Guillermo Gonzalez's prison term ended in March and he's willing to trade his citizenship and welfare checks, but the U.S. says no.
Since stepping off a bus two months ago, Guillermo Gonzalez has killed a lot of time in the Twin Cities. He walks about 3 miles a day. He has strolled through the Mall of America at least 20 times. He spends hours watching TV in a seedy hotel room.
Gonzalez, 67, wishes he could give up the life of an accidental tourist and return to his wife and three children in the Dominican Republic. But he must spend the next two years checking in with a federal probation officer in Minnesota. It's the last part of a sentence he began in 1985, when he was convicted of cashing some $125,000 worth of bogus checks and sent to a federal prison camp in Duluth. Gonzalez slipped away from the minimum-security facility in 1986 before finishing his time, spending nearly two decades in his Caribbean homeland before the authorities caught up with him. Having completed his prison time, he is now a white-haired pensioner with a heart condition.
He's also a man who wants to be kicked out of the country. A naturalized U.S. citizen for nearly 50 years and a decorated Vietnam veteran, Gonzalez wants to give up his citizenship and get sent back to his native Dominican Republic, similar to the more than 100,000 non-citizens with criminal convictions that the United States deported last year. If he stays, Gonzalez says he'll be forced to live on welfare in a city where he knows no one. But the federal courts won't let him leave.
"Please deport me," Gonzalez said. "Take back your citizenship. I'll give it back to you."
With no job or bank accounts to draw on, Gonzalez spent the past two months enrolling in government programs available to veterans and the poor. Each month, he collects $532 in Social Security, $985 in veterans benefits and $200 worth of food stamps. He also hopes to qualify for subsidized veterans housing and compensation for being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He takes the light rail to a VA Hospital for regular checkups.
Gonzalez would gladly give up much of the help.
"They should let me go home. I'm not a threat to anyone," he says. "If I stay, I will bring my whole family here. We're going to become a burden on the taxpayer."
'This man escaped'
Representatives of the federal probation office and parole commission said they could not talk about the terms of Gonzalez's supervised release. But his complaints didn't hold much sway with Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Courts.
"This man escaped. He decided he didn't want to serve his sentence and left," Redmond said. "Now he doesn't like his sentence again."
The stated goal of community corrections is to re-integrate offenders into society, but Gonzalez doesn't know anyone in Minnesota and will leave the country as soon as he can. He is so intimidated by his surroundings that he mostly stays in his room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
"I feel like I'm in prison right now," he said.
Gonzalez first came to this country in the 1950s, when his father, a tobacco farmer in the Dominican Republic, fled political persecution and brought his family to New York. Gonzalez later lived in Chicago. He dodged shells and sniper fire in Vietnam while serving with the 1st Marine Division from 1966 to 1968. He returned to Chicago and ran an auto parts business with his brother.
Gonzalez moved back to the Dominican Republic in 1975 after the country's president asked expatriates to come home and help rebuild the struggling economy. Gonzalez bought a company that imported auto parts, mostly from Japan. He got involved with some shady business people, and on a 1984 business trip to New York, he was arrested after cashing about $125,000 in counterfeit checks.
Gonzalez aggravated the situation by skipping out on bail and returning to the Dominican Republic, where he was caught and brought back to the United States. A federal judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Gonzalez was considered only a small threat to society, so he was transferred to a Duluth facility that relied on the honor system, not guard towers and fences, to keep inmates from running away.
He says he made his fateful decision to run in 1986, after hearing devastating news from home. His father had died, and his mother was on her deathbed. Saying the news left him in a daze, Gonzalez recalls walking away from the prison yard, finding a road and sticking out his thumb. He hitchhiked to Madison, found a ride to Miami and got a "letter of transit" from the Dominican consulate that allowed him to fly back to the island.
Gonzalez arrived at his mother's bedside the day she died.
Never stopped at the border
Like his father before him, Gonzalez turned to the land, cultivating the dark tobacco used for Spanish cigars. He married a younger woman named Maritza, and they had three children. When he needed treatment for his gallbladder or his heart condition, Gonzalez traveled to Veterans Affairs hospitals in Miami or Atlanta. He even got a job in Atlanta selling cars. No one at the border ever detained him, even though he used his real name and passport.
His luck changed on Nov. 2, 2005, when five Dominican police officers arrested Gonzalez after he went to the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo to register his children as U.S. citizens. He was taken to the airport, put into the custody of U.S. marshals and flown to Puerto Rico on a charge of escaping from a federal prison.
Gonzalez argued that the statute of limitations had run out, that he never tried to hide. But because he couldn't prove he ever offered to surrender, the courts viewed his escape as a continuing offense.
On Oct. 30, 2006, a federal judge tacked an extra year onto his original sentence for escaping, and Gonzalez was taken to another low-security facility in Pennsylvania. He was allowed to finish his sentence at a halfway house in Atlanta, where his brother Fred Cabrera lives, because of a special program for senior inmates.
On March 11, Gonzalez walked out of the halfway house. He had served his debt to society, but the federal court system decided he still needed to be watched. His parole certificate requires him to stay within Minnesota.
"Why would you want to send him to Minnesota?" asked Cabrera, Gonzalez's brother. "It would be for the taxpayers' benefit to be in the custody of me."
Kevin Lowry, chief probation officer in the Minnesota district, said his agency tries to put offenders "where they're best suited to success. Our number one goal is that they successfully re-enter the community to be law-abiding citizens."
For now, that's a strange city that Gonzalez had never even visited. His first nights in Minneapolis were spent on the floor of the bus station and a Salvation Army shelter. He later moved to the Drake Hotel because it offers single rooms for $150 a week, if they're not being used to shelter the homeless. A man at the front desk tells visitors they're not allowed beyond the lobby, period.
As he wanders the streets, Gonzalez dreams of returning to his tropical homeland. He thinks of the money he could make by planting orchards and vines in the hills above his home. The mists from the Caribbean would make his mangos and avocados grow fat and sweet, and he'd sell them to U.S. supermarkets.
His probation officer recently told him to check in monthly, instead of weekly. Gonzalez said he is not even considering another run for freedom.
"I already did that, and it didn't work. Here are I am, 20 years later, still with the same problem," he said. "I want to face it, and finish it out."