10 January 2013

Ambush in Bartlette:
Chapter 13

[Chapter 1] . . . [Chapter 2] . . . [Chapter 3] . . . [Chapter 4] . . . [Chapter 5] . . . [Chapter 6] . . . [Chapter 7] . . . [Chapter 8] . . . [Chapter 9] . . . [Chapter 10] . . . [Chapter 11] . . . [Chapter 12]

Saturday morning Jerome woke early. To be more accurate, from the moment he got into bed at about one thirty he tossed and turned in the bed, troubled; he dozed off a couple times, but each time he started awake, torn between the need for sleep and the certainty of a visit if he slept before making a difficult decision. Finally, he got out of bed at about five and spent an hour or so praying the rosary. This calmed him down considerably and he put some thought into what actions he should take today.

He needed to tell someone what Deputy Carr said the night before. However, from the things the Deputy's brother said, it could be disastrous to talk to any local police. He recalled that some of the news reports he read about the ambush stated the FBI was providing "technical support" in the investigation, but he did not know what that meant exactly. Would the FBI be the right people to go to and how could he get in contact with them anyway? Even if he could get in contact with someone there, how should he approach this situation? He thought about it for a while longer and decided that his best option was to call the Bishop's office and see if they could help him contact the FBI.

Jerome had the Bishop's "direct line", which actually went to whichever young priest had been pressed into service as the Bishop's aid this year. He called and a bleary voice answered. After identifying himself, Jerome explained that he needed help contacting the FBI. That woke the man up on the other side of the phone and after a little scrambling Father Ostrowski got Bishop Mannion on the line.

After Jerome explained the situation, the Bishop promised that he would have someone (that meant Father Ostrowski) contact the FBI and make sure an agent was talking to him by noon. Then Bishop Mannion gave Jerome his marching orders.

"When the secular authorities contact you, you will make it clear to them that the Church, and you as its representative will not cooperate in the murder of another. You know where the Council of Bishops, and the Church as a whole, stands on this issue."

Holding his phone, Jerome began to consider the possible outcomes of that order. "How far do you wish me to push the secular authorities on this, Your Excellency?"

"You must look to the Lord as he leads you in this matter. The taking of a life is a highly immoral part of the culture of death. We resist that with as much strength as the Lord gives us."

"Yes, Your Excellency, I understand." And Jerome did. That was a highly worded and spiritually grounded way of telling him to endure jail if he must, but not to cooperate with the FBI until such time as he had assurances that the death penalty was off the table.

For the next couple hours, Jerome prayed some and considered what he would say or do once the FBI called. While at BC Law, he only took two courses on criminal law. However, he distinctly remembered one of his professors adamantly telling the students that officers could lie at will to get the information they needed, but that if a federal agent could construe something you said to him as lie you got convicted of a felony and went to federal prison. He got the computer out that the Bishop's office had given him and researched these points, confirming both rather quickly. However, her also tripped across another fact: a prosecutor was ethically forbidden to lie. Armed with that bit of information, he called Richmond back and spoke to Father Ostrowski again.

By this time, Martin Ostrowski was already a very frustrated man. Apparently, the FBI was not being cooperative. He had finally been able to get into contact with someone in the Richmond office, but they would not tell him the name of any FBI agent involved in the Bartlette County investigation, much less how to contact one. Now, Jerome was adding another level of complexity. He told Ostrowski to make sure that any FBI agent who wanted to question him came to the meeting with a prosecutor.

Faced with the extra task, Father Ostrowski, to his credit, did not whine or make excuses. He took the message and told Jerome that he would pass it on if he could ever find a means to contact someone to pass it on to. Then Jerome let the young priest get back to his mission, smiling slightly at the exasperation he heard in the man's voice.

At a quarter past eleven, Jerome got a call from a man identifying himself as Special Agent Carlos Mazzota. The initial conversation was very short. The agent asked what Jerome needed to speak to him about and Jerome told him that while he was visiting Deputy Carr, the deputy woke up and made a statement which seemed to indicate who the attackers were. Special Agent Mazzota immediately asked whom Deputy Carr identified. When Jerome refused to give him that information the special agent did not get angry or loud; in fact, his voice flattened and fell into a practiced, cold rhythm.

"Father Tolton, under federal law concealing evidence of a felony is a crime and you could spend five years in prison for it."

Jerome's nerves spiked at the threat, but he clamped down on them. "I'm not hiding evidence Special Agent Mazzota. I am merely refusing to reveal that which was obscured by circumstances."

"Sir, you are concealing your knowledge of a felony from a federal officer. That's obstruction of justice. It may also be misprision."

This time Jerome's nerves did not jangle quite as much. "You can threaten me all you want. However, until such time as I talk to a federal prosecutor and sign a letter of use I will not turn this information over. I will not lie to you, nor will I hide something you could have otherwise found. I simply won't cooperate."

There was a pause from the other side. "Okay. I'll see if I can scare up one of the A U S A's. Understand something though, I don't like the idea of putting a priest in prison, but I will if I need to. You need to cooperate. It's time to render unto Caesar."

If he had heard that once, Jerome had heard that a thousand times. Every public official who wanted him to do something quoted that line and hearing it again actually put him back on more comfortable ground. "I am offering to pay unto Caesar, but the rest of that sentence requires me to pay unto God what is God's. All I am asking is that someone who can guarantee certain conditions be present so that I can do both."

With that the FBI agent grunted, told Jerome that he would call back as soon as he could, and hung up without any exchange of pleasantries. Jerome sat there for a moment before starting his computer back up. He needed to do some more research. Could he be thrown in prison for simply not telling an FBI agent something? And what in the world was 'misprision'?"

About ninety minutes later Special Agent Mazzota called back. He told Jerome that he had located a federal prosecutor and they would meet Jerome at the federal courthouse in Abingdon, Virginia at three. It took Jerome ten minutes to find directions to the courthouse on his computer and then he cranked up his truck and was on the road. As he drove, he called the Bishop's office and spoke to Father Ostrowski yet again. He filled the aid in on what what he was doing; he also told Ostrowski that he thought there was a good chance he would be in jail before the day was over. Ostrowski reciprocated by telling him that Special Agent Mazzota called about an hour earlier and spoke to the Bishop. Father Ostrowski was not privy to the conversation, but the Bishop was perturbed enough that he had Father Ostrowski calling around in an attempt to find a criminal defense attorney who would answer his phone on a Saturday. None had so far, but Ostrowski promised a call to Jerome as soon as he had more information. Jerome arrived in Abingdon with dark thoughts of an impending imprisonment at the forefront of his brain.

And promptly drove right past the courthouse - twice. To be fair, he expected a big marble building with columns or something of the like. He finally figured out that a short, brick building which looked like a post office was actually the courthouse. Then, he drove around a bit to find someplace to park, eventually leaving the truck in the parking lot of some sort of center for the arts on the other side of a large, fancy hotel from the courthouse. He arrived ten minutes late to find an annoyed looking man in his mid-thirties and a woman who appeared to be in her forties waiting for him. Both were dressed in perfectly tailored suits which looked like they had just been dry cleaned.

They recognized him as he walked up - not too hard since he was wearing the collar. Of course, the man was Special Agent Mazzota. The woman introduced herself as Assistant United States Attorney Ann Taylor. Jerome apologized for being late and the woman smiled at his explanation.

"Yeah, we get that a lot. The first time people come looking for the courthouse they expect something big and impressive and they get . . ." She let her voice fade as she waved her hand at the building. "The funny thing is that apparently there used to be a unique and impressive courthouse, but they tore it down and gave us this. Not sure why - before my time."

With that, she turned and walked in the glass doors, followed by Mazzota and Jerome. Inside, they were met by a man wearing khakis and a polo shirt which had a five pointed star in a circle embroidered over his heart. Ms. Taylor stopped to introduce him.

"This is Marshal Bates. He's here because somebody has to make sure we don't plant bombs in the courthouse and because if we aren't able to trust local law enforcement - something your actions have made Carlos suspect might be true - then we may have to lean on his people for muscle."

The four of them walked down a hall and went into a small room with a table and several chairs around it. As soon as they sat down Special Agent Mazzota turned to Jerome.

"Okay, you've got us all here. Tell us whatever you thought was so important it couldn't wait until Monday."

Instead of answering him, Jerome reached into the manila folder he had brought with him and pulled out a piece of paper. He handed it to Mazzota. "Here's the letter of use which I told you I needed a prosecutor for. Once I have a signed copy of this I will tell you what I know."

"This is garbage. You can't expect to be able to tell us . . ." In mid sentence, the FBI agent stopped when the prosecutor put her hand on his arm and motioned him out of the room. She excused herself as well and the marshal followed her. Jerome found himself sitting in the room alone.

It seemed like he waited for an eternity. Jerome did his best to stay as calm as possible, but his body had definitely decided this was a fight or flight circumstance and the adrenaline pumping into his system was not helping his nerves. He tried to say the Prayer to Saint Michael, which he had memorized specifically for this situation, but he kept foundering after "Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio." This was probably because the rest of the prayer was about rebuking and defeating the devil and Jerome was actually dealing with people of good intent. Perhaps they had been misled down a wrong path, but he did not think of any of them as actively pursuing an evil intent. In the end, he fell back on an old favorite.

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The Prayer of Saint Francis summed up the driving forces of Jerome's personal theology. It always comforted him and provided a reminder of Christian purpose. He repeated the prayer twice, said a decade of the rosary, and returned to his original prayer. His head remained bowed in prayer when the federal agents came back into the room.

He finished a last few lines of the prayer before raising his head. The attorney and marshal looked uncomfortable; the FBI agent looked skeptical. After a moment, they continued into the room and sat down. This time the prosecutor took the lead.

"Father, we've just spent a good bit of time talking to your boss. You realize that he's willing to sacrifice you in order to make a point? He doesn't like the death penalty, so he's willing to let you go to jail?"

"Ms. Taylor, we are both willing for me to make that sacrifice. Both of us serve God and God does not favor the destruction of any of his created, even those who have committed grave sin."

She nodded her head and gave him a look that mixed exasperation with irritation. "Yes, I thought you might say something like that. So, I also spoke to my boss and he approved the agreement. Here's a copy of your document. Understand, if you balk any further we will consider the agreement null and void and you to have obstructed justice. We will prosecute if you do not live up to the agreement you have made."

With that, Ann Taylor handed over a copy of the paper in her hand to Jerome and others to the the FBI agent and the marshal. Jerome took it and checked it over to make sure it was the same paper he handed to Ms. Taylor. It was simple to check because the entire agreement because it consisted of a single sentence:

"The United States government agrees that neither it, nor any of its political subdivisions, shall seek the death penalty for any deaths related to the firefight and explosion which took place on the 18th day of July in this year of Our Lord."

Below the sentence was Jerome's signature and Ann Taylor's along with a line where Ms. Taylor had written in the date. It was all there and everything was in order as far as Jerome could tell. He settled back and described the events of the night before. They had him repeat it at least ten times, asking him questions about it each time. Most of them wanted answers that Jerome did not have. He did not know where the deputy's brother lived. He did not know who "Brownie" was exactly. He did know what a "melungeon" was when the prosecutor asked, but only because he had looked it up on the internet: "a tri-racial, micro-minority group found exclusively in the Appalachian Mountains."

The questioning drug on for well over an hour before the meeting finally broke up. Everybody shook hands and the federals walked Jerome to the front door of the courthouse. At the door, the FBI agent told them he wanted to talk to Jerome alone for a second. The prosecutor asked if it was something she needed to be part of, but he told her it was just about security concerns and she stayed inside as the agent walked Jerome out.

"Father Tolton, what you've given us probably isn't going to break the case wide open, and it certainly doesn't justify what was signed away today." He raised his hand to halt Jerome before he could interrupt. "Yeah, I know. You have obligations to your church and she's probably right," he nodded his head back toward the prosecutor, "when she says the current administration wasn't going to sign off on this as a capital murder case over Catholic and liberal opposition." Special Agent Mazzota's tone left no doubt what he thought about that. "Anyway, you should not go back to Bartlette County. If local law enforcement is involved in this, you will not be safe. They probably don't know about this yet, but eventually, we'll have to involve at least Virginia State Police and there will be leaks. Too many of the troopers and locals have worked together for too long for it not to happen."

"I can't." Jerome began. "I've got . . ."

Mazzota cut across him. "Don't give me that 'man of God' crap. That collar doesn't make you bullet proof. This is starting to look really bad and if they get wind of you they won't hesitate to make a Black, Catholic Yankee disappear, whether he is a priest or not."

Jerome fixed the FBI agent in his gaze and spoke more firmly. "I am going back to Bartlette. I will be careful about it, but I will not flee. I have both a duty to the Church and to God and I will neglect neither."

The two men stood staring at each other for several moments before the FBI spoke. "I ought to put you in protective custody right now. Everybody in the world would go nuts if I did though. Besides, it would tip our hand too early." He reached into his pocket and pulled a card out of his wallet. "Here. That's got my direct number on it. If anybody from law enforcement other than FBI shows up, you call me before you go with them. Avoid local law enforcement as much as possible. We don't know exactly what's going on yet, so we don't know who all is involved. You're being an idiot. I can't stop you from being an idiot. All I can do is try to mitigate the damage." With that, the special agent turned and walked back to the courthouse door. A second later, Jerome started walking back to his truck.

Sunday passed uneventfully. In fact, Jerome spent most of the day in another parish. The priest in Holy Family parish was visiting a sick relative so Father Gabe covered his Saturday vigil masses at Saint Joseph in Grundy and Saint Mary in Richlands and Jerome agreed to cover the Sunday masses. This meant that Jerome was up six in the morning and on the road by seven. He arrived at Saint Elizabeth in Pocahontas, Virginia at eight-thirty. At nine he held mass for twenty-three people. Maybe that was a normal turnout; maybe it was extra because people wanted to check out the visiting priest. Jerome never could tell in these rural towns and it made little difference. The Church took its duty to minister to rural areas seriously and if this church only served ten people that would be ten people who would be abandoned by the Church otherwise. Consequently, individual churches here in the mountains were not parishes unto themselves; they were all part of a larger parish and the priest rode a circuit, driving from county to county, town to town in order to have mass at each church. The only problem with this system was that it meant the priest had to leave fairly quickly after mass ended at one church so that he could get to the next church in time and he was always a little late at the next church. Jerome stayed to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with the parishioners at Saint Elizabeth for about fifteen minutes and that was exactly how late he was in getting to Saint Theresa in Tazewell. The parishioners took it in stride and five minutes later he got mass started. After that mass there was a parish lunch which Jerome stuck around for and it was well after four by the time that he got back to the rectory of Saint Berlinda in Bartlette County.

On Monday morning, Special Agent Mazzota called Jerome at seven in the morning. Mazzota told him that two agents, one from the FBI and one from the State Police, would come around at eight and drive him to the State Police office in Wytheville, Virginia. At five before eight a man walked in with in a well worn jacket and tie and introduced himself as Special Agent Gilliam of the Virginia State Police. He showed Jerome his badge and identification and they left immediately - barely giving Jerome time to yell to Father Gabe that he was going. In the SUV Jerome was introduced to FBI Special Agent Slemp. The three of them left on the two hour drive to Wytheville.

The building they finally came to was a square red brick edifice with inset glass windows that looked like they were tinted black. The agents walked him into the building and left him in a conference room with no widows. Just short of twenty minutes later two different men walked into the room. The first was Special Agent Mazzota and the second, older man introduced himself as Captain Fraley, the division commander in the Fourth Division. Jerome had no idea what the Fourth Division was, but since the Captain came in with the lead FBI agent, he assumed the police man must be fairly senior.

"Sorry to drag you out here, Father, but we had to get you out of Bartlette. We had some things happened on Sunday which are going to cause more things to happen in the next couple days and you were in too much danger to leave there."

As Jerome started to speak the man raised both his hands in a halting gesture. "I understand that you don't want protection. Unfortunately, things are too dangerous right now for us to pay that much leave. Whether you want to be or not, you are in our protective custody until further notice."

With that, the older man turned Jerome back over to the two agents who had picked him up at Saint Berlinda. Jerome had pictures of being locked in a jail cell dancing through his head, but protective custody eventually boiled down to him being put up at a hotel with the agents in the room next door. The telephone in the room was disconnected and they took his cell phone. Jerome was reduced to watching television or praying. After watching a half hour of people screaming at the screen "No Whammy" and hitting plungers for random prizes, he concluded that television was just as worthless as it ever had been and settled down to read from the bible that the Gideons had so helpfully left in the drawer of the bed stand. That Monday was passed in prayer, reading, and eating whatever fast food the agents brought him. By eight the tension of the early morning followed by the monotony of the rest of the day combined and he fell into a sound sleep.

Tuesday morning, he woke at seven. It was the longest he had slept in years and he would have slept further except one of the agents had come into his room through the adjoining door. "Sorry to wake you Father. I thought you would want to see what's going on in Bartlette County." With that, he flipped on the TV and changed it to one of the news channels.

" . . . started early this morning and has been going on for several hours now. I've got to say, Darlene, that I've never seen such a concentration of federal law enforcement before. There seem to be at least a hundred marshals and FBI agents. They are all over the county knocking down doors and arresting people. So far, we think they have arrested at least four law enforcement officers and several civilians. The FBI spokesman, a Special Agent Mazzota, is refusing to comment as to whether this has something to do with the so called "Ambush in Bartlette" which took place a couple weeks back and led to the death and injury of several law enforcement agents and civilians."

They sat watching the television, flipping from news channel to news channel. All of them were filled with talking heads who had some basic information, but not much in the way of accuracy. About eight-thirty, one of the channels reported a rumor that there had been a shootout at one of the houses the federal agents raided. By nine-thirty the news channels were reporting all sorts of rumors about firefights as federal agents tried to arrest local law enforcement officials. One channel even reported a rumor that there was an armed standoff in Yared where the police had holed up in their station and were refusing to come out.

By eleven, federal officials gave in to the pressure of the escalating rumors and held a press conference. The United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia spoke from a federal office in Abingdon flanked by high ranking men from the FBI, DEA, Federal Marshals, and Virginia State Police. The only person that Jerome recognized was the State Policeman; Captain Fraley of the Fourth Division stood there in his highly pressed gray and black uniform with highly polished silver bars shining from his collar. The only person who spoke was the U.S. Attorney.

"I have a prepared statement and will take no questions. At four this morning a joint task force of DEA, FBI, Marshals, the Virginia State Police, the Chicago and Detroit Police Departments, and the Florida Bureau of Investigations cooperated in Operation Ever Halt. This operation was a multi-state effort to stop a major pipeline for illicit drugs, primarily abused opioids and benzodiazepines. We took down major sources of the drugs in Florida, Chicago, and Detroit as well as a major warehouse for it in Yared, Virginia."

"In the Yared portion of the operation, we arrested a number of individuals, including three senior police officials in Yared and two deputies in the Bartlette County Sheriff's Department. Several other individuals in Yared were arrested for their part in the conspiracy to distribute drugs. Additionally, search warrants were served on the houses of each of these individuals, the Yared Police Department and the Bartlette Sheriff's Department."

"There are several rumors about supposed gunfights. Only one event involving the use of a firearm occurred. When the police entered the residence of one of the deputies the man ran to his closet. As the agents entered his bedroom the man had just grabbed the rifle and when he refused a command to drop it they tazed him. The rifle went off, but it shot into the ceiling, injuring no one."

With that, the U.S. Attorney shut down the press conference, promising a full press release by four that afternoon. A few reporters shouted questions, but the Attorney and other men simply turned and walked out of the room.

The next day his keepers drove him back to the red brick building, depositing him in the same conference room as before. This time Captain Fraley was alone when he came into the room. The Captain explained that they were going to release Jerome today because they thought they had everyone significant under in custody. Then he got to the meat of the matter.

"I understand, from Special Agent Mazzota, that your Bishop sent you down here to figure out what happened to Father Pahl during the ambush?" When Jerome nodded he continued. "Okay. I can't tell you much in the way of specifics, but here's a general summary of what happened."

"It was a multi-state drug ring, dealing mainly in pills. The pills were coming from several places around the country and were being stored in Yared. It was a really old-fashioned model of drug distribution which we don't run into often with pills. Anyway, the bad guys were tapped into the Sheriff's department and Yared PD. On top of that, while the Sheriff wasn't taking a payoff or anything, he turned a blind eye to their activities for years. However, they had a problem. Sheriff Minton has had a three heart attacks in the last four years and he probably won't run for office again."

"Everyone expects Captain Robert Ross - you probably know him as 'Bo' - to become the next Sheriff and he is honest and entirely too competent for these guys. So they decided to take him out. The firefight in the alley at the back of the courthouse was their second attempt; the first was aborted because Deputy Ross showed up at the ambush sight with a State Trooper in tow."

"At the courthouse, the two deputies escorting the Pahl brothers were supposed to stop in the alley with the prisoners and let them have a smoke. The attorneys and priest weren't supposed to be there. When Deputy Ross came out to get them moving again, the men in the car at the end of the alley were supposed to fire shots over everyones' heads and in the confusion the deputies in the alley were supposed to kill Ross and the two brothers."

"When the gunfire began, Ross ran to get the door to the courthouse open and one of the deputies in the alley shot him in the back. In fact, he seems to be the only person the ones in the alley shot. Everyone else was hit by gunfire from the end of the alley."

"The propane gas explosion was done on purpose. The guys at the end of the alley meant to kill everyone, including their co-conspirators. They shot a hole in the propane tank and threw a flare into the resulting cloud. They thought there would be a little explosion and they would then go down the alley and kill the people while they were stunned. Instead, they got a big explosion which blew half the Sheriff's Office down. They panicked and fled through the woods."

When Jerome tried to ask questions, the State Police Captain made it clear that he had given all the information he was going to about the ambush. He was not going to tell Jerome anyone's name or explain how the police got their information. And that was fine. While Jerome was curious about the ins and outs of what was going on, he had no actual need of that information. He knew, and could tell Bishop Mannion, why Father Ted Pahl was dead: he was killed by drug dealers because he was somewhere he was not supposed to be.

No comments: