A Dangerous Mind

By day, he was a popular law student. By night, a bank robber with blood on his hands.

Stephen Jackson
A dark figure in Timberland boots lingered at the change machine. He had been there for half an hour, each minute punctuated by the tink-tink-tink of quarters cascading steadily from the machine.

The customer washing his car nearby didn't know what the man was up to, but he knew it was no good. After the spin cycle, he flagged down a passing cop on Detroit Avenue.

Officer Gary Malloy pulled into the parking lot, got out, and approached the suspect on foot. As he got closer, he saw that the man was wearing latex gloves stained cherry-red with security dye.

Turn around and put your hands against the wall, Malloy ordered.

"I'm not doing anything wrong," the man protested.

Malloy grabbed him and pushed him against the wall. The officer reached for his cuffs. Fumbled. The perp took off running.

"Stop!" Malloy yelled, running after him.

Two cruisers pulled up. They boxed the suspect in.

An officer on foot grabbed the man's hood. He wriggled out of the sleeves. The coat hit the street. Quarters splashed everywhere -- hundreds of dollars in quarters.

The man zigzagged across Detroit. A cop tackled him. Others piled on. A mist of pepper spray filled the air.

That took the fight out of him. One of the officers was compassionate enough to go into nearby McCarthy's bar to get a pitcher of water to wash out the suspect's eyes.

By the end of the night, it was clear this was more than just tampering with a change machine. A Charter One Bank in Cleveland had been robbed that morning, the fourth in a series of armed bank robberies. This man and his accomplice had jumped counters, held guns to people's heads, and threatened to splatter them like flies. All told, their spree took in $165,000.

Only the last bank stuck him with a dye pack. So, after mailing half the money to his accomplice, the man made his way, appropriately enough, to Ultimate Car Wash in Lakewood to launder the money into a more usable, if unwieldy, form: quarters.

As the television news splashed his mugshot across the screen, one group paid particular attention: the Black Law Students Association at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. The lawyers-in-training studied the mugshot, seeing something familiar in the root-beer-colored eyes, the smudge of a mustache, the Doublemint smile.

This was Stephen Jackson. This was the man they had just elected as their president.

In spring 2004, as the ballots came in from the group's 40-odd members, counting them quickly became academic. Stephen Jackson had won. By a landslide. He hadn't even bothered to campaign.

The victory came as no surprise to those who knew him around campus. He was a golf partner, a ride home, a calming voice, a slap on the back. On nights out in the Warehouse District, he came dressed to the nines and smoked fine, flavored cigars.

The other first-year students didn't quite know what to make of Jackson. While they were hustling around trying to keep their heads above water, he took law school on cruise control. He strolled into every class as if he were just auditing. He went so far as to bring a blender to class and make himself a shake during the lecture. Another time, he snacked on a bucket of chicken.

"That's a no-no," says his professor, Alan Weinstein, smiling.

He got away with it because he seemed so cool. Go to his house and he'd cook steak, lobster, and French bread. He had a beautiful wife and two daughters, ages two and five. And his confidence was contagious. Close friend Ameet Habib remembers Jackson talking him off the ledge during exams.

"He was just like, 'Look, you need to calm yourself down. You know this stuff,'" says Habib. "He was just there to help me out."

He was equally impressive to professional lawyers, the group he one day hoped to join.

"I saw so much promise there," recalls Rufus Sims, a defense attorney whom Jackson shadowed. "People liked him. They trusted him."

What none of them knew was that Jackson had arrived at school with a dark secret. The popular, easygoing student was actually a convicted murderer.

Carroll Jackson opens a dusty album. In it are yellowing photos of a little boy with a soft afro and Chiclet teeth. This is his son, Stephen.

At an early age, the boy distinguished himself as a scholar. By age 7, he was reading insatiably. Dozens of certificates attest to his scholastic achievements.

"I think one time he made honor roll just to prove to me he could do it," Carroll says, smiling fondly. "I bet you didn't know he was an avid scuba diver."

It all went wrong in, of all places, the Red Lobster.

Stephen was born in inner-city Washington, D.C., but soon after, Carroll and his wife, Rosa Lee, both postal workers, moved to the more placid suburb of Hillcrest Heights, Maryland.

As he got older, Stephen seemed drawn to the streets and the lure of easy cash. He was working at Red Lobster when a friend showed off a gangster roll of bills. Drug money.

That day, Jackson invested his entire paycheck in cocaine.

He dealt drugs until he was 17. Then, one snowy night, Jackson found himself pointing a gun in the parking lot of a liquor store called the 51 Club. At the other end was 28-year-old Johnnie Blocker. He'd stolen money from Jackson. A couple thousand. Now Jackson was gonna make him pay.

A crowd gathered. Jackson's sweaty palm gripped the .22 pistol. His friends cheered him on.

Pop! Jackson squeezed off a round into Blocker's arm. Pop! Another one. Pop! Blocker fell to the ground, pouring blood.

Cops caught up with Jackson a few days later -- he made the classic mistake of returning to the crime scene. After a brief chase, he was apprehended. The police called Carroll, and he arrived at the station to find his son handcuffed to a chair, looking up at him.

"It was like going to a funeral," Carroll says.

Jackson pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He did his time at Lorten Prison in D.C., nicknamed "the Hill."

With nothing else to do, Jackson returned to his childhood passion for learning. He took classes through the University of Maryland. In the prison library, he pored over Nietzsche and Tolstoy, books so dense they constituted their own workout regimen.

"It just kept me out of the madness," he says. "I was just constantly growing, learning. That whole time was like a cocoon."

In prison, Jackson met Dawn, who would become his wife and the mother of his two children. She was a volunteer with prison ministries in Georgia. They were pen pals at first, but eventually the friendship turned to romance.

When Jackson came up for parole, he turned on the charm, and it worked. At age 25, only eight years into his sentence, the kid gangster Carroll had said goodbye to in 1987 walked through the heavy steel doors a free man.

Jackson drank in his freedom as if it were a glass of Merlot. He finished a bachelor's degree in Spanish. Carroll got to see what he'd all but given up on: his son walking across the stage in cap and gown to accept his diploma.

It was the first of many proud moments. In 1999, Dawn gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Three years later, she gave her daughter a baby sister. The young family lived with Carroll in Jackson's childhood home.

When Jackson announced he was moving to Cleveland to go to law school, his father had a bad feeling. But it was one of the few schools that accepted him, and Dawn wanted to be close to her family, which lives in Warren. So shortly before the fall of 2003, Carroll said goodbye to his son.

"I just try to think back in my head to see if I missed something," says Carroll.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Jackson turned back to a life of crime -- if he ever really left. No one -- not classmates, friends, or family -- remembers sensing anything wrong. The first crime for which he was charged was committed May 15, 2004, but prosecutors hint at evidence of his involvement in earlier robberies.

More clear is how Jackson's criminal enterprise worked. He partnered with a man named Dennis Harris, whom he met New Year's Eve 2003, at a party hosted by the Black Law Students Association. Harris was dating a law student, but had spent his life as a criminal. Convictions for selling cocaine and possessing guns had kept the 34-year-old orbiting in and out of jails since he was 13.

As the law students began cramming for exams, Jackson and Harris made preparations for another kind of test. First, they would need a getaway car.

At 2:30 a.m. on May 15, 2004, Lawrence Grady and his girlfriend, Monique Huffman, were coming home from a night on the town. Grady backed his white Chevy Tahoe into the driveway of his Euclid home and shut off the engine.

From the shadows, Jackson and Harris emerged, wearing ski masks and brandishing handguns. They pointed the pistols at Grady's and Huffman's heads and ordered them out of the truck and into the house.

At the front door, Grady struggled with his keys. Either Jackson or Harris -- the police reports don't make clear which -- bashed Grady in the head with the butt of his gun, bloodying his scalp.

Inside, his attackers bound, gagged, and blindfolded him with duct tape. They took his girlfriend into the living room and ordered her down on her knees.

They ransacked the house, stealing a DVD player, a PlayStation, and several throwback jerseys. On the way out, they snatched Grady's wallet and car keys. Then they drove his Tahoe off into the night.

A cold rain was falling seven hours later, as the men parked Jackson's car behind a pharmacy on Detroit Road in Westlake. This car would be the "switch," a getaway car to use after ditching the Tahoe.

Next they drove the Tahoe into the parking lot of the Charter One Bank on Columbia Road. In Jackson's lap was a .38 chrome revolver. Harris carried a toy pistol. Both men wore black ski masks. Jackson brought his kid's pink plastic backpack to carry the loot.

Inside, the bank was quiet. Three women -- two tellers and an assistant manager --chatted and counted money.

Harris and Jackson jogged into the lobby, guns drawn, and announced that this was a robbery. One of the men brought the manager out from behind her desk and into the lobby. The other ordered a teller to empty her cash drawer.

She was taking too long. The man jumped the counter and grabbed the cash -- just over $4,000 -- himself.

On the way out, Jackson accidentally dropped the pink backpack on the floor.

Seconds later, they were speeding off on Detroit Road. Harris lost control of the wheel. The Tahoe swerved. Jackson's door, still slightly ajar, flew open. He rolled out onto the street.

The SUV careened off the road and flipped into a shallow ravine, landing upside down in the brush. Amazingly, no one saw the accident. And with incredible luck, they'd manage to crash right next to the pharmacy.

Harris crawled out of the Tahoe and ran up the hill. Jackson dashed to the switch car and pulled it around to pick his partner up.

Meanwhile, back at the bank, police interviewed the shaken tellers and dusted the pink backpack for fingerprints. Nothing. The robbers had worn gloves.

A month later, Jackson and an accomplice -- possibly Harris, though he was never charged with the robbery -- knocked off the Huntington Bank on Clifton Boulevard in Lakewood.

The game plan was exactly the same: One man brought the desk clerk into the center of the lobby. The other jumped the counter and looted the drawer. The take: $5,600.

The two heists had netted under $10,000 -- chump change for the risk. So Jackson altered his plan. For this one, he would need the help of his wife, Dawn.

He cased the Fifth Third Bank inside the Tops market at East 119th and Superior to determine the timing of a Brinks truck delivery. The day of the robbery, Harris met Jackson a few blocks away with a black Toyota Corolla he had stolen to use as the getaway. Dawn and their two kids parked across the street from the grocery store. She would act as lookout.

Once the Brinks truck arrived, Jackson stormed the bank with an accomplice -- again, it may have been Harris, but he was never charged with the crime. One of the two brandished a shotgun. When a teller insisted that she didn't have keys to the cash drawers, he started counting down: "Five, four, three . . .," as if he were going to splatter her brains on the wall.

"I don't have the keys!" she kept shouting, trying not to look in his eyes.

Finally, the men gave up. They grabbed the plastic bag of money that had just been delivered -- $54,000 -- and vanished.

Jackson couldn't resist going for one more big score.

In August, shortly before the start of the next school year and Jackson's inauguration as president of the Black Law Students Association, he received a visit from his half-sister, Angela, and his old friend Corey Jones.

Jones was a childhood chum of Jackson's brother, Thomas, who was serving a life sentence in federal prison for cocaine trafficking. As for Jones, he had just come out of prison after serving several years on a drug rap.

When Angela left to go home, Jones stayed. On the morning of August 18, he drove Jackson to the Charter One Bank on Clifton Boulevard in Cleveland. This time, Jackson was going in alone.

Bridgette Kelly's seven-year-old son, Shawn, had begged his mom to go to a different bank that morning. But this one was on the way to the grocery store, so she ignored his protests. Inside, she was chatting with one of the tellers while Shawn wandered through the lobby, stopping to play with the deposit slips.

Suddenly, a sneakered foot came down on the counter next to her. Jackson, wearing a ski mask, jumped into the teller's area, pulled out a black 9mm, and held out a duffel bag. "Get me money, now!" he shouted.

Kelly dove to the ground and pressed her face into the carpet, her heart beating in her ears over Jackson's pounding voice. Then she looked up and saw Shawn. He was on the other side of the lobby, alone.

"I was scared out of my mind," says Kelly. "I didn't know what to do, and I saw my baby just sitting there."

She did the only thing she could. "Get down!" she hissed at him. He quietly obeyed, hushed by the look of animal fear in his mother's eyes, and started inching toward her on his stomach. When he crawled within reach, Kelly grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled his face tight against hers. "Shh, let's just stay down, don't move," she whispered. Shawn lay limp, his face buried in the rug.

Kelly heard packs of bills thudding into the duffel bag. She heard the man jumping back over the counter. Then she heard footsteps; he was running out the door.

"It was the longest time of my life," Kelly says.

Jackson had made off with more than $100,000. But as he and Jones sped off, a popping noise came from inside the duffel bag. The teller had thrown a dye pack in with the money. It exploded, staining the crisp stacks bright red.

The pair ditched the car and fled west on foot, following the train tracks back to Jackson's Lakewood home. There, they tried to figure out how to save the money.

Jackson sent Dawn to the store to buy latex gloves and soap. She tried to scrub the dye from the bills in the sink, but it was useless.

That afternoon, Jackson drove Jones to Hopkins Airport, where he caught a Southwest flight home to Maryland. Jackson packed $50,000 in cash into a FedEx box and sent it to a fake name and address, where Jones planned to pick it up.

Later that night, Jackson threw a stack of the soiled bills into a plastic bag and drove down the street to the Ultimate Car Wash.

After Jackson's arrest, cops found thousands of dollars in dye-stained cash on him and in his car. In the wee hours of the following morning, federal agents searched Jackson's home. They found a grocery bag filled with money, a ski mask, .38 caliber bullets, and a red-stained handgun.

Dawn was handcuffed and taken to jail. She started talking.

The Feds also found a FedEx receipt at the Jackson home. Two days later, agents in Maryland staked out the designated pick-up area and arrested Jones as he came to retrieve the package.

Dawn told the authorities where to go next. Agents found Harris at his girlfriend's house. He agreed to take a car ride, and he quickly rolled on Jackson too.

As he sat in the Lakewood jail days after his arrest, Jackson was told he had a visitor. It was Ameet Habib, his good friend from law school.

Habib had seen the news and felt the pull of friendship. But almost as soon as he saw Jackson, he realized the visit was a bad idea. The two talked uncomfortably around the obvious questions.

"He was still trying to crack jokes and act jovial and shit," says Habib. "But you could kind of tell that he wasn't the same -- or maybe it was just because I was looking at him different."

The evidence was overwhelming against Jackson. But he had a plan. One that didn't involve going to trial.

By spring of 2005, he had been transferred to Ashtabula County Jail, where he awaited transport by U.S. marshals. On Sunday, April 24, as the inmates in the third-floor pod trudged upstairs for church, Jackson and another inmate, Michael Hegyi -- also in for bank robbery -- lagged behind.

In Jackson's sock was a map he had secretly torn from the prison's Yellow Pages. In his palm he hid a plastic comb that he had whittled into a razor.

Corrections officer Barbara Burgoon stood at the door. Jackson waited for her to look away, then pounced. He put the comb to her throat and forced her into the pantry. Hegyi tied her hands and feet with elastic bands ripped from underpants.

At the top of the stairwell, David Hemminger, a tall, burly guard, waited for the call from Burgoon that all the inmates had left the third floor. It never came. But Hemminger shrugged it off. Maybe she'd forgotten. With all the inmates seemingly accounted for, he walked to the control desk to update his log.

Jackson and Hegyi crept up the stairs. Jackson tiptoed behind Hemminger, then jumped him. Jackson hooked his arm around Hemminger's head and rested the shiv at his Adam's apple.

Hand over the elevator keys, Jackson demanded.

Hegyi tried to tie Hemminger's arms, but the guard shoved him away. That's when the beating started. Jackson swung at Hemminger's head as if it were a speed bag.

"I said, 'Jackson, knock it off. I'll help you get out of this,'" Hemminger remembers pleading. "And he goes, 'What the fuck can you do for me?' And he plowed me right in the face."

As Hemminger lay bleeding and barely conscious, Jackson took his keys. He and Hegyi rode the elevator down to the jail's basement. They ran up some stairs, opened the back door, and felt the cold winter air hit them in the face.

In the parking lot, the pair split up. Hegyi was arrested just minutes later, after trying to carjack a family in a minivan. Jackson made it to a nearby patch of woods and ran for his life.

The guards let loose the dogs. Jackson submerged himself in a stream, but it was freezing. He felt himself growing weak.

He tried to run, fell to the ground, purple from the cold, covered in mud and Hemminger's blood.

As Jackson's trial neared, he copped a plea to armed bank robbery. Judge Solomon Oliver gave him 40 years, no parole. Jackson now claims to be innocent and is appealing the sentence.

To visit Jackson now requires a drive up a winding mountain road in rugged West Virginia. At the top lies a fortress of razor wire -- the federal penitentiary nicknamed "Ice Station Hazelton" for the fierce arctic winds that shred its flags like knives.

Jackson is still the slick, confident man breezing his way through adversity. He still thinks he can talk his way out of anything. Asked why he was at the car wash that night with a bag of dye-stained cash, he replies, simply, "Racism."

It's not much of a defense, but it's all he's got. And Jackson zealously keeps up with his appeals.

Part of it is the lawyer in him -- though, truth be told, he was flunking out of law school at the time of his arrest. But the other reason is that it breaks the long stretch of hard time into a manageable series of freedom runs.

And if he never gets out? Jackson says he's still cool. "I'm very well known, very well respected," he explains, flashing a million-dollar smile. "No worries, no fears."

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