My editor thought that hanging out with a corporate miscreant in the months before he goes off to prison would make for a good story, and one that no one had written yet. The reason no one had, as I quickly found out, was that none of these guys would talk to a journalist. Lawyers warned their clients that for an executive to talk openly about his crime would not sit well with his soon-to-be fellow inmates. And their wives and children had faced humiliation enough at school and the country club to now have the story spread all over the NewYork Times Magazine.
Then one day in January 2003, I got a call from Jay Jones down in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He'd heard I was looking for a corporate crook to follow and said that he might fill the bill, in that he'd perpetrated a fraud at his company that had cost investors more than $1 billion. The story had been all over local papers, so he had nothing left to hide. And it was six months before he had to report to the Federal prison in Oklahoma City to begin his five-year stretch. Being gregarious, as well as the sort who couldn't abide sitting around doing nothing, he felt that talking to me might at least do to fill up his remaining time.
When he picked me up at the Tulsa airport in his 1975 Cadillac Deville, I knew right away we'd get along fine, one old-car freak to another. So for two or three days every month, I'd fly down and we'd drive that Deville around rural Oklahoma, visiting the little towns where he had spent a threadbare childhood. We'd eat at out-of-the-way barbecue places, and Jay would fantasize that after finishing his sentence-he'd be sixty-seven by then-he was going to open up a rib joint of his own, talked about a special rub he thought might bring in the crowd. And he played country guitar at Friday night dances, where I'd push old ladies around the floor as Jay sang winsome songs in his high-pitched voice about the simple life that had long disappeared.
I also drove Jay down to the prison on the final day, his wife and two grown daughters having been advised that wishing good-bye at the gates would be too filled with pain. The last I saw him was when the correction officer rolled open the chain-link fence at the inmate entrance and put his hand on Jay's arm and said to me, "You can go now, sir," and they disappeared behind the walls.
A little while ago I got word from Jay's daughter Holly that he's getting along okay, except for the bland food and the tremendous lack of activity. And recently they gave him back the prison guitar for accompanying the hymns sung at weekly chapel services. The deal was he could keep the instrument in his cell to practice on; and, if sound could travel all the way up to New York City, I'm sure right now that, along with the church music, I'd be hearing him sneaking in a few of those sad songs about the days gone by.