a patsy: the unofficial story
sal david winkler is forty-two. he has an olive complexion, dark curled hair and scared brown eyes. scared even though his forearms and hands are broad like a gorilla’s. and just as hairy. he looks like a man who’d be most content with life if he were at a bar drinking budweiser and watching the cleveland browns. sure enough, that’s what he’d be doing today if he weren’t in prison.
his vibrant orange jumpsuit stretches around his cannonball of a belly. occasionally, when seated across from me, sal leans back to run his hands over his face in frustration and disbelief. at these moments his shirt will abandon the line and unassuming witnesses like condescending prison guards and curious reporters catch an unwanted glimpse of the underside of sal’s impressive gut.
sometimes sal notices the exposure and pulls the shirt back over himself, embarrassed.
most other times he’s too lost in the absurdity of his current predicament to notice or care about such vanities. at these moments, he tugs his hands down his doughy face and his eyes stare out at the federal prison’s chalk-white ceiling. his eyes still scared, but also blank and bewildered.
sal david winkler has long been a man in demand. that’s what happens to you when you kill a senator. all of a sudden everyone wants a piece.
‘yeah i’ve met with everybody,’ he says. ‘i’ve done all these exclusive interviews: barbara walters, larry king, brian williams, queen latifah. everybody. of course nobody really wants to hear what i have to say, they just want to put my face on their show.’
when asked what he wants to say, sal looks down at the table flustered.
‘i want to say what i’ve been saying, you know?’ he looks across the table at his audience; his eyes seeking understanding, compassion, belief.
‘i’m innocent. i was set up. that’s what i want to say.’
i ask him to tell me what happened that day. i say, ‘tell me how it went down, sal.’
he takes a deep breath and begins to exhale. almost thirty seconds he exhales, all the while staring into the metal table. during this interlude, i look towards the guard. the guard shrugs. ‘sal?’ i say.
then sal takes another breath and wipes off his lips. ‘sorry,’ he says. ‘collecting my thoughts.’ he looks at me and says, ‘well you see it all started with a breakfast burrito. the breakfast burrito that would change my life.’
‘i woke up that day just like any other day. i took a shower just like any other day. i whacked off while i was in there, i guess that was different cause normally i wait till later when i’m trying to fall asleep, but otherwise everything was the same,’ says sal.
‘when i got downstairs i was already dressed and the kids were all eating cereal before school. that’s when i got the burrito out of the freezer.’
back in the prison, sal hesitates. his right hand shakes. he steadies it with his left. his face drains of color. visibly shell-shocked he whispers, ‘that goddam burrito,’ and then he stares into the metal table; inanimate as a mannequin.
without moving and still staring with intent into the table, he begins to speak again.
‘my wife’s been getting on top of me about eating healthier. guess she got tired of lugging around an oaf. anyway, one of the ways she figured to get me healthy was by getting me to stop eating mcdonalds on my way to work. she knew i’d grab a couple of sausage biscuits on my way to work and we both knew that wasn’t helping me get any thinner. her solution to that was the breakfast burritos.’
‘the burritos started out fine. she’d put egg and sausage and cheese in there, just like the ones we’re all used to. but that was only at first. after a while she saw i was holding steady with my weight and she said, ‘well i guess i’m going to have to figure something else out for you.’ so she got on the internet and went on the pinterest and found these kale and quinoa burritos to make for me.’
he pauses here, and looks directly at me. he says, ‘now, let me ask you something: do i look like the kind of guy who’d ever want to eat a kale and quinoa burrito?’
i say ‘no’ without hesitation. looking at his simple brown eyes and artie lange-like figure, i couldn’t say anything else without being wholly dishonest.
proud, sal smiles and says, ‘exactly!’
‘but that’s what she made me. she’d make sure i ate that before i went out the door. i’d bristle at her checking up on me like that at first, but after a while i figured burritos weren’t worth the fight. i just wanted her to be happy. happy wife, happy life. isn’t that what they say?’
he adds, ‘and of course i was still stopping by mcdonalds on the way to work, so i figured everyone’s getting what they want.’
‘anyway, that day i microwaved the burrito and ate it over the sink in about three bites. i put some coffee in my thermos and kissed my wife and kids goodbye. then i got in my car, drove it to mcdonalds and then ate my sausage biscuits on rest of the drive to work. i hadn’t been driving seven minutes when i felt a pain in my stomach.’
‘it wasn’t one of those stomach aches where you just shrug it off. it hurt bad. i felt like a sumo wrestler was standing on my guts. in the driver’s seat i sort of doubled over, grabbed my stomach and went like this, “UGGGGHHHH.” i almost rear-ended a guy at the stop light because i was in so much pain. not only that, but i felt an entire load drop a level in my system. it was like a lock in the canal had been released and everything was flooding to somewhere further down the to make up the difference. i clenched my butt-hole so hard i could hardly see straight.’
‘and of course i knew what it was that caused it.’
‘what’s funny though, is that the pain stopped after a couple of minutes. i felt like myself again. it was strange. i could even take a breath from clenching. so i told myself, ‘alright. when you get to work, make sure to poop.’ i figured that’s all it was.’
‘i parked and started off across the parking lot. i had a terrible parking spot, so i always had to walk a ways to get into the building. and that’s when i first saw all the cops and swat-team and secret service all over the building. i figured, ‘somebody important must be in town.’ not that i cared. right then i just wanted to find a toilet so i could stop worrying about the pain coming back and causing me to poop in my pants.’
chief of security at the meyers building–home of sal’s former office–is a 64 year old former cop named dale shigella. for a 20 year veteran of the police force, shigella seems a remarkably warm and gentle man. he patrols the office building’s grounds, keys jangling at his hip, and offers a joke or weather observation to every passerby. outside on the property, a stray tabby slouches through some bushes. dale makes a high pitched, silly voice and says, ‘hear kitty, kitty.’
dale remembers the events of the fateful day well. back in his office, he pours his coffee in a plastic thermos and offers me a cup of my own. behind me he says, ‘and of course anything i remember, it’s already on record for the feds. you know that, dont ya?’
i say i do and turn down the coffee. i say, ‘i want to hear it again. for sal.’
‘i suppose he deserves it,’ dale says as he circles back around his desk. ‘i was never quite sure how he coulda done it, the way they had this place set up.’
he leans back and perches his feet atop his desk. quietly he combs his greying mustache with an index finger and says, ‘well, let’s see.’
‘it was august the fourth of 2007 and it was hot. i remember that because i was on the roof in my collared shirt sweating like a pig. i stood out on the roof with the secret service fella. as a law-enforcement officer, i’d always admired their job so it was fun to see him operate.’
‘there were four. one was set up on the stage with senator carson. one was in front of the stage. one was set up off to the side of the crowd. and then there was the guy on the roof of my building across the street from her.’
but that was only secret service. the police were everywhere, including swat. on this roof alone there were two or three snipers holding position. and of course they’d already combed through the building before anything happened to make sure the premises were secure.’
‘we locked it down tight,’ shigella says. ‘that day was a big deal.’
new hampshire senator belinda carson’s appearance at the united auto worker’s association headquarters in toledo, ohio–the building directly across the street from dale and sal’s workplace–was, indeed, a big deal.
her campaign staffers viewed the trip as a litmus test. ‘how will she fare?’ they wondered, in one of the nation’s most sought-after battlegrounds. ‘it wasn’t only about that day,’ says former aide lisa treadwell, ‘it was about her future. we only went to ohio to see if she could generate enough buzz there to possibly carry the state in a primary.’
workers viewed the speech as a rally. union advocates, a vanishing breed, had received a second wind from carson’s pro-labor agenda. ‘union membership was on the rise for the first time since hoffa,’ says chuck ligano, a uawa leader. ‘and it wasn’t only auto workers who were there; it was fast-food people and retail associates. she had the people excited about their own power as workers.’ as a result, thousands of workers in ohio organized trips to cheer on the first–and possibly the last–vehement pro-labor candidate they’d ever see in ohio.
conservatives viewed her existence as a challenge. at the time, belinda carson was quickly becoming ‘the most dangerous woman in politics’ according to some conservative news outlets. as a result, she may have been the most endangered woman in politics: fundamentalists opposed her pro-choice stance, big business opposed her labor stance, the nra opposed her weapons stance, the defense department opposed her anti-war stance, and the department of homeland security opposed her overhaul to national security budgets and procedures.
with assurances from her security detail, belinda carson took the stage at 9:15 am. but by 9:24 am she was dead. the fatal bullet had been shot from a remington 700. the gun had been fired from the meyers building.
‘at least i thought we had it locked down tight,’ says dale. he takes his legs down and leans onto his large oak desk. somber, he looks across the space towards me. ‘that was just a horrible day. seeing her get shot down like that. in front of all those people. and knowing that the shot came from my building.’
‘i almost retired after it happened,’ says dale, ‘but i know it wasn’t my fault. if somebody wanted to get her, they’d have gotten her. looking back on how it happened, that i’m sure of.’
‘i’ll tell you this though,’ dale says smirking ‘i never thought it was gonna be sal winkler who’d do it. or even try it. that guy was as simple as my shoe.’
dale shigella smiles. ‘that sal,’ he says. ‘he was a character. maybe cruder than most people around here liked, but i always thought he was a good one.’ shigella resumes his reclined position in his chair as he reaches back into his fonder memories of america’s most recent convicted assassin.
‘there was the time i got called up to his floor because he had accidentally microwaved his breakfast burrito with the foil still on. when i opened that door, man, did the smoke come pourin’ out!’
‘of course he never directly fessed up to it, but he came up to me later on that day after the fire department had gone and asked to make sure everything was ok. kind of like a child would. i said, ‘it’s gonna be fine, sal,’ and i could see how relieved he was.’
dale laughs and sips his coffee.
‘he was always good for a laugh too. and not just the unintentional kind, though he was always unlucky.’
‘he had this joke about mr. gilchrest’s wife that’d make most women’s skin crawl, but some of the guys just loved it.’
‘the best though was when mr. gilchrest’s assistant–his boss’s assistant–came in while sal was in a full-on performance. he was up on the table thrusting his hips and kinda moaning and what not like he imagined mrs. gilchrest would. all the guys were laughing until we saw her. but sal didn’t see her at first. you know the story: after completely embarrassing and incriminating himself, sal finally saw the assistant. of course he hopped off the table and tried to apologize.’
‘i hear he had to pay the gal $800 to keep quiet. i hear sal’s wife didn’t like that payoff too much. he couldn’t catch a break.’
when asked about the details of the joke, dale just laughs and says, ‘i don’t know that my wife’d like me to ever mention anything about it where my name’d be tied to such filth. but between you and me, be sure to ask sal about it because it’s worth it.’
he sips his coffee and winks with a grin on his face. but in an instant dale’s smile leaves.
he tells me he’s remembering the senator’s body down on the stage. her head pouring blood.
‘even from across the street,’ he says, ‘you could see the lake of blood. at first everyone just looked at her, kind of uncertain what had happened. i mean, one minute she’s speaking and people are cheering and the next she’s down with a bleeding hole right in her face.’
he looks into his palms and shakes his head. he says, ‘and she’d been such a pretty old girl.’
‘so i guess all that silliness about sal is beside the point stuff now though,’ says dale. ‘they say he’s guilty of murder. that he’s some sort of terrorist. it’s tough to imagine, but this ain’t the first time i’ve been burned by the truth.’
back inside the walls of the penitentiary, sal’s elbow sits on the metal table and his palm is propping up his doughball round head. he looks tired. he says the solitary confinement is wearing on him.
‘i just don’t know what to do with myself in there,’ he says. ‘there’s nothin to do. sleep. stare at the walls. sleep. stare at the walls. i think about my kids and my wife a lot, but mostly that just hurts to do.’
‘after a while, my head always goes back to that day and ways to prove that it wasn’t me who did it. but,’ says sal, ‘i’ve already learned that’s gonna be tougher than i ever thought possible.’
‘that’s why i’m in here. that’s why the real killer’s still out there,’ says sal pointing to a place beyond the walls.
‘all i’m guilty of,’ he says, ‘is taking a crap in the boss’s private bathroom. i know it was wrong. i shouldn’t have done it. but if i knew that one mistake would land me here, i’d have worn a diaper.’
‘so here’s the thing,’ says sal. ‘nobody was supposed to use the boss’s bathroom but him. the guy even had a sign for the door made with his name on it. only thing is, there are two mens-only crappers in the entire office; one for him and one for all the other men. does that sound fair?’
i shake my head.
sal laughs. ‘of course it’s not. but that’s how it went around there. the boss screwed us all over, and nobody said anything about it. so we just went when ours was open. but on that day i didn’t care. i didn’t have time to care. i wasn’t even thinking about making him upset. i just had to do my business like any other person.’
‘it was on the elevator that the pain came back–you know my office was on the sixth floor. most days that elevator ride was a breeze, but that day it was an eternity. by the fourth floor i couldn’t clench it tight enough. i let out a little fart and some runny poo sort of squirted out.’
‘it was me and this young guy from marketing in there. he smelled something and sort of laughed. he started to say to me, ‘did you just rip one, man?’ but when he looked at me, he stepped back and started hugging the far wall like he knew he was in imminent danger of being blasted with diarrhea.’
trevor hogan is a tall, lanky man of twenty-four. he’d worked in the meyers building with sal winkler since graduating from northwestern in 2005. he remembers sharing the elevator with sal that morning and he remembers their elevator ride well.
‘yeah, he looked pretty on edge that day. he was sweating. veins were popping out of his forehead. he had this look on his face like he was going to kill somebody. i could tell that there was something very wrong with the guy. and of course, there was. and he did.’
i ask trevor, ‘might sal have been frantically trying to reach the bathroom?’
trevor laughs, and says, ‘is he still telling that story? i don’t buy it. and you shouldn’t either. i mean, he did smell like shit. that’s for sure. i remember he farted this ungodly awful one on the way up. that’s when i saw how distraught he looked. but he was always farting. and he always stank. i mean, we are talking about sal winkler.’
i ask trevor, ‘did you see sal with any weapon that morning? any unusual case to carry one?’
‘i didn’t,’ says trevor. he adds, ‘but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have brought one before.’
i say, ‘that is true,’ and i thank trevor for his time.
it’s early. not quite eight. sal drags into the visitation room. he stretches out his arms and yawns a big bear yawn. he rubs his puffy eyes. he scratches the back of his head. burps.
‘i’ve been eating so much macaroni lately,’ he says.
‘what happened after the elevator, sal?’ i ask.
‘you know something, it’s funny. we’ve been talking all this time and i haven’t even told you what happened when the shot was fired,’ he says. ‘don’t you want to know that?’
‘not yet,’ i tell him. ‘i just want to make sure we get everything down.’
‘yeah,’ says sal. ‘i guess there’s a lot to it. and it’s kind of nice this way.’
‘what way?’ i ask.
‘getting to tell how it really was. i can’t say that i feel that i’ve been represented accurately. or fairly.’ he gets quiet. his face twists in lumps. he’s thinking.
‘it’s like they want me to be a murderer AND a monster,’ he says, ‘when in reality, i know i’m not either.’
‘i’m just this guy,’ he says.
he looks at me sad, like he just learned that santa isn’t real.
i say, ‘i know, sal. just keep telling me what happened and maybe something will change. if it can. as long as you’re telling the truth. if you are… then you at least have a chance.’
‘yeah,’ he says, though he says it without conviction.
‘so about the boss’s bathroom,’ i say.
‘yeah,’ says sal.
‘well when i got off the elevator, i hurried to the can. of course when i get there i see the bathroom for us normal people is in use. i almost cried. a little bit more is leaking out by then, but i felt like my butthole was still under as much pressure as the hoover dam.’
‘so i said to myself, ‘i’d rather risk it in his bathroom than have to crap a wastebasket.’ i got a sort of second wind then, and marched down the hall towards the boss’s special bathroom.’
federal prosecutor elisabeth lamb is a slender, sharp-featured woman of 44. her hair is cut at squared edges. she greets me with a firm handshake and the self-confidence of a four-star general. i sit across her broad cherry desk. her office is as clean as an operating room. a green laurentii is the most vibrant life in the office.
‘did sal winkler kill belinda carson that day?’ i ask.
she laughs a bit before reassembling her professional demeanor.
‘yes,’ she says. ‘sal david winkler is the man responsible for the death of belinda carson.’
‘there’s no doubt in your mind?’
‘not only is there no doubt in my mind, but sal david winkler was convicted because there was no doubt in the minds of twelve jury members.’
mrs. lamb stops, pauses. her pause, combined with an assertive stare, is a maneuver that feels capable of assuring any supporters and distressing any doubters.
at last she continues.
‘the state’s prosecution relied on plenty of physical evidence in addition to his obvious proximity to the murder. we had sworn statements from former acquaintances of mr. winkler who described him as a deranged and unstable man. finally, we subpoenaed material directly from mr. winkler’s myspace page which provided further evidence as to his state of derangement and complete irreverence towards mrs. belinda carson’s personal safety.’
‘and we had the statements of mr. winkler taken directly after his arrest. these not only put him in the room almost precisely when the murder occurred, but also gave us perhaps our greatest gift which was his admitted contact with the murder weapon.’ she smiles. ‘not that we needed this from him. they caught him across the hall in the restroom and forensics lifted his print off of the rifle.’
‘did forensics,’ i ask, ‘lift any gun-shot residue off of mr. winkler’s hands?’
she does not laugh at this question. sternly she says, ‘you know, i cannot speak to that particular issue. i was not made aware of it if they did. but i don’t see what relevance that has.’
‘it’s just that mr. winkler has a radically different portrayal for his behavior that day than has been generally accepted by the public since the assassination of belinda carson.’
‘well i don’t see what that has to do with anything. mr. winkler says he didn’t kill her? i’m flabbergasted. you know he’s not the first murderer to lie about his involvement in a murder. i understand that lying is a common phenomenon among crooks and killers. and if he feels that he is being portrayed inaccurately, then he may be more detached than investigators initially believed.’
‘look,’ she continues, ‘i’m not saying he’s a monster. but he does have a history of crude and outlandish behavior. psychologists have long agreed that patterns of minor, disruptive behavior are indicators of future disruptive behaviors. and, as in this case, if left unchecked, often these minor disruptive behaviors end up erupting in violent acts like the one committed by mr. winkler.’
‘yes, but what about the dozens of character witnesses that testified on mr. winkler’s behalf?’
‘mr. winkler had the privilege of running with some rather loutish and surly characters, didn’t he? there was his life-long friend who’d gone to prison after multiple drunk-driving convictions. i remember a woman who waited on mr. winkler every week at a bar called ‘gina’s hole.’ his wife talked about how fat and unlucky was. he himself, when he got up on the stand, could only talk about breakfast burritos and defecating in his pants.’
‘sounds like a real-life political assassin, doesn’t he?’
‘it doesn’t matter what he sounds like,’ she says icily. ‘what are you his lawyer? another conspiracy nut? i thought you said you were with that magazine.’
‘i am. i’m reporting on the truth,’ i say. ‘all of it.’
‘well, if you’d like to know anymore about the truth the trial’s transcripts are on file. the evidence is a matter of record. you know what i think. i don’t suppose you need to speak with me anymore to find what you’re looking for.’
‘i’m sorry,’ i say. ‘i’m just not certain he did it.’
‘people snap,’ she says. ‘did oswald do it? did he do it alone? what do we have to go on? i’ll trust earl warren and his commission. they did a thorough investigation, as thorough as ever, and decided that he did. despite what all the fiction writers and conspiracy theorists want to believe.
‘and i want you to know that i support thorough investigations, so do your best. if he’s innocent, i want him to be free. find the truth if it’s out there. but please don’t let yourself discover that you’ve lost your objectivity. as a young reporter, that is your most important asset. to lose that so young would be a travesty.’
‘thank you, mrs. lamb,’ i say. i stand up to leave. she stands up behind her desk and is smiling at me like a proud mentor.
‘you’re welcome,’ she says.
i shake her hand and turn towards the door. turning the handle, i push the door open. then pull it closed again.
‘may i ask you one more question ma’am?’
she says ‘sure.’
‘as a prosecutor with thousands of convictions under your belt, do you always approach each case with objectivity? would you ever go easy on a defendant if he were innocent in your eyes? even if your boss’s demand a guilty verdict?’
‘i prosecute charged criminals. if they are innocent, then the law will discover the truth,’ she says.
‘so then it is not your job,’ i say, ‘to pursue the truth. it is only your job to ensure the best possible outcome for the state that circumstances allow.’
‘well,’ she says. ‘i think you’d better go. i’ve got a meeting.’
‘sal winkler is innocent. you put him in prison, and you let a guilty man walk.’
‘we’re done,’ she says. her eyes stab like icicles.