From left: Mindy Brass; Brass in wheelchair; Marguerite Hanes. By the time attorney Marguerite Hanes heard about her, Brass had gone through four years of incarceration.
The Michigan prosecutor bristles on the phone.
“Mindy Brass is a convicted drug dealer out of California. I doubt anybody in the media or in the public would care two cents about her if she didn’t need a new heart. She’s a drug dealer!”
Danny Solomon, talking from his home in Vista, says he did not agree to loan Brass $4000.
David Gorcyca, chief prosecutor from Oakland County, Michigan has already had to deal with the Michigan press pestering him about Mindy Brass. The 40-year-old San Diego businesswoman was thrown into a Michigan jail in 1992 on drug charges. The sentence: life without parole.
Brass would have rotted there, a victim of Michigan’s draconian compulsory life-for-drugs law, if not for two events. She won a retrial — now set for January 4, 1999 — and she had a heart attack. Now she is just as desperate for a heart transplant as she is for her freedom.
It’s a saga that began seven years ago this Thanksgiving. Mindy Brass was earning $100,000 a year creating insurance programs and working as vice president for marketing at the Kearny Mesa-based Central Credit Union (since-merged with North Island Credit Union). She was 33, a single mom with an eight-year-old daughter, Erika. She had recently won an award from the National Credit Union Association for her work in the credit union field. Brass’s parents had both died by the time she was 23.
Police blocked the streets near Family Pawn and Loan shop and stormed in.
The family had a history of heart problems. But after moving from L.A. when she was 19, she had become a self-made woman, starting by selling ads for the Penny Saver around Pacific Beach.
By the time Danny Solomon met her, around 1979, she was barely 21 but already successful in the world of sales and marketing.
She was, says Solomon, making it in the world of recreational drugs. “I used to date her. I met her in an auction gallery. I have never taken drugs, or alcohol for that matter. But she did. Cocaine and marijuana, mostly. I bailed her out of jail twice. That didn’t mean she didn’t work. She worked hard. She was aggressive and intelligent. But I couldn’t stand being around the drug thing. Many times I said to Mindy,‘Give it up.’ But it never works. That’s the main reason I broke up with her, though we stayed friends.” By 1991, Solomon, who owned Family Pawn and Loan at 1471 Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, would pay heavily for that friendship.
What happened to Mindy is admitted by her own lawyer in a recent rebuttal to the Oakland Circuit Court, north of Detroit.
“On November 28, 1991, Thanksgiving Day in San Diego, California, resident Defendant [Mindy Brass] agreed to sell a kilo of cocaine to California resident Emil Mardenli for $16,000 cash up front, which Defendant agreed to buy from California resident William Leflet for $14,000. Upon payment to Leflet, the kilo would be delivered to Mardenli.”
This would have been a California matter if Mardenli and Leflet had not taken the kilo to Michigan to try to sell it to a man named “Lou.” “Lou” turned out to be an FBI agent. The two faced mandatory life imprisonment under Michigan law. But Leflet worked a plea-bargain with the authorities and became their star witness, claiming at their trials that Brass and others had known the cocaine was going to be resold in the state of Michigan.
Prior to 1998, conviction on the charge of conspiracy to transport more than 650 grams of cocaine into Michigan carried a mandatory life prison term. Now it has been reduced to 20 years mandatory minimum. But in ’92, Leflet, looking at a lifetime behind bars, gladly “flipped.” (Perhaps he followed the example of TV star Tim Allen, who was arrested in Michigan in October 1978 with over 650 grams of cocaine. He had the money and wits to get a good lawyer and to turn in another drug dealer. That act of goodwill reduced his sentence from mandatory life to two and a half years.)
Mindy Brass had been feeling lucky on Friday, December 13, 1991. She had free tickets to a Rod Stewart concert from a friend at a local San Diego radio station. She left her daughter Erika with a relative. But when she returned that night, she was shocked to find her brother face-down on the couch, handcuffed. An officer came and arrested her for involvement with drugs, a charge she figured might mean one and a half years in a California prison or up to six in a federal prison. But nothing prepared her for the news that this was a Michigan charge, that she was to be transported directly, that the mandatory penalty there wasn’t six years but forever, with no chance of parole.
By the time attorney Marguerite Hanes heard about her and visited her in May 19%, Mindy Brass had already gone through four years of incarceration at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan and suffered a heart attack that left her heart muscle severely weakened.
“Before I saw her, my colleague had told me about her heart attack and told me she was dying,” says Hanes. “I was a bit skeptical when he told me that. You get many prison hard-luck stories. But I liked her immediately. She’s very, very bright, very articulate, and stoic and strong. She had taken a paralegal course while she was in prison. I could talk with her about legal concepts. And she told me straight off. ‘I did something wrong in California, but not against Michigan.’ ”
Hanes immediately started looking at that statement as the basis for seeking a new trial for Brass. “The legal issue in this [case] is very simple: If Mindy Brass, [while] attempting to do a drug transaction in California, knows that that transaction is for the ultimate purpose of bringing drugs into the state of Michigan, Michigan can prosecute her, because she has a criminally evil intent against the people of the state of Michigan. But if she has no knowledge that other people are planning to do something in Michigan, Michigan cannot touch her. Our argument is she knew nothing, and the only person who can give any type of evidence that she did, is Leflet — the ‘flipper.’ And we maintain he is lying. He got such a great deal. His deal was to bring in as many people as he could and implicate them. He walked out of here in three years. The guy’s walking the ”streets.”
Another Michigan attorney who has interviewed Brass, James Lawrence, maintains Brass knew nothing of the possibility of the cocaine going to Michigan. On his Web site, The Injustice Files, he outlines the sequence of events in San Diego on that Thanksgiving Thursday in 1991.
“Emil Mardenli, [an acquaintance] who owned a tile business, knew that Mindy used cocaine and asked her to buy a large amount. Mindy said no. She kept saying no for two months.... Finally Emil told Mindy he was in big trouble. He needed a kilo of cocaine or someone was going to hurt him. So, she asked around. When she got to Bill Leflet, he said he could get the cocaine for her.
“But a complication arose. Emil told Mindy he did not have the money to buy the kilo. Mindy contacted Leflet and told him the deal was off... Leflet said the deal was not off... The cocaine was coming from ‘the Mexican Mafia,’ and if they did not get their money, they would come and take it out of her hide. Mindy was scared to death.” Attorney Hanes’s court submissions agree that leflet was pressuring Brass for the money.
“Leflet told defendant she was responsible for paying the money for the kilo she had ordered. Mardenli was defendant’s problem; defendant was Leflet’s problem. Defendant had to pay Leflet for the kilo before she left for [a trip to] Las Vegas. Defendant and Leflet agreed that defendant could pay for half the kilo first and pay for the rest of the kilo when she returned from Las Vegas. Defendant gave Leflet $1000 cash and said [her friend] Danny Solomon was expecting Leflet and would give Leflet the other $6000 (Solomon was holding $2000 belonging to Defendant and agreed to loan Defendant $4000 and give it to Leflet).”
This is where it gets more complicated. Danny Solomon, talking from his home in Vista, says he did not agree to loan Brass $4000. “It wasn’t the money. I had a safe full of cash; every pawn shop does. You have to have cash. I had $50,000 to $150,000, but I didn’t feel comfortable about [Mindy’s request). I didn’t want to give it to Leflet. I just gave him $2000.”
He believes his ex-girlfriend Mindy Brass never dealt in drugs, but was frightened into cooperating by Leflet. “i think Leflet scared the hell out of her. ‘If you don’t do what I say...’ he’s going to hurt her. She’s a little girl: 5'2", maybe 90 pounds. He’s a big guy — 260, 270, very strong, about 5 10". Ponytail. Tattoos of dragons all over his body. Scary-looking person. Biker, with the Mongrel mob. He threatened her.”
Solomon swears he knew nothing of what Brass wanted the loan for when she rang. He’s thankful now he didn’t pay it out. Because a week later, at around four o’clock — also Friday, December 13 — police blocked the streets near his Family Pawn and Loan shop and stormed in. None of the arresting officers were from San Diego’s police department, he claims. He and his eight employees were thrown to the floor while cops “spent eight hours” searching the premises for drugs.
Then followed the greatest nightmare of Solomon’s life. He was shipped to Michigan, charged and convicted of “conspiracy to deliver drugs” to Michigan, and thrown in prison for life. “I would have been better off in Turkey like in [the movie] Midnight Express,” he says. “I had done nothing, and on the testimony of this one drug dealer [Leflet] I was thrown into hell for the rest of my life. I went through all my money. I lost my business. I saw killings and stabbings and riots. If I hadn’t won my appeal, I probably would have committed suicide.”
“Ninety-two was a political year. They made a big splash with us. ‘Californians Convicted!’ They loved that up there.”
In 1995, Solomon convinced appeal judges he had nothing to do with any drug deliveries to Michigan; Brass did not. She remained prisoner number 228420. In April 1994, she had her heart attack. She was 35.
“I went to the hospital, and then I didn’t get treatment for nine and a half hours,” Brass says by phone. “Because I was an inmate. [If I had been a typical patient), I would have had a heart attack and gone on with my life. Instead, because treatment was delayed for so many hours, I need a new heart.’’
It was soon after that Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman paid Brass, who is Jewish, a visit. “It was basically to talk about what funeral arrangements she would like,” he says. “That’s how serious things were.” But from that visit a Jewish support group gradually started forming. Freedman and others wrote to the new chief prosecutor, David Gorcyca, asking for clemency. Freedman called in two friends, doctors Barry and Arlene Levine, heart specialists, to see if anything could be done for Brass’s heart. The diagnosis was “severe heart condition: ischemic cardiomyopathy.” They recommended immediately entering her on a heart-transplant waiting list. But at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where Barry Levine worked, hospital management rejected the idea, noting Brass had smoked cigarettes until recently and had abused drugs. Barry Levine has since left Ford. Brass’s name has been put on a list at the University of Michigan Hospital at Ann Arbor.
Then four months ago, July 17, Marguerite Hanes won a surprise victory in court: The judge accepted her claim that a recently discovered document written by William Leflet contradicts his testimony at Brass’s trial that she knew the drugs were going to Detroit. The judge allowed Brass to be attached to an electronic “tether,” released, and a retrial was scheduled for November 2.
“She was in her wheelchair,” says Hanes. “I said, 'Mindy, do you have your oxygen with you? How would you like to go home?’ That was the second time I had ever known her to break down and cry.”
Brass is living in Farmington Hills, near Pontiac, with a family that “adopted” her. Her daughter Erika, now 15, comes up from California to visit. She even captured the heart of Detroit’s top morning deejay, Kevin O’Neill, of soft-rock station WKQI. “I read about her in the Detroit Free Press” O’Neill says. “I couldn’t believe [the Michigan lifer drug law). I had to tell her. My first visit was Christmas day. I couldn’t wait to get there. I felt somehow close to her. Now I care for her very, very much.”
Two weeks ago, the prosecution asked for a delay. Hanes says Gorcyca’s assistant hinted at a deal that would avoid further prosecution. “And the deal will be: Ms. Brass walks,” she says confidently. “And they’d spare themselves the embarrassment of a trial.”
No way, says prosecutor Gorcyca. “It is our intent as of right now to retry Brass,” he says. “There haven’t been any plea negotiations, at least formally discussed as of yet. She was previously convicted by a jury, unanimously, of the charge, and we’re confident that with the proofs that we have, she’ll be convicted once again.”
Wouldn’t Brass’s desperate health situation be a factor here? “There are a lot of prisoners who have physical ailments,” says Gorcyca. “So do I sympathize with her because she has a heart ailment? Absolutely. But at the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that she was dealing multiple kilos of cocaine from California to Michigan. In fact, at the time she was dealing in drugs she had a previous conviction in the state of California for dealing drugs. She had several counts against her in California. She’s a convicted drug dealer.”
Brass denies “dealing multiple kilos of cocaine from California to Michigan.” Her only other conviction, she says, was a guilty plea to a charge of possessing marijuana for the purpose of sale. An accompanying charge, of having methamphetamine for purposes of sale, was dropped.
Gorcyca believes Brass is playing up her illness for gullible do-gooders. “She’s a manipulator. She shows up in a courtroom in a wheelchair, with oxygen tubes. And when our prosecutor inquired of her doctor [Keith Aaronson), whether or not that was medically necessitated or ordered by him, he said absolutely not: she’s doing it for public relations reasons and for sympathy. I believe she has manipulated a lot of people in this community, including her attorney.” Brass counters that the distance of the car park meant a long walk to the courtroom, which exhausted her.
“She is dying!” says Hanes. “I tried to tell the prosecutors: ‘I’m sorry, but she is dying. You don’t like it, but that’s a fact. You don’t believe it, go talk to the doctors at the University of Michigan. But I don’t want to see you roll your eyes one more time.”
Dr. Barry Levine puts it more succinctly. “She is on a heart transplant list. I won’t put someone on a transplant list if they have more than a year to live.”