people caught.
“A couple days later, after I’d made the sale, I met the Weeman brothers down at the St. John Street McDonald’s to give them their share and they were bug-eyed as hell when I handed them each thirty grand across the table while they were eating their friggin’ unhealthy as hell Big Macs and slurping their drinks. They were completely dazzled, but that kind of thing wasn’t as new to me, of course, and I tried to calm them down and get them to realize that because we’d made away with the weed and had gotten to the part where we sold it, that didn’t mean the movie was over. Not by a long shot, I assured them. I stressed to them that they should not flash their newfound wealth around town, and they both solemnly agreed, but then two days later Richard pulls up all smiles in front of my apartment in a very cool, expensive-looking MG sports car.
“‘You fucking asshole!’ I bellowed at him. ‘When they pull you in for questioning you’d better forget my fucking name or I’ll haul your ass up the stairs to the top of the Observatory and throw you the fuck off it!’ There wasn’t any hint of joking around in my voice, and I could see by the look on his face that he took careful note of that. Sure enough, though, he and his brother Scott were taken in for questioning about a week later. When the two Coast Guard guys were grilled, they didn’t last long, of course, and naturally they pointed the feds in the direction of my apartment. The first thing they did when they arrived was knock on the door and ask who owned the MG parked out front.
“Fortunately I wasn’t home at the time, but when I heard they’d arrested the Weeman brothers I knew I was going to be next. There were a whole lot of people who knew damn well I had set the whole thing up — the brazen nature of the whole thing pointed very clearly in my direction, after all — so I knew it wouldn’t be long before the authorities would be on me.
“I had to get out of town as expeditiously as possible, so I turned to one of my other tenants, who I knew had had considerable experience in the matter of making oneself scarce and out of reach of the law. Cameron Bishop was his name, and he’d been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for eight years for his part in a plan to bring down the federal government by bombing selected government buildings. He, along with some other politically radical tenants of mine, had appeared quite prominently in the national news a few years earlier in connection with their various escapades. I have always been a super-patriot, so I didn’t want any part of that kind of thing, of course, but I knew Cameron could be just the man to help me get hidden away, and he didn’t let me down.
“He told me he knew of a little town high on a mountain in Colorado where some of his associates were hiding out, and where he was held in high esteem, so, as a special friend of his, I’d be very welcome there. When he added that the town, Ward, Colorado, had been an outlaw hideout since the days of the Old West, and that some all-time heroes of mine, like Jesse James and Cole Younger, had hidden out there, he didn’t have to say anything more. He too felt the need to distance himself from the authorities at the time, so I went out and paid cash for a new Chevy Blazer — hey, they were already on to me — and before long Cameron and I were cruising across America in mid-August of 1976, riding in air-conditioned comfort, me with the remainder of my ill-gotten gains stuffed in my wallet and my motorcycle in back, and he with a good supply of exceptionally potent Thai weed in his backpack.”
“When we got to Colorado I dropped Cameron off at a small ranch where some radical friends of his were holing up, and continued on my own up a very steep, rough and broken trail to the top of a two-mile-high mountain, where I found the place I was looking for. Ward is over ninety-four hundred feet in elevation and looks down on Denver, which is about sixty miles away, so it’s quite a place to arrive at.
“I made quite a sensation when I made my appearance in Ward, because the population of the town was only a few dozen people and they went months without seeing anyone new. They all came running and gathered around when I pulled up in front of the only store in town. There I was, this six-foot-three, broad-shouldered giant who looked like he’d dropped in from another planet. They knew no one ever came to Ward without a good reason, though, and when I told them I was a friend of Cameron Bishop, the town sheriff — who was a short guy named Fuzzy — ran off and telephoned him. Fuzzy came back and told everyone that Cameron had said I was a Hell’s Angel and a friend. They all kind of laughed and applauded and got so excited I thought they might crown me emperor. Right away there was something I liked about the place.
“There was a very attractive hippie woman who was the unofficial mayor of Ward and she liked me right off, so I spent my first night in town at her place and ended up living with her. We had a very open relationship, though. We didn’t hawk-eye each other’s comings and goings in the slightest bit, and after I got used to it the thin air didn’t put a cramp in my style at all. I’ve never minded women with unshaven armpits and hairy legs, no matter what the altitude, and there were a number of very attractive women of that type in Ward, along with a good supply of pot and homebrew, of course, so life was good.
“There was also a spirit in Ward that I’ve never found anywhere else. Every one of us was an outsider of some kind and there was a kind of kinship between us. We kidded around a lot, had some great home-cooked meals together, did a lot of wild dancing out in the fields to great fiddle music, that sort of thing. A lot of the hippies were social activists hiding out from the law, so there was a lot of very stimulating conversation that went on. Patty Hearst had stayed in Ward for a while when she was on the run from the feds, and I just missed meeting her, which was too bad. But a lot of the hippies were into séances and things like that, so I got to be in contact with Jesse James and Cole Younger. They said they were thrilled to death to make my acquaintance!”
Jake rocked back and forth in his chair, laughing like hell at that one, while I sat across the room, groaning.
“Unfortunately,” he went on, “my time in Ward totaled only about four months. I was entirely content there, and actually contemplated staying forever, but one day I received some news that changed everything. A friend from home wrote and told me that the FBI was putting a great deal of pressure on my parents to cooperate with their investigation, and they were making things uncomfortable for them in many different ways. Of course, I always took great pains to keep knowledge of my activities and whereabouts away from my parents, so they couldn’t have helped with the investigation anyway. But the feds knew I couldn’t tolerate my mother suffering because of me, and that’s why they were harassing her. I knew I’d regret telling that psychiatrist at San Quentin so much about myself.
“Anyway, after some long hugs all around with the friends I’d made in Ward, I hopped on my bike and cruised down the mountain, headed back to Portland to present myself to the appropriate authorities. Hey, I still enjoyed the hell out of the motorcycle ride across the country, though. Can’t let precious moments go unappreciated, know what I mean?”
Yeah, I thought. What’s to worry?
Facing the music
“The night the Portland Police arrested me, Detective Mike Russo got me aside and said I was facing forty years in federal prison, and that they were very confident they could convict me, because the Weeman brothers had ratted on me and would testify against me at my trial. They had been given two years at a correctional facility for youthful offenders in Morgantown, Virginia, and after the first year they ratted me out to gain their freedom, knowing I would do much more serious time than just the one year they had left on their sentences.
“At this time I would like to say, sir, that I would very much like to include the Weeman brothers in any profits that might come from the sale of the best-selling book and blockbuster movie we’re putting together here, so if they’re reading this, Richard and Scott should be sure to get in touch with me. We became good friends over the years when they were my tenants, and I know they have some good stories they’d enjoy sharing. Anything that might have happened subsequent to our previous happy days together has been forgotten, of course. So, if they wish to contact me themselves, or if there is anyone who is interested in a reward that will be paid for information pertaining to the whereabouts of Richard or Scott Weeman, they can contact me through your publication, correct?”
“Yeah, sure, Jake,” I said. “I’ll, ah, talk to my editor about that.”
Satisfied his point had been made, Jake continued. “Detective Russo and I had become good buddies over the years that I was a bail bondsman, so he leveled with me right from the start. All I had to do was tell them what I did with the weed after we stole it and I’d do another short stretch up in Maine State Prison, instead of serving a long sentence in a federal penitentiary. Yeah, like hell. I hardly knew the guy I sold the pot to, I didn’t know if he was a good guy or a shithead, but there was no way I was going to rat him out, regardless. A rat is a gutless coward who deserves to be exterminated, and I am not a rat.
“After I was indicted I spent six months in County Jail awaiting trial, which was not my idea of a good time. There I was, locked up down on Federal Street instead of dancing with lovely hippie women high on a mountaintop in Ward, Colorado. My only consolation was the fact that my bail was higher than the bail of all the other inmates put together.
“It was boring as hell in County Jail, but at least we had a lot of pot. I taught this one guy who was assigned to outside detail how to shove an ounce up his ass in such a way as to adequately secure it there without hurting himself, and how to walk so it wouldn’t become dislodged. He got to be extremely good at it and his efforts were appreciated by all. We’d stand on our tiptoes looking out the cell window, watching for him to return from work, and when we spotted him coming down the sidewalk, walking in that special way, everybody would cheer like hell. Hey, everybody needs to be a hero at one time or another, and this was that guy’s shining moment, I guess. One of the guards proved to be very helpful, as well. He was a Jesus freak, and we needed something to roll the weed in, so I asked him to bring in a Bible for me. ‘Sure, Jake!’ he said. We were just getting to the end of the Old Testament when my trial date arrived.
“With the Weeman brothers testifying against me at my trial, I had absolutely no chance of acquittal, but I had Dan Lilley again as my lawyer and I was confident that he’d be able to successfully negotiate a favorable sentence. When I arrived in court and saw who the prosecuting attorney was, though, I knew we were in for a dog fight.
“It was George Mitchell! The man who was later to become a powerful U.S. Senator and one of the most respected people in the world! He had that special look about him even then. You knew he was going places and that he wasn’t used to losing. He was a great guy, though. He was putting everything he had into getting me put away, and he never wavered about that a bit, but as the trial went on it became apparent that we liked one another. He knew from my reputation that I was a very colorful character, and he enjoyed kind of joking around with me, kind of on the sly. A little raised eyebrow here and there, that kind of thing.
“I did kind of get carried away with it, though. George is a quiet, conservative kind of guy, and he had his customary way of dressing: blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt and red tie. Even though he had the same thing on every day, I’d always say, ‘Nice outfit, George!’ and he’d chuckle like hell. Of course, I couldn’t leave it at that. I got a friend on the outside to get me a blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt and red tie, and when George saw me being led into court dressed like that it cracked him up so much I didn’t know if he could continue. I wasn’t trying to soften him up — I really wasn’t. I just liked him and enjoyed making him laugh.
“George Mitchell wasn’t the only rising star in the courtroom. When we took our seats on the first day of the trial, Dan nodded in the direction of the judge and whispered to me that they’d assembled the A Team in my honor. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but the judge turned out to be none other than the legendary Judge Edward T. Gignoux, the man for whom the new federal courthouse on Federal Street was later named. Judge Gignoux was a very stern, wise-looking man, and I wasn’t at all tempted to play any kind of footsie with him the way I was doing with George Mitchell.
“Well, George got his wish, but it didn’t quite turn out as he expected. I was convicted of four felonies, and Judge Gignoux gave me ten years on each one, just the way George urged him to. But then, as I was sitting there stunned, trying to get my head around the fact that I was probably going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I heard the judge say the wonderful words ‘to be served concurrently.’ Man! Ten years when I was facing forty! And then Dan leaned over and said I could possibly get out in less than three!
“Truthfully, I didn’t know the reason for Judge Gignoux’s leniency until a number of years later, when I ran into a former federal agent at J’s Oyster Bar who told me the judge admired the fact that I absolutely refused to help myself by ratting on anyone in any way, even when I knew it would have been much to my benefit to do so. The guy also told me the judge had developed a strong disgust of the Weeman brothers after it became apparent from their testimony that they had lassoed me into the whole thing, rather than the other way around — and now, here they were in his court, ratting me out to save their own asses. So, as it turned out, Judge Gignoux truly was a very wise man with a very strong sense of fair play, and I’m happy he ended up having a beautiful new building named after him.”
Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary
“Needless to say, the feds weren’t happy about the sentence I received — they were certain they’d put together a case that would get me put away for the rest of my life — so they went out of their way to make sure I did some very hard time. Most people think of Folsom and San Quentin as being the toughest prisons in the country, but when an inmate hears ‘Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary’ they take in a quick breath and their stomach tightens. You know the feeling, right?”
“Yeah, I do,” I said, nodding.
“At the time, Lewisburg was the foremost maximum-security prison complex in the country,” Jake continued. “The inmate population was mostly made up of mob bosses, black Muslim extremists, and bomb-throwing social activists — people who were well known on the outside and had many loyal followers. It really wasn’t the kind of place you’d expect a guy to be sent for stealing some pot up in Portland, Maine.
“The reason for the special treatment I received, my friend, was that the FBI sent me to Lewisburg to get me killed. They not only made sure I was sentenced to the most violent prison in the country, they went a step further and planted the rumor with the prisoners that I got a reduced sentence for ratting out my accomplices — with the full knowledge that rats are the most hated form of life throughout the prison system. As I was being processed into the prison, an old cellmate of mine from San Quentin was handing out shirts and he told me about the rumor. So the first time I stepped out on the yard, I knew every one of those guys hated my guts, just the way I would’ve hated them if I thought they were a fucking rat.
“The inevitable attempt on my life came after about two weeks, and I was damn well ready for it. The day I arrived at Lewisburg and saw what I was facing, I mounted a razor blade on a toothbrush, and from then on, whenever I was alone with any inmate, or out on the yard, I had it cupped in my hand, ready for action. I was hyper-aware of any movement around me, and when a guy going by me on the yard made a move to shove a shank into my chest, I was just a little quicker than he was and managed to slash his face a number of times — a few more than necessary, I’m afraid, just to make my point. Then, after I’d done that and he was standing there bent over, yowling his friggin’ head off and bleeding all over the place, I drove the other end of the toothbrush about two inches into his fucking thigh, as kind of a bye-bye-for-now gesture.
“After that incident, I am happy to report that no further attempts were made on my life. That’s not entirely because they were afraid of me — they could have found a way to get me. It was because after I was attacked I got on the situation big time and ended up shoving conclusive evidence in their faces that I was far from being a fucking rat. I had a friend send me a copy of the Press Herald that contained the story of the trial, and I walked up and handed it to Tony Provenzano, who was known as Tony Pro, and said, ‘Mr. Provenzano, please read this.’ Tony is rumored to have been the one who had Jimmy Hoffa killed, and he was one of the top mafia bosses in the prison yard, so it was a good idea to be very respectful of him.
“Within two hours after I gave Tony the newspaper story, everyone in the prison knew I wasn’t a fucking snitch, and I was the toast of Broadway. Life around the prison immediately got a lot rosier for ol’ Jakie boy. I was elevated to the top tier of the food chain when it came to obtaining prison contraband, so I had all the drugs and booze I wanted, and one of the mob bosses even set me up with an amazing through-the-fence head job by a very talented young lady he had flown in especially for the purpose.
“The best part of my day got to be playing bocce in the afternoon with the Italian mob bosses, like Tony Pro and Johnny Dio. Bocce is a great game and you have time for casual conversation between shots, so we all got to know one another very well. I found out how powerful those guys were. Johnny ran operations in the New York Garment District from the prison, and all the time we were playing guys would be running up to him with messages. Bocce requires a lot of skill and precision, though, so those guys knew better than to interrupt Johnny when it was his turn to shoot. Guys have been known to take a midnight dip in the East River with tire rims tied around their ankles for a lot less.
“With the getting-to-know-you period out of the way, my time at Lewisburg went rather smoothly. I had been pretty well assured by parties within the criminal justice system that I’d be out in under three years, so with that in mind I settled in and tried to lighten the hell hole up as much as I could in the time I had remaining there.
“I made some good friends at Lewisburg, though, once again, it showed me why prisons are the breeding ground for much of the criminal activity in the country. I could have been set up for a life of great adventure and untold riches through the contacts I made there. Johnny Dio said he’d be happy to set me up with a very lucrative position in his Garment District operation, and when I said ‘no thank you,’ he said he’d be willing to bankroll any enterprise I might want to get involved in up in Portland. That sounded tempting, but I’ve always been very reluctant to form alliances, given my volatile nature, and I thought it best to avoid any future trouble with the Mafia. Bring on the federal government — hell, yes — but spare me the boys in soft felt hats with long cigars hanging out of their mouths.
“I was out of Lewisburg on parole in about two and a half years, after initially facing forty years, so, all in all, things had not gone too badly and I had a lot to be grateful for. My mafia buddies had obtained a small radio for me, and one of my favorite memories of Lewisburg is sitting in my cell listening to a favorite song of mine by Waylon Jennings. I loved the line in it that went, ‘I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.’”
“So, Jake,” I said, trying to keep a straight face, “after you got paroled from Lewisburg you had calmed down a lot, and pretty much went straight and had a normal life, right?”
“Of course I did!” he yelled, with a big laugh. “Be serious, my friend. I’m going to tell you some things the next time we talk that are going to knock your friggin’ socks off! When I got out of Lewisburg in 1980 is when my life finally got interesting!”
Oh, my word, I said to myself. Oh, my word.