The now defunct Queensgate Prisoner Facility outside downtown Cincinnati.
Preface: Justice is an uncertain thing. The testimony of a single witness, with no supporting evidence whatsoever, can put a man behind bars his entire life whether a crime has taken place or not. The following is a true story.
They came for me in the middle of the night.
Sitting up in my bed, I heard the low garbled squawk of a police radio echoing in the alleyway. Bodies rushed past my window and heavy hands slammed an unwanted announcement on the building's thin door.
Fearing nothing and trusting in my own innocence. I greeted the newest series of police with a half-asleep smirk at the door. This expression was wiped off my face when the hand cuffs came out.
"Are you Mr. XYZ?" one of the four officers croaked.
The croaker, he could have been a college wrestling champion (heavy weight class) and looked like he was sizing me up for some kind of bone crushing leg lock. There was no neck to this man. His wide jawline mushroomed directly into broad shoulders - like he spent his time off ripping phone books in half and bench-pressing his patrol car.
Over the past few months, a jealous ex-girlfriend who lived in my neighborhood had sent a lot of cops over. Cops would show up at my building investigating an "anonymous" call reporting me as shop-lifter or I'd be walking down the street and get stopped and searched by a couple cops who'd received a report of a "suspicious person". Each time, the police would ask me a few questions and then leave me be. It was a high crime neighborhood in the first place. Living there meant dealing with a lot of situations like this one.
So, again, trusting in my innocence as I had so many times before, I answered the officer in a clear confident manner.
"Yes." I began to say.
Before I had a chance to fully reply, I was pushed over the stairway railing - face first. No warning. All four them were suddenly inside the building and two of them were on top of me.
They held me down expecting an intense and bloody struggle. In fact, in shock, I did try to regain my balance from the bull-rush. As the cold metallic grip of the handcuffs bit into my wrists I quit fighting and they brought me to my bare feet.
"Get him some pants." The weight-lifter cop barked.
I was thrown into the lower hell holes of the City jail. Eroded layers of concrete stank with sweat, bile and shit. There were frantic-eyed men who remained impossibly still - men dressed in yellow or wrapped only in teflon re-enforced vests as they laid on their sides. These were the suiciders.
These men, facing Rape or Murder charges, stared into empty spaces behind re-enforced plexiglas as I, along with a small line of the night's arrests, filed meekly past them.
Their craggy faces spoke while their mouths did not. There were decades of prison cells inscribed in those twisted, blank expressions.
Deputies sneered from the icy darkness of their control room as my row of prisoners, freshly released from the tiny intake cell, shuffled meekly past them.
When we were finally placed in one of the larger "pods" in the upper levels of the city jail - not all the men locked in the enclosure remained silent or as distant as the suiciders. Frantic dope fiends paced and screamed. Their cries reverberated weirdly off the irregularly shaped concrete walls and ceilings.
A clearly mentally ill young man loudly mumbled about his concern for his endangered "girlfriend" whose apartment, I learned, he'd broken into during an drug fueled and vicious assault.
Other men would warily drift past him out of an unlikely concern that comes with being locked up. When someone would come close to him his tone would change into a frenzied warning. Then, men would drift away from him, and he went back to a steady mumble.
Sometimes, when no one was near, he'd launch into an eruption anyway.
"Hey!!" he'd wail. "Hey!!! They're runnin' a train on my girl, man!" he'd garble. "Hey!!"
All of these mad outbursts came out of nowhere and right at the top of his lungs.
I found a space under a set of stairs that I could go back to sleep and looked down at my shoes. No shoe laces in them. They took my belt too. The pants the raiding team supplied me with where at least 2 sizes too large. Floppy shoes and cartoon baggy pants.
In the blink of an eye, with no questions asked other than my name, I became Bozo the Con.
The next morning, I waited for hours, listening to an unending series of imaginative lies, in the "bullpen" at the Justice Center. I was waiting to be told exactly what I was accused of at my arraignment.
There must have been two hundred or more men packed together among the peeling paint, rancid body odor, and ancient sand-blasted concrete - waiting, telling ridiculous lies, and some still trying to sleep.
When it was my turn to be led before the judge, I was told that I was a dangerous stalker. My alleged victim, a woman who I had a short and meaningless fling with, had sworn out a Felony warrant in the middle of the night at the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office in fear for her life.
Until then, I had no idea what I was accused of doing. All I knew was that I had spent my whole adult life staying out of trouble and no one seemed to notice that fact during any phase of my trial proceedings.
The arraignment judge ordered an astronomical bond for me. I would not be going home anytime soon. My over-sized clown outfit was taken from me and I offically became an inmate of Hamilton County.
During the remainder of the criminal proceedings the judges I faced, looking for justice, looked down at me with the same irrational contempt. I had no criminal record or previous arrests. I was confident in my innocence because I'd done nothing. Yet, each time I faced a judge or lawyer I was treated as a dangerous criminal. There were no facts or evidence to prove it. I slowly realized that I was being fed into a rusty meat-grinder: a lumbering juggernaut of a legal system that was unable to tell an innocent man from a guilty one so it assumed guilt.
A criminal record was invented for me where there was none. The Prosecutor's Office insisted that I had a violent criminal record with a history of Trespassing and Domestic Violence that made me a danger to my victim. These lies could have easily been proved false with a press of a computer button* but were never contested by my Public Defender, a nervous-looking man named Terry Trantor.
The Prosecutors continued burying me in false charges: Menacing, Stalking, continuing to state that I had multiple priors. Again, no proof, prior arrests/convictions, reports or records of any kind backed this up. Not the slightest shred of evidence. Even a dismissed restraining order from a week prior wasn't enough to get anyone to listen to me.
I was facing a mountain of lies that highly educated and experienced professionals could not see through. My court appointed lawyer, Mr. Trantor, shook his head disapprovingly and told me to shut my mouth each time I tried to contest these lies in open court.
I was caught in the meat-grinder up to my neck.
No one questioned the wisdom of my court ordered mental evaluations. During which, my social worker described the last 10 years of her life as "nightmarish" and told me that I should "just act crazy". No one questioned the $50,000 bond I was given on a Felony 5 (the lowest of felony charges in Ohio). This amount is usually reserved for Felony 2's like Felonious Assault or Robbery.
I was never able to confront my accuser in court. The warrant was issued behind closed doors with no investigation. I was never able to offer any explanation in open court.
After a grand jury rejected a Felony indictment, due to a lack of evidence and any prior criminal record, I was eventually convicted of two minor Misdemeanors and sentenced to one year of the three years that I was originally facing. The proceedings happened so fast that the verdict left tread marks on my back.
I felt like a small helpless fly caught in giant jar with no air holes. The harder I fought to break through the glass, the less air and energy I had left to fight for my freedom. In the beginning, I was buzzing in shrinking manic circles. In the end, I had all my frozen fly legs clawing at the airless vacuum - and suffocated.
During the entire charade, the woman whose threadbare lies were costing me one year of my life, glared angrily at me from the back of the small county court room. A withering gloat spread across her face that said: "I got you. I finally got you."
I fought for my life while I was inside.
As part of the plea deal that my court appointed lawyer accepted, the Felonies which were already dropped were "dropped again" in exchange for the maximum amount of jail time for two petty Misdemeanors: Menacing By Stalking and Violating A Restraining Order. It was all my Public Defender said he could do for me.
Feeling exhausted by the complete lack of reason and having spent 30 days confined with an astronomical bond, I had signed off. I ended up accepting a full year in County lock-up instead of three years in the State Pen. After the exhaustion and anger began to subside I then appealed the entire ruling.
The thing was, I had to appeal all of it from a rotating series of jails now that I was convicted. Contact with the outside world was iffy and distorted. The low-jack touchscreen computers in Queensgate used to request a meeting with any lawyer were almost always broken. My Commissary (used to buy stamps or phone cards) was being sent but was constantly being "misplaced". In the Justice Center, the telephones were off most of the time. In Butler County, where I was housed for several months, I was held in 24 hour lock-down. And this was the only beginning of the bullshit.
What "bullshit" a person might ask?
Try to picture the dirtiest scum of the earth all gathered together in a sardine can. Forced into real small cages. The types of evil, crack-jarred shitheads that are always agitated and always ready to hurt someone.
Imagine these same back stabbers, thieves, addicts and baby rapists are all trapped in the same dank jail together - stressed out and facing years in prison. This is the Hamilton County jail system on a good day.
In jail, they are free to be even worse monsters. What's the worst that can happen? They're already in Hell.
My time was easier time than most guy's time. My muscles and brains pulled me through it. The steady cons, both young and old, thought I reminded them of guys they pulled jobs with. In reality, I was a college educated artist, who was wrongfully incarcerated, that nevertheless was falling in the ranks with bank robbers and thugs in the Can.
Among the coping mechanisms that prisoners adapt is a dullness that acts as a sort of mental shield. That is, the ability to look at anything with a straight face: from your friend bleeding out of large gouges to his face five minutes after was telling you about how much he loved his kids or watching corpulent female C.O.' s having sex with inmates. You don't make a sound when bodies crash down from the top tier onto the table you were just playing cards on or that guy that looks like something that crawled out of Freddy Krueger's nightmares who is sweating you.
It's all just flat after a while.
In this situation, a prisoner forces himself into a numb acceptance of the situation. The prisoner stores the shock for a later date. The prisoner tells himself that the knots growing in his chest will be undone at a TBA time and place.
All the while, the prisoner is thinking that cattle must think the exact same thoughts as they are loaded into the slaughterhouses with their cow eyes and faces blank as a new tombstone.
This kind of dulled emotional distance has two advantages for two types of bad situations.
For example, a new bunkie (the one you are on 24 hour lock down with) could have bed bugs running marathons around his hair while he insists that you agree with him that everyone on earth is both infected with AIDS and smokes crack cocaine.
You have to actually close your eyes around this person and pretend to sleep for a few hours a night. So, you learn not to bat an eye. A prisoner will find himself shaking his head and say "uh-huh". Sure, it sounds ok to me, pal.
This type of bad situation can be classified as "Bullshit That I Can Deal With". This is seperate from "Bullshit I Have to Worry About". This second type can mean a lot worse than patting your insane, lice covered bunkie on the head so you can pretend to sleep.
The Bullshit That You Had To Worry About usually happened on the basketball court or at Rec. Anywhere loosely supervised or overpopulated. Here, I didn't take the bullshit. I grew up around bullies starting at 10 years old - they were nothing new to me. I smashed a few of them when they came at me. I cracked a few ribs, traded black eyes, and broke some small bones in my hands doing it. This idiot kid took a swing at me as I passed him. Right out of the blue. I put him on his back. When I hit him, my fist hit him so hard that his head bounced off the concrete floor.
There was a second, when I had this kid pinned on the ground, where I held the power of life and death over his head - right in my fist. His life was to be decided only by the amount of pressure I brought down on his face.
Another time, I watched a man we'll call "Joe", turn his hand into strawberry Jello smashing it into a kid's face. The teenager stole ¢45 worth of snack cakes from Joe's cell. Up until then, I'd never seen that brutal of a mismatched fight where the smaller man won.
The teenager had at least 40 pounds and a foot on the 40-something Joe. But when the teenager emerged from Joe's cell, munching on a Lil' Debbie snake cake, Joe started screaming. Joe grabbed him with his left hand and hit the kid upwards of twenty times in the face with his right. He kept hitting him, and hitting him, and hitting him...
When the guards finally ordered Joe to the ground, his right hand looked like a doughy red hankerchief filled with split chicken bones. The kid had the sense to fall down. They took Joe out still screaming about his snake cakes.
In any correctional facility, it's Time itself that is the worst enemy. It's time that makes a man do something like what Joe did. Just a few months in prison doesn't make anyone want to do anything. A few years in prison is what makes a person fry eggs on their own burning scalps while singing upbeat gospel hymns. You may laugh but guys really have done this.
Cons looking at long, lonely years hate anything that smells like the outside world - i.e. "shortimers" - those who still may have a shot at the company of women and the ability to operate a refridgerator door...
So, in jail, there was always a fight. Or a shake down. Or a something.
The endless hours, that I spent there, got filled up with books and gesture drawing with these ridiculously tiny pencils. I learned more Spanish from a giant Mexican from Michocan before he got thrown in the Hole. I was forced to quit smoking so I ran laps. I filed a Motion to Dismiss and a Motion to have the "evidence" re-examined nearly every month I was there. Eventually, my Appeal got "fast-tracked" which meant, after I was released, my case would be heard again.
I didn't lose control, focus or hope. Not even in Hell.
There was a lot of time to reflect on the situation.
I'd been a volunteer at a non-profit that worked with the homeless downtown in Cincinnati. That's where I met the woman who would spend the next five months stalking me before testifying, with crocodile tears streaming down her face, that I was the one who was stalking her.
Prior to the stalker, I'd just got out of the most serious relationship in my life. This happened right before we met. There was a lot of guilt and remorse left over from this relationship when this woman began following me around.
At first, there were indications that something was really wrong. After meeting up at a local festival and spending the night together she spent the following day walking in nervous circles around me while tittering and not acknowledging me. I dismissed it as the result of a drunken night - something I'd done before. But there was a disproportionate amount of fear and weirdness in her that reeked of something unavoidably worse yet to come.
Many months later, at a gathering of friends, she spent her time staring at me like she was watching my face melt off and Satan's horns erupting at my forehead. A cold sweat spread across her clammy forehead as the minutes turned to hours. To make things worse, it appeared that I was the only one at the house that was sober enough to see it.
This expression was a weird side effect of anti-psychotic medication. I recognized it from dealings with other deranged/sick people - it's the Grinning Scarecrow effect. But instead of grinning-and-bearing-it her face was cracking open with this ludicrous sneer. I began to distance myself from her, after some confusion, right around this point.
At the time (August 2006) I lived in a rickety one room studio apartment in a old building in a crack infested part of the city. This woman only lived two blocks from this building. My neighbors were pretty oblivious to the daily crack deals and prostitutes.
When this woman began to show up on a nightly basis for five months, not to visit but to camp out in front of my building with an alternating series of drug buddies and "moral" supporters, no one really even batted an eye.
This woman was a clearly a lunatic. But she was just another lunatic in a sea of lunatics that crowded the streets. Just another Grinning Scarecrow.
Although I'd suspected she was unhinged to begin the relationship with - I was horny as hell and she seemed like a good call a the time. Again, this was not smart on my part. Stupid. Very stupid.
Eventually, she would show up in front of my building from 5pm to 3 or 4 AM each night. From a darkened alley next to my building she would sit and scream, usually rolling a newspaper up and unrolling it until it was shredded. If disturbed, she'd make hasty escapes through a run-down commercial property only to return within minutes to hide behind a rickety fence, scream at or alternately watch my building.
She wanted everyone on my block to know that she was a maniac and this was all my fault.
Again, none of this was invisible or even hard to notice. What allowed it to continue was a neighborhood so desensitized by decades of dealing with crackheads that it just kind of shrugged it's collective shoulders and said: "I'm glad it ain't me." When the cops would show up she'd melt back into the darkness like a rat into a open sewer grate.
To top it all off, she'd roam around my building and then managed to briefly make "friends" with a guy that lived inside of my building. She was like a case of walking, talking hemorroids. Hemmoroids that were threatening to bloodily erupt. She would not go away. She latched onto me so much that she finally had to do something to hide the last five months of her life - improbably enough, filing false charges against me - accusing me of stalking her w/out an arrest, piece of evidence or even a police report to back it up.
This was not only condoned by her friends and co-workers but they would later refuse to testify to her activities. Instead, they withdrew like frightened ostriches into bitter denials that it ever happened. My letters from prison to these former friends begging them to refute these charges went unanswered.
Finally, after I'd watched a year go by the one window in the facility, located 30 feet above my head (and fenced in), I neared my release date. Two counties, eight motions, twelve or more cells and court appearances, 900 putrid meals, and thousands of prisoners later I was freed.
When they returned my shoes to me at the Property Window they smelled like someone wore them for a few weeks then took a king-size dump in them. I put them on anyway.
Outside, on the snowy steps of the jail downtown, I smoked a menthol cigarette. It was a "100" - the longer variety of cigarette - I bummed it from a guy who just did 30 days and I nearly passed out.
"How long where you in the County?" the thin, moustached man asked me.
He couldn't believe it either. I didn't tell him that they wanted 3 years for my "first offense". Him and the others that were released in that dark morning made their individual ways from the colossal county jail. Probably to return soon.
They disappeared in dark alleys or faded around corners. I sat in front of the jail finishing the cigarette. Head spinning a little bit as the nicotine entered my bloodstream like a freight train.
With nowhere within 100 miles to sleep I got wandered to the Greyhound station and took the bus home to Indy. When I got back there, Christmas was largely me trying to convince my family I hadn't suddenly become a dangerous criminal. This part could have over gone over easier.
After a few days in Indiana, my family decided that I was either only Mildly Dangerous (the neurotic kind as in Al Bundy) or that if I truly was Seriously Dangerous that I could at least cover it up well enough to function properly (the sociopathic type as in Ted Bundy).
In late winter, a few weeks later, I returned to Cincinnati. I got my life back, but not all at once. It came back to me in slow, clear waves - new home, new car, new job, new women and good friends. Each came to me in their own unmistakable time.
One thing was clear to me, I wasn't going to waste my freedom on an empty vengeance on the psychotic woman who had tried to send me to prison for dating her. Or not dating her? I still have no idea what I had done to her.
The thing was - I didn't even really hate her. She was a sad, confused person. In the months before she made up the hard to swallow lies that cost me 11 months of my life (I got 30 days of "good time" off my original sentence - fights and all) I was forced to watch her retreat into herself inch by inch - until only the Grinning Scarecrow remained.
When she drug me into this case, it was just her shaky word against mine - a 30 year old man with no criminal record. On the other side of the punishment for my alleged crime I knew she had to be the same paranoid, unstable liar she was to begin with.
Since I wasn't allowed to speak out during my first case I still felt I had a lot to say. But due to a 5-year restraining order between us - she was the last person that was going to speak to. I wanted to confront her with what she had done to me, and my family, but this was illegal.
This deeply frustrating experience with the justice system had stolen enough time from me. I wasn't going to let it take one more hour from me by doing something stupid and retaliatory.
After my new trial, no matter what the verdict was this time around, I decided that I had to let this one go.
So, I very gradually put my life back together. I waited. I worked. I volunteered, joined a dozen clubs from regional film groups to the city's chess club. I drank in nearly every bar that served a decent cheese burger in the Tri-State. I shamelessly chased new women around who had absolutely no interest in dating me - smiling as they turned me down for dinner, dances and phone numbers.
Then, nearly one and half years after the cold night that my freedom was taken from me - my wrongful conviction was thrown out. I pled guilty to "Disorderly Conduct" and the Menacing By Stalking charge was dismissed. Like none of it ever happened...
Only one man, a court appointed Appeals lawyer, by the name of Mr. Robert Hastings, believed that I could possibly be innocent. This was long after I had been wrongfully convicted. Without his help and the help of the Public Defender's Office in the form of the diligence of Mr. Thomas Rolfes - I would've had to live with being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime I never committed.
Due to Hastings and Rolfes, the original Stalking charge, after being reversed by an appellate committee, was thrown out by the exact same judge, Judge Lisa Allen, who had convicted and sentenced me in 2007 by saying "You scare me, Mr. XYZ."
Essentially, in the eyes of the law, I was convicted of Disorderly Conduct while sleeping.
Over a full year later, there was still no evidence why. The falsified and unverified emails, uncorroborated claims against me, absence of any telephone records and total lack of any previous criminal record were red flags that the entire justice systems had conveniently chose to ignore. I was not an insane killer poised for an imminent attack but an innocent man caught up in the thinnest of lies by a bitter, mentally ill ex-girlfriend.
Eventually the Disorderly Conduct charge was also thrown out of court.
After my exoneration, a lot of uncomfortable questions where finally being asked. No answers were being found. The woman whose lies had stolen 11 months of my life was being disregarded by the city Prosecutor's Office even as she was trying to bring up new charges against me early in 2008.
The Grinning Scarecrow, it seems, was still ready to press charges.
Apparently she was unafraid to play the role of local crazy person as she continued to follow me around my neighborhood screaming "criminal!" in 2009. She'd trail me into bars and insist to the patronage that I was following her. Places I'd been to for years.
It's hard to believe that all of these hardships were over the false accusations from a woman I barely knew or dated. It still seems so petty and trivial that she kept crying wolf while many other people are robbed, beaten, and victimized by real criminals in the exact same neighborhood everyday.
For all her wild allegations of imminent danger - I've never lifted a finger to harm her or threatened to do so either before or after she filed the charges. To date, nothing violent or threatening has ever happened to her.
Seeking an unjust revenge, by saying she was a victim of a fictitious crime, meant losing her job at the non-profit where we met. Losing the hard earned respect of her peers in a small community of artists and musicians came next.
No matter how badly things had gone, the fact was I was a free man and in the clear again. My false accuser, terminated the same month I was released from jail, was no longer in a position to accuse other volunteers of similar crimes.
I began working successfully within a Fortune 500 company and rebuilding my reputation in the city. After working 60 hour weeks for months I saved up enough bread for a new apartment and new car (my previous clunker had been stolen while I was locked up).
Through the endless soul searching, lies, trials and jails I actually felt a little closer to my family. Although I was always regarded as an "unclassifiable retard" - I found myself elevated to the even more awkward position of "well-meaning retard". I began looking forward to the next leg of my legal battle to get my record completely cleared.
In late 2009, a year after the reversal of my conviction, the false charges of Menacing by Stalking and Disorderly Conduct were permanently removed from my record by the same judge who had originally convicted me.
For all the crazy lies, circular injustice and months spent in jail I found my life was, for the most part, better than ever before. After nearly three years of fighting I had the small victory of knowing that I had fought everything the city could throw at me and that Slim's revenge had finally backfired.
Epilogue: Moral? Holy crap, Mean Gene. Is there one here? Me and you - we'll call it Perseverance. Perseverance, in the face of mindless bureaucracy fueled by the self-destructive hatred of a pathetic woman.
I still consider myself lucky to have only have had to do 336 days out of the three years or more that I was originally facing. Even luckier to have these trumped up charges off my record. I know of at least two (see below) different cases in the US where men spent 20 or more years in prison because of injustice based on the "word" of a deranged woman. This kind of justice is unforgivable because it happens so often to so many.
* = All criminal records are available on-line in Cincinnati, thanks to a series of progressive minded Clerks of the Court. The public can easily access this information at Court Clerk.org.
 = Gary Reese spent nearly 20 years in Ohio prisons for a Rape he never committed until he was freed by DNA. To this day his false accuser still insists he did it. Gary Reese now works in downtown Cincinnati getting men with felony convictions steady work at Superjobs.
 = Dwayne Allen Dail was falsely imprisoned and sentenced to two life sentences plus 18 years in North Carolina for a alleged rape of a 12 year old girl. At one point, prosecutors offered Dail a plea of no contest to charges of taking "indecent liberties with a minor" and receive only three years probation in return. He refused stating in no uncertain terms that he was innocent. After nearly twenty years in maximum security prisons he was freed by DNA evidence in August of 2007.
 = My own case, including it's Reversal and Expungement from my record, State vs Schmitt 07/CRB/2706 is a matter of public record.