The Sheriff of St. Thomas (Part 2)

Although this story contains things from the world in which we live, it should be read as a work of fiction. All characters are fictional and not based on any actual living person. The events that take place in this story are entirely the product of my imagination.

He’d been given a mandate, essentially. Williams had told him to run the program however he saw fit, and he didn’t need to be told twice. As such, Williams had delegated a ton of responsibility and discretion to him, but that’s the way Dalton liked things; it was how he’d been treated as a military prosecutor, like a “fire and forget weapon.”

A fire-and-forget weapon is one where the shooter only has to acquire the target, fix his aim, and pull the trigger for the projectile to hit the target. In personnel terms, it means a supervisor can give someone a mission and that’s the end of the conversation, the supervisor knowing that particular person will accomplish the mission without constant micromanagement and supervision.

Once, when Dalton checked in to a new duty station in the Marine Corps to serve as the area’s chief prosecutor, his new boss — someone he had already known for years and before whom Dalton had practiced when the new boss was a trial judge — had walked into Dalton’s office and said, “I know I don’t need to worry about you. You aren’t going to see much of me. You’re a fire and forget weapon and I’m going to stay out of your way. Go and do good things.” It was the way Dalton liked things, being treated like an adult.

The other thing Williams had given him was freedom; freedom to be unhooked from the chains of the office. Freedom from the 24-hour electronic leash a lot of DOJ offices put on their people so the big machine could find them anywhere around the clock — at church, at kids’ ballgames, late after hours during a dinner with your wife, even when you were on vacation — the machine didn’t care. It was insidious. The machine functioned for one purpose — to legitimize itself and continue its existence. It was a statistics-eating shark, and if you let it, it would eat you and everything important to you, eventually. One had to find a way to function in the machine without getting sucked into the destructive vortex; to operate out on the fringes where you could escape when needed and also have the flexibility that a happy, normal life required.

Dalton had sworn when he left his previous office he would never go to another one that kept him on the leash. No matter how important everyone thought the work was, it was never worth that kind of life. He had done it before and would never do it again. Not for any sum of money or false notoriety. Not to perpetuate any false mythology.

Although the vast majority of the investigators and agents he had worked with in the U.S. Virgin Islands were professional, there were a few agents he would need to deal with; people were going to have to adjust to him, not the other way around like it had been on occasion at other places in the past. In some backwater offices like one he had worked in, things didn’t operate like what was supposed to be the top justice organization in the world. These places were little more than glorified state district attorney’s offices where the good old boy system still reigned and prosecutors acted less like professional government attorneys than cowboys who always shot from the hip first and then played catch up if a judge or defense attorney actually pulled their punk card and called them on it. The hunger for numbers drove this way of doing business. And it was sickening really.

Dalton had experienced the good old boy scheme where prosecutors senior to him in the office and career agents who had both settled into the relative comfort of the way things were done in the hinterlands would engage in childish, high school type behavior in order to preserve their positions and careers without having to work too hard. For instance, if an agent felt Dalton was pushing him too hard to perfect a federal case, the agent would complain to Dalton’s boss behind Dalton’s back. But Dalton’s boss, instead of telling the agent to get the hell out of his office and do what Dalton said, would instead approach Dalton with wringing hands and ask Dalton to accommodate the agent; this was the exact opposite of the way the prosecution business was supposed to be done, and it was a cowardly cop out.

That had been Dalton’s initial lesson on the way things could be done, even in the hallowed halls of the DOJ. But he had been careful not to paint the entire organization with a negative brush just because of the unprofessional way some people in a single office had operated. He had extricated himself from that first, negative situation, and his hopes had been realized; bigger offices in metropolitan areas didn’t work the way his old office had; those types of people were weeded out very quickly.

In the VI, Williams allowed and trusted Dalton to put his experience into practice. His primary tactic was to slowly and methodically build cases until a target (the subject of an investigation) was completely over a barrel, then put the target in a position where he had only one choice: cooperate and help take down bigger criminals. There wasn’t any rush, unless of course you were in one of those small, hinterland offices where numbers instead of real justice ruled. In those places there just wasn’t a lot of serious, felony criminal activity, and prosecutors had to scrap for cases, often pressuring state prosecutors into handing over cases or outright taking them away, all so the local federal office could prove to Main Justice[1] they were actually working. This was not an issue in Dalton’s new district; they had to kick lots of good cases back to the locals, and this afforded Dalton the nice opportunity of being very selective in what types of cases to work.

So Dalton was very efficient and surgical with the time he spent working on cases. His vast experience, knowledge and street smarts meant he could put things together in short order. Unlike the hand-wringing and micromanaging and prodding of investigators he had been expected to do in previous assignments, he had set the tone very quickly in the islands.

He told his agents he existed for two reasons: (1) to give them the investigative tools they needed to do their jobs that required his involvement; drafting grand jury subpoenas, writing up affidavits in support of search warrants, drafting the warrants themselves ready for a judge or magistrate’s signature, and strategic phone calls and visits when pressure was needed in certain areas to get folks moving; and (2) taking the case to a grand jury, securing the indictment, and taking it to court. That was it. He wasn’t their boss, or their adviser, or their investigator. They worked the cases and when the cases were ready, then and only then did they bring the cases to him. This was the way every professional office he had ever worked in operated, either during his military career or his DOJ career. Any office that didn’t was a place to be avoided at all costs.

One collateral effect of things operating the way he had implemented them was he was freed up to pursue what he wanted to do on his own time. That wasn’t to say he had admonished his agents not to contact him after hours. But it better be something urgent, like rolling up a bad guy who needed to be taken off the streets. Sometimes that was necessary, like when a suspect had committed a violent crime and was a danger to the community. But in most cases, everything could wait. Other than that though, his time was his time, and he took advantage of it whenever he could.

On this October morning, he was doing just that at Magens Bay. He sat at his usual place, the corner stool at the beach bar, working his way through a western omelet, toast and coffee as he read the local paper and scanned the international news on his IPad. College Gameday played on the TVs that hung over the bar, and Kirk Herbstreit was pontificating about the latest top-ranked team. Dalton was a former NCAA Divison 1 player himself, but that was ancient history now, and after leaving the game behind he had always found it difficult to be a fan. He didn’t really know why, but he just didn’t care that much.

There was a scene in the movie Fever Pitch that Dalton thought summed up his attitude toward college football, indeed, football at any level. The main character, played by Jimmy Fallon, is an obsessed Boston Red Sox fan, and after the Sox lose game three of the 2004 AL Championship Series to the Yankees falling down 3–0, Fallon and his buddies are shocked when they notice Red Sox players Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon, and Jason Varitek in the same pub as them, having a good meal and laughing together. “How can they sit there laughing?” bemoans one of Fallon’s buddies. “They just went down three games to the Yankees and are about to be eliminated!” Fallon then has a sort of epiphany. “They understand something that we don’t. Their whole life isn’t out on that field. It’s their job. It’s not an obsession.”

Dalton had been a scholarship athlete in college, and like the pros in Fever Pitch, football had been a job to him; it was a means to and end. It paid for his degree, which opened a path to law school. So when he was finished with football, he was finished with it. He turned the page. And as he got older, he viewed otherwise normal people’s absolute obsession over a game played by kids the ages of 17–22 sort of disturbing. But he still enjoyed the Herbstreit-Corso schtick on Saturday mornings.

At Magens Bay, he had befriended the owner and every bartender that worked in the place — a collection of American expats marking time on St. Thomas — and this morning Jay Miller was tending.

Jay was about 24, a graduate of Ole Miss, and one of those young, pre-30 somethings who hadn’t quite figured out yet what he wanted to do with his life. It was an issue with which Dalton was well-acquainted, having struggled himself with the question after graduation and even during his law school years, before finding a home as an officer and lawyer in the military.

Over time, Dalton had concluded young Miller came from a relatively wealthy establishment-family from Oxford, but he had soured on the situation back home, wanting none of it. Jay reminded Dalton of the Dustin Hoffman character in “The Graduate,” who has no sense of direction after graduating from college and spends his days lounging listlessly around his parents’ pool. He had come down to the islands on a post-graduation trip that had been a gift from mom and dad, then decided to not get back on the plane home. His parents were alarmed at first, but when he made it clear to them he was just planning to take a “sabbatical” for a while, they adjusted to a sort of resigned sympathy.

That was now over two years ago, and Jay was still hanging out in the islands. Dalton wondered how he made ends meet and what he did with his time outside work. Jay lived in a cramped apartment in the hills above the bay, and also made extra money working on the innumerable sea vessels that came into Long Bay on a daily basis. He was a good kid, but he had a sour outlook on the world. Dalton enjoyed talking about the issues with young Miller and felt like he could mentor him. Part of that process involved providing Miller with some much-needed perspective. “Dude, I can’t go back to Oxford. Every time I’m there I feel like I’m suffocating.” “Well, I know the feeling. It’s how I felt after I got out of law school after spending seven years in the same little college town. But you don’t really want to stay down here forever do you?” Dalton had asked, realizing as soon as the words left his lips the answer might be “Yes.”

Part of the understanding Dalton had with Miller and the other help at Magens Bay was when he went there anytime after five (or any time at all on weekends) they would ensure a steady supply of Captain and Cokes sat in front of him. He got a break on the price and they got very healthy tips. Although Magens Bay was officially considered a state park, the restaurant and beach bar were privately owned by a guy named Mark Toal. Toal, like the young guys who worked for him, was an expat from CONUS (the continental U.S.).

A Texan like Dalton, Toal had first come to the islands in his 30s. His story was similar to Dalton’s boss Williams’, in that Toal too had been the victim of a failed marriage and had come to St. Thomas to escape its nasty aftermath. Toal, about the same height and size as Dalton (6'2, 210) and with a similar athletic background (Toal had played football at Texas A&M), in some ways resembled an older version of young Jay Miller. But Toal had long ago made it past the younger Miller’s period of ennui, and he had put down firm roots in the islands. Toal was in many ways the real-life epitome of someone out of a Jimmy Buffett song, and after getting to know him and having a common background and set of experiences growing up in Texas, Dalton viewed him with a mix of admiration and suspicion; Toal was open about most things, but would suddenly get circumspect on others.

Toal’s family were powerbrokers out in West Texas, where his father owned a massive ranch along with some energy interests that had been in the family for generations, and his father expected him to take over. The only problem with this plan was Toal had no intention of complying with it. His ex-wife’s family came from the same side of the tracks, and although they had been high school sweethearts, once they got married it all changed, for the worse. It was as if Toal’s and his wife’s parents had teamed up on him — recruiting his wife in the process — and pulled a power play. They all expected Toal to play small-town big shot, running his father’s business by day, making country club appearances weekly, serving on the requisite community boards and associations — keeping up with all the proverbial Jonses — and Toal very quickly came to resent it. He made a few attempts to play the role everyone expected him to play, but his heart just wasn’t in it, and before too long his heart wasn’t in the marriage anymore either. When he made his move, he made it decisively. He gave no warnings. He filed for divorce citing the most malleable of claims, “irreconcilable differences.”

This move, of course, went off like a bomb in both families and around the county. His father and law, Roy Motley — the eldest scion of the Motley oil and gas family who still wore a caricature cowboy hat all the time — actually confronted Toal as if he were going to punch him, jabbing his long thick finger into Toal’s chest a few times, before Toal said, “If you touch me one more time I’m going to rip that finger off and shove it up your ass.” Roy was a good three inches taller than Toal at 6'5" and weighed in at about 240. Even still, his eyes flashed for a second at the challenge, and then he lunged at Toal with both hands seeking to wrap them around Toal’s neck. But over two decades of being pressured to conform had slowly built up inside of Toal, and when he saw Roy move toward him, it all came bursting out, ruthlessly. Toal reacted with lighting quickness and delivered an almost-flat-footed, sharp, hard right jab directly onto big Roy’s ample nose. Head popped back, Roy stopped dead in his tracks, completely stunned. Toal wasted no time, loaded up, and fired a massive haymaker that this time landed on Roy’s lower left jaw, spinning him around and away from Toal where he landed violently on the pavement in a sickening face-plant, his ridiculous cowboy hat flying off to the side. Big Roy was out, arms and legs all splayed out in different directions.

At first, Toal and the bystanders thought he had killed his father -in-law. But old Roy slowly came to, started twitching his arms and legs and began mumbling. He finally rolled over onto his back wearing a look of shock and fear. He was bleeding profusely from the mouth. He tried to say something to Toal, but his mouth wasn’t working; the jaw was broken. Once this realization hit him, big Roy started wailing incoherently. The sound was shrill and scary, but Toal could decipher the content from the look on Roy’s face: “I’m going to destroy you!”

People were now coming to big Roy’s aid and looking at Toal with sinister glares. “You bastard! I’m calling the police!” one of Roy’s buddies yelled. Toal shook off the trance he seemed to be in, took measure of how quickly his situation was deteriorating, turned, and walked away. Then he he started jogging. Then he started running. Then he began sprinting. He went by his house, grabbed some clothes and gear, packed a few bags and got into his truck, flipped a mental coin in his head, and drove east. In a blur of emotion, he left Fletcher, Texas, that night for good, never to return.

For the first week of his escape, he figured there was a warrant out for his arrest and he lived that way, staying in cheap motels that accepted cash, or even campgrounds. Eventually, word filtered back to him that nobody had even called the cops, filed a report, or made a complaint. “Dude, he attacked you first. It was self-defense,” one of Toal’s friends who’d witnessed the incident told him over a pay phone. “I don’t know about that,” Toal had said. Apparently, the local powers that be had gotten to big Roy and talked him off the ledge, seeing the spectacle of a criminal case against Toal — himself the son of an important local family — as something the town didn’t want or need. And in any event, many of those same people were secretly thrilled that big Roy Motley — a man who for decades had bullied plenty of folks in and around Fletcher, Texas — had finally gotten his comeuppance.

Although his father had told him he was being cut off, Toal’s mother had secretly wired him a comfortable amount of money to “get through this” as she put it. “I’ll work on your father.” It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough for him to live off for a year or so as long as he was relatively careful with it. At first, he spent his days like some book or song character, learning a new sport, surfing, and hanging around the dives along the Redneck Riviera from Mississippi over to the Florida panhandle. When he tired of that he went deeper into the Florida peninsula, hopping down the Gulf coast through hamlets like Carrabelle, Crystal River, Port Richey, Osprey, Venice, and Fort Myers Beach. When he got to Naples, he slowly continued on south and then east on old U.S. 41, through languid places like Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife refuge, Everglades City, and Ochopee, crossed through the primordial and mystical Everglades, spent a few crazy and at times dangerous nights in Miami, found it to be too loud and obnoxious, and then turned down U.S. Highway 1 toward the Keys. He planned to dead end at Key West and see what happened next.

He was sitting in the infamous Sloppy Joe’s Bar three months later when he received the FedEx’d final decree signed by the judge making his divorce from Sharla final. He was free. But he was still trying to determine precisely what that meant now. Tiring of his lifestyle over the preceding four months, he rented a small apartment and found a part time job in a surf shop on South Street. He cut everything back to only what he felt was essential.

He later supplemented the surf shop income with tending bar at Sloppy Joe’s, where one could actually make a decent if modest living to finance his new life. Eventually, he learned he liked the bar business and was brought into a management position in which he learned how to run the business, everything from hiring help, to ordering food for the kitchen, receiving the daily food deliveries at sunrise, and ordering and keeping track of the voluminous supply of alcohol that the bar went through each week. Toal made himself very valuable to the owners of Sloppy Joe’s because he kept track of the taxes due and owing to the feds and the state and made sure they were paid on time. This kept the place out of trouble with the authorities and made him a valuable asset. Nothing shut down a bar faster than unpaid liquor taxes. The feds and the state were very jealous of their cut, and you had to keep them satisfied to stay open.

Over time, though, Toal grew tired of Key West and was restless for a change. It was now two years on from his escape from Fletcher, Texas, and although he still had about half the money his mom had sent and had supplemented it now with the decent salary he was earning at Sloppy Joes, he wasn’t ready to go home. He actually didn’t think he was ever going home. The home he had loved as a kid didn’t exist anymore. He’d had his fill of west Texas and it held no appeal for him anymore. He wondered if it ever had.

On a whim one day, he flew down to the islands for a week long break, and he was immediately smitten by the place. Sure, St. Thomas, like the rest of the islands, had its blighty areas and one was careful not to frequent particular places at certain times of the day, but the trade off was the sheer natural beauty of the place. Near the end of the week, he drove over the mountains that ran east and west between the more developed southern part of St. Thomas to Magens Bay, which was located on the northern shore. He couldn’t believe his eyes as he observed the most perfect white sand beach and crystal clear blue waters he had ever seen. The place was literally perfect. And he found that the little, ramshackle bar and grill that served the beach to be a delightfully perfect place to hang out. So appealing in fact, that he asked the owner for a job. The following week, he flew back to Key West, packed up his possessions, moved out of the apartment, and gave notice at Sloppy Joe’s.

The precise circumstances of how Toal had come to own the Magens Bay bar and grill were still murky. He hadn’t yet revealed that part of the story to Dalton. But that was okay with Dalton. Experience had taught Dalton that all kinds of businesses could serve as fronts for illegitimate enterprises, but to this point Dalton hadn’t seen anything that aroused his suspicions. Because of everything he had seen in his career, Dalton had the annoying habit of applying a healthy dose of cynicism to any situation; if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But he had made discrete inquiries of his agents who had worked the islands for decades, and not one told him there was ever anything suspicious about Toal or the establishment at Magens Bay. For that he was relieved, for the time being. But he always kept an eye out. Life experience told him that was essential.

So the situation at Magens’ Bay was a unique one. The owner and most of his employees had come from similar backgrounds and experiences and had a shared reason for being in the islands. It made for an interesting group of characters, a group who all suffered the same affliction: The islands were now in their blood. Indeed, as Dalton was quickly learning, these islands got in your blood, and once they were there it was hard to get them out.

Copyright© 2017, all rights reserved.

[1] The Department of Justice has main offices in Washington, DC. There are currently 93 United States Attorneys: one for each of the 94 federal judicial districts, except for Guam and the Northern Marianas, where a single U.S. Attorney serves both districts. In addition to their main offices, many U.S. Attorneys maintain smaller satellite offices throughout their districts. People who work in the U.S. Attorney offices refer to DOJ in DC as “main justice.”

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