I shook the hand that shook the hand of Caro Quintero. Remember him?

Rafael Caro Quintero

Ahh… time. Back in the early 90s I could say that I shook the hand that shook the hand of Rafael Caro Quintero, and everybody knew exactly who I was talking about. Quintero, the personification of evil back then, is just another aging drug lord on the lam now, after “escaping” from a Mexican prison.

Quintero notoriously shook the hand of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the President of Mexico, but when President Gortari greeted me with a warm handshake at the Mexican consulate in Chicago in 1991 it had only recently been revealed that he was taking money from the Sinaloa cartel. Nothing about his demeanor that evening suggested that he was chagrined about it.

A little celebration was being held at the consulate for the release of “Los Cuatro Inocentes”—four Mexican men who were doing life without parole in Pontiac Prison when a story that I wrote about their plight – and the multiple murder that they didn’t commit—got the ball rolling toward their release. The Four Innocents had become a cause célèbre in Mexico that summer, and Gortari himself had contacted the Governor of Illinois on their behalf, after Chicago Magazine put the story, titled The Milwaukee Avenue Massacre, on the cover of its May 1990 issue. You can read it in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep At Night, an anthology of my crime stories published by Calumet Editions. The Governor pardoned The Four Innocents. They were on the street less than a year after that story came out.

It took a little longer—25 years—for Rudy Martinez to be freed. He sent me this picture last month. It was taken the day he was released.

Rudy on the day of his release from prison

I made Rudy’s acquaintance in 1991, when he was awaiting sentencing at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal holding pen in Chicago. He’d somehow tracked me down, and called me at the office of a magazine I was editing. I got permission to visit him, and the next day we sat down in a cramped little room where inmates confer with lawyers while a guard hovers outside. Rudy took me mildly to task for the way I portrayed him in a story I did about some Latin Kings who were using a farm in rural Minnesota as a safe house, but he was a lot more interested in telling me what was going down right then.

A few weeks earlier he’d walked into the U.S. Attorney’s office with his lawyer, expecting to agree to the so-called “blind plea” he’d been offered – plead guilty to conspiracy, and receive a twenty-year sentence. That meant he’d do about thirteen years with time off for good behavior. It wasn’t a pleasant prospect, and it was a little harsh for a first offender being sentenced for a non-violent crime, but he’d resigned himself to it. But instead, the prosecutor told him that he’d changed his mind, and was giving him two choices:

1) An eight-year sentence (out in five assuming good time) in return for his testimony at the trials of his co-defendants; or,

2) natural life in prison if he chose to remain silent.

Rudy said he intended to do the latter, and he wanted to tell me about the string of betrayals that left him with those alternatives.

He was 25 back then and I was 50, so it’s been easy to keep track as we aged. I corresponded with him on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s antiquated email system, spoke with him on the phone from time to time, and wrote about the truly remarkable back-stabbing that eventuated in his life without parole sentence. One of those stories, Welcome to Pine County, is in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep At Night.

When I heard about President Obama’s interest in clemency for federal prisoners, I found an attorney to represent Rudy – Professor Mark Osler of St. Thomas University, who was one of the primary forces behind the push to turn Obama’s interest into an actual program. Osler and I worked on the petition together, and then I served as a go-between with Rudy for the final drafts. Our work paid off on August 30, when his name was on a list of federal prisoners who were getting out.

Rudy tells me that being free after a quarter century behind bars is a hard thing to get your head around. His son picked him up at the penitentiary door in Pekin, Ill., and the first thing that struck him as they got underway was the proliferation of color. Just about everything man-made or natural—the cars, the billboards, the flowers they saw, the clothes people wore—was vivid with color. Everything was gray by design where he’d been living for decades.

The next thing that struck him was the air quality as they approached Chicago. “I did my time in maximum security lockups far away from cities, where the air was pure,” he explained. “When I saw that pall over the city I thought there’d been an accident or something, but my son said no, that’s just what we breathe here. I could feel myself tightening up, and we finally had to pull over for a while I had such a coughing fit. But I’m ok now.”

He’s as old now as I was when I met him. There is no way he can get that time back, but I’m glad I was able to help him spend the rest of his life as a free man.