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Hard Time 

Mike Fusco's crime: building electrical panels for the wrong client. His punishment: ten years, no parole. His problem: mandatory minimun sentencing.

For Michael Fusco, it all began with a side job in the summer of 1989. He managed Nite Life, a bar on the northwest side, and moonlighted as a construction worker. People would come into the bar and ask him to build their decks or do electrical work. Fusco, a lifelong Chicagoan, grew up in the Belmont-Central area. His father abandoned his family when he was five years old, and his mother, a Polish immigrant, had to take a job in a sweatshop. A smart kid with dreams of being a doctor, Fusco dropped out of high school to work in construction but ended up enlisting in the army and serving in Korea. When he returned home in 1971, he went back to the construction trade and also started working in bars. Through his job at Nite Life, Fusco came to know Michael Coffey, a regular customer who asked him to build some electrical paneling in his house in northwest suburban Inverness.

Fusco's wife Carol remembers Coffey as "a flashy guy. Rolls Royce, Corvette, chicks, a lotta money. A hustler, you know."

"You never knew what he was up to," Michael Fusco recalls from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop. "He wasn't really the kind of guy who explained anything to you. You know what I mean? He'd tell you, come over here, do this kind of work for me, and this and that and adios. He'd leave. He wouldn't say five words to you. Personally, I didn't care for the guy, but that's besides the point. When you need the money, sometimes you gotta do that."

According to Fusco, Coffey originally said the electrical panels were for a business providing emergency computer backups. Fusco called Commonwealth Edison, found out the amperage he needed for the job, and started building the panels. But over the course of time, Fusco says he came to learn that the business Coffey had in mind was an elaborate hydroponic garden for growing marijuana.

"I really didn't know too much about it," says Fusco. "I really didn't care. I figured, you know with him, there could be something kinky, you know what I mean? But who knew it was gonna be this? Who'd think about growing marijuana in today's world?"

Fusco says he'd never seen marijuana before in his life, never smoked it, never did any drug.

"I wouldn't know marijuana if I seen it right now," says Fusco. "If it was growing in my room, I wouldn't know it. I'm not like that. I'm not a drug user, you know what I'm saying? I'm the kind of guy who likes to go and have a drink or something like that. Sometimes I drink too much, but I never tried no marijuana. I think I was more scared of it than anything. I was afraid something would happen to me."

"My husband's a nerd," says Carol Fusco. "Mike is like an old greaseball. He drinks rum and Coke and wears Sansabelts."

Michael Fusco says he told Coffey he wanted nothing to do with the marijuana scheme.

"I just told him flat out, "I don't want no part of this,"' Fusco says.

The problem was that he had already spent the $10,000 that Coffey gave him to build the panels, and he couldn't pay it back, and there was other people's money involved. Coffey had already begun developing a network of people to grow and distribute marijuana from trailers in Du Page County. Fusco says that when he refused to continue working on the project the threats began. He says Coffey would harass him at work and at home to get him to finish up the job or pay back the money with interest.

"This guy was a bad Saturday Night Live skit," says Carol Fusco. "He used to say his name was Rocco, because he wanted people to think he was Italian. He's someone you meet in a bar who puts a salami in his pants. He used to call up on the phone and act like a real tough guy. You'd pick up the phone, and he'd say, "Hey.' I'd be like, "Hey? Who is this?' He'd say, "Blue eyes.' I'd say, "Blue eyes? Frank Sinatra?' That's what he wanted you to call him. Blue eyes. The guy came to our apartment once, and my husband seen his car, and he had called him from his car phone, and my husband said, "Don't come in here. I don't want this guy around me.' When he walked in, I said, "Why don't you invite your friend in? Are you embarrassed?' He's like, "This guy's not my friend. This guy's a real jerk. He's a pervert, a drug dealer.' But to make a long story short, he told Mike basically to finish up the job or you're gonna end up dead, so Mike finished it."

Mike Fusco says he decided to "just do the couple of panels for the guy and the heck with him. You know, there was no marijuana around there. Do his panels and forget about it, you know? And then you had the whole lecture from him: "Nobody can do nothing to you. Stop worrying.' This and that. "There's no marijuana here. You're not involved.' This and that. "All you're doing is making a couple of electrical panels. Just get out of it and I'll leave you alone.' This and that, you know? Well, we know that that didn't get me anywhere."

In March of 1992, Coffey and some of his coconspirators were arrested. Coffey began cooperating with authorities and fingered Fusco as part of the conspiracy. The government indicted seven people, and later charged Joseph DiFronzo, brother of reputed organized crime boss John DiFronzo. Coffey allegedly owed Joseph DiFronzo money, a juice loan that increased at a rate of 5 percent each week. In order to work off the debt, Coffey began growing marijuana for the mob. Since he was far from a gardening expert, the marijuana scheme was something of a bungled job. In the beginning, everything one could imagine went wrong with the operation, from plants turning moldy to fertilizer being used improperly. Even so, when the FBI raided Coffey's house in March 1992, there were more than 1,600 plants. When they came to arrest Fusco at his Wheaton home, he was out of town with his family.

"From what I heard, they surrounded the house at six in the morning with guns drawn," says Carol Fusco. "The neighbors freaked out. One of my neighbors asks, "What's going on?' This guy opens his coat and says, "FBI.' They went to the neighbors, asked if they knew my husband. We had just moved in. It was embarrassing. Six in the morning they come in here with guns. Everybody has kids around here. It's a nice community."

Coffey, in an agreement worked out with federal authorities, pleaded guilty to one charge of opening and maintaining a place to grow marijuana. Michael Fusco turned himself in and was charged with four counts: conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, manufacture of a controlled substance, and two counts of maintaining a place for the purpose of manufacturing a controlled substance. While out on bond--despite his assertion that his role in the scheme was merely that of electrician--Fusco began to get pressured by federal authorities to rat on other individuals and to tell what he knew about organized crime in Elmwood Park. They refused to believe that Fusco didn't know more than he was telling, especially since Coffey made him out to be a mastermind in the operation and Fusco's cousin and good friend, Richard Lantini, was one of the alleged conspirators.

"They're ridiculous what they were talking about," says Fusco. "They wanted to know about people and stuff like that, people I got nothing to do with. I went down there and explained this to them, and they just don't want to hear it. There was nothing I could do to change their minds."

Carol Fusco says, "They were like, "Mike, we want you to talk about Elmwood Park gangsters.' He said, "But I don't know any.' "Yes you do.' "No I don't.' "But don't you know this guy?' "Yeah, I know this guy, but I don't know what he does."'

According to Carol Fusco, the trial was a farce. "I'm gonna tell you, it's the most bullshit case you're ever gonna wanna see," she says of a trial portrayed by the local press as a crackdown on organized crime. "They rarely even talked about the marijuana. It was all about mob and threats and being attacked and being Italian. The seven guys were all Italian, you know? I never understood how people could feel like a minority. I never felt like that. You know, I'm Italian and German, and I felt like a piece of scum. Now I know how colored people or maybe Jewish people or anybody that's getting dumped on feels. I never realized when Italian-Americans got mad when they opened up the Capone museum. I'd go, "What the hell is the big deal?' Now I know what the big deal is. The whole trial was like, these guys are Italians, they're greaseballs, they know mob guys, they're guilty, you know? Juries? I have no faith in them. I will never trust a jury. These jurors were sleeping. There was one man on the jury, and he was just so happy to be there with the police. It was cute. But this is my husband's life."

On February 10, 1995, in a hearing before Judge Paul Plunkett in the northern district of Illinois in the U.S. District Court, Michael Fusco received the mandatory minimum sentence: ten years in prison with no chance for parole.

"I'm not guilty of this," Fusco says. "I'm guilty of being the electrician. I can't get around that. But just sentence me for what I did. When I came back from sentencing, all the guards felt bad. All of them, guys in the elevators, everybody. You could see that they all felt bad. They know it's a raw deal."

Ever since the 1980s and the never-ending war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing has been an explosive topic. The horror stories are many: a Deadhead caught with LSD is sentenced to life in prison; a poor schlepp on the street gets caught holding a friend's crack cocaine and is sentenced to five years without chance for parole; an old hippie who'd been busted for pot a couple times in his youth is found growing marijuana and gets thrown behind bars for life because of a "three strikes you're out" policy.

The only way to reduce stiff minimum sentences is to "provide substantial assistance" to the government, meaning that the only way to lessen the amount of time you spend in jail is to fink on somebody else. Ironically, the effect of sentencing requirements has been not so much to lessen the amount of drugs on the street, but rather to fill up the nation's prisons with nonviolent first-time offenders while drug kingpins often get reduced sentences, and sometimes monetary compensation, from the federal government in exchange for names. Lower stoners on the totem pole with no one left to tell on are unable to reduce their time.

In his study Prison Blues: How America's Foolish Sentencing Policies Endanger Public Safety, David B. Kopel, a former assistant attorney general for Colorado, writes that "mandatory minimums . . . require grotesquely disproportionate sentences." Kopel points to the cases of Brenda Valencia, a 19-year-old with no previous criminal record, who drove her aunt from Miami to the home of a drug dealer in Palm Beach and received a sentence of 12 and a half years in prison; 44-year-old carpenter Michael Irish, also with no prior convictions, who tried to sell a boatload of hashish to pay for his wife's cancer treatment and got 12 years in prison; and Gary Fannon, again with no prior record, who "worked to set up, but then became too fearful to complete, a sale of a large quantity of cocaine to an undercover Michigan police officer" and is now serving a mandatory life sentence without hope of parole.

The statistics are staggering. A 1994 Federal Judicial Center report claims that 70 percent of prison population growth since 1985 is attributable to lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, and that approximately 29 percent of all drug offenders have no prior criminal record. According to a study commissioned by Senator Paul Simon last year, the number of drug prisoners in Illinois increased fivefold between 1988 and 1993. Simon's study also found that 58 percent of Illinois prison wardens oppose mandatory minimum sentences. Meanwhile, the percentage of prisoners who have reduced their sentences by ratting on others nearly tripled between 1990 and 1993, according to the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics, whose annual reports maintain that in 1993 nearly one-third of drug sentences were bartered down through providing "substantial assistance" to authorities.

Assistant U.S. attorney John Burley says, "If Coffey hadn't cooperated, he might have gotten life" in prison. But under the terms of his plea agreement, Coffey was sentenced to ten years, the same amount of time Michael Fusco must spend behind bars. Depending on who you talk to, Fusco suffered because he either refused to be a fink or had no one to fink on.

At the February 10, 1995, hearing, Fusco's court-appointed public defender David Atkins tried to argue for leniency in his client's sentencing, citing a "safety valve" in the recently ratified crime bill, which states that a judge can give a shorter sentence than the one prescribed by law if the defendant has no prior criminal record, did not use any violence or threats of violence in his crime, was not a leader, organizer, manager, kingpin, or career criminal, and "truthfully gave the Government all the information he had regarding the offense." Atkins contended that Fusco should not be sentenced too harshly because he was only involved tangentially in the marijuana-growing operation.

"He didn't plant it. He didn't harvest it. He didn't invest in it. He didn't sell any. He didn't get any money from it," asserted Atkins, who argued Fusco had been coerced by Coffey to perform the electrical work and that should also be taken into consideration before sentencing him to the mandatory ten years.

Judge Plunkett said that he "didn't want this fellow, who has a lot of redeeming characteristics, and a family, and he's been good to his family, to wind up in jail for ten years," but Atkins's arguments didn't wash with either Plunkett or government attorney John Burley.

Burley said that the so-called safety valve in the crime bill was designed, in his opinion, for "a youthful defendant, who got caught up in a conspiracy and knows nothing else [and] can't help the government any further in anything." According to Burley, the 43-year-old Fusco was old enough to know what he was getting involved in, never alerted authorities about what was going on, and never revealed what he knew about mob activity in the western suburbs.

"This is not a youthful offender who can't help himself because he hasn't been involved in anything else and who does come forward and confesses wrong, accepts his responsibility, and who can be restored when he gets out of jail . . . to a law-abiding, constructive life," Burley said. "This is a man who wants to resume criminal activity, in my judgment, when he gets out of jail. Until such time as he cooperates and tells us what he knows . . . about the Elmwood Park Crew, about their role in the marijuana grow and everything else, this is a dangerous man that needs to be incarcerated. It just breaks your heart because he's a skillful person. He's an intelligent person. He's a likable person. But he hasn't done that. He hasn't told us what he knows."

Burley suggested that Fusco's claim that he'd continued to work on the project because he and his family were threatened was trumped up and could be considered perjury.

According to Burley, this sort of approach was "typical of other first offenders without a record. . . . They think the first time that they can create a reasonable doubt by testifying, they can perjure themselves and get themselves out."

Burley intimated that Fusco wouldn't tell everything he knew about suburban gangsters because he didn't want to damage his "reputation in Melrose Park," and that he'd even been present at a conversation in which someone suggested killing Coffey before he was able to testify against the members of the marijuana-growing conspiracy, both charges that Fusco vehemently denies.

Judge Plunkett, before calling a recess, confessed that he had no particular desire to impose a draconian sentence, but suggested that he had few other options. After the recess, Fusco's wife Carol, who had been sitting in the hearing room with her five children, stood up to address the court, hoping to talk down her husband's sentence.

"My husband is a hardworking man," she said. "We don't live like those other people [the other alleged conspirators in the case]. We bought a house with a VA loan. We gutted it, our four boys and I. Mike put it together. I'm asking you to please believe me. We have no money stashed. I have the house up for sale because I'm losing it. I'm proud of him. Because he's not going to hurt somebody like we got hurt. Because Mike Coffey, the original guy who became the star witness, he told on everybody and he got lesser time.

"So what does it teach my kids? To be the best crook you could be? Make all the money. Ruin people. Because when you get caught you just tell on people. And a little guy like him, he has no one to tell on. He doesn't. He doesn't. I begged him. He doesn't have anyone to tell on. . . . He doesn't know anything about these people. Your honor, he can't help the government. . . . And just to clarify something, my husband was never a criminal. And when he does get out and he does his time, you will see, your honor. Please check back and look what we've done with our lives. But look at the government witnesses. I won't name names, but men with no future, they go back to their past. My husband has a future. Always will. With us, with those kids. And I just want to thank you for listening to a crazy wife."

"Sure," responded Judge Plunkett. "Quite the contrary, Mrs. Fusco, my limited experience with you, I believe that you are quite a remarkable woman."

"I found a remarkable man," said Carol Fusco, shortly before Plunkett lowered the mandatory minimum ten-year sentence on her husband.

"These mandatory minimums are the worst," Carol Fusco says. "I have no life now."

We're sitting in the kitchen of her Wheaton home, which she's put on the block because, with her husband in jail, she can't afford to hang on to it. She's hoping that Michael will be moved to a facility in Florida so that she'll be able to move near her relatives. Carol's a tough woman, a gum-snapping fast-talker who bears more than a little resemblance to Michelle Pfeiffer's character in, no disrespect to her husband, Married to the Mob. Since Michael Fusco wound up in jail, she's been taking care of their five kids (two from her previous marriage, two from his previous marriage, and their little girl, Michelle) and working a sales job to make ends meet.

Carol Fusco grew up in the suburbs of Northlake and Franklin Park. She was a cheerleader and a member of the Booster Club at Leyden Township High School. She says that as a teenager she was the kind of person who cried at Rocky movies. She'd been divorced from her first husband for five years and was working three jobs when she met Michael Fusco back in 1987.

"I met Mike when I went to a packaging show at McCormick Place with my boss and we all went out afterwards downtown," she recalls. "I think we went to Morton's, and afterwards I went to his bar with a girlfriend. He was managing the bar when I met him, and what I liked about him was that he didn't hit on me. Being divorced with two kids, I have to be very picky. No one comes to my house. I dated one guy before Mike after my husband and that was it, and I had just broken up with him and I had been alone for a year. Mike wasn't the kind of guy who'd give me that, "Oh, you're beautiful.'

"We started talking about politics, about the Kennedys, about World War II and Vietnam, and he was talking about his kids and where he was going to take them on the weekend, because he was divorced. That was strange, because nobody wants to hear about your kids when you're divorced, especially if you're a nice looking girl. They don't care. That's "baggage.' I hate that word. Your "baggage.' But that's men. Mike was different, though."

They got married in 1992. When her husband got arrested, they were just putting the finishing touches on their Wheaton home.

"I felt that it was a love story, but then it got killed," she laughs bitterly. "So I'm kind of mad about that."

After the initial shock of the arrest, Carol Fusco says that she and Michael had a good attitude about their chances of winning the case. She'd had worse problems in her life. A husband with an apparently minimal drug charge seemed like small change to her.

"I was 11 years old, and my mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage right in front of me," Fusco says. "Grandpa died, then my brother got leukemia at 30 years old. I've been faced with a lot of illness. My other brother had two brain surgeries. My dad had lung cancer. That's troubles. That you can't fight. That's in God's hands, and you can't fight that. That's your body. You do the best you can, but this, we can fight. When you know you're right, you get a lot of strength. What'm I gonna do? Lay down and die?"

Since the arrest, times have been tough for the Fusco family. The kids started getting mocked at school. Other students would say such things as "Your dad's in the mob" or "Hey, does your dad got a joint?" TV news reporters like Chuck Goudie kept calling. Some of the neighbors started acting differently too.

"This one treats me like I'm white trash," Fusco snarls, gesturing vaguely toward the window. "I make more money than her and her husband together. She's a waitress. I mean, nothing wrong with being a waitress. I did it too. One day she gave me broken-down shoes that were her daughter's, and I said, 'I don't need your shoes. I don't need nothing from you. Just be nice. Don't talk about me every day. If you have a question, ask.'"

After the conviction, reality began to sink in for Carol Fusco. It could be ten years before she'd see her husband outside of prison again, and for that time she'd be in charge of the five kids, the house, even the dog Caesar ("I don't know why my husband did this to me. I don't know why we had to have animals," she says after fishing some apples out of the fridge to feed the dog). The first time she saw her husband in jail, she says, she nearly lost it.

"He was in a cage. It was sickening. He was pacing. I never seen him in a cage before. I actually see my husband, the father of my daughter, in a cage like an animal. I freaked out. He said, "Get out of here. I don't want you to see me this way.' A little cage. Like an animal. He belongs to them now. So someday at six in the morning, they'll pick him up somewhere and put him on a plane at O'Hare Field in shackles and leg irons, like an animal, and fly him to Oklahoma. He'll stay there in some yucky infested place for a week, and then he'll fly to Atlanta, and then he'll take a bus to Florida, and hopefully he'll call me in that time, but then you worry. I worry every night. If he doesn't call at eight every night, I start worrying that something happened."

Visits to the Metropolitan Correctional Center are allowed once a week for three hours on Fridays. Every Friday she would drive her family to Clark and Van Buren to see Michael in a big, dingy room with vending machines and tables.

"It could be a lot worse," Carol Fusco says. "They have a TV for the kids to watch and they have books for the fathers to read their kids. No shackles, whatever. You kiss when you say hello. You can hold hands. Some people really go overboard. There are all these kids making out, but Mike and I are kind of private. I've just put it into my head that this is where my husband lives. It could be the navy. It could be a hospital. You just have to walk in and keep your composure. My family breaks down. The baby, every time she sees him come out, she does a run: "Daddy! Daddy!' And every man that comes out, kids run to them. That breaks your heart. And leaving is hard. They leave, and they close the gate, and it's icky. It's real icky. So my weekend is blown. Fridays are pretty miserable. Saturday mornings, I'm real miserable. And then Sundays I start to be OK again and I get ready for work. I mean, this is my life. That's it."

Fusco doesn't believe that her husband is innocent. She says that when he knew that he was involved in a marijuana operation he was taking part in a crime, whether or not he was being coerced. What stuns her is the length of the sentence given to someone who had no prior record. Since the arrest, she's become a local volunteer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby. She's organized meetings for family members of individuals serving what seem like unreasonably harsh sentences for drug crimes.

"It's pathetic," she says of her predicament. "You get Mike out of jail today, and tomorrow he'd be back working in a split second. My husband's no career criminal. He wears jeans and work boots; he doesn't wear dapper suits. It's like a bad B novel we're living in. For God's sake, let him at least keep being productive."

There was a time when Carol Fusco was the patriotic type, the kind of woman who'd get all teary-eyed when she'd see the American flag. She still does, but not for the same reason she used to. It hit her when she took her family to a Black Hawks game and the flag came out.

"We all started crying then," she recalls. "We're like, "F this.' I mean, really, I was a big Kennedy fan and Jackie Onassis, I grew up reading all about them and I wanted to be a photographer just like her. I was goofy. And I remember that I read everything I could on the gal. And I remember when she said that she hated this country, and you know what? I know what she means, because they took her husband and they took her brother-in-law, and I understand it because I really hate this. This part of this country I hate. How we can do this to our own. I mean, Michael worked every day of his life, and we're going to take him off the street for ten years? Thank God I make money. What if I was one of these mothers with five kids who has to go on public aid? I would never go on public aid. I have my limbs, I have my arms, I can work my ass off. Check our records. We're working people.

"There's evil in this country," Carol Fusco continues. "We want to talk about these other countries where they do these horrible things in the street. We do it in private. We hurt our own in private. We hurt them in the legal system. That's why I took my kids to court. I wanted them to see where you lose your power and you can't say nothing. The judge sits there. Some judge. Who is he? Who is he? He sits there, and he's gonna control my life. Twelve people I don't know make a decision. They don't care about me."

She gestures to her daughter Michelle: "They don't care about her. They don't know about her. We planned to have her. We wanted to raise her together. They don't know that. Now she has no father."

The Fuscos' daughter Michelle is playing with the family dog and pretending to be a Power Ranger as Carol Fusco gets her jacket on to pick up her sons from a religion class. She eyes her daughter with a doleful glance that suggests a mixture of infinite love and regret.

"I'm so alone," she says. "I mean, I have my kids. They're all healthy, knock on wood. But I'm alone. I'm really alone. It's very boring. I mean, I miss my husband. I miss male companionship. I miss talking to him. I wake up at three in the morning and I look out the window. I'm like nuts. It's icky. And I think of him in a cage, and it's rough."

Michelle Fusco looks up and says in a quiet voice a blistering bit of childhood sagesse, which in any movie would seem cheap and cloying, but here is bluntly devastating. "My daddy doesn't wear a suit. Now he wears a jumpsuit."

"Right," Carol Fusco says. "Now he wears a jumpsuit. That's what she has to know."

"'Cause he's in a school," says Michelle.

"Right," says Carol. "He's at school."

"'Cause he likes school."

"Right."

"It's a school that's built as a jail."

"Right. It's a jail, but it's also a school."

"No," says Michelle. "It's only a school."

"Right."

"It only looks like it isn't."

Michael Fusco says the inmates call the Metropolitan Correctional Center the "cheese house" because "everyone finds someone to rat on here." Biding his time, waiting for his appeal, Fusco has found a job of sorts as an unofficial jailhouse lawyer for his fellow inmates. When he's not researching to try to build a good case for himself, he's advising young gangbangers, older drug dealers, and other assorted miscreants, who sometimes are unable to even read the charges filed against them.

"My story's pretty outrageous, but I've seen some other bad ones around here," he says. "I've heard some good stories. There are a lot of kids in here, and that's what I'm scared of. I don't like seeing 18-year-old kids coming in here. I don't want us losing all these kids. Man, you know, there's these kids, they go into a store, steal a candy bar, and if they got a gang thing on their arm or if they're standing there with another gang kid they're gonna get ten years. It's insane."

Fusco has been corresponding with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, trying to help their efforts in lobbying Congress for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. He's making it a personal crusade to speak out against what he sees as an epidemic of finking going on across the country. He says he speaks from a different time, when refusing to sell others out was a point of honor instead of grounds for removal from society.

Carol Fusco says, "In the old days, you'd grab the kid, and they would want him to beef on the big guys, and you'd let the kid go. That was right. In the old days, you'd grab someone who was selling a few joints and say "Who'd you buy it from?' Then you'd work your way up to the big drug cartel. We got it backwards now. Now we get the big ones because of our high-tech surveillance and we have them rat on the little peons like my husband."

You get the feeling from talking to Michael Fusco that he's telling the truth about having nothing more to say to the government, but that if he knew more than he was telling he wouldn't be the type to spread it around.

"You see, this whole federal system runs on informants," he says. "You don't got policemen out there working anymore. There's no nothing. Everything just runs on informants. . . . You've got little people who use drugs one or two times in their life or they get caught with a spoonful of drugs and they're looking at 30 years to life. And then you got these informants who're making nothing but a ton of money. They don't publicize any of this. The way the laws are written, you even get the feds complaining about the informants, because they make more money than they do. An informant goes out and he makes up a story about you or goes in with a hidden tape recorder and starts coaxing you into something, and even if you don't participate in something he can make it sound like you do. Then the feds start moving in. They'll take your houses, they'll take your cars, and the informant can get 25 percent of that. Well, that's a hell of a way to make money, you know what I mean?"

Fusco says he's beyond the point of caring what happens to him. Awaiting transfer and word on his appeal, he is hopeful, but he accepts the possibility that he may not be out of jail until well into the 21st century. He's just trying to spread the word that the federal system is overflowing with people like him, people who have never been convicted of a crime before in their lives--Deadheads who sold to the wrong guy in the tie-dyed shirt, young gang kids who passed on a packet of crack for somebody else--facing a sentence of 10, 15, or 20 years or life in prison.

"It's like I was telling my wife," he says. "It doesn't matter about me. I'm just a pimple on somebody's ass in this system. I don't even care if I do the ten years anymore. This can't go on."

Carol Fusco is still in Wheaton, trying to sell her house. Michael Fusco has recently been transferred to a minimum-security federal facility in Tallahassee, Florida. Carol hopes that attorney David Atkins's petition to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals will reduce Michael's sentence. Atkins maintains that the grand jury that indicted Fusco was tainted. Last spring the Chicago Tribune alleged that Joseph DiFronzo, who remains a fugitive in this case, was tipped off about federal investigations of the marijuana ring by a member of the grand jury. Atkins also claims that the weight of confiscated plants was improperly measured and calls for a substantially smaller sentence.

"The thing that's particularly troublesome in this case is that [Fusco] doesn't really have any criminal background," Atkins says. "He was slapped with a ten-year sentence, and, as I reviewed the facts of the case, the actual quantity of marijuana that was produced was very small."

Sitting at Carol Fusco's kitchen table, I ask if she has plans for what she'll do when Michael gets out. She smiles sheepishly.

"I'm gonna pick him up in a limo, and we're gonna go fishing," she says and laughs. "Oh God, we love to fish. We're silly. We're gonna go fishing in ten years. That's all we want to do. We're gonna go to Florida and we're gonna go fishing for sharks."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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