Michael Guglielmo grew up inside the State Prison in Concord, N.H., and also at Somers State Prison in Connecticut. He rewired his brain during his years on the inside, picking up several academic degrees and even advising New Hampshire policymakers on their prison crowding crisis. (Nov. 21, 2004}
The Hartford Courant
November 21, 2004
For the longest time Michael Guglielmo was a man without a face, a convict without a crime. Since I could not get on his visitor list at the prison in Somers, I listened to his improbable story unfold in short bursts on the phone. His voice was dark, determined, the edgy sound of hard ground shifting - equal parts D Block desperation and GED promise.
Collect from -
I accept. Mike, what's up?
"Some guards Maced a kid in a fight and he's dead," Guglielmo wants me to know this June weekday in 1992. I slow him down, find a slim reporter's notebook, scrawl out some notes. "They doused him with cans of Mace, that's the word. Everybody thinks the guards killed him."
We talk a little longer, the usual stuff between a reporter sipping warm coffee and a convict climbing the cold steel bars of his captivity.
"He went into the hospital alive and came out dead," he adds and then disappears with a click.
Most jailhouse lawyers are all talk. Guglielmo, he circulated business cards and turned away flimsy cases. He worked a chain gang of sources and found his experts inside the hard maximum-security walls. Russell Manfredi, the former West Hartford cardiologist convicted of killing his wife with a baseball bat in 1985, wrote medical reports for some of the civil rights actions Guglielmo filed against the state alleging brutality and denial of adequate medical care.
Another friend was Richard Crafts, the former airline pilot convicted of murdering his wife in 1986 and feeding her body parts through a woodchipper. He made Guglielmo's business cards with a steady hand. He typed them in his cell and centered the words perfectly between the edges.
The Doc and Guglielmo became friends, an unlikely pair joined by skin color and opportunity. Manfredi was a citizen, a square, a target: A rich surgeon like him had money stashed away somewhere and the race was on for extortion rights. Guglielmo's legal work gave him some sway. His correspondence course in biology was giving him fits.
"If you help me with college," Guglielmo told Manfredi one day in a noisy hallway, "I'll make sure you're all right."
Guglielmo got Manfredi a "hands-off jacket."
"All I want is, let me pick your brain," he said to him.
Manfredi even mentored his seething, streetwise guardian. He would watch him get into fights over nothing, just waiting for a pay phone to open up on the crowded tier. Manfredi would tell Guglielmo to stop by his house and cool off.
"The phones will be open all day," he would say. "You can use 'em anytime."
They lived in adjacent cellblocks, Q-1 and Q-2, and talked a lot. Guglielmo had grown up middle class on Long Island, played Little League for the Northport Hawks, had a paper route. His problems started in grade school when he struggled to read. In fifth grade, a school shrink diagnosed him with dyslexia. By then Guglielmo had a desk in special education and other interests: BB guns, firecrackers, anything loud that irritated authority. He was 12 and on his way - the kid your mother always warned you about.
In the last cold days of 1989, Guglielmo landed his shackled feet in the Somers parking lot. He was a transfer from New Hampshire where the prison brass had tired of his activism. He stretched a little, got his first look at the low-slung prison dating to the early 1960s. It spread out in the clearing on the hill like a bleak warehouse.
Somers had a reputation back then - one of the toughest state prisons anywhere to do time. After a decade of Reagan-era sentencing reforms, it heaved with 1,500 dead-end felons and not enough guards, a violent gulag where the dry fuse of crowding inched daily toward stockpiles of human dynamite.
Guglielmo found the place murky, dangerously charged. The cell doors would pop open in the morning and inmates would flood the long central hallway connecting the barracks known as Little Saigon and Terrordome. Every raised voice and slamming door thundered between the tight walls. Twice he walked right up to stabbings, gang hits, the smell of spilled blood in the morning. When his cell door slammed behind him at night, he felt relief.
We started talking in September 1991 when I was working in The Courant's Enfield bureau. Guglielmo was already talking to the criminal justice reporter, who was kind enough to share his source.
By this time Guglielmo had calmed down some from his early fistfight days. He held a clerk's job in the prison law library, paying $86.80 a month, and a paralegal certificate. He was always lining me up to speak at some future parole hearing.
What hearing? I'd ask half-joking. Guglielmo was four years into a sentence of 22� to 45 - pinball numbers to me. But I had my own selfish reasons and we got along fine: He got me stories and I got him ink.
Over time a funny thing started to happen, a friendship. Guglielmo was following his education like the North Star, always quoting philosophers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli. I had majored in political science in college but that was a while ago. We talked a lot of trash, tried to sound tough, figured out we were both 29 and working like hell to get noticed. I bought him a paperback of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," the 1974 meaning-of-life classic, and mailed it to the prison. Maybe we weren't all that different.
Back then my goal was simple: Get to The Courant's mother ship downtown. The big joke at work was that more people escaped Enfield prisons than the Enfield bureau. Guglielmo had promised his Mom he would not let her down again, that he would pull off something spectacular enough to eclipse, or at least obscure, the pyrotechnics of his crime. He wanted to prove he was good, to ride his new education out the door early.
I gave him my home phone number and took a lot of collect calls. He checked in more than family members. My wife didn't mind except the time she was home alone watching "The Silence of the Lambs" and the phone rang late. I found out the next morning at breakfast.
Honey? That Mike guy from the prison, what's he in for again?
I can't remember exactly, something stupid.
Well, don't they keep the electric chair at Somers?
I finished my coffee that morning and dialed the state Department of Correction with my tip. A Sammie Lee Godley, 32, of Bridgeport, had fallen unconscious in the prison hospital shortly after guards blasted him in the face with Mace pepper spray. Godley had assaulted several guards in a melee, slashing one with a knife; no one disputed that.
But correction officials said he died from a pre-existing heart condition and inmates weren't buying. Many had themselves been sprayed with Mace. The operative ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, is derived from cayenne peppers and designed to burn intensely in the eyes and throat and on exposed skin. The stuff is marketed to hunters and woodsmen to take down bears.
Sensing danger, Somers Warden Lawrence Tilghman locked down the prison, confining all inmates to their cells for five days: no industry jobs, no visitors, no commissary, no movement. When restrictions eased, Guglielmo called and I wrote about the nearly week-old incident, another flash of daily prison violence that normally goes unseen. I quoted him in the article.
"When someone assaults a guard, you get a beating - it's standard practice."
I could quote Guglielmo that way because he had credibility. The year before, inmates had rioted at two dormitory-style prisons in Enfield and both times guards beat the ringleaders en route to their isolation cells at Somers, normal post-riot procedure covered in the unwritten code. But the second time it got out of hand. The cops threw the shackled prisoners face down on the blue, carpeted floor of a Somers hearing room and went to work, stomping their backs and heads and setting dogs on them. Tuneups, they called the beatings.
The next morning, Guglielmo got word and went to work like a prosecutor holding a career case. He interviewed victims and witnesses. The library was a good place to meet with guys and take down their statements. While Somers slept, Guglielmo clacked typewriter keys in his cage, laboring in the soft glow of a contraband lamp. He sharpened the statements into tidy affidavits.
He put inmates on the phone and the Enfield bureau broke the story. He sent the sworn affidavits to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Hartford, and FBI agents got involved. A captain, a lieutenant and two guards were fired; another 13 correction officers received letters in their personnel files. It was an embarrassing scandal for the correction department and a small measure of validation for Guglielmo. He wanted to see federal civil rights indictments handed down but took what he could get.
He was playing a dangerous game. One day he walked up on guards gathered at the hall keeper's desk. "Whaddya doin?" one called out. Guglielmo turned and faced the silence, felt the hard stares. The guards pulled him over like a car with a broken taillight. They combed the small billfold he carried in his pocket, one he made out of index cards and Scotch tape. They thumbed through the names and numbers of his contacts.
Like water on a rock, Guglielmo never rested. He kept filing brutality lawsuits, including one that Yale law students picked up pro bono, winning a small cash settlement for the prisoner. In another case, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 24-year-old inmate who claimed he'd been raped in his bunk bed by a known sexual predator. Guglielmo said the state violated the inmate's constitutional rights by housing him there. He asked the court to compel an AIDS test from the attacker, saying his client may have been handed a death sentence. Then-U.S. District Court Judge Jose A. Cabranes ruled against Guglielmo, saying that a compulsory AIDS test as a precedent could disrupt prison security. He also ruled that the case for rape lacked merit. The correction department initially acknowledged that the sexual assault occurred.
By now correction officials had seen enough. In December 1991, two years after Guglielmo arrived, Somers guards tossed his cell, rifled his law library desk, confiscated his files and fired him from his clerk's job. They strip-searched him for a little extra humiliation. They wrote him three disciplinary tickets accusing him of bartering his legal services, harboring contraband and violating prison rules. The prison later dropped the tickets in exchange for Guglielmo's agreement to stop doing legal work. He never complied and the tickets never came up again.
Two years later they shipped Guglielmo back to Concord, N.H. Best source I ever had and one day the phone stops ringing. But we stayed in touch and he kept up his activism.
He prepared a treatise on how to solve the New Hampshire prison crowding problem - "Corrections 2000: A Ten-Point Corrections & Criminal Justice Management Plan." The Concord newspaper endorsed the plan, as did state Rep. Maxwell D. Sargent, a member of the New Hampshire House criminal justice and public safety committee.
A year later Guglielmo single-handedly forced the state to renegotiate its contract with telephone giant WorldCom Inc. Inmates calling home collect were getting charged more than twice the normal pay phone rate. The correction department was taking 40 percent of the revenue generated from the calls. The money went into an inmate recreation fund but was spent on non-recreation administrative expenses. Under the threat of a lawsuit from Guglielmo and the heat of newspaper editorials, the state agreed to lower the rates and the telephone company refunded the inmates' families more than $100,000 in overcharges.
Guglielmo got fan mail from some of the families. No one ever said it better than Ray Barham, a fellow prisoner who wrote a column for the Concord Monitor and did a series on Guglielmo. One piece read, in part:
"He's rude, abrasive, hyperbolic and wildly emotional. In other words, a born lawyer. The most effective jailhouse advocate I've ever met. He also may be the last true believer in the fairness of the American criminal justice system."
In July 2003 a heat wave chokes the East Coast, even New Hampshire, where I steer my car into the driveway of the North End [Halfway] House, a gabled former warden's residence next to the State Prison in Concord.
Inside guards behind a tinted window go through my bag and wave me along. There's Mike in civilian clothes, a dark sweater-shirt and black dress pants, heading my way. We shake hands, shove each other like two old friends at a reunion.
"This is my friend Tom from Nawth-Eastuh Magazine," he declares, leaning on the last words for emphasis, rubbing the media attention in the guards' sour faces.
In two days Mike will walk away for good. He kept his promise to his Mom. Something spectacular. It started with a letter to the sentencing judge that Mike's lawyer pleaded with him not to send. He sent it anyway.
I'm looking at a man who just sat out ages 23 to 40, his entire adult life, and Mike is smiling like nothing happened. He says the sound of the Bee Gees still beats in his head. "To me it was like it was yesterday. You coulda just thrown me back in the pool."
Mike gets back all civil rights except the one to carry a weapon. Fair enough. What bothers him is the $40-a-month parole fee he'll shell out for the next 12� years.
"I already paid for my incarceration: 171/2 years of my life," he gripes. "They can kiss my ass if they think I'm giving 'em any money. It's an ex post facto law; it increases the burden of punishment after conviction."
Mike is still weight-room solid with shorter hair that's slicked back, a little heavier than last time, when we first met in 1997 at the Concord prison across the way.
We get caught up. The lobster tan he picked up at a local salon, staying in the pot a little too long. The job? Philosopher dishwasher, he cracks, hired by an ex-con, eight bucks an hour and thirty a week in tips from the barmaids. Women? Found them in restaurants, on buses, in stores, wherever he could. Seventeen years on the exile plan and he needed Viagra to straighten things out.
Mike surveys the room as we talk, his brown eyes sweeping the corners and stopping on a cluster of guards. He calls them "backwoods morons" and says the halfway house manager is worse. "She's evil, she's a tyrant, an absolute tyrant."
Then Christine Cook, a 40-ish woman, walks toward our table and tells Mike he's cleared to take me around town for the day. "Thank you. Thaaaank Yooou," he says warmly as she walks away. When she's out of earshot he starts back in.
"She's mean spirited, no reasoning. What she says is the law. She looks right through you."
Mike's been grumbling all morning about a disciplinary ticket he caught the other day walking home from the dish room without a shirt on. Bare chests and tank-tops aren't allowed. In the parking lot he pulls off his sweater-shirt, arms going up over his head, and takes a long chug of Dasani. This I should've seen coming.
"Now I'm gonna engage in an eee-greeegious action," he says in a mock growl, pulling on an outlawed tank top, a wife-beater. The determination on his face cracks me up as we drive away.
We check out his new apartment, a cramped two-bedroom flat in a marginal area. Mike is lucky. His mother, Judith A. Jordan, paid his first and last month's rent and a month's rent as security deposit, more than $2,000. Most inmates get out and go right to the flophouses, the only places they can afford.
We feed the ducks on a pond. At a deli Mike eats his first gyro in years and swipes a napkin across his mustache. In a Main Street building he talks with Mike Minard of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, a group involved in prison issues. Mike's got big plans: He'll launch a prison advocacy group, open private halfway houses. Or maybe build some duplexes, make his money in real estate.
"If I get a break at some point," he tells Minard, "I'll run with it. I'll take full advantage and do the right thing and I'll build on it."
We make a final stop at Barnes & Noble for coffee. Mike's been predicting all day that a guard will show up there to spy on us. By this time, he says, the cops figure you've blown your itinerary and can't wait to bag you, their idea of fun. I'm amused, listening and flipping through the current Rolling Stone. Mike's got battles big and small. Then sure enough a middle-aged correction officer turns up behind a bookshelf and briefly locks eyes with Mike. The guard pretends not to notice. The impasse ends when I walk up to the guy with a notebook.
The Long Island cops were searching for Guglielmo, who was looking at prison time. He was 19 and had finally gone too far, skipping bail on some larceny charges.
A friend in New Hampshire invited him to move up and remodel his house. Mike figured why not. He was a high school dropout drifting between burglaries and stolen cars and county jails. His father was a bar owner with a drinking problem, a guy who brought his demons home with him. Guglielmo had had enough. So he packed his bags and his memories of childhood failure and headed north.
He liked the small city of Manchester, not far from the Massachusetts border - its mix of mill baron manors and gritty tenements. He had some carpenter skills and hooked on with a tenement landlord he still knows, becoming the guy's best hand and de facto rent enforcer. He moved in with a new girlfriend, Rhonda, a nurse he spotted walking by one day in her white uniform. At a gym in town he lifted weights and punched a heavy bag.
Over time he fell back into familiar traps, started running with a group of local motorcycle thugs called "The Bro's," a raucous bunch that would become well known to local police. They hung at the toughest bars in town, places for the losing kind. At a joint called The Zoo one night they beat up half the patrons. Mike would fight anyone. He had a big mouth with a small man's complex. They nicknamed him Baby Dragon.
Soon Rhonda called it quits - moving out and vowing to put their unborn baby up for adoption. Mike wanted to be with his child, provide for the baby. He felt powerless, desperate, started to drink in binges, Budweiser, Lowenbrau, Michelob. He chugged Chivas, smoked a lot of weed, burned cartons of Marlboros, a pack a day or more. He abused coke, staying high a couple of days at a time, missing work. Pretty soon he lost his accounts at the lumberyard and the local hardware store.
On the cold night of Dec. 30, 1985, Guglielmo went out for some warm-up beers on the way to a house party on the city's West Side. He drained a few Buds and at a pizza joint switched to double shots of Dewars. At the movies he snorted quarter-gram cocaine packets in the screen's flashing shadows. He and a new girlfriend made their way to The Zoo and near closing time he purchased a quart-sized bottle of 100-proof vodka, a perk available to favored customers. He took a long pull to blunt the cocaine's frantic edge.
By the time he arrived at the house party, the surge of booze and powder had blown the circuitry in his nervous system. All the smoldering anger and frustration, all the years of failure, drugs, bar fights and rage had finally cornered him. Everything he'd been running from his whole life, including himself. The fuse was lit.
The r-r-r-r-ing of the telephone jolted Capt. Dale Robinson awake after midnight and he picked up. It was a patrolman, something about gunfire and shouting at a small house on Montgomery Street. As the department's tactical commander, Robinson made the tough calls. He heard fresh gunfire echo into the receiver.
"Secure the scene," he told his man, rolling out of bed and into the night.
The small rental house at 611 Montgomery St. heaves with bikers and beer, a typical blowout with Harley engines roaring out front. Around 2 a.m., Guglielmo shows up with his vodka bottle and hears a friend spilling word of the illegal Mac-10 submachine gun the two of them just got for $500. He leaves the party, his girlfriend driving him home, where he grabs the weapon and returns to "discipline" his friend. Next thing Guglielmo knows he's letting out live rounds, carving up the kitchen walls, firing over friends' heads, everything spiraling out of control.
Robinson's riot squads move in with the firepower of a small army: sixteen FBI-trained cops carrying side arms, 12-gauge shotguns, automatic AR-15 rifles and tear gas bombs, all of them clad in dark jumpsuits zipped over body armor that Boston police had rushed to the Salem town line. The cops break into the vacant, cottage-style house next door and set up a negotiating center. An officer peers around the corner of the porch through the eyehole of a periscope.
"I can see the cop with the mirror," Guglielmo calls out, clicking off a fresh burst, chewing up the porch shingles as the officer ducks for cover.
Businesses can't open as daylight breaks. Police re-route school buses after evacuating the tight street lined with duplexes and three-families on narrow lots. Hundreds of neighbors look on from behind wooden barricades at each end of the block. A 13-year-old neighborhood girl pedals up on her bicycle, Christina Maria Poulicakos, and learns the gunman is her pal Mike, the guy she knows from the party house, the one she talks to sometimes, has a crush on.
Now Guglielmo races out across the wooden boards of the front porch onto the paved front walk-up, close to the point where the people standing at the barricades come into his field of fire. Robinson gets on the radio and reaches his snipers set up across the street, framing the leather-clad gunman within the scopes on their .308-caliber rifles.
"If he crosses that line, you have a green light," Robinson says. "If he comes more than halfway up that walkway, you have the green light to take him out."
Guglielmo runs back inside, his head rushing with power. He yells out that he wants to die. He raises the assault rifle and sends a fresh volley into the third-floor window above the sniper's nest. The glass explodes, the shards pelting the sidewalk like sharp rain.
Five hours and 200 rounds into the siege, the on-and-off pop-pop-pop-pop finally goes quiet. It's already tomorrow, 9 a.m., and Guglielmo is out of ammunition and beer. It's over. He swaggers out of the house onto the walk and drops to his knees as ordered. He refuses to lie face down on the ground. He's holding a can of Bud with the Mac-10 slung over a shoulder. He raises his arms in surrender.
"I just lost it," Guglielmo tells the Manchester Union Leader two days later. "There's too much drugs in this town ...You sell your mother for that."
Nine months later, in September 1986, the criminal trial opens with a bus trip to the crime scene. Guglielmo paces the sidewalk, stares blankly as jurors and lawyers trample the small lawn where it almost ended. His hair is cut shorter, his mustache shaved and gone. Nobody enters the vacant rental house or steps onto the front porch now draped with plants. The judge just wants jurors to get a sense of the place, the danger, the geometry of 611 Montgomery Street in relation to the nearby houses and porches where police took cover.
Opening arguments start when the bus returns to Hillsborough County Superior Court.
"Michael Guglielmo was a drunken, drugged and depressed young man," Public Defender Alan J. Cronheim tells the jurors, his dark suit rinsed in the courtroom's sterile fluorescent light. A Dana Carvey lookalike with a soft voice, Cronheim knows his case pivots on state of mind. Murder requires intent. Guglielmo fired on the cops, sure, he concedes to jurors. But he was out of his mind, incapable of rational thought.
The trial is front-page news in the Manchester and Concord papers. More than 30 witnesses testify over a taut two weeks, six of them police officers who say the gunblasts still rattle their heads. Guglielmo stands accused of five counts of attempting to murder a police officer. He's looking at 75 to 150 years.
Tactical commander Robinson walks to the witness stand, past the evidence table and the Mac-10 and all the spent shell casings stuffed into plastic sandwich bags. He recounts giving his snipers the green light, explains how close the gunman came. Guglielmo's mother sits in the first row of wooden benches. She places a hand over her eyes; she can't bear to listen. She lowers her head and lets out a loud gasp that Robinson remembers to this day.
Prosecutors portray Guglielmo as a rational, would-be killer who missed his human targets by luck. At 4:30 a.m. he fired on Jones and Murphy. Near dawn the bullets came in closer barrages: Fielding at 6:15; Putney at 6:30; Doherty at 7; Alexakos and Lussier at 8:15. The jury deliberates for nine hours over two days and returns its verdict: not guilty on the attempted-murder counts; guilty on three lesser charges of attempted assault of a police officer. Each carries a sentence of 7� to 15 years. Editorials scream injustice as the sentencing date nears. There's a lot of pressure to give Guglielmo the maximum.
A silver-haired man with a regal bearing, Superior Court Judge George S. Pappagianis looks down from the long curving bench, an American flag draped on the wall behind him. He measures his words carefully, considers giving Guglielmo two consecutive sentences and running the third concurrently. Then he singles out the brazenness of Guglielmo's conduct, his belligerence right to the end, the beer and his refusal to lay down on the front walk. He declares Guglielmo irretrievable, beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and hits him with the full weight of the law: three consecutive terms - a total of 22� to 45 years.
The sentence is one of the stiffest ever handed down in New Hampshire, according to data compiled by Cronheim. Of the state's 252 serious felons incarcerated at the time, only 12 have minimum sentences exceeding 22 years. The list includes 50 convicted murderers and 160 rapists.
That night inside the Valley Street county jail, Guglielmo sinks hard to the floor. He's 24, has shot his life away and wishes he were dead. He closes his eyes and tries to envision a future out there, a door to knock on, a way back. There's only darkness.
Back to the future
The Merrimack River runs fast with snowmelt as we cross a narrow stone bridge to the West Side. Mike is a stranger today, clear and cold in March 2004. But the gunfire still echoes on both sides of the gray water lined with old redbrick mills.
In Manchester in 1985 a Mac-10 was unheard of. Police still keep the weapon locked in the evidence room, a reminder and a trophy. At retirement parties old-timers speak of working that cold December night all those promotions ago. Most of the cops can't believe Guglielmo is out, the same punk who used them for target practice. They wanted Guglielmo to serve his time, his minimum at least. He's lucky he's even alive. They had a green light.
We park on Montgomery Street and walk toward the small house with the front porch. Mike steps in closer, his black Harley boots sweeping the sidewalk's snow cover. He looks into the small front yard, the low sun casting the half-frozen ground in shadows and light. I leave him alone. It's his first time back since 1986 and he looks puzzled, like something is dawning on him.
"That's it," he finally says in a deflated voice, lifting his chin toward the house. "This is a monument to my failure, right here. To my self-destruction. It cost me 17 years of my life. I put many people's lives in danger. I hurt a lot of people."
He stays a while longer, jamming his hands into the front pockets of his black dungarees.
"What'd you used to call those inmates, laundry boys?"
"A Maytag," Mike says, "someone who's doing someone's laundry. The tough guys had 'em. A Maytag is one step removed from pincushion."
We're back in Concord, about 20 miles up the road from Manchester, grabbing lunch at the Barley House Restaurant and Tavern. Mike's white tank top reveals some of his chest tattoo, an inky roadmap into his soul.
It started in the early days in Manchester with a rose for Mom and Dad and continued to grow in Concord. The real engraving was done in Somers by an inmate guiding a crudely fashioned ink gun - a plastic pen tube threaded with guitar string and a staple, all powered by the motorized wheel of a small cassette player. Now it features 17 red blood drops, one for every year inside; tears for Mom and Dad; birds signifying paradise; and a rose for his sister Lisa. Mike is having more work done at the Creepy Creations tattoo shop in Londonderry, deepening the greens and purples, adding dragons and other Asian symbols.
"They're fighting each other - it's symbolic of the eternal fight between good and evil," he says of the soon-to-be new look. "It's my coat of arms. The pain it took to put it on is the pain of life."
"There's none on your forearms or the V of your neck," I say. "You don't have 'em any place people can see 'em."
"Because people have perceptions, man. They can perceive things with tattoos. That's why it's collared in. It's a collar. I can even wear an open shirt."
A jet plane roars out of Manchester Airport and climbs the drizzly winter sky. Getting work has been hard. Mike sent r�sum�s to nearly every law firm in Concord and didn't get a nibble. He left Concord prison with a master's degree, reached his professional pinnacle behind bars, and now he's taken a demotion.
"I can't even get a ... job stealing cars!" he says, kicking off a screed about a repo company that wouldn't hire him. "Who better to have stealing your car than a convict? But hell no. I'm only qualified to be a dishwasher."
On this March day he's doing some vinyl siding, a job he got from a guy he knew in prison. Technically, he violated his parole just by talking to his fellow felon. The state basically assumes that any two felons having a conversation are plotting revolution. But after 17 years inside, the only people Mike knows are the ones he served time with. It's his network. It's one of the reasons he stayed in Concord.
"I thought that I would be able to do something cerebral at least," he says. "I didn't think I'd be back in the construction business where I was when I went to prison and that looks like where I'm going. That's the only opportun-ity for me at this time."
How about another round of r�sum�s? Knock on some doors? "I could teach a class or two, but I can make more money banging nails," he says. "I got 17 years of economic loss to make up. I gotta take care of some basics."
Mike is a man without a past. A bank clerk puzzles over the 40-year-old opening his first savings account. His Mom leads him down supermarket aisles; gives him a crash course on pots and pans and defrosting. She shows him how to write checks; he never had a checking account in his life.
"My Mom's looking at me - `Here's my 40-year-old son and he's totally helpless,'" Mike tells me during a phone call to The Courant one day. He sounds hurt, embarrassed. "My mother, I'll tell ya man, I'd go back to doing what I know. I'd be lost without her. I came out with $1,100 and blew it all on furniture. It's all about Mom, I love that woman. She suffered - a lot."
Man About Town
Mostly Mike is a hard guy to keep down. He's a regular at the Don Giovanni restaurant off Main Street and enjoys the status. He's friendly with the owner, John Lockwood, a stout Italian man who approaches our table in a white kitchen coat, a red napkin puffing from the chest pocket. Mike gets up and embraces him, asks if Kerry is working, the pretty one, red hair, about 30 with hoop earrings.
"Mikey, whadisit widdyu?" Lockwood says laughing, moving his hand like he's ready to throw dice. "Whads-a-madah widyu?"
The cell phone rings. It's Buddy, an old friend on his way to the movies, the remake of 1973's "Walking Tall." They talk about work, the day, nothing at all - always on their loud walkie-talkie cell phones that squawk and beep like police radios. He and Buddy are going to buy a truck to start a roofing and siding company.
Now Mike orders dinner like he means it. "What I would like is the spaghetti with the red sauce," he says, extending his hand toward Kerry as he talks. "The side of sausage," he continues, rubbing his dry palms together like on a cold day.
The flirting with Kerry is nothing. Once I saw Mike talk a woman out of her shoes just to see her feet. We were at the Barley House eating dinner one night when he spilled water on the booth table. On her way by, a twenty-something waitress made a playful fist and gave him a you're-in-trouble look.
"I'd like that," Mike said loud enough to catch her ear. "You got friends? I'd like to have two of you beat me - but they gotta have feet."
The waitress stopped and backed up. "I have great feet," she said.
"Lemme see 'em."
She took off her socks and shoes right there on duty in the crowded restaurant and displayed a bare foot. Mike rated them a 7 out of 10 and began his sexual survey: It started with "ever sleep with a woman?" and goes downhill from there - making even me uncomfortable.
"Now you're getting close to the line," the waitress snapped.
"I'm just trying to determine the line."
On a Saturday afternoon the phone rings at home and I answer. Mike is in town visiting an old friend and I tell him to stop by. He never met the family before but he long ago became one of the colorful characters in my life.
A cardboard banker's box in my basement is filled with Guglielmo stuff dating back to 1991, yellowing letters, newspaper articles, copies of lawsuits and doodle drawings. One year I sent Mike a Christmas picture card of our new son. At Concord he had a fellow con draw Kevin's face and Red Sox cap in dark pencil on a big sheet of white paper. Gifts like that you remember.
An hour later, Mike and his girlfriend, Christina, pull up in a green Dodge with a Howard Dean bumper sticker. Mike is shining a powerful spotlight on the front stoop, looking for a street number. I walk halfway out the stone path to greet him. He says something like, "You coming out here to tell me how to act in a respectable home?"
Just like when he called. He was unsure if he was invited. He asked me what I wanted to do - meet him somewhere, have him come over? I said "C'mon over, you're always welcome." There's that little hesitance, like he's on the lookout to see if he's being treated differently. He gets the same way when I don't call him back right away.
When Mike first told me about Christina, I couldn't believe it. She is the girl who pedaled her bicycle to the police barricade and watched Mike shoot up the West Side neighborhood. She was 13 and lived nearby and thought Mike was cool. He talked to her and thought she was cute for a kid. Too bad she wasn't older. Then Mike went off to prison. For a couple of years they kept in touch writing letters, but soon everything faded.
Fifteen years later, Mike walks free and by chance bumps into Christina's sister outside a store. He gives her a business card and Christina called a week later. They meet once at a job site and then at his apartment and soon Christina moves in. Christina sees something special in Mike. She knows his sense of humor and personality, doesn't take his crap.
"Mike has rough edges - but no kiddin', he's been in prison his whole life," she says matter-of-factly one day in their apartment. "He definitely knows which way to go. It's just a question if he wants to."
Christina is a sweetheart, attractive, not exactly dainty, with blond hair and black roots, a hard-luck Manchester girl who married young, got divorced and remarried a guy named Nick. She and Nick now are getting divorced. She has custody of their 3-year-old boy and is carrying Nick's baby when Guglielmo strolls into the picture. Christina has her own history too: When she was 15 she suspected her boyfriend was seeing another woman so she set his house on fire and watched them walk outside together. She did three years on an arson conviction at the New Hampshire Youth Development Center in Manchester. Bonnie and Clyde.
Mike sits upright on the beige sofa, his elbow resting on the arm, stroking his tough-guy goatee, a black stone on his finger. He says he just quit his job siding houses.
So why'd you do that?
Not enough money, I gotta go on my own.
Christina declines an offer for cheese and crackers that Mike overrules. "I want cheese and crackers!" He's laughing out loud at himself, clapping his hands out in front, the star of his own sitcom. Another time, he paused in my dining room, backed up and posed like a prizefighter in front of a mirror. "It's a cryyyyyme they kept me locked up this way," he growls. "It's a cryyyyyme!"
Now Mike is wrestling with Kevin, our 5-year-old, turning him upside down and spinning him around. "You want some of this, booooooy? Bring it on!" Kevin punches Mike in the arm, rolls a blue Hot Wheels car on his thigh. I notice how Kevin immediately takes to Mike. Christina reaches over and fixes a thin gold chain on Mike's left wrist. "You like that?" Mike calls out to no one and everyone. "Some nice gold right there, broth-aaaah."
I ask if he's worried about starting the new company. "Hell no. I got some savings." My wife Cathy pulls away Brian, our 20-month-old, because he has a cold and she doesn't want him to pass it along. "I'm immune to colds," Mike says. It's nonstop. He's always asserting control: I'm starting my own company. I'm immune to colds. I ain't afraid.
Now Kevin is bombarding Mike with cardboard bricks. They're mixing it up pretty good, Kevin bumping and crashing into Mike on the beige couch. I'm thinking, this guy has more energy than me to play with the kids. Good for him. Then Kevin is sailing through the air and thumping into the next couch. Thud. Don't f----n' bite me! Mike growls at Kevin, whose eyes are filling up. Kevin says Mike was squeezing him too tight and wouldn't let go so that's why he bit him on the jeans. Kevin's not a biter. I look for eyes - Kevin, my wife, Mike, Christina. Nothing. Two minutes later Mike and Kevin are wrestling again as if nothing happened.
Later that night I ask Cathy about what happened. Was that too rough or am I imagining things? Kevin has never cried in pain while playing with an adult, she says, and I agree. But Kevin went back to him. Go figure. Mike is like the old college pal who still hangs around and the wives can't see the big deal. The married guys can't get enough because he's Mr. Id and plays with all the toys they had to put away.
"The established guy is the safe guy," Mike tells me one day at the Barley House. "People like me? We're not safe, we're renegades, man. We're liable to do anything and destroy everything. We're quick to jump, ya know?"
`They're Not Me'
The inmates stood and cheered the TV set on the tier. It was January 1986 and the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded and vanished with its crew. The prisoners were applauding the failure, the chaos, something. Guglielmo couldn't believe what he was watching: people celebrating the death of American pioneers. These people, they're not me, he told himself. "I don't belong here."
He was at the Valley Street Jail in Manchester and his trial wouldn't start for several more months. But he felt something shift inside. Later he tested to a seventh-grade education level in math and reading. They told him he had the mind of a 14-year-old. He felt humiliated. Guglielmo's transformation grew from the hard soil of those two prison moments. He went on to complete drug programs, alcohol programs, vocational programs. He got his GED and a high school diploma. He earned his bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, graduating cum laude in 1997 from Ohio University's correspondence program. He would leave Concord with a master's degree in political philosophy from California State University - the only inmate in state history to get a master's after starting that far behind.
Guglielmo was the last guy on anyone's list to claw his way back. During the criminal trial, Cronheim, his lawyer, held such a losing hand that he called only one witness - a woman at the house party who testified that Mike was out of his mind. Now in private practice in the seacoast town of Portsmouth, Cronheim has stayed with Mike the whole way, handling everything pro bono, taking more collect calls than I ever did.
The big moment came in July 2002 when Judge Pappagianis walked out of retirement and into the same courthouse where he had buried Guglielmo in 1986. This time he used the front door and sat in the first wooden bench on the Guglielmo side, next to Judith Jordan. Six Manchester police officers opposed Guglielmo's request for a five-year sentence reduction. They brought the compact Mac-10 with them to the hearing. A captain said the slugs still rang in his ears. A retired lieutenant recalled shaking broken chandelier glass from his hair.
But Pappagianis had been touched by a series of letters he exchanged with Guglielmo, who had written the judge about his education and accomplishments. The courtroom fell silent when Pappagianis, now nearing 80 and frail, was sworn in and took a seat in the witness box. He recalled saddling Guglielmo with a third consecutive 7�-year sentence. He said there was one reason and he had to make good.
"I thought the chances of his being rehabilitated were almost nil. I was wrong. He could be rehabilitated."
The presiding judge cut five years off the sentence and with the bang of a gavel it was over. Mike hugged his supporters, first his mother, then his younger brother, Tom, his father and his sister, Lisa, who was like his agent and for years helped pay for his courses and kept everyone posted on his lastest degrees, battles and hearings. Mike then made one more promise to his mother.
"I'll be home at Christmas next year, Mom!"
The cell phone squawks in Mike's Concord apartment. Black Dragon to Baby Dragon. It's his friend Buddy, who's stopping at Dunkin' Donuts on the way over. Mike sits at the computer table in his black Hanes briefs - his cracker shorts - with a cup of tea. Next he's down on the floor with 3-year-old Alex, Christina's son. He tosses Alex onto his bed and he bumps the headboard.
"How's your head feel against that wall boy?" Mike teases Alex.
Christina opens the window blinds and the morning light filters in. Buddy climbs the creaky back stairs and walks in, a big, solid, bald-headed guy in a black leather jacket. He puts down the tray of coffee and everyone gets their doughnut, a sprinkled one for Alex.
"Can you say, `Thank you Buddy?'" Christina asks Alex.
"Look at his eyes," Buddy says as Alex lights up.
That night we decide on pizza. Before we head outside, Alex starts to fade the way 3-year-olds do. He's tired. He's lying face down on the floor and says he's not going anywhere. Mike picks him up and wrestles with him. "Keep steppin'," he says to Alex, "get to steppin'." Alex still isn't going and Mike gets frustrated.
"What else can I do?" he snaps.
Another day in the apartment, Christina told me about the time Mike confronted Nick, Alex's father.
It was after her baby was born in April. She designated Mike to accompany her during the C-section. Nick visited her twice in the post-op room. Mike sent Nick e-mail pictures. In one Mike is wearing only his underwear. He's cradling the baby - Nick's flesh and blood - on his naked tattooed chest, smirking like howdoyalikethat?
Mike attached a note, dated Sunday, May 2, 2004, 10:21 a.m. It read: "Christina told you we would have no issues if you did not disrespect her and yet ... you went in her hospital room twice after a major operation and upset her..." Mike called Nick "selfish," "spoiled" and an "ungrateful punk." They crossed paths at Christina's mother's house in Manchester during a kid drop and had words. When Christina and Nick went back to divorce court in June, the e-mails turned up in the file, drawing the judge's wrath and jeopardizing everything Mike and Christina had built together, every break he ever earned. The divorce court judges ordered Mike to stay away from Christina and the kids until the settlement goes through.
Mike and Christina pick me up in West Hartford en route to Long Island - a road trip to meet his family, stop in Manhattan and to look up his old pal Manfredi.
We stop at an Exxon station to tank up. Mike and I stand outside his car at the pump, inhaling gas fumes. Over the hum of passing cars, Mike turns to philosophy, Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and noble savages. Christina is inside paying for the gas and then returns, hollering that we better not be checking out women from behind our sunglasses, all good fun. As she approaches, Mike locks his hands around her neck, gets her in a choke hold, starts yanking her head harder than I'm comfortable with.
Then I realize they're just horsing around. She slaps him hard on his head. Thwack! They continue wrestling. Christina is tough, gives as good as she gets. "You better stop abusing me," she tells him in the car, laughing aloud as Mike pulls onto Trout Brook.
Mike can shift mental gears on a dime - from political philosophers to the lowest gutter. I bring up Manfredi and call the guy a stone-cold killer for bashing in his wife's skull with a baseball bat and convincing a jury she contributed to his altered emotional state.
"There were mitigating circumstances," Mike says, dead serious. "The bitch was a gold digger who wanted a Mercedes and a house. She was constantly harassing him for more money, more this, more that."
A little later, I give him a hard time and he mocks his own words.
Now in Manhattan, Mike dials Manfredi on his cell phone. We park in a garage, walk a few city blocks and Manfredi is waiting in front of Solontro's restaurant at First and 69th. He looks like a middle-age Fonzi in a white ski jacket, his dark hair flecked with gray. He served 12 of his 15-year sentence and walked in 2002. He's doing medical research for a law firm.
The waiter arrives and Manfredi recommends the fajitas. "For your heart, chicken is better; for taste, it's beef," the former cardiologist advises me.
I get them to tell some Somers stories. It seems a lot of guys bugged Manfredi for help with the books and he resented the mooching. Mike marked up the chapter page with yellow highlighter, scribbled notes in the margins. "He would open the books," Manfredi says. "He came with specific questions."
Now Manfredi tells me how Mike started to channel his energy and grow. "I was a little subtle voice in his ear saying, `That's not the way to do things.' You could see his conscience developing over months as his sense of good and evil came more into focus."
I keep a straight face. Soon we're done eating, and Manfredi is hugging everyone but me and he's off.
The next morning we visit Northport Village, an old whaling port where small sailboats now skim the waters feeding Long Island Sound. That's where Mike grew up in a Dutch Colonial with cedar shingles next to a white steepled church on a main drag.
At a gazebo near the water, Judith Jordan shows up with Mike's sister, Lisa, his brother, Tom, and some of Mike's high school friends. We go to Jordan's nearby apartment and sit at the kitchen table while the sun sets outside the window. Lisa doesn't come along. Mike has all but banished her from his life, fired his agent. She pulled out of her plan to move to Concord and help him get started. Instead, she got married and got pregnant and decided to focus on her own life.
Over time Mike would boot Buddy from his life in a hassle over money for a truck. He doesn't see much gray. Friends are loyal or they're out, family members too. This isn't D Block anymore, I'd tell him. It's not life-and-death combat. Let up a little. Then I'd back off. Mike is almost like a guy who just walked out of college. He missed most of his 20s and all of his 30s - the same years I did a lot of growing up, years I lived on a different side of the concrete and barbed wire. Jordan gets out some old scrapbooks and everyone's telling Mike stories from his wayward youth. One time Jordan's 1970 Camaro was missing from the driveway. She informed Mike, hollered to him at the top of the stairs, and he replied, "Really?" Jordan puts out some cookies, tea and coffee and Mike takes over.
"I cut a key and figured I may as well use it," he says, breaking everyone up in laughter.
Another time Mike broke into a fire-damaged store and stole cartons of wet cigarettes he couldn't smoke. Then more laughter and Jordan tells us about the time a town police officer pulled her over for a traffic violation. Mike, by this time, had moved to New Hampshire. The police officer checked her driver's license and recognized the last name.
"You've been through enough, lady, you can go," she remembered the officer saying.
We look at a Little League team picture from 1972. Mike is the skinny kid in the front row with the oversized hat and glove, in the white flannel uniform trimmed in royal blue. That was me, too, in Rhode Island, same age, build, eager smile. I ask if I can take the picture for a while, maybe run it with the story. I set it on my desk at work.
On a late summer day at home I pick up the phone and dial Mike to go over some details in the story. The conversation drifts back over all the phone calls, all the years. Our separate journeys, parallel in time.
What is it with us? The bond has to be thicker than ink. I guess in a lot of ways we're still a couple of 29-year-old guys grinding away, hoping to get noticed. Except now we're 42. I tell Mike he inspires me, the way he covered the longest road in American criminal justice, the road back. In the phone receiver I hear what sound like sobs - maybe Mike's small concession to me. Should I acknowledge it? Ask him if he's OK? I let it go for now. Then my cell phone battery dies and he's gone. The man without a face.
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