By Diane Wells • January 31, 2020•Writers in Residence
Becoming a Target
It all began with a simple call. I was sitting at my desk on the third floor of the bank building in downtown Raleigh, NC. I worked as a trust advisor in the bank’s trust department. I had been there for a few years. I was good at my job and liked it. The phone rang and I answered it with my typical, professional bank greeting. I was glad I was sitting down.
Mr. Williams announced his name and identified himself as a federal prosecutor. He continued the conversation by stating that I was the target of a federal investigation related to an administrative position I had with a venture capital fund I had been employed with many years prior. Mr. Williams suggested that it may be advisable to seek legal counsel.
After I spoke my name when I answered the phone, I uttered nothing else. I can’t recall if I couldn’t speak, didn’t want to, too afraid or all of the above. I was so shocked that I had a hard time actually understanding what had just happened. When I hung up the phone, I gasped and ran down 3 flights of stairs. I leaned up against the tall building knowing that I could not have stood up without support.
It was a call that changed my life forever.
After the prosecutor's call
Leaning against the building that I might not be working in anymore and having just hung up from listening to a prosecutor, I felt like I was barely breathing. I had to have a reality check. My head bent down, I whispered aloud that a prosecutor had just called and told me that I was the target of a Federal investigation. Me. A target. The words reverberated around me in a deafening way. The sense that I had an immovable white circle with a bright red swirl on my back was daunting. Anyone might see it, but I would feel it.
What am I supposed to do right then, in that moment, with this catastrophic news? Running away sounded like a great option. Who would blame me? Nobody knew the news, but me and the prosecutor’s office. Crying seemed appropriate, but somehow I was too stunned to do that. Screaming seemed like a logical option, but that would only draw attention to me and I didn’t want any attention.
I needed to call someone. I needed to take one tiny step.
I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something.
The only person that truly would understand the bombshell that just happened was Brent. Brent had been the attorney for the fund I was working for which was now the subject of a federal criminal investigation. At the very least, Brent would care and know what to do. No long explanation would be required. I called Brent and was more thankful than ever that he was available to actually talk. Voicemail would not have gone well. I explained to Brent that I just got a call from a prosecutor. No doubt, Brent leaned in hard, clinging on to the words I said. He didn’t seem to be in shock like I was, but I don’t know if that was because he was keeping his cool to be helpful or he thought he might be next. Either way, talking to someone that honestly understood what was happening at that moment was what I needed and I was grateful.
Understanding the gravity of what I was facing, Brent implored me to seek legal counsel immediately. He recommended a few criminal defense attorneys in the area and why I might consider one over another in his opinion. It was the push I needed to at least respond to this disaster for the moment. I let go a sigh. At least I had taken one step.
I called up one of Brent’s recommendations, Dan, and a very sweet lady answered the phone. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Brenna explained to me that Dan had just left for the Thanksgiving holiday with his family and would be back on Monday. That seemed like an eternity from Wednesday. I was going to left to my own thoughts about what all this meant for a full 4 days. It felt like torture.
Brenna encouraged me to relax and enjoy the holiday. Politely, I questioned if she had understood what I just had told her. Now, it was up to me if I would wallow in this news alone, tell someone and if so who and was there something that I could do so that when Dan and I met on Monday, I would somehow be “ready”.
The day I got the call from the prosecutor, a letter stating the same information was waiting for me in my mailbox. It was the beginning of me no longer enjoying that short walk to see what was in the mailbox. First, I noticed the return address address, the United States Of America. I took a gulp. How daunting. I read the letter and the news sunk in further, as if that was possible. If there was the slightest doubt what the prosecutor had told me on the phone, it was all there in writing. Indisputable.
Stepping in the attorney's office
Now, it was time to meet Dan. Potentially, he was going to be my attorney. Stepping into Dan’s office on my daughter’s 10th birthday to begin to discuss what to do about being the target of a federal investigation was indescribable. It’s as though I walked into a world that I never knew existed. I met three people: Dan, Brenna and Sheila.
Wide-eyed I looked at them with all the hope I could muster, this may be my legal team. I am sure it was so obvious how incredibly green I was to what was going on. I didn’t know the questions to ask. I smiled nervously hoping that they would like me and help me in a miraculous way. I knew nothing – is what it felt like. Except, I knew that I was in big trouble and this was a mistake. That was my starting point.
Dan started asking questions and I was “on”. Ask me anything. I will tell you everything I can possibly think of because if I tell you everything, you will think of some way to make this go away. You have to. It’s wrong what the Government has done. I didn’t commit a crime. My whole being was staring Dan down saying “please save me”. I started explaining who I worked for now and in the past and the nature of the work we did. I explained my family, credentials and education. I brought in some information that I managed to find to show Dan the Fund offering memorandum and other documents that may be helpful.
I wanted to talk until there were no words left. Even at our first meeting, I felt I wore Dan out. After a few hours, I pulled myself out of the trenches and made it home to celebrate my daughter’s birthday. She didn’t need a sad Mom and I didn’t want to be that. There were smiles, laughs, a cake, and presents and no signs of being a target because the Government could label me a target, but they couldn’t make me feel like a target or take away my joy.
It's taken years to understand how my life unraveled from the prosecutor's call and transformed to where I am today. I had no clue the magnitude of what was happening on that day because I was much too numb. It is difficult to describe the complete loss of control and skewed perspective that pulled the rug out from under my life on that day.
I was looking out into the landscape for the pieces of my life that had taken a lifetime to nurture and amass. My years of education, work experience, personal and professional relationships, financial well being and physical and mental condition were all at risk. Nothing was unscathed.
The story we all tell ourselves was derailed for me. It is that unconscious tale of your life…who you are or hope to be in all the roles of your life. The story runs your life for better or worse because it is the automaticity and self talk that keeps your daily life in “your lane”.
The only good news was that it’s hard to fall off the floor.
For the purpose of my transformation, we will call this “Day 1”.
As a kid, I loved a good story. My kids loved stories too, so I had to learn to be good at it. Storytelling takes us away from ourselves and sits us down in another world temporarily. We tell ourselves stories throughout our lives. That constant self talk in our heads. It is a collection of beliefs, values and experiences that unconsciously create a path we expect our lives to follow. When we swerve, take detours, stop or end up in the ditch, we pay attention to how poorly our story is unfolding. When all is well, we enjoy the ride.
I couldn’t tell myself a story any more. My story ended with the prosecutor’s call. It was as if the path took me over the cliff and there was no more road to follow. I decided that rather than tell myself stories anymore. I would just do my best and let the story write itself. If you have done your best, the rest is documentation.
I was on the local news for the first time in my life.
Being a target of a federal prosecution is mind blowing enough, but allowing myself to think about what other people will think of me was overwhelming. It was polarizing. Unexpectedly, it became interesting and defining at times. There were people that I have known most of my life that knew everything imaginable about me. There are people that I have casual relationships that know an aspect of who I am. (There was the rest of the world which I couldn’t even begin to consider.) There was no doubt in my mind that both sets of people would find out my news at some point. I had already defined these groups broadly as “the people that knew me well” and “the people that knew me casually”. Who would still know who I was after the news of being a target of a federal investigation was available?
I guess I was thinking that the people that knew me well would rise to the occasion and rally with me for justice if I needed their help. I imagined that the people that knew me casually would dismiss our relationship as they didn’t know me that well and now, weren’t interested in knowing me better.
I was wrong. Absolutely wrong. The labels I put on these groups were meaningless. People I barely knew contacted me and said that they believed in me and if there was something I could do to help, just let them know. People I had known my whole life were suspicious, I watched them look at me as if they wondered if they knew me at all and worse than that, should after all these years – should they continue to associate with me. I didn’t want to ask them what they thought about me being a target because if their face matched their thoughts, I removed all doubt. Right then, I wanted to believe that people that really knew would know that this target news was a mistake.
I realized that I didn’t have the luxury of caring what most people thought. I couldn’t bear the weight of their opinion. Simply, there were more important things to spend my emotional energy on. What difference was caring what other people thought going to do to help the situation anyway? Was their opinion going to change what I thought of myself and what I would do? Who were the people that I did care about what they thought? I needed to identify and work with them.
I had three kids and my concern went to them immediately. I didn’t want them to have any repercussions of my news from other kids or their parents. Protecting my kids was instinctive and strong. I decided that I would go see the kids’ teachers and a few parents to explain so that they would be aware of the situation and at least they would hear the facts from me rather than potentially some fragmented, distorted version from well-meaning others.
There were already so many unknowns and the news was barely out.
Learning the right questions to ask is a big deal. Bigger than I ever knew. Asking the right question will get to the source of the issue. Asking less than the right question is or can be a distraction. I didn’t need any distractions. I couldn’t afford the time or energy to go down the wrong path.
Concurrently, I had to learn to listen better. I couldn’t listen casually as if I was preparing my rebuttal while my legal team was talking. I listened like I knew nothing because well, ….I knew nothing. Truly hearing Dan, Sheila and Brenna was much different than listening to them. My very liberty was on the line. I hung on their every word. It was humbling.
Asking the carefully selected, well thought out question, choosing to listen with all my might and then just stopping to think – it was a vital process I had no choice but to adopt. Guessing, being ill-informed, or acting on my emotions was not going to help in any way and I needed to manage myself at a very high level.
Justice became very personal, very fast after the prosecutor’s call. I understood almost nothing about the US criminal justice system. The beliefs and values that I had subconsciously imagined regarding the US criminal justice system were simply pieces picked up over a lifetime taking for granted that the system would be fair and truth seeking. In my cloud of naivety I had every reason to think that when I provided evidence of the truth to the people that were targeting me for a crime I did not commit, this impending disaster would dissolve. Still, I felt rather alone.
I knew virtually no one in the justice community except attorneys that I had worked with professionally over the years for business. The sooner I stepped up and took some action rather than let anything more unravel, probably the better. While I felt numb, I had no other option but to ask for help. I had to build a community.
Communities are so important. At their core, communities are a collection of our relationships. From a “happiness” standpoint our relationships make us successful in life or not so much. You can’t measure this kind of success. You just know it. I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job of creating a meaningful community in my life. No offense to those that were in it at the time. I just needed more of them and we needed more substance from each other. With three young kids, my community was the people in my office, my immediate family and my kid’s friends’ family. It was a bit limiting.
Limiting in the sense that I took for granted that their character was solid, but I hadn’t had the truly soulful conversations to confirm my deep feelings on who each person was a human being. They were a good employee, good teacher, good coach, good friend, but who were they really? I just had not built a strong community that could support me in these devastating times. I realized how meaningful that could be for so many reasons and I knew that when I had the chance to do better, I would.
I had found a new little community in Dan’s office. They didn’t have to like me, I was just a client. Even on that first day of pouring out everything I could think of to help them help me, I felt they believed me. I was as vulnerable as I could remember being with anyone, ever. I knew they cared and they were going to do their best to defend me, if it came to that. It was a long day with Dan on our first meeting, mostly because I had the sense that it was the first of many more long days to come. At least I had found my way into a community where I could be who I was and people believed and understood me. For now, that’s all I could ask for.
There are an estimated 1200 criminal justice non-profits in the US. They serve an incredible mission given the shortfalls in our criminal justice system. Most people I have talked to at these non-profits do this work because justice is personal to them. Something they have read, seen, heard or experienced wouldn’t let them go. It’s the humanity of knowing that something is not the way it should be and feeling that you can make a difference.
Having a community to share ideas with is remarkable.