ethel’s words

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The Disappearance of Jesús María García

This is a commentary composed of the essence of truth and accuracy, but partly dependent upon frail human memory. There is a touch of history.

Jesús María García, Jr. was a happy little boy, herding sheep with his father in the mountains and meadows of Colorado. They were of a people who had lived from time immemorial under the skies of what are now called The Americas. That beginning gave no portent of the disappearance that would generate further mysteries for fifty years.

The mother was a tiny woman, remembered as pretty and child-like, with lovely brown skin and mahogany hair that had glints of red. She knew how to cook in a sheep camp, and she sometimes gathered watercress and verdolagas to complement the frijoles that were the very essence of life: they were the incomparable pinto beans dried slowly in natural warmth of sun and, sometimes cooked with a little wheat mixed in, they sustained health. Chilis, fresh or pickled or plucked from the beautiful ristra, gave vibrancy to basic health and to a meal.

But one day, somehow, when the sun rose, there were no beans. There was no wheat. The sheepherder who worked for barely-eat wages paid seasonally or sporadically, faced the reality. To feed his family, he killed a sheep. It was theft. How could one sheep among hundreds be missed? That part of the story probably died in the prison where the gentle sheepherder paid the price. There he learned City ways, Anglo ways, criminal ways. He did not like any of those.

Prison ways, in the learning, are brutal, as men strive for survival of their self-strength--the part of the psyche that is called, among the self-directed populations, “self-esteem”. (Human populations, classes, may be categorized in many ways. Sometimes it is simply the way they are addressed: “What are you doing these days?” or, “What is happening to you these days?” For the poor in the submerged populations, the question that fits is, “What is happening to you?”.)

The egos in prison do not know even a hint of societal self-esteem, but they guard their “name” as if it were a hoard of gold or life itself; it is the only thing they own, their only valued possession; they defend it with utmost belligerence. They must be tough, firm-jawed, and threatening, to save whatever is left of the human being that was. Their “name”, most often, means their reputation for courage, loyalty to buddies, staunch resistance to any brutal attempt to make them “rat” (the old term) on anyone. All these codes only baffled the simple sheepherder. His childhood had been on a farm where his grandfathers had lived and died for generations--until the Anglo tax-collector sent guns to make him--and his brothers--leave their land. They did not even know what “money” was. Life was uncomplicated, not even having--not needing--such words as citizen, freedom, honesty, or “rights”. Behind the Anglo bars there were too many languages; too many nuances. So Jesús María García, Sr. tried to become invisible.

When he left the prison he looked for his former life. He found countryside, but he could not find his family. That was the first time that Jesús María García, Jr., the little tyke, disappeared. The father and the son seemed separated forever.

*******

Learning the ways of survival in the City is a fearful and crushing experience. The tiny mother of Jesús María García, Jr. had children to feed; she learned the ways of the Anglo city and yet managed to be kind and loving to her children, grateful, with a sad and haunting joy, to be able to feed them.

But one day, when the sun rose, there was no food. An overwhelming catastrophe had lingered; money melted away; soon the food was gone. One of the results of this was a that small boy, hungry and frightened in the city, disappeared. This was the second time Jesús María García, Jr. disappeared.

*******

He had been taken to a place of safety and food; of a strange language and puzzling people. When he was almost ready to enter his teens, his sister took him from that institution into her home, braving her small, urban, harsh, barely-survive world. By that time, the tiny mother was no longer in the scene, her death seeming so uneventful only her absence was noticed. The sister had started a family and she had a new name.

In the old part of Salt Lake City, they lived in a weathered adobe house, charming as only an earthy, hand-built, clay cottage can be. Here they dwelled as a family of remnants and of new births. Here, the frail but tough sister tried to make survival worthwhile. In the crowded small rooms, the several children played, and oftentimes the seven-year-old girl had been in charge of her three younger siblings--sisters. Now an uncle had been added; uncle, but barely into puberty, now left to supervise four nieces to whom he was not bonded, in an environment of unstructured chaos compared to the discipline under which he had been living.

But they were a naturally joyous family. The sister--the mother--did the best she could to provide life for her children, and now, also for her younger brother. Health was neither word nor concept in that setting. Survival was the motive, and she had to be absent from the home--a lot.

One day, playing ball with his nieces in the living room, Jesús María García, Jr. jumped onto the couch to catch the ball. A tiny infant wrapped in a blanket was on that couch. The child was fatally injured; it was simply one of those tragedies that occur in family life, even in affluent settings. There was no hint, nor any sign, in the autopsy, of any intent to harm; the injury perfectly matched the story. The tragedy did not disrupt family life; they mourned in closeness. But the occurrence was a kernel of fact that was to grow into a monstrous lie in a different scene.

*******

There was a later day. There were four girls and a boy entering puberty. The oldest girl was seven; one was five. The boy raped the five-year-old, and when the mother returned home, she became hysterical with anguish.

She called the police.

When this kind of incestuous horror occurs in affluent homes, the siblings are taken to a psychiatrist or psychologist, are counseled and observed to a natural healing. When this horrifying act occurs in a home struggling through poverty, police are called. The police, to the poor, are the big, powerful father, the protectors of the beaten woman, the counselors, but also the feared enemy. Jesús María García, Jr. disappeared for the third time.

He was fifteen (or was he fourteen?). He was small of stature, lithe, weighing less than one hundred pounds.

The newspapers said he was paranoid so he was sent to the Utah State Prison at Point Of The Mountain (“The Point”). It is correct that Jesús María had been taken into custody of the State during his childhood, but no one could remember details of that, or those, occurrences. Upon his arrival at the prison, Jesús María was banished, to be non-existent forever. He became officially Jesse M. García. After he was booked in, a kangaroo court was held on Fish Row. “You committed rape, so you are sentenced to be raped.” The inmates on Fish Row raped him. Twenty-seven men with one knife to silence protest.

After that, Jesse was taken under the wing of a thirty-three year old inmate, Mack Rivenburgh. To assume that Jesse was his gunsel–a catamite–would be a mistake; there are reasons to doubt that.

Not long after that, a bloody murder was committed in the attic of the prison--one inmate killed another inmate. Jesse’s protector, Rivenburgh, admitted to the act (he was crazed on amphetamines). Formal murder charges included Jesse and another teenager--Leonard Warner Bowne, seventeen--or was he still sixteen? The indictment against Jesse alleged that he had known the murder was going to occur; both teen-agers (in separate trials) were accused of destroying evidence.

Utah law allows a murder charge and even execution of a person convicted of being at the scene of a murder though not a participant. (The boys were not in the attic; they were standing point to alert the men who were engaging in sex relief in the attic--in case a guard might appear in the area.)

*******

These were days of segregation, a political system well-institutionalized but never well-analyzed. Jesse was tried separately from the Anglo confessed murderer and the Anglo Mormon teenager, called “Warner”. (The murder victim, Vernier, was called “Verner”. Street talk was that “half the time jurors did not know ‘Warner’ from ‘Verner’.”)

The murderer was sentenced to death; the Anglo boy was sentenced to life. A more severe fate awaited Jesse: his black hair made him guiltier--beyond the acts with which he was charged, and guiltier than the other teenager. This was acceptable to the public, but not to the other defendants: the Anglo teen-ager was a thoroughly decent kid--by mainstream standards--who got stuck in, and ripped by, the gears of criminal justice bureaucracy.

The reportage was lurid and titillating. “Homosexuality” (as the substitute behavior was mistakenly called) burst into the so-called light of day, and a shocked and moralistic public cried out for vengeance and blood atonement. The two trials--separate and not equal--were lavishly covered by the newspapers; radio joined in.

Jesse M. García, now sixteen, stood before the judge. He was sentenced to be executed. “Do you want to be shot or hanged?” asked the judge. “It don’t make no difference”, said the boy.

At least one news report changed his words to: “It doesn’t make any difference”.

*******

Jesse M. García had become visible, though for some time, the local papers refused to publish “letters-to-the-editor” about the death sentences. The prestige of Dr. Paul Wyler (pronounced “Vee-ler”), University of Utah Faculty, and known abroad due to his membership in an elite international organization, finally broke through that barrier--and letters then did flow. Jesse’s name was spoken coast to coast; was spoken in foreign countries. Thousands of persons thought it was wrong to kill a sixteen-year-old for a murder that he did not participate in.

But most of all, in Utah, his name was being written, spoken in radio interviews, shouted in arguments. He was called “Mexican” even though the designation “Chicano”, that could establish accuracy, was already available. That should not have made a difference, but the very word “Mexican” had connotations of “undesirable”. The attitude, then and now, was that certain non-persons did not--do not--deserve “Equal Justice Under Law”.

The sixteen-year-old, a stranger to white-Anglo culture (though institutions had made him into an English-speaker) had generated hatred by addressing the judge as “daddy-o”, a common slang in those times, not meant as an insult. This may have been the most ludicrous argument made to justify “killing a kid”; the most serious accusations that flew to the Letters to the Editor included a distorted version of the accidental death of the infant and a grossly exaggerated version of Jesse’s “criminal background”. Lies littered the news and letters to the editor like garbage strewn in an urban alley. All of the hatred in a hate-oriented society, flooded over the boy with black hair.

But hate must judge its victims: Jesse was an enemy from dark streets, like an alien, to be feared. Lies can be concocted in a moment, refuting a lie may demand research that is unattainable. And if disproved? How to get that proof before the public? There is no way, except the big money way.

There were letters approving death, but also letters condemning execution. While the racists raged, the confessed murderer, Rivenburgh, ended his own life in his Death Row cell. The Anglo youth began serving his life term, and eventually, in the face of international protest and the skills of an unpaid lawyer, Phil L. Hansen, Jesse M. García’s death sentence was commuted to life. That was on September 13, 1962, his 21st birthday.

*******

Jesse had been in prison several years before that commutation date. Why is he still in prison in 2004, forty-two years later? There have been killers who were never charged with anything; there have been killers who went only to jail; there was a cold-blooded murderer who was praised as “A Fine Man”--a local code-talk for, “He belongs; lay off”. There were convicted killers who came to the prison and quietly left; at least one seems to have been spirited away. (No surprise in Utah, with its peculiar prejudices and practices.)

After Jesse had been in prison about twenty years, a corrections official was asked this question: “Why is Jesse still in prison?”

“Well, he’s still serving time for rape, and he’s serving time for murder. He gets his Hearings before the Board.”

At one of those Hearings--an early one--a Board member asked Jesse: “What is your religion?” Jesse declared, “I am a Rosicrucian”. “That’s no religion”, snorted the prominent, powerful man. (“Stay in prison, you Mexican”.) Despite the discouragement, there was hope that there would be a diminishment of racism, and also a change in attitude: “Should so young a person be punished forever mainly for a murder in which he did not participate”?

Hearings have been, in every case, in different ways, a farce. False accusations were made against Jesse, and any rebuttal could have resulted in special punishment. There was evidence that secret, personal contacts were made, asking officials--or perhaps Board of Pardons persons--to keep him in prison. For a long period of time, inmates were not allowed to have representation (lawyer or friend) at Hearings, but testimony against the inmate by unsworn persons was allowed. This was changed in 1991 when an inmate named Foote won an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court and that glad news was reported by the Salt Lake Tribune on July 24. Supposedly, after that, inmates were allowed to have lawyers and/or representatives.

Conforming to the typical response of those in power, that whenever ordinary citizens force a corporation or government entity to obey law or respect the Constitution, a dog and pony P.R. show is created: “Oh, yes, we had this great idea.” But they didn’t help Jesse. It was as if he were invisible--disappeared.

Above all, it must be remembered: Oral arguments may be listened to--even in half-wakefulness--but government documents are written; they are not read.

*******

His 48 years in prison (Jesse is 63 in 2004) have been largely uneventful. But he had, not long after his commutation, an attack of paranoia. He thought people and strange creatures, were after him to kill him. He was sent to a jail in Weber County, and recovered from that spell, apparently with no professional help. That fear seems to have been based on a report to Jesse (by a friend) that two inmates had been “hired” (by his victim’s father) to kill Jesse.

There were events of subtle torture--though Jesse seems to have never expressed such an idea. One Christmas he was scheduled to have a home furlough. At the last hour before he was to leave, he was told that there were not enough guards; therefore, he was the one who could not go on furlough. In decades-after retrospect, there is a hint that the prison was not to blame, but rather that another secret contact was made by someone on the outside. Lying and dishonesty to harm an inmate are accepted--with no challenge whatever. But again, it may have been simple racism.

While he was housed in the Maximum building, Jesse had a chance to escape with eleven other inmates. He chose to be obedient, and declined the chance, for un-stated reasons.

There was a time when Jesse wanted to write his story. (Dr. Paul Wyler had paid for education for Jesse in prison.) He was told he could not write about himself or prison life--though he was allowed to have his typewriter. A friend on the outside contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah; a lawyer from that organization was told by a prison official, “There’s no problem; Jesse can write anything he wants.” That was a false report, but as usual, the “power representative” (of whatever classification) was believed--not the inmate--and Jesse continued under an order not to write about himself or the prison.

Some years after that, for reasons never known on the outside, Jesse was sent to the Utah State Mental Hospital in Provo. If he wasn’t paranoid before arriving there, he was soon after. Naturally, his place was in the Forensic Unit, where violent mentally ill were confined. (Because they were violent, not because they were mentally ill. This should not suggest that violent inmates, or mentally ill inmates, were by policy sent to the State Mental Hospital. More likely, they would be punished for the manifestations of their illness.) Jesse’s presence there was an anomaly. After the rape at age what-teen, he has committed only one violent act. When his good friend, Dr. Paul Wyler died, an inmate ridiculed the well-respected professor. Jesse told friends he “threw the guy off the tier”, whatever that means, but that act was not “written up” so it is not on his record.)

Jesse was frightened of the violent men in the forensic unit; he was still his youthful weight--a little over 100 pounds. He jumped out of a third (?) story window onto a lower roof.

Jesse M. García disappeared. But only for a night--a long night through which two women and the night officer at the prison exchanged phone calls. The two women feared he would be shot when sighted, for such a killing had occurred a short time before, when an inmate doing assigned outside work was declared “late” in returning to the prison. He was, in fact, not even due back at the time he was shot. It was not random; there was no investigation, so fear for Jesse was justified.

In the early morning, the officer at the prison switchboard told one of the women that Jesse had telephoned; he was okay, and guards were on their way to pick him up.

He had made his way through the mountains, finally reached a road, happened onto an open cabin, stole a sweater, then followed the road until he reached a telephone. He called the prison, reported where he was. It was morning. Officers found him waiting; newspapers reported he “had been captured”.

*******

At a memorable Hearing before the Board of Pardons, Jesse was addressed directly by the world-famous Utah lawyer, Judge George Latimer, retired, head of the Board: “Jesse, you don’t cooperate”.

For some time before this Hearing, Jesse and friends had the assistance of a young attorney who had received a grant to do a prison project of his choosing. Jesse asked that lawyer to help him refuse to take drugs (he was being given eleven different drugs at that time) in some way that would avoid an accusation of “not cooperating”. Obviously, a bureaucratic cliche.

The lawyer feared that trying to stop the administering of drugs in one case might end up alienating other prisoners, many of whom wanted the drugs. But the lawyer did volunteer to represent Jesse at his Hearing, if he (the lawyer) could get permission to do so in the absence of a Utah State license to practice. (He was licensed in California.)

Preparing for that Hearing, friends of Jesse had arranged a program for his release: There was a job waiting; there was a program arranged at a mental health clinic; Jesse would live with these friends until he was oriented and somewhat on his feet.

Then, someone--was it a board member?--brought up the question of Jesse’s “violence”. When this accusation was refuted, the board was advised that Jesse had not committed any violent act in prison. The world-famous judge, still new on this Board, gave permission to the lawyer and friends to look at Jesse’s prison record. There was some resistance to this access, but the young attorney cited Rules and Regulations that made it permissible. A huge volume held no write-up of any act of violence. There were “drug violations”. The rest was routine.

Apparently, some behind-the-scene whisperings caused the Board to say “no”. Later, possibly due to having learned of the non-violence of Jesse’s past, and the erring of the Board, Jesse was released--with no notice, no supervision, no program, no friends, no assistance. He was soon back in prison, again a victim of lies: there is no trial for accusations of parole violation. If there is no trial, there is no means to rebut or refute.

That was a brief spell of “limited freedom”; so brief, it was as if the prison life had never been interrupted at all.

*******

It may seem that the Sixth Amendment gives an accused person some right to “face their accuser”, but what about before a “Board of Pardons”? Gideon (1963) blessed the Sixth Amendment with confirmation regarding legal assistance. Two Utah inmates, Foote in 1991 and Labrum in 1993, won the right to know what acts or crimes are in their files, to be considered by the Board of Pardons. Those long ago cases probably helped some inmates; this is another time; another political era.

*******

For reasons now probably forgotten by everyone, Jesse was “boarded out” to the Arizona State Prison Complex, joining him to a population that now exceeds 25,000. There he was allowed to work in various camps and had some new scenes. He was approaching 60 when a law was passed that required convicted sex offenders to be segregated in prisons. The reasoning behind this remains a dark mystery, but the idea of classifying an old man in accord with a childhood incestuous rape provided comic relief. Perhaps it was more of that treatment of “making normal” by confinement to abnormal circumstances.

Other changes were less amusing (to the outside observer) though less impacting. Most prisons constantly change rules, apparently to avoid being called a “warehouse”. So the hapless inmates--not to mention their visitors--must forever seek to confirm current rules. It can be argued that the same is true “on the outside” but the punishment is less severe.

Surely it is reasonable that the public should wonder why Jesse’s friends did not militate for his release with some kind of noisy campaign. The explanation is reasonable: Jesse’s friends became acquainted with his family, including his victim, who was growing into a beautiful young woman destined for a successful career. To turn a spotlight on her was unthinkable. A quiet release from prison should have been possible, but there seemed to be an invisible, unidentified barrier.

*******

Like all things that the sun touches, and all things that are in darkness forever, attitudes change. Humans test their values; learn or unlearn. So, after passage of forty-plus years, rape became, as it should be, a notorious crime. The time when women (or girls) appropriately feared to report to law enforcement, or even discuss the happening, when they had been raped--that time had passed. No longer would “blaming the victim” lay guilt heavily on the rape victim; no longer would the rape victim be told that it was her fault. (However, not all of that is wiped away, even at this late date.)

Unexpected convergence of some conversations, flashed a sudden beacon of possibility into the dark imprisonment of Jesse M. García. Words were spoken that mattered--there was discussion of the reason why no agitation had been used to bring attention to the injustice in the case of Jesse García: it would have been cruel, even if justified, to draw the rape victim into public attention when she was building a career that could be damaged. There was also the threat of retaliation from the various authorities if the effort failed--every prisoner is a hostage. Now, rape could be discussed; it no longer disgraced the victim.

The day had come when the rape victim herself, an intelligent and even wise young woman, said, “I would not object to trying to get Jesse out now. I am sure it won’t bother me any more and I don’t think it would do me any harm.”

But word of that got to her father and he warned, “If he gets out I’ll be waiting to kill him as he leaves the gate.” The father’s message was relayed to Jesse’s advocates/supporters.

This was followed by chaotic events never clear and not remembered. Suddenly, Salt Lake City’s two newspapers ran long, lurid descriptions of the incestuous rape that had occurred about 45 years before, with interviews that seemed largely based on imagination. Jesse M. García, long disappeared, was damned in headlines. It was a new trial by journalism, devoid of documentable facts, or even the lost testimonies of the trial. Suddenly a crime that seemed faded into healing abatement, now ignited hatred and vengeance. Descriptions of the crime and the crime scene quoted from different sources were contradictory: clearly fabricated or at least discolored (or colored) by faded recollections. Blood and gore that had not been alleged before created a threatening atmosphere. One “news” story reported that Jesse had been written up “recently” for a “violation”. He had been: he was caught smoking--a sin worse than murder in Utah. This was not his only violation: He had been caught “smoking in an unauthorized area” before.

But then the threatening, enraged father died. So why, now, has Jesse M. García disappeared again? Somebody has a key to the prison doors. Somebody somewhere should have responsibility to oversee what happens to prison inmates. Or did someone arbitrarily decide release should not be considered at all? In 1998, in what purports to be a file provided for an appearance before some Board of Pardons, there is the notation, “No information is to be provided in this area as consideration is not being given for release.” It was just another farce hearing?

It must recognized that, as with the change in attitudes about rape and its victims, the whole society has changed. Prison personnel may have been emphasizing that, in their considerations. How can a 63-year-old man make it on the street after spending his whole life in prison, most of the time required to take drugs? The demands of modern urban--any--society are beyond the capability of many persons--due to social deprivation, illness, or genetic impairment. Imagine isolation.

The current answer to the dilemma of persons who have been unjustly--on whatever basis--held in prison for most of their lives, is to continue the injustice. There are no “sorta” prisons where a former prisoner could live outside walls, walk on grass, smell flowers, eat exotic (or native!) foods, feel the peace that drifts down from trees, see moonlight and stars (where can stars be seen any more?) yet live with help and some regulations.

Recently Jesse was drug-free for a brief time. He wrote, “What a wonderful feeling to be not drugged and to feel alive instead of like a zombie”. But he was soon back on medications, and perhaps it was necessary. Who can know for certain, without extensive medical evaluation?

*******

The Arizona State Prison Complex is a large community, needing planning and administrative logistics, medical rules, regulations and provisions, and incredible policing combined with subtle tortures and punishments. The cost of keeping prisoners is astronomical compared to ordinary life expenses. Still, guards who spend a third of their life in prison probably don’t feel well-compensated for what they go through--part-time prisoners.

The difficulties of prison management in this age of “prisons as concentration camps” have demanded the paring away of most every humanizing or rehabilitating program. There are no gifts, not even at Christmas. (Once generous gifts were allowed though with strict limitations on what kinds of items). Mail is a nagging problem. The prison censors letters that they fear may break down prison walls. (A newspaper clipping on the death of César Chávez was not delivered--it was “gang-related”.) Lawyers? Dream again. Those days are gone. Halfway houses? Maybe. A caring public? Somewhere there is a small group devoted to a huge task--seeking accuracy and justice.

For Jesse, there is a double challenge: If he gets a hearing (and none is anticipated) he must pass muster before two prison administrations. It is easy for officials to think--honestly--that the other state is responsible for whatever.

The question remains: Shall Jesús María García quietly disappear again? Simply fade into zombieism behind bars? A final exit from the walls? Could he disappear in the streets, swallowed into obscurity? ¿Quien sabe?

Ethel C. Hale

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