Hard to believe it’s been a year since my friend Sam was released from prison to a halfway house to start his journey back to civilized society. If you remember (or if you don’t), Sam was sentenced to 18 months in a minimum-security prison for selling the kind of fireworks you need a license to sell. He did not possess that license. His company, Premium Fireworks, carried around 1500 items, and the laws were gray on many of those products. Sam accepted a plea deal and was convicted of a felony, but only because the government threatened to put him in prison for 10 years if he lost at trial. Everyone who knows Sam and the case knows he at most deserved a fine, and should not have been convicted at all. What on earth was to be gained by putting him in prison? The case had it all; lying prosecutors, angry and incompetent ATF agents and a vengeful government with unlimited resources. Resources they were more than happy to turn on a successful businessman who was providing a fun product people loved. Sam served 13 months of his sentence in a Kentucky prison before being released to a Cincinnati halfway house for the remaining two months. I wrote about visiting him in prison during that time in a series of posts. If you want to follow the story from the beginning, here are the links:
Folks familiar with Sam and the case have repeatedly asked where he is now and what his plans are for the future. I spoke with him recently about those topics and wanted to share the answers with anyone who is interested in or has followed the case.
Jerry Smith: Can you sum up your prison experience and what you learned from it?
Sam Droganes: I learned a lot from the prison experience, actually. Most of what I learned was how wasteful our government is. For some inane reason they would routinely throw away a massive amount of food rather than offer the inmates a second portion. I learned the upper echelon of the administrative staff there seem to have multifarious ways of lining their pockets, through shammed up training that is supposedly offered to the inmates, to insanely created incentive programs that probably sound good to some liberal bent on attempting to reform supposed criminals, but in practice are so abused that they are little more than a dog and pony show for the powers that be. On a personal note, I learned a big dose of how to do without a lot of the basics and comforts of life. For example, a little thing like cinnamon was virtually priceless inside the fence, when one could even secure some. Doing without bacon was also something I learned, but I am glad I do not have to do that anymore!
Jerry: No bacon! That should qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. If you would, describe your halfway house experience before you came home. How long were you there?
|Li Tien, Sam and Sam Sr.|
Sam: I was at the hellhole of a halfway house, The Talbert House, from June 10 to August 10, 2015. If I would have had any idea how bad it was I would have stayed at The Manchester Federal “Correctional” Facility. The most miserable experience of my life to say the least. Despite the fact that I never used a drug in my life nor smoked anything, I was routinely (as in weekly) subjected to an early morning urinalysis. I am not sure if it is because of its urban location or the personnel, but the staff, with a few pronounced exceptions, was racist towards those of a lighter shade. The food there was slightly better and of a greater portion than at Manchester, which was probably the only thing that was superior. The communication there, as to anything relative to the facility, was so contorted, convoluted, and connived that it often rendered me contumacious [Note: Yeah, I had to look it up. “Contumacious” means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority. If you know him, very appropriate for Sam]. While the atmosphere at the halfway house was more laid back than in prison, the staff was actually more harassing and much less helpful.
Jerry: What is the first thing you did when you were released from the halfway house? What was your first meal?
Sam: The first thing I did when I was released was to open my years’ worth of mail. Although some of the mail had been sent to me or brought to me at the halfway house, there was still a lot more to go through. Fourteen months allowed a plethora of mail to accumulate. Other than that I thanked God the craziness was over and that I could return to good food. To that end, my first meal was a home cooked meal of steak and potatoes that my mother served with distinction and décor to welcome me back. Although steak is my favorite meal, the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] was sans any form of this, so it was great to get it immediately upon my return. And of course ice cream was also part of my cause for celebration and I indulged in quite a bit of it, as often as I wanted!
Jerry: Why do you think the government acted unethically to put you away? Was it you personally or the fireworks industry?
Sam: To postulate on the government’s motivation for anything they did in my case is speculative, but as my lawyers believed, the moronic lead agent, or “special agent’ as he corrected me, furtively, if not factually, wanted my vast and quite valuable firearms collection. Although I have no knowledge of other’s collections of firearms, I was told by several arms dealers and numerous attorneys that it was probably one of the largest in Northern Kentucky. All I know is that I had more than 350 guns, almost all of which were new and in the box. Looking like a kid on Christmas morning, the agent, uh, that is, “special” agent, and he was “special” all right, went through every one of them that fateful July 2, 2007 [When Premium Fireworks was first raided by the ATF]. I noticed this as he foraged through the hundreds of them and then left them in a pile at the two locations where they were, looking like a cyclone had just hit.
Despite my firsthand observation of the absolute exuberance he displayed as he pawed his slimy fingers through each and every one, beginning with my then concealed carry Colt .380, I was not the one to reach that conclusion. Ultimately seizing and confiscating only one rifle, the agent alleged it might have been capable of automatic fire. I might be capable of becoming a woman too, but neither his assertion nor my capability was the case. Despite this they retained the rifle for more than 18 months. Finally we filed a motion to compel its return, which is one of the few motions the court granted unfettered in the entire charade, otherwise known as a legal case. My attorney called me the day the return order came in and asked me if I wanted to pick it up. I assured him I did not have a target on my back such that I would walk through the federal building with a rifle in my hands! So he picked it up and called me as soon as he exited the location there, asking me about the rifle, which was one of a few munitions that I had bought used, not new. It was at that moment, after he had seen the rubbish that passed for guns in the ATFE evidence room that my advocate put forth the theory that the agent wanted my gun collection. My ugly Portuguese-made rifle, according to my attorney, was the standout in the crowd. It was far superior in quality and condition than any other weapon they had there at the time. My attorney told me then that he was starting to realize what this case was about, the agent wants my guns. I practically scoffed unbelievingly, as at that time I still thought the government and its agents would act above board. I assured him that this could not be the case.
As the case wound its way through the Kangaroo courts, at least four times the same agent mentioned to one or both of my attorneys that if the case goes down like he thinks it will and the feds get the felony on their client, he will have to come and get my guns. Now given the fact that they spent somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $25 million in my case to make me a felon, but fined me not a penny, the only explanation that makes sense is that proffered by my lawyer. They lied and cheated and stole everything else they could, using the broad search warrant powers they were permitted.
Jerry: How much longer are you on parole?
Sam: Officially another two years of their crazy Supervised Release is what I am due, given the sentence was three years of it. But I talked with the probation lady (who is actually reasonable) and we both agreed that, since fireworks was the only trouble I had been in in my life, and because I will soon be out of the fireworks business, three years was excessive and unwarranted. She said if I can show her that I have divested myself of the domestic fireworks business and that I have also sold my factory in China, she would work with me to lessen the time. She further explained that it is the local office’s policy that those on probation serve at least half their sentence, but that I might even be the exception to that, if I can show divestiture and permanent absence from the pyrotechnics trade.
Jerry: Tell me about the year you have been out. What have you done with yourself?
Sam: I have been busier than when I was otherwise running a business, or when I was teaching college courses and running a business. It is hard to believe that in a month and a week it will have been a year since I was released from the inane hellhole known as the Talbert House. I have been doing some projects that I never could get to while operating a business, like trying to fix up my former fireworks location in Covington. A lot of things had been ignored there and the building is 98 years old, so I thought it time to address some things like weather stripping, window work, paint and plaster work that otherwise had been delayed or deferred. I also moved a lot of things around, now that the fireworks are out. I’ve tried my best to travel as often as possible, which I love to do as well. My pent up longing for road trips never got satiated when I was working and fourteen months as a guest of the government’s crossbar hotel did not exactly assuage my aspirations in that department. And currently I am in the process of assisting my sister to divest of the last of the remaining inventory as well as in the process of trying to sell my factory in China.
But other than those things I have been trying to get life back to some semblance of normal. Getting the various forms of insurance back; Obamacare and such have consumed a lot of time. Trying to renew various things that had lapsed, meeting with professionals in various capacities and the like have also kept me busy. Returning a lot of phone calls and other forms of communication have likewise resulted in little time to do many other things that I want still to do. Unfortunately there remain folks, even after nearly a year, I am yet to contact, but want to and will soon, I hope.
Jerry: What remaining things do you have to do to divest yourself of the fireworks industry?
Sam: I have to get through the current selling season, which is imminent, first. [Note: This interview was conducted shortly before this year’s fireworks season] Then as soon as possible I need to get an accurate inventory of the remaining product. Then there are a number of vendors to call who earlier expressed interest in purchasing the inventory, post-season, when their coffers should be emptied by the season. One of my customers in Pennsylvania, who ironically has an ice cream shop next to his fireworks store there, has also expressed interest, as has a party or two in China, in buying my factory in Liuyang, China. I need to sell that as well. The only thing hanging in the balance beyond these two requirements is the three containers of merchandise that US Customs has been holding for nearly seven years. Those containers combined are worth about $135,000. I have fought the government since they initially took them, but they continue to hold the containers costing the taxpayers millions in storage fees, all for nothing, much as their governmental brethren the ATFE did.
Jerry: What do you plan for the future?
Sam: As my good friend Jerry has made me realize, I am a lucky man in that I have had the extreme fortune to make a living, and some years honestly a good living, doing what I love, which is something a lot of humans cannot claim. Another thing I did not realize until afterwards was that despite my longings for one huge building, ultimately the State Fire Marshal’s demand to segregate my 45,000 square foot warehouse into three units has worked out more advantageously. [Note: Sam’s fireworks warehouse is divided up into three separate sections] Two of the units are currently leased, one, ironically to another pyrotechnic enterprise from Georgia, and the other to a local furniture company. When we finally vacate our third of the building, two parties are waiting to lease that portion. With the warehouse fully leased, if I can sell my factory in China for what it is really worth, and sell the remaining inventory here for its true value, I hope I can pay off the huge amount that I still owe on the building. When that happens the revenue the building generates should afford me a greater living than a normal year in the fireworks business, all for essentially doing nothing, which I am quite good at. Now I am a ways away from that, but it is the theory under which I am currently operating. Other than that I want to finish the book about the whole perverted, judicatory juggernaut, my experience growing up in the pyro business, and my most esteemed father. My sister is already champing at the bit for a book signing, even though the book is not quite finished and I have not yet sought out a publisher.
Jerry: What is your biggest takeaway, good or bad, from this entire experience?
Sam: Among other things, it has vivified me in that I know now there are other things in life besides fireworks. That may be an overstatement perhaps, but I was more married to my business than any other entrepreneur could be. Delayed gratification was my perpetual method of operation. I delayed building a house, put off looking for a significant other, was miserly in using the profits for more pleasure and in short delayed many other personal things or pleasures, in deference to the business. I always plunked more into inventory while my own remuneration or satisfaction was less monetary and more in merchandise. Having such a vast and multifarious inventory was my source of pride and I thought a prudent investment. Always costs for merchandise, shipping and associated costs were rising, so since I had the new big fat warehouse, it only made sense to me to order up and try to get it to capacity. Having no debts then besides the huge warehouse mortgage, and having access to vast lines of credit made this goal all the more attainable and desirable. But much like the structure in the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai, I built it all up, carrying more than 1500 items, which is probably three to five times more than most any other fireworks retailer, wholesaler or importer. I had a couple of years of operating in this manner then watched a moronic, rogue government agent steal it and get supported by a clumsy court that wanted anything but true justice done.
Jerry: If the authorities cleared you to get back into the fireworks industry, would you do it?
Sam: I will miss it for sure, because it was not just part of my life, it was my life. Again, I delayed finding a significant other because of the business. I delayed putting up my own house because of the business. I delayed taking a lot of money in any given year because of the business. Always I wanted to pour more of the income from the business into an ever-increasing inventory. I did this all to watch them take away the $2.5 million in goods that I had amassed, all for nothing. That experience has jaded me to never again try to grow a business, just to see it fritter away because of a rogue government agent. So to answer the question succinctly, no, I would not return. This discounts too the ever increasing regulations that are foisted upon the fireworks business by all the various government agencies. I want no part of all that nonsense.
Jerry: Sam, thanks for your time and those brutally honest answers. We all wish you good luck in your future endeavors. And in getting your voting and firearm rights returned.