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Feature Thu Aug 19 2010

From Mortgage Broker to Prison Maestro: The Story of Mario Benitez

[Editor's note: This story was submitted by freelance writer Michael Volpe.]

mario_benitez.jpgIt was the end of January 2009 and things were looking up for Mario Benitez. His employer, Pan American Mortgage, had recently promoted him from a reverse mortgage specialist to head of the reverse mortgage department. That also meant a bump in pay that would finally end his days of living paycheck to paycheck. Since the mortgage market tanked in 2008, Benitez, like most mortgage professionals, struggled mightily with his own finances. Furthermore, he had made inroads in Chicago's Hispanic Republican community and was in the beginning stages of forming a political consulting firm dedicated to reaching the Hispanic community.

But his outward good fortune was masking an internal terror. For the last year and a half, Benitez was on the wrong end of a criminal proceeding. He had broken into his neighbor's home and stolen $130 almost twoyears prior when he was living in Florida. It was the sort of crime that would usually get a slap on the wrist had it happened in Chicago, but it happened in Brevard County Florida. He was dealing with it almost entirely alone. He didn't tell any of his co workers or friends. In fact, when he walked into the Brevard County courtroom on January 31st, 2009, he was still expecting to fly back home to Chicago at the end of the weekend. His expectations were wrong. For the next year and a half, Benitez would become a resident of some of the toughest prisons in Florida. He'd wind up in solitary confinement, in the crosshairs of a vicious gang, about to be deported, and he'd also wind up teaching mysticism to murderers, thieves and rapists. It's a journey borne out of recklessness, alcoholism and stupidity, but it's turned into a unique journey into America's underbelly.

Mario Benitez was born in Mexico City, Mexico on May 3rd, 1968. He and his family moved to the States in 1971 and settled in Chicago. His family moved into the Lakeview area on Wrightwood and moved just south of Belmont and Pulaski when he was in eighth grade. He attended Lane Tech and got his bachelor's degree from Northwest Business College. From there, he got into consulting, first with Jackson Hewitt in Chicago and then with Anderson Consulting and later Accenture. In the early 1990s the rest of Benitez's family became American citizens, but Benitez chose to remain a permanent resident alien because, he says, "I had been dating this girl for about five years and we planned on getting married and I figured I'd just become a citizen then." They wound up dating for more than a decade but never got married. He never received his citizenship, and remains a permanent legal resident alien. This would later prove to be a huge mistake.

In late 2005 he moved to Jupiter, Florida and became a mortgage broker. The real estate boom was still in full force. Meanwhile, Benitez met a girl and got engaged. But 2007 proved treacherous. First, he broke up with his fiancée. Then, as he watched the mortgage crisis crush his business, he developed a drinking problem. One April night, he was drowning his sorrows in an endless stream of alcohol when he got the idea to break into his neighbor's house. His neighbor had borrowed approximately $40 and Benitez thought it would be a good time to collect. In a drunken haze, Benitez broke into his neighbor's home, helped himself to his neighbor's big bottle full of change, took it to his bank and deposited it into his account. The only thing he remembers is waking up and finding a deposit slip of about $130.

It was only a matter of time before police showed up. Benitez confessed and was booked, bonded, and eventually released. He moved back to Chicago and began to work for the now defunct Pan American Mortgage as a reverse mortgage specialist. He still faced charges in Florida but didn't worry much about them. After all, growing up in Chicago gave him a somewhat distorted view of criminal justice. Here crimes like this are often ended with a slap on the wrist.

But this wasn't Chicago, it was Jupiter, where crime was taken much more seriously. The prosecution wouldn't plea bargain and insisted on jail time. Benitez wouldn't accept jail time and his fate was left in the hands of the judge. At his sentencing on January 31, 2009, Benitez expected to come home immediately. Instead, the judge took note of the egregious manner in which he committed his crimes. He told Benitez that his crime would make his victims feel vulnerable in their own home for the rest of their lives. The judge said he didn't believe Benitez was remorseful and ordered Benitez to serve 22 months in a Florida state prison. Benitez was handcuffed on the spot and taken away to serve his sentence.

The Punishment

From there, he was booked and photographed. Benitez's first stop was a prison the inmates called Sharpes, the Brevard County Jail in Sharpes, Florida. The prison was overcrowded so Benitez stayed in a holding area with about 20 to 30 other guys on what he called a "sled," a device for sleeping that was little more than a mat. Although Benitez wasn't in a cell, he slept right next to one and was sure that the noises he heard at night were a sexual assault going on. While Benitez was only there for two weeks, he says it felt like an endless nightmare.

Next, Benitez was moved to a prison in Orlando. He and seven other prisoners stood outside in their birthday suits. It was cold that morning and the whole process lasted for about 45 minutes. They were given a shower and run through a battery of physical tests, then taken inside, fingerprinted and given DNA tests. This prison had cells and Benitez wound up in a cell with a former small business owner, a middle-aged man who had a successful sprinkler company but began running drugs to make ends meet. His cellmate was also a chain smoker and would light up at all times of the night.

Eventually, he wound up in the Taylor Correctional Center in Perry, Florida. At Taylor each prisoner received two pants, two shirts, two t-shirts and loafers. Both shorts and gym shoes were "luxury items" and could be bought at the commissary. Also, most of the prison had no air conditioning and it would often reach more than a hundred degrees during the summer time — which meant buying deodorant was absolutely critical. Prisoners earned a little money working at jobs within the prison during part of their recreation time. The jobs included the house man or the person that cleaned the dorms, inside ground or the groundskeeper, plumber or electrician's helper (which required previous experience), maintenance, teaching, learning a vocation, and working in the kitchen. Because of his superior education compared to the rest of the prison system, Benitez's prison job was teaching other prisoners basic English.

Early on, Benitez got a first hand taste of the dehumanizing treatment guards applied to the inmates. One day, he got caught smoking in the bathroom. That's not allowed in state prisons, and could have earned Benitez at trip to "the hole," or solitary confinement. Instead he took Benitez into the dorm. He grabbed the garbage cans and dumped all the garbage onto the floor. Then, the guard handed Benitez a sweeper and said, "Get to work. When you're done, come see me." Benitez finished about an hour later and went to see the guard. "By then, he'd forgotten why he wanted me to see him" and let him go, Benitez says.

The Maestro

"These guys were really lacking in self-esteem," Benitez says. "That's why this violence is so prevalent — because everything is taken so personally." This became a problem when he was teaching. It was difficult to get any participation in class, because everyone was afraid to answer any question for fear that they'd be taunted if they got the answer wrong. Benitez was brainstorming one evening and decided to try something different. Immediately prior to his prison stint, he'd developed a fascination with mysticism. He'd even taken some mysticism classes at the Landmark Institute while he was living in Chicago just prior to his incarceration. Benitez had become fascinated with concepts like cosmic consciousness and he thought they could apply to the prisoners he was now teaching. That's because cosmic consciousness and other concepts like it are methods of reacting to the stimuli of the world in a constructive manner. The prisoners had bottled up so much anger, frustration and violence that they'd been programmed to respond to everything with physical violence.

Benitez began by telling the class the story of the monk Hakuin. A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.

From there, Benitez asked the class to give him some things they'd like to accomplish when they got out. "Get a job," "get married," "get a car," and on it went. "There is something in common with all these desires," he explained to the class. "When they are used to fill a void, we are disappointed." All of this may seem way too high brow for a prison class, but it worked. First, Benitez gave the class a question for which there was no wrong answer, so no one was afraid to answer it. So, he immediately got class participation. With participation, the class also began to analyze the concepts that Benitez was trying to get across. He had unleashed an intelligence and self-awareness most of them didn't know they had. The class spent many hours examining prayer, spirituality and their effects on everyone's consciousness. Everyone in prison gets a nickname and after this breakthrough Benitez earned the nickname "the Maestro," as well as the respect of his fellow prisoners.

The Hole

The breakthrough was short lived. At the end of April 2009, Benitez was in the bathroom when he heard a commotion outside. He went out to see what was happening and found two of his students in a fight. The winner of the fight was from a gang Benitez calls 13, because they all had that number tattooed on their bodies. The loser was from a rival gang Benitez didn't identify. In fact, the winner only stopped punching when he'd become too exhausted to go on. The 13 member then got up and slapped Benitez in the face twice as well. Benitez believes that the 13 member knew down inside he'd disappointed Benitez by reverting back to old habits and the slap was his own convoluted reaction to disappointing his teacher.

Guards arrived minutes later. The 13 member put his hands behind his back and said, "because he disrespected me" in answering why he attacked the other inmate. The guards examined the rest of the inmates and noticed redness on Benitez's cheek. That was enough to take Benitez to the hole as well. If you are suspected of being involved in an altercation you can go to the hole for up to a month while it's being investigated. Mario Benitez spent the next month in solitary confinement, including his birthday. Much of the time in solitary confinement is in fact spent alone, but from time to time Benitez shared his cell with other inmates who were passing through in relation to their own offenses. First up was "an older biker dude that kept telling butt jokes" and reeked of cigarette smoke, who spent about five days in the hole with Benitez.

Next up was the "gunner." At first, Benitez was curious what a gunner was. He got his answer when his cellmate dropped his pants and began to masturbate. For the next two days, this became a constant and hideous sight. Anything could set him off: the sound of a female guard, an allusion to a female — frankly anything even slightly sexual in nature. At the time, Benitez was reading several books on mysticism. He was reading Mystic Heart and The Knee of Listening, an autobiography of the guru Adi Da. Benitez had visited Da's center at 3301 W. Fullerton shortly before his incarceration and was very excited to read the book. The gunner's constant masturbation was a distraction that made reading difficult to say the least.

Finally, Benitez had all he could take. He engaged the gunner in conversation and found that beyond losing all humanity he was also a very talented writer. The gunner had written a series of rhymes and was well on his way to finishing a manuscript. So, Benitez made a deal. The gunner was broke, so Benitez would provide him with stamps and envelopes so he could send his manuscript to the outside world if he controlled his addiction. It worked. For the next couple days the gunner controlled his impulses. In fact, the conversation had other benefits as well. The gunner encouraged Benitez to write his own short stories, and this led a story called "The Onion," which Benitez describes as a metaphor for his time in the hole. Benitez says that toward the end he noticed that the gunner was getting very agitated and so he allowed him to relieve himself once while still keeping his end of the bargain.

The third and final cellmate for Benitez was a guy called P Mac. P Mac noticed his book, Mystic Heart, and this lead to long discussions about spirituality and mysticism, which both were fascinated with. P Mac soon gave Benitez another prison nickname: "the Guru."

The 13 Gang

During his stint in the hole, he was visited by prison officials who told him he needed to sign a document stipulating that the 13 member started the fight and hit him or face charges of lying to prison officials — charges that could meant another 60 days in the hole. Benitez signed the document, but he faced a new problem once he got out.

The 13 member Benitez fingered in the statement he had signed sent a "kite," a contraband letter, to the leader of his gang during his own time in the hole. Benitez was being accused of being a chiva, or rat. "There's nothing worse than being a rat in prison," Benitez says. So, Benitez and the leader of this gang had the prison equivalent of a sit down; they met in the yard and they walked the entire time. Benitez insisted that the guards said they had witnessed it themselves, and that he only signed it because he would have to sit in solitary an extra two months if he didn't. The leader listened to his explanation and then told him he'd pass it along, but if he got another kite, action would be taken. Benitez lived in mortal fear for the next week but a second kite never came.

Before the incident, Benitez had earned the respect of the gang when word spread of his teaching skills. If the gang respects you, they'll generally leave you alone. If they really respect you, they may even act as protectors even if you're not in the gang. Although the second kite never came, the gang had also lost a great deal of respect for him since one of them now called him a chiva, so he remained in constant danger from this gang. But soon the leader of the gang was transferred to another prison and replaced by a guy they called "the Clown." Prisoners were always trying to find lines and make sports bets, especially the Clown. The Clown loved to gamble. Benitez saw an opportunity; he used to do a great deal of sports betting. He began to call lines and did well enough to earn money for the Clown and earn the respect of the 13 gang. In fact, his picks were so good that he earned enough respect to warrant protection.

One incident in particular proved how valuable this protection was. Despite the fight that put him in the hole, prison authorities allowed him back in front of the classroom upon his release from solitary confinement. The education center is one of the few areas that is air conditioned so often people volunteer for class just to get into an air-conditioned room. One day, a Cuban prisoner was especially rambunctious. Benitez came to his wits end and left the classroom. He went to authorities and complained to them about this inmate. Again, "a rat is the worst thing you can be in prison." The Cuban was eventually removed from class. He blamed Benitez and challenged him to a fight. The Clown had two 13 members accompany Benitez and the Cuban guy backed down.

The Deportation

As eventful as Benitez's prison experience already was, there's still one last dramatic part to this story. In May of 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) served him notice of their intention of deporting him upon the completion of his sentence. Like his original crime, Benitez didn't take this action seriously initially. But then he spoke with the prison law clerk, who in a matter of fact manner said, "Oh yeah, they're going to deport you." The law clerk was Jorge Magueira, who was serving a life sentence for three murders, and so it made sense that a deportation notice was delivered so nonchalantly. Benitez says that the law clerking skills Magueira had developed helped to free murderers and even win cases in the Supreme Court, but in Benitez's case, Magueira had no answers.

That's because things were cut and dry. Benitez was not a citizen, only a legal resident alien. Furthermore, he'd committed a crime with a prison sentence of more than a year. That combination means an automatic deportation under federal law. It looked like his only hope would be if he received a pardon or commutation for his sentence. Then, in the winter of 2009, he learned of a case that could change his fate.

In January of 2009, Rigo Padilla, a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, got into his car after "having a few beers" and made a trek that he described as less than eight blocks. He never made it and was stopped by police and cited for a DUI. Padilla had entered the country illegally, so his arrest was reported to DHS, and in the summer of 2009 DHS planned to deport Padilla. That's when his family reached out to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). The ICIRR spread the word and by August the case of Rigo Padilla was being championed by the likes of Congresswoman Jan Schakowski and Senator Dick Durbin. It garnered both local and national attention, and the Obama administration, ever careful to appear compassionate to the illegal community, appeared heartless. As a result, by the end of August DHS commuted Padilla's deportation sentence and allowed him to stay.

If an illegal alien had received such sympathy, surely a legal resident alien like Benitez would receive the same sympathy. In fact, Benitez's sister, Marianna, reached out to an organization in Florida and asked for help. The organization told her that her brother needed to get post-conviction relief and reduce his sentence, but they wouldn't champion his cause the way the ICIRR did for Padilla.

According to the ICIRR's communication director, Catherine Salgado, the organization had no knowledge of Benitez's case until I reached them for comment. Salgado said,

Our organization doesn't take cases. We direct people to places where they can get the legal assistance they need. If Mario doesn't have a lawyer, we can provide lists of agencies or lawyers whom maybe able to assist him.

One of the reasons we championed Rigo's case is because several people and groups contacted us about his case. He is a young man who has been involved helping his community since a very young age. He is an outstanding student who has the support and admiration of many professors, community leaders and fellow students. Our involvement on his case was not because he is undocumented but because of his contributions to the community as an individual.

We know there are many people out there that are facing deportation these days, and what we need is a change in the current immigration laws. That is why, we as organization advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Ironically, Benitez's case doesn't fit as nicely in the illegal immigration debate. The Benitez family came here legally. They're hoping to convince people that deporting Mario Benitez would be draconian, but Benitez, unlike Rigo Padilla, is a legal citizen of the United States. Senator Durbin is a key proponent of the DREAM Act, which would allow illegals like Padilla to get their education if they came over as youths with their parents. But no current legislation gave Durbin or other lawmakers a backdrop to champion Benitez's case.

The problem with getting post-conviction relief, as some suggested, is that there were no grounds. The conviction was legitimate and the sentence was within guidelines. That's why Magueira told Benitez he was going to get deported. Even he could see that this was cut and dry. There were no grounds to ask for post-conviction relief.

Then, in March of 2010, the Supreme Court intervened and gave Benitez and thousands like him hope. This time another Padilla, Jose Padilla, played a vital role. Like Benitez, Jose Padilla had been a permanent legal resident alien of the United States for more than 40 years. He was arrested on drug trafficking charges, but his attorney told him not to worry about immigration — because he was here so long, immigration wouldn't deport him. In fact, his attorney was wrong and his conviction triggered an automatic deportation. The Supreme Court case came down to an argument of the Sixth Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Padilla argued that because his attorney didn't forewarn him that pleading guilty would lead to being deported, he didn't receive proper assistance of counsel. The other side argued that deportations fell under the concept of collateral consequences. In other words, a criminal conviction will mean more difficulty finding work, voting, etc. and your attorney only helps you criminally. You, the defendant, must make yourself aware of the collateral damage of a criminal conviction. The Supreme Court sided with Padilla 7-2 and Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said, "We now hold that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation. Our long-standing Sixth Amendment precedents, the seriousness of deportation as a consequence of a criminal plea, and the concomitant impact of deportation on families living lawfully in this country demand no less."

Like Padilla, Benitez also wasn't made aware that a conviction would lead to a deportation. This ruling gave Benitez grounds to file an appeal for post-conviction relief. So, with the help of Magueira, he filed a motion to reverse his deportation. He won that appeal and for the time being, he isn't to be deported while he waits to see if the state of Florida will reduce his sentence to less than a year.

Of course, this didn't stop the Department of Homeland Security from nearly deporting Benitez anyway. In the beginning of July 2010, Mario Benitez completed his criminal jail sentence at the Taylor Correctional Institute. With his deportation status still in limbo, he was transferred to the KROME Processing Center in Miami, where he'd be held while his immigration status would be worked out. He had just completed a meeting with an immigration counselor when he heard his identification number, A-090-902-541, called. The guard told Benitez he was to be transferred to "ATW." Benitez didn't yet know what ATW stood for but he arrived in a room with 42 other individuals. Each was told to put their belongings in the corner. Benitez had among his belongings the appeal disposition that stated that his deportation had been temporarily reversed. Soon, he learned that ATW stood for All The Way and that this room was occupied by individuals that would be put on bus the next morning at 6am and have the final portion of their deportations be executed. Benitez became distraught and furious. He asked to speak with a supervisor and demanded his belongings so he could show his appeal. He refused to sign any paperwork.

"I've got 42 people on my list and they're going to be on the bus to get deported tomorrow at 6am," he says a guard told him, and that the only way he wasn't getting on the bus the next morning was with paperwork from his attorney. Of course, Benitez didn't have an attorney, he had done everything himself with the help of his triple murderer turned law clerk. He did, however, have his appeal, which would prove that he shouldn't be in this room.

All appeared hopeless. "I thought I would have to fight this (the deportation) from Mexico," says Benitez of his predicament. Finally, in the middle of the night, Benitez reached his bag, found his appeal, and showed it to the officials. After several ICE officials studied his appeal, Benitez was released. His says the ICE folks told him that winning an appeal pro se, as he did, was very unusual and that that was the reason they were confused.

Benitez says he was the only one in the room that spoke anything more than broken English. After speaking with several of his comrades, he believes that at least four likely could have fought deportation if they understood the language and had any legal savvy. More than one had wife and children who were all citizens of the U.S. Instead, they signed where they were told and would get on the bus the next morning.

Benitez has been held at the detention center for most of the month of July and now most of August. Despite being nearly accidentally deported, Benitez says, "In prison you're less of a human being than in a detention center." He notes that the guards in KROME are private contractors, while the guards in Taylor are employees of the state of Florida.

Did his prison experience change him? "I think that it has to. You have to maintain a certain level of humility to make it."

Benitez is confident that the State of Florida will reduce his sentence to less than one year in the next month or so. If that doesn't happen, however, he will appeal again and take the matter in front of a jury. He should be well prepared, since he recently became the law clerk at KROME.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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jim / August 23, 2010 1:56 PM

Interesting piece. Hopefully, all goes well with Mr. Benitez. Everyone has the right at redemption and I for one hope he gets it.

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