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Veterans of the
War On Drugs
About Paul Free
Paul Free – Serving Life For Pot
Received Clemency on 12/19/16


CAN-DO goes to Washington DC to lobby for pot lifers
in front of the White House
Students flock to join protest, shocked over nation's dirty secret that
people are serving
man standing outside the whitehouse holding Free Paul Free sign

I was born in Coronado, California in 1950. I had a brother three years my  senior. My father owned a small meat market and grocery store started   in the early days  after WW-II. The store was located on the main street through town, Orange Avenue. Soon, other businesses located around it as the bulk of the 18,000 residents of the town made daily visits to shop there. My father rented his building from the  bank which refused to sell it to him. When I was nine years old, I began riding my bike to work every day after school. My first job was to sort the soda bottles, returned for the deposit, into bins so that the different suppliers could reclaim them and reimburse the store. I was paid 10¢ per hour. Eventually I rose to manage the store and was paid the same wages as a union cashier. As a result, during high school, I always had money to make the monthly car payment and take my girl out to movies and concerts.

When the store first opened, the trolly line ran down Orange Avenue. The line began at the bay where ferry boats brought people to and from San Diego. These ferry boat rides took about 30 minutes to travel about one mile each way and were a great respite for a few last passionate kisses after a movie in the big city and before one had to get his date back home  on time. More than a few families were started there.

In the early days each morning My Dad would slide open the iron gates that closed  the s tore. Immediately dozens of large rats would run out after having raided the store for any fruit or other food they could find during the night. My dad noticed that the rats all ran at and even fought among themselves to get him. As a result, he would climb upon the wooden check-out counter at the front of the store and grab a large broom he kept there and used it to swat them. He also noticed that they all ran into the bushes along the trolly tracks and disappeared there instead of running the quarter mile to the beach where most thought they lived. So one   day My dad was explaining this to Lee Evans the city clerk, who promised to do something about the  rat problem on the trolly tracks. Two weeks later a group of ten or twelve high school football players, armed with .22 pistols and hand tools, swept their way from one end of town to the other and eliminated the weeds and the rat problem.

One of my dad's favorite patrons was Mrs. Bernhard who was the daughter of a wealthy family who owned one of the largest homes in town, right on the beach. Mrs. Bernhard had married a drunken sailor who was seen many Sunday mornings walking to the local bars dressed only in his bathrobe until his early death.

When he died his wife covered all the furniture in the house with white sheets and lived the previous day repeatedly for the next twenty-three years exactly as it occurred. She would arrive at our market precisely at 9 A.M. every day. Usually there to meet her was another Coronado resident named Mrs. Ornher who was a famous retired opera singer. Mrs. Ornher always wore a large blue hat with a wide brim and full-length gloves. She would enter the store and, in a lovely and loud melodious voice say, "Oh good morning Mr. Free."Mrs. Ornher could sing the phone book out loud and it would sound melodious. My dad would greet the ladies with a loud song of “Good morning Mrs…” and inform them of the special meats and vegetables that he had available that day. He actually had a pretty good voice.

Soon thereafter, another Coronado resident always  passed by. Her name was Judy Marsh and she was in her sixties. Everyday Mrs. Marsh would pass by the market at the exact same time, but whatever she passed she had to reach out and touch. It didn't matter what it was, a car, lamp post, street sign, ·tree, whatever, she walked down the sidewalk from side to side and lightly touched everything with the tips of the fingers on one hand. She never was known to say anything to anybody, and no one knew how she existed. One day her neighbor noticed a foul smell coming from her large home at 10th and "E" Streets and notified police that she had not been seen in some time. The police entered her home and found her dead. Also, they discovered that she had hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash along with all the trash and garbage, every newspaper, carboard box, milk carton,  empty metal cans, fish heads, etcetera that had ever passed into her home in the past twenty years; all stacked against the walls from floor to ceiling. 
The fire department arranged. for a group of high school football players to come and haul everything out  one weekend. As they were doing this, they discovered dozens of jars of pickled cats. The neighbors always thought that a local dog had been the culprit.

In those days, we kept the fruit and vegetables in a refrigerated box at night and set them out each morning. The cherries and grapes were not wrapped in individual packages as they are now so a person could select and weigh any amount they wanted. As a result, many cherry pits were discovered on the floor each afternoon and many pounds of produce went out the door without being paid for.

My dad was an incredible man who decided that was the price one paid to do business; besides, he cared more for his customers than anything. If a man or woman needed to run up a bill My dad was sure to let them buy on credit. If a young wife was uncertain how to prepare a standing rib roast (for when the boss and his wife were coming over) well, My dad was sure to take the time to tell her exactly how to  do everything and made sure she understood. Many Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings would find My dad making  emergency assignations at the market or making house calls to console distraught and fearful customers.

Whenever a child was caught stealing My dad would tell the offender that he or she was "going to jail" and then pick up the phone and, pretending to call the cops, he would call the parents. Hey knew them all. As the child stood there, in the corner where my dad told them to stand, waiting for a policeman to come and take them away, the last person the kid expected or wanted to see enter the store was mom or dad. As soon as they made eye contact the child knew that the parent knew, and they were in big trouble. My dad would never call the police but would release the child to the parent and that would be the end of it except most of the time, a day or two later, the parent and the child would reenter the store where the child would apologize and offer to work to pay for the error.  Dad usually had spoken to the parents beforehand. An agreement would be reached wherein the child would come and sweep the floor or do some other work . for a week or two. Many of these children acquired  paying jobs from my dad afterwards.

Forty-years later my mom was still getting "thank you" calls from one of these children who, parents now themselves, have been exposed to an entirely different world and way of dealing with such things when their own children made such mistakes.

Many mornings as my dad drove to work, he would see a young man or woman who looked hungry on his or her way to school. Dad would ask them if they were hungry and wanted to wash a few windows for him in exchange for a good breakfast. He only felt sorry for these children who obviously had parents who didn't or couldn't feed them so he took  it upon himself to pull out his electric frypan in the back of the market and fix them a steak and eggs breakfast and then get them to school on time.


When I was arrested the Calif. section of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Apprension Squad took me down and put the handcuffs on. While I did not resist, and they had me face down in the parking lot of my favorite seafood restaurant in Pt. Loma, near San Diego, California, I heard a voice say: “Wait a minute, I want him to see my face.” Next a man put his knees in my lower back, lifted my shoulders & neck up & twisted my face to the side and said “My name is Mark Thomas, I’m from DEA Detroit and I came here specifically to arrest you for at least two murders and more than 56 tons of marijuana” and he added: “You’re going to do at least 50 years.” I knew neither I nor anyone I worked with had committed murder; and, that I had no connection to that quantity of pot. So, I told him to go screw himself. They put me on a plane and flew me to Detroit. At my arraignment the judge said I was facing a “mandatory minimum life sentence.” I remember thinking “A LIFE sentence is the minimum… do I dare ask what the maximum is?” I thought there was no way they could give anyone a life sentence for pot.

I also thought there was no possible way they could convict me of things I had not done. Boy was I naive. I was awaiting trial, in Wayne County Jail, Detroit, & one day I thought I heard my name called. I left my cell, It was on the second floor, and went out to look over the railing but I did not see anyone calling for me. I did notice a Sheriff standing by the front door with two young men I had never seen before. No one seemed to be interested in me so I went back into my cell. A few days later I had a court appearance and when I got there I noticed the same two young men sitting with the prosecutors. My attorney told me they were there to identify me and to testify that I had spent many months with them traveling around the country selling pot. Apparently both had been in the county jail facing drunk driving and cocaine possession charges. I had never seen either before. So, the maximum I was facing for anything I had been involved with was ten years. And because I thought there was no way they could prove I did things I had not done I pled not guilty and took it to trial. However, because the prosecutors were able to get men to lie about loads of cannabis I had nothing to do with; and, because the jury believed them, my sentence became a mandatory life sentence.

One time, while awaiting trial, two young men in the same pod as me, one an Arab and the other a Columbian, decided to escape. We were able to open our cells by just jiggling the door knob and we could go out, at 3 in the morning, and watch TV, simply by juggling the cord, once to turn it on & again to change channels. So someone got a guard to bring in two half gallons of Crown Royal so the other guys would get drunk and go to sleep. They cut a hole in the window facing out, dropped a line down to an awaiting brother and pulled up an electric saw which they connected to an electrical outlet. They sawed all night. No guards were there on the 12th floor at night but one made his rounds perhaps once or twice. What they didn’t know is inside the square aluminum bar that fit in the window from floor to ceiling was a steel roller bar that would just spin, it could not be cut with that saw. So as the sun was rising and a guard was coming on to man the guard’s booth, they decided to throw the saw, $10,000 in cash and two airline tickets out the window to the accomplice below and try again later that night. The guard looked in and saw a young man come out of the wrong cell and begin dancing like a drunk mule. He called for the captain. When he arrived, with about 6 other guards, the first thing he did was tell one of the guards to “Dump that trash bag.” Out came one of the half gallons of Crown Royal. The other one had been crunched up and flushed. I’m not completely stupid. So there we were, all buck naked with our hands up on the wall. I was the last in line, closest to my cell and the one with the big hole in the window. They must have thought, at this point, that is how the booze was brought in. They never did figure out how the guard brought it in, maybe. So, the guards in the cell with the hole in the window began to toss out everything. Books, magazines, photos, cookies, potato chips, everything. A magazine came flying out and stopped a few feet from my feet; however, when it stopped a large 10 inch saw blade kept going and stopped up against my right foot. Holy Shit, I thought they were going to think I dropped it there. When I turned my head the captain was looking at me and smiled and said: “It’s OK Free, I saw that.”

Well, they breathalyzed everyone and somehow I passed. I quit drinking early and crushed & flushed the bottle. A few failed and were sent to the Hole. The two excapees, well, they both ended up deciding it was easier to rat on their codefendants. 32 days later a guard was passing through the cell block and noticed the cut in the aluminum post. A few days later a maintenance man came in and sealed it up with JB Weld. Unbelievable.