Director Duncan Roy casts a courtly image of a baronial figure as he sits in his home atop Las Flores Canyon, a modernist, Bohemian hideaway with a jaw-dropping view of the Pacific. His surroundings project an image of California's creative lifestyle at its most alluring. But in February, Roy found himself standing alone outside Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, released after three months of harrowing and wrongful incarceration.
During his ordeal, he learned to dodge angry Los Angeles County Sheriff's jailers and to trade with fellow prisoners for dried ramen toppings. He was helplessly trapped in a Kafka-esque corner of America's immigration war, where he disappeared into the bowels of the system without explanation or apparent legal recourse.
In 2006, Roy was an up-and-coming star of the British independent-film community. His first picture, AKA, had received notice and awards around the world, and he followed the well-worn path to Hollywood in search of a bigger canvas — in particular, a film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, to which he was attached to direct. He purchased the Las Flores house with the help of his then-boyfriend, a Malibu real estate agent who later would be featured on Bravo's Million Dollar Listing.
Five years later, the dream had fizzled. The relationship with his partner had ended. The Dorian Gray film hadn't materialized. Roy even sought counsel from Dr. Drew on his show Sex Rehab, where the director's outspoken manner made him a reality-TV cause célèbre. A bout with cancer led to the removal of one of Roy's testicles. With his visa due to expire in December 2011, he prepared a move to his apartment in Berlin.
But in Los Angeles, the most tangled dramas ultimately come back to real estate. Selling the house was proving thorny. Once it was on the market, geological issues arose, dramatically lowering its value. Then, Roy says, he received a middle-of-the-night phone call from someone claiming to be the geologist who had worked on the house's assessment. He told Roy that he had been pressured to cover up problems in the foundation but, having become a born-again Christian, felt obliged to come clean.
Roy called his ex-boyfriend and, Roy recalls, “I said, 'You've conned me out of $500,000, and why don't you take the house back? I'll give you the house back for $500,000 — or I could just blog about what you've done to me.' I threatened to blog about him.”
Thus began Roy's trip into the twilight zone.
The next day, Nov. 17, he got a call from a Sheriff's Department deputy asking for a meeting. His former lover is an influential figure in Malibu, and Roy briefly “wondered if it was a setup,” but he met the deputy at Country Kitchen on Pacific Coast Highway. He was stunned when the deputy arrested him for “extortion,” and took him to the Sheriff's station at Hidden Hills, the same facility whose deputies gained infamy in the disappearance and accidental death of Mitrice Richardson in Malibu Canyon. Roy was booked, fingerprinted, questioned and placed in a cell. (His ex-boyfriend did not respond to the Weekly's requests for comment.)
Roy viewed his arrest as an overreaction, which was sure to be cleared up soon. He was offered release on bail. But then something happened. The deputies told Roy's bondsmen they could not accept his bail or release him because he had been placed on an “immigration hold.”
Such holds begin with a notification from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to local law enforcement. The Sheriff's Department is a partner in the federal Secure Communities program, which is aimed at removing “dangerous criminal aliens” from the United States. When Roy, a legal resident of the United States, was fingerprinted, his data were forwarded to ICE, which issued the surprising “hold” notice.
This is where things get murky. By ICE's protocol, its “hold” is merely a 48-hour restraint. Local authorities are essentially told that if somebody is about to go free on bail, they should hold them briefly until ICE can pick them up — at which time ICE will determine whether or not they should be deported.
Sheriff Lee Baca, however, takes a different view, classifying an ICE hold like an outstanding warrant for arrest, and uses that technicality to refuse to release such people on bail. The department's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, says Baca is not happy with the broad net cast by Secure Communities, but nevertheless, “If a legitimate agency puts a hold on an individual, we need to respond to that. It is not our practice to ignore a legitimate law enforcement request.”
As a result, when ICE requests that a person granted bail be held briefly until ICE can pick them up, the Sheriff's Department interprets this as allowing deputies to ignore court orders granting bail.
This was the never-ending Möbius strip Duncan Roy suddenly found himself on.
He says he spent the first night in a cold holding cell with no blanket, while his attorney, bail bondsman and an immigration lawyer tried to find out why the hold had been placed, who could lift it or how to persuade the Sheriff to release Roy pending some sort of review.
Roy's bondsman, Morris DeMayo, recalls, “The minute he got arrested, it was one weird incident after another. The jailer basically said, 'We have an ICE hold, so we can't accept the bond.' There was just a runaround.”
Roy contacted immigration-specialty lawyers, who went to ICE regional headquarters in Santa Ana to find out “who was handling my case.” Instead of providing that basic, public information, the feds met this effort with “a wall of resistance.”
Two days later, Roy was taken to Los Angeles Superior Court in Van Nuys for arraignment on what he says is an outrageous charge of extortion. “They put you into this bus, where you're in a cell on the bus, little cages, and you're handcuffed,” Roy recalls. “They took us along the PCH so I saw my little hometown and I had this real sense of, I'm never going to see this place again.”
Roy was about to enter the arms of the larger county justice system, which moves people through at conveyor-belt speed with little care for niceties: “The woman or man who frisks you will quite violently run his or her hand up the inside of your leg, and on two occasions really badly hurt my remaining testicle.”
At the arraignment, the judge set bail at $35,000 and was informed that an ICE hold had been placed on Roy. He was remanded to county custody and, bail still refused, taken by bus to Los Angeles County's infamous Men's Central Jail.
Roy calls his arrival at Men's Central “theatrically unpleasant. You're being shouted and screamed at. You're not allowed to look anybody in the eye — you have to look at the floors at all times. It was an understandably barbaric situation. You have a bracelet, which defines who you are, it's your bar code. Then they intake you and ask you questions about your health. They ask if you're suicidal or gay. I said I was gay. Immediately I was taken off the line and away from the other prisoners and given a new bracelet, which identified me as a gay man, and I was sent to another place with the other gays.”
Ending up in a designated gay dorm might be the one saving grace of Roy's incarceration. While the general population is noted for violent behavior and beset by racial politics, Roy eventually found his fellow gay inmates, divided into four large dorms of about 100 men each, to be a source of comfort.
“The majority of the people were incredibly polite, incredibly kind. Eighty percent were tranny hookers, and those were the people who really looked after me. They are the ones who bring life into the dorm. They would repurpose their uniform and make dresses. It's amazing what you can do out of a pair of boxer shorts, which becomes like a halter net top and a miniskirt. It was like being on Project Runway. They would take this pair of shorts and blue smock and turn it into an evening gown.”
Longing for food became the major motif as his mysterious jailing lengthened from days to weeks. He says there were overly long intervals between “feedings” of often inedible food, and the few inmates who had money bought small, grossly overpriced rations.
“Whenever the food is delivered, on Monday,” Roy says, “the whole place would turn into Bombay, people begging food. There was then this whole sort of element of trading, like a Victorian marketplace. People wandering around the dorm going, 'I've got cookies and juice.' … People are also trading sexual favors for food.”
He claims: “People in that jail are hungry, and nobody gives a damn.”
Weeks passed with no ray of hope. Roy sat stupefied in front of a single, shared TV perpetually tuned to police dramas, claims he was repeatedly threatened by the deputies, and was allowed a single physical activity — a once-weekly trip to a roof, where he could see sunlight or, on bad days, sit in cold rain.
He made regular trips in the cage buses to Van Nuys for his criminal case. Roy insisted he was innocent, declining a plea deal and believing that the charge was an insane reaction to what was, first of all, a dispute between ex-lovers over a business deal and second, a clearly noncriminal threat to blog about it and thus exercise his right to free speech.
But, he says, “One judge was yawning whenever my lawyer spoke, refusing to listen to us.”
Roy says he placed numerous calls to the British consulate. No action was taken on his behalf by the consulate. (A spokesman for the consulate says that it has no record of this but it is now investigating.)
Bondsman DeMayo has seen a lot, but he was on edge over Roy's lengthening, unexplained incarceration. “Everyone was stonewalling us. We can't find the file — or he's not at this facility. Or they'd put me on hold [on the phone] for 45 minutes. I had the booking number, but they would say, 'We don't know what to tell you — he's not here.' ”
The ACLU, which is probing Roy's case, asserts that a legal dead zone exists between the ICE hold and Sheriff Baca's procedure. The ACLU and DeMayo say they have seen many such maddeningly inappropriate jailings.
Jenny Pasquarella of the ACLU of Southern California says, “A lot of time, when you talk to immigration about a person who is in custody, they say, 'We can't do anything about it because the person's not in our custody. Talk to the Sheriff.' Then you talk to the Sheriff and they say, 'We can't do anything about it. We didn't place the hold.' They keep pointing fingers at each other.”
Many cases are quickly resolved — for example, if, under the initial criminal charge, the jailed person agrees to a plea bargain. Then the person either serves a sentence or is turned over to ICE for deportation.
But Roy refused to consider a guilty plea for extortion.
And that, the Los Angeles County jails system did not like.
Things got worse for Roy after that. Still recovering from his testicular cancer, he tried to get help from the jail's medical division. “They kind of ignored it. The only time I ever saw a doctor — the shoes they give you cause the skin to break off your feet. My foot cracked so bad it began bleeding, and I saw somebody about that. They wouldn't see me about anything else.”
He says the forms he filled out requesting medical attention went ignored.
Whitmore, Baca's spokesman, insists, “If anybody has an issue that they were not treated properly, they can file a complaint.” (The Weekly reported in its 2011 cover story “Wheelchair Hell” that even seriously ill and crippled inmates sometimes are denied medical help, working wheelchairs and other key needs.)
Authorities began holding it over Roy's head: Admit to “extortion,” accept the likelihood of being deported and become a free man. As his third month behind bars began, Roy nearly gave in to this unfair pressure. “There were points in there where I just said, 'I'm going to take it.' And then I'd speak to the other inmates and they'd just say, 'You can't. You didn't do it. If you accept this, it's going to have repercussions for the rest of your life.' ”
Christmas came and went. On New Year's Eve, Roy began to feel desperate. “I remember seeing those images coming out of New York. I felt very angry and upset. … I watched on TV the ball coming down and felt bereft that nobody was going to help me.”
In the weeks that followed, Roy suffered a breakdown. “There was a time when I literally sobbed, like I hadn't sobbed since I was a baby. I was regretting things in my life. I wouldn't want to go back there, I hate the idea that that place exists. I hate the treatment. But in many ways philosophically I think I changed. At that moment I was so frustrated that I just totally broke down. Literally within seconds of me on my bunk, crying into my towel, I was surrounded by people who just made me feel that, whatever happened, it was going to be fine. And that I should not surrender to madness or desperation.”
Help was, in fact, not far off. An inmate told him about Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project, a Catholic Charities of Los Angeles program in the jail. Roy slipped a note under the door of the chaplain's office. A few days later, “This woman literally turns up at the dorm, Susanne Griffin. And she's wearing a bright pink suit. She said, 'My boss doesn't usually take individual cases, but I think we can take yours.' They took my passport information to prove that I was here legally.”
Within 24 hours, Lee Baca's jailers let Roy go.
Griffin explains that her organization knew exactly who to call at ICE. When they laid out the facts about Roy, the feds reviewed it and lifted the hold.
Just like that. After 89 days inside the system.
ICE explains to L.A. Weekly, “Because he had no prior criminal convictions and did not otherwise fall into ICE's enforcement priorities, the agency rescinded the immigration detainer and Mr. Roy did not come into ICE custody.”
They refuse to explain how Roy got trapped in the nightmare.
On Feb. 12, Griffin broke the news that Roy was being freed. His mind couldn't accept it. “I thought it was a joke at first. Then they told me that I was going to be released on bail. I couldn't believe it. I said goodbye to everybody. Gave away my food and my phone cards.”
Releasing a man from the bowels of Men's Central Jail takes as long as a cross-country flight. Roy was handed his belongings, processed and fingerprinted in the middle of the night. “You are literally spat out of the jail. Then they pull you through a door, and you're outside. And it's the weirdest feeling. I'm on the street at 3 o'clock in the morning, waiting for the bail guy who's going to take me home.”
Weeks later, Roy still seems very much in shock, speaking in a calm, almost disembodied voice that suggests the toll has not sunk in: “I still keep an eye on the roads in case a police car comes. I'm terrified they're going to take me back there.”
Ironically, Roy is no longer free to leave the country. In a final swipe at his liberty, his passport was confiscated pending trial on the extortion charges brought by District Attorney Steve Cooley. He can't move to Berlin. And after three months without medical help, initial tests on his cancer turned out to be mixed. He is anxiously awaiting further results.
He is pondering legal action, and the ACLU plans to testify before the Los Angeles County Commission on Violence in Jails on April 16.
“There's no getting away from it. It is a horrific place,” Roy says. “As much as I'm being strong and I can deal with it talking about it, viscerally, there's no getting away from the fact that it's a life-or-death situation. It was Tennessee Williams who said time is the greatest distance between two people, and that's how I feel about this. With time, I'll finally have more of an understanding of what happened.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.