When I was 19 years old, I was arrested and tried for a crime that I did not commit. While managing a McDonald’s restaurant in Bourne, Massachusetts, a deposit that I was responsible for containing a little more than $7,000 went missing. Though losing a deposit was a serious offense within the company, this was not the first time that a deposit had been lost. When you begin working with large sums of money, you eventually stop thinking about the money in terms of cash and more in terms of product, akin to hamburger and catsup and paper cups.
Just another piece of the business.
When this happens, it becomes easy to handle a deposit carelessly. Just two months before my deposit went missing, the manager of a restaurant at the other end of the Cape had lost a deposit as well. She received a slap on the wrist for her carelessness and nothing more.
One of the security procedures that McDonald's used at the time for bringing a deposit to the bank was to place the deposit bag in a McDonald’s food bag before leaving in order to disguise its true identity. About a year before my deposit disappeared, another manager in a restaurant near Boston accidentally handed a deposit out the drive-thru window to a customer, mistaking it for a bag of Big Macs. The customer never returned and the manager again received a slap on the wrist.
I’m not saying that my loss was excusable. Just understandable and not as uncommon as one might think.
What likely happened to my deposit was this:
Having four deposits to drop at the bank that day, I probably carried all four, along with my briefcase and gym bag, to the car, placing everything on the roof in order to unlock the door (in the days before automatic locks). When I loaded everything into the front seat, I probably left one of the deposits on the roof and drove off, dropping it somewhere along the way and making some stranger very happy.
When it was determined that the deposit had disappeared (after two days of searching), my boss and I went to the police station to report the loss. This was standard procedure when a deposit went missing and was required by our insurance company.
My boss, a woman named Hope, made it clear to me that she did not think that I had stolen the deposit. She said that this incident would likely cost me a year of promotions, but that would be it. I made a very stupid mistake, but the company liked me a lot. I had also offered to repay the loss, since I felt it was my responsibility to do so, but she said that I could not, citing a company policy related to our insurance.
My problems began when I arrived at the Bourne police station. The police officer who greeted us took one look at me and determined that I was a thief.
I say this with confidence because he later admitted as much.
After filling out the required report, he asked me to step inside an interrogation room for questioning. Hope indicated to the officer that the company was certain that I had not taken the deposit and an investigation would not be necessary, but the police officer insisted on questioning me anyway.
The questioning was tough. This cop had predetermined my guilt and spent more than an hour trying to move me off my story. At one point he asked me to list all of my activities for the previous five days, and I told him that my roommate and I had hosted a party for about 80 people in our apartment on Saturday night. The cop asked how I had paid for the party, and I told him that we had collected $5 for each guest and had even stamped their hands upon entering. He asked me if I had a name to every guest in order to verify my claim, and remarkably, I did. We had hung some butcher paper up in the living room and had asked everyone to sign their names.
After an hour of questioning, the cop released me with the understanding that he would be seeing me again. I was panicked. So was my boss. This had never happened to a manager reporting a loss before. Though McDonald’s was not pressing charges, it was within this police officer’s power to pursue an investigation, and he was going to do so.
In an attempt to determine what might have happened to the deposit, my boss and I decided to test the safety of the bank’s night drop, thinking that perhaps my deposit had been dropped after all but had then been stolen from the bank afterwards. We lowered a rope and hook down the slot in an effort to retrieve a deposit bag and ended up causing more than $2,000 in damage and ultimately proving nothing.
I was questioned again during the next week and then heard nothing from the police for about two weeks. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking it was over.
Then I received a call from the police station one morning asking me to come in again. I sensed from the tone of the police officer's voice that this was bad.
On my way to the station, I was pulled over for speeding. I was traveling 62 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone. The speed trap had been specifically set up for me, just to rattle me before the questioning.
The cop informed me of this later in the day.
There were three cops involved in this interrogation, which lasted over three hours. Like a fool. I had no attorney. I waived my Miranda rights. I was innocent. Only guilty people need attorneys.
A big mistake.
At one point in the questioning, things had become so heated and frightening that I was nearly ready to confess to the crime. Had I been able to invent some way of spending the money or explaining its disappearance, I might have confessed to a crime I did not commit. The cops had convinced me that the only way I would ever see freedom again was to confess and receive a reduced sentence. It's hard to understand the pressure that can be put on you in this situation, particularly when you’re 19 years old and without any parents or relatives to support you.
I was quite literally on my own, and it was terrifying.
I asked for a moment to think and was escorted me to a mop closet, where I knelt down beside the floor sink to ponder my options. I asked a God I did not entirely believe in if I should confess to this crime. When I heard those words spoken aloud, I finally realized the stupidity of such a thought and rose to my feet. I exited the mop closet and said, “I didn’t do this. I’m leaving.”
They arrested me instead.
During my arraignment (after nine hours locked in a jail cell), I discovered a nasty little part of the justice system:
Not everyone is provided an attorney from the state free of charge.
At the time of my arrest, my roommate was preparing to move to Connecticut for a new job, leaving me behind to find a place of my own. I was 19 years old and had no savings, so I asked the court to provide an attorney and was denied. The judge informed me that I was driving a nicer car than him, a brand new Toyota Tercel, and that someone with a brand new car could afford an attorney on his own.
I hardly owned the car. I had made three payments so far on a $12,000 vehicle.
Toyota’s bottom end model at the time.
Nevertheless, because this judge drove an eight-year old Buick, I was forced to retain my own counsel.
As a result of my arrest, I was fired from my job. Company policy, it was explained, enacted by a new regional supervisor who had never met me prior to my dismissal. They brought me to an upscale restaurant for lunch in order to give me the news.
I still made a scene.
When my roommate moved away a month after my arrest, I was still without a job and homeless for almost four months, living in my car before a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had worked for me in a Brockton McDonald’s took me in. I lived in a small room off their kitchen with another guy and their pet goat for nearly a year, paying them whatever I could afford for rent.
I hired a good attorney, a Harvard graduate who was running for and would eventually win a place on the Massachusetts State Senate. Today he is a judge in the Massachusetts court system.
His fee was $25,000.
In an effort to pay him, I began working two full time jobs. Despite my arrest and pending charges, I managed to land a job as a teller for South Shore Bank, the same bank where Hope and I had broken the night drop a month before, working Monday-Friday from 8-5 and Saturdays from 8-12.
Same bank, different branch.
Then I landed a job managing a privately owned McDonald’s where a former colleague of mine had been working. He vouched for me, and I got a job managing the closing shift, working Monday-Friday from 6:00 PM-1:00 AM. I worked 16 hours a day for more than 18 months in order to pay off my attorney’s fees and keep my head above water.
It wasn’t fun.
I was also robbed and beaten at gunpoint during the year before my trial (another story in itself), knocking me out of work for more almost a month, burdening me with more than a decade of post traumatic stress disorder and setting me even further behind.
On the day of my trial, the judge asked me how it was possible that I could be working for the two companies that were scheduled to testify against me.
“I guess they know I didn’t do this, sir.”
It wasn't entirely true, but I loved my answer.
A week before trial, my attorney acquired the electronic record of everyone who had entered the McDonald’s safe on the day that my deposit went missing. Though the safe had a combination lock, it also required the manager to insert a key into a slot that left behind an electronic fingerprint. My attorney identified more than eight different people who had entered the safe that day other than me and made the argument that any of these people could have taken the deposit.
Though I knew that none of them had taken the deposit, it gave the judge enough doubt to find me not guilty.
“I think you’re probably guilty," he said. "But the prosecution hasn’t proven their case. I hope you realize how close you came to going to a conviction."
Free to leave the state now that I was found not guilty, I moved to Connecticut.
I’m writing this today because of the misconception that people have about our criminal justice system. Just yesterday I heard someone singing its praises, declaring how fairly it treats the individual.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good system that found the truth in the end, but too often we forget the cost.
I was innocent. My company thought I was innocent. Yet one predetermined police officer was able to throw my life into complete chaos. My trial cost me $25,000 in attorney’s fees and almost two years of my life, neither of which I was legally able to recover. Precious years, when most young adults are attending college or getting started on a career.
It cost me my job, and though it was admittedly for a fast food chain (not the most prestigious), I had been identified by the company as a rapid riser. They had begun sending me to business school to learn more about marketing and management. They had seen my creative side and thought that the marketing department might one day be the place for me.
All that ended with my arrest.
I also faced the possibility of being convicted of grand larceny, of being imprisoned for more than a year with a hefty fine. You can’t imagine how the prospect of imprisonment can weigh on the mind of 19 year-old, alone in the world, waiting more than a year to learn his fate.
The few who know this story have often expressed how relieved they are that I was found innocent, but I’m always quick to correct them.
“I was always innocent. I was found not guilty.”
This may seem like a small distinction, but it’s not. In America, we are innocent until proven guilty. It may cost you tens of thousands of dollars, years of your life, and your faith in law enforcement officers in order to maintain that innocence, but unless you were found to be guilty, you remain innocent no matter what.