Chapter 28

The pervert's name was Darrel Sackett. When last seen, he was thirty-seven years old and housed in a county jail awaiting a new trial on charges of molesting small children. He certainly looked guilty: long sloping forehead, vapid bug eyes enlarged by thick glasses, splotchy stubble from a week's growth, a thick scar stuck to his chin-the type of face that would alarm any parent, or anyone else for that matter. A career pedophile, he was first arrested at age sixteen. Many other arrests followed, and he'd been convicted at least four times in four different states.

Sackett, with his frightening face and disgusting rap sheet, was introduced to the registered voters of south Mississippi in a snazzy direct mailing from another new organization, this one calling itself Victims Rising. The two-page letter was both a bio of a pathetic criminal and a summary of the miserable failures of the judicial system.

"Why Is This Man Free?" the letter screamed. Answer: Because Justice Sheila McCarthy overturned his conviction on sixteen counts of child molestation. Eight years earlier, a jury convicted Sackett, and the judge sentenced him to life without parole. His lawyer-one paid by taxpayers-appealed his case to the supreme court, and "there Darrel Sackett found the sympathetic embrace of Justice Sheila McCarthy." McCarthy condemned the honest and hardworking detectives who extracted a full confession from Sackett. She chastised them for what she saw as their faulty search-and-seizure methods. She hammered the trial judge, who was highly respected and tough on crime, for admitting into evidence the confession and materials taken from Sackett's apartment. (The jury was visibly shaken when forced to view Sackett's stash of child porn, seized by the cops during a "valid" search.) She claimed distaste for the defendant, but begged off by saying that she had no choice but to reverse his conviction and send his case back for a new trial.

Sackett was moved from the state prison back to the Lauderdale County jail, where he escaped one week later. He had not been heard from since. He was out there, "a free man," no doubt continuing his violence against innocent children.

The last paragraph ended with the usual rant against liberal judges. The fine print gave the standard approval by Ron Fisk.

Certain relevant facts were conveniently omitted. First, the court voted 8 to 1 to reverse the Sackett conviction and send it back for a new trial. The actions of the police were so egregious that four other justices wrote concurring opinions that were even more scathing in their condemnation of the forced confession and warrantless, unconstitutional search. The lone dissenter, Justice Romano, was a misguided soul who had never voted to reverse a criminal conviction, and privately vowed that he would never do so.

Second, Sackett was dead. Four years earlier he'd been killed in a bar fight in Alaska.

The news of his passing barely made it to Mississippi, and when his file was retired in Lauderdale County, not a single reporter noticed. Barry Rinehart's exhaustive research discovered the truth, for what little it mattered.

The Fisk campaign was far beyond the truth now. The candidate was too busy to sweat the details, and he had placed his complete trust in Tony Zachary. The race had become a crusade, a calling of the highest order, and if facts were slightly bent or even ignored, then it was justified because of the importance of his candidacy. Besides, it was politics, a dirty game, and you could rest assured the other side wasn't playing fair, either.

Barry Rinehart had never been shackled by the truth. His only concern was not getting caught in his lies. If a madman like Darrel Sackett was out there, on the loose, very much alive and doing his filthy deeds, then his story was more shocking. A dead Sackett was a pleasant thought, but Rinehart preferred the power of fear. And he knew that McCarthy couldn't respond. She had reversed his conviction, plain and simple.

Any effort to explain why would be futile in the world of thirty-second ads and snappy sound bites.

After the shock of the ad, she would try to erase Sackett from her mind.

After the shock, though, she had to at least revisit the case. She saw the ad online, at the Victims Rising Web site, after receiving a frantic call from Nat Lester. Paul, her clerk, found the reported case, and they read it in silence. She vaguely remembered it. In the eight years since, she had read a thousand briefs and written hundreds of opinions.

"You got it right," Paul said when he finished.

"Yes, but why does it look so wrong now?" she said. She'd been hard at work, her desk covered with memos from half a dozen cases. She was stunned, bewildered.

He didn't answer.

"I wonder what's next," she said, closing her eyes.

"Probably a death penalty case. And they'll cherry-pick the facts again."

"Thanks. Anything else?"

"Sure. There's lots of material in these books. You're a judge. Every time you make a decision someone loses. These guys don't care about the truth, so they can make anything sound bad."

"Please shut up."

Her first ads began, and they lightened the mood somewhat. Nat chose to begin with a straightforward piece with Sheila in a black robe sitting at the bench, smiling earnestly at the camera. She talked about her experience-eight years as a trial judge in Harrison County, nine years on the supreme court. She hated to pat her own back, but twice in the past five years she had received the highest rating in the state bar's annual review of all appellate judges. She was not a liberal judge, nor a conservative one. She refused to be labeled.

Her commitment was simply to follow the laws of Mississippi, not to make new ones. The best judges are those without agendas, without preconceived notions of how they might rule. The best judges are those with experience. Neither of her opponents had ever presided over a trial, or issued a ruling, or studied complicated briefs, or listened to oral arguments, or written a final opinion. Until now, neither of her opponents had shown the slightest interest in sitting as a judge. Yet they are asking the voters to jump-start their judicial careers at the very top. She finished by saying, without the smile, "I was appointed to this position by the governor nine years ago, then I was reelected by you, the people. I am a judge, not a politician, and I don't have the money that some are spending to purchase this seat. I ask you, the voters, to help send the message that a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court cannot be bought by big business. Thank you."

Nat spent little money at the Jackson stations and much more on the Coast. McCarthy would never be able to saturate like Fisk. Nat speculated that Fisk and all those wealthy folks behind him were burning $200,000 a week on the anti-gay-marriage ads alone.

Sheila's first round was about half of that, and the response was lukewarm. The ad was called "uncreative" by her coordinator in Jackson County. A noisy trial lawyer, no doubt an expert in all things political, sent an angry e-mail in which he blasted Nat for such a soft approach. You gotta fight fire with fire and answer the attack ads with more of the same. He reminded Nat that his firm had contributed $30,000 and might forgo any more if McCarthy didn't take off the gloves.

Women seemed to like the ad. Men were more critical. After reading a few dozen e-mails, Nat realized he was wasting his time.

Barry Rinehart had been waiting impatiently for some television from the McCarthy strategists. When he finally saw her first ad, he laughed out loud. What an old-fashioned, out-of-date, pathetically lame effort-judge in black robe, at a bench, thick law books as props, even a gavel for good measure. She looked sincere, but she was a judge, not a television presence. Her eyes moved as she read from the teleprompter.

Her head was as rigid as a deer in headlights.

A weak response indeed, but it had to be answered. It had to be buried. Rinehart reached into his video library, his arsenal, and selected his next grenade.

Ten hours after McCarthy began running her ad, she was blown off the television by an attack ad that stunned even the most jaded political junkies. It began with the sharp crack of a rifle shot, then a black-and-white photo of Justice McCarthy, one from the court's official Web site. A powerful, barbed voice announced, "Justice Sheila McCarthy does not like hunters. Seven years ago she wrote, "The hunters of this state have a poor record on safety' This quote was splashed across her face.

The photo changed to one from a newspaper story with Sheila shaking hands at a rally.

The voice continued, "And Justice Sheila McCarthy does not like gun owners. Five years ago she wrote, "The ever vigilant gun lobby can always be expected to attack any statute that might in any way restrict the use of handguns in vulnerable areas.

Regardless of how sensible a proposed statute might be, the gun lobby will descend upon it with a vengeance."This, too, was printed rapidly, word for word, across the screen. Then there was another blast, this one from a shotgun firing at a blue sky.

Ron Fisk appeared, decked out like the real hunter he was. He lowered his shotgun and chatted with the voters for a few seconds. Memories of his grandfather, hunting in these woods as a child, love of nature, a vow to protect the sacred rights of hunters and gun owners. It ended with Ron walking along the edge of the woods, a pack of frisky dogs behind him.

Some small, quick print at the end of the ad gave credit to an organization called Gunowners United Now (GUN). The truth:

The first case mentioned in the ad involved the accidental shooting death of a deer hunter. His widow sued the man who shot him, a nasty trial ensued, and the jury in Calhoun County awarded her $600,000, the highest ever in that courtroom. The trial was as sordid as a divorce, with allegations of drinking and pot smoking and bad behavior. The two men were members of a hunting club and had been at deer camp for a week. During the trial, a contentious issue was safety, and several experts testified about gun laws and hunter education.

Though the evidence was hotly disputed, it appeared, from the record, that the bulk of the testimony proved that the state's record on safety lagged behind others'.

In the second case, the City of Tupelo, in response to a schoolyard shooting that killed none but injured four, passed an ordinance banning the possession of a firearm within a hundred yards of any public school. Gun advocates sued, and the American Rifle Association wedged itself into the picture by filing a portentous and overblown friend-of-the-court brief. The court struck down the ordinance on Second Amendment grounds, but Sheila dissented. In doing so, she couldn't resist the temptation to take a swipe at the ARA.

Now the swipe was back. She watched Fisk's latest ad in her office, alone and with the sinking feeling that her chances were fading. On the stump, she had the time to explain her votes and point out the unfairness of taking her words out of context.

But on television, she had thirty seconds. It was impossible, and the clever handlers of Ron Fisk knew it.

After a month at Pirate's Cove, Clete Coley had overstayed his welcome. The owner was fed up with giving away a penthouse suite, and he was fed up with feeding Coley's astounding appetite. The candidate was getting three meals a day, many of them sent to his room.

At the blackjack tables, he drank rum like it was water and got hammered every night. He badgered the dealers, insulted the other players, and groped the cocktail waitresses. The casino had pocketed about $20,000 from Coley, but his expenses were at least that much.

Marlin found him at the bar early one evening, having a drink and limbering up for another long night at the tables. After small talk, Marlin cut to the chase. "We'd like for you to drop out of the race," he said. "And while you're leaving, endorse Ron Fisk."

Clete's eyes narrowed. Deep wrinkles tightened around his forehead. "Say what?"

"You heard me."

"I'm not so sure I did."

"We're asking you to withdraw and endorse Fisk. It's simple."

Coley gulped the rum without taking his eyes off Marlin. "Keep talking," he said.

"There's not much to say. You're a long shot, to put it mildly. You've done a good job of stirring things up, attacking McCarthy, but it's time to bail out and help elect Fisk."

"What if I don't like Fisk?"

"I'm sure he doesn't like you. It's immaterial. The party's over. You've had your jollies, gotten some headlines, met lots of interesting folks along the way, but you've made your last speech."

"The ballots have been printed. My name is on them."

"That means that a handful of your fans won't hear the news. Big deal."

Another long pull on the rum, and Coley said, "Okay, a hundred thousand to get in, how much to get out?"


He shook his head and glanced at the blackjack tables in the distance. "That's not enough."

"I'm not here to negotiate. It's fifty thousand cash. Same suitcase as before, just not as heavy."

"Sorry. My figure is a hundred."

"I'll be here tomorrow, same time, same place." And with that, Marlin disappeared.

At nine the next morning, two FBI agents banged on the door to the penthouse suite.

Eventually, Clete staggered to the door and demanded, "Who the hell is it?"

"FBI. Open up."

Clete cracked the door and peered over the chain. Twins. Dark suits. Same barber.

"What do you want?"

"We'd like to ask you some questions, and we prefer not to do it from this side of the door."

Clete opened it and waved them in. He was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of NBA-style shorts that fell to his knees and sagged halfway down his ass. As he watched them sit at the small dining table, he racked his muddled brain for some recollection of which law he'd broken. Nothing recent sprang to mind, but then nothing would at this miserable time of the day. He maneuvered his cumbersome stomach-how much weight had he gained in the last month?-into a chair and glanced at their badges.

"Does the name Mick Runyun ring a bell?" one asked.

It did, but he wasn't ready to admit anything. "Maybe."

"Meth dealer. You represented him three years ago in federal court. Pled to ten years, cooperated with the government, real nice boy."

"Oh, that Mick Runyun."

"Yes, that one. Did he pay you a fee?"

"My records are at the office in Natchez."

"Great. We have a warrant for them. Can we meet there tomorrow?"

"Love to."

"Anyway, we're betting that your records don't tell us too much about the fees paid by Mr. Runyun. We have a real good source telling us that he paid you in cash, twenty thousand bucks, and that this was never reported."

"Do tell."

"And if this is true, then it's a violation of RICO and a few other federal statutes."

"Good ole RICO. You boys wouldn't be in business without it."

"What time tomorrow?"

"I was planning on campaigning tomorrow. The election is in two weeks."

They looked at this bleary-eyed, wild-haired, hungover beast and found it comical that he was a candidate for the supreme court.

"We'll be at your office in Natchez at noon tomorrow. If you don't show| then we'll have a warrant for your arrest. That should impress the voters."

They marched out of the room and slammed the door behind them.

Late that afternoon, Marlin appeared, as promised. He ordered coffee, which he didn't touch. Clete ordered rum and soda and smelled as though it was not the first one of the day.

"Can we agree on fifty, Clete?" Marlin asked after a long spell of gazing at the cocktail waitresses scurrying about.

"I'm still thinking."

"Were those two Fibbies nice to you this morning?"

Clete absorbed this without a flinch, without the slightest twitch to indicate his surprise. In fact, he wasn't surprised at all. "Nice boys," he said. "The way I figure it, Senator Rudd is meddling again. He wants Fisk to win because they're from the same tribe. Of course we know that Rudd is the uncle of the U.S. attorney down here, a real imbecile who got the job only because of his connections. Damned sure couldn't find a job anywhere else. Rudd leans on his nephew, who brings in the FBI to twist my arm. I drop out while singing the praises of Ron Fisk, and he squeaks out a great victory. He's happy. Rudd's happy. Big business is happy. Ain't life grand?"

"You're very close," Marlin said. "And you also took a $20,000 cash fee from a drug dealer and didn't report it. Pretty stupid, but not the end of the world. Nothing that can't be fixed by The Senator. You play along now, take your cash, bow out gracefully, and you'll never hear from the Fibbies again. Case closed."

Clete's red eyes settled on Marlin's blue ones. "You swear?"

"I swear. We shake hands now, you can forget the meeting at noon tomorrow in Natchez."

"Where's the money?"

"Outside, to the right. Same green Mustang." Marlin gently laid his keys on the bar.

Clete grabbed them and disappeared.