This is the first of a two part story, the second of which will be written once the story has finally concluded.
I’m not a criminal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve committed crimes. Underage drinking. A couple of speeding tickets. One reckless driving charge. Illegally downloading the entire Blink 182 discography. Stealing a Milky Way from a gas station on a dare. Going the wrong way on a one way street a couple times. Driving when I maybe probably technically legally shouldn’t have (Sorry, Mom). But that’s where the list stops. Just your normal, I’m-young-and-stupid-and-kind-of-a-jackass type stuff.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
In March of this year I applied for a passport. I didn’t have a trip planned or anything; I just figured it would be a good thing to have in case I was feeling spontaneous one weekend and decided to fly to Bermuda. So I went to the post office, paid the $200 or so to apply, and didn’t give it another thought because I knew the process could take awhile.
Then on May 30th I got a letter from the United States Department of State. It read “The Department of State has denied your March 28, 2018 application of a U.S. passport.” Okay. That’s kind of weird. But nothing alarming. Probably just a mix-up. Maybe they didn’t receive my payment or something. Let’s continue reading this very routine letter and see what’s going on here. Certainly nothing out of the ordinary that would impact the next 6+ months of my life. The next sentence read “The Department may refuse to issue a passport when the applicant is the subject of a state or local warrant of arrest for a felony.” Wait wut?
It continued: “This office was informed that on December 23, 2015, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office in Neosho, Missouri entered a felony warrant for your arrest.”
I sat there staring at the letter, reading it and rereading it over and over, word for word, letter for letter, making sure I didn’t miss a “jk” squeezed in there somewhere. How did this happen? What’s a Neosho? Have I ever even been there? Did I commit a felony and not even realize it? What even constitutes a felony? Is there a warrant out for my arrest as I sit here contemplating all this? Could the police break into my apartment at any moment and take me away?
I Googled Neosho. It’s a small town that sits in the southwest corner of Missouri, just past Joplin but not quite Arkansas. I had never been to Joplin, let alone Neosho before. This information did nothing to help me.
I Googled the phone number for the Neosho police department. “I’ll just call the police and sort this all out,” I stupidly thought. “I’ll explain the situation and surely they’ll understand. They’ll lift the warrant for my arrest, remove the felony from my record, and apologize for the inconvenience.”
To my shock and disappointment, the police did not lift the warrant for my arrest, remove the felony from my record, and apologize for the inconvenience. I called the Neosho police department and after a few “uuuuuhhhh…please holds” was able to get in touch with a woman who had access to the police records for the area. She confirmed that I did indeed have a felony on my record and that there was indeed a warrant out for my arrest (neat!).
I tried to explain the situation to her: that I had just learned about all this, that I’ve lived in Kansas City the past four years, that I was in KC at the time of the crime, and that I’d never even been to Neosho before. Ultimately my desperate pleas proved futile and pathetic. She gave me the phone number of the prosecuting attorney for my case, wished me luck, and hung up.
“Alright, the police weren’t helpful, but surely the prosecuting attorney will understand the mix-up,” I, again, stupidly thought to myself. “I’ll explain what happened, convey that I’m a good person, and they’ll call the police to get this all sorted out.”
I called the phone number I was given by the police and explained the situation to the woman on the other end of the line. I was met by a pause and then “Wait…YOU’RE Brian Bockelman?” I confirmed. “Please hold.”
I was put through to another woman who I soon learned was the prosecuting attorney. The woman who had apparently been trying to hunt me down for a crime I didn’t commit for the past three years. Quite poorly, I might add. It’s not as if I’ve been using a fake name, living out of hotels, and grew a mustache. There are very public records with my name on them stating where I live and work. My personal website where I list my location as Kansas City is the fifth result that pops up when you Google my name, followed by my personal Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Scooby Doo could have found me.
I again explained the situation to the prosecutor: that I had just learned about this, I was in KC, I had always been in KC, I’ve never been to Neosho, etc. She wasn’t having any of it.
She explained that they’ve been looking for me, and that this isn’t going to go well if I don’t confess and turn myself in immediately.
It’s hard to convey her tone of voice over text, but the best I can do is to say it was “nasty.” Disdain was packaged within every word she said. And her tone, along with the overall situation, may or may not have led to me being mildly-to-moderately combative in my conversation with her.
“What is it you think I did, exactly?” I asked, doing my best to put verbal air quotes around the word “I.”
The prosecutor explained some of the details of the case. The story goes that I used to live in Neosho and that my name is actually Steven Hurley, but I prefer to go by *Brian Bockelman. In October of 2015 I forged a check linked to some woman’s bank account who identified the fishy activity and reported it. A court date was set for December 2015 and when I no-showed, the judge issued a warrant for my arrest. I was never seen or heard from again. Until now.
*If I ever met a person and they were like “Hello, my name is Joe Johnson, but call me Gus Timmerman” I would turn that person into the police immediately because there’s a 100% chance they’ve committed a crime of some sort.
“That wasn’t me,” I said curtly. “I’ve been in Kansas City the past four years. I’ve never even been to Neosho.”
“Well where are you now?”
I felt my IQ drop the second the words left my mouth. It was perhaps the dumbest thing I could have said. There was a warrant out for my arrest and I just told the woman trying to find me where I was.
“Well sir, we have a Neosho residence on file for you in 2015, and I spoke with you on the phone leading up to your court date. We even have footage of you cashing the check at the bank.”
“I understand, but that WASN’T ME. BRIAN BOCKELMAN. NOT ME.”
“With all do respect sir, if we believed every person who called here and said they didn’t commit the crime they’re being charged with then we wouldn’t have much of a business would we?”
I couldn’t even argue with that. Objectively speaking, it would be very dumb for me to call myself in if I had actually committed this crime. But common sense isn’t evidence of innocence.
She continued talking, but I don’t know what she said. I was trying to process what was happening. Somewhere in all of this I thought about the countless episodes of Law and Order I’ve seen where someone being charged with a crime spoke without a lawyer present, and how it worked out well for them approximately 0% of the time.
“I’m hanging up now.”
My thoughts following that phone call:
- I need a lawyer.
- I don’t know any lawyers.
- Lawyers are expensive.
- If they have an address on file, can’t they just track the previous tenants of that address and prove this wasn’t me?
- And if they spoke to “me” on the phone leading up to the trial then that means they have a phone number connected to the person who did this. Couldn’t they trace that?
- And if there’s footage of “me” cashing the check, can’t I just send them some photo ID to prove it isn’t me?
- There’s a warrant for my arrest out right now.
- I just told the prosecuting attorney where I am.
- Will they come arrest me now?
- I need a drink.
I went to drink all the beers in the world with a co-worker who thankfully knew a lawyer I could call for some free consultation. Her name was Molly and I gave her a call from the bar. Within seconds of talking to her I felt better. She had a confident crassness I could relate to, and she immediately confirmed for me that this whole thing was indeed total bullshit.
Molly looked up my case and got some more details, which would only end up making the whole thing more infuriating. The crime took place on October 15, 2015. The check that was forged was for $38 (!!??), and rather than showing photo identification to the bank teller, whoever forged the check simply wrote my driver’s license at the top of the check as proof of ID. A court date was scheduled for December 17, 2015 and a warrant for my arrest was issued the following day when I never showed up, with bail posted as $3500.
I asked what I should do. She said that first and foremost, I need to make sure I have the phone number memorized of someone who has access to $3500 in case I get pulled over and arrested before this gets sorted out. She said that if I were to get pulled over for any reason, even a broken tail light, the police would be forced to bring me in once they scan my license and see there’s a warrant out for my arrest. And not only would I be brought in, but I’d be shipped down to Neosho until someone came and posted bail.
As you can imagine, this became a cause of constant anxiety. Anytime I drove myself anywhere I was running the risk I would be taken into custody.
This would be stressful under normal circumstances, but it was amplified by the fact that I’m super color blind and can’t tell the difference between yellow and red stoplights half the time. Not only has my colorblindness robbed me the full vibrant beauty of the world around me for my entire life, but now it might get me arrested.
Molly also told me that I should begin collecting as much evidence as possible to prove my innocence, such as bank statements for 2015 showing I wasn’t in Neosho when the crime occurred, handwriting samples to compare to the signature on the check, a scanned copy of my driver’s license to prove I am who I say I am, W-2 forms to prove my employment in Kansas City at the time of the crime, etc.
She said she would text me her email address where I could send all the evidence once I collected it. In the meantime, she would reach out to the lovely prosecuting attorney and try to sweet talk her into dismissing the case for me. She warned me that the legal system tends to drag these things out, and my case would likely be no exception. We hung up and I felt relieved, or at least more than I did before talking with her. I had a lawyer, confirmation that this was insane, and an actionable task I could get to work on.
Within minutes Molly sent me her email address, along with a text that read “Email me and don’t panic! Fuck you Newton County!” I was in good hands.
In the following days I worked to get all my evidence together. I went to the bank to pull my bank statements from 2015 (which is a surprisingly difficult process) and found that I had a purchase at a restaurant in Kansas City the evening of the crime. This was good news, but the timing of the purchase made it to where I theoretically could have driven down to Neosho, cashed the check, and driven back in time for my 8 pm dinner at El Patron. A preposterous scenario in which I would spend more money in gas than the check I supposedly forged was worth, but still possible nonetheless.
I scanned the bank statements, as well as a dozen or so handwriting samples and a Facebook status that had me geotagged in Lee’s Summit the same day, and sent everything over to Molly. Then I waited.
I finally got a call back from Molly some time later (it was probably only a week but it felt like 8 years) and told me she had spoken with the prosecuting attorney. She validated my opinion of her (which is that she’s awful) and told me that the prosecutor wasn’t going to budge despite the evidence I had provided.
Molly told me she felt I had enough evidence to get the case dismissed, but that the prosecutor was going to push for a trial. Because of this, she recommended I find an attorney from Newton County who’s familiar with the prosecutor and judge who would be handling my case. She was willing to continue helping me, but warned that if it were to go to trial and travel were required, it would be a lot more expensive than if I had an attorney already down there who was familiar with the district.
She was nice enough to vet a new attorney for me and put us in touch. I asked her how I could pay her for all her help, and she said “I’ll waive any legal fees if you would send me a gift card to buy a pizza at Minsky’s. That’s really the only reason I am employed anyway, so that I can give my money directly to them and put pizza in my mouth.”
I was going to miss Molly. I sent her a gift card and emailed my new attorney, Scott. Days went by without receiving a response, and each day I became more and more concerned that Scott wasn’t a real person.
After about a week of silence I decided to call the firm Scott worked for. They confirmed for me that he was in fact a real person and more importantly, was in fact working on my case. But they required payment in order to move forward. Annoyed that I had wasted a week and that it took me calling them to learn this, I sent them the money they asked for to keep things moving.
Then another week of silence went by. Fed up, I sent Scott another email to see if any progress had been made. This time I was surprisingly met with an immediate response. It was an automated email informing me that Scott was no longer with the law firm. Kewl.
The email went on to say I could either choose to stay with Scott wherever he ended up or get assigned a new lawyer within the firm. So my options were to stick with a lawyer who I had spoken maybe 15 words with or stick with a law firm that didn’t reach out to tell me they needed payment to proceed and also didn’t reach out to tell me my attorney was leaving. Since I had paid the law firm and not Scott, I decided to stick with the firm and was assigned a new lawyer, Brendan.
I sent Brendan all my evidence via email and got him up to speed on what was happening. He said he would send all the evidence to the judge in an attempt to get the case dismissed, which would save me the trip to Neosho and a court appearance. Several days later though, Brendan got back to me saying the judge wasn’t willing to resolve my case electronically and that an in-person appearance was going to be required. We set a court date for September 19th and I mentally prepared to visit the town where this shitty chapter of my life started nearly three years ago.