The Agony And The Ecstasy
Amy Ralston took ecstasy for the first time in the spring of 1985. It was Saturday night, and Ralston, a striking 25-year-old blonde, had a blind date. At a girlfriend's urging, Ralston says she dosed up before heading out to the now-defunct nightclub Papagayo, a laser-lit meat market that was popular with North Dallas scenesters.
Ralston was entertaining her date--a dud, it would turn out--when an older gentleman asked her to dance. The man was Charles "Sandy" Pofahl, a fit, 43-year-old Dallas suit who had his own taste for ecstasy and who, as it happens, was just starting a new business that would soon make him one of the biggest ecstasy dealers in U.S. history.
Ralston brushed him off.
Ralston had smoked pot and snorted cocaine in her day, but when the ecstasy started to kick in, it was a new sensation: Cigarette smoke began to scratch her nostrils and the floor turned underfoot, while the club's throbbing dance music rapped oppressively at her skull. Feeling overwhelmed, Ralston stepped outside for some air.
"I remember looking up at the moon," Ralston says, "and it was full, and it was, like, OK, I'm looking at the most beautiful moon I'd ever seen."
Moon-bathed and buzzing, Ralston decided she wanted to continue her journey by herself. She went back inside the club and was trying to scare up a ride when someone tapped her shoulder.
It was Pofahl.
"He said, 'There's something about you. I have to see you again. I've been watching you all night,'" Ralston recalls. "I said, 'If you can remember my phone number, you can call me.'"
Making a mental note of the number, Pofahl scampered off in search of a napkin. Before Ralston left, she took one last look at the room and spotted Pofahl across the bar. And that's when it happened.
"As soon as I turned around, that thing--that spark--went off. It was just kind of like a feeling," Ralston says. "Then he picked up the napkin and started waving it to me in the air. Several years later, he gave it to me as a Christmas present."
When she got home, Ralston headed straight for the bathroom.
"I don't know why, but I know I had to go look into the mirror, and I saw my pupils dilated," Ralston recalls. "I just went into this whole spiritual journey by myself. I just kept saying, 'I'm looking into my universe,' and I kept looking into these two huge black holes, and I just went through this whole metamorphosis. Or whatever."
Ralston did begin a wild trip that night. The problem was, it wouldn't end for 15 years.
Instead, Ralston traveled through the Dallas ecstasy scene of the 1980s and into the center of a complex international drug smuggling operation, controlled by Pofahl and a Dallas chemist named Dr. Morris Key. It was called the Ecstasy International Export & Import Organization--EIEIO, for short. At its peak in 1989, EIEIO stretched from Dallas to Guatemala and Germany, generating millions of dollars in ecstasy sales until an international scrape with Libya inadvertently exposed it to U.S. authorities. Like most Americans, Ralston had heard about a "war on drugs," but as she stared into those big black pupils that night, she didn't realize she was looking at someone who would wind up on the battlefield--a future target of federal agents who would spend two years tracking her from Dallas to Los Angeles before handing her a 24-year prison sentence in 1991.
Ralston would still be in jail today if she had not had the fortune of becoming a national poster child for opponents of the mandatory drug laws that took effect in the mid-1980s. Last summer, that status netted her a high-profile--and drastically distorted--write-up in Glamour in which Ralston emerged as an unintended casualty of the war on drugs, a "blindly loyal wife" whose husband lured her into a criminal lifestyle, then betrayed her to save his own behind. The press helped Ralston rally the support of several influential politicians and, ultimately, President Bill Clinton, who commuted her sentence in July.
Today, Ralston lives with her parents in Charleston, Arkansas, where she maintains that her 15-year saga is a testimony to the injustices of the U.S. legal system. Although there is no question that Ralston shouldn't be in prison, a closer look at the case reveals that Sandy Pofahl wasn't quite the heartbreaker he was portrayed as being--and that Ralston isn't quite the innocent she paints herself as. In fact, untangling the web of half-truths found in her story calls to mind the title of a "semi-true" screenplay Ralston wrote shortly before her 1991 arrest.
She called it "Nothing's Black & White."
A Higher Love
Nowadays, Amy Ralston and Sandy Pofahl offer vastly different accounts of their early years together, even disputing the name of the restaurant they went to on their first date. But they do agree that they hooked up several days after that Saturday-night encounter and fell instantly in love. On November 2, 1985, they married.
"He seemed to have everything mapped out about life and karma," says Ralston, who at the time was hoping to become a model but had to settle for temp work. "He introduced me to reincarnation, metaphysics, and New Age."
From their first date on, ecstasy occupied a central role in the couple's relationship--not just as entertainment, but also as a source of income.
Now 59, Pofahl still cuts the profile of a man in his 40s, though his brown hair has gone gray and the sparkle in his blue eyes, which once charmed Ralston so, is a notch or two dimmer. When asked about his past, a subject he'd just as soon not talk about, Pofahl doesn't hesitate to say that his decision to deal ecstasy was terribly wrong.
"I'm sorry I was involved in it," Pofahl says. "I'm sorry I got involved in the manufacturing and sale" of ecstasy.
Pofahl does not, however, regret using the drug. Throughout his life, Pofahl was extremely health-conscious and kept his distance from drugs, even avoiding aspirin, but he became a disciple of ecstasy in 1981 after some friends gave him a tablet for his 40th birthday. At the time, ecstasy was still legal.
"I said, 'No thank you, I don't do drugs.' They said, 'Take it, you'll like it.' I did go ahead and take it that day," Pofahl says. "It was a positive experience to take it with them."
Taking ecstasy soon became a recreational pastime that Pofahl enjoyed over the weekends, usually inside the homes of friends or sometimes in dance clubs. "For the next three, three and a half years, [our] group of about 25 people would do ecstasy in Dallas and Austin," Pofahl says. "[It was] just a time to be together, take ecstasy, and talk."
After her wedding to Pofahl, Ralston gladly joined the party. For her, ecstasy became an integral part of her relationship with Pofahl and her life in general.
"When Sandy and I were together, we used ecstasy the way a lot of couples would. We'd sit beside the fire. It's a great way to talk, if you're familiar with it. It's like a truth serum," Ralston says. "It was the ceremony of ecstasy."
Where Sandy preferred to use the drug in the privacy of her home, Ralston says she was fond of hitting the clubs.
"I'm the one who would definitely use it and go out," she says. "I would like to take a quarter [of a pill] and, a little bit later, another quarter. It elevated my mood to where the world was just the greatest place to live in."
While Pofahl didn't expose Ralston to ecstasy, he did show her its potential for profit: By the time the two were married, he was well on his way to becoming an ecstasy kingpin. It was an unlikely occupation for a man who once studied theology at Princeton and obtained a law degree from Stanford University in 1967.
After law school, Pofahl moved to Dallas with his first wife and went to work for Trammell Crow, then the world's largest real estate developer. Two years later, Pofahl left the company with hopes of building his own real estate empire, which he called Commonwealth Development. He fell woefully short of his goal. By 1974, Commonwealth was bankrupt and Pofahl, whose first marriage was failing, couldn't even afford the custom drapes his wife had ordered for their house.
Despite the setback, Pofahl continued his quest for The Big Deal, incorporating more than a dozen companies throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Pofahl managed to complete a few successful ventures, most notably the sale of an oil and gas drilling company he owned. The transaction netted him $600,000 in 1985. The sales price wasn't bad, but it was nothing compared to the potential profit ecstasy offered.
That opportunity arose in 1984, when Pofahl says his dealer revealed that his source was drying up and asked Pofahl whether he wanted into the business. As part of the pitch, the dealer told Pofahl he could realize a $2.50 profit on every tablet he sold. Being the businessman he was, Pofahl smelled a fortune.
To his benefit, the U.S. government would soon outlaw ecstasy and, ironically, give Pofahl the one key to success that he could never seem to find as a real estate developer: good timing.
I Want a New Drug
In 1985 there was a side of Dallas that was in the mood to party. With the oil and real estate businesses at their peak, people made piles of cash during the day and flooded into the clubs with it at night. The drug culture was wide-open.
"When I moved to Dallas, cocaine was everywhere," Ralston says. "If you would go to a card shop at the time, there were Christmas cards [that said], 'Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,' [and they featured] Santa Claus with the cocaine spoon. It was just so accepted."
For people who didn't like coke's edgy effects, ecstasy offered a more seductive, mellow alternative and, for them, Dallas was the place to be. By 1985, Dallas had earned the reputation as the nation's ecstasy capital, because it was one of the few cities where the drug was openly sold in nightspots like the Texas Ranch bar, which catered to the dance crowd.
Pofahl wanted a piece of the action. In early 1985, he picked up the telephone and called his friend, Dr. Morris Key, a Dallas chemist who ran his own consulting business. An ecstasy enthusiast, Key was game.
Unlike illegal drug rings, this one was unusual, because Pofahl and Key actually made efforts to keep the operation aboveboard. That was easy enough to do at first because ecstasy was still legal.
"The whole idea, from the beginning, was never to break the law. It was to make it as long as it was not illegal from the DEA's standpoint and to quit immediately if it became illegal," Key says. "At first I thought, you know, this is an amphetamine, this can't not be illegal. But when I looked into it, I saw that it wasn't illegal."
As part of their business plan, Pofahl coordinated sales and distribution while Key oversaw production. Specifically, Key arranged to have the powder used to make ecstasy manufactured at a laboratory in California at a cost of 10 to 20 cents a tablet. The powder was then shipped to a lab in Frisco, where it was converted into tablets. In all, the operation produced some 600,000 tablets, which Pofahl sold through a network of dealers in Dallas for about $3 each. For his efforts, Pofahl paid Key $30,000 a month.
"My first deal was a million, and then [much later] he gave me another million," says Key, who adds that his total payment during the entire operation was "a drop in the bucket" compared to their overall proceeds.
Just when the money started to roll in, ecstasy emerged as a social menace. It was a long time coming for a drug that was patented by a West German pharmaceutical company in 1917 and deemed useless by the U.S. military in the 1950s.
In what now stands out as a classic example of reactionary thinking, on July 1, 1985, the DEA put into effect an emergency ban on ecstasy, temporarily classifying it as a "schedule I" controlled substance on a par with LSD and heroin. Interestingly, the psychiatric community, which hailed the drug as a way to help patients overcome everything from child abuse to broken marriages, rose to ecstasy's defense. The move caught the DEA off guard, forcing it to hold a series of public hearings during which the psychiatrists argued that ecstasy should be classified as a "schedule III" controlled substance, allowing them to continue prescribing it.
Their voices, however, could not rise above the din of First Lady Nancy Reagan's mounting "Just Say No" campaign. In the end, ecstasy became one of the early casualties of the Reagan administration's war on drugs. On October 27, 1986, the drug was permanently outlawed.
Had Pofahl and Key stuck to their original plan, they would have had no troubles. But by the time ecstasy was banned, they were hooked on its profits.
"All of a sudden you look around you and you say, 'My god, I'm way out here,' and you're used to the money and you're used to the thrill and you just don't stop," Key says. "In the '80s, ecstasy was considered to be a nice sex drug that really didn't hurt anything, and the DEA was just simply trying to control it because they could. That was pretty much the attitude and that was our attitude. Of course, we had that attitude for a different reason. Our attitude was we wanted to do it, so of course we're gonna rationalize it any way we can."
Instead, they moved the operation to Guatemala, and EIEIO was born. The men hired a company called Unipharm to produce the drug, using chemicals Key supplied, in exchange for payments of $2,500 to $5,000 a month. In March 1986, Unipharm completed its first batch of 86,960 pills.
In the meantime, Key traveled to Germany in search of a chemical company that could supply raw materials. Ultimately, he settled on a company called Imhausen-Chemie.
At the time, the men thought they could legally export the raw product from Germany into Guatemala, where ecstasy production and sales were legal, and sell it without breaking any laws. Key was so sure that the business was kosher that he didn't go to great lengths to hide it.
"I had it registered. We had it licensed by the Guatemalan health department. We had it licensed for export, and I had good quality control on it," Key says. "I mean, it was fine stuff."
And there was a lot of it. Between March 1986 and February 1989, when Key and Pofahl were arrested, Unipharm produced a total of 3.3 million tablets. Typically, Pofahl would smuggle the pills back to Dallas--either by plane, car, or mail--and stash them inside a series of safety boxes and storage vaults he rented in North Dallas. Once the drugs were on location, his dealers would enter the units, remove the drugs, and replace them with cash.
Unfortunately, Key's mistake was assuming that Imhausen, like most upstanding companies, wouldn't agree to sell a product if it was illegal in Germany. Key says he soon found out otherwise--thanks to U.S. officials.
In early 1989, the United States accused Imhausen officials of supplying chemicals that it believed Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator and arch-U.S. rival, was using to manufacture mustard gas. That January, tension over the plant resulted in a Top Gun-like air chase that ended when U.S. fighter pilots shot down two Libyan fighters over the Mediterranean Sea.
German officials initially insisted that their investigation into Imhausen turned up no support of the U.S. allegations against Gadhafi, but they agreed to another investigation. "That," Key says, "is how we got caught."
Sometime in 1987, Key and Pofahl decided to penetrate the European market, in part because their production yield in Guatemala was slowing but also because Pofahl and Key were growing increasingly nervous about the extent of their illegal operations in the United States. Eventually, they hoped to stop selling the drug here altogether.
Pofahl thought that Amsterdam would be a great place to relocate the entire business, from production to sales, but Key says he talked him out of it. Instead, Key convinced him to expand their production efforts at Imhausen, which until then had simply been selling Key raw materials.
In the meantime, Pofahl started to build a new distribution network in the Netherlands and Great Britain. The work proved to be far more exciting than his old attempts to develop real estate in Dallas. On October 31, 1988, for example, Pofahl slipped into the Netherlands under the cover of darkness and stored 1.3 million tablets in the cellar of a florist shop called "Nicole." The drugs were supposed to be delivered to the owners of three Amsterdam coffeehouses.
Three months later, the German national police showed up at Imhausen. In addition to transactions pertaining to Libya, company officials handed over all of their production records involving Key and Pofahl. During the meeting, company officials told the police that Pofahl was expected to visit the company in two weeks. On February 16, 1989, Pofahl showed up as scheduled and the police arrested him on charges of violating the country's Narcotics Act. Back in the states, Key was arrested in New York and extradited to Germany.
In subsequent months, German officials seized Pofahl's bank accounts and coordinated an international effort, which, thanks to Imhausen's impeccably kept records, netted tens of thousands of unsold pills stowed away in Guatemala, Germany, and the Netherlands. Dutch police described one find--at the Amsterdam florist shop where Pofahl had made his nighttime deposit--as the single biggest amphetamine seizure in the country's history.
With Pofahl and Key behind bars, U.S. law enforcement officials became intent on uncovering the full extent of the conspiracy in the United States in order to bring convictions against all of its participants. Naturally, the task would be much easier if Pofahl and Key, the conspiracy kingpins, started to squawk. The officials, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Strauss of San Antonio, promised to go light on Pofahl and Key back in the states if they agreed to name names and give up their proceeds. From their new perspectives behind bars, Pofahl and Key ultimately determined that it was in their best interests to cooperate.
"Let me tell ya, jail has a way of making you change a lot of things," Key says. "You learn really quickly to decide whether that's the place you want to come back to, and I didn't want to come back to it. And it wasn't just that. I just did a lot of soul-searching and decided that I would like to be able to live a different kind of life when I got out."
In April 1989, Key signed a four-page affidavit in which he outlined his involvement in the case. Pofahl had a similar epiphany.
"Everybody needed to decide what they wanted to do," Pofahl says. "I was wrong, and I needed to be truthful about what I did. Charlie Strauss and [IRS agent] Gary Gallman came over in the middle of '89, and we had a long conversation. I said I was wrong in what I did, and I was truthful in what I said."
During a series of meetings held at the city jail in Offenberg, Germany, Pofahl laid out the intricate details of the organization. Besides his own actions, Pofahl identified everyone he ever dealt with, from the manufacturers to the dealers. He also told U.S. investigators how to find in Dallas the numerous safety boxes and locked vaults he had rented, which contained hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and unsold pills.
In November 1990, Pofahl and Key appeared in a German criminal court for trial. The proceedings lasted 10 days, during which both men were found guilty of manufacturing drugs in violation of German federal law. On December 18, 1990, Pofahl was sentenced to six years and three months in prison, while Key got a six-year sentence.
At sentencing, the German court, which viewed ecstasy as "less dangerous than alcohol," took into consideration two key elements with regard to Pofahl. One was his confession. A second was Strauss' information that although he could face life imprisonment in the United States, he would probably be sentenced to probation--as long as his continued cooperation as an informant and witness helped them land additional convictions.
By that point in 1990, one of the people Strauss wanted to nail was Amy Ralston.
I'll Tumble 4 Ya
By the time Pofahl was arrested, he and Amy Ralston had unofficially separated. Ralston had moved to Los Angeles, where she was dating other men and promoting parties at an exclusive club that was popular with celebrities.
Both Pofahl and Ralston confirm that Pofahl made several attempts to win Ralston back. Ralston was unsure about the relationship, but when she heard about Pofahl's arrest, she jumped on a plane to Germany. From jail, Pofahl told Ralston about his safety boxes and asked her to retrieve some $400,000 for his legal defense. Ralston says she felt compelled to help her husband.
"I'm not proud at all to admit it, [but] I would start crying out in public," Ralston says. "I would start feeling a horrible feeling of concern that he was sitting in a jail cell, being subjected to I don't know what, and I was powerless to help him."
To this day, Ralston claims she had no idea that Pofahl was selling ecstasy until after his arrest.
"Was [ecstasy] legal when we first got into it? Yes. Did it later become illegal? Yes. Did I stop doing it? No," Ralston says. "But did I know he was manufacturing it, and he had these certain people and this whole organization in place? No."
Her claim, however, is false.
In truth, Ralston was an active participant in her husband's business up until May 1986, when she and Pofahl agreed that she should pull out, according to an affidavit that she herself wrote and asked Pofahl to sign as part of her legal appeal. In order to minimize her future culpability should a criminal case arise, Pofahl agreed to shield Ralston from all aspects of the business, refusing even to discuss it in her presence, while Ralston went to work at one of Pofahl's legitimate Dallas businesses, earning a monthly salary of $4,000.
In other words, what Ralston didn't know was how extensive her husband's business had become. After she visited Pofahl in jail, however, she got a pretty good idea.
Although Pofahl says he never got any of the money he requested, Ralston began to systematically enter the safety boxes and collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in dirty cash. As part of the effort, she enlisted the help of an ex-boyfriend who was dealing for Pofahl.
There was one vault in particular that Ralston and the man went out of their way to enter. Located inside a vault storage company at Inwood Village, the vault contained 110,000 pills. When the vault employees declined to let Ralston into the vault, she and the man "cooked up a scheme" in which he rented another vault in the same unit and, when the employees weren't looking, broke into Pofahl's vault using a combination Ralston gave him.
"When you're a customer," Ralston says, "they let you in and they leave you alone."
At this point, Pofahl had written Ralston a letter warning her to stay away from that vault, knowing federal agents would eventually search it. By the time Ralston got the letter, it was too late: The ex-boyfriend had retrieved the pills and sold them. Later, he presented Ralston with the proceeds--more than $300,000 in cash. "I took it," Ralston concedes.
Ralston took that cash, plus an additional and to this day undetermined amount of cash, and threw it into the trunk of a rental car, along with what Ralston says was an overnight-sized bag of broken ecstasy tablets. On May 5, 1989, Ralston drove the booty out to L.A.
"I was sitting on a mountain of money. A lot of people would think that's a great thing, but when it's illicit money, you're literally sitting on top of a mountain of dynamite and it's not fun," Ralston says. "You can't put it in your bank. You don't know what to do with it. If you get caught with it, it's great evidence to seal up a case."
That's what the U.S. investigators thought. By then, they had already searched Ralston's house and questioned her about her husband. Unlike the other members of the conspiracy--including Dr. Key's wife, who had knowledge of the case but was never prosecuted--Ralston refused to cooperate. Instead, she carried on with her life as if nothing was wrong.
Ralston says she not only continued to use ecstasy herself but gave it away to friends. Although that amounts to distribution under the law, Ralston saw nothing wrong with this. To her, getting high and getting others high was a lifestyle choice that was none of the government's business.
"I don't think I was irresponsible," Ralston says. "I definitely enjoyed it. I shared it. I turned a lot of people on to ecstasy."
As an example, Ralston recalls a trip on Venice Beach that was especially memorable. On that night, Ralston was walking along the sand with a friend who was taking ecstasy for the first time. Together, they watched planes at the L.A. airport.
"He goes, 'Wow, look at that plane,'" Ralston recalls. "To me, there was a thrill to seeing somebody come on for the very first time. I just really got a kick out of seeing this thing blossom out of someone. Everyday things become extraordinary."
Of course, none of this looked ordinary to the team of IRS and DEA investigators trailing Ralston.
I Ran (So Far Away)
As the agents pieced together their case, it became clear that Ralston was hiding her husband's ill-gotten assets. Moreover, they became convinced she was trying to continue his business--a theory they developed after they began to kneel on the co-conspirators whom Pofahl had given up.
One dealer, for example, admitted that he sold 127,000 tablets in early 1989 on Pofahl's behalf. Since Pofahl was in jail, the dealer said he met Ralston instead and gave her the $218,930 he made off the sale. He also claimed Ralston gave him a receipt for the money and berated him for not getting a better price for the pills.
In 1990, the investigators put the pinch on Ralston, searching her home two more times, freezing her assets, and interviewing her newfound friends in L.A. At any point in this process, Ralston could have given them what they wanted--the money, plus her cooperation. Instead, she ran.
"Desperate people do desperate things," she says.
Namely, Ralston says she spent $500 to buy a new identity from a man who operated out of a one-room office located behind a "Mail Boxes R Us" store in Sherman Oaks, California. Using a fake driver's license, birth certificate, and Social Security number, Ralston reinvented herself as Alex Rossell and moved to Florida.
"I felt like, OK, if I step out of the picture, then, after everything is done, there's nothing that says I can't step back into the picture," Ralston says.
The plan worked, but life in Florida soon got boring. After a while, it dawned on Ralston that staying underground meant never being able to contact her parents and friends. Ralston went back to L.A. On March 26, 1991, she was arrested.
"I was kind of relieved," Ralston recalls, "because I thought, now maybe the madness will end, not realizing my nightmare was just about ready to begin."
Indeed. Ralston was shipped to Waco where she became one of 16 codefendants, including Pofahl and Key, in what prosecutors then called the biggest ecstasy distribution case in the country's history. Instead of pleading guilty, as did most of the other defendants, Ralston exercised her right to a trial by jury. It was a decision for which she paid dearly.
"I was really cocky back then," Ralston says, "because I didn't know about conspiracy."
To this day, attorney Strauss says if Ralston had been truthful about her actions and cooperated with him, he would have never prosecuted her. But when presented with the scenario of putting her on trial, Strauss decided to take her the distance: Under the sweeping federal conspiracy laws, he prosecuted her as a kingpin--on equal footing with Pofahl and Key.
"The evidence showed that, after her husband's arrest, she made several attempts to keep the conspiracy active and ongoing," Strauss says. "In addition to Amy's efforts to collect the ill-gotten gains that were stored in various places, she made efforts to solicit people to smuggle additional quantities of MDMA from Guatemala and retrieve quantities of MDMA that were [already] stored in the U.S. so they could be distributed."
Strauss had no problem proving his case. At the trial's conclusion, the jury found Ralston guilty of money laundering and conspiring to import and distribute ecstasy. Under federal sentencing rules, Ralston was handed a mandatory minimum sentence of 24 years in prison--the longest of any of the defendants.
Down in San Antonio, Strauss says he has no regrets about his decision to send Ralston packing.
"I've never believed Amy was treated unfairly. Amy did what she did and got punished for it," Strauss says. "She is no hero. She is no role model. I don't want my daughter to be anything like her."
Pretty in Pink
In 1999, things were looking bleak for Ralston. By then, she had launched an extensive effort to have her conviction overturned and later softened, but the courts flatly rejected her arguments. That's when Ralston finally figured out how to work the system--not the legal system, but the media and victim's rights system.
From her prison cell, Ralston managed to attract the support of several activist organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums. To them, Ralston's case stood out as a classic example of how federal sentencing laws unfairly imprison low-level drug offenders while letting kingpins off easy. The group took on Amy as part of its quest to expose the injustices of the federal penal system.
"Amy was one of thousands who contacted us about her case," says FAMM spokeswoman Monica Pratt. "Some of the facts of her case clearly showed that Amy was the sort of offender who deserved some time, but not 24 years. While we do use cases like Amy's to put a human face on the laws, it's not so much about the cases as it is about the laws themselves."
The mandatory minimum sentences, which Congress hastily enacted in the midst of the Reagan Administration's drug war, have long been recognized as problematic. Most federal judges oppose the laws, because they strip them of their power to use discretion. In drug cases like Ralston's, for example, judges are required to mete out punishment using a strict mathematical formula that multiplies guilt by quantity with little regard to the circumstances behind an offender's behavior.
It is also true, as Pratt argues, that the application of the laws has resulted in more low-level drug offenders being sentenced to longer terms than kingpins. This happens because prosecutors, who are professionally motivated to ratchet up their conviction rates, cut deals with the all-knowing kingpins in exchange for information about their underlings, who are kept in the dark about the overall conspiracy and thus have little information to trade.
Pofahl's case is the perfect example of the trend. Pofahl served four years and two months in Germany before being released to the United States in 1994. When he got back to Texas, Strauss successfully recommended that Pofahl be sentenced to a term of five years' probation because he had been a helpful informant.
When it comes to advancing political causes, however, the ability to generate sympathy is essential. While few people would have sympathy for Pofahl, they could for Ralston--so long as the fatty details of her "story" were boiled down for public consumption. Ralston was well aware of this fact, according to a letter she wrote Pofahl in February 1999. (Although Pofahl had divorced Ralston in 1996, he agreed to sign whatever affidavits Ralston sent him in her effort to regain her freedom.) In the letter, an optimistic Ralston told Pofahl that her political appeal was quickly advancing.
"It looks like we are going to gain the assistance of the very people we need who are the key players in the political arena in Arkansas," Ralston wrote. "However, I don't want to get ahead of myself and jinx it either since I've had a real bad spate of luck when it comes to achieving justice. This is going to change, soon."
All she needed now was someone to tell her story. Glamour took the bait.
In August 1999, Glamour published a lengthy story about Ralston, sympathetically portraying her as a country girl who naively fell for a fabulously successful businessman who gave her ecstasy on their first date. In this version of events, Pofahl, the "creep," tantalized Ralston, the shy beauty, with fancy cars and a high-paying day job while he sold drugs behind her back. In the end, Ralston came off as a "blindly loyal wife" whose husband had sold her out to save himself. It made for great copy. In fact, the story was so convincing that former Arkansas Governor David Pryor says he was compelled to lobby personally on Ralston's behalf after reading it.
"I became incensed. At first I was bewildered. I couldn't believe this was happening in our country," says Pryor, who ironically was one of the many politicians who supported the harsh drug laws Congress enacted in the 1980s. "I just became obsessed with Amy's case. Ultimately I called up the Justice Department, the pardons people, and asked if it was permissible to come and make a case to them. They said yes."
In his lobbying effort, Pryor, a former U.S. senator, teamed with former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, who hails from Ralston's hometown and is one of President Clinton's most ardent supporters. Together, they spent two hours arguing that Ralston's case should be forwarded to Clinton for a clemency review.
That effort was just the cake. Bumpers and Pryor put the icing on it in May, when Clinton returned to Little Rock and invited out his two old friends for a casual dinner. Pryor used the occasion to discreetly advance Ralston's cause.
"I handed him a file on Amy. Frankly, I don't know if he ever opened it," Pryor says. "We never discussed it after that."
Two months later, on July 7, 2000, the White House quietly and without elaboration announced that Clinton had commuted the sentences of Ralston and three other female inmates, all of whom were convicted of drug crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than the men associated with their cases. According to a White House aide, Clinton felt the woman had been in prison long enough.
By sundown, Ralston was free.
"When you live a story like mine," Ralston says during an interview inside her parents' middle-class home in Charleston, "you expect that as soon as the movie starts, you know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is."
As Ralston sits inside the dining nook, her reflection captured in the polished surface of the table, it's still hard to imagine that hers is the face of a national enemy. With her long dirty-blond hair and sharp, lanky features, she still has the good looks of a cover girl, though her face is beginning to show signs of wear. Bright and friendly, Ralston easily opens up in conversation, and it's tempting to believe that she's been horribly wronged.
To this day, Ralston maintains that the story about why she wound up in prison boils down to betrayal.
"He got in trouble, and he turned to me for help. Then he turned on me to help himself," Ralston says of Pofahl. "When it came to be my turn [for getting help], there was nobody."
This is the same story Ralston told Glamour, and it was convincing enough to win the sympathy of the president of the United States. Evidently, Ralston has come to believe it herself.
There are, of course, many truths woven into Ralston's tale: Our drug laws are reactionary, and the attempts to prosecute those who violate them are fruitless and harsh, particularly if the goal is to prevent drug use. Today, teenagers can shell out $20 and trip on ecstasy all night long if they want, and no cop or prosecutor can stop it.
Although Strauss says his office disagrees with Clinton's decision, he concedes that the nine years Ralston served was substantial. Still, the case leaves him troubled.
"There was a time, some years ago, when maybe society didn't consider wives and girlfriends responsible for their actions. Maybe we have gone past that point, I don't know," says Strauss, who adds, "this case has consumed a number of hours of my life that are now meaningless."
In the end, Ralston says, nothing will change until people start being honest about drugs.
"A lot of people go through this door where they completely disassociate themselves from our past," she says. "They don't want to admit they did drugs. That's fine, you don't have to admit it, but we're really a bunch of hypocrites. Everybody's been exposed to it, one way or another, and we're all pretending."
The problem is, so is Ralston.
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