"Look what that nigga sent me, man," Marcus Toney said, pointing to the Sony VCR box shorn of its Marshall Field's gift wrapping.
Since arriving on his doorstep a week earlier, the box had been a taunting reminder of the chaos that had consumed his recent past. Separated from his wife Lisa, he believed she had been cheating on him, though he had no names. What he did know was that a man had stolen his identity and had run up over $200,000 in fraudulent credit card charges; had obtained leases for a Lexus, a Mercedes-Benz, and a Corvette in his name; and had now seemingly sent Toney this VCR as a brazen stunt. Toney told family and friends he feared it contained a pornographic tape of his estranged wife with a new lover. Probably the guy who was leaving mocking messages on his voice mail: "Why don't you open your little gift?"
But Toney hadn't opened it. He took the box to a south-side police station, proclaiming it evidence in the continuing theft of his hard-earned credit. An officer made a report but didn't keep the box, suggesting Toney take up the issue with the credit bureau--something he had already been trying to do with the help of his attorney.
And now, the evening after Valentine's Day 2000, Toney sat in his living room with best buddy Alphonso Butler, sipping beer and fretting about his imminent divorce, his feelings of being stalked, and that box sitting on the coffee table.
"Come on, man," said Butler. "Just open it. I'm here for you. Just get it over with already."
The two men began ripping away the cardboard, seeing plywood where the VCR should have been.
"What the hell?"
And then one of two pipe bombs exploded, propelling Butler out the door, down the steps, and onto the Muskegon Avenue sidewalk, but still breathing.
Not so Toney. His body slammed into the wall, his feet and left arm blown off, his heart pierced by shrapnel. His living nightmare had come to a deadly end.
While reading the Tribune Metro section the following September, I saw a tiny item about this murder case. Its brevity was noteworthy because it breezed through bizarre details involving a female impersonator, an explosives-savvy Eminem-wannabe counterfeiter, a high-level Ameritech manager, a hanger-on named Jessie Jackson, an accountant with the TV show COPS, and a mastermind with a criminal past steeped in sexual cunning.
How did Marcus Toney, an average Chicago guy, a custodian at City Colleges and rehabber of rental properties, a man with no criminal history and with deep connections to family and community, end up dead?
Well, it's complicated. And so absurdly not. It's all about the great homicidal triptych--sex, money, power--and has more than a little to do with that great American obsession: self-invention.
"I am an Artist," wrote Sienky Lallemand, 31, from his solitary confinement cell in the Loop's Metropolitan Correctional Center. "Like a painter with a blank canvas I sit back and wait for my inspiration."
On March 12 Sienky pleaded guilty to defrauding and killing Marcus Toney. Such was the result of Sienky following his muse for over a decade in service of what he called "the Game": the poetry of creating new identities, the thrill of getting over, the gratification of defeating lesser intellects, and the rush of easy money well spent.
Two Decembers ago he and I began a correspondence. In a series of startlingly eloquent letters that filled 50 pages with personal philosophy supported by quotes from Wilde, Keats, Rimbaud, Eliot, and Whitman, Sienky attempted to explain himself without broaching his case. During one florid burst, he laid bare his modus operandi: "I simply tap into the emotions of an individual...and seize control."
He tried to play me, too.
My initial note was a Christmas card seeking the story behind the headlines. "There is no story," he wrote back. "The Artful picture will come in time. Quite naturally, before I even attempt to entertain such an idea I will need to know more about you."
I wrote detailing my difficulties in obtaining access to him in jail. He commiserated, and encouraged my efforts. "I have a very good vibe about you...consider yourself privileged." He closed the letter with Whitman's poem "Tests."
Ah, so I was being challenged.
I responded with a request for basic information. What makes Sienky tick? What experiences have been pivotal in his life? He chastised me like a disappointed but loving father. "You asked some of the most boring questions possible. This one expected so much more of you, 'Clarice.'" (Smiley face drawn here.)
And so, desperate not to seem too earnest, I sent a postcard of Dorothy's ruby slippers to indicate my continued desire for an interview.
He was amused. Sent back a Rimbaud poem in French, a language I didn't know. A German phrase was scrawled on the outside of the envelope in his elaborate, perfect script. It translates to, "A man with all his contradictions."
The note inside was sympathetic. "Maybe this is one of those things, as they say, that isn't meant to happen."
Three days later a go-away, come-here eight-pager arrived. First a quote from Wilde: "There is no reason why a man should show his life to the world. The world does not understand things." Then a challenge: "I am interested in seeing your capabilities as a reporter and as a person of influence....If you prove yourself worthy I might actually hire you when I leave this den of iniquity."
And he closed with a chunk of "The Hollow Men" by Eliot and then more Wilde: "Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer."
In the fall of 1991 Sienky Lallemand was married, unemployed, and living in a Calumet City apartment near a forest preserve frequented by men cruising for gay sex. After sending his pregnant wife off to work one October morning, Sienky decided to take a jog through the woods. He knew from past runs that his 21-year-old physique would elicit attention. But this time, he was going to get paid for it.
A video camera had already been secreted near his living room mattress. All he needed was an upscale, nervy, but nervous married man. It didn't take long.
Soon a man from Gary, named only "DT" in court documents, approached and invitations were made. Nearing the apartment complex, Sienky had DT wait outside so that he could "make sure my wife isn't there." He hustled inside, turning on the tape recorder and gluing a 12 over the 9 on his apartment door.
Then the two men engaged in sex and the blackmail machine kicked in.
Although Sienky didn't have DT's name, he did have his license plate number. Sienky gave the information to his unsuspecting wife and she came up with the vehicle registration from Indiana's department of motor vehicles. Armed with DT's name and address, Sienky began to stalk him and his family. Helped, he later said, by childhood chum Jessie Jackson, he went through DT's trash, followed him to his office, and learned the school his wife worked at and their church affiliation. All of which went into the letter Sienky sent to DT at work demanding $16,000 for the master of the enclosed sex tape.
The letter, typed on the transparently fake stationery of an "Evire" corporation, told DT to drop the money in a locker at Merrillville's Southlake Mall on November 31, 1991. No cops, no problems. Sienky left messages for DT reminding him of his appointment with Evire. And, ever the perfectionist, he called DT posing as a police officer investigating an extortion scheme, asking him if he had any information about such matters. DT said no.
But when November 31--or at least the day after November 30--rolled around, DT didn't show up with the money. Sienky surmised that DT must have been confused by the nonexistent date. Undaunted, he prepared another demand letter and tape, setting a new deadline of December 4, leaving the package on DT's doorstep. DT's wife opened it. DT called the FBI. The wife sued for divorce. DT attempted suicide. And agents were waiting for Sienky at the mall.
On May 1, 1992, Sienky pleaded guilty to the felony charge of interstate transmission of extortionate communication. He made his apologies to the judge with a hint of self-pity and portent. "I can understand [DT's] plight because, I'm definitely sorry for that, because when he was exposed and went through that, I was in a way exposed also to my wife. And in the beginning, I could honestly say when I went about it, I didn't care....I was reaching for something, greed."
He spent 18 months in federal detention. Time and opportunity for Sienky Lallemand to learn how to sharpen his game.
"Anthony T. Gomillion gave birth to me," Sienky would write to me. Describing his fellow Terre Haute prison camp inmate as a "father, mother, sister, brother," Sienky explained that Gomillion was "the first one who really introduced me to fraud, bank fraud, and that kind of thing. Different identities. Everything under the sun. Financial institutions, identity fraud, wire transfers, international banks. He didn't make it sound easy per se, but he made it sound interesting and something I was always into--different identities. I'm a James Bond fanatic. It really intrigues me."
Soon after he was released in 1994, Sienky discovered another source of intrigue. It came packaged in the curvaceous form of Joseph Frances Burkhart, aka Sherri Payne, a longtime female impersonator at the Baton Show Lounge. What he'd call his best and longest relationship began with a flirtation in a lesbian nightclub. "I thought Sherri was a woman. She was beautiful. I came to find out that she was a man," he said. "We just hit it off." In addition to romance, he found an ally who would eventually get caught in his criminal undertow. (Sherri Payne declined several interview requests. I did, however, see her at work. She's a stunner both in and out of makeup, and it's easy to understand why almost all court records that refer to her use feminine pronouns.)
In 1995, bored, broke, but inspired, Sienky skipped out on his court-ordered supervision and headed to Indianapolis, where he started up a dummy corporation, Leopold Financial. It would be a place where his fraudulent identities could all work and have their fake salaries verified for credit purposes. Sienky arrived with raw material in hand: social security numbers provided by "girls I knew." According to police reports, Sherri was around as well.
Sienky knew a lot of girls. He gave them what they wanted--woo--and they gave him hard data. Finding prime prey was easy, he tells me. "All the information I get from people, women I had relationships with or whatever. I'd always keep my options open. If I see someone that I know likes me when I walk into a situation...I'd keep it in the back of my mind that, yeah, I could probably use this eventually."
He said he'd recruit girlfriends from places that could be helpful to him: large banks, license bureaus, social security offices. "I'd go in, run my soc, the one I'm using at the time, and see what's happening and get a vibe for whoever might go. I noticed that a lot of women initially may not have wanted to, but it's like, when they get into a relationship with me, you know, women are different than men when it comes to sex. For guys, it's just sex. For women they take it more to an emotional level. When you get into a relationship with somebody, you will literally do anything to be with them, to a certain extent. So, sometimes you use that skill."
According to police documents, he and Sherri set up shop in an Indy apartment she rented under the name Frances J. Burkhart. Sienky chose to go shopping with the stolen identity of Chicagoan Wendell Shumate. A new Jeep Cherokee lease later, plus enough charges to spur the real Shumate to put a fraud alert on his credit bureau file, Sienky found himself arrested at a bank as he was asking why a cash-advance cashier's check had received a stop payment. Watchful bank employees had uncovered the scam.
Police reported that when they checked out the apartment they found Sherri packing the Jeep with two fake driver's licenses on her, a stack of credit card applications sitting in the truck, and dozens of dubious documents scattered about the living room. (But no charges were filed against Sherri.)
Sienky wrote one of his judges an impassioned letter seeking leniency. It was brimming with his usual qualified contrition:
"Of course in retrospect it wasn't a very intelligent thing to do--but, if it was a question of intellect I would not have been able to erect the corporation and receive the funding for it. It is a question of judgment. Judgment that not only has been clouded due to a lack of discipline, and as some would say, total disregard for authority....I believe that God does not create junk and that I am a beautiful child of God and man. In this situation I have found the seed of a great benefit...but ultimately it is your assistance that will prove most helpful."
What proved most helpful was a loophole. "I was paying those bills, though I wasn't paying my own bills," recalled Sienky. So the charges were reduced from fraud to forgery. He sat a few months in a county jail and a few months more in the maximum security prison in Westville, Indiana, picked up another few months in the MCC for violating parole, and by late 1996 was free to return to the game.
"I saw her when I was out with my niece riding the tricycle," said Sienky. He was remembering his first encounter with Lisa Toney, in 1998. "She was flirting with the eyes."
He'd been staying at his parents' house in Dolton, across the street from Marcus and Lisa Toney. "She wasn't my type at all. She was just ordinary," he said, explaining that Lisa was in her early 40s at the time, though she looked much younger. She may not have lit his fire, he said, but she sent simmering signals. "She'd see me there--I was in the basement--she'd flick her lights on, that whole thing."
Lisa Toney, currently under an indictment that accuses her of conspiracy to steal the identity of and murder her former husband, did not respond to an interview request. Her late husband's family describes the Lisa they thought they knew as a first-class professional woman and a devoted wife.
For over 20 years she'd climbed the ranks at Ameritech to a management position in human resources, all the while doting on her man. "She did his laundry, she laid his clothes out, she did everything," says Rita Toney, Marcus's younger sister. "I don't know when she stopped loving him."
The marriage was tumultuous but seemed strong. "They'd fight and make up all the time," says Rita, who thought of Lisa more as an intimate friend than a sister-in-law. Lisa, someone she chatted on the phone with every morning, never breathed a word about temptation, never mentioned Sienky Lallemand. But in retrospect, Rita has her theories:
"I think Lisa--she was overweight, she was older [by seven years]. Marc and them are younger, still wanna listen to rap music, still wanna hang out. But she, on the other hand, she liked a comment to her--'Oh, you don't look fortysomething.' So I think, here comes Sienky Lallemand, fly guy with the smooth talking doing little flirtations with her--she fell right into his trap."
What's doubly painful to Rita is that she believes she unwittingly helped Lisa get around her husband. "She used me to keep every step with Marc. What'cha'll doing today? Ah, we're just gonna hang out, run over here, run over there. What time ya'll coming back? And me not knowing she's sitting there with Sienky, tracking every move Marc made--through me."
That guile is what attracted Sienky. "It was more about attitude. She's got balls," he said. "I didn't care about her. I couldn't say I was in love with Lisa."
But he's sure she fell for him. Lisa didn't talk to him about problems in her marriage. "It wasn't anything that needed to be said, obviously," he said.
Despite being a high school dropout with only four months of legit employment in his life, Sienky knew how to get money flowing in the most prosaic way: networking.
For his day-to-day needs, there were always women. He'd meet them on the street, at parties, at the Wild Hare. But he preferred hunting the lonely-hearts grounds of telephone chat lines and Internet personal ads, where he was Eric or Steven or Jeffrey or Sienky. By 1999, he said, "I had a laptop with me wherever I went."
Besides Lisa, he had ongoing relationships with several women in Chicago and Detroit. His secret? Choosing intelligent women who'd put "barriers" around their hearts, then "stripping" those walls away by becoming whatever kind of man they needed at the moment. "I wouldn't say I have it down to a science for mostly it comes to me naturally," he would write me. "In order for me to break down the barriers in which a woman has surrounded herself, I must mold myself into what I believe she will be attracted to. Sort of like molding a lump of clay. I am definitely the chameleon. That is the essence of my Art."
(He'd provide me with a short list of names and addresses. But none of his lady friends responded to interview requests, though dozens talked with law enforcement.)
For intellectual and business stimulation, however, Sienky needed his fellas.
"When I was in Detroit I was on what we call 'chill status,' just relaxing, basically," he said. "I called Anthony [Gomillion] one day to see how he was doing, hadn't seen him in years. And we started discussing business and he put some things together."
One of those things was an introduction between Sienky and Jason Bucher, then 20, whom Anthony had met in a federal half-way house in Michigan. White, slight, with a choirboy's sweetness, Jason's persona and background belied his criminal record.
According to prosecutors, investigators, and letters to me from Jason, he was raised in a God-fearing family in the tranquil village of Dexter, near Ann Arbor, but as a 14-year-old was arrested and accused of building pipe bombs and hiding them in his bedroom. Records of that case are sealed because he was a juvenile.
His senior year in high school he recruited a couple of friends to help him with a new project. The crew rented a motel room and a color copier and went to work counterfeiting 20s--good ones. When a housekeeper found trash bags full of shredded rejects the Secret Service was called in and the jig was up. Jason pleaded guilty, and having turned 18 had to do some federal time--with Anthony Gomillion.
Now released, technically adept, and yearning to be down, Jason was eager to show off his skills at "paperwork," as Sienky called it. "I wanted him to just alter his game a little bit to see what he could do, 'cause if you can print money you can print anything," said Sienky. "He knew about technology, but he didn't have the creativity or imagination I had....So we clicked and started working on some things together. We became close that way."
In the fall of 1999, Marcus Toney knew he had problems. His six-year-old marriage had reached an impasse. Allegations of infidelity flew. Late one night Lisa's car was vandalized. According to law enforcement sources, "Lisa put a case on Marcus"; she asked for an order of protection against him--a step that facilitates a spouse's removal from the home.
Family members say that when Lisa asked Marcus to leave their Dolton condo, she appeared to be seeking a time-out, not a breakup. Marcus agreed to leave. He moved into one of the rental properties he'd purchased on South Muskegon. When he attempted to establish phone service there, despite his years of pristine credit history his application was denied. Past-due accounts from the Detroit area were cited.
Marcus insisted the bills weren't his, to no avail. He eventually asked Lisa to use her pull at Ameritech to OK his application. She did.
Rita Toney says Marcus began seeing his wife again, and Lisa made conciliatory gestures. "She'd come by the house, pick up his laundry, do his uniform. Spend a night every now and then. And he'd be so happy," she recalls. "She gets over there, manipulates him, gives him a little sex, gets him some trinkets, some cash, whatever. And then she'd disappear for a few days."
Around Thanksgiving 1999, more alarm bells rang. A collection agency called Marcus at work asking why he was two months late making his first payment on his newly leased Lexus SUV. He drove a Toyota 4Runner. He professed no knowledge of the Lexus.
More outrageous bills appeared. The dunning calls kept coming.
By the end of 1999 Marcus had asked an attorney how to go about reclaiming the good name that had been taken from him. Taken, he was beginning to suspect, by an unseen, unknown man somehow connected to his wife, who was now driving a new Mercedes-Benz.
The following account of the days leading up to and following the murder of Marcus Toney is based on court documents and interviews with law enforcement and family members. Jason Bucher, Jessie Jackson, Joseph Burkhart (Sherri Payne), Sandra Lavel, and Sienky Lallemand have all pleaded guilty to the actions described and most have yet to be sentenced. Lisa Toney awaits trial.
Sherri Payne had steered pretty clear of the law since her brush with the Indianapolis police. There were a few arrests for minor offenses like shoplifting and disturbing the peace, but no convictions. She kept working her flawless Whitney Houston impersonation at the Baton. Though their romance had ended years earlier, she still kept the door open for Sienky Lallemand.
So when he called the afternoon of January 13, 2000, and asked if she wanted to make a little money, she accompanied him to the Harris Bank on Monroe. According to court testimony, Sienky now had his hands on a fraudulent credit card. The account was in the name of Marcus Toney, but the name on the card--the "authorized user"--was that of a former girlfriend of his. A Chicago police officer.
Sherri presented a fake ID bearing the name of the ex-girlfriend and obtained a $4,000 cash advance. Two hours later Sienky entered the same bank, went to the same teller, received a $2,500 advance on another credit card for which Marcus Toney was liable, and was recorded on the same surveillance tape. The following night Sienky checked into the Fairmont Hotel, charging the $1,400 suite to one of Marcus's cards.
Such indulgences were adding up. Opening at least eight new accounts since August, Sienky had blown through over $200,000 on Marcus's plastic. But Marcus was getting wise. According to Rita Toney, he threatened to report Lisa to her employer. He couldn't prove she was responsible, but he was trying.
Averting exposure would take planning. Just as he had in 1991, Jessie Jackson offered Sienky his assistance. Using Jessie's photo, Sienky obtained a fake ID bearing Jessie's face and Marcus Toney's address. Jessie-as-Marcus then opened a box at Mail Boxes Etc. in Hyde Park. He filed a change-of-address form so all of Marcus's mail--bills included--would be diverted.
But Marcus had already put a private investigator on the trail of his missing identity. The players decided to up the ante.
On January 31, 2000, Jason Bucher went shopping in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Using his own credit card, he dropped by Rider's Hobby Shop for a package of Lazerfire igniters. A few days later, he ran a few more errands: to Meijer's department store in Ann Arbor for a couple of cans of Hodgdon Pyrodex black powder, to the Ace Hardware for a galvanized pipe nipple, to Home Depot for a few galvanized pipe end caps.
On February 5 Sienky joined him on the final trip to Ace for a couple of nine-volt batteries and four pull-chain switches, like the ones used on ceiling fans.
Total tab: about a hundred bucks.
A tutorial in bomb assembly followed back at Jason's apartment. The diagrammed instructions were simple: Pack two pipes (seems Jason had some on hand) with Pyrodex gunpowder and secure them to a plywood platform suitable for placing inside a cardboard box. Attach the chain switches to the batteries and igniters and to the top flaps of the box. Opening the box will pull the chains, completing the power circuit and lighting the gunpowder. Boom.
Anyone with a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook can do this. But Sienky always preferred to learn his lessons hands-on. He assembled the bombs on the kitchen floor of Lisa's condo in Dolton, placing them in the Sony VCR box. Then he went to the Calumet City Marshall Field's to have the package gift wrapped, and he delivered it to Marcus's front porch.
An enticing box wrapped so nicely--how could Marcus Toney resist it? But Marcus did.
Messages being left on his voice mail only added to his trepidation: February 8, 2000, a male voice:
I know you like I know the palm of my hand....I've been in control of this situation for quite some time. Yeah, your wife let me in the house. And all your shit, you're not just dealing with the petty shit here; and you're not dealing with the conventional. So yeah. Fuck Lisa. Fuck you. Like I said, I could do you a big-ass favor....[unintelligible, some laughter] You wanna make a deal or what have you?
February 11, 2000, the same male voice:
I gave you an opportunity to fucking talk to me. Now you bow down and let your voice mail pick up? You just lost your last...[unintelligible]
February 15, 2000, the same male voice:
Why don't you just open up your little gift, and uh, you know, take a look at what I've sent you...
That night Marcus Toney did.
By 3 AM law enforcement had notified Lisa Toney of her husband's death.
Connie Toney, Marcus's other sister, learned of her brother's demise at 6 AM, alerted by a friend to a story being broadcast on CLTV. She turned on her television and saw a body bag coming out of Marcus's building. She immediately called Rita, then dialed Lisa's cell phone. "Who is your friend in Michigan?" she wanted to know. "Marc thinks it was a friend of yours who was harassing him." Connie says Lisa wouldn't give up a name, instead responding calmly, "Well, he wouldn't do that."
Connie found her affect damning. "The reaction was really funny. She didn't act surprised, like she didn't know what was going on," she says. "Your husband has just been killed, and you won't give up that name? You don't do that--you give up everyone's name."
That's what Chicago police detective Neil Maas wanted from Lisa, during three days of interrogation reinforced by federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Detective Maas wouldn't comment on what was revealed, saying only that she volunteered to come in for questioning and that he found her "very neat, very professional looking, and calm." Calm, that is, until he showed Lisa crime scene photos of her husband's dismembered body. Maas says she vomited, but kept repeating, "I don't know what his name is. I met him in Michigan."
Investigators began working with Lisa's phone and computer records. They canvassed the Chicago and Detroit areas, tracing back calls and E-mails. The trail led to an informant in Michigan who coughed up the names Jason Bucher and Sienky Lallemand, plus information about the bombing plot. He agreed to wear a wire in Jason's apartment.
Once Jason uttered the words, "I knew the guy was history," agents had what they needed for a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. They put Jason under total surveillance--telephonic, cyber, and home--hoping he'd answer the biggest question on the table.
Where was Sienky?
Now on the ATF's Ten Most Wanted list.
"Come to Jamaica."
One simple come hither should do the trick, thought Sienky, as he typed his E-mail invitation to Sandra Lavel. She was an older, attractive professional black woman, and he calculated that she'd appreciate the direct approach. He sent along his photograph and phone number.
Sitting pretty in a Montego Bay resort condominium days after Marcus Toney was blown up, he'd had plenty of time to scan www.myoneandonly.com. On Marcus Toney's dime, using various aliases, he was looking for a new lover.
Lavel's response came quickly.
It was that easy to get Sandra from her desk in Los Angeles to a plane bound for the Caribbean. After ten years with Langley Productions, the makers of COPS, she had plenty of vacation time, plenty of money, and plenty of desire to be desired.
Sandra was about to get her groove back. And a whole lot more.
According to Sienky, the two enjoyed a sunny four-day frolic. When she had to return she wanted him to come with. "I can't," he said. And he told her why.
Sienky said Sandra was unfazed. She promised to send for him and help him. Back in her COPS office, she pulled up a Tribune story about the bombing. Yes, Sienky had told her the truth, and she intended to stand by her new man. A ticket from the island to California arrived in Jamaica on March 22.
To avert detection, Sienky needed a newer fake ID. He walked into the U.S. consulate's office in Montego Bay and said he'd lost his wallet but happened to have a copy of his birth certificate. It was Jessie Jackson's. The consulate prepared a photo affidavit for him to travel as Jessie.
Soon Sienky was making himself at home in LA. He was walking Sandra's dog, using her AOL account, keeping appointments with her plastic surgeon. All the while he was chatting with his peeps on a digital cell phone and keeping up through E-mail.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents Mitch Wido and Jeanne Sobol had been pumping known Sienky associates for weeks. Sherri Payne said she hadn't seen him for months, denied any knowledge of a murder plot, and told agents that if Sienky was anywhere, he was probably in Jamaica. In general she was telling the truth, but the bank surveillance tape of her cash-advance adventure put her in custody for fraud.
Wido remembers interviewing dozens of women who came out of the woodwork with Sienky stories of their own. They were responding to the $10,000 reward offered for his arrest. Salacious details were plentiful; useful information wasn't.
What Wido did know was that Jason Bucher went on-line daily under the screen name "Marshall Mathers," the birth name of white rapper Eminem. And Jason was E-mailing Sienky. ATF computer experts subpoenaed AOL for transmission records, but the process was slow and time is a fugitive's best friend.
Agents decided to arrest Jason; risking the communications trail he'd been unwittingly blazing, they bet he'd cooperate. On May 16, Wido made the collar. The bet paid off. With Wido at the keyboard, Jason dictated a few more E-mails to Sienky.
Meanwhile, U.S. marshal John O'Malley and his crew were working their mobile phone expertise. Finding a user had become more difficult since the advent of digital cells. With analogs, officers could use Triggerfish technology to pinpoint the phone's location. With digital, one could only know the location of the cell tower from which signals were bouncing. And Sienky's was pinging in the heart of LA. Try checking that perimeter.
AOL finally came through with server records. With ATF cybersleuths culling the data, Wido returned to Chicago for more brainstorming with O'Malley and assistant U.S. attorney Lawrence Beaumont. The three were sitting in Beaumont's office when the call came from Detroit ATF: We have a name, Sandra Lavel, and her address.
O'Malley already had the cell tower's address. He immediately dialed up MapQuest and punched in the cell tower's address and Lavel's. "We got him."
On May 30, 2000, officers put the house under surveillance. Reports came back to Chicago saying "We see a guy, but he doesn't look like the photos of your guy." Agents ordered the arrest anyway. The following morning, as Sienky and Sandra were driving off in her Range Rover, police moved in. It turned out they were on their way to the plastic surgeon. Sienky's new cheek implants were collapsing. Not to mention his game.
Sandra Lavel, 54, remained free and on the Langley Productions staff for months after Sienky's arrest, as jurisdictional issues kept Beaumont from filing charges against her in Chicago. I tried E-mailing her at work, to no reply. I went to Langley's offices in Santa Monica and dialed her on a cell phone from the parking lot. Talk to my attorney, she said.
Initially, John Langley also refused to talk to me about his former employee, saying via E-mail only that Sandra had joined his firm as a temp accountant a decade ago. According to Mitch Wido, she resigned from COPS in March 2001. An audit conducted in her wake found that $1,060,540 was missing from the company's books.
Apparently she had enough cash on hand to leave Los Angeles and set up a consignment shop in Las Vegas. According to an Internet search, she supplemented her income there as a cosmetics peddler for SeneGence International. A rather paltry existence, it seems, for a woman who used to be a glamorous executive, listed with an LA speaker's bureau as a "business/investment consultant offering a complete package for guaranteeing financial security."
Lavel obtained a new passport as Sandra Manetti, her former married name but an identity that hadn't been valid for 20 years. She didn't get to use it. On February 1, 2002, agents finally arrested her on a charge of aiding and abetting Sienky Lallemand while he was a fugitive. The complaint was later amended to include the charge that from 1996 to 2001 Sandra stole the million-plus dollars from COPS.
This April 24 Sandra pleaded guilty to both charges. Dressed in the MCC's bright orange jumpsuit and laceless Keds, shorn of her sleek red wig and wearing granny glasses, Sandra's considerably less lovely looks drew a stare of disbelief from John Langley sitting in the gallery. Sandra didn't acknowledge him. Asked by federal judge Charles Norgle if she had anything to say, she told prosecutor Beaumont, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience."
"She's a pathetic thief and a liar and it's sad. It speaks poorly of humankind," Langley told me afterward. "I can see it now--'COPS Conned for a Million Dollars.'"
Often during my investigation I thought of the Toney family. Of Ashley Toney, who is Marcus's nine-year-old daughter from a prior relationship, crying in her aunties' arms, "I miss my daddy." Of his mother, Mildred White, stalwartly maneuvering her walker in court. Of Alphonso Butler struggling with his injuries, and with his guilt for urging his friend to open that box.
But even more often I thought of the many women, seemingly upright, who turned a blind eye to the menace that was Sienky Lallemand. How could they have? Were they all just opportunists who welcomed his savvy?
But a review of the letters he sent me before and after our single meeting reveals an answer of sorts. Last April I finally got a pass into the MCC. His attorneys had adamantly opposed an interview, but I wouldn't send Sienky a photograph and his curiosity wouldn't be denied. MCC officials put us alone together in a locked room. They asked if I wanted him handcuffed. Despite his hundred-pound advantage, I said no.
We chatted. I searched his altered face for some sort of magnetism, finding none. He talked a little about his Haitian immigrant parents. I looked at his strong but unremarkable body. He said the music of Terence Trent D'Arby inspired him. His soft, lilting voice was a far cry from the growl on Toney's voice mail. He said his wife left him long ago and that he hadn't seen his son in years. He said 95 percent of his crimes had gone undetected. He didn't flirt, but his eyes rarely strayed from mine.
Afterward he made his move. "Your eyes are amazing. They seem to tell a deeper secret than your body wishes to hold," he said in a 14-page invitation to surrender myself to him. "I am as passionate in my work as I am with women. I study them probably more so than I do anything else. Everything from the way she walks, speaks, breathes, laughs, dresses, the way she combs her hair, to the look in her eyes when she's in ecstasy, and when she says she loves me. Women are like blood and wine to me. I am a gentleman when it is necessary--I am the bad boy when it is necessary. I am the friend, the mother, the father, the brother, and the sister. I treat them all as if I love them, and in some instances I truly do."
But what about me? "I see in you a power to be so much better than you even know. I see it! More importantly I feel it. You have a very good heart--and of course those eyes! Wicked!...I do know your soul Joy, and I truly would like to help you get to where you are trying to go....In time you will find your salvation is mine."
Of that he was certain.
"I do not know if I told you but my name means: THE ONE WHO KNOWS."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.