The One About the FBI

6 Jul

I almost can’t believe it, but I’ve been blogging for nearly a month now. I try my best to write something of worth every day, but sometimes time just doesn’t allow for it and, honestly, sometimes I just don’t feel inspired to write anything. But I have noticed over the past few weeks that I have veered away from the format that I had originally intended for this collection of stories. It’s become less about my interactions with patrons and more about myself and my experiences…and that’s ok, I think. People seem to be entertained and sometimes even touched by some of the things I’ve written, and that makes me feel good.

I don’t want to blow my wad too early in this process, but there is one whopping story that I want to tell, but I feel I need to preface it. The story I am about to tell is 100% true and is told only from my perspective. I will not divulge names for the sake of others’ privacy because it is not my intention to do harm by telling this story. I don’t want to damage anyone’s reputation or make their lives harder for them in the future. They’ve already done that to themselves, in my opinion, but I don’t wish to make things worse. This is my story to tell. I cannot tell anyone else’s. This is an account of what happened to me and how it affected me and the people around me.

In the spring of 2008, things were not so great in my living situation. One of my roommates had been having some serious difficulties paying his rent and hadn’t told me or our other roommate. We found out through the landlady, who was getting close to evicting us. We had just been through two rounds of battling a bedbug infestation in the apartment as well as mice. I was done with it. I couldn’t stand it any longer.

My friend and former co-worker, T_______, knew that I was miserable and one day came to me and said, “You know, my roommate and I have a third bedroom in our apartment that we just use for storage. I know you want a new place to stay, and the extra money would help me and C_______, so…why don’t you move into our place?” The rent was to be $550 a month including all utilities, access to a backyard, free 24-hour laundry in the basement and the apartment was within 2 blocks of 3 different trains. It was too good to be true! I moved in and everything was great. C_________ worked out of town a lot, so it was usually just me and T_________. I worked nights and weekends and he worked days, so we rarely saw each other enough to get on each other’s nerves. He and I had been friends for almost 10 years at that point, and things were really good.

In November 2009, just a couple of days before my 33rd birthday, I found out I booked a tour. I was so thrilled to finally have booked another job, even though it was yet another children’s theatre tour and would take me out of New York for over six months. It was an Equity contract, and under Equity rules, if I worked 22 weeks under contract, I would become eligible to sign up for the Union’s health insurance for a year. I hadn’t had insurance in years, so I knew my parents would be as thrilled as I was. I was hired to play several roles – including a lunch lady named Gladys Gutzman – in the national tour of Junie B. Jones, which was based on the children’s book series by Barbara Park. I had never heard of the books, but Junie B. was one of Theatreworks USA’s most popular tours, so I figured they must be pretty good.

When I told T________ I had booked the job, I asked him about subletting my room. He had been an actor years ago, so I figured he would understand and be OK with it. After all, I was only going to be making $457 a week before taxes and union fees and he had been the one to tell me over and over again, “You go on tour to make money.” I was surprised when he said no. He told me he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a stranger in his house, especially around all of his electronics and computers. In a rare moment of chutzpah, I told him that I didn’t think that was fair and I wasn’t comfortable paying rent while I was away for a room I wasn’t going to be in. He surprised me further by offering to pay $150 of my rent every month to help me save some cash.

After six months on the road with Junie B., I was ready to come home. It had worn or, more accurately, beaten me down and I needed to come home to recharge and heal, physically and mentally. I was so thrilled to be in my own bed and to be able to cook my own food and to see my friends again. It was great to be home.

Almost two months to the day after my return to New York – it was Thursday, September 10 – at 6:00 a.m., I woke to the sound of someone pounding on our apartment door, screaming “EVERYONE IN APARTMENT ONE, GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” It was my day off, so I had been up until almost 3:00 that morning. I had no idea what time it was or what was going on, but I threw on my robe and ran out to the front door, thinking the building was on fire. The pounding and shouting continued as T________ slowly walked out of his room, putting on shorts and a t-shirt. I opened the door to find six FBI agents at our door with their guns and flashlights pointed at me and a battering ram ready to knock the door in had we not answered. They pulled us both out into the hallway and frisked us as other agents went into our apartment – my apartment – and searched each of our rooms, shouting “CLEAR!,” “CLEAR!,” “CLEAR!” In my panic and confusion, I still thought to myself, “This is a mistake! They’re here for the guy on the third floor who T________ said may be dealing drugs. They have the wrong apartment!”

After they cleared the apartment, they brought us both into the living room and sat us down as federal agents started scouring the living room. One of the agents showed us a search warrant, told us they were from the Computer Crimes Department of the FBI and asked if we knew why they were there. My first thought was, “I’ve been stealing internet from our neighbor and they’ve come for me!” That wasn’t the case. The agent told us that they had traced an IP address, a router number and a screen name to someone in our apartment in connection with a child pornography investigation. I knew then that they weren’t there for me, but I still thought they were making a mistake. “That’s crazy! They’ve got the wrong place!,” I thought…

An agent took me into my room and had me sit on the bed. My room was in complete disarray, with suitcases and clothes still all over the floor that I hadn’t put away from tour. “Mom would die if she knew they were here seeing this,” I thought. “If I’d known they were coming, I’d have cleaned up.” Strange, the things you think under duress.

I wasn’t allowed to touch anything in my room. I couldn’t touch my phone, call or text anyone. I had an armed FBI agent at my side for the entire three hours they were in my house. I was still in my robe and underwear, and I felt utterly exposed – literally and figuratively.

An agent came into my room, shutting the door behind her. She had a manila folder in her hand and I could see that my name and social security number were written on the tab.

“You’re Jason?,” she asked.

I don’t know why I was surprised that she knew who I was. She was the FBI, for goodness’ sake – it was her job to know everything about me. But it did surprise me. And it scared me. Even though I knew I had nothing to hide and had done nothing wrong, a million scenarios started running through my head. What if they did find something? I had come home from tour to find all sorts of random things in my room – things that T_______ had put into my room to get out of the way: a potted plant, an old stereo receiver… What else might have been put in my room while I was away without my knowing it? What were they going to find?

The female agent was much kinder than I expected her to be. She could tell I was scared and that I clearly had no idea what was going on, but she had a job to do. She asked me a lot of questions not just about myself, but also about my roommates. C________ was out of town working, and I told her that I had just been on the road myself for 6 months, which was fairly easy to prove. Thinking back on it, though, I know now that they already knew. She asked me about my laptop as well as the desktop PC I had on my desk. That computer had blown up months before in a thunderstorm and wouldn’t turn on anymore. I had kept it with the idea of taking it in to have the hard drive removed so I could retrieve all my tax documents and photos and things off it, but I never got around to it. They could tell from the layer of dust on it, though, that it hadn’t been used in a very long time. (Sorry, Mom!)

I told her that I had only ever been able to use my laptop in the living room if I wanted to connect to the internet. That was the only room in the apartment where I could connect to our neighbor’s open network. T_________ had given me his internet password, but I never seemed to be able to connect using his router, and he turned it off at night when he went to bed, anyway. I had never understood that before, but in light of the circumstances, things started to fall into place. I explained to her that he didn’t want me to sublet my apartment while I was away because he was worried about his electronic equipment. I didn’t want to believe that my friend – one of my closest friends – was involved in what they were saying, but I also was in such an emotional state that I couldn’t not tell them things that suddenly started to seem to be connected.

She asked me where my laptop was and I told her it was on the end table next to the sofa in the living room where it always was. She then asked me if I thought it a good idea to leave my laptop laying around where other people could use it. I started panicking again. What were they going to find? She told me she would need to do a search of the files on my computer and that she’d be back. She left me and my armed guard in silence in my room. I don’t know why, but I started making small talk. “Do you do this sort of thing all the time?” “How do these things usually end?” “Do you like your job?” What was I doing?!? I needed to pee. My guard stuck his head out into the hallway where I could see people walking by with boxes full of electronics and media. He came back in and said they needed a second before he could walk me down to the bathroom. They had to move T_________ to the kitchen so that we wouldn’t see each other.

The guard stood outside the bathroom door as I urinated. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Why is this happening? What have I done to deserve this? What is going to happen to me?” At that point, I wasn’t terribly concerned about T_______. It’s incredible how quickly your emotions can shift in a situation like that. At first I was confused, then scared – terrified is more accurate, then incredibly sad and then I started getting angry. Angry at T_______ for doing whatever they thought he did to bring them there. Angry at myself for being in this situation. For trusting someone that much. Had I missed something? Surely there must have been some indication? But then again, if this were all just a mistake, then no – I wouldn’t have missed anything because there wouldn’t have been anything to miss. I splashed some cold water on my red, puffy eyes, blew my nose and headed back out into what looked like a scene from CSI.

My guard took me back to my room and sat me down again. The female agent, who was scanning my computer by then, popped her head in again and asked, with a big smile on her face, “Who are those two little girls you have pictures of? Are those your nieces?”

“They’re my cousins, actually.”

“Well, they’re beautiful. Does he know them?”

I immediately felt my face burn. Why would she ask that?? What had they found? What did she mean by that?! If anything happened to those girls… I started to sob.

A few minutes later, a second agent came in. He was tougher, and he had some hard-hitting questions he needed to ask. He reminded me that no piece of information was too insignificant. I told him everything I’d told the female agent and then he said they’d need to search my room. My guard took me into C________’s room, which had already been searched, and the interrogating agent came with us. He continued to question me as my room was searched. All my things, touched and handled by complete strangers. I felt like I needed a shower.

After my room was searched, they took me back and sat me down on the bed again. They were done with the search and interrogation. They were getting ready to leave.

“So…what happens now? Are you just going to leave him here?,” I asked.

“We only have a search warrant, not an arrest warrant. We have to go through all of the items we took today – all the computers, cameras, DVDs, CDs, everything – before we can determine if he should be arrested.”

“So, what do I do? What am I supposed to do? Keep living here with him as if nothing has happened?”

The female agent answered, “I would suggest you pack a bag and stay with a friend tonight and make a decision tomorrow, after you’ve had some time to think.”

The male agent broke in, “And I would highly suggest you don’t discuss this with him in any way. If he’s arrested, you don’t want to know anymore than you already do.”

And then they were gone, just as quickly as they’d come.

I grabbed my towel and headed down the hall back to the bathroom. I needed a shower and I needed to get out of there. T________ and I crossed paths and he stopped, saying, “You know me…you know I’m not a dirty old man.” I responded, “You know…the SIX FBI agents that were just in my house told me not to talk about this with you. I think I’ll listen to them.” I locked myself in the bathroom and cried the whole time I was in the shower.

When I got back to my room, my phone was still on my nightstand. I picked it up and sent out a mass text to my closest friends, being careful not to contact anyone who was a mutual friend of mine and T_________ : If anyone was awake, I needed to talk to someone right away. My friend Tony was the first to respond. He called me and I told him what had just happened. I think he didn’t know what to do with all that information. I was starting to realize that there was a distinct possibility that people who didn’t know me better might think me guilty by association and that even my friends might not want to get too involved.

My friends Kim and Karyn texted me. We agreed to meet for breakfast at Renaissance Diner on 9th Avenue to talk it out. They immediately offered their apartment as a crash pad for as long as I needed it. We spent the next few hours walking around Manhattan. I remember we went to the Bed, Bath and Beyond at Lincoln Center, which is where I called my Dad to tell him what had happened. Retelling the story, I started hyperventilating and crying on the street. He kind of calmed me down and Kim and Karyn took me home to their place in Washington Heights. They blew up an air mattress in the living room and let me take a nap. I was emotionally drained and hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so I slept until late in the afternoon, at which point I had to think about heading home to pack a bag.

I had already decided I was moving out. I couldn’t stay there, whether he was guilty or not. I felt violated. Strangers had forced their way into my home and had rummaged through my things. They had been following me. Tracking me like a criminal, even though I had done nothing wrong. He brought them there. He put me in that position. Whatever he had been doing, it was enough to bring the FBI into my house, and I couldn’t justify continuing to live there.

I was terrified to go home. I was scared of seeing him. I was even more scared of finding him dead somewhere in our apartment. T_______  at the time was a short, quirky 50-something year old man. If he was found guilty of something like this, his life would be over. He’d be a prime target for any big, burly man in a Federal prison, and child molesters and pornographers are the lowest of the low on the prison totem pole. I fully expected to find him dead when I got home. So I didn’t go home – I went to Mamma Mia!, where I knew many of my friends would be at work.

When I got there, I sat down in the small closet we called an office and told my friends what had happened. I was stunned. Shocked. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth, but it had happened! My friends couldn’t believe it, either. Intermission came, so I had to face it: It was time to go back there.

Before I got on the subway to go home, I called my parents to check in with them. I hadn’t talked to my Mom yet. My Dad answered the phone and I told him I was alright, though I was starting to get choked up again. My Mom got on the phone and asked me if I was alright. I said I was. Then she said, “It scared you, didn’t it?,” and I fell apart, right on the corner of 49th and 7th Avenue. When I told her I was worried about going home, she suggested I call a friend to come with me, so I did. I called several. No one was available, and one just flat out said he didn’t want to because he had an audition the next morning and he needed to get to bed.

So I went home, alone, scared to death of what I might find there. I think I might have been on the phone with someone – I can’t remember who – just to help calm my nerves. When I walked in, I found T________ sitting in the living room watching a movie and completely drunk.

I went straight to my room and started packing a small suitcase. I got my things from the bathroom and, as I was heading into the kitchen to grab some of my groceries to take with me, he came in and wanted to talk about it. He started again with, “You know I’m not a dirty old man,” and I turned to him and said, “You know, I think that’s exactly what a dirty old man who’s been caught would say.” From that point, I can’t remember what I said to him, really, but I do know I ripped him a new asshole, which is completely out of character for me.

Even after all of that, he told me he wanted me to stay in the apartment – he needed my support and friendship because he couldn’t tell anyone else what had happened. I was the only one who knew, and he wanted it to stay that way. And, he later divulged, he needed me to keep paying my share of the rent because he needed every penny he had to pay for a defense lawyer. That wasn’t a good enough reason for me. I told him I was moving out and that I would leave my things in the apartment for as long as it took me to find a new place, rent free.

Kim and Karyn and their other two roommates let me stay with them for six weeks until I found a place that was nearly $300 a month more than what I’d been paying to live with T_______ and C_________, plus I had the added expense of laundry every week. I was suddenly 45 minutes from wherever I needed to go as opposed to 15 minutes, door-to-door. T_________ and I had only been in touch when I’d come by the apartment to pack, which I usually tried to do when he was at work. Once I found a place, I cut off all communication.

The day after they FBI came, I went into work at the marketing company where I was helping out part-time. They had a promotional tour out for a cell phone brand and one of their road managers was leaving for a week to go to a wedding. They asked if I would fly to Buffalo on Sunday to fill in for him. It meant a private hotel room, a private car and a week away from all that had happened at home. I said yes.

That night, I was updating the software on my iPhone. Midway through the restoration process, the phone froze and I got an error message. I couldn’t turn the phone on or off. It was just…dead. I took it to the Apple store on Saturday – I had to have my phone for work the next day – and I told the gentleman at the help desk about the error message I’d received. He had never heard of it and had to look it up.

“You’ve jailbroken your phone,” he said.

“I don’t know what that means,” I replied.

“You’ve put something on your phone that didn’t come from iTunes or the App Store. You have Apple Protection, so I’ll give you a new phone today, but if it happens again, you’re kinda screwed.”

My first thought was, “The FBI put a bug on my phone while I was out of my room. They’re tracking me. And now I have a new phone….a new phone that they can’t track! And I’m flying to Buffalo tomorrow – I’m leaving town! The FBI is going to show up at the airport and tackle me in the terminal because they’re going to think I’m trying to flee!”

I called my Dad, freaking out. He told me I needed to calm down. I tried, but I couldn’t sleep that night. Of course nothing happened at the airport, but I do still think the FBI put something on my phone. The paranoia that set in in the few weeks following their visit was unreal. I constantly felt I was being watched…followed…spied upon.

I never mentioned what had happened to any of our mutual friends. Not once. I don’t know what T_______ told people when I moved out. I have always been curious to know what reason he came up with. C_________ emailed me about two months after the Incident to tell me he finally knew why I’d left. It took two months for T________ to tell him. In the two and a half years since I moved out, I have lived in four apartments and countless hotels. I have panic attacks when people ring the doorbell or knock on the door – especially if I’m not expecting visitors. The sight of flashlights dancing across the floor take me back to the moment I opened that door and was blinded by the FBI’s flashlights. And the guns. One never forgets having six loaded guns pointed at one’s face. My therapist told me I had post traumatic stress disorder. That’s not an easy thing to hear, but with her help, I’m better now.

Last summer I ran into an old friend – a mutual friend – of T________’s and mine. He asked me, “So…have you talked to T________ lately, or heard about his…um…’trouble?’” I had never talked about The Incident with any of our mutual friends because I didn’t want to assume that he was guilty or spread vicious rumors about him that might turn out to be untrue. Even after all that had happened, I still cared enough to protect his name.

“‘Trouble?,’” I asked…

“Yeah…his, um…”trouble” with the law?”

“The FBI thing?,” I finally asked, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We talked about it for a good half hour. I told him about that day, and finally my friend said, “Well, he’s been convicted. His sentencing is in a few weeks. He could face up to five years in federal prison and he’ll be listed as a registered sex offender. I thought you’d want to know.”

I felt such relief being able to talk to my friend about it. It wasn’t a secret anymore. Everything would become a matter of public record soon. I went home and got on Facebook and I simply posted, “For those friends who know the story of the Worst Roommate In History saga, let me tell you that it ends with him going to prison. For those of you who don’t know it, you’ll have to wait for my book.”

Within two days, eight of our mutual friends with whom we’d worked had defriended me. For what, I’m not sure. I never mentioned T______’s name. I never said where he worked or what he was convicted of doing. Even today, I don’t know what they got him for – possession, distribution, production…I have no idea, and I don’t care to know. But not one of those eight people – people whom I considered to be good friends – had reached out to me to make sure I was alright or to tell me they were going to defriend me and why. No explanations at all. It hurt me deeply.

I don’t take what happened lightly, and I worry about T_______ often. I wonder what his life will be like when he gets out of prison. I wonder where he’ll get a job, where he’ll live. I am afraid for him, being a convicted sex offender in a Federal prison. That does not mean, however, that I can turn a blind eye to what he was convicted of being a part. I miss my friend. I grieved for him for a long time.

I recently made the decision to leave New York City. I won’t lie – the memory of this experience was a huge contributor to that decision. It’s difficult to escape it. My view of New York changed drastically that day. Suddenly I felt like a caged animal in a zoo, constantly being watched and unable to get away. But now it’s time to let that go and start a new life in a new city in a new apartment where I feel safe. It’s time to move on.

9 Responses to “The One About the FBI”

  1. Nina Anderson at 2:10 pm #

    I’ll be among the first ones to buy your book.

  2. The Hook at 6:12 pm #

    New beginnings rule. Good luck!

    • jasonhbratton76 at 6:53 pm #

      Thank you!! And good luck with your daughter’s quest to meet Ellen!!

  3. Carol Fauth at 8:21 pm #

    What a brave and courageous thing for you to do. We’re very proud of you for making that decision. Good luck and to me it is a new adventure that will bring good things. I just know it. We love you back here in Louisville.


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