October 25, 2015

The Return of Dr. Jackal


“Ohhh, Brother Jim.”

            It took me a few minutes to place the voice coming over the answering machine, but shouldn’t have. A salutation like that could have only come from one man. It had just been a good many long years since I’d heard it, is all. A number of people from my past have been emerging from the shadows lately (as I discussed in last week’s column), but none, perhaps, had been quite this deep in the darkness.

            It was about one on a Saturday afternoon, Morgan and I were puttering about the apartment, and I had no interest in talking to anyone on the telephone. Still, we both stopped and stared at the answering machine as he spoke, then we looked to each other in some shock, then back to the machine. The message rolled on for several long minutes in his trademark evangelical delivery, and ended with a sincere plea that I call him back.

            I was curious to hear what he had to say, and more important wanted to know just why in the hell he’d decided to call me of all people after ten years of silence. I knew I had to talk to him, but before doing so I sent a quick note off to some mutual friends to see if they could give me any hint at all of what I might be getting myself into here.

            Before I heard anything back from them, the curiosity gnawing toward the center of my brain grew too great, and I picked up the phone and started dialing the number he’d left. Before the second ring he picked up and announced loudly, “Ohhh, this is a blessed day!”

            Okay, so maybe a little background on Dr. Jackal is necessary here. For reasons that will soon become clear, “Dr. Jackal” is not his real name. At the same time, though, nothing out-and-out sinister should be read into the name I’m using. It just kinda came to me as I was sitting here now and I thought it sounded cool so to hell with you.

            Although we may have spoken on the phone a couple of times prior to then, we didn’t meet in person until 1992, at the East Village apartment of the aforementioned mutual friends. He was a big, boisterous, charismatic guy with a round, friendly face, long hair, and some kind of goofy hat. He spoke with a Southern drawl tempered by years of living in Los Angeles. He was an artist and filmmaker, a proverbial larger than life character with an impressive roster of celebrity clients. That afternoon, in fact, he’d just come from a meeting with Michael Jackson. At the meeting, which took place in Jackson’s suite at The Plaza, Dr. Jackal said he’d been instructed to sit on the floor facing away from Jackson as they spoke, and had been warned to never, ever look him in the eye.

            Seeing Dr. Jackal in person at last and picturing him squatting on the floor at the feet of Michael Jackson made for a memorable introduction. Later he walked me back to the subway and, after talking almost non-stop for the previous two hours, paused as we strolled down St. Marks Place and said, “but that’s enough about me. I want to hear about the World of Jim.” Then he kept talking. That was fine by me, there wasn’t a whole helluva lot to report from the World of Jim anyway, and he was much more interesting.

            Long before that, back in the early Eighties, he’d adopted a comic Southern ultra-conservative street preacher persona, that he turned into a comedy routine which became the regular opening act for the smart and seminal Southern California punk band The Minutemen. In those days of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, most of the dumb hardcore kids who’d shown up to see the show didn’t quite get the joke.

            A year after meeting him in that East Village apartment, I brought him aboard the Welcomat in Philly to premiere a weekly comic strip he was developing for a project he was working on with Frank Zappa. The strip, which was beautiful, ran until we were all canned and the paper changed its name.

            After that we stayed in touch, and I wrote about him and his assorted shenanigans a few times for the New York Press. He was still in L.A., had gotten married and had a few kids, and was staying busy as the art director for a number of notable rock acts while developing a few film projects on the side.

            Then he seemed to vanish.

            After not hearing from him for a while I grew curious. His email address wasn’t working anymore and his phone had been disconnected. Figuring he was simply busy with all his assorted and lucrative projects, I went online to see if I could find him that way. That’s when all the news stories started popping up.

            Dr. Jackal, it seems, had been convicted on child molestation charges and sentenced to eight years in the federal pen. Hoo boy, that’s no good. On the one hand I couldn’t believe it, he just didn’t seem the type. On the other, though, well . . . he had been working with Michael Jackson, I guess. And the last time we’d spoken he’d told me a long and harrowing story of his efforts to get his kids into a good Catholic school near his house. The admissions board had done their background research, had looked at his artwork, his website, some of the links included on that website, and became convinced he was some kind of devil worshipper. The threatening phone calls and letters had started arriving from other parents with kids in the same school, and things seemed to be escalating dangerously. Still, for some reason, he seemed determined to get his kids into that school.

            That was the last I’d heard until seeing the news stories, and I wondered if there might be some connection. When he’d told me the story, he’d insisted that some of the more damning links on his site had been posted by someone else, which always leaves me wondering.

            When I called him back that Saturday afternoon some ten years since we’d last spoken, he began talking immediately and excitedly, and continued speaking for the next three and a half hours.

            He explained how he survived in four different federal pens by using a different name and thereby sidetracking any Google searches that might reveal the nature of his conviction. Had the charges been revealed, he would’ve been a dead man within hours. There were still plenty of terrifying tales of life on the inside, his relationships with assorted prison gangs, well-known convicts, and the miserable conditions of the prison system. And again and again he returned to the image of the SWAT teams and helicopters descending on his quiet neighborhood the day he was taken into custody.

            There was also the conspiracy that got him put away. After prosecutors couldn’t get a conviction for Michael Jackson, they went after the next one down the line. There was also the role played by some new Russian immigrants who’d fingered him in the first place as part of an extortion scheme, and who could overturn his conviction if two audiotaped interviews were ever made public. And then there was the nightmare of life on the outside as a registered sex offender. None of his old clients were willing to talk to him anymore, he still had a mortgage to cover and a family to support, but he was unable to find any work. He was essentially under house arrest, not even allowed to walk around the block, as that would take him past a public park.

            It was a sad, convoluted, but deeply compelling tale, and one (despite his hints) I’d never be able to tell for him on simple legal grounds.

            The disturbing thing was, he kept referring to all my “great success,” and it slowly became clear he thought I’d be able to open a few doors for him. Hell, though, I couldn’t even open any doors for myself.

            Through it all I began to notice something. It was something I’ve found to be true of damn near every ex-con I’ve dealt with. When it comes down to details, the source of the charges, or what exactly he told people on the inside about why he was there, Dr. Jackal grew a little fuzzy and cagey and evasive. The closest I could get was a vague reference to taking his family and a couple of neighbor kids to Disneyland, and a roundabout reference to some photographs he’d taken of a teenage girl.

            Instead of telling me what had happened, exactly, he explained the nature of what is considered kiddie porn in the legal system, and how it’s an unbeatable weapon wielded by ex-wives, disgruntled children, and prosecutors looking to make a name for themselves.

            So I’m still left wondering. But even after all he’d been through, and though there was a new wariness and desperation in his voice, atop it all he seemed to have changed very little. He was the same Dr. Jackal I’d always known, if a little more intense and obsessive.

            After I got off the phone with him I went back to my office to check my email. I was foggy-headed and numb. As I’d been listening to Dr. Jackal. I’d also received several notes from the aforementioned mutual friends, all of them warning me to stay far, far away from him. It was a nest of snakes, they said, and no one could do anything to help him. Best to just run the other way, and fast.

            Too late, I guess.


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