Boulder, CO, mid July 1992.
I was living the coolest summer of my young life. I had finished my second year of Grad School at the University of Washington's PATP (Professional Actor Training Program), and a couple weeks later, I was flying mountain high on talent, luck and opportunity. I had been hired by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and was playing leads in both shows that I'd been cast in - All's Well That Ends Well, and The Rivals. Shakespeare! Sheridan! Natasha, the girl with whom I was desperately in love but had been on-and-off with the entire year, had driven all the way out from Seattle to give me a surprise visit early in the month. I was playing in the mountains by day, and playing the Renaissance at night. It was an absolute dream.
To say that changed would be an understatement.
The company was finally done with all the rehearsal, and we'd begun performance for the season's shows. Most mornings I would get up and ride the bike I had bought, a used sky-blue Cannondale, up to the main University of Colorado gym to work out. Then I'd come back to the apartment I was sharing with 2 of my classmates from Seattle and would figure out what to do with my day. A hike near the Flatirons? A ride around Boulder? As I coasted back from the gym, it was typical, gorgeous, summer Colorado morning; a tad chilly, but with the promise of heat as the sun poured into the day - perhaps later there would be a brief rain shower, as you often get in the mountains. I braked to a stop in front of the complex that the entire company shared, two columns of apartments surrounding a central courtyard. Everyone had been in and out of each other's 'houses' all summer - already It had been a blur of parties, hookups, and late night poker games. I shouldered my aluminum frame and walked up to the 2nd floor.
And entered a scene that a tornado had hit.
Belongings, furniture and clothes were scattered everywhere. In my bedroom, everything I owned had been removed from drawers, closets, and desks and dumped on the floor. It looked like we'd been robbed, or the apartment had somehow been set on a fault line and slipped, jumbling everything like a giant shaking a box.
My roommates were sitting on the couch, drying tears.
"The police. The police were here."
A detective and a couple of uniformed officers had done all this, and were looking for me. They had tossed the apartment, taken a bunch of my stuff (!!??!!) and left.
"What?" I stammered. "What were they doing here? Where's my stuff? WHY DID THEY DO THIS?"
One roommate blinked her tearstained eyes. "They said you stole something. The detective left his card and said you have to call."
He left a CARD? What...what? What the hell was this, some kind of prank? I picked it up and read the information while she explained. Apparently some people in our company at CSF had had their credit cards stolen. These cards had been used, fraudulently, in Boulder, but mostly in Fort Collins, a town 58 miles away, over an hour by car along the Front Range. And somehow I had been connected to this crime - and I had no idea how. Connected clearly enough that they were trying to ARREST me.
My life had turned into some kind of bizarre improv exercise.
Before I called the detective, I called my parents, my heart racing.
"I didn't do anything! I've never even been to Fort Collins!"
"Well," my Dad said. "Just call them and tell them that. I'm sure it's just a big misunderstanding."
I did. The call was my first mistake.
So why an arrest warrant? Seems rather bizarre, doesn't it? Even in Colorado.
To clarify: A few days prior to all this, two of the members of the company, an actress and her boyfriend who was a crew member, had noticed that their credit cards were missing. When they called to cancel the cards, they learned that a significant amount had been charged to them in the few days since the theft - an amount totaling between three and four thousand dollars. As anyone would in that situation, they felt put-upon, taken advantage of... and pissed.
But then they started thinking - a line of thinking that eventually led to me being railroaded by the American Justice system. Remember that I mentioned that we (the company) were all in a large apartment building together, with a big central courtyard? So these two figured that it must have been someone in the company of CSF who had done the crime - because of that easy access.
So they put their Junior Detective hats on, called their credit card companies, and got addresses for the stores where the purchases had taken place - a few purchases in Boulder, and the vast majority in Fort Collins. (Fact: I DID NOT HAVE A CAR, NOR ANY RELIABLE WAY TO GET TO FORT COLLINS.)
These two also knew that at the beginning of the summer we had all contributed pictures for a nice, glossy company program for the patrons to enjoy while they watched our shows. A perfect device, these two thought, to identify the culprit.
So they took the company program to these stores and asked to talk to clerks that were working when the thefts occurred. Keep in mind that just the two of them did this, with no policeman present. And here's the really weird part: In two stores, one in Boulder and one in Fort Collins, two separate clerks pointed to my picture and said, "Well, it might have been that guy."
The two then then took this information to the Fort Collins PD and did the same route again, this time with a police detective in tow. By this point, the clerks were trained in picking out my photo, and repeated the ID.
This was all that was needed for the Fort Collins PD to issue a warrant for my arrest. The charge? Credit Card Fraud. A FELONY.
The room was gray. Just like on TV.
"Listen. If you did this, just admit it. Just tell me the truth, that you bought these things, that you did this, and I can help you. I can help you deal with all this."
The detective leaned back in his crappy metal chair in the interrogation room and folded his arms. I was actually, somehow, in a procedural crime show. For real.
"I didn't do this! This is crazy! I didn't do anything."
"Well. Then I can't help you."
He grabbed his paper cup of coffee and walked out. He'd been following the same line of questioning for almost an hour, not cajoling, not being especially aggressive, but poking and prodding me to tell what he guessed was the truth, that I was some Wastrel White Boy who stole things because I thought it was fun. Here's a handy breakdown, just for future reference:
I Can Help You. Just Admit it, and I Can Help You.
I Can't Help You.
(repeat. for hours.)
I was speaking a different language to these people, and the story of my guilt were the only words they were willing to translate. This whole "Innocent until proven guilty" thing that we're all told to believe in? Here's my experience: NO ONE at the Boulder or Fort Collins PDs was interested in my possible innocence. They just wanted a confession to put this case in the 'solved and done' column and move on.
You know who cares about innocence? People who get paid to care about innocence. I'm talking about Defense Lawyers.
So I finally asked for my phone call.
I got a lawyer. I couldn't pay for this lawyer, so who got my second call? My parents. They wired money.
And then I went to jail.
"You have to turn yourself in. We'll get your bail set."
My Boulder lawyer looked more like a feather-haired wedding singer than a defense attorney, but he knew his stuff. So I got a ride to the Boulder Police station.
Okay, reader: Have you been arrested? Processed? Do you know how humiliating it is?
My belt and shoelaces were taken (so I wouldn't try to hurt myself or someone else with them); everything in my pockets was taken and inventoried; I was fingerprinted, allowed to stay in what was left of my own clothes, and walked into the jail for the afternoon until the bail bondsman could be contacted, once again by my parents. My bail was set at five thousand dollars - a whopping sum (to me), but an amount which my lawyer seemed quite proud of.
"It's eyebrow-raisingly low, for this class of a felony," he said, grinning. "But you seem like a nice young man, and it's a first offense."
Nice young man. This phrase would become a refrain.
I stood there that afternoon, one of the longest afternoons of my life, in the main common room of the jail, waiting for the bail bondsman to get everything sorted so I could walk back out. I remember that some of the other inmates had the crappy TV on and were watching Jeopardy; once without thinking I involuntarily blurted out an answer to a particularly tough question, and a couple of HARD gentlemen gave me a look. To the end of my days I'll never know if that look was hatred or hunger. Or both.
I wouldn't have done well in there overnight. Nope. Not at all.
I returned to work. Such as it was.
Over the next month and past the end of the CSF season I stayed in Colorado, bouncing back and forth between Boulder and Fort Collins; since the bulk of the purchases/thefts had occurred in FT, it was decided that the case would go forward there. And so I had to get there, quite often. I couldn't miss my court appointments or I'd be in violation of my bail, and would go right back to jail. So I scrambled - I paid for bus tickets, I begged rides off friends, and most importantly I tried to remember exactly what I was doing on that particular day off when the thefts had occurred. I now had a second lawyer, in Fort Collins, because it was a different county, and my Boulder lawyer thought it would cost me less: "I mean, you're gonna be paying me a lot of money to sing to tapes in my car while I drive the hour and ten from here to FT." Both lawyers were charging hourly rates that made my head spin; there were more calls to my parents.
For the day in question, I had a solid alibi; I had spent the day with my friends Jeff and Laura in Boulder. But we hadn't bought anything, just hung out up in the mountains, and I had no physical proof of not being in Fort Collins, like a receipt for a meal or something. All I had was the word of my friends, and no one connected to the case seemed to care. The police had an ID, and the pre-trial hearing had been set. I was realizing that this momentum of 'justice' was unbreakable, like swimming against a particularly powerful rip tide. No matter what, no matter how wrong this all was, the wheels were turning, inexorably, and I was getting drawn under the machine bit by painful bit.
I consulted with my lawyer in Fort Collins; she suggested that I hire a Private Investigator to gather more info about my whereabouts that day, and to help build my case. I started meeting with him, and his meter began to run; my parents added that to the bill.
The PI suggested that I get a handwriting analysis to help buttress the evidence for my case; most likely I wrote differently than this guy. For those of you who don't know, private handwriting analysis done by someone reputable enough to hold up in court runs pretty pricey. That bill was near $1000. But a clear difference in my writing and the writing of the person who had signed the credit card slips would go a long way to getting me off the hook. Who knows - maybe it would be enough to stop this madness right there and then. I forked over the money and crossed my fingers and toes. Science, I thought. Science will help get me out of this thing.
I kept making calls to Mom and Dad. And they kept wiring money. And every time they did, my humiliation grew.
One day in early August, a call from my Fort Collins lawyer: The handwriting analysis had come back! I took a deep breath, and she gave me the news: It was...inconclusive. Whoever this guy was, he not only kind of looked like me, I guess he kind of wrote like me. I was devastated. Really? A guy who looked like me AND wrote like me? This was a Twilight Zone episode. I was starring IN a Twilight Zone episode.
Sleep became a rare commodity. And Boulder was suddenly not nearly so beautiful. I spent a lot of time alone, as the CSF company (except for my good friends) had basically ostracized me. Or at least that's how it felt. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't really blame them. I had been charged with felony forgery, and who wants to hang out with a felon?
A felon. The voice in my head would repeat what the company was whispering behind closed doors, what I could see in their eyes as they looked at me. "You're a felon."
"No, an ACCUSED felon," I would think. An ACCUSED FELON.
No one cared. To them, I was guilty, guilty, guilty. That continued to sink into me, day after day.
One afternoon early in August, my pals Jeff and Laura were driving me to Fort Collins for yet another hoop I had to jump through, and suddenly a flash of lightning hit me behind the eyes. What if I actually HAD done this? What if I was sick, ill, some kind of mental instability that had never before shown itself? Maybe I was a split personality, and the other person was a thief! Normally I would have laughed at such an absurd idea. But at that moment, in their back seat, I was in a bizarro world where it had complete merit. I had a total meltdown. Sobbing. Weeping. Begging them to tell me what was real, what wasn't. Whether I was sane or not. "What's happening? WHAT IS HAPPENING? How could this be happening?"
I've never felt more trapped.
Finally the pre-trial hearing arrived, near the end of August. I dimly remember wearing a striped button-down shirt that I didn't much like, but my Fort Collins lawyer, who was taking the lead today, said I should wear. I looked to her before we went in the room. She glanced at her papers and groaned. "Damn," she said. "This Judge is very conservative, a Law-and-Order type of guy. Okay..."
She stopped and looked straight at me.
"When he says jump... you say how high." She turned and walked into the courtroom.
So much for pep talks.
But then the hearing started, and my lawyers did exactly what we had paid them to do - make the other side's case look stupid. My Fort Collins lawyer got the lead Detective on the stand and exposed him for what he was; a lazy man who, we found out, actually did look on me as an overprivileged, Wastrel White Boy who stole things for fun.
"Mr. Ludwig called the Boulder Police station and attempted to deny his involvement. I have entered the transcript of the conversation into the record. As you can see, his denials are transparent attempts to hide his guilt."
That's right. My frightened, 'It's okay, I'll just call them and tell them it's a big misunderstanding,' phone call from back in July? It was being used against me in front of a judge.
But then, cross examination: My Fort Collins lawyer made the detective look like a grocery bagger who shoves the eggs in the bottom of the bag. He hadn't done any legwork; he was not there when the original ID was made; their case was paper thin. But as he got up from the stand, he was smiling; so was the Prosecutor.
And a woman I'd never seen before walked into the courtroom. She took a seat on the witness stand.
"Miss X, what is your job title?"
"I'm a cashier at Sports Store Y."
"Were you working on xx day, July?"
"Yes I was. There was a particularly large purchase made that day."
"And is the person who made that purchase here in this court?"
The Woman I'd Never Seen Before lifted her arm and pointed... directly at me.
"That's him. That's the guy."
My stomach fell through the floor. She knew me very well. From a company program that she'd been shown, over and over and over again.
My case was bound over for trial.
In my head I was screaming.
That day in court, because "I seemed like a nice young man and it was a first offense," I was not deemed a flight risk and was allowed to return to Seattle. There I would start my last year of Grad School, and then head back to Colorado for the trial in November. Before I left, both lawyers and the PI suggested that I take a lie detector test. I had done my reading.
"But lie detector tests aren't admissible in court."
"No, they're not, but they hold a lot of sway with Prosecutors. And given the amount of evidence you already have supporting you, it will add to your case."
I took the lie detector test.
And passed with flying colors. Oh, the lie detector test cost another grand.
Everyone keeping track here? By this point, with legal fees, minus the bail which we got back, we're in for about six thousand dollars. To this day I don't know how my parents were able to put this money together so quickly. I guess it's a testament to how motivated you can be when a loved one is threatened. So for the moment, I was out of jail, essentially ''free", and headed back to Graduate School - because my parents had somehow found the money.
Back in Seattle that Fall, I moved in with Natasha, sharing an apartment with a lover for the first time - and also sharing the helpless rage which would bubble up, or explode without warning, when I thought of the case. Tash did her best, but we were young, and we were both in school, our plates beyond full. And no matter how hard I tried to hide my anger, I could see, in her eyes, that I was beginning to scare her. On top of everything else, this girl that I loved was pulling away from me.
- and then in October, I got a phone call.
"We had a meeting with the Prosecutor. He's agreed to drop the case against you!"
"WHAT?!? That's amazing news! How did you guys pull this off?"
"Well... here's the thing. They took another look at everything. Your alibi. All the stuff your PI put together. You seem like a nice guy. It's your first offense. Your lie detector test, the handwriting analysis. So:
The Prosecutor has offered a deal. They'll drop the charges, expunge your record, and seal it...if you pay the restitution."
I bit my lip so hard it began to bleed.
Pay the restitution.
They wanted me to pay back the credit card companies. For stuff I had not stolen.
Between three and four thousand dollars of stuff - stuff that some other motherf*cker had walked clean away with - and they wanted me to settle his bill.
This amount pushed the grand total that my parents were paying.... to over ten thousand dollars. TEN GRAND. I was livid.
"Fuck that! Pay for the shit I've been working so hard to prove that I didn't steal? Pay for some criminal who is out there completely free of this? No fucking way!"
There was a silence on the end of the line. "I know it's frustrating," my Fort Collins lawyer said. "You have great evidence on your side. You're a good kid. But..."
I was shaking.
"You've met this judge. You know what kind of guy he is. The handwriting analysis is basically inconclusive. They have a witness who says you did it, who knows you now. She's seen your picture dozens of times, and now she's seen you in person, in court. Humans in front of juries are very convincing. If we take this to trial, as ridiculous as this sounds - there's a very good chance that you will lose. And even though this is a first offense...with this judge, I can't guarantee you won't go to prison."
Or, I should say, Mom and Dad paid - the ten grand I didn't have, and at this point, they probably didn't have either. My parents are solid middle class, but they're not rich. To this day, every time I think of them pulling that money out of (most likely their retirement funds) I still burn with shame. But I was a graduate student, for f*ck's sake. I had no resources - I was already swimming in debt. So I swam deeper.
The check cleared, and all of a sudden, with the decision of a Prosecutor and the stroke of a pen, (and the thump of some Serious Coin)....in the eyes of the law I was innocent.
I didn't do this. I was, and am, innocent.
But in the end, we didn't WIN my innocence.
WE BOUGHT IT.
Later that Spring, back in Seattle, I was interning at the Seattle Repertory Theatre - taking classes, understudying, and, on one particular day? I was late. I had misjudged traffic from the U District to the Rep, and, as I finally got close to the theatre and was sitting at an intersection, I noticed a parking lot I could pull in to. All I had to do was drive briefly down a one-way street.
I looked around. No cars coming in either direction, so I quickly swerved into the lot.
A cop pulled in behind me.
He didn't get out of his car. He merely got on his PA system and, "THAT WAS" *scratch scratch* "A ONE WAY" *scratch scratch* DON'T DO THAT AGAIN." And he drove off.
Five minutes later, I was still sitting there. Shaking. Gripping the steering wheel with such force that my hands were numb. And I knew, in that moment, that if that officer had gotten out of his cruiser and come to my window, I would have looked out at him and said, "You know what, Officer? Fuck you. Fuck you and your fucked up system. Fuck you."
And he would have asked me to step out of the car, and I would have swung on him... and I would have gone to jail for real for assaulting a police officer.
So why, after all these years, am I writing about this? One would think that this is the sort of thing you bury and leave behind forever.
I've realized some things over the years.
First, I was truly unprepared for how easy it is to get caught in the gears and cogs of the Justice system. You think it can't happen to you? It can. Very easily. A simple case of mistaken identity, mixed with systemic incompetence, and I got crushed by this machine.
And left behind after the machine spat me out? Anger. Anxiety. Rage. The first therapist I went to (not long after the parking lot incident) put it best: "These are symptoms of an assault. You've been assaulted here." By a presence that I could not face, and could not truly confront, which of course made me feel even more helpless.
But I had support; I got help; and I figured things out. The rage cooled. You see, I had a way out.
I had ten thousand ways out.
And so many Americans do not. SO MANY Americans don't have the resources I had at that time. What if my loving parents had had no money for me? I'd have been thrown to a public defender, whose case load may or may not have accommodated me. There would have been no extra evidence on my side: No PI, no extra lawyer, no handwriting analysis, no lie detector test. I wouldn't have even made bail. And of course, I wouldn't have been able to pay the restitution. How do you think THAT scenario would have ended?
And what if I hadn't been white?
So many of the people I encountered in the Justice system treated me differently, I believe, because I was white. I mean, this kind of crime (Credit Card Fraud) is usually lumped under the rubric of White Crime. (What the actual fuck is that, anyway?) "You seem like a nice kid," was said to me over and over by both sides.
Would the court have set my bail at five thousand if I'd been black? Doubtful. Would they have let me go back to Grad School in another state, and leave Colorado? Doubtful. I might have spent that entire three month period in a Fort Collins jail.
And in the end, before the trial, WOULD THEY EVEN HAVE OFFERED ME THE DEAL? The deal which was, essentially, 'Pay, and you're out?'
I have no idea where or what I would be now if that case had gone differently. But it is my belief that if what happened to me had happened to a non-white person with little money (and it DOES happen, all the time)... that that person would be an ex-con today.
Or maybe The Rage would have gotten to them, too.
And they'd still be in prison.