Carlo Zepeda

I’m back and happy to be writing for this wonderful newspaper again. This story is a true story. Nothing in it is fictional or made up. Some of the names are real and others have been made up to protect the privacy and anonymity of the people involved. This is a story with deep personal value and meaning. I chose to write it not as a personal retaliation. No. I have decided to write about my personal experience because I believe that there might be others who might have experienced what I have experienced and there might be others who could benefit from its recounting and to help me as well as the reader understand the serious repercussions of a naïve and seemingly harmless mistake. It’s also a hell of a story.

I decided to write my story to put ugly rumors and lies to rest; to offer the true and real facts about my sudden disappearance from the neighborhood, from school and work. I want to tell the world that if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. I want people to know that judging others without knowledge can be devastating as well as inhumane—with this article and the others that will follow, I want to say that humanity involves offering unconditional support to those enduring hardship and that friendships should never be abandoned for fear of association with shame.

Walter Winchell once said, “A real friend is someone who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” This is very true. I know it and I have lived it. When I most needed my friends some left me and some ignored my desperate call. But others stood by me and kept encouraging me, motivating me and giving me hope to survive the awful storm.
And while the hurt diminishes when I write down my feelings and my thoughts about this experience I must admit that some of the memories are difficult to return to. I decided to write about my legal case and its repercussions because it shows how one simple mistake by one person can have a far-reaching impact on the lives of so many people.
I was not the only person to suffer the incarceration, the imprisonment, the loneliness, the heartache, the devastation of hope and faith; there are a number of people who have been greatly affected by this awful mess and to them I say I’m sorry for the heartbreak, thank you for your love and support and I love you with all that I am. The effects of this horrible episode in the script of my life are too many to reduce to one simple piece, too strong and mighty to try to paint with one brush stroke. And while this is my personal story, I am sure it is not unique: what may be singular is that I have the means, literally, to tell it.

On July 28, 2009 a federal judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, in Springfield, declared that I should serve a sentence of six months in a minimum security facility, complete six months in a halfway house, pay restitution and complete 3 years probation for defaulting on my student loans, for giving false statements to authorities, and for misusing a social security number that had been given to me, but was considered a false document by the government.

In a matter of a few minutes my whole world collapsed. It crumbled under my feet. Even after I offered a very personal and highly emotional speech to the judge, he still declared that the most appropriate act of repayment to our society would be for me to sit in a federal jail wasting precious time and spending tax payers’ money to keep me locked up. Even after heartfelt and personal letters from many friends and family; the judge wanted me put away. The jail stint came as a great shock for me and for my adoring partner Dan. The District Attorney had promised us that she was not pushing for jail time, that she just wanted restitution and probation. Right there, at that instant when the judge sentenced me to jail I felt as if someone had swiftly punched me in the stomach. I thought I was going to pass out. I felt my body shake from top to bottom, I felt cold all over and for a few moments even my vision was blurred. All my dreams and plans for the future exploded like fireworks, except this was no Fourth of July. Not a time for celebration. I had never felt defeated before and the sense of godly abandonment was greater than when as a young child growing up in a third world country I used to ask god to bring my mom home. I was overcome with sadness, disappointment and shock.

My journey doesn’t start on the 28th of July; it begins earlier, five years earlier, in the late summer of 2004 when Shane, an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was a graduate student, decided to go to the financial aid office and give statements about me and my “lifestyle.” This young man was angry with me because I had decided to stop dating him as we had done, casually, for a couple of months. Nothing more than casual dating—the let’s go see a movie and dinner after kind of dating. I had met his parents and stayed at their house a handful of times. But no promises, no ring or tattoo, nothing at all.

Before all this drama began to unfold I had asked a judge for a restraining order requiring Shane to stay away from me and never to contact me at home and work. This was because a few days earlier Shane had physically attacked me: he had punched me a couple of times, tried to stab me with a knife (a steak knife of all the criminal tools he could use—so, so gay), verbally abused me in my dorm room while I was packing to move from graduate housing to an apartment. He had hacked my computer. He had figured out my email password for both work and personal accounts. For a couple of weeks he had been on a wild email rampage around campus, pretending to be me, and spreading lies about me and starting false and ridiculous rumors. He was very upset with me since I had decided to move on and start seeing another person.

With the restraining order in place, Shane had no choice but to stay away from me. He was angry. He was heartbroken and he was going to seek revenge. And he did.

The untrue information Shane provided the financial aid office sent a red flag throughout the financial aid system at school and an investigation began. Without my knowledge, this young man destroyed my image, tarnished my reputation, violated my dignity and broke my spirit. And I was moving on with no understanding of what my world was to become.

Months after the steak knife incident, in 2005, officers from the education department and the Social Security Administration showed up at my front door unannounced and there began a long process of investigation and much suffering on my part. This was the first time I heard about the allegations: as these two men questioned me they used intimidation tactics, including the threat of arrest if I didn’t confess right there and then. When the two officers left the house I felt as if I was going to die—I seriously thought I was going to have a heart attack, but it was just a panic attack. A huge one. Thank goodness for Tucker, my beautiful yellow Labrador whose mere presence helped to calm me and to ease the pain.

I got an attorney; we took an appointment; we went to the Federal Building which housed the Department of Education and other federal agencies. We met with the two aforementioned officers and an agent from the postal service. They told us an investigation had been launched. My attorney told them that I was planning to move to Baltimore to pursue my graduate degree and asked what was going to happen. The officers told us that the process of investigation was already under way and that I would be notified of developments and I needed to cooperate, which I had every intention of doing. We left the office reassured, and a few months later, I relocated to Baltimore. And then nothing.

Until July 2008 when I received a certified notice in the mail to go and pick up a registered letter from the Justice Department. When I opened the letter bad news spilled out of its page, such bad news that I couldn’t even finish reading it. I thought my life was over. I deeply believed my life was over and done with.

How can this happen to me? I mumbled to myself. What did I do to deserve this? I repeated over and over and under the watchful eye of my loyal companion Tucker. What am I going to do? What should I do? I kept asking myself. Where should I go? Thailand? No wait! The mountains of Mexico? No that’s an easy place for them to find me. Maybe Botswana, but I don’t even know where in Africa, Botswana is. I desperately searched for a country that would take me. Like a pathetic criminal. Maybe New Delhi? I could pass for an Indian, I thought. But can I be gay in India? No I thought, this is not a good choice. Perhaps somewhere in South America? I speak Spanish and I can still be gay in Latin America, at least in some obscure places.

The letter was an indictment stating that I had defaulted on my federal student aid, had given false statements, had committed wire fraud and misused my social security number.

In an instant and desperate I decided to run down the street and go see an attorney whose offices where located just a block and a half away. Waiting to meet with him seemed like an eternity, even though I had only been there for fifteen minutes. The young woman at the front desk asked me what kind of case I had, but I couldn’t answer since I didn’t know what kind of case I had. I knew I didn’t have to see a divorce attorney or one that dealt with drugs, weapons or DIU convictions. I waited around breathing heavily and sweating profusely. The receptionist could see that I was in big trouble; she offered me water and I accepted her offer. One glass of tepid water wasn’t enough; I needed a bucket to calm my nerves and help me with my dry mouth.

“Attorney Blah, Blah, Blah will see you now,” the cute and friendly receptionist announced. A young thirty-something attorney walked in who took me up to the second floor and introduced me to an older version of himself. Twenty some minutes later, the older lawyer told me that he couldn’t help me out because he was not licensed to practice in Massachusetts but that he could “hook me up” with an attorney there. I walked out of their office already defeated, still desperate and very thirsty.

I knew that my legal battle was going to be challenging, long, and expensive as well as emotionally draining. I worried that my partner Dan was going to dump me, that my family was going to disown me and that my friends were going to abandon me. Many negative thoughts raced through my confused mind. I was desperate and scared!

Somewhere during this horrible day I also lost my wallet. I didn’t know what I had done with it or where I had left it. Finally, when the day was over and Dan had arrived home from work, I explained to him what was going on and asked him to read the documents I had received in the mail. Dan’s reaction to all of the madness was simply perfect. He never ever lost his cools. His devotion and love for me was evident and pure. He was confident and strong.

“We will make it through this,” Dan assured me. “We will find a solution to this issue. We will do whatever it takes to resolve this problem.”

“I feel so ashamed and embarrassed. Dirty and violated,” I told him.

My mind, my heart, my lungs, my legs, my entire body felt the painful as I desperately tried to make sense of the insane battle we were about to fight. I felt I was being forced into this war and not only was not a choice and defeat was not an option: I had to defend my honor, my dignity, my reputation and my sense of societal worth and above all, the truth, for I am not, was not, and would not be a criminal. I knew in my gut that this battle was going to be long, arduous, and devastating, both for me and all those that care about me. The first day of combat was long and painful. Humid and hot too. A few days after the explosive news arrived dressed up in a manila envelope, my life and those of Dan and Tucker were never the same.

I called the Baltimore Police Department to report my missing wallet; I went to the social security office to report my lost card and receive a new one. To my surprise, a couple of days later a police officer came to our house to deliver the lost wallet. Apparently during my time in the attorney’s office down the street, I had left it in the waiting room and the cute young receptionist turned in to the police. What a relief that was.

On the advice of the attorney who could not take my case because he wasn’t licensed to practice in Massachusetts, I called a couple of lawyers in Springfield to see if they would be interested in taking my case and how much it would cost me and Dan to have their representation. I had never been represented by an attorney before, and whatever information these lawyers were giving me sounded all the same and more expensive by each minute I stayed on the phone with them.

“I’m not familiar with the laws regarding defaulted student loans and misuse of a social security card, but I’m sure I can find proper information from one of my colleagues,” one of the lawyers explained to me. “I’ll ask around and call you back,” he told me.

“Sure, call me back please.” I was sure this guy had no idea what to do with my case. Next!

“I am very surprised to hear about this case and how do defaulted student loans become a crime?” an older gentleman who was referred by the Maryland law firm asked me. “If he doesn’t know, how am I supposed to know,” I wondered. I made notes. “This guy is definitively a no.” I hit a dead end.

“Please give me your name and your telephone number again and I will call you back when I have all of the information. It might take me a few minutes, but I will try to call the District Attorney’s Office and get back to you,” a different lawyer with a confident voice promised me. As soon as I finished talking with him I walked over to the computer and began to research his professional background.

“Wow! Massachusetts Best Lawyers and Top 100 Lawyers.” Impressive I thought. But does that mean anything? Is he good enough to handle my case? I felt completely overwhelmed and lonely.

After the first day of battle I woke up committed to continuing doing what I had been doing everyday of my life before this case. I watered the yard, went to work, fed and walked the dog like any other day. But I knew that something was eating me up inside; something felt terribly wrong. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my life.

By the second day of the legal battle Dan and I had decided to hire the last attorney, the one who was voted Massachusetts Best Lawyer. He sounded confident, we thought he knew his craft and he returned our calls and emails immediately.

Oh what a bumpy ride! Looking back at the entire situation, I wonder whether we should have never hired an attorney, since with or without legal representation I ended up in the big house, the slammer, whatever you want to call it. And what a waste of money too. Yes, I went to jail and did time–I’m not proud of it, but I wasn’t given any other choice.
After we hired this attorney to take care of my legal case, the days went uninterrupted; not that I was feeling great, emotionally or physically. I remember so well how very lonely I felt, how I just felt like crying all the time. Even when friends were showering me with their love and attention. Christmas was tough for me.

“Why is this happening to me?” I questioned myself all of the time. I would go to the chapel at Loyola and quietly sit there and ask god, “Why have you abandoned me? If things happen for a reason, what reasons are these and I want to know now.” I pleaded to god by myself in the chapel. I sat in the chapel many times confronting god about my future, my present and certainly about my past. Hadn’t I suffered enough already?

You see, I thought I had suffered plenty during my youth. My childhood was not the grandest. I was born and raised in the tiny country of El Salvador. A small country in the Central America region, where people have been through so much that it hurts to pray and ask for peace and for love. It hurts so much that sometimes hope is difficult to conceptualize. This country is home to hard-working people. This is the same country that fought a brutal and bloody civil war from the early 1970’s until 1992 when the Peace Accords where signed in Chapultepec, Mexico. The same civil war the United States supported; the Salvadorian military, when more than 76,000 innocent people lost their lives and many towns were forever wiped off the landscape of this beautiful nation.

I grew up in the tiny village of Planes de las Delicias, located in the highlands of the mid-western mountains. I grew up very, very poor; far beyond what we call in the United States is identified as the poverty line. Way beyond. I grew up surrounded by a lot of people who offered me love and strict discipline. My mother left my father when I was 18 months old and while pregnant with my younger sister. My father was your stereotypical Latino macho man, with the characteristics and qualities regularly portrayed standard for a Latino man. He physically and sexually abused my mother for over 15 years and today her scars are physical evidence of that tumultuous time. The emotional and spiritual abuse she endured at the hands of this man cannot be measured. But she learned to forgive him when he no longer could put a hand on her.

As a young boy I learned to navigate the world on my own. Pretending that I was strong and mighty when at each step the world fell to pieces under my feet. I imagined a world where I didn’t have to fight to survive. I dreamt of a world where children could be children without having to give up their childhood for weapons larger than their young and undeveloped bodies. My world was filled with lot of sorrow, sadness and disappointment. But love was ever present at home.

“Please god bring my mother home,” I would say, “tell her how much I love her and how much I miss her. Tell her to look up to the moon and follow the moon home. Please god, tell my mother that I need her and I need her love.” These were some of the requests I whispered to god as a young boy. God never sent my mom home, not until I was 18 years of old.

My mother had left me and my younger sister with our grandparents when we were very little. I was eight. My mom went to work as a maid in the capital city and when she had saved enough money to make the journey to the North, she did.

I didn’t see my mother again for a long time. I arrived in Los Angeles in 1982 scarred from the tumult of a poor childhood and from a vicious divorce and a bloody civil war. And when I arrived in this country I felt free. The most memorable experience of that night was hearing people speak English—everything sounded foreign, strange and also difficult to understand. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…tweet, tweet…” is all I heard. Funny sounds I thought. That night I made a contract with myself; I decided I was going to learn English faster than anyone else who had come to live in this country before me. I was determined, confident of my abilities and yet, terribly scared of the years ahead.

At 45, I have accomplished an enormous amount, had some great experiences, some good ones and some bad ones, and some in-between. I have traveled the world, witnessed the horrors of war and the wonderful aspects of working for peace and achieving it. I have met people from all walks of life, rich and poor. I have had a few lovers; some are here and some I simply let go. Whatever the situations, experiences, mistakes, accidents or mishaps, my life is not easy to summarize in one short piece. I will continue to write because I’m certain that I have more to say which may interest or benefit others: not only about me, my family and friends, but about my experience in jail, the inmates, the halfway house, the tough times I am still going through, as well as my beginnings and the journey along the way. You might not care at all; nevertheless, there are many stories I have to share.


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