Friday, September 13, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend? Part V

rom the snowy depths of gloom, a vast, architecturally inelegant low-lying complex comes into view, like a concentration camp. I drive for a mile past its outlying fences.

ADX Florence was designed from the ground up as a control unit for inmates who show no concern for human life, or have been deemed too dangerous, too high-profile or too great a national security risk for even a maximum-security prison.

Referred to as “a cleaner version of Hell,” it’s known for its harsh conditions. Inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and for the first three years they are not allowed any contact with any prisoner or visitor anywhere in the facility.

Security levels are unprecedented. With 12-foot high razor wire fences, laser beams, pressure pads, a multitude of motion detectors and cameras, and attack dogs patrolling the surrounding area, this 'supermax' makes as much of a statement to the outside world as it does to its prisoners. 

As I drive up, I pass a sign that reads, “All visiting traffic must enter and the leave the institution through the front entrance.” Right, as opposed to climbing over the razor-wire fence, while under fire and being chased by a pack of blood-thirsty rothweilers. Thank you!

Visiting room officers rule, and must be alerted to the arrival and departure of every living thing or inanimate object, even if it’s the air in your lungs. They treat me like they would a hardened inmate in a less secure prison.

Once inside the front lobby, I undergo a physical search, pass through several scan-ray machines, then have my attire closely inspected to make sure it complies with their strict dress code. Only then does the officer grant me final approval for my visit, roughly stamping my hand with ‘INMATE VISITOR.’ 

Two guards then escort me to the designated visiting room. There are 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors, controlling the 437 inmates in ADX. The facility does not have a mess hall. Food is hand-delivered to each cell by the guards. Everything is locked down. As we pass a row of sealed cell doors I don’t see anyone nor hear any sound, other than our footsteps. That’s because these are not cells but visiting rooms.

The guards unlock the door of my designated room and order me inside. Apart from a TV screen, microphone and speakers, the room is so entirely featureless that it defies description.

I’ve only been granted a ‘video visit,’ which means I will not actually be in the presence of the inmate. I’m told that any damage to the monitoring equipment or visiting room will be reported. The guards then inspect the room thoroughly before leaving me alone and locking the door behind me.

On the TV screen a high-definition picture of a room identical to mine appears. Seated in the centre, wearing a yellow jump suit and restrained in steel hand and leg cuffs, and a belly chain, is the person I’ve come to see: Prisoner 420, the convicted terrorist formerly known as Ibrahim Sadiq Odeh.

he Palestinian is short, with a slight build, gray clipped hair and a widows peak. His wide diamond-shaped face and simple eyes amplify the look of a rabbit caught in the headlights. Apart for a shaven upper lip and a beard, he doesn’t look like a terrorist.

“Welcome, my friend,” he says, smiling at the camera, while raising his arms as high as they will reach to greet me. “May Allah grant you the al-Firdaws al-A’la for bringing me a message from my dear wife Nadine Nasser.”

“It’s my great honour, Prisoner 420. I have travelled very far and waited a long time to deliver Nadine’s message to you in person. She asked me to tell you, ‘ana baħibbak’.”

“It’s always the same message,” he laughs. “Tell me my friend, how is Malindi?”

“One of the best coastal spots I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting,” I cheerfully reply.

He closes his eyes, straightens, then takes a deep breath. “Mmmm. I can still smell the spices and brackish water, even after fifteen years away, ten of them in solitary confinement, can you believe.”

“Ten years in the hole,” I gasp.

“They caught me feeding the birds and gave me an Incident Report. Except for prison guards, in the last 3,623 days I have not been allowed any contact with any other human being. I cannot even see you now, only hear your voice.”

“But I can see you.”

“How do I look? They don’t allow us mirrors.”

“Much less fearsome than I imagined.”

“You are too kind,” he whispers.

“What can you tell me about Johnny Oceans?”

He just stares inscrutably at the camera, with shackled hands on his lap, saying nothing. I wonder if he’s heard me. Then he rolls his head, leans back in his chair and laughs. “Oh, you mean the American? Mr Forgedaboudit,” he says, with a belly laugh. Soon he’s in hysterics, crying with laughter. A guard enters the room and quickly restrains him, but Prisoner 420 cannot stop laughing.

“What’s so damn funny?” I yell.

“It was difficult, I have to admit,” he sighs, sitting up, sniffing, and trying to regain his composure, “But Mash-a Allah, I finally found a way to get that Kafir off my back.” As the guard exits the room, the prisoner playfully shrugs. “He was assigned to watch me.”

“Who, Oceans? Assigned by whom?”

Who else?” he chuckles. “US intelligence.” The mask of innocence has been replaced by the demeanour of a misanthrope.

“Why the hell would they send a croupier to watch you?” I ask.

“Croupier... You actually believe that? Johnny Oceans was a Tier One asset.”

“He was…?”

“The fishing, the diving, the gambling - just a smokescreen for his true activities.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What were his true activities?”

“Shutting down al-Qaeda in East Africa. The rest of the world may have been blind to what Johnny was really up to, but we knew. It was at the end of 1993, in Mogadishu, just after Black Hawk Down, when we learned of his existence, only his code name at first - Marlin - until I made the connection.

“His last assignment was to keep an eye on me in Malindi. He knew I was supplying weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, that my fishing business was just a cover, but he had no idea I was planning to bomb the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar. Like I said, it was difficult, but in the end I managed to put the wily fisherman off my scent.”

“How did you manage that?”

“By making sure the intelligence services were aware in advance of a ‘secret’ arms deal,” he sniggers, making air quotes with his shackled hands, “I loaded 200 AK-47s a 30 RPGs on to my trawler, which I knew Marlin [Oceans] was tracking, then set sail from Malindi to rendezvous with a bigger ship in the middle of the ocean. A few miles out to sea, I jumped ship, boarded a dhow, then sailed back to Mombassa where I caught the last bus to Nairobi, arriving the following morning. I was sure Marlin would soon discover my deception, and worked quickly over the next two days making all the preparations, collecting the explosives, training the suicide bombers, going over the plan. When the bombs exploded I was miles away but, Mash-a Allah, Marlin was still at sea chasing my trawler across the Indian Ocean. It was the most shameful day in that Kafir’s career.” 

“Do you know what happened to him?“

“I’m sure, after August 7th, the humiliation was just too great. He had to disappear.”

“What? He committed suicide? Hari kari? Or was someone else behind his death?”

“Death?” laughs the prisoner. “Let me ask you something, my friend.” He leans closer. “What was it about this story that first tweaked your journalistic instincts?”

“Certain anomalies, things that others passed over. Investigative journalism is a bit like prospecting for gold. With the right eye you can see traces of a vein that others have overlooked. In this case, it was the refusal of Miami-Dade County to issue Johnny Oceans with a death certificate, even after seven years.”

“Did you ever find out why they refused?”

“No, I did not. I can only imagine they were in possession of evidence suggesting Oceans was still alive. But I can find no such evidence anywhere.”

“It was I who gave evidence to the court,” he smirks.

“Really? You? Wh-what exactly did you tell them?”

He's about to speak when the video feed abruptly cuts out. Then the stern voice of a prison officer comes booming over the audio: “This visit has been terminated, for violating Section 13 of the Visiting Procedures: improper conduct on the part of the visitor shall result in the visit being curtailed or terminated.

“What improper conduct?” I protest. But the feed's gone dead; there’s nothing but static on the TV screen. “Aw, c’mon, not now...I’ve only got one more question to ask the guy. PLEASE! You’ve got to give me one more goddamn minute...” No response.

Then, as if by the hand of a new operator, the TV flickers back to life. Prisoner 420 is now much closer to the camera. Under the ceiling lights of the visiting room his features look garish and shadows obscure his eyes. As if possessed, he moves compulsively from side to side, leaving tracers of his brown and yellow form across the screen.

“I need to know where he is," I plea, begging him to give me the final piece of the puzzle. “Is he still alive? You’ve got to tell me, where is Johnny Oceans?”

“Don’t you know,” he sneers, tilting his head back with a mockingly baleful grin, like a beast sidetracked from its kill by fervid scavengers, and for a moment I gaze into the face of Satan. “JOHNNY IS WITJU!”

Hew van Grit is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam

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  1. Look, son...Hew's not a bad guy....he just don't know when to quit. Did he ever write about the time Sonny Black and Sammy Gravano commandeered six Costa Rican topless waitresses from The Donut Lounge onto Sonny Red's 100' Hatteras at Bahia Mar?

    Well, Oceans was there that night, and it was 1988. You do the math.

  2. I might ask the same of you Mr Cummings. Can you shed any light on Johnny Oceans' whereabouts?