San Diego madam to the elite – part two: jail days
By Karen Wilkening
I was a fugitive living in the Philippines from September 23, 1987, until May 10, 1989, when the five-member San Diego Police Department’s Homicide Task Force came to Manila to bring me back to the United States. When my Philippine Air deportation flight landed in Los Angeles, I was arrested, charged with pimping and pandering and obstruction of justice for failure to appear at my 1987 preliminary hearing. I was placed in waist chains and handcuffs for the first time, and we caravaned to San Diego from Los Angeles in San Diego police cars.
Detective John Lusardi was driving me, with a woman cop who looked like Farrah Fawcett sitting next to him, smoking, in the front seat. I tried to rest to prepare myself for whatever was going to happen next, but Lusardi kept asking me questions and pushing me to talk. He said I was facing close to 20 years in prison unless I cooperated. I didn’t intend to say much until I got an attorney. Later I saw that they had a tape recorder on the front seat.
Then Lusardi did a strange thing; he said, “Don’t you recognize me?” I was trying to see through the bars between the front seat and the back seat, but I didn’t know who he was. He said, “I met you at one of the bachelor parties.” I had provided dancers for a party for some vice cops, and I met two men there — the guy who’d called to arrange the dancers, and Lusardi, his friend and ex-partner. (It was Lusardi’s friend’s name that police found in the Rolodex.) If he hadn’t brought it up, I don’t think I ever would have recognized him, but he seemed to need to get it off his chest. When we arrived at the downtown San Diego police station about 10:00 p.m., TV and newspaper cameramen lined the driveway. They ran up to the car and took pictures of me handcuffed in the back of the police car. I think I just smiled a little bit. I was surprised that the police would alert the media and let them know exactly when I was coming in. I wondered why they would do that.
Then I started the long booking process. They take lots of pictures of you against a screen, front, back, forward, close up, distance, full length; and I had my fingerprints taken about a million times for the police, the FBI, for God knows who else. I was passed from one cop to the other and then put in a sterile, cold holding tank. I was dressed for the 95-degree temperatures of Manila, and I was freezing. I asked for a blanket, but they ignored me.
I could see the deputy district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, and the others being patted on the back, congratulating each other. I sat there thinking, “What do they think they’ve accomplished? They’re acting like bounty hunters.” I kept feeling that eventually the joke’s got to be on them, because I knew they hadn’t gotten the answers to all of their problems by bringing me back. They hadn’t told me much about the prostitute murders at this point, but I knew I wasn’t acquainted with any girls who worked the streets.
I was exhausted and was just about to fall asleep when an officer came in and said, “We have someone who’s going to come in and speak to you briefly. We’re doing this for her benefit.” It was Linda Webster. They let her visit for about three minutes. It was a blur; I was so shocked to see her. I was overwhelmed with questions for her, but we’d been warned not to discuss anything. There was a cop in the holding tank with us, so we could only hug each other briefly, and then she left. I didn’t see her again until she was the star prosecution witness against me at the preliminary hearing several weeks later, and I’ve never seen her since.
They got ready to transport me to a county facility soon after. I remember Lusardi spoke to me as if he were speaking to a child when he came to get me. “Well, we’re going to take you to jail now, Karen. Are you ready to go to jail? Are you ready for this experience?” He was being ugly again, so I just ignored it.
They dumped me off at Las Colinas in the middle of the night. I was booked as prisoner number 89-137-812, photographed and fingerprinted yet again, and put in another frigid holding tank. I had to exchange my clothes and jewelry for jail clothes. They gave me a bedroll, but they kept me in that tank for hours. Eventually, they put me in a special cell by myself, and that’s when my three months of solitary confinement began.
They didn’t give me any explanations, but from what I hear, the district attorney and vice officers had told jail administration to keep me under the highest level of security for my own safety. Much later, after I’d gotten an attorney, I heard that the authorities were trying to avoid a Lee Harvey Oswald-type of situation, where I might be assassinated by the people who were supposed to be protecting me. At that time, they must have believed I had connections to the police department, and they didn’t want me to be silenced by their own people. But when they put me in that cell by myself for so long, I thought it was punishment.
As they were putting me in my cell, they said, “Don’t get too comfortable. You’re going to court first thing in the morning.” About two hours later, at 5:00 a.m., when I’d barely put my head on the cot – there are no pillows in jail – they came to get me, and that’s when the leg shackling started. For the next seven months, every time I was taken out of that cell, I was put in waist chains and handcuffs, with shackles around my ankles. You can’t walk in shackles, you shuffle. Sometimes the chains are shorter than other times, so you have to take little baby steps. Sometimes you have to take much longer steps or you’ll trip over yourself. I tripped a lot because I never got used to them. They rub your ankles raw.
At the first court session, I was given a public defender because I had no money. The attorney assigned to me was not available at first, so I had a stand-in. I found out that my bail was $4 million, the highest ever set in San Diego County for a nonviolent crime. I hear that Jeffrey Dahmer, the man in Milwaukee who is accused of committing all those grisly murders, is being held on only $3 million bail.
The day after my first court appearance, Steven Carroll, my permanent public defender, came out to Las Colinas to see me. They shackled me again, and I shuffled out to meet the man who would help determine my fate. He was sitting in the attorney visiting area, and when I first saw him, I couldn’t help smiling because he looked so much like my father. They both look like Sean Connery.
We talked about the charges, and we started the first in a series of meetings where I told him my whole story. In the process, I learned a lot about the legal system. One of the first things you have to do is find out what evidence the prosecution has. The legal system is a chess game, with moves and strategies. It doesn’t seem to be based as much on truth or justice as on how you play the game.
There’s intimidation and bluffing, and you negotiate – like horse trading – but I never had anything to trade with. I think the prosecution hoped that since the police couldn’t find powerful names in the Rolodex, I might have a secret client list that they missed, which always amused me.
Vice didn’t know about my service; but they seem to pride themselves on knowing all the escort businesses in San Diego, which isn’t too difficult because most of them advertise. They couldn’t figure out why they didn’t know anything about me. I didn’t advertise and I wasn’t dealing with strangers. My clients were self-screening because the referrals were from existing clients. Vice was hoping that they could discover that I had some sort of protection from the police brass. Three San Diego grand juries eventually looked into that theory too.
At my preliminary hearing in 1989, it was the same nightmare it had been in 1987. They subpoenaed some of the same people who had appeared two years before. But this time Linda Webster, my best friend, was the chief prosecution witness against me.
I couldn’t help but be upset at how much she told them about my life, a lot of it having nothing to do with running the escort service. She talked about my family, my marriage 20 years before to a Navy pilot, my boyfriends since then. The investigation went very far back in my life. It was as if the prosecution was building a psychological profile of me.
For most of the time that I was in court, I had to put my mind and emotions in neutral. Every time I walked into the courtroom, there were TV cameras and flashbulbs in my face. They took hundreds and hundreds of pictures. To prepare myself, I would meditate or do yoga or deep breathing in the courthouse holding tanks. It was hard to do because they stank. They were ugly, graffiti-covered, dark, airless rooms, and I was always left by myself. I would be bused in from Las Colinas chained and shackled, locked into a tiny cage in front, like a ride at the fair, next to a bulletproof window. Sometimes we’d have to walk across the street to get to the courthouse, and it seemed ironic to me that they were shackling me to save my life, yet they were walking me out in public across a downtown San Diego street.
I would be in the holding tank, isolated, for countless hours. They would transport you in from jail around 5:00 in the morning, even if you weren’t going into court until after lunch, sometimes not till 2:00. You never knew what time it was or when they were coming to get you from the tank. I think most girls just talked to each other or slept, but I was never able to do that.
From the downstairs holding tanks, they’d take me in handcuffs up the back way to the floor of my courtroom and we’d often pass the judges’ offices. We could look in and see them. We also passed a lot of people handcuffed to benches. Many of them recognized me from the newspaper, and they’d give me the thumbs-up sign and wish me well. Some of the courthouse marshals got to know me after a while, and a few said to me privately, ”Running an escort service – I can’t see that there’s anything wrong with that,” and “I don’t know why they’re wasting taxpayers’ money on this.”
At one point, my trial was interrupted when I was called to testify before the San Diego grand jury, which was investigating the possibility of police links to my escort service. When you appear before them, you’re not represented by counsel, and it was very intimidating. Sessions are held in a huge room, like a theater, with rows of banked seats. There were 18 jury members, all older, most of them probably retired. The district attorney did most of the questioning, and that’s when they started hitting heavily about ex-Police Chief Kolender – did I know him? had I met him? They asked that in many different ways, over and over. They kept saying they had witnesses and evidence that I had met him. The hearing was nerve-wracking, because eventually the grand jury members are able to question you too, so I was being questioned by everybody.
I know it was reported in the newspaper that one of my girls had told the grand jury that I had introduced her to Kolender and two other men at the Intercontinental hotel. (If she did, she might have fabricated these things for her own reasons.) I was questioned about that particular rendezvous many times. I had once introduced that girl and two others to three gentlemen at a San Diego hotel; one of the men was middle-aged, graying, distinguished, but he was not Chief Kolender. I know what Chief Kolender looks like. I would have recognized him. I never had the opportunity to meet the man, even socially. In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have hurt my life story to have an ex-police chief of San Diego as a client. But a great deal of my story is the prosecution’s and the media’s speculation and imagination. I became a child of the media, but my treatment by the authorities was chillingly real.
The grand jury members asked a lot of questions about my past. It seems that once you’re involved in any facet of the sex industry, they think you have been in the business since birth. So they wasted a lot of time talking about years before I owned the service, when I worked for other companies in San Diego.
In particular I remember one elderly gentleman saying that he could not understand how I could have run an escort service for six years without police protection. They didn’t seem to understand that I never would have accepted someone like a police chief as a client. I avoided the possibility of being introduced to political figures, sports figures, cops, because they are in the public eye and they have enemies, and there are probably people looking to get something on them. I wanted to stay as private and discreet as possible.
Although I was glad that I had run the service the way I had, owning a partially illegal business was not easy for me because I have been straightforward my whole life. In bet, living a dual life and not being able to talk about it with old friends was awful.
Being disbelieved by the grand jury was the third worst thing in this entire experience. The worst thing was the feeling of powerlessness in custody, especially since I’ve always been an independent person. I remember once a deputy came to take me to court on a day when I knew I wasn’t scheduled. They got me up at 4:30 in the morning and said, “Get ready, you’re going to court. We’re coming back in ten minutes.” Nothing I could say to them would get them to double-check. I kept track of these things, and I insisted that I was not scheduled for court that day, but they took me anyway. I went through the whole hellish day of being chained, shackled, the bus ride, isolation cell, chained to a bench, for nothing. The officers couldn’t have cared less about the mistake. It happens frequently; they call it a “dry run.”
The second worst part of my experience was being separated from the things I care about the most – my friends and nature, animals, the grass, the trees, the fresh air, and fresh food. It was detrimental to my health. It was a heartache to be treated that way. I knew that I had not done anything wrong enough to be so horribly punished, to be shut up in a room the size of a bathroom 24 hours a day for so long. I often wondered, “Am I really back in America?”
I think a lot of people read too many novels and watch too much television. It seemed like the grand jury already believed the rumors as facts and had already made up their minds that I must have had protection from corrupt police. They didn’t seem to believe what I said, and that was very difficult for me.
At my trial I finally pled guilty to one count of pandering and obstruction of justice. I accepted a plea bargain rather I than go through a jury trial. My defense attorney was in a plea-bargaining situation with the prosecution after they continued to fail to prove any connections. A nonviolent first offense usually results in probation, but the prosecution had already invested so much time, effort, and money, they were not going to allow a plea bargain that didn’t involve prison. Even the guards told me, “You better be prepared to go to prison because there’s so much hoopla around your case. There’s no way out of it.” Once you become a public figure, just to save face, it seems like they can’t grant you probation.
So my choice was either to plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and one count of pandering, which is a mandatory prison term, or to go to trial and take the chance of being found guilty on all 28 counts against me, which would have gotten me around 11 years of prison. I remember being told that if I were found guilty of even one count at a trial, then I’d be sentenced on all 28 counts. To me that was like playing Russian roulette, and I’ve never been a gambler.
The idea of taking my chances at a jury trial was appealing only because my attorney said he wanted to get me on the witness stand. He wanted people to be able to see what kind of person I was and what kind of service I had, but he left the decision up to me. I wouldn’t have minded testifying, but I could not bear the idea of putting everyone else through the ordeal.
There were so many continuances granted during the sentencing phase of my trial that Judge Wagner finally admonished the prosecution that he wouldn’t grant any more. He gave me full prison credit for my time already served in custody retroactive to the last date I was supposed to be sentenced. Unfortunately, Judge Wagner died before I was sentenced, and his replacement, Judge Rodriguez, did not follow through on that, so I was penalized an extra two months in custody.
I had agreed to the continuances because the prosecution dangled in front of me the idea that if I cooperated and let them dig around longer, they might ask for the minimum term rather than the maximum. After I agreed and they did not turn up whatever they were looking for, I was astonished when the prosecution went for the maximum time anyway, almost seven years, at my sentencing. I heard later that the prosecuting DA apologized privately to my defense counsel before he asked for the maximum. He said he’d been told to do it. The motivation, it seems, could only have been their frustration. It certainly couldn’t have been based on the facts of the offense.
On November 29, 1989, Judge Rodriguez sentenced me to three years, the mandatory minimum for pandering, plus an additional eight months for obstruction of justice, to be served consecutively. My defense counsel was surprised that the additional months weren’t concurrent. The judge had received about 50 character witness letters asking for leniency, stating I was no threat to society. I probably would have received probation if there weren’t a law requiring a mandatory prison term. The so-called Mayflower Madam, Sidney Biddle Barrows, got probation and a fine in New York; and just recently, Beverly Hills madam Alex (Elizabeth Adams), very well connected to the police department, received 18 months’ probation. It looks like you have to be well connected to stay out of prison.
On December 6, 1989, a week after my sentencing, the transport guards came to take me to CIW, the California Institute for Women, in Frontera, a maximum-security prison. Of course, I’d heard all the rumors about state prison being worse than local jails, but I could hardly picture it. First-timers can really be frightened by those stories. CIW is basically a clearing house for women sentenced in California to state prison. You’re there for approximately two months while the Department of Corrections reviews your file, classifies you, and then assigns you to the prison where you are to serve the rest of your time.
CIW is a very old, large, overcrowded facility housing about 2600 women. It’s in the middle of dairy farm country; the cow smell is strong and the flies are thick. There is a dormitory just for lifers; the Manson girls live there.
At least it was a relief finally to know exactly how much time I would have to spend in prison; just knowing my estimated parole date gave me something to look forward to. When you arrive at the prison where you’ll serve your time, your parole date is figured only after you start working or “programming.” It’s a very complicated formula, and it’s subject to change if you are ever found guilty of breaking a prison rule, even a minor one. They can take good-time (half-time) days away from you, and very often the correctional officers will use that as a threat if they don’t like you.
More than 50 percent of the correctional officers in women’s prisons are males. I heard plenty of gossip about male guards being let go when found in closets or other secluded places with inmates. Many of the women turn temporarily gay while they’re incarcerated. They still have boyfriends and husbands on the streets, but there’s a need for emotional attachment while they’re locked away. There’s definitely a way you can project yourself to show whether you’re interested in having a “girlfriend”; I always projected that I was not interested, but it was a fascinating soap opera to watch.
On New Year’s Eve 1989, as new state prisoner number W-34416, I was housed in CIW’s orientation dorm. In there you have the fewest privileges, you’re not allowed to have visitors, and you can only make one phone call in two weeks. I was there for my birthday and Christmas too. About 5:00 one morning, around Christmastime, the dorm staff stuffed my mail through the wicket in my door. An avalanche of letters covered the floor of this tiny, dark, wooden cell. There were 106 pieces of mail just that day. It took me six months, but I answered them and several hundred more cards and letters. One way I did it was to write a newsletter that, with some humor, talked about my prison experiences. My mail really sustained me because contact with the outside world is very, very important in prison. In many cases, the people who wrote to me were much angrier at the legal system, the prosecution, the judge, and the media coverage than I had let myself get. My mail was all so positive that I thought for a time the administration was screening it. I even asked but was told they only withhold contraband from the inmates; my mail wasn’t censored.
I camped at CIW for two cold months, and then I was transferred to a medium-security facility, the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, to serve my sentence. Everybody who knew me, including the guards, said I would do well at CRC. It is a very small place on a hill overlooking Lake Norconian. The prison was very overcrowded. CRC was intended to house about 300 women when it opened, and there are 900 now. Down the hill is the men’s half of the facility, housing some 4000 inmates.
CRC was originally a 1920s resort, converted during World War II to a Navy hospital, and then into dormitory bedrooms that are now used for inmates. Housing is made up of three-story buildings with long corridors; each floor is divided into two dorms, with what we called a “cop shop” in the middle. The rooms in each dorm vary in size, but all have windows and doors you can open and shut. There are some two-person rooms, which are-hard to get assigned to, on up to large rooms with as many as 15 or 16 women in them. Each dorm houses from 80 to slightly more than 100 women.
The first place I lived was an orientation dorm, where you have no privileges and no property. You don’t have canteen privileges yet, so you can’t buy anything. You’re like Little Orphan Annie. Unless you know somebody, unless you have “homegirls,” you either have to beg or borrow or do without. I did without.
The California Department of Corrections requires that each inmate get a job or attend school. If you’re unskilled, you pick up trash in the yard or you work in the kitchen with little or no pay. If you have some education, clerks’ jobs in the offices and administration building pay up to 30 or 40 cents an hour. I found it funny that you actually have to go around and hunt up a job for yourself on the yard.
My first job was in the chow hall cleaning tables. I was paid 11 cents an hour. Word got around that I’d been to college, and I was offered clerk’s jobs, but I turned them down. I wasn’t ready yet to engage my mind, I guess. I needed a physically demanding job because I’d been in forced immobility for so many months in the San Diego jail.
The first desk job I had was as the dry-cleaning clerk. The administration, which was the office staff, the wardens, and the correctional officers, could turn in their uniforms and street clothes to be dry cleaned at CRC’s plant, which was one of the prison’s vocational schools. Administration got some real perks working for the state prison, because the inmates did the dry cleaning and only charged 30 cents an item. Administrators could get their shoes shined for 10 cents and their hair cut for 25 cents, all from inmates. They carefully screened inmates who dealt with administration, so they were privileged jobs. My job sometimes felt like the “real world” outside, because I was dealing with the secretaries and the counselors and the doctors and the nurses from the medical facility and others from administration. They seemed to get a kick out of the fact that I was an ex-madam. Your reason for being in prison is never a secret from anyone; in fact, it often seemed an entertainment.
In June of 1990, a young man whom I didn’t know sent me a chatty letter with some stationery and stamps and pictures of CRC that he had taken from his plane. The letter was intercepted in the mailroom, taken to administration, and they arrested me pending investigation of an escape attempt.
I was at my job as a dry-cleaning clerk when one of the cops asked me to accompany him to the lieutenant’s office. I had no idea what it was about. He wouldn’t say anything to me on the way over. I always got very nervous anytime the administration wanted to speak with me. Sometimes it was because they’d been contacted by the media, and that was always an unpleasant situation because they would seem to blame me for being a high-publicity case.
I sat on a bench for more than an hour watching my counselor and other people go in and out of the lieutenant’s office. Then I saw some of my possessions being taken in. They finally brought me in and showed me the aerial photographs, which I’d never seen before, and said, “We have to write you up as an attempted escape because of this.”
I’m not an argumentative or volatile person. I didn’t scream or get irrational at this awful pronouncement, because then they’d have treated me like a violent person and they would have chained me up. I was terrified of being chained again. So I was, as usual, very composed and rational and reasonable. I felt that if I was calm, shortly they would find out that there was no escape attempt involved. It was a preposterous notion. I had so little time left, and I was making the best I could out of prison life. Finally they sent the dorm staff to pack all my things and told me they were shipping me to higher-security custody pending the outcome of the investigation.
I was in shock. The officer who escorted me was trying to calm me down, saying, “Oh, this will only take a couple of days. I’m sure it will get straightened out right away.” I asked to use a telephone and call my attorney, and they said, “You can do that when you get over there.”
I was put in a muumuu and shower slippers, no underwear, not able to take a thing of mine with me, no addresses, no comb, nothing. I had sat on the bench at CRC all afternoon, and then I was chained and shackled to be moved just as the girls were lining up to go to chow, so I had to be shuffled past all of them, and they all stared and commented. It almost seemed deliberate. I was strip searched and body-cavity searched before I left. You have to take everything off – hair combs, pinky ring, earrings. I think they’d even take your false teeth out.
I didn’t know it at the time, but they were sending me to “the Hole” – Greystone – a part of CIW that is the highest security level in the state. Greystone is a huge warehouse-fortress made out of cement block. It looks like a dungeon from the outside and is separated from the rest of the CIW yard by six concentric chain-link and barbed-wire fences. They drive you right up to the steel doors, and then you have to pass through several more metal doors. The first thing you see when you get inside is a sign that says, “Warning – No Warning Shots Fired.”
The building has two tiers of 50 cells that are in a U shape. The metal cell doors open with a lot of noise only by command from the control tower that looks down on the middle of this warehouse. All of the cops have bulletproof vests on. It’s dark inside, with very high ceilings. There are birds trapped in there that can never get out because all the doors open and close in sequence and there are no open windows.
Attempted escape is one of the most serious charges you can face in prison. Since administration chose to write up that piece of unsolicited mail this way, they said they had to ship me. When I returned from Greystone 29 days later, I found out that women in CRC have even had drugs addressed to them in the mail, but they hadn’t been transferred while their cases were investigated. Shipping me out so quickly prior to an investigation seemed to be a way to get rid of a high-publicity case. This was another occasion when media publicity had a negative effect on my treatment in prison.
The staff dogged me unmercifully at Greystone. I was strip searched and body-cavity searched all over again when I arrived there and a third time before I was put in my special housing unit cell. The cops treat you very badly there. I was thrown in that cell, and the door didn’t open again for three days. They wouldn’t let me out for regular showers or exercise I asked to use the phone, and they said, “You’ll have to talk to some other lieutenant who’s on duty at some other time.”
They gave me a copy of Title XV rules, and I read them backward and forward. I learned that Greystone had broken the rules by adding a day to the required two days of continuous confinement to your cell that must be imposed when you First arrive I guess it gives them time to determine whether you’re violent or O.D.-ing, neither of which applied to me. It was broiling hot and I was claustrophobic, especially after being able to be out on the yard at CRC up until this bizarre incident. I was in the Hole through the July 4th weekend when it was 117 degrees outside. Inside those cells it was probably closer to 130. I had a tiny sink, and I would take the muumuu off and soak it with water every 20 minutes and also wet down my sheet. I sat with my face in the six-inch-square outside air vent for the next 29 days.
They had the violent girls in this section and girls who were on psych meds. The only woman to be condemned to death in California is also in Greystone. One tier houses girls that are sentenced to stay there for long periods for having made weapons or attacked or killed someone in prison.
The Hole is a very ugly place, all metal, and it’s always extremely noisy. The girls shout to each other across the tiers and through the vents, and the noise reverberates badly. I stuffed toilet paper in my ears, when I could get toilet paper. You have to beg for everything. The guards would come around and bring the meals three times a day, but they just shoved the food through a slot in the door. It was through that same slot that they handcuffed you behind your back before they’d open the doors to take you somewhere. I’d have to be handcuffed in my cell through the hole in the door to walk a foot and a half to the shower. They’d lock you in the shower, then you’d have to turn around and have your handcuffs taken off. We got a shower only every three days, usually just before going out to the boiling hot, unshaded exercise yard.
It took me seven days of begging before I could make a phone call. I wrote notes on scraps of paper with little stubs of pencils that were in the cell, and I stuck them through the door. Most of the time, the guards walked down the tier and kicked the notes aside. I had a cold and the flu before all this happened, and I could hardly breathe.
When I was first put in the cell, I asked to see a nurse. She was supposed to be in the next day, but she never showed up. I ended up spending four days without medication. I honestly thought I was going to die.
I even cried while I was in Greystone because of the overwhelming stress. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and I was being treated so badly. I couldn’t call anyone. I couldn’t get a guard to stop by my cell to answer questions. I got my period and I couldn’t get any sanitary napkins. They made you look like an animal and treated you like one.
Eleven days after I got to Greystone, they held what I’d call a kangaroo court on the attempted escape charge. A lieutenant from CRC showed up for my hearing. He seemed more interested in the fact that I’d been a madam and how I’d run my business than anything else, but he seemed to be a nice man, and I started to feel that he was going to give me some good news. Maybe they’d contacted the young man who sent the pictures and investigated enough that they knew I wasn’t planning an escape I only had eight months left on my sentence. I’d already done a year and a half of my time. I had a good prison job, and I’d just gotten a raise. I was taking creative writing and art classes. I was tutoring some girls on the side. I had cats that I fed every day in the yard at CRC. I just wasn’t the profile of a prisoner who would be interested in escaping.
At the hearing, I was talking as well as I could, handcuffed behind my back, sweat streaming down my face from the heat and the stress. Then the lieutenant began flipping through the Title XV rules and suddenly said, “Well, my hands are tied. I have to find you guilty.” And I said, “Of what? What investigation has been done so far? Have you contacted this man that sent the photographs to verify that I’ve never even met him?” And he said, “I don’t know at what point the investigation is,” so I asked, “Well, how can you find me guilty without an investigation?” He just kept saying, “I have no choice. My hands are tied.”
I began getting scared at that point because I felt as if I were being railroaded. Then he pronounced sentence: the loss of 150 good-time days -all of my good-time credits. That would delay my parole for more than four months. I was catatonic. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Then they marched me back to my cell.
The lieutenant was certain I wouldn’t be sent back to CRC, because once you’re found guilty of a serious offense, it changes your status in prison. He said most likely I would have to stay at Greystone or be sent up north to Madera, another high-security prison, too far for visitors. It was devastating.
Finally, I was able to make one collect phone call. I had no phone numbers with me, but I remembered the number of an old boyfriend, and thank God he was there to pick up the phone. I asked him to call my public defender, which he did. Steve Carroll spoke to the newspapers, and the resulting articles mentioned that I’d been charged with an escape attempt. My pen pals and other San Diegans were incensed. They deluged both prisons with calls and letters. They called the warden at CRC and the warden at Greystone demanding explanations. I think it was all this interest from the outside that caused a second hearing to be scheduled for a week later. I’d been in Greystone three long weeks by this time.
At my second hearing there were three administrators from CRC, and two of them still voted me guilty. Only one of them questioned the investigation, and that’s when they finally admitted they’d never contacted the guy who had sent the photographs. I don’t even know if there was any investigation. They didn’t find me guilty of attempted escape. That one dissenting vote spurred further investigation. I sat for another few days with bated breath, and finally I was brought to yet a third hearing. At this one, there was one CRC lieutenant and CRC’s public administrator, a woman, and she seemed to be happy to tell me that they’d dropped the charges. I wept with relief.
When I was finally allowed to go outside onto the yard at Greystone, I could look up and see small planes flying directly overhead. I’d been told that it was an FAA regulation that no planes could fly over a prison and that no aerial photographs could be taken of prisons, but I saw these little planes flying overhead all the time. They certainly weren’t being shot down.
All of this happened simultaneously with the release of the second grand jury report. The first grand jury had carried over the investigation of possible police tampering with the Rolodex and the suspected connections with police brass, but the second grand jury still had no definitive answers. People wrote to me and said it was tremendously coincidental that the administration should overreact and send me to the Hole at the same’ time the grand jury report was coming out. But I’m not paranoid, and I tend to think it was another one of the terribly ironic, coincidental things that have happened around this case.
The second grand jury did state that there was really no way they’d be able to find out if the Rolodex was tampered with. It had passed through too many hands. The report stated that perhaps the best police procedure had not been followed in handling the Rolodex.
A day or so after the attempted escape charges were dropped, I was bused back to CRC. I was so grateful to get back to that place, even though I had to go through the two-week orientation again, and lose my privileges, and go to a classification hearing, and be reassigned to another job. Then I worried about whether my good-time days had been restored, because there are some terrible administrative SNAFUs in prison. It’s a good thing that I was friends with the law librarian because I was able to do research and double-check Title XV, and I did eventually get my days restored.
I was reassigned to a different dorm again, different roommates, different bed, different lifestyle, and had to start over from scratch, but I got most of my possessions back. Eventually I got an even more interesting job than my old one. I became a literacy tutor in a class called Adult Basic Education/English as a Second Language. We had about 25 students, quite a few who couldn’t read or write English and some that couldn’t speak English. I was a private tutor and I was a clerk for the teacher, typing up all the administrative work. It was a very hard job, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. There’s always a silver lining, even though the job didn’t make up for the 29 days I spent in the Hole at Greystone. I feel I can sympathize with prisoners of war a bit after what I went through.
I made 34 cents an hour at that job. The extra money allowed me to buy more sardines in the canteen to feed to the cats on the yard. Some of the girls were resentful that I was feeding cats. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything about that. I shared with my roommates, but I couldn’t feed all the girls who didn’t have money for the canteen. I eventually became known as the Cat Lady.
Soon after I returned to CRC, the warden beckoned me over to his office and shook my hand and welcomed me back. He didn’t really apologize, but he expressed regret that it took so long to bring me back from Greystone. He said a lot of the people I had corresponded with called him directly. His parting remark to me was “Let’s try to keep a low profile, Miss Wilkening.” I didn’t know what to say in response, because I hadn’t caused the things that had gotten me into the paper again. It was the administration’s overreaction that had stirred up this publicity.
Media coverage unfortunately put the administration on edge the entire time that I was in jail and prison. I’m aware that sex sells newspapers, but it seemed as if my case was a continuing soap opera in San Diego. I think sometimes the news media passed the bounds of just reporting the facts, and in many cases they didn’t check the facts. There were discrepancies from one article to the next about things that were verifiable, like the number
of years that I had run the service or my age or the sequence of events.
For a time I tried to keep open communication with some reporters to correct those factual errors, but then the misquoting started again. One of the most blatant examples occurred when I was being asked about my clients’ names, and I said, “I’ll never talk about my clients’ names. But I will say they were all VIPs to us.” The published quote left off the last two words and inaccurately made it sound like I was bragging that all my clients were actually VIPs.
I did try to keep a low profile, but some events worked against that, and I was put in a defensive position a few more times. It happened again when I was jerked out of prison to testify at the Vernon Savings & Loan trial in Dallas, in which some of the bank executives were being charged with misappropriation of funds. Back in 1983 or ’84, I had sent seven girls to a cocktail party in Solana Beach being held for executives of the Texas bank. Vernon must have been happy with the service, because the next year they wanted girls for two nights – one night at a cocktail party and the second night at a yacht party. Apparently, federal investigators had been trying to contact me about the case since 1987, after my apartment was searched by San Diego vice officers and I fled to the Philippines. I found out later that there was even an attempt to work out a deal with the federal people if the local charges could be dropped, but the San Diego district attorney refused to cooperate with the feds. But as I was resuming my life in CRC, I was unaware of any of this and had no idea I would be called to testify.
Naturally while I was in custody I was an easy mark for federal authorities. A note was left on my bunk on October 5, 1990, telling me to pack all my things immediately, that I was going out to court. I had no idea what it was for. I could only speculate that I might be going to San Diego for Betty Broderick’s trial, since I’d been her first roommate at Las Colinas. You’re living on quicksand in prison, and you’re never given explanations, so I couldn’t find out where I was going, even from my counselor.
When I saw the note I panicked, because I knew that as soon as I left prison I would lose everything again. I would lose my job, my dorm, my bed, my status – everything. Someone was to pick me up at 7:30 the next morning, so I had one night to rearrange my life. When I saw the marshals the next day, they wouldn’t tell me where I was going either. They would say only that I was going to be booked into the federal prison system, which meant that I would then acquire my third prisoner identification number: one local, one state, and one federal.
That morning they loaded me into a little van, and we stopped at CIW and at Chino to pick up prisoners. We were in our blues, all chained and shackled up. The two guys from Chino were in the back. One was on crutches, and they had handcuffed one hand to his crutch.
At one stop an unexpected thing happened. I was sitting in the seat closest to the van door, and when we stopped to drop off one of the guys, he moved to the front and hesitated next to me. Then he quickly leaned down and kissed me on the lips before the guard could turn around and see. I was so startled. I wondered how long he’d been locked up to take such a chance.
The rest of us were taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center, the high-rise federal prison in downtown Los Angeles. The brand-new clothes I’d been issued at CRC were thrown out, and I was given a new set of federal clothes from top to bottom and assigned my federal prisoner number, 21070-077.
I still didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t find out anything until I’d been at MDC for three days and the word got around that I was being held for a plane that would eventually take me to Texas. Then I realized it must have something to do with Vernon, but I had to figure that out myself. They refused to let me see the paperwork, which I felt was a violation of my rights.
The day we left MDC they shackled us again, hands and feet, and took us to Orange County Airport, where I started a bizarre journey on what they call Con-Air – Convict Airlines. It was a very large silver plane with no markings. It was difficult getting up the stairs into the plane with my leg shackles. They load you from the back, but they seat the women up front, so we were paraded past what seemed like hundreds of men. They were dazed and pretty quiet, but they were staring an awful lot; there were some hungry looks.
There were no seat belts for us, and I wondered what chance we would have if anything ever happened to this plane. I would wonder that every day for the next week. They never told us where we were going, but we took off and landed, dropped off and picked up federal prisoners all over California the first day. I was in shackles on that plane for about ten hours that day.
At the end of each day, we would land at either a military airport or off to the side of a commercial airport. The area would be ringed with federal marshals with their guns and bulletproof vests. It was straight out of a novel. A bus would meet us at the plane, and we’d be herded on, still chained and shackled, and be hauled off to some local-yokel jail that the feds had contracted with to hold overnight prisoners en route. One day we were loaded just after the box lunches were given out, and when we landed we were taken to a jail just after they had served dinner. So we didn’t have any food until breakfast the next day. But there was no use complaining.
I wasn’t always sure where we were landing, but the plane did stop at Portland and Oklahoma City. In Phoenix, about six of us girls were taken to a portion of the jail that was so filthy we asked for cleaning supplies and cleaned it up ourselves. There wasn’t a working shower. On these overnight stops, we had no possessions and were lucky to be given a tiny bar of soap. I had no use of a comb for three days, no sanitary supplies again, and in one overcrowded place, I slept on the floor.
It was very stressful to be under those conditions for so long, especially since I wasn’t charged with any federal crime. I was being transported to be a witness, but I was being treated like someone who had just been sentenced to life in federal prison. I might have been outraged if I’d had more energy, but it was gone with the lack of decent nutrition, the lack of sleep, the grueling length of the day, the conditions, the heat, and the lack of contact with anyone who cared. All I could do was go inside myself and replay wonderful memories from my past or meditate. I tried to think a lot about being in the mountains, being out in nature, and smelling fresh air, and being able to touch the grass and having animals around.
It took ten full days to get me to Dallas. Once there, we went by car to the Mansfield Correctional Center, near Arlington. The place must have been designed by the Marquis de Sade. It was like being inside a steel drum. It was all metal, with every sound magnified and reverberating. I was put in a tank in an area that had eight or ten steel cells, where each woman had a tiny cubicle to herself. They opened up onto a small inner area that had a few steel picnic tables. If we didn’t have to be in our cells, we could walk about three or four feet to this inner area, but I didn’t do that very often because they allowed the women to smoke, and there was very little ventilation. I could hardly breathe. They had a television mounted on the wall playing at a very high decibel level all day long, from early in the morning clear through until 11:00 o’clock at night.
I was in this torture chamber for five weeks waiting to appear in the Dallas court. I learned that CNN picked up the sideshow story of this “infamous” madam from a California prison being brought in to testify. Apparently the jury selection was delayed because they started asking all potential jurors about their sexual history and their morals.
It might have been funny if I hadn’t been losing my health. After I’d been at Mansfield for three days, I had a fit for the first time in this entire ordeal. I just lost it. I’d been there without any supplies, washing my hair with detergent soap and not having the basic amenities, I had no money credited on the prison books and no possessions with me. When the federal prosecutor finally showed up, I cried and screamed at him, knowing he was the one responsible. He had no inkling of the horrible conditions or how drastically my prison life had been affected or the devastating results on my health. I had to convey this to him. I gave him a 15-point notation of everything that I’d lost when I was taken from CRC: my job, my wages, my visitors and mail, perhaps my day-for-day credits for parole and my application for a furlough, and many other things.
He said he would send a woman FBI agent to see about getting me some toiletries so I could at least feel human and take care of myself. He was sympathetic after he heard me out; after all, I was there ostensibly as his witness.
About three and a half weeks later, health conditions were still so sordid that I had an awful scare. I woke up one morning and tried to drink a container of milk, and it spilled down my face. There was something wrong with my mouth and my eye, I started shaking, and my knees became extremely weak. I called for the nurse, and I told her, “I think I’m having a stroke.” She looked at me and said, “I think you are too.” An officer carried me to the medical facility because I couldn’t walk. They called the ambulance and rushed me to the hospital.
I was put in a separate area in the hospital with an armed guard the whole time. A doctor examined me and said I was not having a stroke but was suffering from what they call Bell’s palsy, which is paralysis of a facial nerve. It completely paralyzes half of your face. They don’t know all of the causes for this, but stress is a major factor, poor nutrition, lack of rest, or overwhelming sensory overload could bring it on.
There’s not much they can do to treat you. It has to wear off by itself. They give you steroids in a decreasing dosage for about ten days to calm the nerve; but there’s nothing else that can be done except for total rest and reduction of stress, which in my situation was almost impossible. They did give me the option of moving to an isolation cell to get away from the smoke and the noise. That would mean solitary confinement again, but I decided to do it. I thought maybe I could get more rest.
The administration at Mansfield went out of its way at that point to get me more nutritional food, probably at the direction of the feds. Normally, they served no fresh fruit or vegetables, and protein was in the form of things like chopped-up hot dogs. I don’t eat red meat, so they made salads for me, and they went out and bought fruit and vegetables.
When you have Bell’s palsy, you feel like a monster because you have no control over your mouth or your eye. I had to sleep with an eye patch, and to speak I had to hold my mouth up. I still had to do this at the time I was to testify in the Dallas federal court.
The night before I was to testify, they checked me into the Embassy Suites hotel near the Dallas airport. I had a bedroom and a sitting room so there would be a private place for the prosecutor to meet with me. He basically wanted to review what was going to be asked and to refresh my memory, since the pertinent events had happened back in ’83 and ’84 or so. They showed me the “check” that Vernon Savings & Loan had used to pay me for “catering service,” I think. It was made out to the fictitious name of a business. They refreshed my memory on that check and a few other points. I was what you might call a hostile witness. I was not happy about testifying about anybody. I had no motivation to do it. There were no promises, there was no deal, there was no suggestion of cutting the time left on my sentence, nothing. And it had already been a tremendous ordeal for me. I was not a happy camper.
I felt like part of a sideshow because people had known for so many weeks that I was going to be appearing, and when I walked into that courtroom, it was packed. I recognized the reporter from the San Diego Union and one from the Tribune. I was beyond being nervous, I had been to court so many times. At least I wasn’t being accused of anything at the moment. I was very uncomfortable because I couldn’t speak well. I still had to hold the side of my mouth up to speak a little bit dearer.
After sitting in Mansfield Center for five weeks, I was on the stand for only 45 minutes, almost immediately the defense said, “We have no issue with the facts of the prosecution contend in that my client did such-and-such, on such-and-such dates, with such-and-such amounts of money.” There was no opposition to that testimony. Then he said that as long as they’d brought the Rolodex Madam out there, let’s ask her how she ran her business. The jury was all ears.
During my testimony, no one emphasized anything that was of a sensational or sexual nature. There was no talk of orgies or anything. Instead we discussed the fact that the party for the Vernon executives in Solana Beach was a very classy catered cocktail party. I played hostess for a while, because this particular job was unusual. It was the largest job that I ever put together. The Vernon executives were always perfect gentlemen. The girls were dressed beautifully and acted like ladies. There was no overt activity in the place where they were gathered. People would just occasionally disappear in private. That was part of the contract. I think for the two parties the second year, I received part payment in a check — $7000.
The girls had a wonderful time, and the gentlemen did too. Everybody was happy. And I think it’s not that unusual for a board of directors to combine a little bit of fun with a lot of work. I didn’t consider it a moral issue. I felt I was dealing with consenting adults and that it was their decision.
The first night, at the cocktail party, there were three women provided from some other source. I do recall that my girls and I kind of chuckled that we didn’t have to worry too much about the competition because the girls were older and a little bit overweight, not terribly glamorous. Somehow a stupid rumor surfaced that Donna Gentile, a street prostitute who was murdered in San Diego in 1985, might have been at one of those parties. I didn’t know her, but from what I’ve heard, she was in her 20s, and those extra women I saw at the Vernon parties were at least in their late 30s.
The person who testified about Gentile at one of the San Diego grand jury hearings might have been one of my girls who wanted to start her own business; she made no bones about wanting to compete with me. She was giving her phone number out to clients, and since that went against the rules of my service, I didn’t give her any more business. I’ve since heard that she held that against me. I really didn’t think I had any enemies in this world because I’ve never purposely hurt anybody, but I guess you never know. News articles about that situation always quoted “anonymous sources.” I started feeling that I was reading a tabloid because they weren’t printing facts anymore, just gossip and hearsay.
The federal prosecutor in the Vernon case told me he was trying his hardest to make other arrangements besides that grueling Con-Air flight to take me back to CRC. By that time, he’d gotten calls and letters about my health from a lot of people in San Diego, from my family, and a letter from the doctor who treated me in Texas. One dear San Diego couple even wrote to say that if the federal government couldn’t afford it, they would pay for my return flight on a commercial airline so I could travel back like a human being. So he had some pressure on him. I think he felt bad that I’d gotten so sick just to be a witness for only a few minutes. Right after I testified, he told me he’d gotten a court order signed by a federal judge to have me returned on a commercial flight with two FBI agents as escorts.
We flew from Dallas to a small airport in Corona. They served dinner on the flight, and they didn’t take my handcuffs off. There I was, very nicely dressed – better dressed than my guards – and I had handcuffs on. You should have seen the looks I got. People would pass by to get to the restrooms, and they would nudge each other. After a while it seemed as if people were going back to the bathrooms just to see this well-dressed blonde trying to eat her dinner in handcuffs.
When we got to the Corona airport, a car was waiting to drive me back to CRC. We didn’t have any paperwork, and I didn’t have my ID. Thank goodness I had a copy of the letter that the prosecutor had used to get the judge to sign the order for the commercial flight. I’d kept it for my memoirs. This turned out to be the only thing that allowed CRC to let me back in! I thought it was very funny that I almost couldn’t check back into prison.
I had to go through orientation for a third time at CRC, another two weeks with no privileges, no phone calls, no shopping. But the federal prosecutors had written a letter to the CRC administration to make sure I wouldn’t be penalized for having been taken away to testify. Fortunately, that helped get my tutoring job back. Unfortunately, it did not help me get my health back quicker or get work furlough.
With only a few months to go on my sentence, I wanted to stay very low key. I even discouraged visitors. But once I finally got back into a routine and back to work and classes, I was given a notification of a classification hearing. At the hearing, I was perfunctorily told that administration had recommended that I be shipped to higher-security custody for the remainder of my sentence because I was too high profile.
With my heart in my mouth once again, I lived in the law library for the next two days learning how to file an emergency appeal. It was vital for me to get someone to understand that I was not seeking the publicity, I’d been ordered to Texas by the feds, that the recent publicity was not endangering either the institution or myself, and that I was, in fact, refusing to be interviewed. Since coming back from Dallas, I’d been called to do interviews for Hard Copy and other news shows, but I’d turned them all down. I just wanted to do the rest of my time in peace.
I presented all that at the hearing and then pointed out that it was close enough to my parole time that they would not be permitted, by law, to transfer me unless it was for disciplinary reasons. If they transferred me at this point, it would have been as additional punishment.
I spoke directly and at length to a very intelligent woman who was the appeals coordinator for CRC. She was appalled at some of the things that had happened to me since being incarcerated for pandering. She wasn’t familiar with my case, but I had written up a three-page argument, explanation, and request. I did it as rationally and intelligently as I could. The appeals coordinator said she’d do what she could, but she couldn’t promise anything.
I hardly breathed for the next couple of days. It would have been so traumatic to be transferred to another prison up in Northern California at that point, just before I was to be paroled.
The appeals officer finally called me and said that the transfer recommendation had been dropped. I was overwhelmed with appreciation. The least little things that go your way in prison make you enormously grateful.
When I was finally down to only hours before my parole, after two months of going crazy, I didn’t even know which end was up. You don’t know what it feels like until you actually go through it. You either can’t eat anything or all you want to eat is junk food. You can’t sleep. You can’t even picture what it’s going to be like to leave prison.
I didn’t have a home to go to, I didn’t have transportation. I was leaving with only a few hundred dollars and a state check for $200. (That turned out to be a horror because after paroling, I couldn’t get it cashed anywhere. I couldn’t even open a bank account because I didn’t have a picture ID, only my parole papers.)
The CRC public information officer called me to his office to tell me he was besieged with calls from the media about my release. The powers that be were beginning to wonder whether they might have to parole me from a different prison or at a different time of the day or in the middle of the night or out the back door. I knew that some of my friends were going to meet me and drive me to San Diego, and I wanted to step out of prison a free woman, into the light. I’d done my time, paid a big debt to society, and gotten through it okay. It didn’t bother me that reporters were interested in some good news for a change.
The administration decided to let me go out the front door and allow the reporters to be in the parking lot. If I’d left a different way, the reporters might not have believed that I was gone and would have hung around and caused more of a commotion and a security risk.
Some of my friends got together and provided a long silver limousine for me to step into from CRC. It was a really wonderful treat. A couple of friends showed up and gave me what I missed most: fresh vegetables and flowers and some hugs. Before I left, I stopped briefly and answered some questions from the media.
Apparently quite a few of the girls lined the fence where they could look down on the parking lot. The administration turned the sprinklers on to get them away from the fence, but they didn’t move. Later I heard that they said, “We’re not moving for anything. We’re going to watch this.” But I guess they didn’t actually see me leave, because the first letter I got from inside prison said there was a terrible rumor that circulated that I’d been prevented from getting in the limousine and had been arrested and deported to the Philippines to answer some charges. This rumor was even verified by one of the cops at CRC. It wasn’t until the newspaper was delivered to CRC’s library that my inmate friends realized I had made a clean getaway and I was okay. I hear that the newspaper pictures of me in the limousine are behind glass in the administration building, next to the pictures and the stories of two girls who had escaped by going over the fence. The display has the caption “Two Ways To Leave CRC.”
Back in San Diego, I went to the Pan Pacific Hotel, where some of my friends had kindly gotten me a room for a couple of days so that I could decompress. The room overlooked the Coronado Bridge and the water. I sat in the little window seat and stared at the ocean for a long time, since I hadn’t seen it for two years. I had lunch, I unpacked, and I enjoyed the quiet for the first time in two years. In fact, it was almost too quiet; I had to put the television on.
At first I was shaky doing everything. Walking down the hotel hallway by myself, I kept looking for someone to tell me where to go, where to stop, as they do when you’re walking in the halls in jail. I was disconcerted in open spaces. In jail you have all your decisions made for you. When you’re released, all of a sudden you have everything to decide, even the small things like what to eat and when, and you can’t do it all at once. I was surprised at my confusion.
I went into a store and used money again for the first time in two years. I realized I hadn’t handled American money in four years, since before I went to the Philippines. The first time I went into a store for some little things, I couldn’t cope with going through the checkout stand yet, so I just wandered around for a long time and looked. I just tried to appreciate all the things that I’d missed.
I don’t regret any decision I’ve made in my life. I do believe that things happen for a reason. I also believe that all life is an education, and prison is just one of the tougher courses. I’ve seen man’s inhumanity to man, and I’ve seen that self-control is clearly tied to self-esteem. I’ve learned that discomforts and deprivation don’t have to be a curse or a punishment but rather a teaching. There’s a difference between power from circumstances and power from within.
Some of the most meaningful lessons I learned were personal: my strengths, how to find my inner peace, how much I could tolerate, and who my true friends are.
I don’t believe in a God that punishes, and I wish I didn’t have to live in a system that punishes instead of helping people to avoid mistakes or showing them a way to use their intelligence in more productive ways. I saw such a waste in prison.
It’s a mistake to break existing law, and I wouldn’t do that again; but I don’t regret having owned and run the escort service, even after such personally devastating ramifications. I don’t feel guilty about helping adults exercise their freedom in personal and sexual ways.
Now I’m trying to create a new life. I choose to look at it as an opportunity for a rebirth, since I’ve lost everything but a few brave friends. Part of the process is the catharsis of telling the story as I lived it, correcting misinformation, and educating others.