As an author, one of the best compliments you can receive from a reader is they really appreciated the way you “Got into the heads” of the characters, especially the criminals. Since I write thrillers and procedurals, there’s no shortage of bad guys doing bad things. The follow up question is usually something like, where did that familiarity with the criminal mind come from? While I point to my nearly thirty years immersed in that world, I know, deep down, that my understanding of the criminal world comes from something much darker…
I was a criminal
Sort of. Let me explain.
One position I held in my prison career was outside the walls in a regular office building in downtown Sacramento. During the respite from the cellblock without the chance of having urine tossed at you when you walked down the tier, I joined a commuter vanpool to make the hour and a half drive into the city. The van was ecologically friendly and allowed me to catch up on reading during the trip.
The problem was the vanpool driver was a bit of an officious jerk. As a minor functionary in a state department where he counted fruit flies in agricultural samples, he ran the vanpool like his own personal rolling gulag. Among his rules were no music, no talking, and we had a schedule to keep, so there would be no waiting for you at your stop. If you weren’t there for the evening pickup, he would not wait. I wrote the last point off as bluster until one evening he pulled away when a woman was a half a block away from her designated stop.
We yelled, “There she is!” as we spotted her running to the street corner. He didn’t care and drove off. This happened more than once, abandoning riders in the city, miles from home.
One evening, a meeting in the Governor’s office ran late. I’m watching the clock like a kid in high school waiting for the bell. It wasn’t like I could stop the meeting and say, “Sorry, gotta go.” When the meeting ended, I had less than two minutes to make it to my designated street corner for pickup, so I started hoofing it.
I’m less than half a block away and a white commuter van pulled to the curb. I speed up my pace and as I’m almost there, the van pulls away. I’m waving, trying to get the driver’s attention. He’s not so much as tapping the brakes.
A car pulls to the curb, and the driver lowers the window. “That your van?” After I told him it was, he told me to hop in. He explained he’d been in a vanpool before and knew what missing the connection was like. He stepped on the gas and shot down the street after the van.
I told him where the next stop was and the way he was shooting in and around traffic we could get to that pickup spot before the van. This guy nodded and channeled his inner Starsky & Hutch and overtaking the van. He drove alongside the white beast for another block. He’d honked his horn trying to get the driver’s attention, but nothing. The windows were blacked out, so I couldn’t see if the other passengers were signaling him to stop.
I explained how this jerk didn’t wait when passengers ran late. He tightened his grip on the wheel and told me to hang on.
In a move my rescuer must have practiced on a video game, he shot past the van and slid his car diagonally in front of the van, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes and stop the runaway commuter van. I was getting on this van.
I thanked my champion, hopped from his car, and trotted to the van.
The faces peering out from the van’s front windshield bore all the marking of shock, surprise, with a bit of fear mixed in for good measure, especially from the driver. Good.
Except for the fact this wasn’t my van. I didn’t know any of the people staring out at me. The people I’d just carjacked. I took down the wrong van.
I waved to my rescuer, and he drove off. Then a tossed a casual “Hi there,” to the confused van driver and my kidnapping victims. I shouldered my messenger bag and strode on past the van, never turning back.
A block ahead, I spotted my van pulled to the curb, waiting at my designated stop. So, I trotted to the van and climbed aboard. Never mentioning my crime spree to the occupants.
So, when readers say I’ve captured the criminal mind. I thank them, and they are content to believe it comes from my time working in and around the convict population. But you and I know, it comes from something a little more personal—when I resorted to carjacking a van full of commuters.
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been twice nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery and Best Thriller, as well as The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include Dead Drop, Black Label, At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River. L’Etoile’s Black Label garnered a Silver Falchion Award for the Best Book by an Attending Author at the 2022 Killer Nashville Conference. Look for The Devil You Know in the summer of 2023. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com