Thursday, July 25, 2013

American Justice


I have been to America several times. The first was as a refugee in early wartime, returning by convoy across the Atlantic to join the RAF in 1942 when old enough to do so.
            Returning to the US almost right away in wartime, I was sent to Oklahoma to learn to become a pilot.
            I was back there again, post-war, to be married in front of the fireplace at my great friend’s house in New Haven. A Jewish gentleman who we found through the Yellow Pages conducted the ceremony. Then four of us went to New Hampshire on honeymoon.
            Back once more in America, this time with a baby, I was with my now ex-wife who was a Post-Graduate Fellow at Yale. I shudder to recall a cruel, hoax telephone call there, supposedly from the Police Station, to inform me that my wife had been shot and that she was in a critical condition. When I telephoned the Police Station to learn more, they knew nothing of it. Matters like that, and thus the sound of an American telephone bell with which the incident was connected, stay in one’s head for ever.
            Then came a visit once more, this time with my new wife.
            So, one way or another, quite a part of my life has been spent in the USA. And I have had close connections with it through almost weekly correspondence over some 60 years with my great friend, the recently deceased and much honoured historian, Edmund S. Morgan.
            Perhaps it was those first few years of Rob’s life in Connecticut that was
the magnet that drew my firstborn back to America. Or was it the lure that seems to catch the young of this world – a New World, glamour, riches, fame and all the rest (mostly as seen in the “movies”)?
            I have found most Americans to be extremely friendly, but the country, despite a common language, very “foreign”. I have never felt really at ease there. Perhaps it is the sheer size of the place, and the feeling of just being merely a  consumer.
            Be that as it may, this slightly wayward “American” son of mine, after London work as a bicycle dispatch rider (averaging 80 miles a day) to find the Company with whom he would like to work with his computer (and did), then decided to settle in Los Angeles, California.
            Being very imaginative, artistic, creative and resilient, he found sporadic work with his computer, designing record sleeves, book covers (including four of mine), work behind bars (as a barman who spun bottles and glasses around the place), running restaurants, making films, designing and making scenery for TV commercials and much else.
            Then he found his true m├ętier – as a prop master, specialising in fake explosions (blowing up a Boeing 747 airliner being his largest) and general ordinance – canons, hand guns, and all the things that go flash and bang. He was in his element, and happy as a sand boy.
            He wrote that he had just landed a job as prop master for a major film, and that there was other film work in the offing. There was even interest in him writing his autobiography.
            We then heard from a great friend of his in London that he was in a Los Angeles jail.
            He managed to send me a letter as he was awaiting trial. It was folded into a small square, and pencil-written in capital letters on lined paper torn from an exercise book.
            His following words, with his permission to print them, speak for themselves:
           


Dated 14 of September 2012

IT WOULD SEEM THAT I AM IN THE HANDS OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, I WOULD SAY “JUSTICE SYSTEM” BUT I AM NOT WITNESSING MUCH OF THAT AT THE MINUTE. JUST WHEN I HAD IT ALL WORKED OUT AND FOUND MY WAY FORWARD IN LIFE. IT SEEMS THAT I MAY BE BACK TO SQUARE ONE. WELL, I SUPPOSE MY LIFE HAS BEEN ANYTHING BUT NORMAL SO FAR AND I SHOULDN’T BE SURPRISED BY THESE SUDDEN TURN AROUNDS.

IT ALL BEGAN THREE WEEKS AGO WHEN I WAS ENTERTAINING MY NEIGHBOUR AND A FRIEND. WE WERE HAVING A FEW GLASSES OF WINE AND I WAS TELLING THEM ALL ABOUT MY NEXT MOVIE PROJECT. AS THE AFTERNOON CONTINUED, I STARTED TO SHOW THEM THE PROPS I WAS GOING TO USE (MOSTLY PLASTIC GUNS, AMMO AND FAKE DYNAMITE STICKS). IN AMONGST ALL THIS WAS ONE WORKING SHOTGUN WHICH I ALSO USE AS A PROP ON TV SHOWS.
THE GUN APPEARED TO BE JAMMED SO I TOOK IT OUT TO THE BALCONY FOR A BETTER LOOK. WHEN I FINALLY MANAGED TO RELEASE THE PUMP ACTION IT WENT OFF AND SHOT INTO THE AIR. LUCKILLY NO ONE WAS HURT AND IT SHOT STRAIGHT UP. IT SHOCKED US A BIT AND I HAD NO IDEA THERE WAS A SHELL STUCK IN THERE. ANYWAY, WE THOUGHT NOTHING OF IT AND TOOK OUR DRINKS DOWN TO THE POOL AS IF NOTHING HAD HAPPENED (JUST ANOTHR GUN SHOT IN HOLLYWOOD).
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WAS STRAIGHT OUT OF THE MOVIES. FROM THE POOL WE COULD SEE HELICOPTERS BUZZING ABOUT AND THOUGHT NOTHING OF IT. JUST ANOTHER NORMAL DAY. ANYWAY, A FEW MINUTES AFTER WE GOT BACKTO MY FLAT THE DOOR OPENED, FOLLOWED BY A FULL SWAT TEAM WITH ASSAULT RIFLES AND RIOT GEAR. WE WERE ALL CUFFED AND LED OUT INTO THE STREET WHERE THERE WAS QUITE A SCENE, ROADS CLOSED OFF, TENANTS EVACUATED, PRESS CAMERAS FLASHING AND THE ARRIVAL OF THE BOMB SQUAD. IT WAS CLEAR AT THIS POINT THAT THE CITY HAD SLIGHTLY OVER-REACTED TO THE WHOLE THING.
APPARENTLY, YOU ARE GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT OVER HERE. SO I WAS HAULED OFF TO JAIL WITH ACCUSATIONS OF SHOOTING AT CONSTRUCTION WORKERS, HELICOPTERS, AND BEING INVOLVED IN TERRIORISM… GREAT!
IT SEEMS THAT ONE PRESS HELICOPTER HAD TO MAKE AN EMERGENCY LANDING BECAUSE OF ENGINE FAILURE. BUT THAT’S REALLY NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. THEY SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN SO NOSEY.
SO HERE I WAIT FOR AT LEAST ANOTHER MONTH WHILST THE LAWYERS STRIP AWAY ALL THE OVERDONE SENSATIONALISM AND SEE IT FOR WHAT IT ACTUALLY WAS, A NEGLIGENT ACCIDENT.
IN THE MEANTIME THEY MOVE ME AROUND THRU THE SYSTEM AND BECAUSE OF MY PRESENT SECURITY LEVEL I AM IN WITH GANG MEMBERS, MURDERERS AND ALL KINDS OF FUN PEOPLE. I CAN’T HELP THINKING THAT THIS ENGLISHMAN IS SLIGHTLY OUT OF PLACE HERE. MOST PEOPLE IN L.A. HAVE BEEN IN JAIL AT LEAST ONCE AND FOR CELEBRETIES IT’S REALLY QUITE FASHIONABLE. AND I HAVN’T BEEN IN ANY MAJOR RIOTS YET, WHICH IS GOOD…
I GUESS I HAVE TO LOOK AT THIS WHOLE THING AS A NEW BEGINNING WHICH IS JUST THE START OF ANOTHER CHAPTER IN MY SOMEWHAT COLOURFUL LIFE.
DUE TO THIS “ONE SECOND” INCIDENT I HAVE MISSED OUT ON A MAJOR FEATURE FILM IN CONNECTICUT AND AM GIVING UP MY LOVELY FLAT AND DISPERSING MY POSSESSIONS AMONGST MY FRIENDS.
THE CRAZY THING IS THAT I HAVE NO IDEA HOW LONG THIS WHOLE THING WILL TAKE, MAYBE A MONTH, MAYBE YEARS… I WILL KNOW MORE AFTER THE HEARING IN A FEW WEEKS. UNTIL THEN I WILL WRITE OF MY EXPERIENCES AND TRY TO STAY POSITIVE IN THIS HELL HOLE.
LUCKILLY, I HAVE SOME VERY GOOD FRIENDS WHO ARE TAKING CARE OF MY AFFAIRS AND DOING DAMAGE CONTROL ON MY REPUTATION (WHICH WAS RATHER GOOD BEFORE THIS). ANYWAY, I’M SORRY IF THIS HAS BROUGHT ANY EMBARASSMENT OR SHAME ON THE FAMILY. BUT THIS TIME IT REALLY ”WASN’T MY FAULT “.
LOVE TO EVERYONE AND I MISS YOU ALL VERY MUCH.
(DON’T WORRY, I’VE BEEN THRU WORSE THAN THIS…)

Almost two months from being arrested he was moved to a jail, away from murderers and gangsters to where he was able to “get some sunshine and walk around a bit”
Then, after three court postponements, two and a half months behind bars, and a considerable reduction in bail money from the initial $250,000 (yes, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars), he was out on bail pending a (hopefully) final court appearance. (Surely there’s grist to the mill in all this for a book, a play, or an autobiography.)
            It seems that he was having to pay for the gross misjudgement and expense incurred on the part of the LA Police Force, having mistaken him (a prop master) for a terrorist (his rooms were filled with props, including fake guns and make-believe explosives).
            Shortly after being released on bail, he telephoned to say that he was in the mountains, trying to re-adjust to life outside prison. There would be two more court hearings. But he sounded very up-beat about the future.
            We then heard that that he would be back in court at a date a month away – being four and a half months after his arrest. Then he would file a notice for dismissal, when they would make an offer (whatever that means). The court (or police, perhaps) retained his passport. With the court case looming it was difficult for him to get any work.
            In early December 2012 Rob telephoned to say that, despite being on bail, he had found a job and created an explosion (his speciality). He hoped that his case would be settled out of court before the trial date. And due to frightful murders of school children in Connecticut, he was no longer public enemy number one, and even somewhat of a hero when welcomed back by his friends after his feat of endurance in jail.
            At last the date of his trial arrived (8 January 2013 after 5 months and 4 postponements) – and went. We heard nothing. Was that good or bad news?
            Then an email arrived. It said:

Went to court in front of the beak yesterday, all is looking good. They are going to reduce the charges or possibly dismiss the whole thing, but the legal system takes forever here. I have to go back on the 31st Jan to finish the whole thing.
Then I get my passport back just in time to fly to Costa Rica and host a new National Geographic show on a volcano.
Wow, talk about cutting it close…

(signed) The Hollywood Terrorist

The trial day came – and went.
            We waited for news, and waited, and waited, and waited.
            Four days later rumour reached us that all was well, but that he was now a person of no importance.
Again we waited – this time for confirmation that all really was well.
            Then, seven days after the trial, Rob telephoned, through a very low volume and bad line, to say that his passport had been returned but that he was still on bail.
            But the trials are not yet over. They will be two-pronged – a hearing with Immigration and one with the department that deals with the misuse of firearms, of which one will involve a fine and the other a short stay in a more comfortable jail. He added that the system from which he is trying to free himself is the second largest money-spinner in America after religion.
Then, on the 21st of February 2013, a card arrives to say that he was off to Costa Rica to co-host a pilot adventure show for National Geographic, hiking through the jungle, through crocodile-infested streams, then up a volcano and back down to hunt a prehistoric fish in a volcanic lake.
Another card arrived in mid-March to say: “Filming went well. Greetings from Costa Rica. Still on Bail”.
We heard through a mutual friend that it was best not to communicate.
It was not until the end of June 2013 that we had a telephone call from him to say that he was staying with a friend in West Hollywood and that there were still court matters to deal with. But he was optimistic – as he always has been.
Almost immediately we received an email of his description of the horror and humour of Californian prison existence, saying that after his two months in jail he had been to court four times with no result except postponement.
The document continued to describe a truly frightening tale of injustice and extreme hardship, told with great humour. He had managed to record the happenings when he was moved from one jail to another.
His brilliant bit of writing should, hopefully, find a much wider audience. For my part, I am unable to blog a transatlantic parent’s version of events until he is clear of the courts, just in case, with such international eavesdropping at present, it could prejudice the outcome of the courts.
Then, toward the end of July, we get a telephone call from Rob to say that a penultimate court case would be held on the 12th of July – a day before his birthday. But the news of it was bad. He would now have to face a jury in court, with all the expense that that would entail – to the benefit of lawyers and court. He would have to appear a week after this communication. And for such a resilient character, he sounded very depressed. He was being treated very badly by the law in a country that he loved, where he wanted to work, was happy, and where he was about to become a proud citizen before he inadvertently and harmlessly fired a gun. And this was in a country where people are lawfully armed, murders are rife, and crazy gunmen kill, seemingly for the pleasure of it.
On the 22nd of July 2013, after almost 11 months after he was handcuffed and clapped in jail, a bargain was struck and he was a free man.
This bargain seems to be that he would admit to the negligent discharge of a BB device in the air, which would mean that he would no longer have to face a court and jury. He would be on probation for three years and have to pay for the services of his arrest.
After his dreadful ordeal he is at last free of the courts and the American legal system.
The conclusion is simple. You set foot in America at your peril, and if you are Rob, it seems – even more so.