Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos courtesy of the subject and Getty Images
The amount I was paid for smuggling drugs varied, but, generally, I earned $1 a pill and $200 per pound of marijuana. The most I moved at one time was around 8,000 pills and 20 pounds of marijuana. I was told that border security was paid off to let me through. I don’t know if that was true, or if I was being naïve.
As the drug quantities increased, I could no longer smuggle them in my wheelchair and on an airplane. I had to hide them in plain sight and take a train. That meant two days across the Northern Great Plains of the United States with a duffle bag stuffed with drugs. As I got off the train in Union Station and made my way through the terminal, my bag bursting at the zipper, a police officer approached me. “Can I give you a hand with that?” he asked me. I politely accepted his help as we made our way to call a cab. He loaded my bag into the trunk of the car. All he saw was my wheelchair.
That encounter reflected my thinking more generally at the time, which was that people were fixated on my disability—and that the idea of me smuggling drugs was the furthest thing in their mind about me. My friends and family did not know. No one knew unless they were directly involved. Morally, I was fine with what I was doing. I rationalized that I wasn’t hurting anyone. I blew the proceeds on life: family, friends, clothes, food, travel, and a lawyer.
I became a paraplegic because of a motorcycle crash when I was 21, and it left me confined to a wheelchair. I got into drug smuggling when I was 26. At the time, I was studying at a college in Seattle. I’ve always had an affinity for drugs—mainly, ecstasy and weed—and so I’ve always had one foot in the underworld scene.
One day, I was chatting with J., a friend of mine—a short, muscular guy with a large tattoo on his chest. Because of polio, he dragged one limp leg around when he walked. We knew someone who made ecstasy and grew weed in Vancouver in Canada, and J. told me he was thinking of carving out some candles, putting ecstasy pills inside them, and mailing them to a friend in Chicago. I had a better idea: I’d fly them out, in my wheelchair because airport security never searched it.
“You’re fucking crazy,” he told me.
“Nah. I’m just sure they won’t find it,” I replied.
I drove across the Canadian border to pick up the pills and back to Seattle with the pills in the car bumper. I knew I would be safe from border security because I traveled to Canada often for wheelchair rugby tournaments, and they never searched my car. When I got to my apartment, I opened up my backpack and pulled out three sandwich bags filled with thousands of bright red, blue, and yellow ecstasy pills.
I pulled the seat cushion off my wheelchair and removed the black cover. With a box cutter, I cut square chunks out of the foam bottom, filled the hole with the bags of ecstasy, then padded the bags with socks. From just looking at it, you couldn’t tell there were pills inside. It was good enough. The next day, I was in line at Sea-Tac, the airport in Seattle. It was New Year’s Eve.
As I waited to go through security when I arrived at the airport, I was afraid that they could hear my heart beating out of my chest. I tried my best not to think about what was hidden under my ass. As TSA patted me down, could he tell how nervous I was? “You’re good to go.” he told me.
I wanted to take a deep breath, exhale a sigh of relief, and yell out, “I did it!” All I allowed myself was a subtle grin as I rolled away.
When I landed, Danny, a guy with bulging pecs, picked me up in a black BMW. We drove to his house on the outskirts of Chicago.
“We need to get dressed,” he told me. “Everyone is waiting for us.”
I was greeted by our contacts in Chicago like a conquering hero. Everyone knew why I was there. We celebrated in the VIP room of a massive club. I was high on my success… and I was high on drugs. I met a girl that night, and we partied late into the New Year’s Day afternoon. I was hooked on having a mysterious persona and the easy money. It was a rush, and, sadly, it provided me with a sense of belonging and purpose. It would end up ruining my life.
When the people I was associated with at the time knew I was not only willing to take the risk of smuggling ecstasy, but excited to do it, I became more involved. This continued for a year or two. I don’t remember exactly the number of times I smuggled drugs. Maybe 10 times. It all felt extremely surreal.
Then, one day, everyone did find out. It started with a buzz on my apartment door in Seattle. Six plainclothes officers wearing bulletproof vests came in. One officer handed me a business card stating he was a detective with the Seattle Organized Crime Task Force. They destroyed my apartment, but found nothing. I had lucked out, or so I thought.
Unfortunately, my Canadian contact had sold drugs to an undercover informant in Seattle and snitched on everyone involved. Even though I was never caught with illegal drugs, I was implicated in a conspiracy to distribute ecstasy, and, because my connect was Canadian, Immigration and Customs Enforcement were involved and it became a federal case. In the U.S. District Court of Western Washington in 2010, I pleaded guilty, and I was sentenced to 28 months at a federal prison in Taft, California.
On the day I went to prison, the limo driver who picked me up from LAX put my wheelchair into his trunk and asked me if I lived in Taft. I told him he was driving me to prison and that he was the last person I would see as a free man for some time.
I rolled through the courtyard of the prison in my khaki inmate uniform with all eyes staring at the new guy in a wheelchair. It was like boarding school meets a convalescent home. I was labeled a snitch because I accepted a plea agreement. Still, other than a few fights, prison was uneventful. I kept to myself and filled the long days reading, watching TV, and playing guitar.
After spending two years there, I was released early for good behavior. Then the hard part started.
When I was released from prison, I had to start from scratch building a life again. I went to a halfway house, then I moved in with my mom while I was on house arrest. Being disabled, with very few job skills and a thin employment history, I couldn’t easily find work, so I went back to school to study graphic design. It was a struggle, academically and financially. After my first year, I dropped out to keep searching for a job and was fortunate to get one as a graphic designer. I’ve been at the same company for the last six years. In that time, I had a job offer from a major company that was a significant advance in my career that was rescinded after a criminal background check exposed my history. My annual earnings are at least $20,000 less per year than what I could be making, all because of my criminal history’s impact on career advancement.
The criminal justice system and the social stigma of being a convicted felon has made it difficult to not only find employment, but also just a place to live. I have been fortunate to be able to do both, but I still feel some shame and embarrassment when I have to explain my past (especially in relationships). I still face some judgement and stigma when talking about my history, and that’s led me to be more guarded and reserved.
I’m still working to shed my past and further my career. Because it was a federal crime, it will never leave my record unless I receive a presidential pardon. It is my scarlet letter.
At the time, I thought smuggling drugs was very exciting. Now, I guess I do regret my decisions, but I think that’s mostly because of the repercussions they’ve had on my life. I believe ecstasy and marijuana should be legal. In the current system, though, becoming a felon has not been worth what I did—neither the feelings nor the money that came with it.
I am acutely aware of the institutional injustices that hold people with criminal histories back. The recidivism rate for felons is high, and a lot of that, at least as I think about it, is owed to the social stigmas and laws preventing us from interpersonal, professional, and wider societal inclusion. Still, I am determined to succeed in my life after prison—even more so, in fact, than I was determined to succeed at smuggling drugs.
John Park is not the real name of a graphic designer who formerly carried ecstasy across national and state lines in his wheelchair.