Prison Sweet Prison

Horace Caraker doesn’t belong in federal prison. But he likes it there, and he’ll threaten a president if it means going back.

By Robert Wilonsky, Writer for Dallas Observer

I’m gonna kill fucking Bill Clinton.

Horace Caraker knew exactly what he was doing when, at 1:27 a.m. on October 11, 1995, he walked up to a pay phone on Gaston Avenue, called 911, and uttered those words to the Dallas police officer on the other end of the line. He had done this countless times by now, so many that even the cops and the feds had lost count. What? Nine times? 10? A dozen? Probably more than that, only sometimes no one took him seriously. They usually figured that was just Horace again — crazy Horace, drunk Horace looking for attention by menacing a president with a gun he didn’t own.

I’m going to get a gun, and I’m going to blow his brains out.

Every now and then, when he was lucky, Caraker would actually get someone to take him seriously and treat his warnings with the respect he believed they deserved. He had been doing this since September 1975, when he called the Dallas cops and said he was going to kill Gerald Ford. “I mean it,” he told the 911 dispatcher. “And I’m gonna use a .357 Magnum.” They believed him then, just as they believed him when he said he was going to kill Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Horace Caraker had been incarcerated three times since 1975 in federal correctional facilities for promising to kill a president. Before that, he had been locked up in state facilities for numerous crimes, among them larceny, robbery, aggravated assault, and sexual assault on a minor. And from 1961 to 1995, he had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals more than 25 times.

He preferred the federal prisons — the Holiday Inn of prisons, he likes to say. Every time the government threw him in one of their fine establishments, Caraker could not have been happier. That was exactly what he wanted. Threaten a president, go to federal prison. Life was sweet.

That’s why U.S. Secret Service special agent Ralph Mercer didn’t believe Caraker when he made a similar call from Parkland Hospital in August 1995. Caraker apologized, which he always did. He said he threatened to kill Clinton only as a cry for help. He was a manic-depressive and needed his medication, which he hadn’t taken in six months, he told Mercer. He was drunk, reeking of alcohol. He was sad, lonely, crying. His mother had just died a couple of months earlier. Caraker needed his mommy.

Mercer let him go that time, recommending to his superiors that Caraker not be prosecuted. He left Caraker at Parkland, believing the doctors would take care of this wreck of a human being.

But he believed Caraker two months later, when once again they met, this time in Lew Sterrett’s drunk tank. First words out of Caraker’s mouth: “I’ll kill Bill fucking Clinton.” He promised to hitchhike to Washington, D.C., if that’s what it took. This time, there were no tears, no apologies. This time, Mercer was convinced Caraker meant it, especially after he vowed to go to a McDonald’s and kill everyone inside — including all the children — and then turn a gun on himself if Mercer didn’t do something.

Mercer had no choice. He made sure Caraker got just what he wanted, another stint in the federal prison system.

Horace Caraker was going home.

He sits by himself at a table, surrounded by other empty tables and vending machines whose electric purring fills the silence. He waits in the Federal Correctional Institute-Beaumont visitors’ room, because what else does he have to do? Nothing, not for two more years.

In front of him rests a manila folder, upon which he has written in black felt-tip: “LEGAL WORK.” The words are underlined, and next to them, in parentheses, he has written “NON-FICTION.” He insists that’s a joke, that there is no fiction folder somewhere else.

On the folder, Caraker also has written his last name: “CARAKER.” Next to that is his federal prison ID number, 01131-078.

Contained within that folder are nine pieces of notebook paper, upon which he has written letters intended for U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer. The letters contain a brief summary of his life during the past few years — the time spent in and out of federal prison, the arrests, the federal probation officer in Dallas who “didn’t know the real me” and stuck him in Austin Street Shelter with the drunks. Caraker hated it there. He says he’d rather get a lethal injection than go back to the Austin Street Shelter.

Most of all, the letters are a plea for understanding. He wants the judge to help him out of this federal prison. He didn’t mean to get drunk and get arrested in all those parks and hospitals around Dallas. And he sure didn’t mean it when he threatened to kill Clinton in August and October of 1995. And again in 1998.

But nobody understood him. They took his threats seriously. That’s why he’s here, why he’ll be here for two more years — and why he’ll be back once he’s out, no matter what he says. Even his defense attorneys, men who spent three years trying to keep Caraker out of prison, are convinced of that.

After 40 years spent in and out of state and federal prisons, after 40 years bouncing between Rusk State Hospital and Terrell State Hospital and Parkland Hospital’s psychiatric wards, Caraker insists he finally wants out. And “in a Greyhound bus instead of a pine box,” he begs in his letter to Buchmeyer, insisting he’s a dying man who wants to spend his last years out in the free world. He swears he’ll get a job, swears he doesn’t drink anymore, swears he’s through threatening to assassinate presidents.

For some reason, Caraker doesn’t want much of the contents of these letters revealed, because he’s afraid these letters will put him behind bars for life. Maybe he’s afraid someone will misunderstand the part about how a real crazy man would get into federal prison by “going inside an Indian reservation and shooting all the palefaces he saw” or doing “something similar to what Timothy McVeigh did in Okla City.” Now, he’s not talking about himself, no sir. That’s just a hypothetical. All he does is make phone calls.

It’s mentioned to Caraker that he is already behind bars, and that he is here today because he wants to be. He flashes a sad grin and says those days are over.

Maybe, but probably not. He’s been breaking into prison for most of his life. He defies the social workers who place him in halfway houses and psychiatric wards. He thumbs his nose at the attorneys who put him in shelters and hotels, who pick up his medication and his tobacco. He gets out of prison, then makes it his mission to go right back in. Keep him away from prison too long, and he becomes homesick.

“That’s because I’m institutionalized,” he explains over and over again. He uses the word “institutionalized” the way other people use the word “the.” It’s his explanation for everything: the drinking, the threats, the homosexuality. All that time in the joint has made it impossible for him to function in the outside world. After all, he is a nobody — a man without family, without friends, without anyone to give a damn about him.

“But I feel deinstitutionalized now, OK, and that’s a good thing,” he says, his voice rising a little bit. “I have always been a willing worker. I have many friends. I play guitar and sing. I’m a good writer. I’m a plumber, and I just want to feel like everybody else, because a little bitty fifth-grader, I was different from everybody else. But now I feel good. Normal.”

Not according to both his advocates and his enemies. In fact, they use the same word to describe Horace Caraker: pathetic. Mention his name to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hamilton, who has tried Caraker twice since 1995, and he erupts with a frustrated, sick-to-death chuckle.

“I thought he was pathetic,” Hamilton says of the first time he met Caraker. “Here was a fellow who has obvious mental issues and health issues and alcohol and drug issues, and it was pretty clear to me that the reason he did what he did was to be institutionalized, and I viewed it as my job to help him accomplish his goal. Some people are very thankful, as bad as it is, to have a structured environment where they’re looked after and clothed.”

Nobody knows what to do with him. If he’s insane, surely he belongs in one of the four mental facilities maintained by the federal government. He’s been there before, in 1995, when they took Caraker to Butner, North Carolina. The only problem is, the psychiatrists — those for the defense and the prosecution — keep insisting Caraker’s not crazy.

Narcissistic? Yes. An alcoholic? No doubt about it. Dependent? Sure. Manipulative? Absolutely.

But insane? Not likely.

Or maybe, as Hamilton says, he’s “crazy like a fox.” In 1975, Caraker went to the library and found the easiest way to get into a cushy federal prison. Threaten the president, and they gotta give you three years at the minimum, five years if you’re lucky. He learned that after a stint in the Texas prison system, when he got sent up for robbery. Back then, he claims, the guards would bullwhip a man for not carrying his weight out in the work fields. No way he was ever going to serve time in a state facility ever again.

But Horace Caraker has committed no real crime. He hasn’t stolen anything lately, hasn’t hurt anyone, hasn’t done anything besides make a few phone calls.

Clint Broden and Mick Mickelsen, two of his myriad defense attorneys during the past 40 years, insist that he belongs in a halfway house. They want him to receive medical and psychiatric treatment. They want him to be treated like a man with a mental condition, not a criminal. This, even though he has continually rejected their help.

“Maybe that’s why I’m a Boston Red Sox fan,” says Broden, laughing. “I care about him because no one else cares about him.”

Mickelsen — who, like his partner Broden, first encountered Caraker during his years in the federal public defender’s office — is not so emotionally attached to his client. He cares less about Caraker than he does the issues surrounding his incarceration.

“I think Horace challenges us — the prosecutors, the judges, the lawyers — and makes us think about what’s wrong with our society,” says the more pragmatic of the two partners. “If it wasn’t for Horace, I wouldn’t be thinking about how we treat people. One thing I’ve learned is, just because someone’s not likable, just because someone’s manipulative, doesn’t mean they’re not a person who deserves justice.”

But what is justice to a man who wants to be behind bars? What is justice to a man who lies as often as he breathes? What is justice to a man whom taxpayers support to the tune of $20,000 each year simply because he likes being in federal prison?

Trying to decipher the truth with Horace Caraker is like trying to find an ice cube in a swimming pool.

Caraker speaks in a soft, wet twang. Every now and then, his voice will crack, especially when he gets to talking about his mother. At that point, his wrinkled, weary face — a face with few teeth left in it, half-obscured by damaged glasses so thick that they appear to be bulletproof — seems to soften a bit. The rims of his eyes become suddenly red, as though a switch has been turned on. His eyes glaze over with the beginnings of tears. His lower lip begins to quake.

“My mommy,” he whimpers beneath his breath. She died four years ago, when her little baby was 53 years old. She always forgave her boy, even when he went to prison or the state mental hospitals…again and again and again. “Can I talk about my mommy?” he asks. “I want to talk about my mommy.”

Myrtle Gable Caraker Keith died in a Longview nursing home in June 1995, her 84-year-old body eaten away by cancer “from head to toe,” as her son puts it. She’s buried in Longview, the place of Caraker’s birth in September 1941. She can no longer feed him, clothe him, tend to his every need. That job is left to the guards. If it weren’t for them, Caraker would have no one left in the world to care for him. “I’m a spoiled brat,” he says.

When he was a child, Caraker’s mother made everything all right. Like when he was 5 years old and got hit in the head with a baseball bat. A little buddy of Caraker’s swung the bat playfully and accidentally hit his pal in the head, cracking open Caraker’s noggin and letting all the good sense run out.

As a result, Caraker began suffering horrible epileptic seizures. Nothing worse could happen to a little boy in a small town. Suddenly, little Caraker was a freak. It didn’t help matters that his older sister, who died in 1993, fond of her little baby deer of a brother, started calling him Bambi around the same time. Kids loved to pick on twitching little Bambi, when they weren’t calling him “Horse’s Ass” or “Whore Ass.”

Things like that made him a tough guy. His mama, a nurse, tried to stick up for him, tried to get the principal to make the other kids stop. Of course, it only made things worse. Daddy, a painting contractor, didn’t do much about it except stay home and drink.

Years later, when Caraker was a teenager, he and Daddy used to drink together. Daddy would buy Caraker’s booze with Caraker’s money. That way, his daddy told him, at least Caraker wouldn’t have to go to the bad side of town to buy his hooch.

But Caraker, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, liked trouble. He recalls the times when he and some buddies would be walking down the street and some dude would pull up and offer oral sex for five bucks. Sure, Horace would say, and he and his buddy could climb into the car and drive off to some secluded spot. There, Caraker would “beat the shit” out of the guy and take all his money. Happened more than once, he says. Of course, back then Caraker hated “faggots and queers.”

His old man died in 1959, and Caraker joined the Army. His hitch didn’t last long: from October 1959 to February 1960, when he received an honorable discharge. He told psychiatrists at the federal facility Butner that he left the Army because he missed his daddy. His mother told the doctors Caraker left because her son “went berserk” when guns were fired during basic training.

When he got out of the Army, Caraker moved to Dallas to live with his mother, who moved here because she could make good money as a nurse. In 1960, Caraker married Francis Tourneau — to “fill the void” left by his father’s death. But the marriage lasted only a few months; Caraker drank too much and screwed around too much. She left him. Eventually, all the women in Caraker’s life would abandon him.

In 1961, his mother remarried for the first time, but the marriage lasted only five months. Caraker hated his new daddy and took it out on her and her husband; what the doctors at Butner referred to as Caraker’s “aggressive behavior” toward them forced their eventual breakup. But that’s not why Caraker ended up in Rusk State Hospital on July 21, 1961.

“My girlfriend, Linda Melton, broke up with me, and I was so saddened by her doing so that I took a butcher knife and stabbed myself in both legs,” he recalls. “I don’t know why I did it. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Even then I knew that it had to really hurt to cut my jugular vein, or whatever.” He makes a slashing motion across his throat.

Psychiatrists at Rusk diagnosed him with something called “Chronic Brain Syndrome Associated with Convulsive Disorder with Neurotic Reaction and Chronic Alcoholism.” He still takes medication to control the seizures. He stayed at Rusk until September 1961. He would return 21 years later — and keep coming back 12 more times between 1982 and 1994. In between, from March 1973 to April 1982, he checked into Terrell State Hospital nine times, with another stay to come in August 1995.

“I had to have my home,” he explains.

Following his release in September 1961, Caraker managed to maintain a relatively stable existence. He had his GED and his plumber’s license and always had Mommy to give him money. When he turned 24, he got his own place and took part-time plumbing or construction jobs. But he drank every cent he made, lost every job he got at the bottom of a bottle. Either that, or he gambled away his money at pool halls along Gaston Avenue, not far from where he and his various common-law wives lived during the 1960s.

In 1969, Horace saw the inside of the state penitentiary for the first time — and even now, he claims it was for an “accidental robbery.” He didn’t mean to rob that convenience-store clerk. The way he tells it, he was coming home from a pool hall when he decided to duck in the store to pick up something, probably a pack of smokes. He remembers he had on a waist-length coat when he walked up to the counter, where the clerk was listening to a radio news bulletin about a rash of local robberies.

The clerk told Caraker he was prepared for a robbery — had his gun real close. Just let someone try it , he told Caraker.

“So as a joke, I had my finger in my waist-length jacket and put my finger in my pocket and said, ‘ This is it !’” He starts chuckling. “[The clerk] whirls around and starts sacking the money. Well, I was halfway in an inebriated state, and I knew my wife was going to be mad at me for coming home broke on payday, so I said to myself, ‘What the heck?’”

Accidental or intentional — the jury didn’t care how he meant to hold up the clerk. Caraker got three years in the state prison. It was then he realized he never wanted out.

On September 25, 1975, he picked up the phone, dialed the Dallas police, spoke slowly and calmly, and told the cops where he lived and what he planned to do: shoot President Gerald Ford. When the cops arrived, sirens blaring and guns drawn, he repeated his threat. He wanted there to be no mistake. “I mean it,” he told them. “I’m not kidding.”

A jury didn’t think he was either, and so began Horace Caraker’s stint in the federal big house. He liked it so much better there than in Texas prison, especially since he was in the federal lockup in El Paso. All those Mexican boys. It was in prison that Caraker found true love in the arms of young brown men. At first, he resisted the idea of going fag; he used to beat guys up for this. Then he realized: “You suck one little dick, then all of the sudden you’re a dicksucker.”

Caraker talks about his early arrest and his homosexuality as though he’s ashamed, humiliated. He accepts no responsibility for his actions, claims someone always took something he said or did the wrong way. Shortly after his release from federal prison in 1978, Caraker got arrested for sexually assaulting a minor. Only he insisted then — and now — that the cops got it all wrong.

He was convicted of fondling a little boy’s penis in an apartment complex parking lot. But Caraker insists, to the point of almost barking, that he never touched the kid. He says it was a simple misunderstanding. He insists that he was drinking beer with an ex-girlfriend, who lived with her little boy. They ran out of beer, so he took the boy down to the store to pick up some more.

When they got back to the apartment, Caraker needed to take a leak, so he pulled down his pants and urinated in the parking lot. The way he tells it, the kid did the same thing — only when he got done, he zipped his penis in his pants, shouting loud enough for the whole complex to hear. Caraker says he had to put the kid on the hood of a truck so he could see how to extricate the boy’s penis from his zipper. Only a neighbor didn’t see it that way. She saw Caraker molesting the little boy, right there in the parking lot.

Caraker would serve three years in Texas prison.

“I would literally kill someone if I saw them doing that to a child,” he says now, insisting he never fondled that kid’s penis. ” Pleeeeease don’t print in your paper that I did that.” Prison, even the federal joint, can be tough when they find out you’ve been convicted of being a kiddie raper.

Caraker’s Secret Service rap sheet reads like a day-to-day diary; the moment he threatened Ford, his every movement — every letter he wrote, every threat he made, every suicide attempt — was noted in his file. To read the report is to bounce from prison to prison, mental hospital to mental hospital. It’s to get inside the mind of someone described as “passive aggressive,” “depressive,” “neurotic,” and “suicidal.” It’s to read about the numerous times he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists, drinking poison, jumping in front of moving police cars, suffocating on gas fumes, or hanging himself from his jail cell.

What follows are only a few of the dozens and dozens of days documented in a report from 1995.

January 25, 1976: “Claimed he never intended to harm Pres Ford when he made threats. Stated he was merely attempting to attract attention to self so he could get help with problems which he felt stemmed from alcohol.”

December 7, 1977: “Stated he could not adjust to civilian life. Preferred to be in prison.”

September 7, 1978: “Attempted suicide by hanging.”

December 5, 1979: “Expressed contentment with cellmate/lover…Described himself as institutionalized and repeated discontentment with outside world. ”

November 28, 1983: “Longview, TX, police department advised that while subj was being arrested for disorderly conduct, he stated twice, ‘I’m going to kill the pres of the US (Reagan) as soon as I get free and get a firearm.’”

June 3, 1984: “Stated he would ‘kill the president’ because pres ate $5 jelly beans while people in streets starved. Stated he would use a pistol to kill the pres at Dallas airport even though he would probably be killed by United States Secret Service. Claimed he was not seeking attention & stated he meant to do what he said.”

And so on. And so on. Twice more he would go to federal prison for threatening to kill Reagan and Bush. Then came the 1995 conviction for threatening to kill Bill Clinton. Three more years of cushy living on the taxpayers’ dime.

Clint Broden got Caraker’s case while working in the federal public defenders office. He had defended others charged with threatening to assassinate presidents, but Broden was particularly drawn to Caraker’s case — something about the way Caraker threatened Clinton — calling the cops, begging them to arrest him.

“It’s not the type of crime a sane person necessarily commits,” Broden says. “Most sane people don’t call the police and tell them they’re going to commit the crime. It was immediately evident as to why he did it: He did it to break into prison. And then it was a question of whether you were going to be part of helping him break into prison, and trying to find out what he wanted — to be in prison or some other structured type of environment or if he wanted to be completely free.”

But he could never tell what Caraker wanted, so during his trial in February 1996, Broden tried to convince the jury that Caraker was nothing more or less than Otis from The Andy Griffith Show — the lovable town drunk who threatened the president one day, then sobered up in jail long enough to regret the whole thing the next morning.

He even got Jerry Turner, a pastor in Longview, to testify that Caraker was nothing but a man who threatened himself and others for attention. Turner had counseled Caraker since 1992, when the Longview cops brought him in off the railroad tracks, where he lay waiting for a train to crush him to death.

“Every time the police would come and pick him up, they would say, ‘Here he is again,’ and he would be laughing it off,” Turner testified. The jury didn’t think it was so funny and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Caraker was granted supervised release in 1998 — and it was only a matter of time before he went through this whole thing once more. October, 5, 1998 — another call, another arrest. Only this time, Mickelsen got Caraker acquitted. U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater decided he didn’t represent a serious threat to Bill Clinton or anyone else.

And for a while, Caraker was delighted with his freedom: His two attorneys tried to take care of him, putting him up in a motel, tending to his medical needs, getting him in a shelter, making sure he showed up on time for his appointments with his U.S. probation officer, Michael Laughlin.

But nothing can come between Horace Caraker and his prison.

In February and March, Caraker violated the conditions of his supervised release several times. He never showed up for his appointments at the Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center at the Austin Street Shelter. He refused to take his psychotropic medication. He slept on the streets or in Buckner Park.

Then, in three separate incidents, he got drunk at Baylor Hospital, was arrested for criminal trespassing on hospital grounds, and got busted for exposing himself to a female patient at Baylor. He pleaded guilty to every charge.

That’s how he ended up in Beaumont. And that’s why every single person who’s ever dealt with Horace Caraker insists he will be back again. He doesn’t want help. He wants a prison bed.

“We’ll see him again,” insists federal prosecutor Tom Hamilton. “He won’t cooperate or follow the rules. He won’t take his medicine, and he does what he wants to do, so he has limited self-control. I don’t know if that’s a medical defect or if he’s one of these people who doesn’t give a rat’s ass. And I don’t think there’s a perfect situation for him. I think society, with all of our tax dollars, has done everything for this guy. He’s been placed with a religious organization, got monetary and medical support, living assistance. It’s pretty difficult to think what else society could do with its tax dollars to make life more pleasant for him.”

Caraker swears to God this is the last time. He swears he’s through with prison, through threatening presidents. But he says that all the time. He goes back to prison, then mutters some regrets. Even he knows he will probably die behind bars, whether he wants to or not.

It’s easy to see why even his lawyers express frustration with Caraker. He is indeed like a child, still his mommy’s little baby. One second, he talks about not wanting to go home in the “proverbial pine box”; he insists he wants help. Then, in the next breath, he says he would rather die than go to drug- and alcohol-addiction meetings.

One way or another, Horace Caraker will get what he wants. He always does.