The Rise and Fall of a Notorious Drug Kingpin
By Mareva Brown, The Sacramento Bee
Vincent Jackson became successful in the methamphetamine business by paying attention to the details:
Take deliveries in relatively small amounts and at off-the-beaten-path locations. Make deliveries with the drugs wrapped in a sock so fingerprints don't get on the plastic wrapping. Switch cars frequently to throw off law enforcement tails. Don't put any assets in your own name.
And if someone gets out of line or is slow to pay, trial witnesses said, stick a long-bladed knife in him.
The formula worked. For more than a decade, Jackson sold hundreds of pounds of a drug that is commonly consumed in doses of 1/112th of an ounce. He reaped - and squandered - millions of dollars. For years, he not only eluded prosecution, he sometimes went out of his way to taunt and antagonize police.
Run any enterprise for that long, however, and there are bound to be slip-ups.
And barring an unexpected ruling from a federal appeals court, Vincent Robert Jackson's slip-ups are going to send him away for a very long time.
The 41-year-old one-time state worker recently was sentenced to five life terms - plus 240 years - for running a meth empire that stretched from Sacramento to the Bay Area.
Long prison stretches for big-time drug dealers are almost as endemic in the federal criminal justice system as meth use is in the Central Valley.
But in Jackson's case, court documents, as well as interviews with law enforcement sources, people who knew Jackson and with Jackson himself, afford an unusually clear view into the way meth is distributed in Northern California and into the rise and fall of a drug lord.
THE KINGPIN When he was young, Vincent Jackson once confided to a federal agent, he dreamed of becoming mayor of Sacramento.
What he became, in the words of another federal agent, was "a predator."
"Just like a lion in the Serengeti," said Gordon Taylor, chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Sacramento office, "going after the weak or the sick or the injured."
Other people employed different terms. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Twiss, who prosecuted the case that put Jackson away, called him "one of the biggest and worst drug traffickers in the Sacramento area." U.S. District Judge David F. Levi, who sentenced Jackson, called him "very cunning and efficient." Several of his associates referred to him as "the devil."
But sitting in a visiting booth at the Sacramento County jail, Jackson described himself this way: "I'm innocent."
Jackson is tall and slender, but solid. His dark hair is graying and his skin is sallow from spending the past year in an eighth-floor isolation cell. His left forearm bears a prison tattoo that states, in Chinese characters, "Trust no one."
He talks a bit about growing up in a family with five brothers and sisters, and living in a tiny federally subsidized apartment facing Zapata Park, bounded by D, E, Ninth and 10th streets in the neighborhood called Alkali Flat.
He bows his head and shrugs his shoulders occasionally, declining to discuss specifics of his case because he is pursuing an appeal.
But in general, he argues in calm and reasoned tones, the 22 people who testified against him were all lying, cajoled or coerced into doing so by law enforcement figures who have a "personal vendetta" against him.
"If there was any truth to any of this," he says, "don't you think they would have got me sooner?"
Starting in the early 1990s and continuing off and on until his arrest last March, Sacramento law enforcement figures struggled to nail Jackson for his drug-dealing and gang-related activities.
"There were always lots of rumors and suppositions about him," said Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Steve Harrold, who prosecuted several of Jackson's associates. "But he was basically untouchable."
Unlike other drug dealers, Harrold said, Jackson "wasn't dumb, and he wasn't sloppy. He didn't leave a trail. He didn't have people snitching him off ... people steered clear of that guy."
Almost certainly with good reason. Even in the drug world, where there are few pacifists, Jackson's reputation for violence was widespread.
"We conducted over a hundred interviews," said the DEA's Taylor, "and in many of those interviews, when our agents brought up the name Vincent Jackson, the people being interviewed literally started to shake. He instilled such fear in people."
Although each of the 14 counts he was convicted on related to charges of conspiring to sell drugs, witnesses testified during the trial that Jackson stabbed at least two men for crossing him in drug-related incidents.
Law enforcement sources also link him to several stabbings while he was in state prison in the 1980s. His name surfaced in investigations into at least two murders, one involving the 1993 killing of a Carmichael drug dealer to whom Jackson supplied meth, and the other a 1999 slaying of a Sacramento bail bondsman who was shot twice in the face as he stood in the doorway of his home. He was not charged in either case, and federal prosecutors agreed in pretrial briefs not to mention the homicides before the jury.
Jackson's name also has been linked by neighbors to pipe bombings and Molotov cocktail assaults in Alkali Flat during the 1990s.
Within minutes of being sentenced to life three weeks ago, authorities say, Jackson attacked another prisoner with a chain while standing in a holding cell next to the courtroom.
"None of that stuff is true," Jackson said during a jailhouse interview. "Not the murders. Not the pipe bombs. I've never been charged with the pipe bombs, the murders, nothing."
In fact, few of the things Jackson has been charged with over the years have stuck:
* In 1993, Jackson and his brother were arrested on suspicion of felony assault after allegedly beating up two neighbors - a 53-year-old woman and her 15-year-old daughter - in front of the girl's father. The father called police, but at a preliminary hearing the women did not testify and the father testified he hadn't seen any confrontation; the charges were reduced to disturbing the peace.
* In 1998, Jackson was charged with stabbing a man during an argument at a Colonial Village home. The charge was dropped when the victim failed to show up for the trial.
* In 2000, Jackson was arrested for possession of a handgun, a felony for an ex-con. But the charge was dropped after it was clear that Jackson would produce as many as eight witnesses who would swear it wasn't his gun.
"We both know what he is all about," one potential witness said, according to a district attorney investigator's report. "I don't want him as my enemy ... . I'll never say or do anything to cross him."
One charge that did stick occurred when Jackson was still in his teens. An assault with a deadly weapon netted him four years in the California Youth Authority. In 1984, an armed robbery earned him three years in state prison, and some months later a parole violation drew two more.
But from the time he was released in August 1991, until his arrest last March, Jackson managed to avoid successful prosecution, despite operating what police say was a smorgasbord of criminal enterprises.
"The reason why I think Vincent Jackson went so long without being arrested for drug trafficking is he is extremely intelligent," said DEA agent Taylor.
"He was also more or less a terrorist, not in the sense of being an international terrorist, but in terrorizing a neighborhood ... and that's what he did."
THE NEIGHBORHOOD The ghost of Vincent Jackson still haunts Alkali Flat.
One woman is afraid to enter Zapata Park alone. Another is afraid to have her picture in the newspaper with a story about Jackson. A third won't even talk about him, for fear his followers have bugged her phone.
The community Jackson haunts is bounded by Seventh and 19th streets, H Street and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks.
It's the city's oldest residential neighborhood, an area of once-stately Victorian houses and decades-old apartment complexes originally constructed to house workers from the adjacent Sacramento railyards.
In the center of the neighborhood, a worn patch of green known as Zapata Park is straddled by a sprawling 143-unit apartment complex called Washington Square, where Jackson grew up.
Jackson spent most of the 1980s away from the Flat, first in the Youth Authority system, then in state prison.
By August 1991, however, he was back. Over the next decade, Jackson briefly held jobs as a word processor for the state Department of Social Services, the state Economic Development Department and at a local cannery.
But law enforcement sources say his energies mainly went toward establishing a distribution system for selling methamphetamine.
Like many drug dealers, police said, Jackson relied heavily in his business on relatives, longtime associates and people he met in prison. But he also needed "mules" to make pickups and deliveries, and for that he turned to the neighborhood's cheapest, most abundant and most easily dominated labor pool: its children.
"He was kind of the Pied Piper of Zapata (Park)," said Leonard Padilla, a bounty hunter whose path sometimes crossed Jackson's. "There was a lot of the younger crowd who looked up to him because he was a defiant individual, basically of law enforcement."
Jackson volunteered at the Washington Square Community Center, targeting boys who lacked a father figure, according to an internal law enforcement report. He gave them gifts of cash and clothes, and let them use his cars and boat, which was berthed at the Miller Park Marina. He picked them up in a limo and took them to Oakland A's games.
Once hooked, the kids would be given menial tasks to test their loyalty, such as retrieving packages without looking at what was inside.
Neighbors watched as teens and even preteens would hang around Zapata Park until a signal on their pager would send them scurrying off on bicycles and electric scooters provided by Jackson.
In another tactic employed by Jackson to maintain control, according to the law enforcement report, "kids were ordered to fight each other, oftentimes for no reason. If they refused, then they faced one of Jackson's large enforcers.
"According to several gang members, Jackson enjoyed the fights very much and would often gamble on them, like one would bet on a cockfight."
Jackson also tried to make the neighborhood uncomfortable for cops, who were using a new approach called "community-oriented policing" to try to win the trust of adult residents and the respect of children.
He and his associates carried mini tape recorders, and whenever an officer stopped someone on the streets, a tape recorder would come out. The gang members filed a half dozen police harassment complaints, none of which was deemed valid.
"When we'd have police and community events, he'd come out with a video camera," said Matt Powers, then a police captain directing the take-back-the-community efforts. "He was sending the message, 'I know who you are, and there will be retribution.' "
A special Jackson target was Charles Husted, a police officer assigned to the Flat. At one point, Jackson and some of his relatives spread allegations that Husted was molesting children.
The smear backfired when Husted, now a detective, sued the ex-con for defamation of character. Jackson ended up paying Husted's legal costs and publicly apologizing.
But Jackson saved most of his intimidation for neighbors who crossed him. One of them was Catherine Camacho, a state employee who moved into an Eighth Street Victorian when Jackson was away in prison.
Camacho and a small group of activists painted over graffiti, organized neighborhood watches and sponsored block parties and children's events in an effort to combat Jackson and the Varrio Centro gang that police said he controlled.
Jackson, Camacho and other neighbors recalled, didn't like it.
One night Camacho organized a block party in front of her house for kids in the Washington Square apartment complex. Nobody showed up, and when Camacho went to find out why, she saw that Jackson and his associates had formed a human chain along the front of the complex to keep the children from attending.
There were more violent tactics as well. One night in late November 1992, Camacho's front window was shattered by a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite. Jackson and his cohorts were suspected, but no one was arrested or charged.
Another community activist, Marta Bustamante, moved her family out of the neighborhood in 1996 after Jackson began targeting her two sons.
"I was one of the kids who refused to get involved," said one of her sons, John Bustamante. "And I was suffering for it."
Now in his 30s, Bustamante said Jackson and others would regularly taunt him when he came home from work in his security guard uniform, or try to intimidate him at a bar where he worked. One day he found a bullet hole near his truck's gas tank.
Finally, he said, he'd had enough. He got out a handgun and sat on a Zapata Park bench, staring at some of Jackson's gang, daring them to start something. When his mother heard about it, she decided to move rather than run the risk of a tragic confrontation.
Jackson's business, meanwhile, was expanding into midtown, south Sacramento, Natomas and other areas. By 1998, he had established distribution cells in the Bay Area.
But in Alkali Flat he was gradually losing his war with police and community activists, and getting an uncomfortably high profile for a drug dealer.
So Jackson moved on.
THE BUSINESS Methamphetamine is a beguilingly attractive drug to use. It can make its devotees feel smart, sexy and incredibly energetic. The insomnia, impotence, intense paranoia and heart, brain and liver damage come later.
It's also an attractive product to sell, since its initial allure and highly addictive nature ensure steady customers.
But meth is a particularly nasty drug to manufacture because of dangers from explosions, toxic spills and detection by police.
So Jackson stayed out of the manufacturing business. He perched on the apex of a distribution pyramid, where increasingly larger numbers of people sold increasingly smaller amounts of meth, until it reached the base of users who sold to no one, but injected, snorted or smoked the drug themselves.
Like most big-time meth traffickers, federal prosecutor Twiss said, Jackson was "clever, fastidious and very sophisticated in his organization."
"That's how they last," Twiss said. "He used many layers of insulation to keep himself separate."
For example, Andres "Junior" Valdez, who said he supplied Jackson with more than 500 pounds of meth in one year, testified that he met Jackson in person only once.
They set up a delivery schedule, agreed on the price and amount - 10 pounds a week - and established a way to communicate.
After that, they used intermediaries to drop off and pick up the drugs, often packaged in Burger King bags and left at Jackson's 24-foot wooden boat in a slip at the Miller Park Marina.
Other witnesses said Jackson would use "stash houses" around town to store the product at a relatively safe distance. At one residence in the Pocket area, according to federal prosecutors, he kept meth in a section of PVC pipe buried in the garden.
And he moved around himself, living for a few weeks or months with an associate, then moving on, from apartments in Meadowview to tract houses near the Sacramento River.
Coupled with the fact that he put no property in his own name, Jackson's nomadic lifestyle made him a difficult moving target for law enforcement.
After buying multiple pounds from suppliers, witnesses said at trial, Jackson would "step on," or dilute, the drug by adding MSM, a veterinary product used by horseshoers to increase joint flexibility.
Once it was cut, Jackson would have employees deliver meth in amounts from a few ounces to a few pounds to dealers around Sacramento and in the Bay Area.
If he made the delivery himself, he often concealed as much as 3 pounds in the hub of the vehicle's steering wheel, where the air bag would normally be.
The dealers paid Jackson's organization anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a pound, depending on market conditions, court documents said. The dealers then resold it in amounts as small as a few grams to other dealers or on the street to users. By then the meth was selling at prices equivalent to $36,000 a pound.
It was a lucrative business. Jackson was making so much money, according to one associate, that he used a currency counter to tally his take.
Law enforcement sources estimate that over a 10-year period Jackson probably made several million dollars.
But while catering to the addictions of others, the drug dealer had a monkey on his own back.
"Jackson lost, if not millions of dollars, certainly hundreds of thousands of dollars at the casinos," said Twiss, the federal prosecutor. "There was evidence that he would get money and it would be gone instantly."
Jackson would bring confederates with him to Indian and Nevada casinos to buy his chips for him, because federal law requires that casinos report large chip transactions to the Internal Revenue Service.
But associates told investigators that Jackson rarely had to worry about cashing in chips. In one instance, he reportedly won $56,000 on a $5 slot machine but left the casino broke. In another case, an associate watched him lose $3,000 in 15 minutes playing blackjack.
It was typical for Jackson to walk into a casino with $10,000, Twiss said, "and when he left, he would have to borrow money from someone to get a hamburger on the way home."
THE FALL Jim Delaney was restless.
A veteran of more than 10 years as a DEA special agent, Delaney was coming off an assignment with a drug interdiction task force in mid-2001 in which he had spent long days looking for drugs and interviewing people at train stations, bus stations and airports.
Looking for a new challenge, Delaney began making the rounds of local police in the Sacramento area, asking who was the biggest, most violent drug dealer in these parts.
The same name kept coming back: Vincent Jackson.
The trouble with nailing Jackson, local cops told Delaney, was that a traditional investigation, relying on informants, surveillance and undercover drug buys, wouldn't work.
Jackson insulated himself from the drugs whenever possible, surrounded himself with confederates too loyal or too scared to rat him out, and was careful not to put assets in his own name.
In 2000, for example, state narcotics agents raided a house in the Pocket. There they found Baggies, a hydraulic press (often used to form meth into bricks), MSM and other meth-making items.
In the master bedroom, they found a shoe box containing $19,000; a receipt from Harrah's Tahoe for $19,000 in winnings, made out to Jackson; a 1998 police report on Jackson's arrest for assault with a deadly weapon; 10 rounds for a .32 caliber handgun; and letters and envelopes bearing Jackson's name.
But Jackson said he didn't live there and had lots of witnesses to back him up.
He walked away with nothing more than a ticket for driving from the residence without a license.
So Delaney began putting together what the DEA calls a "historical conspiracy case."
"I don't know if there are too many agents who could have handled this case," said Delaney's boss, Gordon Taylor. "Jim was like a pit bull. He grabbed on and would not let go."
Over the next 18 months, Delaney interviewed scores of people who knew or had done business with Jackson, mining them for dates and places where deals had gone down.
He then tried to corroborate the information with physical evidence, such as phone-and credit-card records, police surveillance records and interviews of others with independent knowledge of the incidents.
Delaney met and swapped information on Jackson with representatives from a host of other law enforcement agencies, including the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, the Department of Corrections, the Sacramento Police and Sheriff's departments, the FBI, the IRS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The DEA also began making its case to Twiss, a veteran drug gang prosecutor. Prosecuting a historical conspiracy case can be a tricky business because, in the words of one attorney, "It comes down to whether the jury believes your lowlifes or the lowlife defendant."
So Twiss, who has a reputation for meticulous prosecutions, had a request: Show me the money.
"When I talk to the DEA," Twiss said, "I always tell them, 'If you're right, there is a lot of money and it went somewhere and we need to find it. Not all of it, but some of it.' "
Twiss also wanted a lot of witnesses. So in addition to tracking down Jackson's casino activities, agents began talking to known associates already doing prison time.
"We would say to them, 'We know you have suppliers, we know who they are. You're looking at life, we can make it 15, or you're looking 25, we can make it 12,' " Twiss said. " 'But you have to do the right thing, and tell us everything you know about everyone.'
"Sometimes you have to talk to them two or three or four times, but you finally get a picture."
On March 6, 2003, a federal grand jury indicted Jackson. He was arrested the next day at a 65th Street address "without incident," and held without bail.
By the end of the two-week trial, 22 of Jackson's associates had been brought in from seven different prisons and jails in California and Arizona to testify.
On the afternoon of Nov. 3, the jury returned its verdict: guilty on all counts.
"If you asked me what led to his fall, it was his complete arrogance, and his need for control," said the DEA's Taylor.
"Because of his need for control, he felt he had to use violence at all times, and I believe it was his violence and his use of juveniles that upset people and set people against him."
At his sentencing, Jackson declined to say anything. But in an interview a few days later, he admitted that "reality is sinking in."
"Five lifes, and 240 years," he said. "I'm like, 'Maybe this is a bad dream. Maybe I'll wake up and this isn't happening.'
"I actually thought I was going to walk," he said with a rueful grin. "I didn't think I'd get convicted."
Some people in Alkali Flat also find it hard to believe.
"He was just slick enough and smart enough and conniving enough to keep two steps ahead of everybody," said Camacho, the activist who led the neighborhood struggle against Jackson a decade ago. "(But) you can't go around bullying and terrorizing that many people and not have it catch up with you.
"It's just sad that it took so long."
Graphic: The meth pyramid [107k GIF]