Thursday, April 5, 2001
The front steps of the Mexicali courthouse look more like a flea market than an entrance to the hallowed halls of justice. A chaotic maze of carts selling coffee, candy, fruit and tacos winds through the plaza to the steps of the boxy concrete building. From the roof of the courthouse, a handful of crouching guards, machine guns casually laid across their knees, look down on the impromptu mercado.
A door to the left leads to the carcel, the Mexicali federal prison housed under the same roof as the courthouse. Despite the menacing picture painted by the heavily armed guards and the stark facade of the building, getting inside to see prisoner Carrie Klein is easier than I had imagined. After surrendering my ID and bag to a uniformed gatekeeper, I follow a prison guard through the narrow halls leading to the women''s cell block. No one checks me for weapons.
The skunky perfume of mota smoke wafts through the passageway leading to a small room where a female prison guard slumps on a stool. As I''m ushered into a cramped, unlit cubicle a few feet away, the guard shouts "Carrieee!" through a window into a stark room adorned with simple tables and chairs where a crowd of female prisoners lounge.
Seconds later, Klein appears in the opposite cubicle. Through the thick turquoise-painted metal mesh that separates us, I''m at first unable to focus for more than a few moments. When my eyes finally adjust and I manage to catch a steady look at her face, Klein''s enormous pale blue eyes hit me with a haunting radiance. Backlit by a small window emitting the only light in the room, the 20-year-old''s flawless, milky skin glows with ghostly luster. Her short, dark hair is restrained by a headband, revealing the delicate angles of her face and a graceful neck.
Despite the dim lighting, it''s evident that this girl is stunning. It doesn''t makes her banishment to a squalid Mexican prison any more horrific. But in a society raised on fairy tales, caged beauty conjures a certain tragic romanticism. Only Klein, who on this day is wishing like hell she was back home in Salinas, isn''t holding her breath for her knight in shining armor.
At first she did. After she was imprisoned in Mexico for stealing a car, Christopher Woltmon, her boyfriend at the time and the guy she names as her partner in crime, said he would come back for her. For weeks following Klein''s conviction, Woltmon, who had returned to Monterey County a free man, called her frequently, promising somehow to spring her from jail. Six months later, Klein still languished in the Mexicali prison and had long since stopped accepting his calls.
During my interview with Klein, frequent shrill shouts echo through the hallways. Meanwhile, prisoners peer though the window and occasionally try to enter the room. Klein says they want to ask me for money. Delivering gentle rebuffs in Spanish, she coaxes them out of the room.
Halfway through our talk, Kelley, a gregarious redhead from Oklahoma, enters the room on Klein''s side. Kelley is pregnant and one of three American women locked up in the prison. The third is a woman from Calexico, Calif., just across the border from Mexicali.
Kelley delivers an inquiry from her fellow inmates. "They want to know what the American is doing here," Kelley informs me, adding, "It''s not every day an American comes to visit."
Klein tells her I''m a reporter. Later, Kelley returns with a message. A wry smile crossing her face, she says, "They told me to tell you to send the Americans to save them."
In April of last year, when Klein was working as a barista at the Cherry Bean coffeehouse in Salinas, she met Christopher Michael Woltmon, one of the crowd that hung out at the downtown cafe. At 27, Woltmon was not only older but far more worldly than Klein. According to court records, in 1994 he was convicted of burglary for robbing a Monterey home and sentenced to four years in state prison and up to four years of parole. Like any respectable ex-con, Woltmon, who identifies himself with the Irish Republic Army, sports a collection of tattoos. His include "IRA" inked inside one arm and "SINN FEIN" spelled across his fingers.
The attraction followed a well-worn cliché: Bad boy meets nice girl and they fall in love. That certain irresistible motorcycle-riding, James Dean-esque charisma, along with his edgy good looks--a tall, lanky frame and blonde hair cropped close to the head--captured Klein''s heart. "He was really sweet to me, the things he would say," she says. "He was someone I could talk to."
"I think she was looking for somebody to love," says her mother Maribeth Klein, who divorced Carrie''s father when the girl was a senior in high school. "When Chris walked into her life and said, ''I love you,'' that''s all it took."
Klein''s friends and mother describe her as innocent and naîve, as someone who has never been in trouble with the law, who doesn''t drink or dabble in drugs. Yet life on the edge seemed to attract her. Despite her straight-laced life and quiet demeanor, Klein listened to ska and punk and dressed in a manner her friend Julie Waters calls "modern punk." Her daily garb still consists of a white men''s undershirt, black Converse sneakers, low-slung pants and a jeans jacket, and she wears her hair short and spiky. Even her dog, Dreamer, a Rottweiler/pit bull mix, looks tough.
Waters also describes Klein as trusting to a fault. "She was very gullible," she says. "She could have red socks on, and I could tell her she was wearing black socks, and I could get her to believe it. She never really fought back against something that you said."
At first, Klein and Woltmon kept their affair a secret because they knew their mutual friends wouldn''t approve of the match. But as the relationship flowered, the truth became harder to conceal. Klein became pregnant. She was happy about the pregnancy, but Woltmon wasn''t. Klein says he refused to escort her to doctors'' appointments and made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the baby. She lost the child to a miscarriage at three months.
Trouble began in mid-September. According to Klein, Woltmon, who was still on parole, decided to skip town to avoid a drug test he feared he would fail. She says Woltmon convinced her to drive to Mexico with him in a car he told her was borrowed from his friend Jeff Wester. Wester''s family owns a car dealership in Seaside, and he had occasionally let Woltmon borrow his car. Later, however, Wester signed an affidavit testifying that this time the car was stolen.
Klein packed her bag and ran away with Woltmon at the wheel of the car and Dreamer panting in the back seat. In a scene straight out of a romance novel, the fugitive lovers fled to San Felipe, a scenic coastal fishing village-turned-tourist destination on the east coast of Baja California.
"I was naive, I went with him," Klein recollects. "I don''t know why I went along. I didn''t want to go, because I love my mom--that''s the main thing. I didn''t want to leave my mom and my friends."
But at the time, her feelings for Woltmon consumed all reason. The couple planned to make their home in Mexico permanently.
That illusion shattered quickly. On Sept. 19, just a few days after their arrival in San Felipe, Woltmon and Klein were busted. When a Mexican man tried to sell them marijuana, Woltmon refused the weed but asked the man if he wanted to buy his car. The man told him to wait and returned with a police officer, who promptly arrested them.
Klein was terrified. First thrown into a cell at the San Felipe police station, then transferred to the San Felipe federal prison, she had no idea what was going to happen next. Nobody questioned her, and her demands for a translator were ignored.
Meanwhile, Woltmon, locked in an adjacent cell, campaigned feverishly through the bars for her to take the rap for the car theft. With his record, he reasoned, a conviction could land him in prison for several years.
"Chris had told me to tell them I did it," Klein remembers. "He told me, ''You can get out of it. You don''t have a record.''"
At first, Klein went along with the plan, believing Woltmon''s arguments that the Mexican authorities wouldn''t imprison her. When the police finally questioned her, she told them she had taken the car. From Salinas, Maribeth Klein begged her daughter over the phone not to take the rap. Klein, convinced Woltmon would be killed in Mexican prison, stuck by his side.
"I said, ''Carrie, don''t do this,''" Maribeth says. "She said, ''We''re in this together.''"
But after a few days behind bars, doubt began to creep in, and on the ride to court in Mexicali, a weeping Klein confessed to Woltmon that she didn''t want to take the blame. He continued to assure her the court would find her innocent. Then he asked for her hand in marriage. She tearfully accepted.
When they arrived at the Mexicali courthouse a few days after their arrest, Klein says she never saw a judge, and her court-appointed lawyer did little in the way of defending her. The couple simply gave their testimony to a court reporter, and it was Woltmon who did most of the talking.
"You know when you cry so hard you can''t speak?" Klein says. "Well, I couldn''t speak, so he spoke for me." Klein says Woltmon told the court that, acting alone, she had "borrowed" the car.
Although, according to Klein, Woltmon had offered the car for sale and had been the sole driver all along, the Mexican court inexplicably bought the story that Klein had acted alone.
Back home, the news struck Klein''s friends as ludicrous, not only because it''s not in her nature, but because she doesn''t drive or have a driver''s license. "No one has ever seen her behind the wheel of a car," says Julie Waters.
After offering testimony concurring with Woltmon''s, Klein was thrown into the federal prison in Mexicali. During the days while they awaited the verdict, Woltmon wrote her letters from his cell on the men''s side of the prison, calling her "my beautiful wife" and "soulmate" and reassuring her again that she would not be convicted. Klein says he promised that he would scrape together bail money for her and that he wouldn''t leave Mexico without her.
A few days later, a court clerk delivered the news: Klein was found guilty of car theft, and Woltmon was to be escorted back the U.S. a free man. "I don''t know how he got out," Klein says. "He was supposed to take me with him. He left a day early."
Back home, Klein''s mother and uncle desperately alerted lawyers, diplomats and human rights organizations to the situation, but there was little anyone could do. The U.S. doesn''t have an extradition treaty with Mexico, so Mexican authorities were not obligated to release Klein to American police.
Woltmon returned to Salinas in October and turned himself in to his parole officer. He was charged with absconding and car theft, and on Oct. 27 stood before the state Board of Prison Terms. The board found him guilty of violating his parole for leaving the country without permission and revoked his parole, sending him back to jail for 30 days. But he walked on the car theft charge.
For the next six months, Woltmon worked short stints as a bouncer and a bartender at various nightclubs in Monterey, including Club Octane, The Mucky Duck, Cibo and Lallapalooza, but he hasn''t been seen around the clubs for about the past month. Salinas police and club sources say Woltmon is intentionally keeping a low profile, perhaps fearing retaliation from Klein''s family and friends.
The Weekly was unable to locate Woltmon.
Meanwhile, Klein''s situation was steadily worsening. The day after Christmas, she returned to court for sentencing, and, in the hours leading up to her court appearance, was forced to share a cell with two men, one of whom took a fancy to her. While her suitor fondled his genitals and attempted to woo her with kisses and caresses, the other man ignored the courtship entirely.
Klein screamed in vain for the guards, but none were around. Miraculously, she was able to fend off her cellmate''s advances for three hours before a guard finally came for her.
Then came the really bad news. Despite Woltmon''s reassurances, Klein''s worst nightmare came true. She was sentenced to federal prison for five years.
For the first few days of her imprisonment, Klein sat crumpled on the floor of her cell and wept non-stop. Beyond her shock at the utter horror of the place was her total lack of preparedness for Mexican prison life. For one thing, she had nothing to wear but the clothes on her back. In the prison, inmates aren''t issued uniforms, and her clothes--along with her dog, her grandmother''s diamond earrings and her class ring--stayed behind in the custody of federal police in San Felipe.
The cell she was assigned to housed more prisoners than it did beds, and being the new girl on the block, Klein resigned herself to sleeping on the floor.
In the beginning, Woltmon would call her and offer the same promises to help her get out of jail. But after a few weeks, Klein stopped believing him. "One day I got a call, and I told him, ''I''m through,''" she says. "I told him, ''I''m telling the truth when I get back.'' He got pretty mad."
That was the last time the two spoke.
Klein began to accept the possibility that the Mexicali penitentiary just might be home for the next half decade. Being in prison is bad enough. Being in prison in Mexico borders on the barbarous. In the Mexicali slammer, inmates subsist on eggs, potatoes or hot dogs for breakfast, then soup and an occasional offering of tuna salad at 3pm. "And tortillas, always tortillas," Klein says. For dinner, the women fend for themselves or go hungry.
Basic necessities like blankets, clothing, soap, shampoo, feminine products and food beyond the two measly daily meals are not supplied to prisoners. They can only be bought in a prison store or from other inmates. "Money talks here," Klein says.
Klein''s friends and mother frequently sent her boxes filled with clothing, food and other basics. But getting money to her was tricky. Julie Waters says she once hid money inside a cracker box to keep the cash from disappearing at the hands of crooked prison guards.
Some of her fellow prisoners helped Klein adjust to prison life. An American prisoner who was there at the time gave her a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a Bible. And, despite the language barrier, a Mexican woman name Juanie assumed the role of surrogate mother to Klein, comforting her with hugs and making sure she got food and a shared bunk on which to sleep. Klein, who had regularly attended church in the days before she met Woltmon, says the Bible and Juanie''s kindness helped her get through the days.
Despite the squalor, Klein says she never feared for her life. Violence rarely broke out within prison walls as long as the drugs flowed--many of the prisoners depended on marijuana, heroin and crank to make life bearable. However, when the drug trade dried up, things went bad. During Klein''s stay, a riot erupted on the men''s side of the prison and sent the whole facility into lockdown.
Home, Sweet Home
In February, Klein got great news. On appeal, her sentence was reduced to six months, including time served. The decision shocked Klein and her family, who thought the appeal had been dropped. An attorney with Amnesty International had advised Maribeth that an appeal would likely end in disappointment and that she would have better luck trying to get her daughter transferred to an American prison. So Maribeth had asked the American consulate in Mexicali to cancel the appeal because the transfer couldn''t happen if Klein''s case remained tied up in the Mexican court system.
But for once bureaucratic inefficiency was a blessing. Inexplicably, the appeal had proceeded, and on March 18, Klein''s ordeal ended. At 11am, Maribeth Klein and Julie Waters, flanked by a diplomat from the American consulate and a newly retained Mexican attorney, entered the Mexicali prison. About 1:30pm, Klein walked past the prison bars and fell weeping into the women''s arms.
Mexican authorities drove Klein to the border, and at 4:30pm, she was handed over to U.S. immigration officials, then released a free woman on American soil. Klein says the tears flowed from the time she said good-bye to her inmate friends until the moment she was reunited with her mother across the border. She arrived back in Salinas the next day, safe but stripped of the possessions she''d had with her when she left home. Her dog, Dreamer, and her grandmother''s diamond earrings--supposedly held in the custody of San Felipe federal police--have vanished.
For now, Klein is readjusting to life on the outside and taking it day by day, seeing friends, going to church and spending time with her family. She hasn''t heard from Woltmon, and says she wants nothing to do with him.
Far from being hardened by her experience, she has grown thoughtful and reflective about her future. She wants to start attending church again, go back to school and get a job working with kids. She harbors no bitterness about the past six months of her life. In fact, even as she sat behind bars for a crime she didn''t commit, betrayed by someone she loved, her faith in the innate goodness of people transcended the prison walls. "I''m still open to people, but I might back off a little bit," she says. "I like to think in my heart, ''This is a good person.''"
And Klein''s mother, who says she hasn''t slept much in the past six months, is counting her blessings. In a way, she says, it''s a good thing Carrie spent time in jail. Had she not been convicted, Maribeth reasons, her daughter might still be dating Woltmon. "I''m not a person to hold grudges," she says. "I don''t hate Chris, I just want him to stay out of our lives. I''m angry about what he put my family through. It was scary."