A tough-luck true crime story with a cast of illusion busters: One of
the FBI's ten most wanted mob figures, corrupt government agents, and
a victim caught in between, ready to fight for his rights - even after
he loses them, his family, his health, his wealth, and his illusions
For self-made businessman Jim Steffman, life was better than he ever
expected. Out of grit, a relentless work ethic and the basic instinct
for business he was born with, he built a small business empire
in rural Connecticut. Gas stations, a car wash, a storage unit facility,
and a bar catapulted him from near-poverty to the "good life," with
plenty of money and time for it's material rewards. Along the way, he
aided friends and employees with generous loans and quick exits
from dead-end jobs. Soon after defying town officials in one business
transaction, Steffman encountered a businessman who doesn't fit his
usual circle of friends. Rich, well-heeled and full of good-humored
braggadocio about his Hollywood contacts, John Hurley was the
personification of easy success. All of its trappings were his. A
former pilot, Hurley seemed to make his living as a buyer and seller
of precious gems. As their friendship developed, Steffman turned to
Hurley when a biker gang threatened him and a crooked business partner
began to raid the profits from his bar. From that point on, Steffman
learned that Hurley had persuasive powers that outstripped the lower-
echelons of a well known New England crime family, but an
investigation into Hurley's record revealed nothing suspicious. The
equation changed when Hurley confessed to being a drug trafficker for
Mafia clans all over the region and one of the FBI's ten most wanted
fugitives. When he disappeared after telling Steffman his unlikely
but true story, the tables turned on Steffman. Drug enforcement agents
began to hound him for information on Hurley. Fearing that Hurley
would have him killed if he aided the agents in their proposed sting,
Steffman refused to cooperate. The war that followed, driven by
the clout of a government agency allowed to operate outside the
law, would nearly leave him dead. Lies, threats, seizure of
properties, trumped-up charges, attempted murder and bureaucratic
corruption the likes of which Steffman had never before encountered
would eventually capsize his businesses and drive away friends and
family. Steffman would survive, but he would never be the same.
The second time I almost died was because of a purely passive reflex on my part. I was simply breathing in the wrong place. The first time, I played a more active role. They told me where to go. I went there.
Who are They, anyway? Go ahead and ask. I told you I'm betting my life on the truth, so I'll tell you now before I tell you what led up to Them. "They" are the DEA. The DEA is an elite federal agency paid for by taxpayers, short for Drug Enforcement Agency. You probably think They protect honest citizens from drug dealers and the like. Well, that's the official job description, and maybe it's true most of the time. But in my experience, the DEA protected the DEA. And the IDEA of the DEA. Beyond that, they went after competitors. I was just someone who got in the way.
Back in 1988, even after They entered my life, I was somebody. I was in business for myself, and had amassed a small fortune in business assets. People still call what I was a "millionaire." I suppose that is what I was in terms of dollar worth. I preferred the term "self-made businessman" back then. Still do. Emphasis on the "self-made" part.
Thinking back to that day in 1988 (as I do almost every day) I'm always surprised to admit that it was ordinary. Ordinary weather, typical New England drab. Ordinary in the sense that it was, by then, ordinary to find a sheriff on my doorstep with another paper to serve, compliments of the DEA.
I was having a cup of coffee and a few cigarettes, thinking about damage control. What were They going to do to me today?
They had already sent in every three-letter agency I could think of to my businesses. I had just received notice that all my banks were calling in my credit lines.
Sad-faced Tim, the sheriff from New Haven County,had come by to serve me another lawsuit. Tim had served me many times before, and I remember that day he apologized. That was ordinary, too. A nice guy just doing his job, I thought. A nice guy smart enough to know that I wasn't being pelted with lawsuits because of the way I did business.
The garage door opened, the ordinary sound my bookkeeper made at the beginning of each business day. We had a commercial office at
the storage facility I owned, but my bookkeeper chose to work out of my downstairs office. Like I said, ordinary. The DEA's phone call was next.
They had been to my home before. Of course they had. But I had worked out what I thought was a deal. They would call me. I would go wherever they said. In return, I would have the peaceful reassurance that my home would be temporary sanctuary from DEA men and dogs.
That day, I wasn't in a gracious mood. Their visits to my bank creditors had resulted in hundreds of thousands worth of debit slips. I knew by then that there was no way out financially. But I also knew that resisting the DEA was to invite more harassment. Too bad I couldn't have figured that out sooner. As it was, when they called and said "Be there," I asked them when.
Funny, I can no longer remember the time, only the place. Time is abstract. Places are full of hooks - smells, colors, sounds - to remember by. Our meeting place that day was a parking garage in Rocky Hill, next to a Smuglers Inn. The DEA isn't picky about atmosphere.
So on that ordinary New England drab day, sometime after my bookkeeper had buzzed open the garage door and Tim the Sad had left my doorstep, I got in my truck and drove to a parking garage in Rocky Hill, Connecticut to keep my appointment with the DEA.
Three guys, in this case. The DEA always travels in threes, the FBI in twos. Sounds like a nursery
rhyme, doesn't it. Such was the trivia I picked up in my shadow life under Their influence. Numbers are important to these alphabet men.
The garage was half-finished and the construction crew must have been taking the day off. The cement floors were down and about half the steel beams were in place. As I entered, the quiet, occasionally punctuated by traffic, chilled me. I knew I was in for the usual game of bad cop/good cop, with the third agent standing guard when the bad cop gets too rough. I had been pushed around and threatened by these guys before.
This time was different.
"Steffman," one of them said, probably Good Cop. Bad Cop was facing me with his back to the wall. Guard Cop was already on watch. That should have been my cue. No action, no threats, and Guard Cop was already looking as if it would be awkward if a casual bystander got too close.
No one said a word. Then Bad Cop walked directly up to me, pulled out what appeared to be a gun and shoved it into my stomach.
"We're done fucking around with you," he breathed into my face.
I held my breath.
"If you don't cooperate with us, I've got this gun in my back pocket that will explain all the cops need to know when I've thrown it on your dead body."
I breathed shallowly. It was as if I needed to make as few signs of life as possible. That moment was like a compressed spring. Like death, I suppose, when you relive everything in a series of flashcards. It
was like that, except in this case the flashcards were all of the intrusions that the DEA had made into my life. I had already reached the conclusion that my life was no longer worth very much. My businesses were
dissolving, my credit ruined, my wife gone. So I allowed myself to feel, one more time, the sharp rage of the moment.
I said nothing.
I stood tall and pushed forward, my face eye to eye with Bad Cop. Then I heard a soft thump.
Bad Cop's face went from the usual mock menace to surprise. I remember they were all talking together at once, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. I was still standing there, frozen to the cement floor, watching them. I saw them run to their car, then they were driving away.
I knew then that Bad Cop had shot
me, but my reasoning was cloudy. I was convinced they'd be back to finish me off, so I was desperate to get out of there. I felt cold liquid running down my leg, but no pain. I was afraid to look at the hole in my gut, but I was curious about what a bullet hole in my own flesh would look like...
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