A Prison Writer Uses His Sentence Wisely

Times Staff Writer

Dannie Martin decided to be a writer the day his cell mate at the McNeill Island Federal Prison told him about the Elephant Keeper Caper.

The cell mate had done time with a man, a bunco artist of some repute, who followed carnivals through the small towns of Eastern Washington and posed as an elephant keeper.

When the carnival opened in a new town he donned a pair of overalls, dabbed the cuffs in elephant dung and, in the late afternoon, visited the bank. He then handed the manager a sackful of money and asked him to keep the bank open a few minutes later each day so he would have time to deposit the receipts.

The Manager Obliges

For a few days the manager waited, vault open and alarms off, and banked the money brought by the con man. And then one day the bogus elephant keeper pulled out of the bag, not a handful of bills, but a machine gun.

Soon local newspapers began reporting the sting, calling it the Elephant Keeper Caper, so the con man devised another, less successful con. As a result, he ended up in prison where his story soon became a favorite among convicts.

"I thought it was interesting so I started writing it down and eventually expanded it into a novel," said Martin, now serving a bank robbery sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc. "I had read so many dull things, and I kept saying to myself: 'With all the interesting material I'm around every day, I should be able to write better than that.' "

Martin never sold the novel, but he continued writing and now is the unofficial storyteller laureate of the prison system, a collector of traditional prison yarns and colorful bunko schemes. For decades, Martin, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, had collected the stories and retold them to other convicts during chow or while walking the yard marking time.

Prison Yard Perspective

Then he included a few in his unpublished novel and a few more in a book he currently is writing. And during the last year he has published a number of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, stories told from the perspective of the prison yard. He has written about old Bob the bunco man, whose most imaginative scheme involved poison pickles, carrier pigeons and diamonds; a convict who used his tuba to woo a female prisoner, and why prisoners disapproved of the escapee who commandeered a helicopter, swooped down on the federal prison near Pleasanton and flew off with his girlfriend.

Martin also has written a few muckraking stories that have embarrassed the federal prison system. He criticized the authorities at Lompoc for poisoning the squirrel population near the prison; he wrote about a convict whose complaints about working conditions resulted in a court decision protecting the job rights of federal prisoners, and he depicted prison as a breeding ground for AIDS and criticized federal authorities for not taking sufficient preventive measures.

Martin denies that he is attempting to glorify criminals and the criminal world. He is not, he said, trying to rationalize their actions or justify their crimes.

"I'm just trying break through that stereotypical image most people have of convicts," he said. "That image just perpetuates the thought that we aren't human. I'm hoping through my writing to give that stereotype a human voice. Maybe one of the ways I can do it is by showing we have a sense of humor too.

"But I don't want you to get the idea that I'm doing this strictly for altruistic reasons. I'm writing to make money, and I want to make a career out of it. And if I can write things that are valuable to me and valuable to society as well, then that's perfect."

Martin, 47, a small, stocky man who parts his overgrown gray hair down the middle, has the hard lines and unhurried manner of a man who has spent 17 of the last 25 years in prison. He talks slowly and moves across the visiting room in a gait so leisurely it looks like he is walking under water. You may be going somewhere, but he isn't. At least not until 1991, when he is scheduled for parole.

He has little formal education, but is comfortable quoting Schopenhauer and discussing the works of Dostoevski and Plato. Martin says he regrets all the years he has spent in prison, but credits the isolation for helping him develop as a writer.

Many people on the outside have freedom but no time; a prisoner has time but no freedom. And Martin has used that time to read, think and lead what Plato called "the examined life."

His crimes have ranged from burglary to drug smuggling to bank robbery and most, he said, were a result of his heroin habit. When he leaves prison, he hopes to avoid drugs and make a living as a writer, he said. But Martin knows, with his track record, he can not make any guarantees.

"If I can support myself as a writer that'll be great. But if I can't. . . . " He pauses, lights a cigarette and shrugs. "Well . . . if I had to fall back on something, I'd have to fall back on what I did before. That's what I know best."

When Old Bob the Bunco Man was at Lompoc he used to regale Martin with his many con stories. One of the most outrageous, Martin said, involved the unlikely alliance of pickles, diamonds and carrier pigeons.

Old Bob wrote a supermarket executive that he would place poison in all his pickles if he did not comply with a few demands. He was instructed to purchase a quantity of diamonds and wait for the next letter.

"Old Bob had obtained a bunch of carrier pigeons. He wanted to get them to the market and have the guy attach the diamonds to the bird's legs and let 'em fly. The birds would return to their home cage and Old Bob would be in good shape. But the plan got derailed . . . and the FBI ended up picking up Old Bob because he'd tried something similar before and they'd recognized the MO."

The biggest response Martin has received followed a newspaper story he wrote about a prison encounter with a squirrel. Every day at noon a group of prisoners used to throw croutons and peanuts to the squirrels who would beg for food between the double prison fences. If the prisoners, who usually threw into the teeth of a stiff ocean breeze, could not reach the squirrels, the gulls swooped down and gobbled up the food.

'More Nerve Than Dillinger'

All the squirrels were too timid to venture beyond the fences. Except one. He brazenly marched out, fought with the gulls for the food and then approached the prisoners for more. In the macho world of prisons, where fear is exploited and daring celebrated, the squirrel was respected. He had "more nerve than John Dillinger," Martin wrote.

Martin soon began seeking the squirrel out, feeding him by hand peanut butter balls and other treats he purloined from the chow hall. Soon the squirrel would not approach any convict but Martin, he said, and "a friendship developed."

"When I got thrown in the hole (isolation) for a few weeks, I worried about him," Martin said. "I'd lay on my bunk and wonder if anybody else was feeding him, if he was getting enough to eat."

"The squirrel was a friend to me," he said, leaning over the table in the visiting room, his voice softening. "He gave me something to look forward to."

After months of collecting food at lunch and then rushing out to feed the squirrel, Martin one day spotted near the fences a row of boxes with holes cut in the sides. The prison administration had decided to poison the squirrels.

"I harbored a dim hope that Mr. Squirrel would be too smart to go for this trick," Martin wrote. "In the few days that followed I fed him much more than he could eat or carry, and I continually lectured him on the evil that lurked nearby. . . . When Mr. Squirrel approached me and pawed listlessly at my peanut butter while looking at me out of reddened and pain-filled eyes, I knew he had been in the box. I knew I would never see him or feed him or play with him again. A most harrowing thought was that he may have wondered if I did it to him.

Deluge of Irate Letters

"I walked away knowing that for years to come I would have to pass each day by the place where I fed him, and the justice of our friendship would surely be lost in the bitterness of remembrance. . . ."

After the article ran, the prison was deluged with irate letters from all over the world, including Australia and Switzerland, Lompoc warden Robert Christensen said. But the squirrels, Christensen said, had been chewing up the road and electronic surveillance equipment, and prison workers had attempted to trap them and move them out of the area. When that was unsuccessful they decided to use poison, he said, because "repaving the road and replacing the wire is very expensive."

Martin writes about images and issues only a convict would be aware of. He has described how prisoners always walk around the yard counterclockwise, "as if to deny time itself, as represented by the clock." He warned of the danger when an AIDS victim shares an "outfit" (hypodermic needle) and shoots "crank" (methamphetamine) with dozens of men in a cell block. And, while many outside the walls romanticized the November helicopter escape from the federal prison at Pleasanton, Martin wrote that such flamboyance was unnecessary because there are no gun towers at the prison.

As a result of the helicopter escape, Lompoc installed 14 60-foot telephone poles on the yard and running track and connected quarter-inch steel wire from the poles to concrete anchors buried in the ground. The effect, Martin said, is that of a top on a cage.

"A lot of us appreciate our view of the sky . . . ," Martin wrote after the escape. "Above the clouds, at breathtaking heights, are the vapor trails left by the planes and rockets at Vandenberg Air Force Base next door. A gull catching an updraft of free air is an exhilarating sight to a trapped, earthbound convict. Our little patch of sky above the yard is the only place our dreams can really take wing.

"If the great escape at Pleasanton has accomplished little else, it is certainly going to cramp the scope of our dreams."

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