My Response to The Kimberly and Beck Show

It’s okay to care about someone.

There’s a lot of material in my 400 page manuscript, A Jacket off the Gorge, about a criminal whose life intersected with mine: fake suicide, search and rescue, international drug mule, never-to-be-found treasure, real suicide, and more.

But the Kimberly and Beck radio segment focused mostly on the relationship between the story’s subject, Jon Fontaine, and me.

And that’s OK. I’m learning folks are fascinated with the relationship.

I also learned, long ago, that people don’t pay attention to what they’re listening to on the radio, on TV, or to what they’re reading.

The radio show co-host said his phone was flooding with texts saying I was “still in love with” Jon. I found it mildly amusing. I didn’t feel the need to respond. I’d already made my position clear.

I said I cared about him. He is my friend.

I’m 51, not 21. I am evolved. I understand people can feel a wide range of emotions – caring is somewhere on the spectrum, being in love is at the far end.

I can have friends, acquaintances, lovers, enemies. I may even care about my enemies.

Why do people want to hold onto their own generated notion that I’m hiding feelings? What do they gain from that? I bet there’s a sociological phenomenon that explains it. Had I vehemently denied it, I would’ve been accused of protesting too much. I sat holding the phone with a grin, because I was amused. Were I still in love, I would’ve said so. I had been at one time. That was gone many years ago, for both Jon and me.

People move on. Always, they move on.

I just finished reading a book, The Fact of a Body. A lawyer who was sexually abused as a child is asked to work on sparing child rapist and murderer Ricky Langley the death penalty. But the author, herself raped by her grandfather as a child, wants Langley to die. The author spends the entire book trying to understand why the mother of the murdered child asks jurors to show Langley mercy. And she struggles to come to terms with her own sexual abuse.

In the end, after a lifetime of hating her grandfather, she remembers the human side of him, the part that taught her things, and she goes to his gravestone and tells him she loves him. And in the end, after reading stacks of court papers about the Langley case, which include documents showing his struggles and cries for help, she writes, “he started to become a person to me.”

I don’t understand how someone could feel empathy for a person who hurt a child. And though I may never see it her way, I trust the author of The Fact of a Body is mature, intelligent, and capable of forming her own opinions.

I care about someone I know as a person; one who did bad things. And I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of that.

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He Looked Like a Good-for-Nothing Criminal

[by Susan Ashline]

He wanted to know how he looked.

I’d just come from Jon’s court appearance, and he called me.

“How did I look? I mean… did I look alright? Did I look good?”

I could answer that quickly.

He looked like a dirt bag; nothing more and nothing less. In his orange jumpsuit, escorted in handcuffs, sitting in the defendant section, he didn’t look like a person. He looked like every criminal I’d always seen – actually, didn’t see – in that courtroom in all the years I’d covered courts as a news reporter. He was invisible.

He was nothing.

Why was he asking? It threw me.

I guessed he was asking because we all care about how we look, and he was getting out of prison in a couple of months. And here I was, not even considering that he was a human being.

Inmates in the same clothing are paraded in handcuffs through the courtroom to the same desk, and then brought to the same podium, and I’d seen them all as good-for-nothing nobodies.

This time when I looked at Jon, I no longer saw the guy who laughed at inappropriate times, engaged in deep conversation for hours, loved his dogs, and dreamed of riding in a helicopter. Gone was the talented remodeler and eager writer. Lost was the quiet guy with a gut-busting sense of humor. No more careful planner who labored over details and laughed like a little boy when tickled, held on fiercely when hugged and cried deeply when hurt.

He asked me how he looked.

Maybe, like everyone, he just needed validation that someone values some part of him.

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Sheriff’s Office Clears Itself of Wrongdoing

[by Susan Ashline]

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department has concluded its staff did nothing wrong. This is in response to complaints alleging retaliation against an inmate for making public claims of racism by jail staff, and other wrongdoings.

But, “The evidence available did not support the allegation made,” states the cookie cutter letters in which only the dates were changed.

Inmate Jon Fontaine filed two complaints; I filed one.

All three form letter responses, all signed by Sam Bell, state the same thing. 

Here are indisputable facts – ones I can attest to:

State prison inmate Jon Fontaine was in the jail awaiting a hearing that the appellate court ruled Judge Vincent Dinoflo illegally denied him.

Jon had been at the Monroe County Jail for six months without incident. The Saturday and Sunday before the suspected retaliation, Jon’s blogs on my website spiked to more than 5,000 views.

That Monday, Jon complained to me of an alleged incident of deputies harassing him and trying to take away his pen as he was led into court.

I went to talk about it to Corporal John Helfer, a communications staffer I knew from my days as a news reporter. I did not tell him the nature of my visit, and he hadn’t seen me for years. When he approached, he did not greet me. He refused to sit and appeared defensive and angry. He brought up Jon’s blogs before I ever said a word about them. He stated he was aware of them because someone “had sent an email around” to jail staff, including a link to the blogs.

That’s when I talked to him about suspected incident of retaliation #1 (May 23).

Helfer asked me how Jon got his stories to me. I told him Jon wrote them and mailed them to me.

The next morning (May 24), Jon was taken to the mental health unit, an area where inmates are barred from all forms of communication – writing, calls, and visits. Because the jail cannot deny an attorney visit, that evening, I sent his attorney to the unit. The attorney confirmed Jon was, in fact, in the mental health unit.

The attorney also stated Jon was wearing his jail clothes; however, inmates placed in those mental health cells do not wear jail clothes because they are placed there, and writing implements removed, due to their risk of self-harm.

I emailed Monroe County Sheriff Pat O’Flynn, copied in some news reporters, and requested that Jon be released from isolation.

Jon was then moved from the mental health unit.

I received an email from Sheriff O’Flynn stating Jon was not in the mental health unit. (The email did not acknowledge he had been in the unit).

That whole scene was suspected incident of retaliation #2.

Jon was relocated to the “main frame;” an area of the jail known for housing the most violent detainees.

On May 25, I received a call from an internal phone line of the Monroe County Sheriff’s office. The individual identified himself as a deputy. He told me Jon was injured and in the medical unit.

The circumstances that led to this injury should have been on camera.

That was suspected incident of retaliation #3.

Jon was then abruptly removed from the Monroe County Jail and taken back to Mid-State Correctional Facility.

The results of their (supposed) internal investigations confirm everything is running just fine within the Monroe County jail.

Background:

Deputy Throws Whistle Blower Inmate in Isolation

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Inmates Gamble Hair

[by New York State prison inmate Jon Fontaine]

With so little to do behind bars, some inmates gamble for fun. They gamble on almost anything – pro sports, chess, checkers, Dominoes, Scrabble, inmate-on-inmate fights, award shows, and card games.

I don’t gamble on anything. But I’ll watch the outcome of a really interesting bet.

One boring Saturday, I was playing cards with two other guys, Mike and Jordan, and they bickered endlessly about what to gamble.

One wanted to wager cakes off meal trays, known as “tray cakes.”

“No, I don’t want to give up my cakes.”

500 pushups.

“If I win, what do I get from watching you do pushups?”

The old man.

“What?”

Jordan threw out an offer. Loser had to shave the top of his head to look like an old man. Saturdays are hair cut days, the same day we were playing. The loser would lose his hair right then.

They agreed.

I was at the head of the table, Mike to my left, Jordan to my right.

“This is great!” I said. “I win either way!”

The game was tense. And in the end, there was no question – fitness-freak Mike, known for being cocky, lost.

“I hope this is a humbling experience,” I told him. “Maybe you’ll learn not to gamble.”

A few minutes later, Mike looked like an old man.

Then, Sunday came.

Whenever Mike said something to me, I responded with, “I can’t even take you seriously right now with that hair cut.”

Jordan, confident he could win again, offered Mike another bet: “If you win in Rummy, I’ll get the old man. If I win, you give me a bag of coffee.”

A bag of just three ounces of instant coffee costs a whopping $5 on commissary. Cocky as always, Mike took the bet.

An hour later, Jordan won again.

Mike was so pissed. Jordan sensed another opportunity. He offered Mike another bet: “You win and you don’t have to get me a bag of coffee, and I’ll get the old man. I win, and you owe me a second bag of coffee.”

But Jordan’s luck ran out.

“That’s what you get for being greedy!” I told him.

Not only did he lose the bag of coffee, he lost his hair.

Both hoped they didn’t have to go anywhere (visits, court, medical…).

Neither learned a lesson, despite being laughed at by just about everyone who came in the unit, inmate or civilian. They haven’t stopped gambling with each other. I sit at the table, Mike to my left, Jordan on my right, thinking about how they look like a peanut M&M that’s been bitten in half, their bare skulls the nut stuck in a bowl of chocolate.

It’s Dumb and Dumber Jail Edition.

Now, they’re wagering eyebrows.

[New York State prison inmate Jon Fontaine is temporarily in the Monroe County Jail awaiting a hearing that Monroe County Court Judge Vincent Dinolfo illegally denied him five years ago.]

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Felon’s Job Search May Land Him in Prison

[EXCLUSIVE] by Susan Ashline

 

Darnell Jerome is looking for a job like his freedom depends on it.

That’s because it does.

The 20-year-old Rochester man faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for lying about his criminal record on an application related to his employment search.

“I just wanted a job,” said Jerome.

Sentencing is April 21 in U.S. District Court in Rochester.

Jerome was a teenager living with his mother in a low-income neighborhood in the Upstate New York city when he stole a car while displaying “what appeared to be a firearm.” In February 2016, he was sentenced to five years probation for attempted robbery in connection with the crime. To avoid prison time, he was ordered to go to school, or get a job.

Jerome said he’d completed one year of courses at the community college, but when he went to enroll for the fall semester, he was told there was a hold on his account. He owed $200. He would have to find work.

The Probation Department provided little help, said Jerome. “I was given a packet and sent to a meeting downtown. I honestly didn’t find it useful.”

Jerome said he downloaded a job search website to his phone and applied for the first job he spotted: a cook at Famous Famiglia Pizzeria in the airport.

“I was just thinking it’s a job at the airport. It’s going to help me get back to school and pay my bills,” he said.

He applied for it online. The restaurant was within Rochester city limits. Rochester has a “ban the box” law, making it illegal for employers to inquire about criminal history before the end of the first interview. Jerome’s prospective employer interviewed him over the phone and asked him to go the restaurant for orientation.

The restaurant was beyond a secure area of the airport.

Jerome attended orientation. He was hired and told to show up to work the next day. He was given an application to fill out for a security badge that would allow him access beyond the airport screening devices so he could go to work.

The security access form asked a series of questions, including if the applicant had been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. Darnell checked “no,” though he’d been convicted of attempted robbery just one month earlier. The application indicated a conviction such as his would bar him from obtaining a security badge. Along with the application, Jerome provided federal authorities with identification and fingerprints.

He worked three months before a federal air marshal showed up at the Probation Office to question him.

Authorities charged Jerome with making a false statement. The penalty upon conviction: up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department would not comment on the case.

An element of the crime is that the act was done “knowingly and willfully.” To secure a conviction, the prosecution would have to prove Darnell intended to check the “no” box.

During a January trial, the marshal testified Jerome had told him he was aware he checked “no.” The prosecutor showed images of items that airport restaurant employees could access after gaining security clearance.

“They were showing pictures of knives and cleaning chemicals, insinuating I’m a terrorist; that I would have access to get to passengers or get on the plane with them,” said Jerome. “I was like, really? Me? A terrorist?”

Jerome said his motives were not sinister. “My intention in filling out that application was to get a job.”

Jerome said he understands the importance of the security screening. “It is their duty to make sure every citizen boarding a flight is protected.” He added, “I’m not the person to be looked at. Despite my recent felony conviction, some people turn around. And I was obviously trying to turn over a new leaf.”

Jerome said he checked “no” accidentally, because he wasn’t reading the form carefully.

Rochester passed a “ban the box” law two years ago, but the federal security access application is an exemption. Rochester City Councilman Adam McFadden was instrumental in developing and passing the law. He said he suspects Jerome checked the box knowingly, but not because he’s a terrorist. McFadden said he knows how difficult it is for those with a criminal record to find employment. He said he personally knows many individuals whose criminal pasts continue to plague them during job searches for years, leading their lives down a path of ruin.

Jerome echoed those concerns. He said in the eyes of the eyes of the criminal justice system – he’s branded for life.

A jury convicted Jerome on January 10. Sentencing is set for April. Though the prosecutor argued for Jerome to be sent to jail while awaiting sentencing, the judge ordered Jerome to remain free, but on one condition: He goes to school or finds a job.

Jerome said he’s trying his best – considering accepting any type of work – and hopes to earn money to pay his school bill so he can go back to college.

“I’ve even asked my probation officer, ‘Is there any help? Are there any conventions? Do you know any places that are hiring?’”

He’s submitted more than 30 applications, he said.

“They’re not willing to hire me. It hasn’t made me get up and think differently any day, other than keep trying. Not everyone’s going to say no.”

Even if someone says “yes,” on sentencing day, that may no longer matter.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go April 21,” said Jerome, of the date he will appear in court to learn his fate. “But I have fingers crossed and God ahead of me.”

And, he has a plan.

“To show [the judge] I’m doing beyond good with my appointments at probation, and finding employment, and trying to figure out something with school. At least if I get that fine paid, I can show her it’s paid and I’m ready to go for the fall semester. Or, I’m willing to take summer courses.”

Jermone had one question before ending the interview.

“Do you know where I can find a job?”

Read the Update 
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