Late one afternoon in March 1993, then 43-year-old Michael Brian Whiteman joined one of the “I Don’t Remember Brothers” for a swig under the 600 South viaduct. He nicknamed the flighty pair of Texas drifters himself.
Light in the Levis, and looking the part of a burnout hippie, Whiteman packs a deceptive wallop. Nobody warned two derelicts before they wheeled a rickety grocery basket into the midst of Whiteman’s bridge party.
The big guy, about 35 and burly, had that weatherworn look of the streets. His scrawny 19-year-old pal did not.
“The way he talked to that kid, sending him into the store, raising all kinds of hell when he came out, punking him like a little f—ing b—h,” stirred Whiteman’s ire, he says. “I told the dude I didn’t think much of that.”
“That’s when the guy told me, ‘F—k you.’”
“I said, ‘Man, you better stand up because I’m going to knock you out.’”
“That guy said ‘F—k you’ again,” and Whiteman throttled him.
To the delight of the little one, says Whiteman, his tormenter stumbled into the basket and scampered away. The Whitemans of the world can take care of themselves, he lectures, but “somebody has to stand up for those who can’t.”
But for a freshly cracked right metacarpal, he would’ve doubled up on the lug. The damage was mutual, though: In line at the shelter two days later, Whiteman spotted his dupe sporting a dark purple shiner around a crushed eye socket.
Before the hand had healed, Whiteman took his own turn as dupe a month later, and two blocks removed. As always, he took care of himself. And had the hospital records from his crushed fist been produced at trial some four months later, he might have beaten a murder rap.
His Father’s Son
“I was a f—kup,” admits Whiteman, telling how he landed in a Salt Lake City flophouse at 55 with nothing but a white ass, a birthday and an always-looming five-to-life. The $80-a-week room-with-a-sink isn’t much swankier than the Utah State Prison cells he housed in for nearly 12 years. But now he holds the key.
Like many parolees, Whiteman knows how tenuous that freedom can be. (They’ve taken it back once already.) But living life from the bottom rung up, amid suffering and sin, he’s learned that for a fighting chance, you’ve got to be willing to chance the fight.
Not caring that speaking out would likely send him back, Whiteman strolled into City Weekly more than a year ago looking for a paper route, and to pitch his story. The resulting articles arguably cost him another nine months behind bars, before he single-handedly beat all but one of six “hemmed up” parole violations. Having navigated roadblocks of his own making for most of his life, Whiteman doesn’t sweat the best the system can throw his way.
“I’m no angel, but I’m no Hell’s Angel either,” he insists, noting from experience, “there’s a lot of ignorance on both sides of the fence.”
Early last century, a young Dean K. Whiteman did 18 years for burglarizing a Hays, Kan. general store—a dozen more than if he’d fingered two accomplices, says his son, Michael. Pushing middle age upon release, the tightlipped ex-con met and married Ruth Evelyn, 11 years his junior, and they moved out West for a late start in a Los Angeles suburb.
Dean coached Little League, and wrenched a living at a downtown Los Angeles garage until he picked up the lease on a pay-to-park lot across the street. Ruth worked in kitchens, eventually becoming head dietician for two hospitals and never denied anyone a meal as long as she lived.
Whiteman’s folks were more like grandparents, really, already getting on when he started sneaking sips of beer from that old Mexican, Sinovio, across the street. By 13, he was brazen and scooting off to East Los Angeles to spend summers with his maternal grandmother.
Smooth-talking any other kid’s lawn-mowing gig into a front for Chicano drug pushers, Whiteman ran “grass” with his yard clippings. While LAPD staked out the usual suspects, they ignored the precocious kid earning his first stake in the underworld, and learning a life lesson that’s served him mostly for the worse since. “Believe it or not,” he deadpans, “I’m not a big fan of labor.”
So began a three-decade run of drunken, narcotic-fueled crime and wickedness. But before Whiteman could exorcize his own demons, he’d have to slay a devil of a different sort.
Lost in Translation
His older brother by three years, Bob, held the California high school pole-vaulting record for two years running. At 16, Bob was diagnosed with diabetes but couldn’t accept the disease, and he drank a lot.
Bob’s buddies often dropped by the family’s modest Baldwin Park home. Whiteman, 14, home alone one such occasion, knew the guys were after Bob’s syringes, but Michael refused to pony up unless they invited him along for the ride. “That was the first time I stuck a needle in my arm,” he says, later tracing the withered veins ensnarling both forearms.
Whiteman quit Pony League, and then the 10th grade. Taking up against a rival group of “misguided youths” soon after, he suffered a gunshot wound to the right wrist. Long-healed lacerations decorate his face, and slashing marks score his upper body in homage to knife fights and a fierce stabbing at the hands of one nonplussed girlfriend. She took issue with an untoward dig at her feminine hygiene regimen, Whiteman explains, riffing, “I’m pretty in two ways: pretty ugly, and pretty damned sure I’m gonna stay that way.”
Summers spent running weed in East L.A. put him in some cars with some lucrative import-export types. But he didn’t discover how lucrative until he was about 18 and, ironically, his graying father hired him to tend the parking lot downtown.
“It was enlightening,” Whiteman says. “I talked to everybody and got to know their business,” including a bagman posing as a jeweler couriering kilos of cocaine in a false-bottomed briefcase. Inspired, Whiteman accepted an eye-opening assignment south of the border.
“I left my ID so I could go down there and get lost in translation,” he says of 18 months spent as a Mexican “tourista,” moving heroin under the same screen he used to throw off the LAPD. “The most obvious is the least obvious,” he posits, and “I looked like a ’60s college kid but bathed occasionally.”
Roving between villages and barrios, Whiteman picked up bits of the language and, more lastingly, insights into the ways of misery. “I was amazed at their resilience,” he says, “the way they can come back from nothing.
“But these people had some s—t happening,” he says he learned of his Mexican counterparts-in-crime. “You’ve got youngsters running around there, working, packing. And these are not kids—these are short adults. They’re down for the count, and if you ain’t right, you ain’t leaving there.”
Stateside again, Whiteman sped the “low road to the high life.” His crew dealt in Colombian cocaine and kilos of heroin imported from Mexico. He shuffled through women and wheels—notwithstanding a prized ’73 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead—like a kid swapping Topps cards.
That all changed around 1974, when he hooked up with Sylvia, a relative of his East L.A. business partners. “She was not a f—up,” Whiteman says of the Latina princess who stole his heart. “Very smart, very beautiful.” What’s more, Sylvia didn’t go for the lifestyle and quickly put the skids on her beau.
That’s not to say Whiteman went altogether straight: He set the action on the back burner, yes, and kicked junk and booze, but he kept mired in the cash side of the operation. Then, during a 10-month escape to Salt Lake City, the couple conceived Brian Michael, a step toward fulfilling Dean Whiteman’s greatest wish.
“‘I hope someday you have a son that’s just like you,’” Whiteman’s father often razzed. “And he didn’t need to tighten the screws any more than that,” says Whiteman.
Brian joined his parents back in California in July 1975, marking a turning point for his father, evidenced by a years-long window of inactivity on Whiteman’s rap sheet. “Once you have a child, you change your whole perspective,” he says. “Your chest swells and you feel proud.”
And for the first time, Whiteman wanted legitimacy. He parlayed an ill-gotten money roll into a silent partnership with a glass and upholstery shop owner. As soon as he saved enough for a decent down payment, he and Sylvia were to buy a house, marry, and raise Brian to be “a regular pillar of the community.”
But Dean would never see his grandson grow to be as big a pain in the ass as Whiteman. On a Saturday morning in 1980, Sylvia and 5-year-old Brian left the apartment on some errands.
“About two-and-a-half hours later, I answered the phone,” Whiteman recalls, solemnly. “I thought someone was playing a mean joke or something. … It turned out to be the authorities saying they had both been killed in an automobile accident.”
He fumed on the ride down to confront the jailed drunken driver. “But then I looked in his eyes and saw the pain that he felt,” says Whiteman, who’s been busted passed out behind the wheel at a stoplight or two himself. “Not only did he take their lives, but … I could see that guy would never be the same again.”
Whiteman released the prosecutor to do as he saw fit. “To harbor hate,” he figures, “would not be something that she nor my son would have wanted me to do because there was a lot of love between us.”
He sank back into the needle and shot north to Oakland, securing work with some “motorcycle enthusiasts.”
His brother Bob called in 1982 to say the doctors wanted to amputate his gangrened leg, and he’d rather die. Whiteman offered two choices: “You let them amputate that leg, or I’ll do it for you.”
Minus the leg, the diabetes continued to devour Bob, but he refused convalescent care. The boys’ mother had just undergone a radical mastectomy, and Dean, then 77, was growing feebler by the day. So Whiteman returned to Baldwin Park to play nursemaid.
“The almost 12 years I did in that prison was nothing compared to the time I did in that house,” he offers categorically.
Whiteman convinced Bob it would devastate their mother if he died at the house, so Bob agreed to move into a convalescent home. On a Tuesday morning visit in 1983, Whiteman wheeled his sucked-up brother outside, and brushed what little hair he had. “He gave me a kiss on the forehead, and said I was off the hook for feeling guilty, transferring what life he had left into me,” Whiteman says.
That evening, Bob died in his room from kidney failure.
Cancer-stricken, Ruth wanted to die at home, too. So Whiteman stayed on. He kept above water dealing out the back door but spent most of the next two years camped out on the living room floor next to the couch, and his languishing mother.
“Finally, she died,” Whiteman sighs, leaving him to fend for Dean another three years, when “my dad just lost his will to live.”
“No longer needed,” Whiteman blew through a modest inheritance, and racked up drug and larceny charges from Los Angeles to San Bernadino. Prior to the computer age, he notes, it was possible to pay a “keister’s worth” of dope for someone else to serve his jail time.
He stayed in pocket by passing enough bad checks to paint the lines on State Street for 10 city blocks. He short-changed cashiers, dipped at the craps tables and forged lottery tickets so convincingly that the jury didn’t believe it was his work. Back in the Bay Area, he kicked heroin, swan-dived into the bottle, and jumped a freight train to the Midwest.
“The ’80s, so to speak, weren’t my best decade,” Whiteman reflects. “Nor were the ’90s so much.”
The Devil Inside
Whiteman hopped off a boxcar at Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande station in late 1991, and set to earning his prison nickname, “Vagrant,” accruing 13 convictions from October of that year until April 1993.
Homeless, worthless and aimless, he fit right in at downtown’s then notorious Pioneer Park, a refuge for drunks, addicts, pushers and rascals of every stripe. But he also stood out as a big-mouthed “gavacho” to the Mexican nationals who controlled the park’s drug trade.
Many nights, Whiteman’s was the only white face among scores of Mexican immigrants under the 400 South bridge. As the lone Anglo, he says the cops wanted him to work as an informant and hassled him for refusing.
“Like I told them,” says the self-touted Prince of Pioneer Park, “if I’m cold, these people allow me to stand next to their fire; if I’m hungry, they feed me.”
But Whiteman knew he wasn’t welcomed by all, and he’d taken to wearing a 10-inch, steel-black Marine Corps K-Bar in a scabbard on his hip. The knife was a gift from one of the “I Don’t Remember Brothers,” who retreated indoors after Whiteman “crunched” that dude under the bridge.
On April 26, 1993, Whiteman retrieved his prize from police evidence after a two-week lockup. He swears he’d been working with social services to get into detox, but you have to be drunk, they told him. So he picked up a bottle en route to the park, intending to flag down the detox van on its next go-round.
That afternoon, while sipping with park fixture Clifton Jones, there approached a young Mexican national drug dealer, widely known as “Diablo.” Though the many-aliased Diablo was never positively identified, initials tattooed on his left hand, “J.A.G.,” are consistent with a known pseudonym, Jose Alejandro Gomez, born “6/6/69.”
“Mark of the beast,” Whiteman points out. “Diablo the devil. Can you imagine how relevant that would have been had that been produced to … that inbred jury?”
Speaking in Spanish to Whiteman, Gomez offered cocaine for sale. “No hablo espanol,” Whiteman replied. But Gomez knew better. The exchange escalated, and Jones shooed the pair away from his bench.
Trailing Whiteman, Gomez barked taunts in Spanish for 10 yards, and then veered off. Whiteman headed to his usual roost under an overgrown tree, stabbed the K-Bar into the earth, and sat down to drink with a good ol’ peckerwood out of the California penal system.
Minutes after disappearing into the park, Gomez reemerged, only this time flanked by two associates. With his muscle hanging back, the intoxicated Diablo (his blood had three times the legal limit to drive and cocaine traces, according to a postmortem) pushed and cussed his way through a crowd of winos mingling off to Whiteman’s side.
Gomez caught Whiteman’s gaze. Whiteman stood and braced. Gomez made a beeline, menacing, “Tu vida estuvo, pinche gavacho” (Your life is through, f—ing white man). He cracked Whiteman with a right-hand haymaker, opening a gash above his left eye. Whiteman shot up wielding the K-Bar.
A jury of his peers—six women and a man: two housewives, three college students, a 3rd District Court deputy clerk and an airline mechanic—would decide whether Whiteman credibly feared for his life when he then ran Gomez through to the hilt.
Initial statements and courtroom testimony from the state’s three eyewitnesses were inconsistent and, at times, implausible. So were some of the prosecutor’s. Exculpatory evidence was discovered too late, or wasn’t presented by Whiteman’s defense team. What’s certain, however, is that unlike Whiteman’s run-in under the bridge a month earlier, “they brought this s—t to me,” he notes.
The Coyote and the Rabbit
You bet Whiteman feared for his life, say then public defenders Mark Moffat and Richard Mauro, the team Whiteman affectionately dubs the “M&M Railroad.” It was their first homicide trial, and both believe to this day Whiteman was justified.
“I’ve worked on hundreds of cases, if not thousands, and there are certain cases that stick in your mind and stay with you,” notes Moffat. “Maybe I was out-lawyered, I don’t know … I was heartbroken when we lost it.”
The defense argued the case began where it ended, with Whiteman fending off a 20-strong mob of Mexican nationals in the middle of traffic at 400 South and 300 West. After stabbing Gomez through the heart, Whiteman snatched his rucksack and fled a pursuing swarm, bolstering his fear from the outset.
Flailing sticks, bottles and rocks, the throng chased Whiteman into the intersection, and ultimately into the custody of an off-duty patrolman. But not before he’d endured bloodletting blows to hand and head from the sharp end of a metal fence post.
The M&M Railroad argued Whiteman knew that Mexican drug dealers in the park operated in violent packs. And their client reasonably believed Gomez’ thugs would’ve “rat-packed” him if Whiteman didn’t get the drop on his attacker.
One of the prosecution’s key eyewitnesses confirmed as much. “If you fight one, you fight them all,” Clifton Jones testified of the park’s highly organized dealers. “What we call it is ‘gang-banging,’” he continued, educating the homespun jury. “[Whiteman] knew what was going to happen … [because] he goes to the park, too.”
State’s witness Elizabeth Woods was driving her Lexus eastbound across the 400 South bridge, when she spied the commotion. On the stand, Woods pegged her vantage point about 50 feet from the fight, whereas police diagrams put her nearly the length of a football field away—beyond a concrete barrier and a maze of trees.
Contrary to other witnesses—who testified Gomez struck Whiteman and was then stabbed—Woods testified Whiteman “pushed” Gomez twice, the second time being the ostensible deathblow. (In closing arguments, Salt Lake County prosecutor Paul Parker said Woods saw Whiteman repeatedly “poke” Gomez.) Woods also testified that Gomez’ hands were at his sides when he was stabbed, contradicting witnesses who testified they were raised, which Parker interpreted as a defensive gesture. Whiteman concedes Gomez’ hands were raised, but insists he was telegraphing another assault.
In an initial police interview, the prosecution’s star witness, Robert Earl Young, said the “bad guy,” Gomez, picked the fight with “the older guy,” Whiteman. He told police that after being hit, Whiteman retrieved the knife and stabbed Gomez so quickly, “I am sure … he didn’t see this, you know, this knife pretty much coming.” By trial, however, Young testified that Whiteman was the “bad guy,” and that Gomez recoiled, hands raised, before Whiteman lunged.
In retrospect, Mauro and Moffat question the wisdom of letting Whiteman testify, but they decided it was crucial if the jury was to go for self-defense. Going for authenticity, Whiteman refused to wear a suit on the stand, opting for a pair of cowboy boots borrowed from Moffat, jeans and a button-down shirt.
“[I]f I hit that ground there’s these other guys, two backup guys, and I know they are there,” Whiteman testified. “I just cannot go down. … My legs were not there. … I went down to brace myself, and I was waiting for the next impact of the next punch. … Now my hand hits the handle of that knife. He did not hesitate. There was no help. I just went boom! … He went down, and I kept breathing.”
On cross-examination, Parker argued Whiteman introduced the knife into a “fair” fistfight. He emphasized that nobody recalled seeing Gomez or his associates with weapons, and goaded Whiteman to explain what physical ailment prevented him from simply duking it out.
On the weapons score, Jones testified that Gomez’ thugs picked the dying man’s pockets as he lay bleeding in the grass. Neither was apprehended. As to Whiteman’s pugilistic prowess, he blames maddening months in solitary confinement pending trial for why he overlooked the broken right metacarpal he’d suffered weeks before the homicide.
As Gomez approached, Whiteman testified that he thought to himself, “There’s that son of a bitch again.” In his summation, Parker rephrased it as a more ominous, “Where’s that son of a bitch?” Whiteman claimed his vision blurred after being punched, which Parker translated to a “blind rage.” The state medical examiner testified Gomez weighed 155 pounds at the time of death—compared with Whiteman’s 145 pounds—but Parker misquoted the victim’s weight as a meek 125 pounds. Parker didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A slew of defense witnesses testified that Gomez and his pals were often armed, and known to gang up on loners in the park. Police officers testified they had to forcefully arrest a raving, fist-clenching Gomez on multiple occasions out of fear for their safety and that of others. Moffat and Mauro neglected the significance of a tattoo on Gomez’ right hand, linking him to a vicious California prison gang, but they rested their case believing they’d planted ample seeds of doubt.
“Then, good God, I got beat by a nursery rhyme,” says Whiteman, in grudging respect of Parker’s theatrical take on the state’s burden of proof: “Imagine you’re a hunter, or maybe you’re not a hunter, you’re just a walker in the forest,” Parker began, setting up a grisly scenario of rabbit tracks trailing off in the snow, followed by the tale-tell footprints of a stalking coyote. “You don’t see the coyote or the rabbit,” Parker continued. “What you see is a little bit of blood and a little bit of fur and the coyote tracks alone leaving. Now what happened to the rabbit? The reasonable doubt is no more difficult than that.”
Water Under the Bridge
“To this day, I don’t feel no remorse,” says Whiteman. “He was going to kill me … but by the grace of God, I’m still here.”
Six months into his five-to-life, Whiteman was alone in his cell researching an appeal when four other inmates, two affiliated with Gomez’ gang, rushed him. “I took a standing eight count for about 10 days,” he says of a subsequent turn in the prison infirmary, recovering from cracked ribs and a battered skull.
Moffat shoulders responsibility for the beating, which he notes supports the self-defense premise, and he admires Whiteman’s chutzpah through it all. “He’s a fighter,” Moffat observes, “who has survived by doing things his own way.”
Head wrapped in gauze, eye swollen shut, Whiteman made a sorry appearance at one post-conviction hearing, Moffat recalls with a chuckle. When the judge asked what had happened, Whiteman said, “‘Oh, I slipped in the shower.’”
But keeping mum about his prison attackers proved a blessing in disguise as did the conviction itself. The prospect of life behind bars had Whiteman reevaluate all the wasted years, and he resigned himself to sobriety—12 years without so much as a puff on a cigarette. And by refusing to identify his assailants, he earned a safety override, freeing him to pursue his casework outside the danger and temptations of general population.
It took six “dump truck” attorneys, and seven years worth of unsuccessful appeals for the sting of the verdict to wane. And although Whiteman won’t cop to the murder, he acknowledges he got what he had coming.
“My time is due to karma,” he says. “Things that I have thought I was slick in doing and got away with came back to bite me in the ass. Now, I’m just trying to get rid of some of the teeth marks.”
Driven by a keen sense of justice, tinged with spite, the now-paroled Whiteman’s guiding purpose has been to petition his captors for redress of oh-so-many grievances. From winning back cups and bowls for inmates in maximum security, to losing a bid to repatriate a stockpile of prison-issue gray T-shirts allegedly conscripted by Department of “Corruptions” staff, Whiteman has earned an agitator’s reputation among inmates and administration alike. But the jailhouse lawyer’s crusade has been a selfish one.
“Most of the people out there are too busy putting tattoos on their eyelids,” charges Whiteman, “so they don’t get to bitch.”
When he first was paroled in March 2004, Whiteman convinced City Weekly to investigate a gripe he still harbors with the Board of Pardons and Parole. He claimed the board miscalculated his sentence, based on a matrix used to aggravate or mitigate the actual time an offender serves under Utah’s indeterminate sentencing scheme.
In tallying up Whiteman’s criminal history, parole board staff converted five of his prior California misdemeanor convictions to felonies, reasoning “the sentence[s] imposed” by California comported with Utah felonies. Utah criminal code, however, defines a felony as a crime punishable by more than one year in prison, and none of Whiteman’s California misdemeanors drew more than 360 days.
Whiteman unsuccessfully petitioned the board in 1999 to move up his 2003 parole hearing date based on the converted misdemeanors, but then-board member Keith Hamilton upheld the methodology. Before stepping down in late 2003 to pursue a private law practice, Hamilton recommended Whiteman for a 2004 parole date. He later acknowledged to City Weekly that at least some of the priors were mistakenly converted, promising to draft a letter to the board requesting they be corrected. Even so, he characterized the snafu as “water under the bridge,” reasoning Whiteman already had been paroled.
Far from trivial, Whiteman maintains the erred matrix is grounds to terminate his mandatory three-year parole, because he was paroled four years later than the matrix would have otherwise called for. And he has good reason for wanting “off paper,” as they say.
As he predicted, eight days after City Weekly published an article addressing the errors [“Pardon Me,” June 10, 2004], Whiteman returned from work to the Bonneville Community Correctional Center, only to be shackled and transported back to prison on a half-dozen alleged parole violations. Three days earlier, the halfway house director sent the article to Department of Corrections public information officer Jack Ford, who in July 2004 dismissed Whiteman’s claims of retaliation.
“Sure, everybody in prison says they got screwed,” Ford said at the time, adding, “Mr. Whiteman is well-known for complaining and filing grievances.”
Adult Probation and Parole honchos and halfway house administrators urged the board to lock Whiteman up “for a period no less than five years,” according to the parole violation report. After eight long months gnashing teeth with board-appointed attorneys, Whiteman represented himself at a February 2005 parole violation hearing and defeated all but one allegation. He arguably acquitted himself on that one as well—he says, by ripping a page out of prosecutor Paul Parker’s book.
Whiteman’s parole officer, Vernon Simister, was reassigned by the time of the hearing, leaving parole agent Sharalee Booth to fill in as the state’s only witness. She was putty in Whiteman’s hands.
“I was leading her to me just like I watched those prosecutors do it,” Whiteman boasts. In turn, he finessed admissions from Booth that she had no evidence he was untruthful, uncooperative with transitional services or failed to pay supervision fees, as alleged. Whiteman also allegedly failed to enroll in cognitive restructuring and substance-abuse therapy, as per his parole agreement, but Booth acknowledged Simister failed to make the referrals per policy.
Three of the allegations cited the articles, alleging Whiteman misspent his time “pursuing inflammatory newspaper stories” rather than getting on with his program.
The last allegation was more serious. A targeted search of Whiteman’s room while he was at work yielded a razor blade strapped to a stack of business cards. Whiteman allegedly told a counselor at the state vocational rehabilitation office that he carried the blade and a 16-inch pair of scissors—required tools for his job cutting upholstery fabric—to “protect himself against fellow employees, who are supposed Mexican national gang members.”
Whiteman maintains he kept the extra blade in his shirt pocket while working, and simply forgot it when he punched out the day before. (Incidentally, it was the same day a probation administrator approved Whiteman’s request to bolt the halfway house.) Booth conceded Simister approved the employment, and thereby the work tools, and that Whiteman had an unblemished record before the newspaper articles, which she confirmed “ruffled a lot of feathers,” according to the hearing tapes.
“So, consequently, I think that a lot of [this] came about after those articles were in fact read by staff. … Is that pretty much the substance of that?” Whiteman pressed her.
“Yeah,” Booth said.
He then asked if anyone at the halfway house feared him, “other than my talking them to death?”
“Not that I know of,” Booth said, laughingly.
At that, he moved in for the kill.
“In the business cards, without authorization, I was in possession of a blade … because I feared the guys I worked with, Mexican nationals, is that correct?” Whiteman asked.
“Yes,” Booth said, the pace quickening.
“That’s the whole summation of this … this is construed as a dangerous weapon, because I feared for my safety from the guys that I worked with, is that correct?”
“Yes,” she said with more resolve.
“Then why would I have a large utility knife blade in my drawer at the halfway house while I’m at work?”
“I don’t know,” Booth replied.
Parasite to Paralegal
Whiteman was paroled again in March. But this time, a retired one-time Mormon bishop he’d befriended at Welfare Square put him in pocket for a month’s rent at the Regis Hotel, precluding a return to the halfway house.
He promptly landed a job at an apartment building near the University of Utah. But after a couple weeks of work, the property manager told Whiteman he’d need some tools, including a utility blade. Whiteman’s parole officer said he’d have no problem with the knife, but that other agents might. So Whiteman quit, and went on general assistance.
Though unemployed, he’s kept busy buying, selling, trading, scavenging and repairing the creature comforts of flophouse living—mini refrigerators are always in demand. He accumulates little and keeps personal ties to a dull roar—less to lose if they send him back. He exercises the angst by taking 5-mile walks around the city, kicking back outside the City County building in nothing but Levis, and confusing folks on the bus with his life story. He cashes in a Taco Time frequent diner card once a week, and fills a Viagra prescription once a month. He’s spoken out at public meetings against plans to tear down the Regis in favor of urban renewal. He’s working with one particularly disturbed homeless man’s out-of-state family to get him some form of social assistance. He sends what money he can spare to an unseasoned former cellmate, runs errands for a thankless shut-in at the hotel, and hauls groceries up three flights of stairs for Regis resident Brian Bozeman, an executive chef with bad feet, who could stand to skip a meal.
“He helps everybody he can,” says Bozeman, who served two years for a failed suicide by arson. “He’s always been that way, and it’s not just with me.”
Hopeless in the way of skilled enterprise, it was by sheer providence that Whiteman picked up a class schedule for the paralegal program at Salt Lake Community College. The program director and former legal defender, Richard Uday, represented Whiteman on a penny-ante beef prior to the homicide.
“My recollection of Michael Whiteman is that he’s always been a straight shooter,” vouches Uday. “He’s got a line of bulls—t a mile long, but it’s very clouded in the truth.”
After reacquainting in Uday’s office, Whiteman had an epiphany. “That college right there is my way out of the cesspool,” he reckons. So he secured a Pell grant, registered for a full course load, wrapped up three months of cognitive restructuring and substance-abuse classes on Aug. 23, and arrived an hour early for his first class the next morning.
Uday hopes that once Whiteman immerses in his studies, he won’t have the time or inclination to stew over the past. At the same time, he’s entertained pursuing Whiteman’s case as a class project, explaining: “He thinks that he did more time than he should have done. At first blush, my reaction is that he’s correct.” As to Whiteman’s odds of success, “He needs to react less viscerally and more analytically, but I think that’s within his grasp,” Uday says.
“Most of my anxiety comes from being on parole,” Whiteman harps. “I can’t get into full stride, because they’re going to knock the legs out from under me again.”
To wit, Whiteman was eager to learn why Hamilton never followed through with his promised letter to the parole board.
“I spaced it, man,” Hamilton told City Weekly in June. As penance, though, he offered to do Whiteman one better by supporting a petition now before the board to cut Whiteman’s parole short. Presented with the offer, Whiteman cocked a fist, and shouted a host of excited expletives.
Hamilton, who’s since been reappointed to the board and stands to possibly become its chairman, explained: “I’m trying to teach my children you got to do what you say you’re going to do, whether it’s making your bed in the morning, or writing a letter for some guy. … That’s the way I roll.”
Whatever may come, Whiteman says he’s turned the corner. Despite obstacles and incalculable losses—in time, treasure and loved ones—he’s upbeat. “I found me, man. I’ve resurrected Michael,” he says. He’s also found that it’s “never too late for a man to become something that he might have been.”
Offering “many thanks” to the state of Utah for saving his life, and with a nod to bygone loved ones who sustain him still, Whiteman emphasizes he isn’t bitter: “I’m better for the experience.” But, he vows to this writer, “If I get off this parole, I swear to God, buddy, I'll kill someone for you—serious as a heart attack."
Not really, though.