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I desperately wanted to know more about him. In our first encounter, Gene had shared with me exactly what had gone on:

Gene worked as an auto mechanic, and Henry the shooter was a guy who “hung around the shop.” Gene didn’t really know him well but had seen him from time to time over a four to six month period. Gene, himself, had only been living in the Fairfield area for eight months. So according to Gene, he asked Henry if he knew “where he could score some crystal.” Gene is adamant that he is not a regular drug user but thought “it’s Friday, I’ll have a little fun.”

Henry set Gene up with Ryan. Gene gives Ryan $50 and Ryan, the dealer, is supposed to deliver the meth.

Ryan doesn’t deliver; at least Gene doesn’t see him for some time, and he mentions to Henry, “hey… Ryan hasn’t shown up with the dope.”

Henry offers to go by Ryan’s to see what the issue is and Gene offers, “hey… I’m not doing anything right now. I’ll go with you.”

Gene, Henry, and the female driving the car go by Ryan’s sister’s house – apparently he’s living in her garage – but he’s not home.

They climb back in the car and are heading away when Henry spots a car and says, “Isn’t that Ryan there?”

Gene offers that he told Henry, “I don’t think so. That’s a Cadillac, Ryan doesn’t drive a Cadillac.”

Nonetheless, the Cadillac makes a U-turn and parks. They are witnessing this through the back window.

Henry pulls to the curb and gets out of the car, leaving Gene and the female driver seated. They “hear a series of three or four” shots and Henry came back to the car and says, “Let’s go.”

Gene argues now that he is confused as to what happened, but the female pulls off and they return to the garage.

Gene learns about the murder a few days later in the paper but is afraid to come forward because he’s afraid of Henry who now has threatened him.

He has no idea “why Henry just shot the guy”.


On a personal note, I was now overwhelmed with questions. I was amazed at how little I really know about the streets and that life. My first thought was, “please don’t tell me this was all over $50. Please don’t let that be true”. But it was, and is, true.

And so I wanted to ask Gene: How much meth does $50 buy? If Henry set you up with Ryan, why didn’t he know that wasn’t Ryan? Why did Henry just shoot him? Did he try to get the drugs or the money first, which would have certainly proven that it wasn’t Ryan?

The questions were coming so fast, I decided to write them out and deliver them to Gene. I really wanted to understand his decision processes going from a quiet, bumbling, occasionally drug-taking mechanic to an incarcerated alleged murderer in protective custody. That’s the real story. The story told in the papers was absolute nonsense, but journalists, much like historians, always seem to prefer the simplest, more pedestrian, version, whether it represents the truth, or not.

I passed them on to Gene. The questions that I was asking now had to do with how he felt about all this personally. I really wasn’t interested in the details of the story – I already had them. I wanted to know him. I wanted to know about how he felt; particularly about the decisions he made that led him to this point. What a waste. The story confirmed my fears. Here was this guy, not a bad guy, just a goof caught up in the wrong things, making one bad decision after the next.

In the weeks that followed, Gene would stand at the door to cell 2H- 11 and assure me that he was working on the questions. In his words, he “wanted to get it right.” The real answer is he never got it back to me and some of it was the influence of his lawyer, some of it the influence of his cellmate, and a great deal had to do with fear.

The fact is, the only way for Gene Combs to survive in the long run in here, is through isolation or affiliation. Either he lives the rest of his life in protective custody or embraces a gang, any type of gang, simply for survival. In here there is one guarantee: when, not if, when he wanders into the vicinity of the general population and a member of one of the Latin gangs, Gene Combs is a dead man, pure and simple. The law is a lot harsher in here. The system can’t protect him because the system is the cause.

I expected to see this fiend. I expected to see a monster. What I saw was just a guy, and a very ordinary guy at that.

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