Tom Huntley stands in the parking lot of Campisi's Egyptian restaurant, lost in time. It's been decades since he's stood out in front of his former boss' place. He still recalls standing next to Joe Campisi as he cooked pasta, wearing a sidearm and telling stories. The restaurant, owned by the man D Magazine once dubbed "the godfather of lower Greenville," hosted guests such as Jack Ruby, Benny Binion and former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
"It's been so many years," Huntley says, looking at the changed landscape of East Dallas on this late Tuesday afternoon in early September. "It's hard for me to fathom it sometimes. It's been so long. I guess that's what I'm trying to say. This gives me chills in a way."
Four decades have passed since Huntley stood with Campisi, and the years haven't been kind to him. He lost his family in divorce, a son to a methadone overdose and years of his life in one of Texas' worst prisons. He wears his toughness in his eyes as old age ravages his once powerful body. He looks like he's been in one too many bar fights over the years.
At 69, he still looms over people, but he looks battle-worn from his years working drug cases with local, state and federal law enforcement officials. His receding white hair was more reddish blond when he was younger, and the prison tattoos decorating his arms more vibrant. Skulls and daggers, a German cross, red roses now black and Wile E. Coyote in a wizard's robe, smoking a joint — the faded tattoos appeared during his prison stint and later helped him to infiltrate drug rings across North Texas as an informant.
He lost touch with his old boss when the judge sent Huntley to the Eastham Unit prison in 1973 on two armed-robbery convictions, one in Grayson County, the other in Collin County. Paroled in the early '80s, he turned away from his outlaw life and began working with law enforcement as a confidential informant. "I was never one that if I walk in and met a man and had a chance to talk to him that I didn't infiltrate," he says. "There's a phrase they use: 'trusted and betrayed.' You've got to build their trust, and then you betray them."
And betray them he did. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, too many for him to remember at his age. He assisted the drug section in the criminal investigations division at the Texas Department of Public Safety on numerous investigations in East Texas and Dallas and other narcotic divisions at local police departments such as Balch Springs. He even helped the Rowlett Police Department solve a cold case murder in the late '80s. One law enforcement official who works as an investigator in Dallas County but wishes to remain anonymous claims Huntley stands apart from other confidential informants.
"He looked the part and could talk the talk," he says. "He knew the language and knew when to back off. The suspects trusted him. They saw him and thought there is no way this guy is a cop or working for cops. He befriended them. The next thing you knew he's making buys, and we would run warrants behind him. He was the real deal."Now that he's older and in poor health, Huntley is seeking a pardon for his past crimes at the suggestion of his law enforcement friends. His parole for armed robbery doesn't end until March 2036. He'll be 89 years old.
He also wants to write a book about his life as a confidential informant, though he never considered himself one, certainly not a snitch.
"I was like a bounty hunter," he says. "I was a professional at it. I couldn't snitch on anybody because I didn't know anybody. An informant or a snitch will go tell on somebody they already know. There's a big difference.
"It's a lost art, really," he adds.
There was nothing artful about Huntley pointing a gun in his victim's face and demanding his money on a late February night in 1973 on the outskirts of McKinney. He says he'd been drinking because his old bank robbing crew, mostly made up of his cousins, had been recently busted. He decided to rob a safe in a convenience store with an old friend from his neighborhood in East Dallas because they needed the money.As teenagers, they used to run the streets of Lower Greenville as small-time enforcers. He'd moved to East Dallas from Oak Cliff when he was 6 or 7 years old. His mother worked for Mercantile Bank, and his father was a veteran of World War II and worked as a Dallas police officer for a time. Huntley spent most of his time with his grandmother, a strict disciplinarian and highly educated woman who lived in the same neighborhood. He recalls her taking him over to the Arcadia Theater because it was a family theater, but she refused to allow him to hang out at the Granada Theater because a lot of kids hung out there, like the Lakewood Rats, a gang of rich kids from Woodrow Wilson High School.
When his grandmother died of heart failure in the early '60s, the 13-year-old Huntley found himself spending more time at the Granada Theater with other troublemakers than at home, where his father had fallen into alcoholism and his mother endured a nervous breakdown and suicide attempts. Before she died, his grandmother told him it was time for him to grow up. Instead, he became an outlaw when he met an older boy named Norman "Squeaky" Lester at a street fight over at Louann's drive-in restaurant, another popular hangout that served as the hub of the Dallas dance scene for 30 years.
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Huntley already knew how to fight, but Lester showed him how to run rackets on local businesses and how to control gambling at the minor levels before Lester got busted for stabbing someone and sent to prison. "The extortions were really kid's stuff," Huntley says. "The stores that didn't want their windows knocked out had to pay us so much money a week."
Huntley says he continued extorting local businesses and eventually tried to rob a club. He'd gone into the club planning to rob its slot machines when the owner gave him a phone number to call. "He said, 'You better talk to him before you think about busting up my machines,'" he recalls. "That was Joe Campisi."
He says Campisi told him to come over to his restaurant on Mockingbird Lane near Lower Greenville. It was a popular eatery that he'd opened in the '40s and a known stop for connected men such as Benny Binion, a notorious Dallas gambler, law enforcement and politicians. When he walked into Campisi's restaurant in the early '60s, Campisi was back in the kitchen cooking pasta. "Yeah, that's what I thought. You're just a big ass kid," he recalls Campisi saying.
Huntley claims Campisi took him under his wing and began teaching him to enforce using intimidation without violence. "If you [resort to violence], they can't pay you because they are going to run and hide," Campisi explained. "You let them think that you're going to bust their heads in." Most of the time, Huntley says he just had to say Campisi's name, and people would pay the money owed. (Joe Campisi, who died in 1990, always denied rumors that he was involved in organized crime.)
Whatever lessons Campisi might have offered Huntley seemed to have vanished from his mind when the 24-year-old Huntley decided to rob a safe inside a convenience store with his old neighborhood friend from East Dallas. They had already robbed a place at gunpoint in Grayson County and figured it would be an easy score. They were wrong. Police caught Huntley walking out of the store with a little more than $3,000 in hand as his friend took off and left him. "It was just a freaking accident they were there," he says.
Sitting in what was then known as the "McKinney prison," he says he tried to escape. First, he tried to cut the bars with a jeweler's cloth that he had smuggled into the jail. After he wasted several days sawing, another inmate asked him, "Son, have you ever heard of a roller bar?" A roller bar is located in the center of the jail cell bars, "so when you hit it, it just spins," he says. He next tried to craft a gun out of a soap bar like his hero John Dillinger from the old movies. He says he knew only one guard was watching his cell. The soap gun looked real enough until he realized a bunch of state troopers had camped out at the jail because of a traffic accident on the highway.
Both armed robberies would eventually earn Huntley two 50-year sentences to run concurrently in a place he would later call "hell." Before he was sentenced, his father visited him in jail. He'd long since retired from law enforcement.
"Did you do this, son?" his father asked.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
"Now you've got to pay for it."
Huntley says he knew how much he'd disappointed his father. He had come from good family who struggled with life like everyone else. "I didn't like who I was, or what I was going through. It wasn't me," he says. "It wasn't me. I made the decision right then that I would change it."
It was one of the most violent and bloody nights in the history of Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Huntley says. Warden Edward "Papa T" Turner, aka "Big Arm," had given Huntley one directive on that bloody November night in 1981: gain control of the unit. It was a directive he planned to accomplish with the help of his fellow building tenders who once kept order among their fellow inmates for the warden until a federal judge dismantled the building tender system.Located on 13,000 acres in East Texas, the Eastham Unit is tucked away from the minds of most people at the end of a dead-end road. The three-story brick prison surrounded by 10-foot-tall fences with razor wire was considered "the bottom of the barrel" for many inmates. Huntley says it felt as if he'd walked into hell when he first arrived nearly a decade before the riot. "It was brutal," he says. "I knew I was facing all this time, but I also knew I had to go to hell to change."
He started out working the fields like other inmates in good health and slowly adapted to prison life, standing his ground when needed and becoming emotionally detached with each passing month to survive. "Every day was a good day to die," he says. "When they shut the cage, the whole building shook."
The old field major liked him, though, and told him to report to the building major's office. The major had his feet up on his desk when Huntley reported to his office, and he recalls him saying, "Son, you can be a knucklehead like the rest of them, or you can come to work for me and make man's decisions and be a man."
The major offered him a building tender position over the K-Line, one of the most notoriously violent cell blocks in Eastham and one where a black doll with a noose around its neck hung from the television set. Keith Price, a former Eastham guard, described the building tender system to Newsweek in October 1986, "It was control from within, with reinforcements. To put it in sociological terms, we co-opted a group of the subculture ('building tenders') and, through that, we controlled behavior. We reinforced it with a kick in the ass or a slap upside the head. That was pretty much the philosophy."
Huntley put it more simply. "I just beat the shit out of them," he says. "I'd tell them, 'You're going to do it our way, or you're just going to keep getting the shit beat out of you.' The system ran perfect like that. There was actually less violence than you'd believe."
But by the late '70s, some law enforcement officials claimed the building tender system was out of control. Some building tenders were selling contraband, and others were extorting sex from weaker inmates. They had become the unofficial enforcers of the Texas prison system, and some of the Eastham prison guards were blaming them for the riot, according to a Newsweek article. They claimed it started when two inmate trusties began "jugging" (harassing) six Mexican prisoners. Soon inmates were rampaging through the prison yard, burning tents used to house inmate overflow and using barricades of flaming mattresses piled onto trash cans to keep guards away. They danced around the flames like possessed men enjoying anarchy that must have felt like freedom.
Huntley tells a different story. "Captain Price claims he took charge [in the Newsweek article]. But he was in charge of nothing," he says. "He was hired to keep building tenders in line. He did not take charge of the riot that night, either." After warden Turner delegated him the task to regain control of the unit, Huntley says he took the rest of the building tenders into the yard where 250 Mexican Mafia convicts rioted. They began cursing the building tenders, Huntley says, and beating up all the white trusty convicts who refused to participate in the riot.
Huntley says they broke through the first line of burning barricades and rushed into the yard to gain control. It took 30 minutes for them to stop the rioting in the yard. "Once we did, I had my building tenders form a line, a gantlet (of sorts) that convicts had to come through to get back into the building. Everyone was beaten severely as they ran through the gantlet. They were knocked down many times as they tried to get through it. Some were unconscious and had to be thrown back into the building."
Armed with shanks, pipes and riot batons, they worked through the night to gain control of the unit. Huntley says they battled inmates in the day room and moved from cell block to cell block, throwing rioting convicts back in their cells. "[They] did not believe that warden Turner would release the building tenders on the gangs," he says. "But we were the internal security system. The guards controlled the outside while we controlled the inside."
But other inmates claimed building tenders were violating their civil rights. Former U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice agreed and, in a 188-page decision, ordered sweeping remedies. "When the Legislature says that you're to be imprisoned, they don't also say that you are to be anally raped or subject to inferior medical care or have someone assaulting you on a day-to-day basis," he said. "The incarceration is punishment, the rest is punishment above what is authorized by law."
The former director of the Texas Department of Corrections, W.J. Estelle, ignored his opinion, so Justice set a hearing in March 1982 to force the issue of phasing out the building tender system in Texas prisons. A system investigator, David Arnold, described the building tenders as brutal inmates acting as guard substitutes in his 1982 report to Vincent Nathan, a special master appointed by Justice to enforce his ruling.
In March 1982, Huntley paroled out of the Eastham unit, where the prison population had grown from around 1,400 inmates to more than 2,900 during his nine-year stay in prison. He says he received early release on his 50-year sentences because of his actions the night of the riot and the years he spent as a building tender. When the building tender system fell, murders among inmates increased.
"When they got rid of the building tenders, the gangs took over," he says. "There was a vacuum there. Justice made a terrible mistake when he tried to tell Texas how to run its prisons."
Huntley's path from outlaw to law enforcement informant began in his father's church in East Texas. After his prison stint, he began spending more time with his father and teaching a Sunday school class for youth. "I was on my knees every day thanking God that I had gotten out of there," he says. "But it felt like being on a merry-go-round and trying to step off."
One of the girls in his class happened to be the daughter of a Texas state trooper who didn't take too kindly to the fact that a convict was teaching kids. They had a conversation, Huntley says, and the trooper quickly realized Huntley was actually using his experiences to help kids make better decisions. Then, one of his kids in the Sunday school class got into trouble with dope.
"I was pissed because you've got to remember I had never really had any experience with drugs," he says. "All the years that I was out and all the years in prison, I just never had a lot to do with dope. But everything had changed when I got out of prison. Dope was easy for them to get."
Huntley asked the trooper what he could do to help, and he replied, "Tommy, with your background, you could probably do a lot."
The trooper introduced him to two law enforcement officers who would change his life: Herschel Erwin, who, he says, looked like the old action movie star Charles Bronson, and "Tricky" Ricky — revealing his last name might put him in danger — who looked like a grizzly old biker with a long beard, a ponytail and a beer belly.
The first operation, he says, involved drugs running rampant in Trinity County in East Texas. He met with the local sheriff who, he says, told him, "I know who my outlaws are. I know the bad guys. My problem is that I can't reach out and touch them."
"That's where what I call a perfect storm started to build," Huntley says.
Huntley began hanging out at the bars that looked like auto mechanic garages all up and down Lake Livingston. He was a pool player and used the game to help build relationships with the local drug dealers. Some of those dealers, he says, included prison guards. He ended up playing pool with a captain who eventually told him that he was selling weed at the prison where he worked.
"He asked me if I'd like to smoke, and I said, 'No, man, but I'd like to sell some,'" he says. "So he told me that he made so much money moving it into the prison that it 'was unreal.'"
The next day Huntley brought Tricky Ricky with him to the bar. They bought 2 ounces from the captain, which opened the door to more buys from other people he quickly learned were dealing."You don't want to put five or six cases on the same person," he says. "So what I would do is find out when they weren't going to be there, then show up when I knew someone else would be there. 'Oh, Charlie isn't here. Can I get some from you?' Then boom. It worked perfect like that. It still does."
Former Rowlett police officer Grant Jack says it was "a black day" when he met Huntley for the first time. Then he laughs and looks at Huntley, who sits across from him in the living room of Jack's two-story cookie-cutter brick home. They've been living together for a few months now in Rowlett. Huntley moved in earlier this year until he could fully recover from quadruple-bypass heart surgery.
With a full head of disheveled salt-and-pepper gray hair, eyeglasses slightly crooked, Jack is shorter than Huntley and dresses comfortably in a black polo shirt and light blue basketball shorts on this Wednesday morning in late August. Unlike Huntley, who's remained in law enforcement's good graces over the years, Jack was forced out as an investigator at the Dallas County District Attorney's Office in late 2014 because of several accusations, including selling dope, having sex with minors as well as videotaping them and falling in love with a confidential female informant. He was never charged with a crime "because there was no evidence," he says, and blames a Secret Service agent for setting him up on all the accusations except for the falling in love with the informant.
"I think she must have known somebody at DPS," he says. "She was out to get me. There was nothing going on between us. She tried to make something happen, and I started to respond but thought, 'I ain't doing this.'"
Huntley claims Jack was just weak in his moment of loneliness. "He said he loved her," he says. "He blew a bunch of cases."
Jack provides a few more excuses about his issues with the confidential informant, who happened to be living with him for a time and wearing a wire at one point, before he returns to telling his story of what would lead to a 25-year friendship between a convict and a cop.
It began with a phone call from a reporter. Jack ran the criminal investigation division for the Rowlett Police Department in the mid '80s and happened to answer the phone. The reporter sought information about unsolved murders in Rowlett. Jack found two cold cases, one involving a victim named Tommy Brown who'd been shot in the back and found naked and dead on the banks of Ray Hubbard Lake on the outskirts of Rowlett.
"Before I called him back, I thought, 'You know, I might be able to clear it,'" Jack says.Shortly after the story about Brown's unsolved murder appeared in the newspaper, 10-year-old Tommy Brown Jr. called Jack and begged him to find whoever killed his daddy. "You could have ripped my heart out," Jack recalls with tears in his eyes. "I started crying."
The next day he received a phone call from a Texas Ranger who told him that he had an informant in his office who knew something about Brown's murder. Jack rushed over to the Department of Public Safety's office on Belt Line Road and Interstate 30. He'd been told Huntley had been in Lufkin "for the lack of better term, being a snitch down there for the dope world," he says.
"Motherfucker, I wasn't a snitch," Huntley says, nearly rising out of his chair. "I worked with them sons of bitches."
He did work closely with the narcotics division of the Department of Public Safety on numerous drug cases in the Lufkin area. He claims he had to go out and infiltrate the drug rings, but he was also informing on people.
"Well, that's what we call them," Jack says and returns to his story. "So, immediately, I didn't trust him."
He decided to test Huntley, who claimed he not only had knowledge of the Brown's murder but also watched the murderer dump his body in the lake. Jack took him to a couple of different spots around the lake, but Huntley would say, "Nah, this doesn't look right." When he took him to the third or fourth spot, Huntley looked over at him and asked, "Can I get out?" "And I thought, 'You big son of a bitch you can do anything you want to do,'" Jack says, and laughs.
Huntley told Jack that an old acquaintance from his childhood named Mickey Stone had confessed to the murder, claiming he shot Brown in the back while he was showering.
"Mickey was a dope dealer," he says. "He introduced Tommy [Brown] to certain people, and Tommy would go right behind him and rob them. So they had given Mickey an ultimatum: You either kill this guy, or we're going to kill you and then him."
In the arrest warrant affidavit, Jack reported Huntley had gone over to Brown's house on the evening of May 15, 1983, because Stone called and said he needed help. Huntley was fresh out of prison and not yet working for law enforcement. When he arrived, Huntley saw Brown's dead body rolled up in a carpet with a rope securing it.
"I liked to have killed him," Huntley says. "He put me in the middle of that cross, and I just told him, 'Put the fucking thing in your van and go get rid of it.'"
Huntley helped him load up the body in Stone's van and followed him to Lake Ray Hubbard where he watched Stone dump Brown's body in the shallow part of the lake. A fisherman discovered the body the next morning.
"When he got the body out wrapped in a carpet, Brown came out of the carpet and fell on him," Huntley says. "He was screaming, 'He's got me. He's got me.' I went, 'God almighty.'"
Jack asked Huntley, who was by then working as an informant, to submit to a polygraph examination to establish his truthfulness, but then Brown's girlfriend confessed to his murder, throwing what Jack calls "a monkey wrench into the situation."
"But I didn't believe her because Tom had already taken a polygraph," Jack says. "She was real shaky. They had coerced her into admitting her guilt because they thought we wouldn't do anything to her because she had a clean record. Mickey's record was pretty heavy duty."
Even though he didn't believe her, Jack had gone ahead and arrested Brown's girlfriend until he could get a confession from Stone. He then "wired up" Huntley and sent him over to Stone's house to get a confession. Jack recorded the conversation from a block away.
"He said, 'Mickey, did that girl see you kill him?'" Jack recalls. "Mickey said, 'No, nobody saw me do it. She was in the other room.'"
Stone was arrested in November 1987 for murder, but Jack says he only received 10 years in prison because "it was one dope dealer killing another dope dealer."Huntley planned to go back to work as an informant for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "But this son of a bitch," he says, motioning toward Jack, "gets me out one night in one of his cop Broncos and buys me a beer."
Jack had taken Huntley to one of his vending machines he owned across the city, grabbed a sack full of quarters and bought two "big ol' quarts of beer." They sat in his Bronco and drank the beer, and he persuaded Huntley to come work for him as an informant. He'd earn pay based on the number of buys, he says, and a percentage of the seizure. He also earned money working as a contractor for Clicks Billiards in Dallas.
He worked with Jack during the late '80s and early '90s, filing 354 cases together with various law enforcement officials in Dallas County as part of joint task force. "We would do what we call 'buy walks,'" Jack says. "We would buy the dope and walk away. Yeah, we lost the money, but who cares? It was government money, yours and mine tax money, and we were aiming higher [up the drug chain]."
"Like if you came up to me and sold dope, I would let you walk off," Huntley says. "But next time we would buy a larger amount. We would buy 1 to 4 ounces initially, and then we try to take it up to a kilo."
Grant says they'd sometimes spend six months buying dope from bad guys before a group of 15 to 20 law enforcement officers would make a sweep on all of their cases. He'd use Huntley to make the initial deal.
"But I wasn't a snitch," Huntley says. "To be a snitch, you've got to tell on somebody. What I did was go out and work narcotics for those departments. I hated snitches. They used to give me the snitches to work with."
Over the years, Huntley has worked for all levels of law enforcement to keep drug dealers off the streets. He's spoken to college classes about his work and trained new undercover narcotic officers on the art of infiltrating and how to avoid doing drugs with the suspect either by claiming random drug testing for a job or for parole. One of his law enforcement mentors once told him that he walked with a cane in the Galveston area to convince drug dealers that he wasn't an undercover narcotics officer.
"Anything to distract them from thinking that you are 'the man,'" he says. "You can't use the dope, but you have to be able to get past their paranoia."
He's also seen a lot of horrors over the years and experienced a few himself. First, when he returned to prison for a short time in '96 for a DWI conviction. "I haven't had a drink since," he says. Then his son, Tom Huntley Jr., who also served time for robbery, was found dead of a heroin overdose in a park in the '90s.
"All he had ever heard about me was what an outlaw I was," Huntley says. "I have empathy for drug addicts. But drug dealers want to exploit someone's sickness. To me, they ought to be shot in the head."
Huntley is expecting to die soon. His health has grown worse over the years, but he still has one more accomplishment he'd like to achieve before he dies. He's seeking a pardon from the governor for his past crimes. His friends in law enforcement suggested he seek one and sent him several recommendation letters to send to the Texas Pardons and Parole Board.
Major Corwin Schalchlin, who oversaw the drug section at the Texas Department of Public Safety, worked with Huntley off and on since 1988, first as a narcotics officer and later as the head of the department. "Mr. Huntley's assistance has led to many arrests and prosecutions involving the distribution of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine," he wrote in an Aug. 30 recommendation letter. "[He] put his life at risk on numerous occasions during these investigations."
Schalchlin spoke with the Observer shortly after his retirement in early September. He claimed Huntley's strength as an informant involved not only his intimidating appearance but also his charisma. He was able to strike up a conversation with anyone and figure out the game rather quickly. He earned the respect not only of the major but also many law enforcement officials.
"Respect is hard to have for any informant," one narcotics officer who wishes to remain anonymous wrote in an Aug. 4 recommendation letter. "But when Tom was inside a target location and entry was made, without any regard for his own safety, he would tackle and hold down the one person whom he saw as the biggest threat to officers making entry."
The narcotics officer told the Observer that Huntley never carried a weapon to protect himself, because he was a felon, yet he still put himself in danger to protect officers' lives as well as the drug dealer's. In fact, he was so good at his job that even when a drug dealer discovered he was an informant, he was still able to persuade them to sell him drugs. ("I was once told that I could talk a coon out of a tree surrounded by coon dogs," Huntley says.)
Another narcotics officer told him about Huntley, so he made some calls to other law enforcement agencies to learn more about the informant others were calling a "legend." "DEA and everybody said this guy is the real deal when it comes to making cases. Once I got him approved to use, we started making cases."
They worked dozens of cases involving "Nazi dope," or what's better known as "bathtub dope" or "home-cooked meth," throughout Southeast Dallas. Huntley would simply go into a neighborhood and start hanging out with people. The next thing the narcotics officer knew, they were filing probable cause affidavits left and right and running search warrants behind him.
"It's no secret that he caused his dad a lot of embarrassment and grief that he could never be law enforcement [like his father]," the narcotics officer says. "The next best thing was helping law enforcement do their job. He is an amazing individual who did something bad when he was younger, but he has given more back. Ten times over. This state and county are better off because of Tom Huntley."
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A few years ago, Huntley started "jacking with the cartels" along the border. He says he was never frightened, and law enforcement officials confirmed he would often take the stand to testify against the dealers he helped to take off the streets.
It wasn't a drug dealer's bullet that ended his bounty-hunting life though; it was a heart attack requiring a quadruple bypass.
Standing in front of Campisi's, Huntley leans against his van with a blue handicap placard hanging from the rear-view mirror. He discusses some of the various cases he's worked over the years, recalls more of his time as an enforcer on Lower Greenville. "I developed the covert operations. I had to go out and recognize where the drug deals [were] and infiltrate. There is nobody who goes out. There was nobody out there. There is a psychology to it, a method to the madness. If my health wasn't ...," he says, his voice trailing off.
But through it all, Huntley claims he was never a snitch. "They look at it as betraying," he says of the dealers he's faced over the years. "But my people are the ones wearing the badges. I don't give a shit about these other people. It was a war. It really was."