The Road To Prison

The Road To Prison

Ever let your mind wander to relax, it starts bouncing around a bit, and before you know it, you land on an idea you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise?

I do from time to time. And such a process (or lack thereof) is the reason for this month’s cover story. It started while walking to my car after work and passing the Hennepin County Government Center. Keep in mind, these were rambling thoughts . . .  

At first I wondered what it must be like to be sent to prison. And the John Grisham voice inside of me brought up the time my business and I—along with three other companies not even connected with us—were wrongfully accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

We quickly proved that we had done nothing wrong. But if you haven’t experienced something like this, here’s how it can go: You get a certified letter, a page and a half or two, telling you why you are guilty until you can prove your innocence. Whether or not it’s all speculation, it’s from the government and you scramble to respond immediately. After you’ve done so, you don’t receive another letter saying, “Our apologies,” or “You’re right, you’re fine.” Silence from the SEC is to be taken as “all clear” . . . 

My mind then did a 180, and I recalled the times when I had caught a few executives and companies flat-out lying to legislators, investors, and the public—and how hard it was to first unearth such activity, let alone prove it enough to publish it. I really give credit to those individuals out there today busting business-related liars and cheaters, and I wish there were more of them . . . 

My thoughts then veered to the Tom Petters saga, as I understood it. Everything I had read about him from the day after his companies were raided seemed one-sided at best—as though the public had decided that he was guilty as soon as it saw news video of his headquarters being raided and read news reports in the following days. And I couldn’t find anything that described the situation from Petters himself . . . 

And then the thought popped up: What about capturing Tom Petters’ side of his own story? After six months and many letters back and forth, Petters finally agreed to meet for an interview—the first he has granted since before his arrest in October 2008.

I recently journeyed to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, to talk with him, hoping I might also take a photo or shoot some video. But cameras aren’t allowed. So I took the above photo from across the street, and took notes as best as I could on what it was like to get into prison and talk with him.

To read the complete feature story on Petters, click here

After parking my car in a crumbling asphalt parking lot, I follow the signs guiding me up a slight hill to a 19th-century brick house. Visitors enter through a narrow set of white French doors that I’m guessing were originally installed to let you move between the garden and a sunroom with a fireplace and original hardwood floors. Today, instead of a garden, there’s a concrete apron with an accompanying trash can out front, and a sign on the door saying that no cameras, cell phones, audio recorders, or individuals with fevers of 100 degrees or more are allowed beyond this point. 

Assistant Warden Thomas Sheldrake greets me. I sign in, my ID is checked, the guard takes my photo for an on-site visitor’s card, I go through a metal detector, and I’m on my way. It’s about a 75-yard walk to the main entrance of the prison. Walking up the steps feels like approaching any other domed Federal-style government building. One of the first-generation U.S. penitentiaries built in the early 1900s, Leavenworth looks like a former state capitol converted into a prison. Around it are two 20- to 30-foot-tall fences with more than 10 rolls of razor wire coiled along the bottom and top. Security keeps a constant eye on what’s going on around the perimeter through video cameras, from tinted windows in the watchtowers, and with patrols on foot, in golf carts, and in trucks.

At the top of the steps, Sheldrake opens a fairly ordinary door, and we enter a small waiting area; the radiator on the left rattles as we wait for a bulletproof glass door to slide open, and a metal-barred door on the inside to be unlatched by whoever’s watching us on camera. Inside, we’re greeted by a security guard sitting at a small desk on the right, and a dimly lit, security-glass-encased control room on the left, where my ID card is scanned before I can proceed through another metal detector. The area smells like a museum or a musty old mansion, and I can see down the hallway in the middle of the building, into the prison itself.

From there, Sheldrake escorts me through a set of flat-blue, three-quarter-inch-thick steel-bar doors that even he has to wait for someone else to open. As the first closes, there’s an awkward pause until the next opens. Each time one does, it’s with that incredibly loud, jail-door latch sound you hear in the movies. Petters later tells me that that’s the sound he wakes up to at 6 a.m. every day—the loud unlocking of his cell door, and those of the other approximately 1,800 inmates at Leavenworth. 

The 58-person-occupancy visitors’ room looks like a kindergarten classroom without a chalkboard, educational tools, or kids’ stuff. There are small, camel-brown plastic chairs and tables maybe two feet long and 12 inches deep. Neutral-colored, 12-inch-square vinyl floor tile, off-white paneled walls, and white rectangular ceiling tiles illuminated by fluorescent-tube lighting make the room feel even more institutional. 

In walks Tom Petters wearing an olive-green/khaki collared short-sleeve shirt with matching pants, and a pair of black and gray Nike tennis shoes. He looks tan, well-groomed, physically fit, and, overall, healthy. He’s calm, positive, exhibits a good sense of humor, and is passionate about his former business activities and goals. We start in on a long list of questions that I brought. And for the next five hours, I forget that we’re talking inside a medium-security prison.

As we wrap up the meeting and shake hands, I’m quickly reminded of exactly where we are, as I hear in the distant background: “Yeah. This is Sheldrake. I’m tossing Petters back into the trap now.” The “trap” is a small waiting area between security doors, each of which can be opened only by a person on the other side of it.

Petters walks toward the door, looks back with a wave and a polite smile, and then heads back to Cellblock C-1. And I’m left alone, with my thoughts.

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