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Authors: Edward Bunker

Death Row Breakout

BOOK: Death Row Breakout
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Death Row Breakout And Other Stories

Edward Bunker


Open Road Integrated Media ebook


1.   Introduction

2.   Los Angeles Justice, 1927

3.   Entering the “House of Dracula”

4.   Vengeance is Mine

5.   Death of a Rat

6.   Death Row Breakout

7.   The Life Ahead


Dear Nat,

I’m enclosing a draft of my stories. I wanted each story to stand alone. I could continue and do it all in one large book. I think the best stories are yet to come. How many of your writers have been adjudged ‘criminally insane’? It’s a funny story, very much like ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. As a thief, I was a jack-of-all-trades. I would commit an armed robbery if the money was right and the score was easy – as in the case of one person caught in the parking lot who walked back in to open the safe for me. But I was very careful about armed robbery; it was sooo much tiiimme… if you got caught. Especially if you were an ex con. I was a two-time loser. I could play ‘short con’, the kind of games you see in ‘The Sting’, which was the best movie about conmen ever made. But short con was a day-to-day hustle, like a job. You’d make a living, but you’d never make a big score.

My day-to-hustle as a thief was ‘merchandise burglary.’ I’d go through walls and roofs to steal merchandise. Cigarettes and whiskey are best, but I’ve hauled off outboard motors, shoes, meat (put a sucker in the restaurant business), TVs and stereos, nickel and platinum (from a plating shop), and the contents of a pawn shop. I never burglarized houses. I really liked ripping off drug dealers and pimps, but there are only so many of those.

I usually got one or two scores a week. I had a heroin habit and a good living habit running concurrently.

The weekend started bad. I had a liquor store on Melrose staked out. Next door was an empty store. Me and my crime partner, Jerry, went in there. Most interior walls are lathe and plaster. Chop with a roofing hatchet, rip and tear with a crowbar, hey presto you’re through the wall in twenty or thirty minutes.

Alas, we found concrete beneath the plaster. We weren’t going to get through with what we had. We packed up and departed, empty handed.

The next night we were back, this time with a 12-pound sledgehammer and a driver’s spike. When I started work, after midnight, not only the empty building but the whole neighborhood reverberated each time I swung the sledgehammer. “Ka-boom! Ka-BOOM!” A tiny sliver splintered away. Naw, that wasn’t going to work either. Shit!

I needed to make some money. I already owed the connection a couple thousand. My partner had a bar we could enter through the ventilation shaft on the roof. We took the whiskey and other things worth money; we’d moved the back seats of the big Roadmaster Buick and a Cadillac for the haul. We found a floor safe in the office and knocked the dial off. But I couldn’t get in. We left. I bought a device that goes down and pinches – and came back to the bar with a fat Mexican named Gordo. I brought out about a grand and some checks. Gordo knocked the pay phone off the wall with the sledgehammer.

The next day, I went to the fence to sell the goods. While I was there, he got a phone-call from a black burglar, who was in an alley behind Western Avenue with a bunch of goods. The fence handed me the phone. The guy on the other end ran it down. It sounded like a taxi job. No harm in driving down to look.

He was on the street, a skinny little guy, whose name I forget. Sure enough, piled in the alley, hidden by a stack of crates, was a pile of loot, including a television, some guns and a silver fox coat. We loaded it into the car and took it back to the fence. He bought everything except the fur coat. I knew I could get more for it from one of the topless dancers out on the Sunset Strip.

The skinny black burglar was a junky, so of course the first thing to do was score. Mexican dope usually being better quality than Black dope, we went to East LA and my connections.

I took him home. We were fixing in the bathroom, me and him, when his old lady said that so and so was at the door. She seemed a mite upset. I thought it was time for me to leave.

As I went out, these two black guys, big and young, eyeball me. As I walk down the sidewalk, I see them come out and follow me. I get in the car. Here they come. I open my knife and hold it on the seat. When the first guy gets to the car, he reaches in the back window and grabs the fur coat. ‘My mother’s coat,’ he says – and I get the picture immediately. My crime partner has ripped off someone he knew.

He opened the passenger door and wanted to reach for the keys. I feinted at him with the knife and he jumped back. I drove away.

A few blocks away, the red cherry lights went on behind me. The chase was on. Alas, I was off my own turf, and no matter how I took corners, I couldn’t get two streets ahead. I finally bailed out. They caught me and, of course, beat the shit out of me. About ten of them were hitting me and advising me of my rights simultaneously.

What could I do? I said I was John McCone of the CIA, and I had to get to the trial in Dallas. I had new evidence. It got pretty crazy: when they booked me, I gave my birth date as 1888 and gave my job as Naval Intelligence. I told them they were Catholics and were trying to put a radio in my brain. One guy took out his church card and said he was a Lutheran.

Finally, they broke it off. When they came back, they said, “We talked to your parole officer. He says you’re faking.” I said that he worked for the church, too.

When they took me for arraignment, I had rolled up my pants, had Bull Durham sacks like medals on my chest and, when the judge came in, I jumped up and started screaming that he was a Bishop, I could tell by his robes. They carried me out, screaming and yelling. I told the DA that I’d been in jail one hundred and eight years.

Proceedings were suspended for a psych-hearing. They appointed two shrinks. They talked to me and said I was an acute, chronic schizophrenic paranoid, legally insane and mentally ill. Off I went to the nuthouse. The rap sheet forever after said I was criminally insane.

In the nuthouse, I agitated all the dingbats into an insurrection. They sent me to prison. The prison knew me. They thought I was a parole violator. The story ends when I bail out of the county jail at night, with the Watts Riots going strong.

Do you want that story?

Then there’s the story of how my fingerprints got on a butcher’s knife that was pictured on the front page of the Herald Express with the caption: PROWLER’S FINGERPRINTS FOUND. The Hollywood Prowler was a serial rapist and murderer. Whooaaaa!

And I surely want to write a story about prison race war in the memoir.

All best,

Edward Bunker

Los Angeles Justice, 1927

The year was 1927. In Washington, DC, the Ku Klux Klan put on full-hooded regalia and marched ten abreast down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue with American flags flying.

In Los Angeles, nineteen-year-old Booker Johnson looked at the front page photo of the march in the
Daily News
and was glad that he was far across the continent in California. Sure, there was prejudice and bigotry there, but there was no Jim-Crow bullshit.

Back in Tennessee, all the colored kids in town went to a two-room schoolhouse, grammar school in one room, middle school in the other. After the ninth grade there was no school. Out here everybody went to school together. True enough, colored kids were a small minority in LA. The great westward migration of The War was still fifteen years away. When Booker reached Los Angeles, he was sixteen years old and could barely read. Because he had to work and help support his mother (his father had died in a farm accident when Booker was twelve), Booker was given a work permit; he had to attend school four hours a week. At seventeen he stopped going altogether. No truant officer ever stopped him. At sixteen he carried a hundred and ninety pounds on a 6'1" frame. His stomach muscles had the ridges of a washboard, hardened from bending over with an ‘Aggie’, a very short-handled hoe. Indeed, his whole body rippled with muscles conditioned by hard work. From age ten, he’d picked cotton, dragging a long sack between his legs down a turn row, pulling the little balls of white fluff from the bushes and dropping them in the sack. At thirteen he began cutting sugar cane in the hot sun; his sweat attracted insects and the cane leaves had edges that cut the skin. In autumn, he had chopped many cords of firewood that were stacked in the front yard and sold to people passing by.

Now nineteen, he had a job in a Texaco gas station on Wilmington Avenue and 43rd Street. Monday through Wednesday, he pumped gas and checked oil, but on Thursday and Friday he was the on-duty mechanic. Mostly, he changed oil and fixed flat tires, but there were real mechanic’s jobs, too. He had a knack for it, and had even managed to resuscitate an eight-year-old Model T the station owner sold him for $25.00. His weekly wages were $32.50, and they were pretty good for a time when the house rent was $30.00 a month. On Saturday, the boss let Booker use the service bay and the tools to work on the Model T. This was a Saturday in September, and the desert heat, which was usually dry, was uncommonly humid. Booker had sweat stinging his eyes. The motionless air weighed him down. None of that bothered him at the moment; he was enthralled by the immense, gleaming engine of the 12-cylinder Packard that had been tuned up.

A shadow fell over him. He looked around. Ned Wilson was in the doorway. A tow-headed young man two years older than Booker; Ned was the weekend manager.

“I don’t feel good, Booker.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Maybe something I ate, maybe the heat. I dunno. I just threw up out there… Don’t worry, I hosed it down before it started stinking.”

Booker said nothing; he had nothing to say and it was his nature to say very little anyway.

“I really wish you could do me a favor and cover for me? Stay here and close up. It’s only three hours. I’ll give you ten dollars.”

Ten dollars! God knew he could use an extra ten dollars. “I wish I could,” he said, “but I got a date. Belle don’t have no phone.”

Ned Wilson smiled, showing discolored teeth, the product of his family’s poverty. “I thought of that already. I called Phil. He said you can close an hour early tonight.”

Booker felt manipulated. Phil was the owner. Calling him before asking took a lot for granted. Yet ten dollars was ten dollars. He could take Belle to the
Club Alabam
. It was the hottest club on Central Avenue. “Yeah, man, I’ll be glad to work for you.”

“Hey, I really appreciate that. No shit.”

Booker nodded and extended his hand. Ned frowned; then understood and grinned and reached for his billfold. “You takin’ all my money,” he said as he handed it over.

A car pulled up to the pumps outside. “I’ll get that,” Ned said, starting out; then he stopped, reached in his pocket and handed Booker the keys. “You’re runnin’ things now, boy.” He gave a mock salute and went out.

At 8:15, Booker started closing up. He emptied the wastebasket, locked the rest rooms and pulled down the garage doors. At precisely 8:30, he locked the pumps and turned off the lights.

The Model T refused to start. When the starter wouldn’t turn over, he used the backup hand crank. It had never failed before. He turned it until his arm ached. Nothing. “Damn! Shit!” he cursed and kicked the tire and felt disheartened. What was Belle going to say? How was he going to tell her?

Then his eye fell on the Packard roadster. Sight, idea and decision were all simultaneous. For a moment he almost changed his mind, but he thought of Belle’s fine brown frame in the thin summer dress. Nothing could go wrong. The Packard would be back in the garage long before daylight.

The VI2 engine kicked over instantly – and roared loud when he pressed the accelerator. What a car. He pushed the clutch and shifted into gear. It was sure easier than the Model T. Outside, he stopped to lock the garage doors. A moment later he turned onto the street, grinning to himself as he anticipated Belle’s reaction when she saw the car. She would be waiting on the front porch.

BOOK: Death Row Breakout
9.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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