The good death of Joachim, the crazy Mexican
Written by Christopher Boyce
I had never seen a living man covered in so much blood. At first glance, I thought it was Joachim’s own blood, but I was wrong. I realized this as he began to wash himself. He was covered in the blood of his enemies and he felt good about it.
As the frenzy drained out of him, he began to sing a happy tune in Spanish, but I didn’t understand the words. So, instead, I said to him, “You crazy Mexican.”
Finally, he looked over, and in a voice resigned to his own approaching death, asked, “What else can I do?”
I was on Youth Study. That’s what the federal judge called it. I was being studied by United States Bureau of Prisons psychologists to determine if I was still a "youth." If the headshrinkers determined that I was, the judge intended to sentence me under the Youth Act. This meant I would be given an indeterminate sentence of six months to six years. If I wasn’t, he would sentence me to forever in the federal penitentiary – also known as “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” I didn’t like the sound of that and had only just that morning pointed out to the psychologists that I still only needed to shave once a week.
Despite attempting to appear as childlike as possible, Joachim and I were not being held in the mental health unit of the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution with the rest of the potential youths being studied prior to sentencing by federal judges.
Joachim, who faced almost as much time for murder as I did for espionage, was confined, like myself, to his own isolation lockdown cell beneath the mental health unit. They did this on the off-chance we both turned out not to be youths. It was believed by the authorities that youths would not attempt to escape from a lightweight prison like Terminal Island. Adults might, though. And since this could go either way for us, they weren’t taking any chances.
Joachim and I were locked down in cells opposite each other for 23 hours a day. One hour a day, we were moved into a barbed wire enclosure for recreation.
I got to know Joachim fairly well in the 90 days we sat locked across from each other. He was a dead man. He was a member of the Familia gang, which was at that time being exterminated by the larger prison gang, the Mexican Mafia. One by one in federal penitentiaries throughout the United States, the Familia was being rubbed out – usually in three-on-one knifings. It was only a matter of time before Joachim was whacked. He accepted this as inevitable. His only ambition left in life was to die well. It was very important to him. I thought he was out of his mind.
Joachim unraveled a blanket to make a string. With this string, we would pull things back and forth between our cells. I would send him instant coffee and newspapers; he would send me cigarettes and chili peppers. We shared what we had. Every couple of days, the guards would find our string and take it. And so we would unravel more of our ever-shrinking blankets.
We talked about our very different lives and about growing up in our separate Californias. I considered him a friend. The best we could both say about our lives is that we had ruined them – he his way, and I mine. If ever anyone in my former life had suggested I would one day have a Mexican murderer for a friend, I would have laughed at them. But I came to greatly respect Joachim. I hoped that he got what he wanted most. I hoped he died well.
One day, the unexpected happened. The psychologists determined that Joachim was, indeed, a youth. He was sentenced under the Youth Act, which meant he could serve his shortened time in medium security status at Terminal Island. It really didn’t matter, though. The Mexican Mafia would kill him at Terminal Island as easily as anywhere else.
When they packed him up to enter the general population of the prison, I grimly wished him good luck in his quest to die well. He grinned gamely back and called over his shoulder, “Gracias, gringo!” as he climbed the stairs up into the sunlight.
Half an hour later, all hell broke loose on the prison yard. Amid much shouting, pandemonium and the sound of running feet, a din of loudspeakers ordered all inmates back to their cells. In my mind, I pictured Joachim with a dozen puncture wounds, bleeding out on the concrete. I imagined him dying well. But I was wrong.
After leaving the mental health unit, Joachim went directly to friends who strapped and taped razor sharp, prison-made knives into the palms of his hands so they could not be dropped or pried loose. He concealed his deadly hands in a baseball mitt and cap. He then walked up to two of his gang enemies in the yard and threw himself on them like a berserker.
He stabbed and hacked and cut until they no longer moved. He became a taster of blood. Finding himself surrounded by cautious guards, he backed up to a wall and called out: “Am I a youth?”
No one moved on him. All kept their distance. When they ordered him to drop his knives, he said he would – but only when the yard was cleared of all his foes. The guards complied, and Joachim unstrapped and dropped his knives, still covered in the blood of his enemies. He was cuffed and hustled back to the mental health unit, where he was again thrown into the cell across from me.
When the guards had finally left, I sat there watching him. He was like a furless, bloody wolf in a disconnected trance. He looked at me repeatedly and though he stood stout-hearted in his own way, he seemed for a long while to be unable to speak. Eventually, he focused enough to wash himself clean of all the blood. Only then could I tell he wasn’t wounded.
That’s when he began to sing that cheerful Spanish song, first in a whisper, and then louder and stronger. It was too much for me.
“You crazy Mexican.”
“What else can I do?”
For a while, neither of us spoke. Finally, I offered, “Do you want your cigarettes back?”
“No, you keep them. I gave them to you.”
“Geez, Joachim. After that, smoke goddamn cigarette!” I tossed them over to where he could grab the pack through the bars. He sat down on his bunk and lit one up. We both looked at his shaking hands.
“I am not a youth,” he said.
“You’re a troubled youth.”
“Maybe,” he said, and we both laughed. Six months later, they killed him in the penitentiary. He was a year younger than me and he had gotten his wish. They told me he died well.
A quarter-century later, my wife got me out of prison. I still don’t know entirely how she did it. But she did. In time, she saw me foundering, unable to come to terms with my freedom. Though no longer locked in solitary confinement, I was confined still in a spiritual death. I was deformed, connected to nothing, even myself. I was empty inside.
She encouraged me to again take up falconry. It was not a decision easily taken. Becoming a falconer is somewhat like becoming a Buddhist monk. Falconry puts your life on hold.
Living in San Francisco, I decided to fly a species of hawk that I had flown at rabbits as a boy. It was a quick, nimble hawk from Mexico called the Harris hawk, which we found only on the border. One day in 2004, I brought home a juvenile male. He was a sight to see – a perfect raptor in all his parts. I taught him to fly and I taught him to hunt. Eventually, it became necessary to name him.
I have always let the women in my life name my hawks and falcons, but I always make suggestions. A raptor has no hands – it has wings instead, but its feet are like hands with a hinged thumb-like hind toe and finger-like front toes, all with knifelike talons. Long and sharp, they are designed by nature to pierce the vitals of their prey. Without even thinking about it, I found myself suggesting that my new Mexican hawk be named “Joachim.” The hints were taken and in time, sure enough, my wife named my hawk Joachim.
Joachim was not a flashy hawk. He was not particularly fast or exceptional in his aerial abilities, but he was brave and he was steady and he was reliable. He was a perfect hawk for me and he was hell on rabbits. And whenever he took a rabbit and clutched it in his talons for his breakfast, I couldn’t help but remember a long ago time, a very dark time, and a true friend of mine named Joachim who, though young, was certainly not a youth.
Sitting there watching Joachim eat his rabbit, I would often find myself saying out loud: “You crazy Mexican.”
I’ve always believed that people remain alive as long as they’re remembered by someone. I assume Joachim’s mother has now passed on. Perhaps he has brothers and sisters who still remember him. I don’t know.
My people live for 95 or 100 years, so I will remember him for several more decades, though I doubt anyone else will. I try not to think of him now covered in his enemies’ blood. I think of him laughing and generous and without hope, but still hopeful that he would die well.
He was my friend. He was devoured by a beast that I have myself so far eluded.
Christopher Boyce spent 25 years in prison for espionage. The story of how he got there was told in the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. In the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, Christopher Boyce tells the miraculous story of how he survived life in some of the toughest prisons in the country, and how an ambitious paralegal named Cait Mills helped him regain his freedom.