To catch a relative
What if that nationally-sought fugitive is your own flesh and blood? Worse, what happens when you’re the only one who can stop him?
Thu, May 6, 2010 (midnight)
In my mind, I still sit at that table in the coffee shop at the Gold Spike, staring at an empty white chair. Two Diet Cokes and two menus remain before me, so I know someone sat there moments ago. But then, after the longest hour of my life, a man who could easily pass as my 25-years-older twin brother seemed to have vanished like Houdini. All that was left for me to do was stare at that chair and wonder how one proceeds with the rest of one’s day after something like that, my services no longer needed by U.S. Marshals or the Palm Beach County sheriff.
“Dad,” I said into my phone when the numbness wore off enough for me to speak again. “We got him. It’s over.”
“Are you okay?” he asked.
As well as could be expected. Which was to say, I had no idea how I was.
The man whose hands had been cuffed behind his back and hauled off is my uncle, my mother’s only brother and, it turns out, a pretty unsavory fellow.
So here are the standard-issue crime-story formalities: Jeffrey Martin, 61, of Pompano Beach, Florida, became a nationally sought fugitive on April 16 when he failed to show up at court in West Palm Beach to enter an expected guilty plea and start his agreed-upon eight-year prison term. Martin was arrested in December 2008 and charged with 82 counts of trafficking child pornography on the Internet.
Nice, right? Nicer still: For whatever reason, after a suicide attempt on April 14 failed and he improbably woke up after downing, by his count, 52 Ambiens and “I don’t know what else,” he grabbed his wallet, straggled out to the beaches north of Fort Lauderdale and eventually found himself at a Greyhound station. As have countless troubled and derelict souls before him, he was drawn to one of those places in our great nation that people flee to, where they believe anonymity will be theirs, where countless security cameras spy into every conceivable angle but somehow tend not to see anything important.
Las Vegas drew Jeffrey Martin. For him, it offered all those perks and one more: Me, his only nephew. He had alienated his own children—how many there are and by how many women, we actually don’t know—but perhaps I would shelter him.
I did not.
A bit more than a year ago, my mother called, which is how I knew something was wrong. My three sisters and I have most contact with our parents through my father; my mother hates talking on the phone and never calls just to chat. It’s not her thing.
“My brother was arrested,” she said in a disbelieving whisper. “They’re saying he looked at some pictures on the Internet, I don’t know. It’s very strange. He says he didn’t do anything wrong, that it’s a misunderstanding, but it’s in the papers here.”
Indeed, it was. His bushy, silver-tipped eyebrows stared straight ahead in the booking photo online, and articles in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post described his alleged misdeeds. They even used his full given name, Jeffrey Dean Martin. I didn’t even know that was his middle name, that my grandparents, both onetime showbiz people, had gotten all Rat-Pack cutesy. He was referred to as being from Wellington, a city near West Palm Beach, but by the time he was booked he had moved to Pompano because his second wife kicked him out. She wasn’t enamored of cops raiding her home and searching her computers for child pornography, it seems.
The hideousness of the charges were staggering. According to the police report, America Online alerted the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children in May 2008 that someone using the screen names “loveto2travel” and “lovetotravel69” had sent images and videos of nude girls as young as 1 or 2 years old and girls as young as 5 having sex with adult men. On at least one post in April, the report said, Uncle Jeff sent a picture to a friend with the request, “Need much younger.”
For some reason, that wasn’t enough for AOL to shut down the account and ban the user based on terms-of-service violations alone. Instead, it took police until August to raid his house and Florida Sign Doctors, the sign shop he and his wife co-owned in the Broward County city of Margate. And then, somehow, he wasn’t arrested until December 23.
My mother was in understandable disbelief, but I really wasn’t. It’s not that I suspected Uncle Jeff of being a virtual perv of the worst sort, but nothing I’d ever known about him gave me any reason to regard him as anything other than a colossal fuck-up.
I get this from my father, who never had much use for his brother-in-law. Dad was 21 when he married Mom and was recruited by his new father-in-law, Grandpa Doug, to help save the family printing business on Long Island. Dad and Grandpa built it into one of the most successful plants in New York by the time my uncle flunked out of college. Grandpa forced Dad to bring on Uncle Jeff, who had no discernible skills, and thus began a miserable 20-year business partnership in which my father essentially made enough money to provide comfortably for us, my grandparents and Uncle Jeff’s family.
Early in my childhood, I saw Uncle Jeff on birthdays, sometimes on Mother’s Days, and around Dad’s office. I had no social life with these cousins even though they lived a few miles away, although I know I went on his boat once, and I remember Uncle Jeff challenging me to bite into lemons at a diner.
No, the recollection that has resurfaced now is when, at age 7, I opened his desk drawer at the office to find boxes of X-rated videotapes. I don’t remember noticing any images of children, but did anyone sell packaged VHS kiddie porn back then?
By the late 1980s, the family business imploded. My father couldn’t bear his brother-in-law’s incompetence and greed, and with my grandparents having retired to Fort Lauderdale, there was nobody to referee their disputes anymore. The business closed amid recriminations and accusations between Dad and Uncle Jeff, and for the next decade my mother and her brother had virtually no contact whatsoever. The sole time I saw him was at my grandfather’s funeral in 2000.
A couple of years after that, Uncle Jeff’s life came undone. His wife discovered Uncle Jeff had had several affairs throughout the course of their 30-year marriage, and had probably fathered other children, too. She threw him out in a fury, and three of his four children ceased to have anything to do with him. The one who remained in touch largely did so because she had just come out as a lesbian, and her mother was then a nasty homophobe who would have none of it. Jeff and his daughter bonded as family outcasts.
Uncle Jeff moved to Palm Beach County, where my parents had also retired by then. He made a sudden effort to rebuild his long-dormant relationship with our family, starting with apologies to my mother and a sudden turn at doting on my grandmother, then in her late 80s. For my mom’s sake, my father swallowed his hostility. Jeff remarried, and the new couple set up the sign shop in Broward County.
Later on, U.S. marshals asked me when I had last seen Uncle Jeff. I cannot recall. I visit my parents once a year in Florida and otherwise see them at family events in the Northeast. It is possible that I haven’t seen Uncle Jeff since he attended my wedding—in Las Vegas to my partner, Miles—three years ago. Nothing else comes to mind.
For much of my life, in fact, I had little in the way of significant memories of this man. Now, of course, I have at least one.
The e-mail came through my website early on April 23, eight days after my mother’s brother had sent her a suicide note in the mail but then didn’t turn up dead. It left my parents in a messy limbo, contending with detectives and marshals repeatedly interrogating them and a confused 92-year-old grandmother who couldn’t understand why her son hadn’t swung by for their weekly lunch.
Some of what my father told me was hard to believe. Despite the fact that Uncle Jeff had posted a $25,000 bond and was negotiating a lengthy sentence on a gruesome sexual deviancy charge, he was permitted by the Palm Beach County courts to keep his passport. In fact, he took a trip to Egypt with a girlfriend—who are these women who dig these sorts of men?—earlier in April. Uncertain what to believe, I called and wrote Palm Beach Post reporter Jason Schultz, who had covered Uncle Jeff’s arrest. Perhaps there was a good story in this for him as well, I told him, and he could have it if he helped figure out what the situation was.
I never heard from Schultz, but that Friday, I did hear from my uncle.
“I am sure that by now you know what’s going on with me,” Uncle Jeff wrote in the e-mail. “I would really like to speak with you about the situation and hope to get some much-needed advice. If you could e-mail me your cell number, I will call you. Thank you in advance for being there to speak with me. If you can I would appreciate you not telling my sister or your dad about this e-mail until we speak. I do not have easy e-mail access so I will try to check this later today.”
To which Miles said to me: “He’s in Vegas. I can feel it.” He would; he’s in TV news, where fugitive-sought or fugitive-found tales never get old.
I had no idea, but the only obvious call was to the U.S. Marshal’s office here in Las Vegas. As a journalist, I had called them countless times.
This, of course, was different. This time, I was a citizen who had to explain that my uncle was a fugitive from Palm Beach County who fled to avoid child porn charges and had now contacted me. What do I do?
My imagination, evidently, ran wild. I assumed they would do some analysis of the e-mail to figure out its origin, that they would come interview me and start tracing my phone. Nah. I became acquainted with Deputy Marshal Felix Serrano of Las Vegas who, after consultation with Deputy Marshal Robert Kremenik in Fort Lauderdale, gave me my instructions: Write him back if you want and give him your phone number. Then let us know if anything else happens.
Later Friday, Kremenik and I spoke at length. He explained the marshal’s role as fugitive-fetcher and how important it was to bring my uncle back safely. He kept asking me if I was close with my uncle, a logical question since he’d reached out to me. “He might think we are,” I told him. “But I don’t really care what happens to him. I just want this to be over for the sake of my mom and my grandmother.”
Nonetheless, Kremenik kept telling me that they would do what they could to avoid letting Uncle Jeff know I had given him up. I couldn’t tell the agent more emphatically how little I cared what Uncle Jeff thought or knew.
At 11 a.m. on April 24, Uncle Jeff called. I’d like to say I was as unflappable as I pictured myself, but in fact I nearly fell out of my skin.
“Are you here?” I asked.
On a pay phone at some fleabag motel on Las Vegas Boulevard near Fremont Street. I can almost spit on the highway from here.
“We have plenty of those.”
Did you speak to my sister?
“I speak to my parents all the time, so yeah.”
Then you know what’s going on.
“To be honest,” I lied, “I don’t really understand what’s going on at all.”
Can you meet me somewhere?
I sputtered for the next few minutes. For a wanted man, he was being awfully open about where he was, but I feared my nervousness would tip him off that I was planning to trap him. I ran through a few options but kept worrying that he’d confuse, say, one McDonald’s with another, so ultimately I settled on the Gold Spike because it was small, easy to get in and out of and right next door to City Hall, where Metro is headquartered.
His tone brightened.
“I was just at the Gold Spike this morning,” he said. “The place I’m staying at gives out these free meal tickets to there.”
Okay, then, 1:30 p.m. at the Gold Spike where you had breakfast. I’d now determined precisely where he was: a certain extended-stay motel on the Boulevard, just north of U.S. 95. Those free meal tickets are the motel’s shtick.
I couldn’t reach Serrano by cell, but Kremenik called back from Florida within the half hour. He asked what I’d be driving, and when I said it was a convertible, he asked me to drive up with the top down. He asked what I looked like—all I could think of for distinguishing traits was that I have large cheeks—and what I’d be wearing, so I chose a lime Vancouver Olympics shirt because it was the most distinctive color in my wardrobe.
Kremenik reiterated the pledge that Uncle Jeff wouldn’t know how he was caught. In fact, he told me, if I arrived five minutes late it would probably be over and I wouldn’t even have to see him. I wondered why they didn’t just go to the motel and pick him up there, but I’m glad they didn’t. This made a better story.
I got dressed and then I waited. Time moves slowly when you’ve got an appointment like this. There’s little else to do, and your attention can’t be distracted. But then, at about 1 p.m., as I was ready to drive, top down, to the Gold Spike, Kremenik called again.
“You may have to stall him,” the officer said. “Just keep him talking for a while. If you have to take him someplace, be careful. We don’t know if he’s armed.”
Uh, okay. But why?
It turned out Kremenik, too, had trouble reaching Serrano. And by the time he did, it looked like the Vegas marshals might be a bit tardy to the showdown.
Right. Yeah. Drama.
I pulled into the Gold Spike parking lot at precisely 1:30 p.m. and my cell phone buzzed. It was Serrano.
“What is your uncle wearing?” he asked.
There were two things wrong with this question. First, how would I know until I saw him, and second, if I was with him would it be wise to answer calls from marshals?
Annoyed Me: “I don’t know, I’m not there yet.”
Serrano: “We think we’ve seen him. Is he wearing a green shirt and jeans?”
Irritated Me: “No, that’s my description. I’m wearing a green shirt and jeans. I’m about to walk in right now.”
And so I did. Walking through the casino was like a shaky-camera film scene, my eyes searching every face and jerking away when it wasn’t him. Then, as I reached the coffee shop entrance, I heard his voice.
“Steven,” he muttered from a hallway of pay phones.
There he was, the perv of the hour. He looked so old, a week’s beard growth with this strange wild stare, leathery sunburned skin and a homeless man’s odor. I hugged because I wanted to keep it normal and then noticed he was, indeed, wearing a green T-shirt and jeans.
This part spooks me most. I am, undeniably, his spitting image. Our stringy curly black hair, our big cheeks, the shape of our mouths, our stubbly jowls. It’s all there, and then he turns up wearing the same unlikely colored shirt. It has become hard for me since that day to look in a mirror without being creeped out by the notion that in 25 years I’ll look like the alleged pedophile who wreaked havoc on so many lives.
We got a table. Not by design but, it turned out, to my great fortune, I sat facing the entrance of the restaurant with the casino beyond that and he faced the soda fountains.
The waitress took our drink orders and then here was the conversation, in its entirety:
Me: You’ve been on quite a journey.
Him: Yeah, and you’re the only one who knows where I am.
With that, Serrano put a hand on my uncle’s shoulder, asked he was Jeffrey Martin and ordered him to stand up. “I’m not going to do anything,” the former fugitive said. Indeed, he was discouraged from doing so by the second marshal who had the red light of a taser gun trained on Jeff’s chest.
He and I looked at one another, didn’t say anything. His look wasn’t that of betrayal but rather of resignation, an almost comical, “see-what-I’m-up-against” sort of thing.
With my uncle in custody, Serrano turned to me and said, “Thank you.” He wasn’t supposed to do that, wasn’t supposed to tip off that I had done anything to be thanked for, and when Kremenik found out he was furious. A half hour after the arrest, Serrano called me to apologize and to say that he had smoothed it over by pretending to interrogate Uncle Jeff about me. I kept telling both of them I didn’t care.
But, anyhow, he was gone. Poof. After all that tension, it ended so surgically, so neatly, so peacefully and simply. Not that I expected him to hold me hostage with a butter knife or something, but I never really pondered where I’d be mentally or physically when it was over.
It was so subtle, in fact, that only the coffee-shop employees even knew what had happened. I only know that because the waitress came by shortly thereafter and took away one of the Diet Cokes and one of the menus.
Then she made a funny: “I guess he’s not coming back, huh?”
Five days later, I showed up at the Clark County Detention Center to see him. My excuse to Miles, who didn’t want me having anything else to do with the man, was that my father needed passwords from Uncle Jeff so he could start managing my grandmother’s finances. That situation, too, wasn’t good; she had several bounced checks and owed hundreds of dollars. It became clear that Jeff wasn’t just the sort who allegedly enjoyed online child abuse; he was also the sort to take money from his own mother.
Of course, I also was curious, too. I had questions that would be much harder to get answered once he is extradited and properly sentenced.
Visitors at the Vegas jail are escorted to booths with video screens. When you lift the phone, your inmate appears in a similar booth. I hadn’t really been warned how that worked, so I lifted the receiver and there he was before me once again, as suddenly as he had vanished.
“Before you say anything, Steven,” Uncle Jeff said, “I want you to know I’m not upset with you, I’m not mad about what you did, you did the right thing, I’m proud of you and I still love you.”
Well, thank goodness for that, huh?
I learned about his journey, how he’d swallowed the pills, hoping to die and leave my grandmother and parents a sizeable life-insurance payout. When he woke up alive, he took his wallet and walked out to the nearby beach, wandered for a time and “somehow” ended up at a bus station. He took a Greyhound first to Nashville, but he didn’t like it there so he carried on to Las Vegas, where he disembarked and walked three miles to stay at Circus Circus for a mere $37. The next day he learned of a Downtown community center where he could use the Internet. He sent me that e-mail, he said, because he wanted my help to turn himself in.
This, I know, was a lie. Around the same time he sent me that note Friday, he also sent my mother one in Boca Raton, telling her that he was “far away.”
“How did this happen?” I asked him. “What did you do?”
And so I heard a benign version of his misdeeds that even in its candy coating was pretty horrifying. He and his wife were having problems, so of course he hung out at night in online chat rooms trading porn. At some point, he “accidentally found himself” in a room with men who got off on pictures of molested children.
Okay, he didn’t put it that way. He put it this way: “I know it sounds sick, but I had someone to talk to. I know it was wrong. It was bad. Bad.”
I’ll never know for sure why he chose to flee to me, because I don’t believe much of what he says. I suspect it’s a combination of the fact that I live in a city where criminals love to hide, and that he and I, while never close, had also never had any specific falling out. His daughter, the one who did not disown him after her parents’ divorce, did cut him off when the kiddie-porn charges hit the papers in December of 2008. Uncle Jeff had visited her and her three small children in California that October, months after his home had been raided, but he didn’t tell my cousin about the investigation. To wit, he spent time with her kids knowing this was hanging over him.
In Jeff’s rendering of that story, he is, of course, the victim. He had stood by his lesbian daughter when nobody else would and now she had abandoned him in his hour of need. “That is what hurts the most,” he said.
Uncle Jeff disarmed me enough not to berate him. I had planned to tell him how he’d hurt the children in those photos, how his action had undone the one good thing he’d done in recent years, doting on my grandmother. Now she was 92 and was being fed a line that her son was going away for grand theft, because my parents couldn’t bear to tell her the disgusting truth. It is unlikely she’ll ever see him again.
There seemed to be no point to giving him my rehearsed spiel. Even now, facing an even longer prison term for having absconded, Uncle Jeff was all about Uncle Jeff, baffled by how it all had come to this and seeking sympathy.
“I have nothing,” he said sadly. “I’m surprised, honestly, that you even came to see me.”
Well, I had to. I had a story to write. And, uh, I needed to know if he still loved me.